One of the fundamental goals of an Academies’ education is to prepare students for admission to the college or university that will best serve them. This is certainly not our sole focus as a preschool through grade twelve school, but a good deal of our mission is dedicated to developing the character and habits of mind necessary for our graduates to be successful in higher education and life beyond. This letter shares some of the current trends in the ever-changing world of college admissions, and concludes with indulging our almost visceral need to make sense of our college admissions process through the lens of lists and college selectivity rankings.
NATIONAL TRENDS IN COLLEGE ADMISSIONS
These last few years have marked some interesting trends on the college admissions front, according to the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the National Center for Education Statistics, and the College Board.
• College enrollment stays flat, continuing a decade-long trend. In October 2018, 69% of 16 to 24 year olds who graduated high school in 2018 were enrolled in higher education, which is a marginal increase over 2017. It is estimated that 20 million students are currently enrolled.
• The number of college applications continues to rise. Despite a flat enrollment trend, for 10 of the past 15 years more than 70% of colleges reported year-to-year increases in applications. On average, Academies students submitted seven college applications each in 2019, down from eight last year.
• Elite colleges’ acceptance rates continue to drop. All but two of the eight Ivy League colleges reported a lower year-over-year acceptance rate in 2019. Harvard University had the lowest overall acceptance rate, admitting 4.5% of its 43,330 applicants. There is a similar trend among the top-fifty most selective schools in the country.
• On average, colleges accept more than two-thirds of applicants. The percentage of applicants offered admission at the 2,618 accredited four-year colleges and universities in the United States was 65.4% for Fall 2016, down slightly from the previous year.
• Admission offices continue to identify grades, high school curriculum, and test scores as top admissions factors. Grades in college preparatory courses, strength of curriculum, and standardized admission test scores remain the crucial metrics used by admissions offices to make selection decisions. Among the next most important factors reported are the application essay, student’s demonstrated interest, counselor and teacher recommendations, and extracurricular activities.
• College costs continue to rise. Since the 1980s, the price of going to college has increased at a rate 8 times that of average wage growth. The average cost per year, including tuition, fees, room and board, is now over $19,000 for a public four-year university and $40,000 for a private university.
LISTS AND RANKINGS: THE LAST FIVE YEARS
I fully understand the very human tendency of using a college list as a proxy for gauging a School’s effectiveness. This is often expressed by trying to determine how “good” the colleges are that Academies’ graduates attend. Allow me to offer two caveats about this. First, we need look no further than the recent “Varsity Blues” admissions scandal for evidence that the above trends have created a modern college admissions process that is vastly different than it was even five years ago. Second, “good” is really a matter of fit. With roughly 2,500 colleges and universities in the country, the “best” school is the one that challenges students to become their best selves academically, socially, and professionally.
Anticipating that these might not be wholly satisfying answers, I have also indulged the impulse to measure our college outcomes by filtering the last five years of Academies’ admissions data through the rankings provided by Peterson’s Guide to Colleges. I’ve gone back five years to create a data set large enough to control for the relatively small number of Academies’ graduates in any single year (approximately 120 students). It’s worth noting that the class of 2019’s college list, which is almost finalized, tracks closely to these historic averages. I have also used exemplars from their list in the brief analysis below.
SELECTIVITY OF COLLEGES STUDENTS ATTEND: 2014-2019
• We found that, over the last five years, 15% of seniors will attend colleges and universities that Peterson’s determined to be “most selective” to get into. Sample colleges in the 2019 admissions list (to the left) range from Yale (6.5% of applicants accepted) to Carnegie Mellon (22%).
• 44% of will attend “very selective” schools. Sample colleges on the 2019 list range from Boston College (27% of applicants accepted) to Syracuse University (52%).
• 39% of will attend “moderately selective” schools. Sample colleges on the 2019 list include Rochester Institute of Technology (57% of applicants admitted) to St. Michael’s College (85%).
• 2% will attend “minimally selective” or “noncompetitive” schools.
While this is a nice snapshot of the last five years of college outcomes, it is far too reductive to fully convey the richness of this process. Behind each of these numbers are compelling personal stories for each choice. For example, a handful of graduates do not yet appear on the list, having opted for a post graduate or gap year experience. Other students may have chosen a less competitive school because it had a unique program that was the best fit for their particular life goals, or sought out an honors program at moderately selective schools. Some chose schools that were previously unknown to them but highly regarded by the counseling community and a place that, “just felt right.” Student-athletes may attend schools that allow them to continue competing in their chosen sports, with less attention paid to selectivity.
A fair number of students also found themselves sought after by schools that were not top choices, but that offered compelling merit tuition awards to induce them to enroll. Some schools may have been “reaches” for our students, if they were not so well positioned in the admissions process. To this last point, another compelling narrative emerges when we look at selectively over the last five years, broken down by students’ class quintiles:
The results of the first few quintiles on the left make perfect sense: higher class quintiles yield admissions to more selective schools. It is the right two quintiles on the bottom of this graph that intrigue me, as I would expect to see fewer students being accepted to very selective schools and more activity in minimally selective schools. There are likely two factors at play here. The first is that the admissions officers assessing our students understand the quality of an Academies education and determine that, regardless of class quintiles, our seniors are prepared to be successful members of their school community. The second is that a continuous focus on selectivity has seen many schools steadily moving up within these rankings.
This last possibility signals just how hollow this ranking exercise may be. While it is convenient and seductive to measure relative success through how desireable a college is, it is important to remember that “desirability” is highly subjective and prone to manipulation. These metrics also do not do justice to the many Academies alumni and alumnae who have gone on to have tremendous success in college and life beyond, regardless of where their colleges may have ranked in Peterson’s. From what I have seen, our graduates have both the intellectual ability and emotional fortitude to seize whatever opportunities come their way (or create opportunities if none exist) and make the most of them.
This is something that is far more difficult to measure, but also much more indicative of our success as a school.
Christopher J. Lauricella, Ed. M.
Head of School