College Admissions: Ivy League Acceptance Rates Decline

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DANIEL BARRY / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Students walk across the campus of Columbia University in New York City

Gaining entry into an Ivy League school is getting tougher every year. The prestigious group of eight colleges and universities recently made their admissions decisions, and all but one decreased their already low acceptance rates.

Harvard University was the most selective of the bunch, accepting a record-low 5.8% of its 33,531 applicants. It was followed by Yale University, which admitted 6.72% of its record-high 29,610 applicants, and Columbia University, which dropped its acceptance rate from 7.4% last year to 6.89% this year.

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A larger applicant pool helped fuel increased selectivity. Cornell University received a record 40,006 applications and accepted 15.2% of them — down from 16.2% last year. The University of Pennsylvania saw applications inch up from 31,218 to 31,280 this year, and admitted 12.1%. Brown University saw applications dip very slightly, but still accepted just 9.2% of applicants. Princeton University, which has seen a 93.5% increase in applications in the past nine years, accepted just 7.29% of this year’s 26,498 applicants. Princeton says its acceptance rate was down from 7.86% last year because it overenrolled the current freshman class by about 50 students and is compensating by accepting 18 fewer students each year for the next three years. Dartmouth College was the only member to increase its rate of admission, which rose slightly from 9.8% last year to 10.05%. Taken together, the Ivy League received 247,283 applications and admitted 23,010 prospective students, making for a collective acceptance rate of 9.3%.

Even more selective than the Ivy schools was Stanford University, which has developed a reputation for minting technology entrepreneurs. The Palo Alto, Calif., university accepted a record-low 5.69% of its 38,828 applicants this year, down from a 6.6% admit rate last year. “We’re not doing that and then gloating,” says Richard Shaw, Stanford’s dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid. “I’m disappointed by it. My message is, I’m really sorry to all those kids who are really amazing and we can’t accommodate.” Shaw says the primary reason for Stanford’s lowered acceptance rate was a record-high number of applicants, especially among first-generation and international students.

Admission to other coveted universities was just as hard to come by. The University of Chicago accepted 8.8% of the record 30,369 applications it received. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, just 8.2% of a record-high 18,989 applicants were accepted — a new low for the school. “We’re becoming more popular — that’s good, I suppose,” says Stu Schmill, MIT’s dean of admissions. He says the school had to be particularly rigorous this year because last year so many of their admits chose to enroll that they were unable to accept any wait-listed students.

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For many of these schools the ever lower acceptance rates are the result of bulging application pools. According to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, the number of high school graduates in the U.S. steadily increased for 15 years before peaking at 3.4 million graduates in 2010–11. But there are still some 3.2 million students graduating each year, and they’re applying to colleges alongside high school seniors from around the world. And all those students are applying to more colleges than ever, thanks in large part to the Common App, a single application and essay that is accepted at 488 schools, including the vast majority of selective schools. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 79% of students in 2011 applied to three or more colleges, up from 67% in 2000. “More people are applying for the same small number of elite colleges than there ever have been — there are a gazillion applications for every spot,” says Rachel Toor, an author, college-admissions counselor and former Duke University admissions officer. “Even when you tell them only 6% get in, they still think, maybe I’ll be the one. Mostly, they’re not.”

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Though prestigious schools get thousands more applications than they could ever accept, they don’t exactly discourage the interest. “Everyone wants to keep their admit rate low because that makes you more selective, which gives you a higher place on the college rankings,” Toor says. “People in admissions say they don’t pay attention to rankings, but of course they do.”

While highly selective schools issue a lot of noes, there are some 2,000 other universities in the U.S. with much higher admission rates — many of which accept more than 50% of applicants. “In the end, they’re all going to go to a college, and the vast majority of our applicants will go to college and be very happy,” says Stanford’s Shaw. “It’s just a matter of accepting that there are great alternatives.”

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