December 16, 2013 / 11:47 PM / 6 years ago

Debunking the myth of college rejection rates

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Getting into college is easier than you may think — and debunking the myths about college selectivity could be the key to a better deal on your education.

People mistakenly believe that rejection rates are high because the media often focus on schools that are “insanely competitive,” said Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of “The College Solution.”

Those schools include Harvard University with its 5.9 percent acceptance rate or Stanford University, which offers admission to 6.6 percent of its applicants. It also can be tough to get into the well-regarded public universities, such as University of California, Los Angeles (22 percent) or University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (31.3 percent).

“Families worry that they won’t get into any college,” O’Shaughnessy said. “If you’re only applying at the schools at the top of the rankings, you may not (get into any of them)...but only 2 percent of schools reject 75 percent or more of applications.”

Most schools accept most of the students who apply to them. Acceptance rates did decline in recent years as the population of college-age people swelled, but the average acceptance rate was 63.8 percent in 2011 compared to 69.6 percent in 2002, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. More students also send in more applications these days, with the vast majority (79 percent) applying to at least three schools and 29 percent applying to seven or more.

Furthermore, most students get accepted by their first-choice school. UCLA’s annual survey of incoming freshmen found that 76.7 percent were accepted by their top choice in 2012.

The odds may now be tilting even farther in students’ favor. The number of high school seniors peaked in 2011 and isn’t expected to grow again until 2020. That’s left most colleges worried about meeting their enrollment goals.

Inside Higher Ed’s survey of college admission directors found that 76 percent of admissions directors were either “very” or “moderately” concerned about meeting their enrollment targets. As of May 1, the date when many colleges require deposits for the fall, 61 percent of public colleges and 56 percent of private ones hadn’t hit their enrollment goals, the survey found.

Furthermore, one out of three admissions directors said their schools were offering bigger discounts in an effort to attract more students.


The hunger for bodies isn’t equally distributed, of course. Colleges and universities in cities along the coasts tend to be awash in applicants, “since that’s where kids want to be,” O’Shaughnessy said.

That popularity can make schools less generous with financial aid, she said. New York University is probably the most notorious example, meeting an average of just 55 percent of student financial need. Only 4.4 percent of undergraduates had 100 percent of their needs met, and the average graduate has $35,109 in student loan debt.

Not all popular colleges respond the same way, however. UNC, which has an acceptance rate similar to NYU’s, on average meets 100 percent of financial need. The average graduate has just $15,983 in student loan debt.

Seeking out generous schools is one way to get a better deal. Another is to target schools in less popular areas: away from cities and the coasts, O’Shaughnessy said. A good financial aid offer from one school can sometimes be used to leverage a better deal from another, she added.

“Families should never assume the first offer is the final offer,” O’Shaughnessy said.

The question remains: will your kids be missing out if they don’t get into elite schools?

The conventional wisdom is yes, since they won’t get the networking opportunities and connections these institutions offer their students, not to mention the quality of the educations. But research seems to indicate there’s not much economic advantage.

Princeton University researchers Stacy Dale and Alan B. Krueger found in a 2002 study that those accepted to highly selective schools but who attended elsewhere did just as well financially as those who actually graduated from the elite schools.

In follow-up research, the pair found that attendance at elite schools was associated with 7 percent higher lifetime earnings. When qualitative characteristics such as motivation or ambition were factored in, however, the difference dropped to almost zero.

The exceptions in both studies were traditionally disadvantaged students. Black and Hispanic students and those who came from less-educated families earned a significant financial advantage from attending an elite school, even when adjusted for motivation or ambition, the researchers said.

The researchers also found that the average SAT score of a college that rejected a student was more than twice a strong a predictor of that student’s earnings as the average SAT score of the school he or she actually attended. Just being interested in attending an elite school, then, could be a positive factor in how much someone actually earns.

So go ahead, reach for the stars (or the Ivies) if you think you have a shot at getting in. If you don’t, there are plenty of other schools that will be happy to have you.

Follow us @ReutersMoney or here Editing by Andrew Hay

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