Applying to college was a simple process for the Baby Boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964. Those bound for a four-year college usually planned to go to a school in their home state or one close by; many considered a college three hundred miles from home to be far away. Few students felt the need to apply to more than two or three colleges, and many applied to just one. College choices were most often based on location, program offerings, cost, and difficulty of admission, with a parental alma mater sometimes thrown in for good measure. For the most part, the whole process was fairly low-key. If students did their homework carefully before deciding where to apply, the outcome was usually predictable. Of course there were surprises—some pleasant and some disappointing—but nothing that would raise the issue of college admissions to the level of a national obsession.

It Used to Be Simple . . . But Not Anymore

Fast forward to the first part of the twenty-first century. Media headlines tell a story very different for students applying to college now."Colleges send record number of rejections; competition for admission soaring,” “Student agony grows along with top colleges’ wait lists,”  “Toward college without a map; lack of counselors leaves students adrift,” "College admissions dance gets longer, more complicated,” “High anxiety of getting into college,” and “Families seek counseling for college stress.” 

Colleges themselves make announcements that are equally jarring. In spring 2003, Harvard announced that for the first time it had accepted just under 10 percent of the students who applied for freshman admission for the class of 2007, or about 2,000 out of 21,000 applicants. By the spring of 2008, the admissions rate had fallen to 7.1 percent out of an applicant pool of over 27,000 for the class of 2012. On the other coast, UCLA, a public university, reported that it had extended offers of admission to just under 23 percent of the 55,000 students who applied for freshman admission to the class of 2012, the lowest admission rate in its history. The same year, UCLA’s northern California neighbor, Stanford University, also reported an admission rate lower than ever before—9.5 percent, down from 12 percent five years earlier. These were just a few of the many colleges reporting record-breaking numbers of applications and record low rates of admission, continuing a trend that began a decade earlier. What has happened to change the college admissions picture so dramatically?

The Echo Boom

The simple explanation for why it is harder to get into four-year colleges now than ever before seems to be supply and demand: more high school graduates than ever are competing for seats in the freshman class. After declining somewhat in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the number of students graduating from high school in the United States has risen steadily each year since. In 1997 there were 2.6 million graduates; in 2003, there were 3 million; by 2009, the number of high school graduates had grown to 3.3 million. Although the numbers will decline slightly from the 2009 peak, they are projected to stay at or above 3.2 million at least until 2022.

"I don’t think anyone is complacent about getting a high-quality applicant pool."  Harvard University  Admissions officer

Part of the increase is the result of immigration, especially from Asia and Latin America, but most of the growth is due to the children of the Baby Boom generation that created the great demand for higher education in the decades after World War II. Known as the “echo boomers” or the Millennials, these children are part of the largest group of high school graduates ever.

Social Changes

But the problem is not just demographics. Application numbers have grown much faster than the age cohort. Important social changes have taken place as well. Not only are more students graduating from high school each year, proportionally more of them want to go to college. A college education is increasingly seen as key to economic success in our society, just as a high school diploma was once the minimum requirement. Studies confirm the value of a college diploma in terms of lifelong earnings, and many desirable careers require education beyond the bachelor’s degree. As a result, more students are seeking to attend four-year colleges, including students from underrepresented minority groups whose college participation rate used to be low.

At the same time, colleges themselves have increased their efforts to attract large, diverse pools of applicants. Many have mounted aggressive programs to spread the word about their offerings nationally and internationally. Through colorful “viewbooks” mailed directly to students, visits to high schools by admissions officers, college nights at local hotels, and information booths at college fairs, colleges reach out to prospective freshmen with unprecedented energy and at great expense.

Started in earnest in the 1980s when the number of college-age students dropped temporarily, these marketing efforts have continued and expanded even as the number of students applying has soared. Sophisticated marketing techniques are used not only by colleges that anticipate problems filling their freshman class but also by colleges with an overabundance of qualified applicants. Colleges want to attract academically qualified, talented, and diverse groups of applicants from which to select their freshman class, and they often go to great lengths to do it. And it works! One result of all these efforts is that more and more college-bound students have become aware of, and are willing to seriously consider, colleges in parts of the country far from their homes.

The Role of the Internet

The Internet also now plays a major role in how students approach college admissions. Although printed material and in-person presentations are still important ways for students to learn about different colleges, the Web is the top source of information for students who have grown up online. Students can visit campuses through sophisticated online tours and webcams and can get many of their questions answered by “frequently asked question” (FAQ) lists posted on the Web, or by tracking college-sponsored blogs. Colleges have invested heavily in technology to help showcase themselves.

Finally, the Internet has made it easier than ever to apply to college. Students no longer have to send for application forms, wait for them to arrive in the mail, and then fill them out by hand. Forms can be downloaded from almost all college sites or, better yet, completed and submitted directly online, saving some of the time and effort, and even postage, that a traditional paper application requires. Some schools—St. Olaf College and Lewis and Clark College are examples—even waive their application fee (most fees are in the $45–$75 range) for those who submit their forms over the Internet. Simplifying things even more, more than 350 colleges now accept the Common Application, a standardized form that can be filled out once (often along with a school-specific supplement) and submitted electronically or by mail to as many participating colleges as a student wishes. With admission harder to predict, students are now submitting more applications than ever. Sending eight to ten applications is now the norm at many private schools and high-performing public high schools—twelve to fifteen or more applications are not uncommon. The Common Application system, coupled with technology in general, has made it easier for students to apply to an ever-larger number of colleges.

"As word spreads about the competition for college admission, students respond by applying to even more colleges to increase their chances of acceptance. In so doing, they end up unwittingly contributing to the very problem they are trying to solve for themselves. "  High school counselor concerned about the trend of students applying to more and more schools

All these factors taken together—growth in the population of eighteen-year-olds, greater interest in college, sophisticated marketing efforts, and ease of access to information and the ability to apply made possible by the Internet—help explain why it is harder to get into college now than ever before.

But this is not the whole answer so where does the Real Crunch lie.Where the Real Crunch Lies.Most people are surprised to learn that with relatively few exceptions, four-year colleges in the United States still accept most of their applicants. In fact, each year many fully accredited four-year colleges have vacancies well into the summer for the freshman class that begins in the fall. Despite all the social and demographic changes, ample spots for prospective freshmen still remain in four-year colleges. How can this fact be reconciled with the newspaper headlines (not to mention firsthand reports from students and parents) reporting a crisis in college admissions?

The real crunch in admissions—the crunch that drives the newspaper headlines and the anxiety that afflicts many families at college application time—is limited to about one hundred colleges that attract applicants from all over the country and the world and that are the most selective in their admissions process. Bill Mayher, a private college counselor and author of The College Admissions Mystique, summarizes the problem succinctly: “It’s hard for kids to get into colleges because they only want to get into colleges that are hard to get into.”