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Why Has College Admissions Become So Competitive? : It Used to be Simple...But Not Anymore

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

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.

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