Sept. 22, 2016 (U.S. News and World Report) — When it comes to applying to the nation’s top colleges, the competition is fierce. And as the number of applications they receive each year rises, experts say getting admitted is only becoming tougher.
A dive into data submitted to U.S. News in annual surveys over the past decade from the 2005-2006 school year to 2015-2016 highlights these trends at some of the nation’s most reputable universities. Also up: average financial aid packages for full-time freshmen and rising SAT scores among enrolled students.
The graphs below illustrate admissions trends at the National Universities ranked within the top 10 since the 2007 edition of the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings to help prospective students gauge how the application process and financial aid have changed.
1. AVERAGE NUMBER OF APPLICANTS
Many top colleges today emphasize affordability and access to prospective students more than they did before 2007, prompting more to apply, says Christoph Guttentag, director of undergraduate admissions at Duke University, which ties for No. 8 in the 2017 Best National Universities rankings. Experts say this coincides with many top-ranked schools’ efforts to diversify their applicant pools and student bodies by recruiting more international, low-income and first-generation students.
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“Over time, families began to understand that what seemed to be expensive colleges could actually be in reach,” Guttentag says.
This was particularly true when the Great Recession hit around 2008, experts say.
“In a time of uncertainty, there is a flight to quality, or at least perceived quality,” says Eric J. Furda, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, which has maintained its ranking within the top 10 over the last decade.
Another possible reason for the increase is a lack of predictability in admissions today, especially among the top colleges, which leads some high school students to apply to many top-ranked schools even if their chances of acceptance are low, says Bari Norman, co-founder and president at Expert Admissions, a college admissions counseling company. That process has become easier with the use of the Common Application and the shift to primarily online applications, she says.
For instance, during the fall 2014 admissions cycle, four-year colleges and universities received 94 percent of applications online, up from 68 percent in fall 2007, according to a 2016 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
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Meanwhile, the proportion of enrolled full-time freshmen who applied to seven or more colleges rose to 36 percent in fall 2015, up from 17 percent in 2005, according to a 2016 report from the Higher Education Research Institute.
In general, experts say a combination of factors led to the rise in the average number of applicants, which might correspond with increasing high school graduation rates in the U.S. and more students considering college than in the past.
2. AVERAGE ACCEPTANCE RATE
The declining average acceptance rate at the top 10 National Universities goes hand in hand with the increasing number of applicants, experts say.
Acceptance rates may be stabilizing, however. Between the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Best Colleges rankings, the average acceptance rate stayed at 8.5 percent, and dropped only slightly to 8.2 percent in the 2017 edition, U.S. News data show. In the 2007 edition, the average at the top 10 National Universities was about 17.3 percent.
Experts say it’s difficult to pinpoint why those numbers have recently held steady, though Melissa Clinedinst, associate director of research at NACAC, says it’s hard to imagine a continuous drop at such a fast pace.
3. AVERAGE 75TH PERCENTILE SAT SCORE (1600 SCALE) AMONG ENROLLED STUDENTS
Clinedinst says that though the 75th percentile average SAT score at the top 10 schools has risen more than 20 points since 2007 from 1555 to 1579 the change is actually pretty small.
Still, Guttentag, of Duke, says the rise may reflect the increasing size and testing quality of applicants and declining admission rates.
“I think what we see is the applicant pools grow, and they grow more at the top half of the pool than at the bottom of the pool,” he says. But he doesn’t predict the average figure will go much higher, he says.
There are also several fluctuations in the data, such as the drops from the 2008 to 2009 editions of the Best Colleges rankings and from the 2015 to 2016 editions, and experts say it’s difficult to identify any precise reasons.
“I think the ACT is a big wild card in here it’s a very different part of the landscape than it was 10 years ago,” Furda says.
4. AVERAGE FINANCIAL AID PACKAGE FOR FULL-TIME FRESHMEN
The average financial aid package for freshmen receiving any aid at the top 10 National Universities has also risen steadily in the past decade as tuition rates have increased, experts say.
Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy at Cappex.com, a website connecting students with colleges and scholarships, says the increases seem consistent with the rising tuition at top-ranked colleges, and that these universities also often give students more generous aid packages than other schools.
“If you’re going to have these financial aid policies and you’re meeting full demonstrated need from the families, then you have to support that,” says Furda, of Penn.
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Aside from rising tuition, the increase corresponds with many top-ranked colleges’ recruitment of low-income students, admissions officers say, and the desire among these schools to meet students’ financial need during the recession and its aftermath.
“The last thing that a college that advocates for access and affordability wants to do when times get tough is to abandon its students,” says Guttentag. “That’s really the time that they want to step up, and they do step up.”
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