Increasingly Competitive College Admissions: Much More Than You Wanted To Know

0: Introduction

This is from

Acceptance rates at top colleges have declined by about half over the past decade or so, raising concern about intensifying academic competition. The pressure of getting into a good university may even be leading to suicides at elite high schools.

Some people have dismissed the problem, saying that a misplaced focus on Harvard and Yale ignores that most colleges are easier to get into than ever. For example, from The Atlantic, Is College Really Harder To Get Into Than It Used To Be?:

If schools that were once considered “safeties” now have admissions rates as low as 20 or 30 percent, it appears tougher to get into college every spring. But “beneath the headlines and urban legends,” Jim Hull, senior policy analyst at the National School Board Association’s Center for Public Education, says their 2010 report shows that it was no more difficult for most students to get into college in 2004 than it was in 1992. While the Center plans to update the information in the next few years to reflect the past decade of applicants, students with the same SAT and GPA in the 90’s basically have an equal probability of getting into a similarly selective college today.

Their link to the report doesn’t work, so I can’t tell if this was ever true. But it doesn’t seem true today. From Pew:

The first graph shows that admission rates have decreased at 53% of colleges, and increased at only 31%. The second graph shows that the decreases were mostly at very selective schools, and the increases were mostly at less selective schools. We shouldn’t exaggerate the problem: three-quarters of US students go to non-selective colleges that accept most applicants, and there are more than enough of these for everyone. But if you are aiming for a competitive school – not just Harvard and Yale, but anywhere in the top few hundred institutions – the competition is getting harder.

This matches my impression of “facts on the ground”. In 2002, I was a senior at a California high school in a good neighborhood. Most of the kids in my class wanted to go to famous Ivy League universities, and considered University of California colleges their “safety schools”. The idea of going to Cal State (California’s middle- and lower- tier colleges) felt like some kind of colossal failure. But my mother just retired from teaching at a very similar school, and she says nowadays the same demographic of students would kill to get into a UC school, and many of them can’t even get into Cal States.

The stories I hear about this usually focus on how more people are going to college today than ever, but there’s still only one Harvard, so there’s increasing competition for the same number of spots.

As far as I can tell, this is false.

The college attendance rate is the same today as it was in 2005. If you’ve seen graphs that suggest the opposite, they were probably graphs of the total number of Americans with college degrees, which only proves that more people are getting degrees today than in the 1940s or whenever it was that the oldest generation still alive went to college.

(in fact, since the birth rate is declining, this means the absolute number of college-goers is going down).

I’ll go further. Harvard keeps building more dorms and hiring more professors, so there are the same number of Harvard spots per American today as there were ten years ago, twenty years ago, and all the way back to the 1800s:

I want to look into this further and investigate questions like:

– How did we get to this point? Have college admissions always been a big deal? Did George Washington have to freak out about getting into a good college? What about FDR? If not, why not?

– Is academia really more competitive now than in the past? On what time scale? At what levels of academia? Why is this happening? Will it stop?

– Is freaking out about college admissions the correct course of action?

1. A Harvard-Centric History Of College Admissions

For the first two centuries of American academia, there was no competition to get into college. Harvard admitted…

(Harvard is by far the best-documented college throughout most of this period, so I’ll be focusing on them. No, Ben Casselman, you shut up!)

…Harvard admitted anyone who was fluent in Latin and Greek. The 1642 Harvard admission requirements said:

When any schollar is able to read Tully [Cicero] or such like classicall Latine Authore ex tempore & make and speake true Latin in verse and prose, suo (ut auint) Marte, and decline perfectly the paradigmes of Nounes and Verbes in the Greek tongue, then may hee bee admitted into the Colledge, nor shall any claim admission before such qualifications.

Latin fluency sounds impressive to modern ears, like the sort of test that would limit admission to only the classiest of aristocrat-scholars. But knowledge of classical languages in early Massachussetts was shockingly high, even among barely-literate farmers. In 1647, in between starving and fighting off Indian attacks, the state passed a law that every town of at least 100 families must have a school that taught Latin and Greek (it was called The Old Deluder Satan Law, because Puritans). Even rural families without access to these schools often taught classical languages to their own children. Mary Baker Eddy, who grew up in early 19th-century rural New Hampshire, wrote that:

My father was taught to believe that my brain was too large for my body and so kept me much out of school, but I gained book-knowledge with far less labor than is usually requisite. At ten years of age I was as familiar with Lindley Murray’s Grammar as with the Westminster Catechism; and the latter I had to repeat every Sunday. My favorite studies were natural philosophy, logic, and moral science. From my brother Albert I received lessons in the ancient tongues, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. My brother studied Hebrew during his college vacations.

By the standards of the time, Harvard admission requirements were tough but fair, and well within the reach of even poorer families. More important, they were only there to make sure students were prepared for the coursework (which was in Latin). They weren’t there to ration out a scarce supply of Harvard spots. In fact this post, summarizing Jerome Karabel’s Chosen, says that “there was no class size limit, because Harvard was trying to compete with Oxford and Cambridge for size”. They wanted as many students as they could get; their only limit was the number of qualified applicants.

These policies continued through the 19th century, with changes only in the specific subjects being tested. In the late 1700s they added some math; in the early 1800s they added some science. You can find a copy of the 1869 Harvard entrance exam here. It’s pretty hard – but it had an 88% pass rate (surely at least in part because you wouldn’t take it unless you were prepared) and everyone who passed was guaranteed a spot at Harvard. Some documents from Tufts around this time suggest their procedure was pretty similar. Some other documents suggest that if you went to a good high school, they assumed you were prepared and let you in without requiring the exams.

When did this happy situation end? Information on this topic is hard to find. I can’t give specific sources, but I get the impression that at the very end of the 19th century, there was a movement to standardize college admissions. At first this just meant make sure every college has the same qualification exams, so that one school isn’t asking about Latin and another about Greek. This culminated in the creation of the College Board in 1899, which administered an admission test that acted as a sort of great-great-grandfather of the SAT. Very gradually, so gradually that nobody at the time really remarked on it, this transitioned from making sure students were ready, to rationing out scarce spots. By about 1920, the transition was basically complete, so that nobody was surprised when people talked about “how colleges should decide who to accept” or questions like that. If you can find more on this transition, please contact me.

Acceptance was originally based entirely on your score on the qualifying exam. But by the 1920s, high-scorers on this exam were disproportionately Jewish. Although Jews were only about 2% of the US population, they were 21% of Harvard’s 1922 class (for more on why this might happen, read my post The Atomic Bomb Considered As Hungarian High School Science Fair Project). In order to arrest this trend, Harvard and other top colleges decided to switch from standardized testing to an easier-to-bias “holistics admissions” system that would let them implement a de facto Jewish quota.

Quota proponents not only denied being anti-Semitic but argued they were actually trying to fight anti-Semitism; if the student body became predominantly Jewish, this might inflame racial tensions against Jews. Harvard president Abbott Lowell, the quotas’ strongest proponent, said: “The anti-Semitic feeling among the students is increasing, and it grows in proportion to the increase in the number of Jews. If their number should become 40% of the student body, the race feeling would become intense”. Was he just trying to rationalize his anti-Semitism? I don’t think so. I doubt modern Harvard officials are anti-Asian in any kind of a hateful sense, but they enforce Asian quotas all the same. What would they say if you asked them why? Maybe that if a country full of whites, blacks, and Latinos had predominantly Asian elite colleges, that might make (as Lowell put it) “the race feeling become intense”. I see no reason to think that 1920s officials were thinking any differently than their modern counterparts.

Whatever the reasons, by the mid-1920s the Jewish quota was in place and Harvard had switched to holistic admissions. But Lowell and his contemporaries emphasized that the new policies were never meant to make Harvard selective. “It is neither feasible nor desirable to raise the standards of the College so high that none but brilliant scholars can enter…the standards ought never to be so high for serious and ambitious students of average intelligence.”

We’ll talk later about how this utopian dream of top-notch education for anyone with a foreskin failed. But before we get there, a more basic question: how come Harvard wasn’t overrun with applicants? If the academic requirements were within reach of most smart high-schoolers, how come there was no need to ration spots?

Below, I discuss a few possibilities in more depth.

1.1: Historical Tuition Fees

Were early American colleges so expensive that everyone except aristocrats was priced out?


(sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

I find very conflicting accounts of colonial tuition prices. But after the Revolution, tuition stayed stable about about a third average median income until about 1990, when it increased to 1.5x median income. In other words: relative to income, historical tuition costs were about a fifth of what they are today. Some good universities seem to have not had tuition at all – Stanford had a $0 price tag for its first 35 years.

Even when tuition existed, historical accounts suggest it wasn’t especially burdensome for most college students, and record widespread effort to accommodate people who couldn’t pay.The first Harvard scholarship was granted in the 1640s. There are occasional scattered references to people showing up at Harvard without enough money to pay and being given jobs as servants to college officials or other students to help cover costs; in America, Ralph Waldo Emerson took advantage of this kind of program; in Britain, Isaac Newton did.

If you were a poor farmer who couldn’t get a scholarship and didn’t want to work as a servant, sometimes college were willing to accept alternative forms of payment. According to The Billfold:

Harvard tuition — which ran about fifty-five pounds for the four-year course of study — was paid the same way [in barter], most commonly in wheat and malt. The occasional New England father sent his son to Cambridge with parsnips, butter, and, regrettably for all, goat mutton. A 141-pound side of beef covered a year’s tuition.

1.2 Discrimination

Early colleges only admitted white men. Did this reduce the size of the applicant pool enough to give spots to all white men who applied?

I don’t think racial discrimination can explain much of the effect. Throughout the 19th century, America hovered around 85% white. New England, where most Harvard applicants originated, may have been 95% to 99% white – see eg this site which says Boston was 1.3% black in 1865; non-black minorities were probably a rounding error. So there’s not much room for racial discrimination to reduce the applicant pool.

The exclusion of women from colleges in the 1800s is less than generally believed:

(source: unprincipled sketchy attempt to combine this with this to get one measure that covers the entire period)

For every woman in college in 1890, there were about 1.3 men; this is no larger a gender gap than exists today, though in the reverse direction. How come you never hear about this? Many of the women were probably in teacher-training colleges or some other gendered institution; until the early 1900s, none of them were at Harvard. But after gender integration, the women’s colleges were usually annexed to the nearest men’s college, turning them into a single institution. Under these circumstances, it doesn’t seem that likely that integration had a huge effect on admissions selectivity. Also, admitting women can only double the size of the applicant pool, but 1800s college seemed much more than twice as easy to get into.

Overall I don’t think this was a major part of the difference either.

1.3: Lack Of Degree Requirement For Professional Schools

Nowadays college is competitive partly because people expect it to be their ticket to a good job. But in the 19th century, there was little financial benefit to a college degree.

Suppose you wanted to become a doctor. Most medical schools accepted students straight out of secondary school, without a college degree. In fact, most medical schools accepted all “applicants”, the same as Harvard. Like Harvard, there was sometimes a test to make sure you knew Greek and Latin (the important things for doctors!) but after that, you were in.

(This article has some great stories about colonial and antebellum US medical education. Anyone who wanted could open up a medical school; profit-motive incentivized them to accept everybody. Medical-schooling was so profitable that the bottleneck became patients; since there were no regulations requiring medical students to see patients, less scrupulous schools tended to skip this part. Dissection was a big part of the curriculum, but there were no refrigerators, so fresh corpses became a hot commodity. Grave robbing was a real problem, sparking small-scale wars between medical schools and their local towns. “In at least 2 instances, the locals actually raided the school to obtain a body. In 1 case, the school building was destroyed by fire, and in another, 2 people, a student and a professor, were killed.” There were no requirements for how long medical schools should last, so some were as short as nine months. But there were also no requirements for who could call themselves a doctors, so students would sometimes stay until they got bored, then drop out and start practicing anyway. Tuition was about $100 per year, plus cost of living and various hidden fees; by my estimates that’s about half as much (as percent of an average doctor’s salary) as medical school tuition today. This situation continued until the Gilded Age, when medical schools started professionalizing themselves a little more.)

Or suppose you wanted to be a lawyer. The typical method was called “reading law”, which meant you read some law textbooks, served an apprenticeship with a practicing lawyer, and then started calling yourself a lawyer (in some states you also needed a letter from a court testifying to your “good moral character”). Honestly the part where you apprenticed with an practicing lawyer was more like a good idea than a requirement. It’s not completely clear to me that you needed to do anything other than read enough law textbooks to feel comfortable lawyering, and then go lawyer. Most lawyers did not have a college degree.

Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer himself, advised a law student:

If you are absolutely determined to make a lawyer of yourself the thing is more than half done already. It is a small matter whether you read with any one or not. I did not read with any one. Get the books and read and study them in their every feature, and that is the main thing. It is no consequence to be in a large town while you are reading. I read at New Salem, which never had three hundred people in it. The books and your capacity for understanding them are just the same in all places.

Levi Woodbury, the 30th US Supreme Court Justice (appointed 1846), was the first to attend any kind of formal law school. James Byrnes, the 81st Supreme Court Justice (appointed 1941), was the last not to attend law school. It’s apparently still technically possible in four states (including California) to become a lawyer by reading law, but it’s rare and not very encouraged.

The ease of entering these professions helps explain why there was no oversupply of Harvard applicants. But then why wasn’t there an oversupply of doctors and lawyers? We tend to imagine that of course you need strict medical school admissions, because some kind of unspecified catastrophe would happen if any qualified person who wanted could become a doctor. Did these open-door policies create a glut of professionals?

No. There were fewer doctors and lawyers per capita than there are now.

Did it drive down salaries for these professions?

I don’t have great numbers on lawyer salaries, but based on this chart from 1797 Britain and this chart from 1900s America, I get the impression that throughout this period lawyers made about 3-5x as much as unskilled laborers, 3-4x as much as clerks and teachers, and about the same as doctors. This seems to match successful modern lawyers, and probably exceed average modern lawyers. This may because unskilled laborers now earn a minimum wage and teachers have unions, but in any case the 19th-century premium to a law degree seems to have been at least as high and probably higher.

The same seems true of doctor salaries. The paper above estimates physician salaries at $600 per year, during a time when agricultural laborers might have been making $100 and clerks and teachers twice that.

I conclude that letting any qualified person become a doctor or a lawyer, without gatekeeping, did not result in a glut of doctors and lawyers, and did not drive down salaries for those professions beyond levels we would find reasonable today.

1.4: Conclusions

So why weren’t there gluts of would-be college students, doctors, and lawyers? I can’t find any single smoking gun, but here are some possibilities.

Throughout this period, between 60% and 80% of Americans were farmers. Unless you were wealthy or urban, the question of “what career do you want in order to actualize your potential” didn’t come up. You were either going to be a farmer, or else you had some specific non-farm pathway in mind that you could pursue directly instead of getting a college degree to “keep your options open”.

Since rural children were expected to work on the farm, there was no protracted period of educational unproductivity. There was no assumption that your kids weren’t going to be earning anything until age 18 and so you might as well protract their unproductivity until age 22. That meant that paying to send your child to Boston or wherever, and to support him in a big-city lifestyle for four years, was actually a much bigger deal than the tuition itself. This article claims that in 1816, tuition itself was only about 10% of the expenses involved in sending a child to college (granted, poor people pinching pennies could get by for much less than the hypothetical well-off student analyzed here, but I think the principle still holds).

Another limiting factor may have been that there was ample opportunity outside of college and the professions, in almost every area. Twelve US presidents, including George Washington, did not go to college. Benjamin Franklin, everyone’s model of an early American polymath genius, did not go to college. Of the ten richest people in American history (mostly 19th-century industrialists), as far as I can tell only two of them went to college. Aside from the obvious race and gender discrimination, the 19th century was a lot closer to real meritocracy than today’s credentialist fake meritocracy; people responded rationally by ignoring credentials and doing meritorious things.

2. How Did The Zero-Competition Regime Transition To The Clusterf**k We Have Today?

Here is a graph of Harvard admission rates over time, based mostly on these data:

During the early part of the 1900s, Harvard was still in the 19th-century equilibrium of admitting most qualified non-Jewish applicants. Around 1940, the admission rate dropped from 95% to 25%. Most sources I read attribute this to the GI Bill, a well-intentioned piece of legislation that encouraged returning WWII veterans to get a college education. So many vets took the government up on the offer that Harvard was overwhelmed for the first time in its history.

But this isn’t the whole story.

You’ve seen this before – this is percent of Americans (by gender) to graduate college. It’s sorted by birth cohort, which means 1920 on the x-axis corresponds to the people who were in college in the 1940s – eg our GIs. The GI Bill is visible on this graph – around 1920, there is a spike in attendance for men but not women, which is the pattern we would predict from GIs. But it only takes college graduation rate from 10% to 15% (compared to its current 40%). And after the GI Bill, the college graduation rate starts dropping again – as we would expect of a one-time shock from a one-time war. And between 1955 and 1960, Harvard admissions rebound to about 40% of applicants.

The big spike in college attendance rates – and a corresponding dip in Harvard admission percentage – takes place in the 1938 to 1952 birth cohort. Why are all these people suddenly going to college? They’re dodging the draft. A big part of the increase in college admissions was people taking advantage of the college loophole to escape getting sent to Vietnam.

Again, this is a one-time shock, and mostly applies to men. So how come we see a quadrupling of college graduation during this period affecting men and women alike?

A standard narrative says that work has gotten more difficult over the past century, and so workers need more education. I’ve always found this hard to believe. In other countries, students still go to medical school and law school without a separate college degree first. Programming is a classic example of a high-skilled complicated modern profession, but many programmers dropped out of college, many others didn’t attend at all, and many programming “boot camps” are opening up offering to teach programming skills outside the context of a college education. And in many of the jobs that do require college education, the education is irrelevant to their work. Both of my adult jobs – as an English teacher and as a doctor – required me to have a college degree in order to apply. But my college education was relevant to neither (I’m a philosophy major). The degree requirement seemed like more of a class barrier / signaling mechanism than an assertion that only people who knew philosophy could make good teachers and doctors. I realize I’m making a strong claim here, and I don’t have space to justify it fully – for more on this, read my Against Tulip Subsidies and SSC Gives A Graduation Speech – or better yet, Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education.

If increasing need for skills didn’t cause increasing college attendance, what did? Again, this is based off of idiosyncratic beliefs I don’t have the space to justify (again, read Caplan) but it could be a sort of self-reinforcing signaling cycle. Once the number of people in college reached a certain level, it led to a well-known social expectation that intelligent and conscientious men would have college degrees, which made college a sign of intelligence and, conversely, not having been to college a sign of stupidity. If only 10% of smart/hard-working people have been to college, not having a college degree doesn’t mean someone isn’t smart/hard-working; if 90% of smart/hard-working people have been to college, not having a college degree might call their intelligence and work ethic into question. This cycle meant that after the shocks of the mid-1900s, there was a strong expectation of a degree in the knowledge professions, which forced women and later generations of men to continue going to college to keep up. The government’s decision to provide an endless stream of supposedly-free college loans exacerbated the problem and sabotaged the only natural roadblock that could have stopped it.

At the same time, several factors were coming together to discourage hunch-based “I like the cut of his jib” style hiring practices. Community ties were becoming weaker, so hirers typically wouldn’t have social contacts with potential hirees. Family businesses whose owners could hire based on hunches were giving way to large corporations where interviewers would have to justify their hiring decisions to higher-ups. Increasing concern about racism was raising awareness that hunch-based hiring tended to discriminate against minorities, and the advent of the discrimination lawsuit encouraged hiring based on objective criteria so you could prove you rejected someone for reasons other than race. The Supreme Court decision Griggs v. Duke may or may not have played a role by making it legally risky for corporations to give prospective hires aptitude tests. All of this created a “perfect storm” where employers needed some kind of objective criteria to evaluate potential new hires, and all the old criteria weren’t cutting it anymore. The rise of the college degree as a signal for intelligence, and the increased sorting of people by college selectivity, fit into this space perfectly.

Once society established that knowledge-worker jobs needed college degrees, the simultaneous rises in automation, globalization, and inequality made knowledge-worker jobs increasingly necessary to earn a living, completed the process.

If my story were true, this would suggest college attendance would not have risen so quickly in other countries that didn’t have these specific factors. I don’t have great cross-country data, but here’s what I can find:

College attendance in the UK supposedly remained very low until a 1992 act designed to encourage it, but it looks like part of that is just them reclassifying some other schools as colleges. I don’t know how it really compared to the US and I welcome information from British readers who know more than I do about this. Through the rest of the world, college attendance lagged North America by a long time, but the continent-wide categories probably combine countries at different levels of economic development. I don’t really know about this one.

Moving on: the graphs in the Introduction show that college attendance has been stable since about 2005. Why did the rise stop? These articles point out a few relevant trends.

First, the economy is usually to blame for this kind of thing. There was a slight increase in attendance during the 2008 recession, and a slight decrease during the recent boom. But over the course of the cycle, it still seems like the increase in college attendance has slowed or stopped overall, in a way that wasn’t true of past business cycles.

Second, birth rates are decreasing, which means fewer college-aged kids. The national population is still increasing, mostly because of immigrants, but many immigrants are adults without much past education, so they’re not as significant a contribution to the college population.

Third, the price of college keeps going up. I’m surprised to hear this as a contribution to declining attendance, because I thought it was the glut of students that kept prices high, but maybe both factors affect each other.

Fourth, for-profit colleges are falling apart.

In some cases, the government has shut them down for being outright scams. In other cases, potential students have wised up, realized they are outright scams, and stopped being interested in attending them. These colleges advertised to (some would say “preyed on”) people who weren’t able to get into other colleges, so their collapse looks like a fall in the college enrollment/graduation rate.

These are all potentially relevant, but they seem kind of weak to me: the sort of thing that explains the year-to-year trend, but not why the great secular movement in favor of more college has stopped.

Maybe it’s just reached a natural ceiling. Seventy percent of high school graduates are now going to college. The remaining 30% may disproportionately include people with serious socioeconomic or health problems that make going to college very hard for them.

Also, keep in mind that only about 60% of college students graduate in anywhere near the expected amount of time. Some economists have come up with rational-college-avoidance models where people who don’t expect to be able to graduate from college don’t waste their money trying.

3. If Number Of Students Applying To College Has Been Constant Or Declining Over The Past Ten Years, Why Are Admissions To Top Colleges So Much More Competitive?

To review: over the past ten years, the number of US students applying to college has gone down (the number applying to four-year private colleges has stayed about the same). But Harvard’s acceptance rates have decreased by half, with similar cuts across other top schools, and more modest cuts across most good and moderately-good colleges. There’s also a perception of much greater pressure on students to have perfect academic records before applying. Why?

3.1: Could the issue be increasing number of international students?

This would neatly match the evidence of constant US numbers vs. increasing selectivity.

Harvard equivocates between a few different definitions of “international student”, but I think it’s comparing apples to apples when it says the Class of 2013 was 10% foreign citizens and the Class of 2022 is 12%. These two classes bound the time period we’re worrying about, and this doesn’t seem like a big change. Also, across all US colleges international student enrollments seem to be dropping, not increasing. Some of this may have to do with strict Trump administration visa policies, or with international perceptions of increasing US hostility to foreigners.

Since fewer international students are applying in general, and even top schools show only a trivial increase, this probably isn’t it.

3.2: Could the issue be more race-conscious admission policies?

Might top colleges be intensifying affirmative action and their preference for minorities and the poor, thus making things harder for the sort of upper-class white people who write news articles about the state of college admissions? Conversely, might colleges by relaxing their restrictions on high-achieving Asians, with the same result?

This matches the rhetoric colleges have been putting out lately, but there is not a lot of signs it’s really happening. Harvard obsessively chronicles the race of its student body, and the class of 2010 and class of 2022 have the same racial composition. The New York Times finds that whites are actually better represented at colleges (compared to their percent of the US population) than they were 35 years ago, although Asians are the real winners.

The Times doesn’t explain why this is happening. It may be due to weakening affirmative action, including bans by several states. Or it may be because of a large influx of uneducated Mexican immigrants who will need a few more generations of assimilation before their families attend college at the same rate as whites or previous generations of Latinos.

What about Asians? There was a large increase in Asian admissions, but it was mostly before this period. The Ivy League probably has some kind of unofficial Asian quota which has been pretty stable over the past decade. Although the Asian population continues to grow, and their academic achievement continues to increase, this probably just increases intra-Asian competition rather than affecting people of other races.

3.3: Could the issue be increasing number of applications per student?

Here’s an interesting fact – even though no more Americans or foreigners are applying to colleges today vs. ten years ago, Harvard is receiving twice as many applications – from about 20,000 to more than 40,000. How can this be?

The average college student is sending out many more applications.

I am not Harvard material. But when I was looking at colleges, my mother pressured me to apply to Harvard. “Come on!” she said. “It will just take a few hours! And who knows? They might accept you! You’ll never get in if you don’t try!”

Harvard did not accept me. But my mother’s strategy is growing in popularity. Part of this might be genuine egalitarianism. Maybe something has gone very right, and the average American really does believe he or she has a shot at the Ivy League. But part of it may also be a cynical ploy by colleges to improve their rankings in US News and other similar college guides. These rankings are partly based on how “selective” they are, ie what percent of students they turn away. If they encourage unqualified candidates to apply, they can turn those unqualified candidates away, and then they appear more “selective” and their ranking goes up.

But increased application volume is mostly driven by an increasingly streamlined college admissions process, including the Common Application. I didn’t like my mother’s advice, because every college application I sent in required filling in new forms, telling them my whole life story all over again, and organizing all of it into another manila envelope with enclosed check. It was like paying taxes, except with essay questions. And there was a good chance you’d have to do it all over again for each institution you wanted to apply for. Now that’s all gone. 800 schools accept the Common Application, including the whole Ivy League. From the Times again:

Six college applications once seemed like a lot. Submitting eight was a mark of great ambition. For a growing number of increasingly anxious high school seniors, figures like that now sound like just a starting point…

For members of the class of 2015 who are looking at more competitive colleges, their overtaxed counselors say, 10 applications is now commonplace; 20 is taking on a familiar ring; even 30 is not beyond imagining. And why stop there? Brandon Kosatka, director of student services at the Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., recently worked with a student who wanted a spot in a music conservatory program. To find it, she applied to 56 colleges. A spokeswoman for Naviance, an online tool that many high school students and their counselors use to keep track of applications, said one current user’s “colleges I’m applying to” tab already included 60 institutions. Last year the record was 86, she said.

Does this mean increasing competitiveness is entirely an illusion? Suppose in the old days, each top student would apply to either Harvard or Yale. Now each top student applies to both Harvard and Yale, meaning that both colleges get twice as many applicants. Since each of them can only admit the same number of students, it looks like their application rate has been cut in half. But neither one has really become more competitive!

This can’t quite be it. After all, in the first case, Yale would expect 100% of accepted students to attend. In the second, Yale would know that about 50% of accepted students would choose Harvard instead, so it would have to accept twice as many students, and the acceptance rate per application wouldn’t change.

But if more people are following my mother’s strategy of applying to Harvard “just in case” even when you’re not Harvard material, then this could be an important factor. If the number of people who aren’t Harvard material but have mothers who imagine they are is twice as high as the number of people who are really Harvard material, then Harvard admissions will triple. If Harvard accepts these people, they will definitely go to Harvard, so there is no need for Harvard to increase its admission rate to compensate. Here there really is an illusion of increasing competition.

Finally, this process could increase sorting. Suppose that, for the first time in history, a Jewish mother had an accurate assessment of her son’s intellectual abilities, I really was Harvard material, and I was unfairly selling myself short. If the existence of a Common Application lets more people apply to Harvard “just in case”, and if the Harvard admissions committee is good at their job, then the best students will get more efficiently matched with the best institutions. In the past, Harvard might have been losing a lot of qualified applicants to unjustified pessimism; now all those people will apply and the competition will heat up.

And in the past, I think a lot of people, including really smart people, just went to the nearest halfway-decent state college to their house. Partly this was out of humility. Partly it was because people cared about family and community more. And partly it was because college wasn’t viewed as the be-all and end-all of your value as a human being and you had to get into the Ivy League or else your life was over. If all these people are now trying to get into Harvard, that will increase competition too.

Can we measure this?

This is the best I can do. It shows that over the past ten years, the number of students at public universities who come from in-state has dropped by 5%. This is probably related to sorting – people working on sorting themselves efficiently will go to the best school they can get into rather than just the closest one in their state. But it’s not a very dramatic difference. I suspect, though I can’t prove, that this is hiding a larger change at the very top of the distribution.

3.4: Could the issue be that students are just trying harder?

Imagine the exact same students applying to the exact same schools. But in 2009, they take it easy and start studying for their SATs the night before, and in 2019, they all have private tutors and are doing five extracurricular activities. College admissions will seem more competitive in 2019.

Any attempt to measure this will be confounded by reverse causation – increased effort might or might not cause increased selectivity, but increased selectivity will definitely cause increased effort. I’m not sure how to deal with this.

If studying harder improves SAT scores, these could be a proxy for how much effort students putting in. They changed the test in 2016 in a way that makes scores hard to compare, but we can at least compare scores from earlier years. Scores decline between 2005 and 2015 in both math and reading. This may be because more students are taking the SAT (1.5 million in 2008 vs. 2.1 million in 2018) so test-takers are a less selected population. This is kind of surprising given that college enrollment is stable or declining, but it could be that as part of pro-equality measures, schools are pressuring more low-achieving kids to take the SATs in order to “have a chance at college”, but those students don’t really end up attending. In support of this theory, scores are declining most quickly among blacks, Hispanics, and other poorer minority groups who may not have taken the SAT in earlier years; they are stable among whites, and increasing among Asians (increasing numbers of whom may be high-achieving Chinese immigrants). At least, this is the best guess I can come up with for why this pattern is happening. But it means SATs are useless as a measure of whether students are “trying harder”.

Why might students be trying harder? If there’s a ten year lag between things happening and common knowledge that the things have happened, the explosion of college attendance during the 1990s, with an ensuing increase in competitiveness, might have finally percolated down to the average student in the form of advice that getting into college is very hard and they should work to be more competitive. In addition, the Internet is exposing new generations of neurotic parents to messages that unless their child is perfect they will never get into college and probably die alone in a ditch.

Further, the decline of traditional criteria might be causing an increasing emphasis on extracurriculars, which take a harder toll on college students. Because of grade inflation, colleges are no longer counting high school grades as much as they used to; because meritocracy is passé, they’re no longer paying as much attention to the SAT. This implies increased emphasis on extracurriculars – things like student government, clubs, internships, charitable work, and the like. Despite popular misconceptions, the SAT is basically an IQ test, and doesn’t really reward obsessive freaking out and throwing money at the problem. But getting the right set of extracurriculars absolutely rewards obsessively freaking out and throwing money at the problem. Maybe twenty years ago, you just played the IQ lottery and hoped for the best, whereas now you work yourself ragged trying to become Vice-President of the Junior Strivers Club.

But all of this is just speculation; I really don’t know how to get good data on these subjects.

3.5: Are funding cuts reducing the number of college spots available?

Some people argue that cuts in public education are reducing the number of positions available at public universities, meaning the same number of students are competing for fewer spots. This source confirms large cuts in public funding:

These universities have tried to compensate by increasing tuition (or increasing the percent out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition). It looks like they’ve done this on a pretty much one-to-one basis, so that they’re actually getting more money per student now than they did when public funding was higher.

And from California:

It’s not clear that declining state support affected enrollment at all. Colleges just raised their prices by a lot.

In 2007, 2.8x as many students were in public universities compared to private ones. In 2017, the ratio was 2.9. If the problem were limited availability of public universities to absorb students, we might expect the percent of students at public universities to go down. This doesn’t seem to be happening.

Overall it doesn’t look like funding cuts to public universities mattered very much here.

3.6: Conclusions?

The clearest reason for increasing academic competition in the past ten years is the increasing number of applications per person, enabled by the online Common Application. This has doubled the number of applications sent to top colleges like Harvard despite the applicant pool staying the same size. Some of this apparent increased competition is a statistical illusion, but parts of it may be real due to increased sorting.

Other reasons may include increased common knowledge of intense competition making everyone compete more intensely, and decreased use of hard-to-game metrics like the SAT in favor of easy-to-game metrics like extracurriculars.

4. What Has Been Happening Beyond The College Level?

Competition is intensifying.

Between 2006 and 2016, the number of applicants to US medical schools increased by 35% (note change in number of applicants, not number of applications).

In a different statistic covering different years, the number of people enrolled at medical school increased 28% from 2002 to 2017. These two numbers aren’t directly comparable, but by eyeballing them we get the impression that the number of spots is increasing more slowly than the number of applicants, probably much more slowly.

As predicted, the MCAT (the med school version of the SAT) scores necessary for admission have been increasing over time.

This is also the impression I have been getting from doctors I know who work in the medical school and residency admissions process. I got to interview some aspiring residents a few years ago for a not-even-all-that-impressive program, and they were fricking terrifying.

Law schools keep great data on this (thanks, law schools!). US News just tells us outright that law schools are less competitive than in 2008, even at good programs. Here’s the graph:

And despite it feeling like lawyers are everywhere these days, law school attendance has really only grown at the same rate as the population since 1970 or so, and dropped over the past decade. This may be relating to word getting out that lawyer is no longer as lucrative a career as it used to be.

Unlike law schools, graduate school basically fails to keep any statistics whatsoever, and anything that might be happening at the graduate level is a total mystery. We know the number of PhDs granted:

…and that’s about it.

Part of what inspired me to write this post was listening to a famous scientist (can’t remember who) opine that back when he was a student in the 1940s, he kind of wandered into science, found a good position at a good lab, worked up the ranks to become a lab director, and ended up making great discoveries. He noted that this was unthinkable today – you have to be super-passionate to get into science grad school, and once you’re in you have to churn out grant proposals and be the best of the best to have any shot at one day having a lab of your own. I’ve heard many people say things like this, but I can’t find the evidence that would put it into perspective. If anyone knows more about the history of postgraduate education and work in the sciences, please let me know.

I’m also interested in this because it would further help explain undergraduate competition. If more people were gunning for med school and grad school, it would be more important to get into a top college in order to have a good chance of making it in. Since increasing inequality and returns to education have made advanced-degree jobs more valuable relative to bachelors-only jobs, this could explain another fraction of academic competitiveness. But aside from the medical school data, I can’t find evidence that this is really going on.

5. Is Freaking Out Over College Admissions Correct?

Dale and Krueger(2011) examine this question, using lifetime earnings as a dependent variable.

In general, they find no advantage from attending more selective colleges. Although Harvard students earn much more than University of Podunk students, this is entirely explained by Harvard only accepting the highest-ability people. Conditional on a given level of ability, people do not earn more money by going to more selective colleges.

A subgroup analysis did find that people who started out disadvantaged did gain from going to a selective college, even adjusted for pre-existing ability. Blacks, Latinos, and people from uneducated families all gained from selective college admission. The paper doesn’t speculate on why. One argument I’ve heard is that colleges, in addition to providing book-learning, help induct people into the upper class by teaching upper-class norms, speech patterns, etc, as well as by ensuring people will have an upper-class friend network. This may be irrelevant if you’re already in the upper class, but useful if you aren’t.

A second possibility might be that college degrees are a signal that help people overcome statistical discrimination. Studies have shown that requiring applicants share drug test results or criminal histories usually increases black applicants’ chances of getting hired. This is probably because biased employers assume the worst about blacks (that they’re all criminal drug addicts), and so letting black applicants prove that they’re not criminal drug addicts puts them on more equal footing with white/Asian people. In the same way, if employers start with an assumption of white/Asian competence and black/Latino incompetence, selective college attendance might not change their view of whites/Asians, but might represent a major update to their view of blacks/Latinos.

Dale and Krueger also find that the value of college did not increase during the period of their study (from 1976 to 1989).

Does this mean that at least whites and Asians can stop stressing out about what colleges they get into?

What if you want to go to medical or law school? I can’t find an equally rigorous study, but sites advising prospective doctors tell them that the college they went to matters less than you’d think. The same seems true for aspiring lawyers. As usual, there is no good data for graduate schools.

What if you want to be well-connected and important?

From here, the percent of members of Congress who went to Ivy League colleges over time, by party:

Only about 8% of Congresspeople went to Ivy League colleges, which feels shockingly low considering how elite they are in other ways. The trend is going up among Democrats but not Republicans. There is obviously a 40-50 year delay here and it will be a long time before we know how likely today’s college students are to get elected to Congress. But overall this looks encouraging.

On the other hand, presidents and Supreme Court Justices are overwhelmingly Ivy. Each of the last five presidents went to an Ivy League school (Clinton went to Georgetown for undergrad, but did his law degree at Yale). Every current Supreme Court justice except Clarence Thomas went to an Ivy for undergrad, and all of them including Thomas went to an Ivy for law school. But there’s no good way to control for whether this is because of pre-existing ability or because the schools helped them succeed.

Tech entrepreneurs generally went to excellent colleges. But here we do have a hint that this was just pre-existing ability: many of them dropped out, suggesting that neither the coursework nor the signaling value of a degree was very important to them. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Ellison all dropped out of top schools; Elon Musk finished his undergrad, but dropped out of a Stanford PhD program after two days. This suggests that successful tech entrepreneurs come from the population of people smart enough to get into a good college, but don’t necessarily benefit from the college itself.

Overall, unless people come from a disadvantaged background, there’s surprisingly little evidence that going to a good college as an undergraduate is helpful in the long term – except possibly for a few positions like President or Supreme Court justice.

This doesn’t rule out that it’s important to go to a good institution for graduate school; see this paper. In many fields, a prestigious graduate school is almost an absolute requirement for becoming a professor. But there doesn’t seem to be an undergrad equivalent of this.

Digression: UC schools

I mentioned at the beginning the universal perception in California that UCs are much harder to get into. I know this is the perception everywhere, but it seems much worse in California. Sure, it’s anecdotal evidence, but the anecdotes all sound like this:

My friend’s daughter got 3.85 GPA, had 5 AP classes in high school, was on competitive swimming team, volunteered 100+ hours, was active in school activities, yet she got rejected by all 4 UCs that she applied to. And these were not even the highest tier of UCs, not Berkeley. She did not apply for more schools and thought that UC San Diego and UC Santa Cruz were her safe choices. The whole family is devastated.

The data seem to back this up. Dashed line is applications, dotted line is admissions, solid line is enrollments:

…but I don’t know how much of this is just more applications per person, like everywhere else.

Why should UC schools be hit especially hard? I assumed California’s population was growing faster than the rest of the country’s, but this doesn’t seem true: both California and the US as a whole grew 13% between 1990 and 2000, when the cohort attending college between 2008 and 2018 would have been born.

The Atlantic points out that, because of budget cuts, UC schools are admitting more out-of-state students (who have to pay higher tuition), lowering the number of spots available to Californians. But is this really that big an effect?

It looks like nonresidents went from 6% to 12% over the space of a decade. That shouldn’t screw things up so badly.

I’m really not sure about this. One possibility is that California’s schools are remarkably good. On’s list of best colleges, four of the top ten schools are UCs, plus you get to live in California instead of freezing to death in New England. Since the college admissions crisis is concentrated at the top schools, California has been hit especially hard.

I’m not satisfied with this explanation; let me know if you know more.

6. Conclusions

1. There is strong evidence for more competition for places at top colleges now than 10, 50, or 100 years ago. There is medium evidence that this is also true for upper-to-medium-tier colleges. It is still easy to get into medium-to-lower-tier colleges.

2. Until 1900, there was no competition for top colleges, medical schools, or law schools. A secular trend towards increasing admissions (increasing wealth + demand for skills?) plus two shocks from the GI Bill and the Vietnam draft led to a glut of applicants that overwhelmed schools and forced them to begin selecting applicants.

3. Changes up until ten years ago were because of a growing applicant pool, after which the applicant pool (both domestic and international) stopped growing and started shrinking. Increased competition since ten years ago does not involve applicant pool size.

4. Changes after ten years ago are less clear, but the most important factor is probably the ease of applying to more colleges. This causes an increase in applications-per-admission which is mostly illusory. However, part of it may be real if it means students are stratifying themselves by ability more effectively. There might also be increased competition just because students got themselves stuck in a high-competition equilibrium (ie an arms race), but in the absence of data this is just speculation.

5. Medical schools are getting harder to get into, but law schools are getting easier to get into. There is no good data for graduate schools.

6. All the hand-wringing about getting into good colleges is probably a waste of time, unless you are from a disadvantaged background. For most people, admission to a more selective college does not translate into a more lucrative career or a higher chance of admission to postgraduate education. There may be isolated exceptions at the very top, like for Supreme Court justices.

I became interested in this topic partly because there’s a widespread feeling, across the political spectrum, that everything is getting worse. I previously investigated one facet of this – that necessities are getting more expensive – and found it to be true. Another facet is the idea that everything is more competitive and harder to get into. My parents’ generation tells stories of slacking off in high school, not worrying about it too much, and knowing they’d get into a good college anyway. Millennials tell stories of an awful dog-eat-dog world where you can have perfect grades and SAT scores and hundreds of hours of extracurriculars and still get rejected from everywhere you dreamed of.

I don’t really have a strong conclusion here. At least until ten years ago, colleges were harder to get into because more people were able to (or felt pressured to) go to college. The past ten years are more complicated, but might be because of increased stratification by ability. Is that good or bad? I’m not sure. I still don’t feel like I have a great sense of what, if anything, went wrong, whether our parents’ rose-colored picture was accurate, or whether there’s anything short of reversing all progress towards egalitarianism that could take us back. I’m interested to get comments from people who understand this area better than I do.

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