Is It True that 80% of Elite Students Are Accepted by Elite Colleges?

Editor’s Note: The following post examines the claim by the New America Foundation that acceptance to elite colleges is not any more difficult than in the past, with 80% of highly qualified applicants still being accepted by elite schools. What we found is that even with the additional elite slots offered by honors colleges and programs, there are not enough slots to accommodate 80% of elite applicants. Although the acceptance rate as indicated by probability statistics (given multiple applications by each student) might show a high acceptance rate, the enrollment rate must be significantly lower than 80% for elite students. Updated with important changes, March 21, 2016.

Kevin Carey is director of education policy at the New American Foundation, and recently he has argued (1) that the end of college as we know it fast approaching, thanks to technology, and that (2) reaching a good college isn’t as hard as it seems.

Carey has little use for research universities, a “hybrid” form of higher education whereby students are offered the “bait” of being able to study with well-known research professors only to experience a “switch” once they are enrolled, finding themselves under the inept tutelage of callow TA’s and lower level faculty. The advent of MOOCs will give rise to the university of, and for, everyone, leading  also to the “brutal unmasking” of hybrid universities as the pretenders Carey believes them to be.

At the end of the post, there is a list of colleges, universities, and public honors programs with mean SAT scores of 1300 or above.

Setting aside Carey’s curious approach of proclaiming the end times for traditional colleges on the one hand while announcing the cheerful prospects for enrolling in these same colleges on the other, we will focus only on his assertion that approximately 80% of highly qualified college applicants are now able to gain acceptance to an “elite” college, never mind the dire comments on how much tougher it is now to get into such institutions.

According to Carey, “the slots themselves [at elite colleges] aren’t becoming more scarce and the number of students competing with one another isn’t growing.”As we suggest below, the problem with this statement is that the slots Carey is talking about seem to be plentiful because the colleges he includes are not as elite as the students he is tracking.

Therefore, while it may be true that 80% of applicants gain acceptance to the 113 colleges he is tracking, it is highly unlikely that there are in fact 113 schools whose mean test scores match the threshold scores of his applicant cohort, or that have sufficient slots to actually enroll those students. Indeed, the only way all of these students can attend colleges that even approximate their level of credentials is for many of the students to attend the very “hybrid” universities Carey criticizes.

(The New America Foundation also takes public universities to task for offering too much of their financial aid resources to students who are meritorious but not so needy as others. We will comment on this assertion in a later post.)

Carey defines elite applicants as those with SAT scores of 1300 or higher, or with a comparable ACT score. Elite colleges are those that are among “the 113 schools identified by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges as the most selective.”

We followed up on Carey’s assertion by doing some research of our own. Using the 25th percentile scores and the 75th percentile scores in the 2015 U.S. News rankings and dividing the total by two in order to arrive at an approximate average, we found that, rather than 113 colleges with average test scores of 1300 or higher, there are only about 86. In addition, there are 51 public honors colleges/programs with mean test scores of 1300 or higher. For purposes of illustration, we assumed that there was a like number of private honors colleges and programs, though we believe this is a generous estimate.

Then we calculated the number of students who took the ACT and SAT in 2014 and who score in the 91st or 92nd percentile or higher on one or both tests. An SAT score of 1300 is the 91st percentile; an ACT score of 29 or higher is also at the 92nd percentile level. We estimated that 25 percent of the 345,250 students took both tests; again, this is probably a generous estimate. This estimate should also take into account the relatively small number of high scorers who do not have high school GPA’s commensurate with their test scores.

The result: about 259,000 students met the test score threshold in 2014.

Next, we calculated that of the 86 colleges and universities with mean test scores at the threshold or higher, there were 131,077 places for freshmen in 2014. This leaves a deficit of 127,923 places for highly talented students, or more than 49%.

Using exact figures for public honors colleges and programs, we added another 20,917 places. Then we added another 20,917 places for private university honors colleges even though we doubt that there are that many honors places in private schools.

Therefore, the total number of “elite” places in 2014, including honors program places, was approximately 172,911. Subtracting this number from 259,000 still yields a deficit of elite places in the amount of 86,089.

New America claims 80 percent of elite students were accepted, but it is extremely unlikely that they could have actually found a place in the elite group of schools we have identified. So, if we take .8 x 259,000 students, the result is 207,000 students who should have been accepted by elite schools. Subtracting 172,911 places from 207,000 still leaves a deficit of elite places in the amount of 34,289 places. Again, the actual deficit is probably higher.

From these calculations, it appears that the acceptance rate for elite students, if they were to apply to schools with mean test scores at the threshold level or higher and not to less selective schools, would not be 80%, and it is very unlikely that there could be enough truly elite places for 80%. This is based on the calculation 172,911/259,000. That there is “room” for about 67% of elite students in elite colleges may not be a panic situation, but some elite students should be prepared to attend colleges whose mean scores are somewhat lower than their scores.

For the time being, there are solid alternatives at relatively low cost, at least for in-state students: those discredited “hybrid” institutions. Washington, Wisconsin, UT Austin, Florida, Penn State, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, Ohio State, Georgia, Rutgers, Connecticut, Purdue, and Clemson may not have had average test scores in 2014 that meet the New America definition; but surely many of the elite students choose to attend these universities, in addition to those who are accepted by the more selective honors programs at most of these schools. Indeed, New America probably included these and other prominent public and private universities in its list of 113, despite their average test scores being somewhat lower than those of the elite students they tracked.

The estimated total number of freshmen slots at the 14 state schools above is about 104,771. At these schools, there are perhaps 40,000 to 52,500 freshmen who meet the elite definition.

This should leave no doubt about the need for these universities to sustain or enhance their current level of excellence: they are necessary, as are public and private honors programs, if top students are to actually “reach” schools that approximate their abilities.

Below are the universities, colleges, and public honors programs we have identified as having mean test scores of SAT 1300/ACT 29 or higher. Not included is a list of private honors colleges that meet the threshold; as noted above, we have estimated the number of students accepted by these honors colleges. The public honors colleges and programs are in listed in bold type at the end.

Harvard
Yale
Princeton
Stanford
MIT
Chicago
Northwestern
Penn
Cornell
Duke
Brown
Columbia
Dartmouth
Rice
Vanderbilt
Georgetown
Carnegie Mellon
Emory
Boston College
Johns Hopkins
Notre Dame
Wash U
UC Berkeley
North Carolina
Virginia
UCLA
UC San Diego
Lehigh
USC
Georgia Tech
NYU
Brandeis
Rochester
Tufts
Wake Forest
Michigan
Northeastern
Case Western
William & Mary
RPI
Univ of Miami
Tulane
WPI
Illinois
Maryland
Stevens Inst of Tech
Williams
Amherst
Swarthmore
Wellesley
Bowdoin
Pomona
Middlebury
Carleton
Claremont McKenna
Haverford
Davidson
Vassar
Washington Lee
Colby
Hamilton
Harvey Mudd
Wesleyan
Bates
Grinnell
Smith
Colgate
Oberlin
Macalaster
Scripps
Bryn Mawr
Colorado College
Kenyon
Richmond
Barnard
Bucknell
Holy Cross
Pitzer
Franklin and Marshall
Whitman
Mt. Holyoke
Union
Occidental
Centre
Connecticut College
Reed
Illinois
Rutgers
Binghamton
Georgia
Clemson
Minnesota
South Carolina
UT Austin Plan II
Virginia Tech
Stony Brook
Kansas
Ohio State
Auburn
Kentucky
Oklahoma
Tennessee
Washington
Connecticut
Florida
Penn State
Miami Oh
Texas A&M
Nebraska
UC Davis
Indiana
Delaware
Florida St
Ohio Univ
UC Santa Barbara
Michigan St
Utah
Purdue
Colorado
Vermont
Temple
Missouri
North Carolina St
Massachusetts
UC Irvine
Univ at Buffalo
Wisconsin
Mississippi
Colorado St
LSU
Oregon St
Iowa
Oklahoma St
Oregon
Arizona St
Arizona