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

Aside

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; updated September 18, 2018, with references to new SAT scores.

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 1380 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 old SAT scores of 1300 or higher (now ~1380], or with a comparable ACT score (29). 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 (old) SAT scores of 1300 or higher, there are only about 86. In addition, there are 51 public honors colleges/programs with mean (old) SAT 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 with similar test score profiles, 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

U.S. News National University Rankings, 2008-2015

Be sure to check out the updated post, US News National University Rankings, 2012-2019. Latest rankings. US News has changed methodology for 2019 and there are some surprises after the first 35 places or so.

As promised, we are providing a table showing the U.S. News national university rankings from 2008–2015. Listed below are the yearly rankings of 125 national universities that were included in the first tier in all the years covered. Sixty three universities are public, and 62 are private.

There is now an updated list through 2018.

As a group, the private universities have had an average increase in the rankings of two places, while the public universities have had an average decline of three places, demonstrating what we have observed in the past–public universities are, in general, not on an upward trajectory in the rankings.

One reason for the phenomenon is increased “gaming” of the rankings. Some institutions, public and private, but mostly the latter, have geared their marketing and merit aid to increase the number of applicants and lower their acceptance rates accordingly. This makes them more “selective” and helps to improve their rankings. Northeastern University, for example, has risen an astonishing 54 places in the rankings since 2008 and is now ranked higher than Washington, Penn State, UT Austin, Wisconsin, Tulane, Florida, Pepperdine, George Washington, Maryland, Pitt, and many others. It is now tied with Illinois, UC Irvine, and RPI. How likely is it that in the space of eight years Northeastern has really improved from 96th to 42nd?

The U.S. News rankings not only over-emphasize the metrics related to a university’s financial resources but also, especially in the last five years or so, reward selectivity when, in fact, the results of the selectivity are already considered. Why should Stanford be rewarded for having an acceptance rate of 5% and be rewarded for having high graduation and retention rates, both of which are largely the result of selectivity. Using test scores as a factor in predicting what grad rates should be is fine, as is rewarding or penalizing schools for exceeding or not meeting such predictions. But the high scores themselves and the low acceptance percentages merely duplicate what is more properly measured by outcomes.

We will have more to say on these issues in the future. But for now, here are the historical rankings, the average of each school across eight years, and the increase or decline of each school from 2008 to the present. The universities are listed in order of their average ranking across the years.

Here is the list.

2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 Avg Rank Chg 08 vs 15
Princeton 1 2 1 2 1 1 1 1 1.25 0
Harvard 2 1 1 1 1 1 2 2 1.375 0
Yale 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 0
Stanford 4 4 4 5 5 6 5 4 4.625 0
Columbia 9 8 8 4 4 4 4 4 5.625 5
MIT 7 4 4 7 5 6 7 7 5.875 0
Penn 5 6 4 5 5 8 7 8 6 -3
Chicago 9 8 8 9 5 4 5 4 6.5 5
Caltech 5 6 4 7 5 10 10 10 7.125 -5
Duke 8 8 10 9 10 8 7 8 8.5 0
Dartmouth 11 11 11 9 11 10 10 11 10.5 0
Northwestern 14 12 12 12 12 12 12 13 12.375 1
Washington Univ 12 12 12 13 14 14 14 14 13.125 -2
Johns Hopkins 14 15 14 13 13 13 12 12 13.25 2
Cornell 12 14 15 15 15 15 16 15 14.625 -3
Brown 14 16 16 15 15 15 14 16 15.125 -2
Vanderbilt 19 18 17 17 17 17 17 16 17.25 3
Rice 17 17 17 17 17 17 18 19 17.375 -2
Notre Dame 19 18 20 19 19 17 18 16 18.25 3
Emory 17 18 17 20 20 20 20 21 19.125 -4
UC Berkeley 21 21 21 22 21 21 20 20 20.875 1
Georgetown 23 23 23 21 22 21 20 21 21.75 2
Carnegie Mellon 22 22 22 23 23 23 23 25 22.875 -3
Virginia 23 23 24 25 25 24 23 23 23.75 0
UCLA 25 25 24 25 25 24 23 23 24.25 2
USC 27 27 26 23 23 24 23 25 24.75 2
Wake Forest 30 28 28 25 25 27 23 27 26.625 3
Michigan 25 26 27 29 28 29 28 29 27.625 -4
Tufts 28 28 28 28 29 28 28 27 28 1
North Carolina 28 30 28 30 29 30 30 30 29.375 -2
Boston College 35 34 34 31 31 31 31 31 32.25 4
Brandeis 31 31 31 34 31 33 32 35 32.25 -4
William & Mary 33 32 33 31 33 33 32 33 32.5 0
NYU 34 33 32 33 33 32 32 32 32.625 2
Rochester 35 35 35 37 35 33 32 33 34.375 2
Georgia Tech 35 35 35 35 36 36 36 36 35.5 -1
UC San Diego 38 35 35 35 37 38 39 37 36.75 1
Lehigh 31 35 35 37 38 38 41 40 36.875 -9
Case Western 41 41 41 41 38 37 37 38 39.25 3
UC Davis 42 44 42 39 38 38 39 38 40 4
UW Madison 38 35 39 45 42 41 41 47 41 -9
UC Santa Barbara 44 44 42 39 42 41 41 40 41.625 4
Illinois 38 40 39 47 45 46 41 42 42.25 -4
RPI 44 41 42 41 50 41 41 42 42.75 2
Washington 42 41 42 41 42 46 52 48 44.25 -6
UC Irvine 44 44 46 41 45 44 49 42 44.375 2
Penn State 48 47 47 47 45 46 37 48 45.625 0
U of Miami 52 51 50 47 38 44 47 48 47.125 4
UT Austin 44 47 47 45 45 46 52 53 47.375 -9
Yeshiva 52 50 52 50 45 46 47 48 48.75 4
Florida 49 49 47 53 58 54 49 48 50.875 1
Tulane 50 51 50 51 50 51 52 54 51.125 -4
Boston Univ 57 60 56 56 53 51 41 42 52 15
George Washington 54 53 53 51 50 51 52 54 52.25 0
Ohio St 57 56 53 56 55 56 52 54 54.875 3
Pepperdine 54 56 58 53 55 54 57 54 55.125 0
Maryland 54 53 53 56 55 58 62 62 56.625 -8
Syracuse 50 53 58 55 62 58 62 58 57 -8
Fordham 67 61 61 56 53 58 57 58 58.875 9
Pitt 59 58 56 64 58 58 62 62 59.625 -3
Georgia 59 58 58 56 62 63 60 62 59.75 -3
SMU 67 66 68 56 62 58 60 58 61.875 9
Connecticut 64 66 66 69 58 63 57 58 62.625 6
Purdue 64 66 61 56 62 65 68 62 63 2
Texas A&M 62 64 61 63 58 65 69 68 63.75 -6
Clemson 67 61 61 64 68 68 62 62 64.125 5
WPI 62 71 68 64 62 65 62 68 65.25 -6
Rutgers 59 64 66 64 68 68 69 70 66 -11
Minnesota 71 61 61 64 68 68 69 71 66.625 0
Northeastern 96 96 80 69 62 56 49 42 68.75 54
Iowa 64 66 71 72 71 72 73 71 70 -7
Virginia Tech 71 71 71 69 71 72 69 71 70.625 0
Delaware 71 71 68 75 75 75 75 76 73.25 -5
Michigan St 71 71 71 79 71 72 73 85 74.125 -14
Brigham Young 79 113 71 75 71 68 62 62 75.125 17
Indiana 75 71 71 75 75 83 75 76 75.125 -1
Baylor 75 76 80 79 75 77 75 71 76 4
Miami Oh 67 66 77 79 90 89 75 76 77.375 -9
Marquette 82 77 84 75 82 83 75 76 79.25 6
Colorado School of Mines 75 80 77 72 75 77 91 88 79.375 -13
American 85 83 84 79 82 77 75 71 79.5 14
UC Santa Cruz 79 96 71 72 75 77 86 85 80.125 -6
Stevens Inst Tech 75 83 84 86 88 75 82 76 81.125 -1
Clark 91 80 88 86 94 83 75 76 84.125 15
Alabama 91 83 96 79 75 77 86 88 84.375 3
Colorado 79 77 77 86 94 97 86 88 85.5 -9
Binghamton 82 77 80 86 88 89 97 88 85.875 -6
Tulsa 91 83 88 93 75 83 86 88 85.875 3
Denver 85 89 84 86 82 83 91 88 86 -3
Vermont 96 89 88 94 82 92 82 85 88.5 11
St. Louis 82 80 84 86 88 92 101 99 89 -17
Auburn 96 96 88 85 82 89 91 103 91.25 -7
Drexel 108 89 88 86 88 83 97 95 91.75 13
Iowa St 85 89 88 94 94 101 101 106 94.75 -21
Stony Brook 96 96 96 99 111 92 82 88 95 8
Massachusetts Amherst 96 102 106 99 94 97 91 76 95.125 20
Missouri 91 96 102 94 90 97 97 99 95.75 -8
NC State 85 83 88 111 101 106 101 95 96.25 -10
TCU 108 113 110 99 97 92 82 76 97.125 32
Nebraska 91 89 96 104 101 101 101 99 97.75 -8
Kansas 85 89 96 104 101 106 101 106 98.5 -21
San Diego 107 102 110 94 97 92 91 95 98.5 12
UC Riverside 96 89 96 94 97 101 112 113 99.75 -17
Florida St 112 102 102 104 101 97 91 95 100.5 17
Tennessee 96 108 106 104 101 101 101 106 102.875 -10
New Hampshire 108 113 110 104 101 106 97 99 104.75 9
Oklahoma 108 108 102 111 101 101 101 106 104.75 2
Pacific 96 102 115 99 101 106 112 116 105.875 -20
Dayton 112 108 110 99 101 115 112 103 107.5 9
Illinois Tech 96 102 106 111 111 113 109 116 108 -20
Oregon 112 108 115 111 101 115 109 106 109.625 6
South Carolina 112 108 110 111 111 115 112 113 111.5 -1
Loyola Chicago 112 116 119 117 119 106 101 106 112 6
Arizona 96 96 102 120 124 120 119 121 112.25 -25
Univ at Buffalo 118 121 121 120 111 106 109 103 113.625 15
Howard 96 102 96 104 111 120 142 145 114.5 -49
Catholic 112 116 121 120 119 120 121 116 118.125 -4
Michigan Tech 124 121 121 117 111 120 117 116 118.375 8
Washington St 118 116 106 111 115 125 128 138 119.625 -20
Clarkson 124 121 119 124 119 115 121 121 120.5 3
Ohio Univ 112 116 115 124 124 131 135 129 123.25 -17
Kentucky 118 116 128 129 124 125 119 129 123.5 -11
Colorado St 124 125 128 124 128 134 121 121 125.625 3
Arkansas 124 125 128 132 132 134 128 135 129.75 -11
Arizona St 124 121 121 143 132 139 142 129 131.375 -5