How To Understand College Entrance Today
Yes, it is harder for a white, cisgender boy to get into a great school
We’ve all heard how hard it is for kids to get into top tier colleges these days.
I’m fairly certain I won entrance to my “elite” university (far more elite today than it was then) out of sympathy. My backwater southern city sent only one representative in 1986: me.
Many students with more acceptable American speech patterns suggested that my accent was the reason I got in. At the very least, it was the thing that tipped the application onto the good pile.
At the time, friends speculated that the college admitted some of us from underrepresented cities and towns to balance out the torrent of top notch students charging in from New York, Long Island, and New Jersey.
Today, I’m told that my son, a high school sophomore, better not count on any similar sympathy. College admissions have changed a lot.
Our cisgender, white sons are doomed, they say
At family reunions I hear tales of cousins who have flailed to no avail against the steepest walls of higher education. Friends have mourned lost educational opportunities on Facebook. Mothers have wailed for their forgotten sons.
Exceedingly few of their children are getting into the elite colleges they hoped for…the ones they would have sailed into thirty years ago.
Recently, it has become popular for some to stoically accept the current reality as a sort of penance. A neighbor two weeks ago was speaking about their children making the transition to college:
“We have told our three sons that they’ve got to be happy with whatever college accepts them. Previous generations got all the advantages. Now it is their turn to be turned away. We have to simply accept it.”
I agreed with the sentiment at the time.
A conversation a few days later with a university professor made me uncertain, though, if this assumption was absolutely correct.
No quotas, only “race-conscious” admissions
I had assumed that universities, for all practical purposes, could select any applicant they wanted, to serve whatever goal they declared. The most elite, I imagined, were pursuing some ideal, attempting to structure a perfect world within their own walls.
That is a little true, but there are some rules.
In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in the Bakke case that explicit quotas around race were illegal. Different than gender, race could be used only in tandem with other attributes to generate a “diverse” student body.
In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in the Fisher case that affirmative action (with the goal of supporting disadvantages groups) was still legal as long as each institution is careful to “tailor its approach in light of changing circumstances, ensuring that race plays no greater role than is necessary to meet its compelling interest.”
Today, a number of state-funded colleges — Florida, Michigan, California, and others — have been instructed by their state legislatures that race cannot be used as an admission factor.
The Supreme Court in 2022 is now considering the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case. In 2019, a Federal District Court ruled that Harvard was NOT discriminating against Asian applicants with its “race-conscious” admission policy. The case forced the disclosure of details about admission policy that Harvard would have preferred to have kept hidden.
Despite extensive evidence, Harvard insists that race was just one of many factors it had used over a decade to increase the representation of asian students in the Harvard student body. Fair Admissions argues that excellent asian students and others are still excluded from elite universities for no practical reason other than race.
I ask myself, “How have colleges responded to changed laws, technology, and American demographics over the last few decades?”
Everyone is welcome to apply!
When I applied to college in 1986, three applications was thought plenty for most. I had gone out on a limb and applied to four.
Today, five is a common number. Students determined to attend elite colleges apply to as many as fifteen or twenty!
Despite this multiplicity, the last two years have seen a dip of almost 8% in college enrollments after decades of upward growth. This slowdown has impacted community colleges and small private institutions the most.
Applications to elite schools still continue their upward climb. In 2021 the average Ivy League university received 35,000 applications. A decade before, in 2011, the number was 21,000. As a direct result, the overall Ivy acceptance rate has dropped from 16% to just over 5% in twenty years.
On the supply side, we see that the first and second tier schools have only lightly increased the number of seats, a few each year.
In 2011 there were almost 13,600 first-year seats at Ivy League schools. By 2021, the number was only 800 higher.
You’d think that the Harvard Business School (which mints three times as many MBA’s each year as most other business schools) would have taught them something about maximizing profit! Every 10 additional paid seats generates around $2 million in contribution margin. That’s real cash.
Thousands more applicants fighting for only a few more seats are the norm at first tier universities.
Conclusion: On the basis of pure numbers, all students (except the most excellent) have a HARDER time winning acceptance to top colleges today.
Just what is a first tier university?
People throw around the terms “elite,” “first tier” and “top tier,” but there is no agreement about what they mean.
The eight Ivy League Schools, Stanford, MIT, Chicago, Northwestern, CalTech, Duke, a few others, and the top liberal arts schools like Williams and Amherst are widely considered “elite.” After that, the list of “first tier” colleges becomes less clear.
Given the uncertainty, folks usually fall back on school rankings prepared by Barrons and others. The schools found on the Top 100 National Colleges list and the Top 30 Liberal Arts Colleges list published by US News & World Report are a reasonable statement of “first tier” institutions. “Second tier” might be the next 150.
The broader realm of post-graduate institutions is dynamic. We have heard of the demise of the small college for years. From 2000 to 2017, the number of educational institutions accepting federal educational funding (title IV schools) actually remained pretty constant, growing a tiny bit to over 6,500. Since 2017, however, the number has dropped 9% to around 6,000.
A changing student body
Over the last forty years, the ethnic makeup of the student bodies at first tier American universities has evolved to mirror that of a changing United States.
In 1980, the US Census Bureau reported that 78% of all Americans described themselves as non-hispanic white. Forty years later, the 2020 US Census identified a number around 60%.
An American Council on Education analysis of the 2015–16 calendar year found the following ethnic mix across all American higher education programs: Asian (6%), Black (15%), Hispanic/Latino/Latinx (20%), Native American/Alaskan Native (1%), and White (59%). It was a near-perfect match to the overall population results found in the 2020 US Census.
The numbers for the elite universities are, on their face, quite a bit different than these. Some insist that top American universities have become more of a fun-house mirror than a true one!
A comprehensive 2017 New York Times article reports on data from the National Center for Education Statistics that in 1980, White students made up 83% of the student body at Harvard, 77% at Stanford, and 85% at Princeton. In 2015 those numbers had become 48%, 41%, and 49%.
More recent 2021 statistics for the top elite schools indicate further transformation. The growth in representation of people of color has continued. Non-hispanic whites have become an even smaller minority at the most elite schools in America: arguably Princeton (36%), Columbia (33%), Harvard (38%), MIT (26%), Yale (35%), and Stanford (29%).
Upward trends in the representation of people of color can also be seen in state universities from Florida (not quite as much as the elite schools), to Michigan (pretty similar), and all the California universities (a lot).
At the same time, it is true that many of the best state universities and some private schools continue to underrepresent Black, Hispanic/Latino/Latinx students, and/or Native American/Hawaiian students. The actual population of college-age citizens across the US are often far different than what we see across all the generations.
It is fascinating that every group today can find some way to feel slighted! (more about that later)
Conclusion: By the measure of ethnicity alone (not merit or performance or other issues to be addressed soon), most non-hispanic white students have a significantly HARDER time entering first tier universities today than they did in 1980.
The bottom line
When I (a progressive but undeniably white, cisgender man) think about college admissions for my children — two of the beings I care about most in the world— these are the first realities I consider:
- The competition at top tier colleges is greater than ever. By the measure of grades, test scores, and activities, there is a wide swath of incredibly accomplished applicants today.
- The few, most excellent applicants, no matter their demographics, are as likely to be accepted as ever by great schools. More so, even.
- Top tier colleges are admitting fewer people who “look like” my son than when I was applying to college.
These are true.
As a result, it is highly likely that my white, cisgender son will face more daunting odds getting into a great college than I did.
Fortunately, all of our sons and daughters are not averages. Neither are they curves. Nor are they distributions.
In the next article I will begin tackling these questions:
- Do some genders gain admission more easily?
- Does legacy matter?
- Does wealth matter?
- How do we make an education system better for all of us?
It would be fantastic if you shared your thoughts and insights.
We can do better when we build the world together.
Not a fantasy place of unicorns and rainbows. Rather, a real world that embraces darkness, knowing that we need shadow to understand the light.
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