About one out of every sixty students who will begin college next fall applied to Harvard (h/t). Stop and think for a second how crazy that is.
Here are the acceptance rates at various elite schools around the country:
Harvard: 6.9 percent
Stanford: 7.2 percent
Yale: 7.5 percent
Princeton: 8.2 percent
Columbia: 9.1 percent
Brown: 9.3 percent
MIT: 9.7 percent
Duke, Penn, Cornell, Dartmouth, Swarthmore, Pomona, Williams, Wesleyan, and the University of Chicago are all between 10 and 20 percent.
Now consider for a second that you are a high school junior and you see these rates. It’s becoming easier than ever to apply for multiple schools, so what is your rational course of action?
You’re going to apply for tons of schools, thinking that at least one will let you in. And the next year, when the acceptance rates go even lower (they’ve been falling for years), students will apply to even more schools. The chances of any one student getting into any one school will become smaller and smaller, even as the number of spaces at those schools keeps pace with demographic changes. The spaces themselves are not becoming more scarce; it’s the admissions craze that’s making them look that way.
Back in the 1940s, a similar problem was facing the nation’s medical residency programs. Some students received multiple offers while many received none. Some students received offers from their lower choices but were informed they were on waiting lists at their more preferred options. Imagine a student’s displeasure when they were forced into a decision on their second choice before coming off the waiting list for their first. This is happening at colleges and universities already: Duke this year placed twice as many students on their waiting list as they had total seats available.
The medical residency program was solved by a coordinated matching system. All students and schools submitted their preferences to a national non-profit designed specifically for this purpose. Schools got their seats filled, and students were placed in one and only one university. There were no more waiting lists, no more lottery-like admissions processes held at individual schools. The system has been in place with few changes ever since.
To work for colleges and universities, they would have to see a problem. They would have to begin to understand that their admissions department cannot continue to grow apace with applications. It’s simply too arbitrary of a process when Harvard gets more valedictorians and more students with perfect SAT scores than they have available seats.
Next, they would have to accept that the admissions process is no longer about crafting the perfect freshman class as if each student was a Lego piece in a giant, fragile sculpture that would collapse without the perfect amount of Florida students, or oboists, or whatever else. We’re way beyond that now.
Then, they would have to form some common admissions unit. Each school could submit their cutoff SAT scores and high school GPA. Students would apply to this third-party unit and list their preferences in order, and then a calculation would be run that would place students and fill school slots. Similar matching systems are run for 90,000 students applying for New York City public high schools, for the medical residency program, for fraternities and sororities, for kidney exchanges, and for college football bowl match-ups. It’ would not be impossible to create one for colleges and universities, and it would put an end to the madness we know as the college admissions process.
*I proposed this solution last year, but with admissions rates falling once again, the point is even more relevant.