If you’re a regular visitor to Educated Quest, you have probably heard the phrase “acceptance snob” to explain the desire for the best and brightest college-bound students to attend the most selective of colleges. But there are stories behind the numbers with college acceptance rates that you might like to know.

But first, a quick quiz.

Which of these colleges is more selective?

  1. Ramapo College of New Jersey, a mid-sized public liberal arts college OR
  2. Rutgers-New Brunswick, New Jersey’s flagship state university?
  1. Mississippi Valley State University, a public historically black university OR
  2. The University of Mississippi?
  1. Oregon Institute of Technology, a public STEM-focused school OR
  2. The University of Oregon?

If you guessed ‘1’ to each, you were right. But why?

Admissions policies and practices

College acceptance rates take on different meanings at different colleges. Colleges might admit by major with admissions being limited to the most qualified candidates for the major.  More and more business programs, for example, admit freshmen directly into an accounting major or a pre-business core. The same is true for engineering, health professions and the arts. It is quite common, for example, that a college of nursing or pharmacy will have more competitive admissions than a college of arts and sciences.

Colleges might also admit to the college as a whole, regardless of the chosen major. This will be true of liberal arts schools where everyone must take a common core of classes.  It is also true of the most selective colleges that offer a large selection of majors, liberal arts or pre-professional. For the most part the more selective colleges do a good job of communicating their expectations: four years of excellence in all of the traditional college-prep disciplines: English, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies and a foreign language. Those who apply with less should have a very special talent to offset “below excellence” performance in one or two academic subjects.

Some schools also practice “second choice” admissions. Students who are denied admission to the major that they wanted can be offered an opportunity to enroll if they choose another major. “Second choice” offers have an impact on college acceptance rates because they are still considered acceptances. Virginia Tech is one school that uses this practice. It is likely responsible for the university having an acceptance rate of over 70 percent.

The ways in which colleges manage a wait list also impact college acceptance rates. Some colleges have no need to maintain a wait list. The admissions office is quite confident that it will fill the freshman class as well as their target number for transfer students. This is especially true of colleges that over-enrolled their freshmen classes, as Penn State did this year. Other schools need to work the wait list to replace students who deposited then decided to go elsewhere. Two questions that families might want to ask when visiting a school where they believe admissions are uncertain. Did you go to the wait list last year, and how many admits came off the wait list? A very large number, say over 100 at a state college or university, is a cause for concern. It leads to a third question: is this a first-choice school for those who apply?

Admissions cycles

Colleges have different admissions cycles. Many use “rolling” admissions. Admissions decisions begin early, usually within four to six week after receiving all materials. The college will admit students until the class is filled for the fall, even if deadlines need to be extended into the summer.

A school that practices rolling admissions is likely to have a higher college acceptance rates than one that does not. Admissions offices that practice rolling admissions want to fill their class as early as they can but they know that their bread and butter applicants are going to shop around. If they admit a student early, they can follow up with her through the rest of the admissions cycle. The admissions office can invite that student to accepted student events as well as upgrade a financial aid offer after it receives more positive senior-year information.

Other schools, specially the more selective, can afford to wait until they have enough applications on file before they need to make any decisions on who is “in,” who is “out,” and who might have to wait. These schools practice Early Decision and Early Action with well-qualified Early Decision applicants being more desired. Athletes who have been strongly recommended by the college’s coaches are urged to apply Early Decision as are likely full-pay and merit scholarship candidates who have a first-choice school. The acceptance rates for schools that make greater use of Early Decision are likely to be lower through the regular decision review process as well as the complete admissions cycle..

Self selection

Many colleges are more selective because their markets are narrower than other colleges that are cross-shopped against them. Historically black colleges, for example, are more likely to attract and enroll African American students over all other races. Women’s colleges are more likely to focus on women. Specialized schools such as those with “institute of technology” in their names are more likely to focus on students who can succeed in the academic program. If you are not part of the target market, you are less likely to consider the school.

Religiously-affiliated colleges that have done a very good to excellent job of retaining and graduating their students, but also have high acceptance rates, are also likely to receive many applications through self selection. While most of these colleges do not limit their markets to students who are of the same religion as the school was founded and is government, students who were raised under that religion represent the largest group within the applicant pool. The applicants might have been encouraged by their parents or their church to apply, or have a strong religious identity.

Because different colleges manage admissions in different ways it may be difficult for college-bound students and their families to compare acceptance rates. College acceptance rates are not only a measure of demand for what a college offers. They are also a reflection of the ways in which the admissions office does business. It can be quite tempting to choose one school over another because it turned away more students. It can also be tempting to go to a first-choice school that offered to admit to a second-choice program.

But college-bound students and their families need to consider how a school must help them, and which of the schools on their list will do the best at providing that help. The euphoria of getting into a selective or dream school will wear away during the summer after a high school graduation. Ideally, that school, if you choose to enroll, will give you the help that you hope for.

For more insights on how colleges make admissions decisions, contact me at stuart@educatedquest.com or call me at 609-406-0062.

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