The College Rejection Bonanza

'April is the cruelest month' — T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

It is rejection time for almost all the applicants to elite colleges and universities. America's most prestigious schools, which pride themselves on their ever—lower acceptance rates, are basking in their record rejections of hopeful aspirants. 

Harvard, Yale and Princeton rejected 91% of applicants, Stanford and Columbia 89%, Brown 86%, Dartmouth 85%, Penn 82%. MIT, Amherst, Williams and Swarthmore all rejected 80% or more of their applicants. Among the top state schools, Berkeley rejected 76%, and UCLA 73% of applicants.  I suspect Duke, given recent events, may need to dig into their waiting list this year, but in normal years, they too are working to get on the right side of the 80% rejection bar. 

And I am sure if I were off by a per cent listing one of these colleges rejection rates, I would hear about it from an indignant admissions officer at that school. 

So why are the elite schools able to take so much pleasure in delivering unprecedented quantities of bad news? The rejection rates are this high for six major reasons:

1. Despite more and more evidence that graduates of the most selective schools do not earn much more over their lifetimes than their counterparts at other very good but less selective colleges, many students (and their parents, who pay the freight) still believe there is the kind of earnings premium for attending elite schools that might have existed a half century back. America's largest companies are rarely run by Ivy League graduates today (just 10% are), but each year a higher percentage of students and their parents behave in a way suggesting they think they still are.

2. Having a son or daughter accepted at a selective college has become one more badge of honor and prestige for the very large group of Americans who can buy pretty much everything else they desire.  If you have the large suburban home, fancy cars, a vacation home, and a few well—placed hedge fund investments, having a Yale and a Brown (I mean a son and a daughter on these campuses), is a nice way to pat yourself on the back one more time.

3. Since high rejection rates (low acceptance rates), and high yields (the percentage of the students a school accepts, who choose to go there), help a school in the US News & World Report rankings, schools game the system to accept a lower percentage of applicants, and only accept those likely to choose the school.

One well—known trick of the trade is filling a high percentage of each class with early decision applicants — kids who apply in October, and are told by December whether they have been admitted. When a college accepts early decision applicants, there is a one—to—one relation between admitted students and students who will enroll, since the student makes a commitment to attend (if accepted) in exchange for the privilege of being informed of the early decision. 

When a college accepts kids in March or April, the student might also be accepted somewhere else, or at several other schools, and then choose to go elsewhere. So each acceptance does not guarantee one enrolled student. Admissions officers sometimes publicly try to downplay early decision as an option for students, but many elite schools fill a third to a half of their class each year with these applicants, even though they represent a far smaller percentage of the overall applicant pool at each school.

Students accepted under early decision programs are generally no more qualified than those accepted in the later cycle, and often their 'stats' (their average grades and SATs) are a bit below the average for the pool of those accepted in the normal admissions cycle. But they have a far better chance of being admitted than students who are notified in the Spring, since they help the school in the admissions game by reducing the number of applicants the school needs to accept to fill its freshman class.

Harvard, still the prestige king, despite its rapid descent into a left wing faculty—run madhouse, typically achieves an 80% yield of its accepted students, despite the fact that it is one of the few ultra selective schools that does not use the strict early decision system of many of its peers, but rather allows students notified early to choose another school. 

4. College admissions officers have also gotten very skilled at determining which students who apply in the regular cycle are likely to attend their school if admitted.  How many contacts the student has with the college during the admissions process, whether an applicant visited the college, if he or she is legacy (i.e., a child of an alum), are all related to the chances of enrolling an accepted applicant. Colleges are not interested in wasting acceptances on students who will not attend, or are just collecting them (students who revel in the number of acceptances they receive are often described as 'pigs'). 

5. Schools get to reject more kids because students are applying to many more schools. The obsession with college admissions produces behavior by both colleges and students that lead to greater collective psychoses each year (and lower acceptance rates).  When I was a senior at the Bronx High School of Science in New York (this was in ancient times, when it was not much more than half a century since the Chicago Cubs had won a World Series), seniors were limited to three applications each plus City College of New York, which was mandatory.

Today, in an era, when the wealthiest and most obsessed parents hire individual college counselors for their children at $30,000 per admissions cycle, about 5% of college seniors apply to 20 or more colleges. More than a quarter of all college—bound seniors apply to six or more schools. Many students apply to a group of schools with similar admissions standards — which means they might get rejected by all of them. One friend of mine has a son who went zero—for—eight his senior year, getting the thin envelope from each of the Ivy League schools. He went on to a state school, and his life was not ruined by not acquiring an Ivy League sheepskin, though one wonders  how the high school admissions counselor justified her salary advising this student. 

6. At the same time as acceptance rates decline (and rejection rates rise), elite schools use this calculus to help obtain larger and larger gifts from alumni who seek to insure places at their alma mater for their offspring. While much is made of the unfairness of racially—motivated admissions policies which favor African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, there are other affirmative action programs  that colleges and universities  routinely use to get the students they want. These include recruitment of desired athletes (at Amherst over 15% of the spots are reserved for coaches' designees; at Princeton, it may be even higher) and legacy preferences for alumni.

If an applicant is not a member of one of these three favored groups and applies to a prestige college in the regular admissions cycle, his or her chances of admission may be no better than one in twenty at some schools.

Legacy preferences have always been around, but they are perceived as more valuable in today's very competitive admissions climate.  But simply being an alum does not get one the necessary lift in the admissions process it once did. Now one has to be an alum who is very generous to the old school, or at least could be. Given the way many of the very affluent shower their kids with material goods, and with the promise of a trust fund in the wings, one might wonder why bribing a prestige school with a gift to get a son or daughter in is all that important to insure the future economic prospects of the child.

From the schools' perspective, one might wonder why they think they even need the money from the eager alums. Harvard has a $26 billion endowment, and a total of 17,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students. Yale (the school of choice for Taliban legacies) has over $15 billion, Princeton over $10 billion. All of these schools also have more than a million dollars of endowment per student.

These investment funds with educational subsidiaries earn very high returns, employing some of the top investment professionals in the country, some of whom earn even more than South Eastern Conference football coaches. 

Last year Harvard added $5 billion to its endowment through portfolio gains. Do they really need to undertake a new campaign to shake another $5 billion in change from alumni pockets over the next five years? These wealthy colleges and universities are building huge endowments seemingly without purpose. They could abandon charging tuition and give a free ride  to every student, and still pay all their annual expenses with just their endowment income.

But colleges compete with each other on their financial resources, as they do on admissions rates.  The endowment per student is not only a mark of pride, but also a factor in the US News rankings. The rankings game is the metric by which they judge their own success.

It is prestige which drives the admissions game and the gift business for colleges and universities. But each year, it become more difficult to describe the behavior of parents of prospective students, applicants and alumni as rational. The financial return on a prestige degree is declining. The academic climate at prestige universities has, in many cases, become more like a Stalinist Gulag than a place where open inquiry and free thinking are encouraged.

With a decaying, and ever more expensive product, there are better and far more deserving places for alumni to give their money than the wealthy Ivy League schools and their competitors in the prestige game. And there are a lot more options for qualified high school seniors than the twelve to fifteen schools which are the unfortunate barometer of success in the college admissions process. A rational student might ask, why apply to these schools? And a presumably older, wiser alum, might ask, why give to them?

If you like thin envelopes, be my guest.

Richard Baehr is the Chief Political Correspondent of The American Thinker