Why It Is NOT Harder to Get Into Top Colleges

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 1, 2007; 11:06 AM

Please be careful to whom you show this column. I am slipping it in on a lovely May Day, when I assume my editors are taking long lunches or talking to their brokers or polishing their resumes, life being uncertain for newspaper people these days. I so don't want them to see what I am writing. It may render obsolete one of our most beloved newsroom traditions -- the college angst story.

I have written many of these stories. They are part of my April routine. I find some student body president at a local high school who has been rejected by all her favorite colleges, despite her 4.0 grade point average and her 2150 SAT score. I provide another 1,000 words or so of middle class panic and regret and fear for the future in our most Ivy-obsessed suburbs, and the next day I get lots of congratulatory emails.

So who does Kevin Carey, research and policy manager at the D.C.-based think tank Education Sector, think he is, telling me, and many reporters like me, that we got it all wrong? Maybe if I just quote him, I won't get into as much trouble for ruining our daily circulation figures next April. Here is what Carey said in an exclusive piece for www.prospect.org, the Web site of The American Prospect magazine:

"From a student's perspective, the odds of getting into college are a function of two things: the number of qualified students who apply, and the number of slots that colleges make available. It's true that the number of prospective college students is growing, as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal all noted in nearly identical articles published recently. Driven by the baby-boom echo, the number of high school graduates jumped from 2.9 million in 2002 to 3.1 million in 2006, an increase of 8.4 percent.

"But the number of spaces in elite colleges is increasing too, at a nearly identical rate. According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, the 60-odd colleges and universities rated 'Most Competitive" by Barron's Guide to Colleges sent out 199,821 acceptance letters in 2002. In 2006, the number of 'fat envelopes' had increased to 215,738, an 8.0 percent jump. As the nation has grown, its elite colleges have grown along with it.

"Why, then, the high anxiety? Because college admissions scare stories aren't based on the overall ratio of admissions to applicants. They're based on the ratio of admissions to applications, as reported by individual colleges. And the number of applications to elite schools is skyrocketing, increasing 18.9 percent from 2002 to 2006."

To be honest, it is not that surprising that Carey would be the one to expose our little game. He is becoming something of a legend as an analyst unafraid of all the numerical trickery and spin that reporters like me lack the skill and patience to deal with. Carey started out as an obscure numbers cruncher, an education finance analyst for the state of Indiana where he developed a new formula for setting local property taxes and distributing state education aid. He brought his expertise to Washington and caught my eye with a number of reports for The Education Trust, a non-profit group promoting better schools. While there, he developed the www.collegeresults.org Web site, the best tool for assessing college graduation rates I have ever seen.

Now he works for another top-flight Washington non-profit, the Education Sector, and is still in his 30s. I steal his stuff all the time. Maybe that is why he is being so mean to me.

As he points out, we in mainstream media have mentioned the sharp rise in the number of colleges the average high school seniors applies to, but have often failed to show how that fuels applicant angst without actually changing the balance of supply and demand. "When the number of applications grows faster than the number of applicants," Carey explained in his piece, "it creates a false sense that admission standards are getting tighter. Imagine 20 students, each of whom applies to five schools and gets into two. Now imagine if the same students each applied to ten schools and got into two. The outcome for the students is the same: two acceptance letters. But the schools report lower admission rates, and the odds of admission seem worse."

I knew that, even if I didn't write it so clearly. What I didn't know, and which was also in his piece, is that between 2002 and 2006 the number of acceptance letters mailed by the eight Ivy League colleges increased 10.6 percent, faster than the growth in high school graduates. I thought that increase in Ivy acceptances might be just more overbooking to protect against the rise of students applying to every Ivy. But Carey said Ivy enrollments are also going up, so it appears they are stuffing more kids into the same old dorms -- a trend I have noticed over the last generation -- and also building or buying a little more dorm space.

All of which leads me to say: Thanks a lot, Kevin Carey. You really showed me up. He admitted to me that much of the college application anguish derives not from what has happened to the competition for college spaces in the last four years, but in the 20 or 30 years since the parents of current college applicants went through this process. He doesn't have data to measure applicants and spaces that far back, but shares my view that attitudes toward the Ivies were significantly different then -- academic admission standards for the most selective schools were lower, and many competitive high school students in the South, Midwest and West didn't even think of going to the Northeast for college.

Those were my high school years, ancient history. I continue to struggle to describe accurately what is happening now. Next year, because of the oh-so-smart Mr. Carey, I am going to have to acknowledge that maybe things are not quite as bad as they seem. What fun is that? I hope he is proud of himself.

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