Look at the latest admissions statistics from that great university you attended 20 years ago, and it’s easy to conclude you probably wouldn’t get in today.
I attended Wesleyan and Northwestern universities in the late 1980s. Back then, both schools admitted 30 to 40 percent of applicants.
Today, both Wesleyan and Northwestern have admission rates below 20 percent. Northwestern this year received 30,975 applications and admitted 18 percent of them, a five-point improvement in its admission rate in a single year.
Would the NU applicant of 1990 get into the Class of 2015? I posed that question yesterday to Northwestern President Morton Schapiro, who visited The Post.
His answer: Yes.
I should note: Schapiro, an economist and former president of Williams College, is considered a dean of “enrollment management,” the art of shaping an incoming class through recruitment, aid, early admission, waiting lists and other variables.
Schapiro said the top echelon of high school students do what it takes to compete for spots in selective universities. That, he said, hasn’t changed.
Twenty years ago, it might have sufficed to take the SAT once, collect a few AP credits and apply to four or five colleges. Today, that level of effort would be considered slack.
“If you were applying now, you would have taken the SAT three times instead of once, you would have taken all AP courses instead of one, and you would have an SAT tutor,” Schapiro said.
Applications to top-tier schools have doubled and tripled over the past 20 years. That’s partly the result of more students going to college. But it’s also a sign of application inflation, a trend toward students applying to larger numbers of schools. The share of students completing seven or more applications has doubled in a decade. Those students — the ones submitting 10 or 15 applications — are more likely to be applying to Harvard and Northwestern than to regional public and private colleges.
“There is, most of us would agree, an undue obsession with getting into a small number of schools,” he said.
Applications to Northwestern are up 121 percent in 10 years.
Some colleges exaggerate the effects of application inflation, Schapiro said, by counting even partial applications as applications. The honorable way, of course, is to count only completed applications. That improves one’s admission rate, albeit dishonestly.
“There are a lot of people they count as rejections out there, and the students don’t even know they applied,” he said.
Northwestern is one of a handful of top national universities that have gained ground in academic prestige over the past 10-20 years. There’s not much movement at the top of the pack: the 10 schools at the top of the 2010 U.S. News list of National Universities are the same 10 schools that topped the 2000 list, in slightly different order.
Northwestern is 12th on that list (and has cracked the Top 10 over the past decade), compared to 13th in 2000 and 14th in 1999. Two or three decades ago, NU was not a top-10 university; my own circa-1985 college guide listed it as “highly competitive plus,” a notch below the top echelon.
It’s hard not to notice that Northwestern stands neck-and-neck with the University of Chicago, an institution that has had a longer tenure in the “most competitive” tier.
Do they compete? You be the judge.
U of C, too, has put up impressive admission numbers in the past few years, since moving to the Common Application and mounting an aggressive marketing and recruitment campaign under President Robert Zimmer.
Schapiro wasn’t referring specifically to U of C when he described his university’s recent campaign to build its own reputation and visibility outside the Chicago region:
“I think we’ve been a little more aggressive moving past the modesty of Midwestern values to market ourselves,” he said.
Under Schapiro, Northwestern relies more heavily on Early Decision, a program that offers an early answer to students who agree to attend if admitted. Early Decision is somewhat controversial; Ivy League leaders have said it forces students into a potentially premature decision. And the Early Decision process might be said to favor the rich and well-prepared, who tend to be wiser to the admission cycle.
This year, Schapiro said, one-third of the freshman class, 720 students, were admitted through Early Decision. Of that group, he said, roughly one-third are students with “basically perfect SATs” and grade-point averages, who could have gone Ivy League if they wished.
To Schapiro, the strength of that early admission cohort is proof of the school’s stronger brand.
“The word is out there, if you want to get into Northwestern, put your eggs in that basket,” he said. “ ... The pool is a whole different pool than it was two years ago.”
Northwestern has “never been a safety school in the Midwest,” Schapiro said. But it has served that function for students on the East and West Coasts. Today, he said, many of those students make NU their first choice.
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