The chase for the Ivy League and other prestige colleges, a perennial object of global fascination, grew a few degrees more frenzied during the coronavirus pandemic as applications soared and acceptance rates plummeted to, in some cases, crazy-low single digits.

At 7 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday, the eight private universities identified with the brand of the climbing vine released admission decisions for the entering fall class. New test-optional policies, in effect because the coronavirus clobbered ACT and SAT testing plans, had fueled a surge in applications as students worldwide said, in effect, “Why not me?”

Everyone figured the acceptance shares would get even more microscopic. And they did.

Admit rate %
Admit rate 2020*
Brown University
Columbia University
Cornell University
not yet available
Dartmouth College
Harvard University
Princeton University
University of Pennsylvania
Yale University

(The 2020 rates in this chart come from preliminary releases at a comparable point in the cycle.)

The numbers come with all kinds of caveats.

First, schools aren’t done making offers. They could (and some probably will) pull often from wait lists in this highly unpredictable year. Second, many students applied to several highly selective colleges, so there was significant overlap among applicants and admitted students.

Third, and perhaps most important, these and other ultracompetitive schools represent only a tiny sliver of higher education in the United States. Many colleges, public and private, offer excellent value with a lot less admission angst.

But it is the angst that fuels the fascination. Cornell’s admissions chief recognized that last year when he announced that the university in Ithaca, N.Y., would not immediately release acceptance rates.

“We’re doing this because we’d like to reduce the ‘metric mania,’ ” Jonathan Burdick, vice provost for enrollment at Cornell, told the Cornell Daily Sun in March 2020. “Cornell being highly selective is not news, and the specific data for any given year doesn’t change or matter that much.”

Eventually, the rates come out through government data collection. Federal data show that for the fall 2019 entering class, the admit rate for Cornell was 11 percent. The rate has almost certainly fallen since then. Cornell’s application totals rose about a third this year.

How much the pandemic influences selective college admissions over the long term remains to be seen. The test-optional movement, which predates the pandemic, is gaining steam nationwide. Some schools are even going test-blind, meaning they don’t consider SAT or ACT scores at all.

For at least the next cycle, many will remain test-optional because this year’s high school juniors have continued to face significant educational disruptions, including uneven access to the SAT and the ACT. Without the hurdle of a test score requirement, that means application volume is likely to remain relatively steady.

Columbia’s applications were up a stunning 51 percent this year, and Harvard’s were up 42 percent. There were also double-digit increases at Brown (27 percent), Dartmouth (33 percent), Princeton (15 percent), the University of Pennsylvania (33 percent) and Yale (33 percent).

Social media was abuzz with the outcomes.

“I applied to these ivies just for the sake of applying. … Surprisingly, I wasn’t surprised lol. Rejected#Ivyday,” wrote one Twitter user who posted two denial letters.

“COMPLETELY IN SHOCK!!!! i’m so incredibly grateful and surprised and i still don’t even know what to say !!” wrote another Twitter user who posted three Ivy acceptances.

A crucial question is whether the test-optional moment will make these schools, and others like them, more diverse.

U-Penn. reported that 26 percent of its regular-decision applicants (those who did not apply for early admission) chose not to submit test scores. Overall, it said, 18 percent of its admitted students have enough financial need to qualify for Pell Grants. The previous year, U-Penn.’s estimated Pell-eligible share was 20 percent.

Harvard announced that a little more than 20 percent of its admitted students this year are Pell-eligible, and about the same share came from families in which the parents do not have a four-year college degree. Those figures, Harvard said, were up about one percentage point from the year before.

Princeton said 22 percent of its offers went to first-generation college applicants, up from 17 percent the year before. Dartmouth said first-generation students comprise 17 percent of its admitted class, a record for the school.

The challenge now is for colleges to get those students to accept the offers. The deadline for them to decide is May 3.