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Stanford dean: School’s ultra-low admit rate not something to boast about

Scene from Stanford University. (Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

Richard Shaw sees nothing to brag about in Stanford University’s microscopic admission rate.

Dean of admission and financial aid at Stanford since September 2005, Shaw said he understands the public fascination with a measure of selectivity that now stands at 4.7 percent, lowest in the nation among prominent colleges and universities. That means the private university in Northern California turns down slightly more than 19 out of every 20 applicants. But Shaw didn’t advertise that fact on March 25 when he announced the entering fall class.

“When I did a press release, I didn’t release the percentage,” Shaw said in a telephone interview late last week. “But everybody gets out their calculators.”

Here was the numerator: 2,063 offers of admission.

Here was the denominator: 43,997 applications.

[See the admission rates for selective colleges, below]

The previous year the admit rate was 5 percent. When Shaw started, the rate for the first class he admitted (in fall 2006) was a shade under 11 percent. In raw numbers, the total admitted that year was 2,444. That’s nearly 400 more students than Stanford admitted this year; the university is admitting fewer students now because its yield — the share of students who accept the offer — is far higher than it was before.

Shaw said admission rates are distracting, and he believes it is pointless to compare ultra-low rates between highly selective schools.

“It just diverts everybody’s attention from the fact that we took 2,000-plus kids that are magnificent,” he said. “My feeling is, what’s the difference between 7 percent and 4 percent? It’s all very competitive. If you look at Harvard’s number, Penn’s, Princeton’s, or any number of institutions, they’re all quite competitive.”

(For the record: Harvard’s preliminary rate for this year is 5.2 percent, the University’s of Pennsylvania’s is 9.4 percent and Princeton’s is 6.5 percent.)

Admit rates fall, again, at top schools for Class of 2020

Some elite schools do tout their admit rates, to the hundredth of a percentage point. Here’s the headline on one news release: “Princeton offers admission to 6.46 percent of Class of 2020 applicants.”

For college-bound students, Shaw acknowledges the numbers are daunting: “Of course, the odds look terrifying.”

Asked whether Stanford’s rate could reach 3 percent, or 2 percent or even 1 percent, he said: “I hope not. I hope not. We’re not pushing the numbers up. We’re not trying to do that. All of this has just happened.”

So what are Shaw’s theories on why the applicant pool to Stanford has doubled in 10 years?

1. Top students are applying to more schools. “Many years ago we said, ‘Gee, pick six schools. Two safety schools, two in the middle and two that you had no idea.’ Now, that number’s changed, to perhaps nine or more. A couple years ago, I heard a girl say she applied to 27.” Shaw and other admission pros do not encourage the just-apply-everywhere strategy.

2. Higher demand across the board. “For a period of time, the fastest-growing part of the applicant pool was international,” Shaw said. “But the entire applicant pool has grown, every conceivable constituency.” That includes students who are first in their family to go college, and students from abroad who are drawn by the prestige and wealth of Silicon Valley, expanding the potential applicant pool to the entire world. (The number of international applicants this year, 6,435, was about 15 percent of the total.)

3. Questionable counseling. Shaw is sympathetic to those who say anybody can apply. “That’s what makes America great. Nobody says no, you can’t.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean yes, you should. “A fairly sizeable proportion are just taking shots in the dark,” he said. “And in fact, the outcome will not be positive. The issue here is, how good a job are we doing in providing good advice to students as they think about applying to college?”

Is there anything Stanford can do to raise the admission rate, or at least stop it from dropping further?

“We could grow,” Shaw said. “And that’s a discussion at the institution, certainly.” The target size for the fall class is 1,730.

Stanford plans to grow enrollment slowly

But even if Stanford grows its freshman class by another 100 or 200 or 300 students, that probably won’t make much difference in the admit rate because its yield is so high. Shaw said he believes — or hopes — that the number of applications will top out. “If you come up with a solution, let me know,” he said. “But I keep thinking it’s going to hit a ceiling.”

Another way to rein in application totals would be for Stanford to make its already-tough application process even tougher. Theoretically, it could drop out of groups like the Common Application and the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success. The Common App, which serves hundreds of colleges, facilitates multiple applications through one online portal. The Coalition, which is just getting started, aims to do something similar for about 90 selective schools. But Stanford is unlikely to take any of those steps because Shaw worries they would limit access to disadvantaged students.

Shaw offers another thought: There are many, many excellent colleges outside of Stanford and the Ivy League. The ultra-selective private schools serve only a tiny share of the market. “All of us get lost in this morass of ‘Number One’ and all of the concerns about the admit rates,” he said. “But it’s a matter of realizing what the vast and incredible opportunities there are in this country to find your way to a fine higher education.”

From Jeffrey J. Selingo: Our dangerous obsession with Harvard, Stanford and other elite universities

2016 College Admission Rates
The sortable table below includes selected top schools with data available as of April 1, but please check back, as the list will be updated. The admission rates for 2016 are preliminary; they may rise depending on the number of wait-listed students at a given school who are ultimately offered admission.