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What Vanderbilt, Northwestern and other elite colleges don’t say about acceptance rates

Harvard University (AP Photo/Lisa Poole, File)

It’s that time of year when high school seniors are finalizing their college list, and in some cases, putting the finishing touches on their applications.

Application totals at most schools are soaring — up 6 percent, on average, in 2015, the most recent cycle studied — as students hedge their bets and apply to more colleges than ever. Encouraged by the relative ease of the process compared to 20 years ago, the proportion of college freshmen who applied to seven or more colleges reached 36 percent in 2015, up from 17 percent a decade ago, and from just 9 percent in 1990.

Some eight in 10 freshmen in 2015 applied to at least three colleges. While all colleges experienced more applications, the rich got richer: The most selective colleges and universities — those that accept fewer than half of applicants and represent only 20 percent of American higher education — accounted for about one-third of all college applications in 2014.

“Grades and test scores used to be enough to get you in,” said Jill Madenberg, an independent admissions consultant for more than two decades. “Now, grades and test scores are just enough to get you read for further consideration.”

So Madenberg advises her clients to divide their list of schools into thirds — reach, target and likely to get in. “Getting into a selective school is not as clear cut as it used to be,” said Madenberg, co-author with her 19-year-old daughter, Amanda, of a new book on admissions, “Love the Journey to College.”

That word “selective” is used often throughout the college search process. It mostly describes the set of 200 colleges that accept fewer than half of the students who apply. The media typically use that group of schools as a proxy for “elite” colleges and rely on a list produced by Barron’s to determine which schools should be crowned a selective college.

The Barron’s list published in “Profiles of American Colleges” looks at GPAs, SAT scores, class rank of incoming students as well as acceptance rates. The problem is that Barron’s hasn’t adjusted its formula to account for fewer high schools calculating class rank or for grade inflation. As a result, according to one study, the number of schools in the guide’s “most competitive” category has doubled since 1991, even though the total number of colleges in its rankings has actually fallen.

What’s more, there is a tiny group of super-selective institutions — such as Harvard, Princeton and Stanford — that have separated themselves from even the selective schools with acceptance rates that regularly are in the single digits.

“Like the 1 percenters in income, there are a few institutions that have just skyrocketed in recent years with their super-low acceptance rates,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University in Chicago.

The acceptance rate is perhaps the biggest change in all the numbers that go into the methodology of the Barron’s selectivity rankings. Acceptance rates have plummeted at the most competitive colleges as the number of applications has increased.

But calculating the acceptance rate is not as simple as dividing the number of students who applied by those who were accepted. It’s a number that schools have easily manipulated in two ways.

First, colleges have boosted the denominator in that calculation by purchasing names of test takers and employing business-like marketing techniques to encourage applications from students they have no intention of ever accepting.

Second, some elite schools have created multiple application cycles with binding commitments known as “early decision,” which in some cases fills half their classes. But when colleges release their acceptance rates, the number they announce blends all the various cycles together, including regular admissions.

A college-admissions edge for the wealthy: Early decision

Most schools don’t release their early admissions figures, and only do when asked. Many prospective students and their parents don’t know to ask, or can’t make much sense of the numbers when they hear them, said Steve Frappier, director of college counseling at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta.

“The chances of getting into a school in the regular round is often underestimated by families,” he said. Colleges might tell families the percentage of students accepted in the first round because that often sounds better than giving them the raw numbers.

Take Vanderbilt University as an example. It fills 54 percent of its incoming class through two rounds of early decision. To most students and parents that might sound like they still have plenty of spots to parcel out in the regular round. But remember, the vast majority of applications that colleges receive — and then later boast about –come through regular decision. In Vanderbilt’s case, the regular round yields only around 500 students from more than 25,000 applications.

Sortable chart on early decisions at selective colleges

“Colleges spin it for an audience that doesn’t know the difference,” said Frappier, who has called for schools to independently publish early admission rates because the overall rate they typically release is not relevant if they pull in half their class through early admission.

Northwestern University, for instance, in a recent year announced it had reached a record-low acceptance rate. What it didn’t make clear is that its early decision acceptance rate was 35 percent and it filled 55 percent of its class that way.

Among the biggest purchases in life — home, higher education, car — the college degree is perhaps the only one you will purchase once. Parents with multiple kids get to do it more than once, of course. But for the most part, the admissions process is heavily weighted in favor of colleges that have applied ever more sophisticated data mining processes to figure out which students are more likely to enroll, and in some cases, willing to pay full tuition or close to it.

This process has come to favor wealthier students, especially those from high schools where the counselors know how to navigate this increasingly complicated and confusing admissions system with deadlines and rules unique for nearly every college. No wonder college-going rates among the highest income students have risen faster than those for low-income students in the past several decades.

Yet the biggest group of students graduating from high school in the decades ahead are those from the lowest income levels. If we expect them to go to college, higher education institutions will need to change many of their approaches to admissions and financial aid. Simplifying the admissions process — and making acceptance rates more transparent — would be a start. In the end, such a change will help all applicants better navigate this angst-ridden process.