De-Hyping College Admissions (or Trying to, Anyway)

Perceptions aside, students apply to fewer colleges than they plan to, and the vast majority of applicants are accepted at their top choice, new study shows.
January 13, 2009

Lucie Lapovsky is climbing an uphill battle, she realizes: She's trying to get students and their parents to chill out about college admissions -- and she's doing it with data.

Lapovsky, former president of Mercy College and now a higher education consultant and researcher, is tired of reading the newspaper headlines about the intensifying competition in college admissions. How students are applying to tons of colleges, getting rejected by most of them, and having to settle for the schools at the bottom of their list. She knows that while that's true for a narrow slice of American high school students (typically those in a relatively small number of relatively well-to-do suburban areas) and for a narrow band of colleges (the 10 percent or so of colleges that have truly selective admissions processes), that picture is not representative of the experience most students have.

"Students get into a lot of colleges, and most get into their first choice college," she said in an interview. "We need to try to calm down this craziness that's out there."

To get beyond the anecdotes that dominate headlines in national newspapers and word of mouth in the hallways of many suburban high schools, Lapovsky turned to data. With financial support from the Lumina Foundation for Education, Lapovsky surveyed 750 students in the fall and spring of their senior year of high school about their college options and choices. (It's important to note that these numbers were from the fall of 2006 and the spring of 2007, so they do not reflect any changes that may have occurred in students' patterns because of the economic downturn.)

Among the key findings, and their implications:

Fewer institutions per applicant. As a general rule, students wound up applying to fewer colleges than they expected to, and the widely reported phenomenon of students applying to many colleges seemed to be more or less an urban legend; less than 1 percent of those surveyed said they applied to 10 or more colleges.

Average Number of Colleges Students Planned to Apply to and Actually Applied to

Number of Colleges Percentage Who Planned to Apply, Fall 2006 Percentage Who Actually Applied, Spring 2007
1 7% 22%
2 10% 15%
3 25% 19%
4 or more 58% 44%

Asian American students were the exception -- they actually applied to more colleges in the spring than they had planned to the previous fall. They also applied to the most colleges, on average, while white students applied to the fewest.

  Colleges Students Planned to Apply to,
Fall 2006
Colleges Applied To,
Spring 2007
All students 4.4 3.7
Asian/Pacific Islander 4.4 5.0
African American 5.1 4.4
White 4.4 3.3
Hispanic 5.0 4.2
All others 4.1 4.1

Most get their first choice. The overwhelming majority (88 percent) of students who apply to college right out of high school get into their first choice. As seen in the table below, Asian American students are less likely than others to get into their first choice, "probably" because a larger proportion of them apply to more selective colleges than do members of other racial groups. Even so, 78 percent of Asian American students get into their first choice (80 percent once acceptances off the wait list are accounted for).

And over all, students are accepted by 81 percent of the colleges to which they apply; the average student applies to 3.71 colleges and is accepted by 2.99. "This should reduce some of the angst which students and their parents feel," Lapovsky said.

Proportion of Students Accepted by Their First-Choice College

  Percent Accepted at First Choice
(Including Off Wait List)
All students 88
Asian/Pacific Islander 80
African American 84
White 90
Hispanic 84
All other 83

Two-year colleges not a last resort. The survey offers countervailing evidence to the perception that students at community colleges end up there because they have no other choices, or because they considered no other options. Of students who applied to only one college, 57 percent attended a four-year college, and 43 percent a two-year institution. Seventeen percent of students who attended two-year institutions filed five or more applications. And 70 percent of the students who applied to multiple colleges and wound up at a two-year college chose the institution with the lowest out-of-pocket cost, Lapovsky found.

"Clearly, the majority of students who attend community colleges do consider other colleges before making their decision, and price is a significant factor in their decision making," she said.


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