This is a loaded question because while some colleges have become highly selective, many have not. According to Nathan Crawe’s “Demographics and Demand for Higher Education” the birth rate is on a twenty year decline resulting in less high school graduates. As a result, many colleges are struggling to fill their freshmen class. Those schools are offering very competitive aid to good students in an effort to build their enrollment. However, the colleges that are nationally ranked have continued to get more and more difficult to gain admission. There are several factors impacting college admissions.
In the 1980s magazines began ranking schools and programs. These issues sold a lot of copies, and advertising space. So even more magazines and websites launched rankings. Ann Machung argues in “Playing the Rankings Game” that those rankings impacted college applications. Colleges began to look at the factors that impacted their rankings. Selectivity was one of those factors. Average SAT/ACT scores were another. Schools began to work to increase applications. They admitted a smaller number of students with higher test scores, all to move up in the publications.
At the same the American economy was changing. Workers needed more than a high school diploma to secure a livable wage. Baby boomers were beginning to retire. More qualified workers were needed. Yet, according to the Lumina Foundation, only about 40% of students entering college were actually graduating on time. Only 50% were graduating at all. State legislatures, foundations, the federal department of education started focusing on completion rates. Lumina set a goal that 60% of working age adults would have a post secondary credential or degree. Many states shifted how they funded state colleges/universities. Funding was
now based on students graduating not just enrolling.
Colleges wanted evidence that students would be successful at their schools. They began studying their incoming and graduating student data. They created profiles of successful students. This resulted in admitting students with stronger academic profiles—higher grade point averages, advanced placement and dual credit, and ACT/SAT scores. Some colleges began accepting students who were more likely to complete (while others created support programs to help students complete). High schools were pushed to better prepare students for college. They responded by increasing their offerings and rigor to help.
While the birth rate is down, high schools are graduating more of the students who enroll in 9-12th grade. More of those students are heading to college. High school seniors have also been applying to many more colleges than the high school graduates from the 1990s and early 2000s. A larger applicant pool sometimes means a college can be more selective. However for the last few years, despite an increased application pool many colleges are seeing a smaller number of students enroll.
So what does this mean for the student applying? Broaden where you are looking. There are hundreds of colleges in this country. Most will prepare you well for what you want to do after you graduate (as long as you do internships and take advantage of work-based experiences). Brand name colleges can be very attractive-they have impressive alumni, big time sports, etc. But there are many colleges, not at the top of the rankings, that are changing lives.