Harvard admitted 3.4% of its undergraduate applicants this year. Yale, 4.6%. Columbia just 3.7%. Last night at 7 p.m. on the east coast, the eight colleges that make up the Ivy League let applicants know whether they were accepted or rejected.
After the pandemic forced most schools to adopt test-optional admission policies, applications soared at the nation’s selective schools. Some 57,435 students applied to Harvard, an increase of 43% over the previous year. Harvard admitted 1,968, including those who applied early. Columbia received 60,551 applicants, a 51% surge, and admitted 2,218.
In their admissions announcements, schools touted the increased number of nonwhite students they had accepted and the number qualified to receive government Pell grants, awarded to students from low-income families.
“We were delighted to see the diversity and strength of this year’s applicant pool, particularly in a year where no one could predict how it would change,” said William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid. Actually lots of college admissions professionals and advocates predicted the applicant pool would change, if only because Harvard and other elite schools did not require SAT or ACT scores. That prompted tens of thousands of students who either couldn’t take a test or didn’t get high scores, to apply.
The message to students this year is mixed. In theory they have had a greater chance to reach the pinnacle of college admissions and get into a highly selective school that promises to meet students’ full financial need. But at Harvard more than 95% of applicants were rejected. Which means that tens of thousands of aspiring Ivy Leaguers are coping with disappointment and defeat.
Nevertheless, advocates of test optional and test blind policies are proclaiming victory. “In the short run, the promises of the test-optional proponents were all confirmed,” says Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, a nonprofit that opposes the use of standardized tests in admissions. “Colleges ended up with more applicants, more qualified applicants and more diverse applicants and that was reflected in who they admitted.”
But critics of America’s system of higher education see history repeating itself, underlined by the infinitesimally small admission rates at the top colleges. “We’re very much reinforcing the divide in our society between those who get in and those who don’t,” says Martin Van Der Werf, associate director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown. “We’re seeing that even through a recession and a worldwide pandemic, the story doesn’t change much in higher ed. The rich just get richer and the poor fall farther behind.”
A survey of more than 15,000 students released April 5 by EAB, an educational consulting company that helps colleges maximize their enrollment, expanded on early reports that suggest many low-income students many not even be planning to go to college this year. Data from the National College Attainment Network has shown that nearly 10% fewer high school students are completing the federal student financial aid form known as the FAFSA. Even if they want to go to college, EAB’s survey shows how they struggle to apply for funds. Some 40% of first generation students and 37% of low-income students fill out the complicated form by themselves.
Paul Tough, author of the 2021 book, The Inequality Machine: How College Divides Us, says that the increase in admitted students at Harvard who qualify for Pell grants, from 380 to 401, is a positive sign. “But it’s worth noting that it’s a very small improvement,” he says. Tough believes that Harvard could have easily decided to make half its admitted students Pell recipients and still had a very strong class. “It’s a choice on their part,” he says, “about how much they need to diversify their class to keep their constituents happy.”
For instance, it could be that Harvard increased the percentage of Asian American students admitted to 27.2% from last year’s 24.5% because it is being sued for discriminating against Asian Americans in admissions. Harvard has prevailed in the lower courts but the plaintiffs, led by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum, has asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.
Another reason acceptances were so low at highly selective schools is that many students admitted in 2020 decided to take a gap year while the schools held their spot. Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke, has said that 10% of the places in the incoming class will be taken by students who were admitted last year and deferred. Duke announced on Monday that it has admitted 2,014 applicants for a record-law 4.3% acceptance rate.
What about next year? Most schools have already announced they will continue their test-optional policies for at least one more year. The selective schools may see another crush of applicants. And as the country opens up, there will also likely be more testing. Test optional means that schools do not require SAT or ACT scores for admission. But even during Covid, affluent families paid thousands of dollars to prep students and went to extreme lengths to get their students tested, sometimes flying to distant locations where Covid protocols were lax and tests were available.
One bright spot for students who have been rejected from the most selective schools: Applications are down at lower-tier colleges. Some, like Ithaca College, are still accepting applications. Jeff Selingo, author of the 2020 book Who Gets In and Why, advises students who are not happy with their choices to contact schools on their backup list and ask whether it’s still possible to apply.
Large state university systems like the University of California have yet to release data on the compositions of their incoming class and elite schools like Harvard may never reveal how many of their admitted students submitted test scores. It also remains to be seen which college students will favor. “I don’t think we’re going to have a full picture of admissions until at least July,” says Selingo.