Elite public colleges slash acceptance rates, raising pressure on students

Story at a glance

  • Surging demand has led California flagships Berkeley and UCLA to admit 9 and 11 percent of applicants, respectively.

  • Universities such as North Carolina and Virginia have reduced their acceptance rates to 17-19 percent.

  • Such Vegas-style odds are still not the norm. Most schools accept 70 percent of their applicants.

Not long ago, a student with a high class rank and solid SAT scores could count on a seat at the local state university.

But now, at the most prestigious public institutions, admission rates hover in the 10- to 20-percent range, a tier of selectivity once reserved for the Ivy League.

University of California flagships in Los Angeles and Berkeley admitted 9 and 11 percent of applicants, respectively, to the 2022 fall class. UCLA fielded 149,813 applications, enough students to populate Jackson, Miss.

At the universities of North Carolina and Virginia, admission rates narrowed to 17 and 19 percent, respectively, for the new freshman class. Flagship campuses in Georgia, Illinois and Wisconsin all admitted less than half of their applicants this year. A decade ago, all three reported admit rates more than 60 percent.

Simply put, the admissions crunch bespeaks more students applying to the same number of top-tier public universities. The college-age cohort is growing apace with the U.S. population. Students are applying to more schools, thanks to the internet and the easily replicated Common Application.

College enrollment declined during the pandemic. Now, students who paused their studies may be returning to campus. College administrators and consultants expect admission rates at elite schools to dip further in the 2023-24 cycle, which is already underway. Many schools have early decision deadlines on Nov. 1.

“It’s a little like the Wild West in admissions these days, filled with uncertainty,” said Caroline Fisk, an educational consultant in Cary, N.C., who has watched the dwindling admission rate at the flagship North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill.

Vegas-style odds are not the norm in higher education. The average collegiate admission rate stands at roughly 70 percent, according to U.S. News & World Report, publisher of the best-known college rankings.

Today’s middle-aged parents attended college in an era when only a few dozen elite universities, nearly all private, could boast truly daunting admission rates. Harvard, Princeton and Yale, the cream of the crop of the Ivy League, admitted roughly 15 to 20 percent of applicants in the late 1980s. This fall, Harvard’s admission rate reached an infinitesimal low of 3.19 percent.

No public flagship approaches that plateau of single-digit selectivity, but a few are getting close. An analysis of enrollment data at 18 elite public universities by The Hill found an average admission rate of 31 percent in 2022, down from 47 percent in 2012 and 52 percent in 2002.

For a prestigious private campus, a low admission rate is a bragging right, a branding tool, a mark of pedigree. For a public flagship, a declining admit rate is all of that — and also a public-policy headache.

Public flagships face a singular challenge: providing access to the highest-performing students in their states, while also cultivating a global reputation and collecting sufficient funds to finance their academics.

Building global currency and raising funds means courting out-of-state students, who bring a sense of worldliness and generally pay tuition at much higher rates. But each of those students takes a seat from a local taxpayer.

This summer, the 10-campus University of California (UC) system announced plans to add 23,000 students by decade’s end. Some of the extra capacity will come at the expense of out-of-state students, the ones who pay higher tuition.

“In the last four years, California has dramatically increased funding to the UCs, but on the condition that they dramatically increase enrollment of California residents,” said Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor of higher education at UCLA.

Perhaps no state university system has seen such a surge of applicants as UC. Population growth is but one factor. Several UC campuses occupy picture-postcard settings and perch near the top of the collegiate rankings, qualities that put them in perennial demand among high-school seniors around the globe. The system’s recent decision to ignore standardized tests removed a longtime barrier to entry. Two years of COVID-19 isolation have only heightened the appeal of any campus with year-round warmth and a nearby beach.

At UC Irvine, on the Orange County coast, the first-year applicant pool has swelled from 30,630 in 2002 to more than 119,000 in 2022. In that span, the admission rate has plummeted from 59 percent to 21 percent.

California admission rates might have dipped lower still. A group called Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods has fought steady enrollment growth at the flagship campus. A judge capped Berkeley’s enrollment last year, almost forcing the school to cut 2,600 students. Legislators swept in to override the cap, prioritizing student access over potential harm to Berkeley’s infrastructure and environment.

California guarantees a seat at UC to any Californian who finishes among the top 9 percent of all high-school students, as divined by a complicated formula. The guarantee doesn’t promise applicants their choice of campus.

The University of Texas guarantees admission to its Austin flagship to students at the top of their high-school classes. But Texas, too, has struggled to find space: This year, the state’s Top 10 Percent Law applies only to students in the top 6 percent.

As admissions tightened, flagship universities in Texas and Illinois endured highly publicized scandals alleging backdoor admissions that helped well-connected applicants skirt the rules. The Illinois investigation found preferential admissions for children of politicians and university trustees in the late 2000s. The Texas inquiry found that UT Austin President Bill Powers overruled his staff to admit students of well-connected Texans in the 2010s.

As a result, both systems adopted reforms to root out potential bias in the selection process.

At the flagship University of Illinois campus in Urbana-Champaign, the admission rate has dwindled from 63 percent in 2012 to 45 percent in 2022. In a bid to expand access, the university asked students to list ranked choices among several schools, each with its own admission rate: 50 percent in liberal arts, 7 percent in computer science.

“We have plenty of seats for qualified residents,” said Andrew Borst, director of undergraduate admissions. “But that doesn’t stop frustrated parents – it’s usually parents – from calling and saying, ‘I can’t believe that my son or daughter didn’t get X.’”

Of the more than 50,000 students at Urbana-Champaign, 71 percent are Illinoisans. The legislature has set no quota, but “they want to see that percent go up, and so do we,” Borst said.

Access isn’t the only problem. The university is accepting “more Illinois students than ever before,” Borst said, “but fewer of them are accepting our offer, and many of them are citing cost.”

The annual tab for a University of Illinois education ranges from $33,500 to $38,750, including room and board, for an in-state student. A year at Harvard, by contrast, tops out around $77,000.

Yet, Illinois students cite cost as their top reason for choosing not to attend Urbana-Champaign. Many families commit to public and private schools in far-flung states that offer massive discounts, often tendered as merit aid. A 2018 investigation by the Chicago Tribune unearthed a colony of Illinois students at the University of Alabama, lured by generous offers of aid.

A new national poll echoes this trend: 52 percent of Americans consider the local public university unaffordable.

Georgia Tech in Atlanta charges about $28,500 a year for in-state students, less than some of its public peers. The school has added seats for Georgians in recent years. And so, while the school’s overall admission rate has declined to 17 percent, the rate for in-state students is 35 percent.

“Our first-year class is 600 bigger than it was three years ago,” said Rick Clark, executive director of undergraduate admission. “We’ve been trying to meet demand.”

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