Looking At College Application Inflation

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It's a time of high anxiety for high school seniors. Students across the country have been finding out where they got in to college and where they didn't. For many applying to the most selective schools, the news is not good. While the number of applications has shot up, acceptance rates have hit historic lows. It's been called, "application inflation." Michele Norris talks with Bloomberg News' higher education reporter Janet Lorin about college admissions and "application inflation."

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

It's a time of high anxiety for high school seniors. Students across the country have been finding out whether or not they got in to colleges, and for many applying to the most selective schools, the news may not be good.

While the number of applications has shot up, acceptance rates have hit historic lows. It's been called application inflation. And Janet Lorin covers higher education and college admissions for Bloomberg News, and she's here with us to tell us more about this.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. JANET LORIN (Reporter, Bloomberg News): Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: So when we talk about application inflation, can you give us some examples?

Ms. LORIN: Well, we know that, for example, Harvard University received almost 35,000 applications for undergraduate admission this year. Columbia University received almost the same number. Columbia started on the common application this year and had a 32 percent increase.

Brown University went on the common application three years ago and has had a 50-percent increase in applications over the last three years.

NORRIS: Now, before you go on, explain what is a common application.

Ms. LORIN: The common application is a online form that students can use to apply to multiple colleges very easily. It's very easy from when I applied 20 years ago, when you actually had to type your information in. You fill it out online, and then most selective schools have additional supplemental essays. But it makes applying to college much easier.

NORRIS: I'm going to come back to that idea of a common application in just a minute, but you've given us the number of applications that have arrived in these schools. I'm curious about the other side of that equation, the actual acceptance rate.

Ms. LORIN: At Harvard, it was down to 6.2 percent this year. Columbia was 6.9 percent this year.

NORRIS: What's at the heart of this? Is it because there is this large cohort of students that are now all going to college, what people like call the echo boom? Or is it really more about the common application or even other factors?

Ms. LORIN: Well, the actual number of students graduating from high school is beginning to decrease, but as students see these very low admit rates, they get a little nervous, and they think: Well, maybe I should apply to a few more schools. So that increases the number of applications.

NORRIS: Is this happening across the board? The schools that you mentioned are fairly selective institutions. Are you seeing the same thing at middle-tier schools, at state schools, at small schools?

Ms. LORIN: Definitely at state schools. Berkeley and the University of North Carolina, for example, both had increases, as well.

NORRIS: Is this in part because schools are marketing themselves more aggressively?

Ms. LORIN: Partly. I did a story about a year and a half ago about the marketing effort at the University of Chicago. And they had a new dean of admission, and they had a very specific marketing campaign that the dean of the college told me he wanted as many applications as Columbia.

And they had a 42 percent increase last year, and what that did was it made them appear to be a lot more selective. In 2009, they accepted 27 percent of applications, and this year, they accepted about 16 percent, and they have a lot more kids applying, and because they didn't really increase the number of spots, you know, it's a math formula, fewer percentage of kids got in.

NORRIS: Is that about rankings?

Ms. LORIN: I think some would argue yes. You want to appear to be more selective. It's a part of the US News & World Report rankings. And it also makes you look more selective, and that's in some ways appealing to students because they are going to a selective place. It also makes it appealing to alumni to think that their college is even more exclusive.

NORRIS: Is this good news for the campuses, that they have this flood of applications? Or does it also present a downside?

Ms. LORIN: Well, when Brown had their flood of applications last year, the admissions office was literally overwhelmed. They were assembling them by paper, and they had to find space on campus to assemble them.

They've also had to hire some part-time readers, as well as Duke because, you know, the volume is very great.

NORRIS: Well, Janet, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much.

Ms. LORIN: Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: Janet Lorin covers higher education and college admissions for Bloomberg News.

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