Admitting the Facts About Low Admit Rates

More importantly, perhaps, they should remember that a lower admission rate does not translate directly to a better education. There are many other factors at play.

For one thing, the world is a more competitive place than it used to be. Whether it’s getting a minimum-wage job at McDonald’s for a summer, or an unpaid internship at a research firm for a quarter, the lists of candidates for positions seem to get bigger with every year.

According to a long-overdue report published Sept. 22 by job search engine “Simply Hired”, it is no illusion. In 1991, there was an average of four applicants per available job—though this figure varied widely by the industry and level of the position. By January 2012, that number had risen to 23. In the language of admission rates, that’s a drop from 25 percent to 4.3 percent. To put that into perspective, it is now harder to get a salaried job than it is to be accepted to Harvard, which had a 5.9 percent overall acceptance rate this year.

It’s counterintuitive. But it makes more sense when you take the mechanisms into account, which is what James Rosenbaum did in his 1996 paper, “Gatekeeping in an Era of More Open Gates.” In a nutshell, he proposed that panic about jobs leads people to apply to more places, which leads to lower admission rates, which leads to more panic, and so on. The cycle only stops when job seekers (or college applicants) grow discouraged or complacent, and cease to apply. Back when UCSD had a 55.7 percent acceptance rate, its admitted students applied to a median of six other colleges, according to statistics released by the UC Office of the registrar. For the 2012-13 batch of freshmen, that median has shot up to 13.

It’s a cycle that has very little to do with the quality of education offered by a university. Take Oxford and Cambridge, the top universities in the U.K. Their admissions rates have actually increased over the past decade: They admitted 18.4 percent of their applicants in 2002, but nearly 26 percent last year.

The finding is consistent with a trend called “discouragement” observed by the economist Raquel Fernandez in a 1996 paper, “On the Political Economy of Education Subsidies:” As students get discouraged by the prospect of social mobility in poor economic times, the trend of lower admissions rates in difficult economic times begins to reverse. Considering that the UC system admitted a lower fraction of students overall, it’s highly unlikely that discouragement is to blame for UCSD’s slightly increased admission rate this year. But it’s still something to keep an eye out for in the upcoming years.

There’s another factor that can have a strong impact on admissions rates: population. And while it’s often overlooked, it can sometimes play the most significant role of all. In India, which has fewer than 400 universities for its 1.2 billion citizens, admissions rates for the Indian Institute of Technology have hovered around 2 percent in good economic times and bad, for over 30 years. The most significant contributor to the depressed overall admissions rate in India is the country’s population.

California’s population of 13 to 18 year olds has been growing at a rate of about 4 percent per year for the past 10 years, meaning that things will get more competitive in terms of sheer number of applicants. However, evidence from the National Bureau of Labor suggests that the economy won’t improve significantly anytime soon, no matter who is elected. This may mean more high school students will grow discouraged, making it easier for those who continue to struggle to be admitted.

But that’s speculation. The admissions game — for universities and jobs alike — is a lot more complex than it seems. What this means for us is that as much as we’d like it to, a 37.7 percent admissions rate doesn’t say much on its own.

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