The Results of the 2021-2022 Admissions Cycle
By Kelly Barnhardt, College Admissions Strategies, Owner
Long-established patterns of college admissions have been disrupted in the last two years. Many consider the changes to be a result of the pandemic, but the pandemic only accelerated trends that had been building for a decade.
While most colleges have struggled to cope with declining enrollment, elite institutions have enjoyed a sharp rise in demand. Two models of admissions have evolved — one for elite schools and another for all the rest. As admission season approaches again, high school seniors and their parents should understand and plan for the way things currently stand in college admissions.
The Spike in Applications to Elite Institutions
College enrollment is down in general, yet the most highly selective institutions are thriving. Since they accept about the same number of freshmen every year, the rising volume of applications that they receive has brought about a sharp decline in admission rates. As evidence, the number of colleges that admitted less than 10% of their applicants rose from 9 in 2019-20 to 28 in 2021-22.
The main cause of the rise in applications at top schools is the shift to test-optional admissions policies. The test-optional movement was well underway prior to 2020, but the closure of test centers due to the pandemic prevented students from taking the SAT and ACT exams. This forced even the most prestigious colleges to drop standardized test scores as a requirement for admission. Most colleges retained their test-optional policies for the 2021-22 admissions cycle and many have announced that they will do so indefinitely.
The new test-optional policies motivated students aspiring to attend an elite school who did not perform well on the SAT/ACT exams to rely on parts of their academic record in which they were stronger, such as GPA and strength of curriculum. As a result, they joined the already high number of applicants seeking admission to elite colleges. From the perspective of the colleges, this only meant that more applicants would be rejected, causing their admissions rates to fall. A falling admissions rate favors a college because it raises its position in U.S. News & World Report and similar college rankings.
Elite Colleges Are More Highly Selective Than Ever
The fact that a college attracts many applicants who know that only a small percentage will be accepted is an indication of the power of its reputation. The admissions rate is the prime basis for a college’s reputation when comparisons to peer institutions are made through college rankings. Although rankings are an imperfect measure of the educational capacity of a college, they are used by many people as a proxy for quality.
Table A recaps the admissions results for top-tier schools that reported their data prior to June 30.. They are all ranked among the top 50 schools on either the National Universities or National Liberal Arts College rankings in U.S. News & World Report. It should be noted that some elite schools, such as Stanford, Chicago, and CalTech, don’t release their data.
The Table shows the number of applicants, the number admitted, and the percentages of admissions for the cycles of 2019-20 and 2021-22.
Admission Rates at Top-Tier Institutions
2019-20 and 2021-22 Compared
2019-20 Admit %
|UNC Chapel Hill||57,198||4,400||25||8|
Source: Education Data Initiative
The five institutions in Table A with the lowest admissions rates in 2021-22 were Harvard at 3%, followed by Columbia, MIT, UPenn, and Yale with 4%.
The five institutions with the largest percentage declines in admissions rates over the two-year period of 2019-20 to 2021-22 were Boston College (66%), Middlebury (63%), Emory-Oxford (60%), Northeastern (58%), and Amherst (42%).
Below is a recap of admissions at colleges that were noteworthy for various reasons:
- New York University received over 105,000 applications in the 2021-22 cycle, the largest applicant pool in its history. Of these applicants, 12% were admitted. The admission rates at specific undergraduate schools were significantly lower than the overall rate, including the Stern School of Business (7%), the College of Arts and Science (7%), and the Rory Meyers College of Nursing (3%).
- Rice University received 24,443 applications for the 2019-20 admissions cycle two years ago. It received 31,424 applications in the 2021-22 cycle, a surge of 22%. Rice admitted 2,749 applicants in the recent cycle, one year after the expansion of its freshman class by 10%. The fact that Rice’s admissions rate didn’t decline is due to the expansion of the freshman class.
- Georgetown University admitted 12% of applicants. In all, 26,670 students applied to Georgetown during a year in which the school, unlike most others, required SAT or ACT scores. Of these applicants, 3,229 were admitted. Although down by 20% from the 2019-20 cycle, the admissions rate for 2021-22 was unchanged from last year’s result at 8%.
- Duke University received 50,002 applications for the 2021-22 cycle, slightly surpassing last year’s record. Of these applicants, 3,085 were admitted. Duke admitted more students this year than last year. In 2020-21, Duke had fewer open freshman seats because many students who were admitted in 2019-20 took a gap year due to the pandemic.
Barnhardt is an independent college consultant based in Charlotte, NC. Send questions to:
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