How to Beat the Odds for College Admission

Harvard College and Ivy League Admission

College admission is complicated.  Here’s how to beat the odds for college admission and get into the right school at the right price.

With an ever-increasing pool of applicants trying to gain college admission and college admission rates dropping, you need these college admission strategies to know how to beat the odds. Parents of high school juniors and seniors will be starting to look at colleges very soon.  Some have already started their campus tours. So how do you beat the odds in the college admission game?

Every year, more and more students are applying to college.  Of the more than three million high school graduates each year, more than 2 million apply for college.  And admission rates at the schools that typically top the US News and World Report annual survey continue to fall.

Record Low Admission Rates

After the admission letters went out this past spring, Stanford University admitted a near record low percentage of students: less than 6% of 42,167 applicants.  Other elite schools including Ivies like Harvard and Yale as well as Duke, Columbia and University of Chicago admitted fewer than 10% of applicants.

What’s behind the continuing drop in college admission rates?  Basic supply and demand.  More and more students are applying for a fixed number of places at the most in demand schools.  And the fact that there are about the same number are admitted annually means that the admission rate drops.

The process looks more selective because of this expanding applicant pool which typically includes lots of valedictorians and those in the top 5% of their graduating class, have GPAs over 3.7 and SAT reading and math scores over 700 each.

This creates a cycle that’s hard to break.  The dropping admission rates feed the perception that these schools are selective and elite.  And like almost anything else, we all want to be part of such an exclusive club.  So more and more folks apply which leads to more and more rejections which in turn leads to more demand for such selective schools.  And this demand further reinforces the school’s continued increase in fees above the general inflation rate.

This phenomenon is not reserved just for these traditionally selective schools.  More and more colleges and universities are also seeing record numbers of applications.  State schools, too, are receiving record numbers.  For example, the University of California – Los Angeles had received the most applications in the country: more than 86,000.  And with the ease of the Common Application which allows students to immediately send their information to multiple schools at the click of a button, this trend will likely not reverse any time soon.

Drop in College Enrollment Continues

In addition to falling admission rates, we’re also seeing a drop in enrollment.

I believe that there are a number of factors behind this drop in enrollment.  College costs continue to rise and rise faster than inflation.  The shift of paying for college is more and more on the student and family.  Grant aid from the states and federal government has become scarcer.  Financial aid is more and more in the form of loans which does nothing to help the affordability equation.

The fact that ‘buyers’ of a college education throw all logic out the window and rely on emotion to choose a school doesn’t help them financially in the long run either.

Real Cost of a College Education

The odds are against a family.  The fact is that more than 50% of college students drop out.  Some because of finances. Some because they transfer – possibly because they no longer can afford the school of choice.  Some may leave because of medical issues or a death on the home front. Many change majors wasting time and credits. (I know in my case, I changed from being a computer science major to an economics and government major.  All in all, I was still able to finish in four years plus one semester mainly because of summer school courses). Some take longer than five or 6 years to get what’s billed as a 4-year bachelor’s degree.

Three Categories of College Admissions

  1. Elite colleges retain the pricing power of their in-demand brands.  They have and always will remain selective. “We got what you want so this is the price of admission.”
  2. State colleges and universities have a lower ‘sticker price’ but with the higher level of applications these are far from the ‘safety schools’ of days gone by. Aid packages are usually limited to loans and small scholarships possibly making this choice more expensive to a family when compared to private colleges.
  3. Private colleges – the hidden gems – are always looking to fill seats and willing to discount tuition an average 46% or more to do so.

If your student is accepted to one of those Category 1 schools, congratulations!  But remember that aid is only awarded on financial need as most do not offer academic merit aid.  But if you are fortunate to be accepted and have the right financial need profile these schools will typically cover 100% of the gap (the amount over and above your Expected Family Contribution).

Other private schools – Category 3 above – generally offer more aid in total and more on academic merit specifically. I have parent clients who have kids enrolled at Southern New Hampshire University.  Each of their two kids received about one-half off the sticker prices making the school cost comparable to an in-state public college. Each student came to the table with something that the school wanted to fill out its ranks: student-athlete for one and a female in a STEM program for the other.

State schools offer smaller merit aid awards ($1,000 to $5,000) per year.  These options make the most sense if you are attending as an in-state resident.  In some cases, students who live in border communities may also get a break in tuition for out-of-state residents which helps reduce the cost but doesn’t close the gap.

My advice

Armed with this information, what should you do?

  • Don’t eliminate schools because of sticker price
  • Become the biggest fish in the smallest pond to get the best aid package
  • Apply to six to 8 schools of similar caliber so that you can have schools of similar rank compete for your student
  • Work on financial planning and tax strategies that will help your family lower its Expected Family Contribution (EFC) before the Base Year to improve total aid awards
  • Figure out ahead of time what type of major and school works best for the student to avoid costly delays, transfers or changes in major