Broken dreams in pursuit of an educational brand: Stanford becomes the first university to dip below 5% admit rate

The Stanford University Office of Undergraduate Admission just released their application numbers for the Class of 2020, and for the fourth consecutive year they earn the enviable but not necessarily laudable distinction of being the most selective college in America. Also, in a first for any of the schools that jockey for position in the US News Rankings of best colleges, Stanford has seen their acceptance rate dip below 5%.

Stanford received 43,997 total applications this year, up 1,510 applications from the previous year. And if that bump wasn’t enough of a hit to the dreams of this year’s Stanford-focused applicants, Stanford admitted only 2,063 candidates this year. A decrease of 81 offers from the prior year. Stanford’s continued rise in terms of prestige and perception (it is now Harvard vs. Stanford, not Harvard vs. Yale or Princeton) is leading to a marked increase in their ability to win over a larger percentage of dual-admits to peer universities such as MIT, Yale, and most notably Harvard; and the recent miserable East Coast winters haven’t hurt. As Stanford’s yield goes up, their number of acceptances will continue to go down.

While we do not have Harvard’s final number of admits, we do know that they received 39,044 applicants this yearcompared to last year’s 37,305. If we assume that they accept the same number of applicants as they did last year, they would have a 5.1% acceptance rate this year. It’s fair to assume that Harvard will join Stanford in the under 5% club in the next year or two. And in the coming years, we can expect to see the other uber-selective universities (e.g., Yale, Princeton, MIT, Columbia) also joining the club. And in doing so, no one will be better off for it. Not even Stanford or Harvard.

The ever-dwindling acceptance rates at the top schools do not represent an increase in the quality of education available at those schools, nor do they represent an increase in the quality of the incoming class at those schools. The ever-dwindling acceptance rate at the top schools merely represents the ever increasing priority placed on education brand or prestige by the parents of the young people who are applying to these schools. No longer can it reasonably be said that even a significant minority of the students applying to the top schools are concerned most about specific educational opportunities or fit of the schools. No, the only thing that matters in this dog-eat-dog world is how my kids compare to yours … and if my kid gets into Stanford and yours gets into Brown then my kid is supposedly better.

The ever-escalating admissions arms race leads to more parents paying more people to help their kids apply to college, after four years of micromanaging what classes their kids take, how their kids are doing in those classes, and how much time they invest into various extracurriculars that are vetted by the parents. Young people are not masters of their own universe, they are simply expected to excel in the space that is carved out for them by their parents. In the race to get our children into the top schools, our children have lost the opportunity to decide for themselves what experiences they will engage in, how much time they will invest in those experiences, and even whether or not they should try to figure out who they are.

And when young people are not given the opportunity to forge their own dreams, especially when their aspirations are being defined for them by their parents, then even if they get into their [parents’] dream school, they will fail to take advantage of the opportunities available at those schools that would uniquely benefit them and their dreams. This will lead to an ever growing population of over-coached, over-prepped, over-tested, privileged upper-middle class young adults (because these schools are still largely off limits to lower socio-economic young people who don’t have the opportunity to prep and pad their experiences from the age of 13 in anticipation of college admissions) graduating college completely lost at how to take on the world.

It’s a shame that Stanford’s admit rate has dropped below 5%. This is not a good sign of things to come.