College: Getting A Nose In The Door

Elite schools are an uphill climb, but there are plenty of other options out there for prospective collegians.
US News & World Report/J. MacMillan
Maybe today's parents had to slog 10 miles in the snow to get to school, but getting into an elite college? Next to their children's chances, that was a motorized snowmobile ride in the park — downhill both ways. In 1976, the University of Pennsylvania received about 6,200 applications and accepted nearly 60 percent. Today's high schoolers face a difficult uphill race: Penn received 20,490 applications for the class of 2010. It accepted a heartbreakingly low 17 percent of them.

Today's students can "make no presumptions," says Lee Stetson, the school's dean of admissions. At schools like Penn, even students with perfect grades or test scores are no longer assured admission. "The harsh reality is that 80 percent of the students are applying to 20 percent of the colleges, and that's making it much more selective than it maybe even needs to be," he says.

Odds-on Favorites

With record numbers of young people graduating from high school and record numbers of those graduates sending out record numbers of college applications, admission to America's top universities has never been more competitive. Yet experts insist there is no need for teens to fear they'll be denied higher education. Though they receive less attention than the Ivies and near Ivies, 84 percent of the nation's 2,500 four-year colleges accept 1 out of 2 candidates, reports the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Thanks to growth in public universities and community colleges (the latter of which accept nearly all comers), the overall number of seats in college classrooms has just about kept pace with demand. So anyone who wants a college education and can scare up the money can get one.

Click here for U.S. News & World Report's "Best Colleges of 2007" rankings.

Even students aiming for a spot at a highly selective school needn't give up hope. Getting in is harder today than it was a generation ago, but it's not impossible. What's more, students who understand what's behind the heightened competition have a better shot at outsmarting it.

The single most obvious reason for the low acceptance rates at the top schools is pure demographics. Sixty years ago, a tidal wave of GIs returned home from World War II with apparently one thing on their minds. Twenty, 30, even 40 years later, their children, the baby boomers, produced their own boom of newborns. This year, about 3.1 million members of that "echo boom" graduated from high school, almost matching the record set in 1977. But this second wave is only beginning to crest. Each year until 2009, the number of high school graduates will keep growing by about 60,000 — the equivalent of 25 Penn freshman classes.

Impressive, but the sheer growth in numbers is just one factor behind today's application frenzy. Another key reason rejection rates are higher today is that the last time this country gave birth to so many teenagers, fewer of them wanted to go to college. During the 1970s, only about 50 percent of recent high school graduates enrolled in college. This time around, about two thirds are pursuing degrees. And no wonder. "A college degree seems to be the minimum you're going to need to make your way up in society," says Charles Deacon, Georgetown's undergraduate admissions dean.