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Business Analysis


Many more reasons why getting into US universities needs further fine-tuning

Some US states are making it more difficult for overseas students

A few Ivy League universities have completely stopped publishing acceptance rates - because they don't want to give the perception getting in is difficult.
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Over the past decade, a two-tiered system emerged in the US university admissions landscape, with elite universities experiencing record application numbers and plummeting acceptance rates, while moderately and less selective institutions have struggled with stagnant or decreasing application numbers.

Total undergraduate enrollment in US universities peaked in 2010-11 at 18.1 million students and now stands at 15.4 million. The overarching trend is that there are fewer overall undergraduate students in US universities, but more of them are applying to the same 40 or so universities.

Every year, it comes as no surprise to learn that Ivy League universities have received a number of applications yet again. While a few - specifically Cornell, Penn, and Princeton - have stopped publishing acceptance rates altogether, to reduce the perception that getting in is impossible.

Single-digit intake rates

What is surprising, however, is how universities once perceived as ‘target’ or ‘party’ schools now have single-digit admissions rates. USC (University of Southern California), and once derisively (and still, in certain circles) referred to the ‘University of Spoiled Children’ received over 80,000 applications last year and rejected 90 out of every 100 applicants.

Northeastern University, which used to be known as the school an applicant enrolled in if she couldn’t get into Boston University, now has an acceptance rate of 5.6 per cent - lower than that of BU and of the Ivy League’s Dartmouth. The elimination of the SAT requirement at most universities during the COVID pandemic caused applications to skyrocket and it is now, statistically speaking, more difficult to secure acceptance to Top 50 universities than at any point in history.


Some universities, such as Georgetown, MIT, Georgia Tech and most recently Dartmouth, have reinstated the standardized test score requirement.

It is interesting to note that international student enrollments in US universities have grown over the last 10 years from 723,000 to 1.06 million, providing a critical financial lifeline for all but the wealthiest private universities. As the overwhelming majority of international students pay full fees, they essentially subsidize the education of American students on financial aid, and fill seats that would otherwise be empty.

US states suffer from pushback

Residents of some states, such as California, however have pushed back against excessive out-of-state (including international) student enrollment, arguing that these students take the place of residents for whom the universities were founded to educate, creating a Catch-22 situation for the University of California in which fewer international students means less funding for California residents on which they rely on to remain financially solvent.

Universities want more international students - but the most selective ones do not typically enroll more than 15-18 per cent of incoming freshmen from abroad. Twenty-eight per cent of New York University’s undergraduate student body is international, making it the most global campus in America.

Further complicating admissions for international students is the US Supreme Court decision, passed in June 2023, outlawing the use of race as a factor in the admissions process. While many students and families cheered the decision, it has had unforeseen knock-on effects which have become clear in two specific areas this application cycle: Early decision (ED) acceptances and supplemental essay questions.


High deferrals

Many students were met with a disproportionately higher spate of deferrals if they applied early this year, as applying ED signifies that a student is financially capable of shouldering the full cost of attendance at most universities, which would only serve to further exacerbate the disparity that affirmative action sought to mitigate.

Previous supplemental prompts typically asked the applicant’s motivations for choosing that university and have been subsequently replaced with prompts that discuss adversity, diversity, and social issues. Universities have pivoted in their approach, yet continue to indirectly promote diversity through other means.

Undergraduate admission to leading US universities continues to be a dynamic landscape where the stakes are higher than ever before, and the criteria for admission constantly evolve on a continuous basis.

Peter Davos
The writer is founder and CEO of Hale Education Group.