Yes, It Really Is Harder to Get into Highly Selective Colleges Today

Michael J. Petrilli and Pedro Enamorado

It’s often noted by individuals of a certain age that “I could never get into my alma mater if I were applying today.” The conventional wisdom is that it’s now much harder to be accepted into highly selective colleges and universities than it was a generation ago. But is that true?

To find out, we identified the median SAT scores (math plus verbal) of most of the 100 top national universities and 50 top liberal arts colleges (as determined by the 2020 US News and World Report college rankings) for the incoming freshmen classes of 1985 and 2016. The 1985 data came from the 1986 edition of Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, tracked down at the Library of Congress. The 2016 data were found in the 2018 edition of Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges. Since the SAT was re-normed in 1995 (and again in 2016, but after the time period for our data), we used a concordance tablepublished by the College Board to adjust the 1985 scores accordingly. Of the 150 institutions examined, median SAT scores were available in both years for 95 of them.

We used SAT scores as our measure of selectivity rather than acceptance rates because those rates have plummeted for most institutions in recent years, due to changes in the application process itself. For example, the “common app” makes it relatively easy and affordable for students to apply to larger numbers of schools. More and more students, particularly those gunning for the big-name institutions, are doing so. Given that the college rankings lists give a lot of weight to rejection rates, colleges face strong incentives to push those rates as high as possible by doing things such as generating large numbers of applications from students unlikely to be accepted, much less attend. In contrast, median SAT scores—appropriately adjusted—give us a better measure of the academic quality of an institution’s freshman class.