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Astral Codex Ten Podcast

Apr 19, 2019

0: Introduction

This is from


Acceptance rates at top colleges have declined by about half over the past decade or so, raising concern about intensifying academic competition. The pressure of getting into a good university may even be leading to suicidesat elite high schools.

Some people have dismissed the problem, saying that a misplaced focus on Harvard and Yale ignores that most colleges are easier to get into than ever. For example, from The AtlanticIs College Really Harder To Get Into Than It Used To Be?:

If schools that were once considered “safeties” now have admissions rates as low as 20 or 30 percent, it appears tougher to get into college every spring. But “beneath the headlines and urban legends,” Jim Hull, senior policy analyst at the National School Board Association’s Center for Public Education, says their 2010 report shows that it was no more difficult for most students to get into college in 2004 than it was in 1992. While the Center plans to update the information in the next few years to reflect the past decade of applicants, students with the same SAT and GPA in the 90’s basically have an equal probability of getting into a similarly selective college today.

Their link to the report doesn’t work, so I can’t tell if this was ever true. But it doesn’t seem true today. From Pew:


The first graph shows that admission rates have decreased at 53% of colleges, and increased at only 31%. The second graph shows that the decreases were mostly at very selective schools, and the increases were mostly at less selective schools. We shouldn’t exaggerate the problem: three-quarters of US students go to non-selective colleges that accept most applicants, and there are more than enough of these for everyone. But if you are aiming for a competitive school – not just Harvard and Yale, but anywhere in the top few hundred institutions – the competition is getting harder.

This matches my impression of “facts on the ground”. In 2002, I was a senior at a California high school in a good neighborhood. Most of the kids in my class wanted to go to famous Ivy League universities, and considered University of California colleges their “safety schools”. The idea of going to Cal State (California’s middle- and lower- tier colleges) felt like some kind of colossal failure. But my mother just retired from teaching at a very similar school, and she says nowadays the same demographic of students would kill to get into a UC school, and many of them can’t even get into Cal States.

The stories I hear about this usually focus on how more people are going to college today than ever, but there’s still only one Harvard, so there’s increasing competition for the same number of spots.