College Acceptance Rates Examined

As I start working on my Spring Research Project about budgets in higher education and I look over the National Association of Colleges and Business Officers table of 2012 endowments I am amazed how everyday I encounter colleges I have never heard of. These colleges are usually small private colleges or faith-based institutions that have modest to hefty endowments and on paper look great.

Each time I discover one of these gems I go to Wikipedia and find out the basics; where the school is located, what its educational focus is, basic history, who is is named after, et cetera. After discovering interesting tidbits about each there is one common section that most of these small colleges share with the largest of research institutions; acceptance rates.

I bring up acceptance rates because in May 2013 I wrote a short article about acceptance rates and the pressure parents feel to get their kids into ‘good’ schools. There is no better place to compare college acceptance rates and other information than the source for everything higher education, US News and World Report College Rankings.

These rankings, in my opinion, are lackluster and simplistic, but millions look to US News and World Report for advice on where to send their kids to college. US News and World Report also greatly influences colleges and universities even though many of them publicly state otherwise (there have been a variety of controversies about the lists). As I was looking around two lists stood out to me:

Top 100-Highest Acceptance Rates;

Top 100-Lowest Acceptance Rates.

These two lists to me, are the most intriguing of all the lists. The other lists are standard; top elite schools; top public schools; top liberal arts schools; and other lists like A+ Schools for B Students that all contain the usual characters. Concerning the Top 100-Lowest Acceptance Rates, this list is populated by all the usual suspects that provide experts to NPR, CNN, Fox News, and like on a daily basis.

These schools have tuition that is usually above $30 to $40k a year and are only for the brightest from the around the nation (and world) and/or the ones that can afford the sticker price.

What really is interesting is the list of the 100-Highest Acceptance Rates. From the opening paragraph US News gives you a little insight into the list, “While some colleges and universities pride themselves on selectivity, others welcome most, if not all, of their college applicants.”

The acceptance rates on this list range from 100% to 91.5% and to start off my investigation I will look at three schools on the list; University of Texas-El Paso, Evergreen State College, and the University of Kansas, First is the University of Texas-El Paso. I am fond of UTEP because I grew up in El Paso and took 9 credits there one summer during my undergrad.

UTEP is a solid school that is located a stone’s throw from Juarez, serves a relatively poor city, and is mainly a commuter school. They have a healthy endowment, around $151 million but a six-year graduation rate of 35.5%. 54% of UTEP students receive Pell Grants and UTEP is rare amongst large state schools in that the vast majority of students who attend are hispanic (81%).

So is UTEP a ‘lesser’ school by being on the Top 100-Highest Acceptance Rates list? No. UTEP has challenges that schools on the Top 100-Lowest Acceptance Rates list do not have to deal with. First of all the median household income in El Paso is around $40k, which is $9k less than the rest of Texas ($13k less than the US). Next, UTEP serves a high per percentage of commuters (34% are part-time) which like community colleges, complicates graduation rates because students do not live on campus and often have other obligations such as work and/or family.

Next is Evergreen State College. When I was 16 I wanted to go to Evergreen because of the way faculty ‘grade’ student assignments but through many years of self-reflection I realized that I would not have been ready as a teenager for a place like Evergreen or St. John’s in Santa Fe, another school I would have liked to have gone for my undergrad.

Evergreen is the definition of a Liberal Arts institution without the benefit of the hefty endowments of other Liberal Arts institutions such as the Claremont Colleges, Wesleyan University, or St. Olaf College (there are few truly public Liberal Arts institutions). Their six-year graduation rate is 51.8% which is not bad considering they accepted 98.4% of applicants.

Is Evergreen a lesser school by being on the Top 100-Highest Acceptance Rates list? No. The way in which student assessment is conducted at Evergreen makes it a truly unique place for higher education and the fact that they accept pretty much everyone who applies probably means that only students who know what Evergreen is about and know what they are getting into apply. This also might account for the mediocre six-year graduation rate; students that are unable to thrive at Evergreen probably transfer to a more traditional school.

And finally the University of Kansas. Besides having a great basketball team I visited the campus once in undergrad because of a music festival; beautiful campus in the middle of endless fields.

Kansas has a large endowment of around $1.5 billion and a six-year graduation rate between 61% (2004) and 64% (2006) which is amazing considering they accept around 93% of applicants.

Is Kansas a lesser school by being on the Top 100-Highest Acceptance Rates list? No. Kansas has a median household income near the US average and is almost $11k more than in El Paso.

Also, Kansas and the University of Kansas serves a demographic that is largely homogeneous; this means there is a diversity at the university but is also means that the school has an easier time of serving the needs of their students because they are all the ‘same’.

The interesting thing about higher education is those in those in higher education are hesitant to compare institutions no matter big or small, elite or community college. Even the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis Cutting Tool, published by the US Department of Education has a warning label reminding people how impossible it is to compare institutions.

“Please note that valid comparisons of athletics data are possible only with study and analysis of the conditions affecting each institution.”

Yet we have the US News and World Report that compares and ranks schools every year and two lists, 100-Highest and 100-Lowest Acceptance Rates that imply quality (or lack of). There is quality at every institution let it be the University of Texas-El Paso with its 98.3% acceptance rate or Harvard with its 6.1% acceptance rate.

We all know there is quality at Harvard while at UTEP for some it  takes a little faith, a little digging, and an understanding of the institution and the city to ‘see’ the quality that is and has always been there.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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