College admissions rates give students the wrong prospective. Colleges provide this information to prospective students and the general public; this information is widely disseminated through the U.S. News rankings. In fact, the lower a school’s admissions rate, the better it will do in the rankings; thus providing an incentive for schools to increase their already massive numbers of applications for a very limited number of spots. But not everyone in these large pools of applicants is equally worthy of admission. In fact, many of them are under-qualified and are instantly tossed to the side. That leaves much better odds for qualified students – perhaps even doubling the likelihood of admission.
Kevin Carey, of the Education Sector, has been talking about this for years (I’ve included some of his writings below). He states that the size of the “no” piles (the group of completely under-qualified candidates) grows each year and the true competition for admission is between students in the the “yes” and “maybe” piles. His main point is this: college admissions rates are currently based on the institution, not on the student. A qualified student may have a 6.2% chance of getting into Harvard (or perhaps a 30% chance after the first round of reviewing). But, this student’s chance of getting in to a top institution is much, much higher. A student applying to the top schools will likely apply to at least eight. While s/he may only have an 6% chance of admission at one school, his/her odds of admission at just one of the eight schools are significantly higher. And a student only attends one institution.