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Surprising Admissions Trends at U.S. Colleges in 2021-2022

A graduating senior in her cap standing in front of a chalk board covered in question marks.

Even setting aside the record-low admission rates at Ivy League schools this year, admission rates have dropped precipitously across the country. This spring, many students and families discovered that schools that could once have been considered relatively safe bets for strong students were no longer sure things. Many colleges rejected astoundingly large numbers of applicants this year, sending shockwaves through schools and communities.

Below, we’ve highlighted some of the colleges and universities in the United States that saw a particularly significant drop in their admission rates. For most of these schools, their record-low acceptance rates in the 2021-2022 application cycle followed multiple years of increasing selectivity, suggesting these trends will likely be lasting.

Changes in Admission Rates at Select Schools

While there were many changes in college admissions this year, we’ve pulled out some of the most surprisingly competitive colleges and universities below. Although the exact admission rates for this cycle have yet to be reported at some of these schools, the data we do have suggests that the following schools have become enormously competitive.

Boston University: For the Class of 2026, BU reported only a 14% admission rate, down from 18% last year, a rate comparable to that of much higher-ranked schools. BU’s rapidly growing popularity is perhaps unsurprising; more and more high school students these days are drawn to the resources, diversity, and national reputation of large, urban universities, and Boston’s reputation as a city with vibrant careers in biotech, computing, and education has increased the popularity of all its universities. Still, it might come as a surprise to local families in particular that BU can no longer be considered a Safety for even highly accomplished students!

New York University: This year, NYU reported an admission rate of 12.2%, down from 15% two years ago. Like BU, NYU draws more and more applications every year as students continue to show preference for large, diverse, research-oriented universities in major cities. Worries that the COVID-19 pandemic would deter students from applying to New York schools have not been borne out; on the contrary, NYU received more than 105,000 applications for first-year admissions for the Class of 2026, a record high in the university’s history.

Tufts University: Two years ago, Tufts had an admission rate of around 15%; this year, it dropped below 10% for the first time, with the university reporting an overall admission rate of 9% for the Class of 2026. That number puts Tufts in the same category as schools like Cornell, Rice, Washington University in St. Louis, and Northwestern, which may surprise those folks who still think of Tufts as a university with only a strong regional reputation. But now, with its strong programs in both the life and social sciences, its centrally-located campus, and growing national presence, Tufts is likely to remain quite selective in first-year admissions.

Tulane University: Anyone who has been following college admissions in recent years has taken note of Tulane’s transition into a highly-regarded, socially-conscious, and enormously popular university. Ten years ago, Tulane had an admission rate of nearly 30%; last year, it was down to less than 10%. Between its strong school spirit, culture of service and change-making, and vibrant location, Tulane seems sure to keep drawing thousands of first-year applications and remain just as selective, if not even more so.

University of California: The recent, massive changes to the nation’s most comprehensive public system of higher education are likely to make all University of California schools increasingly competitive. Amid the Board of Regents’ pressure on these universities to prioritize California students, pushback from local communities on any effort to grow the size of the student bodies, and increasing budgetary constraints, the University of California schools are in no position to become any less selective in the near future, particularly for out-of-state students.

University of Michigan: Finally, one of the biggest surprises of the 2021-2022 application cycle was the steep uptick in rejections, deferrals, and waitlisting from the University of Michigan, particularly for students applying from other states. With nearly 85,000 applications this year, Michigan’s acceptance rate fell to less than 20% for the first time ever. Further, with more and more students of high academic caliber applying to the nation’s top public universities, the University of Michigan can continue to bet on being many students’ first choice, which means they will be able to accept fewer and fewer applicants each year and still fill their classes.

Why Are Admission Rates Falling?

One answer is the same at these schools as it is at the Ivy League: more applications for the same (or fewer) number of spots. Colleges are especially seeing more applicants from certain demographics (such as minority students and first-generation students), and as college admissions gets more and more competitive and as shared application platforms like the Common Application have encouraged students to apply more widely than they otherwise might, individual students are tending to apply to an increasing number of schools, driving up total applications.

Furthermore, more students than ever are applying—and being admitted—under Early Decision plans, a trend that serves to drive down overall admission rates. Consider: if a college is trying to fill 1500 spots, they need to admit more students than that because they can’t count on being everyone’s first choice. But if they can fill half those spots with students who are committed to attending through their binding Early Decision plan, then suddenly they only have to fill 750 spots, which means admitting many fewer students in the Regular Decision round.

The expansion of Early Decision (including both Early Decision I and Early Decision II) plans at both private and public universities in the U.S. is arguably the greatest factor in skewing the admissions landscape towards lower and lower admission rates. Students who are interested in some of these increasingly competitive schools should strongly consider applying Early Decision, as doing so will significantly bolster their chances of admission.

Similarly, college admissions offices are playing ever-more-sophisticated games with yield protection. An element of college rankings and evaluations is their “yield,” that is the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll. Harvard, for instance, normally has a “yield rate” of more than 85%. In an effort to increase their own numbers, other colleges use various tools and strategies to predict which applicants are most likely to attend if admitted—and may prefer those students even if their stats are not as high as another’s.

One way that colleges determine a student’s likelihood of enrolling if admitted is through the interest that the student has demonstrated in the school previously: signing up for their email lists, corresponding with their regional representative, and attending tours and information sessions. But some of their information is beyond a student’s control, such as the percentage of past students from their high school who have matriculated or how many students with similar grades and scores previously ended up enrolling if admitted.

Finally, some of this year’s record-low admission rates also reflect a correction to over-enrollment during the pandemic. Boston University, for instance, took more students for its Class of 2024 and Class of 2025 than it really had space to house, leading to overcrowding in dorms and other spaces on campus. Other colleges did the same. So, on top of these other factors, the available space for the Class of 2026 was even smaller at certain schools than in normal years, making these admission rates particularly slim.

What Does This Mean for You?

Discussing record-low acceptance rates at Ivy League schools has become de rigueur, but it’s important to pay attention to the way those trends are also affecting other selective colleges and universities in the United States. Although the uncertainty and anxiety of the pandemic will fade, and application numbers may begin to recede, new trends around yield protection and Early Decision are unlikely to change in the near—or even distant—future.

Here at Spark Admissions, we’re dedicated not only to tracking this data closely, but also to helping students use it to their advantage. Despite the challenges this year, our acceptance rates at top schools remain significantly higher than the national average. If you want to know how competitive your own profile is for these and other selective colleges, give us a call!

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