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Understanding Admit Rates: A Case Study

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Hi, friends! I'm going to jump right in with some fresh data for you to view:

Take a look at the 2-yr admit rate changes at the most selective colleges in the US. Each line in the visualization below represents an institution which admitted fewer than 20% of its applicants for Fall 2021. (It's an interactive viz, so click around on it. Or, if you prefer numbers to multicolored lines, click at the bottom to view the data.)

Now, consider two points:

1) Application growth was beginning to soften with the high school class of 2020. You can see the slight bump the middle of the chart which illustrates the beginning of a trend reversal. Remember, even though Covid ultimately impacted a lot of students' plans, it could not have affected admit rates significantly; apps to these schools were submitted well before the shutdown.

To underscore a dynamic I addressed awhile back: it used to be an efficient marketplace, and a pandemic should have popped the bubble.

Uh, no. Things went the other way, and quickly. The Common Application announced recently that applications are up about 40% for current seniors compared to the same date during the last normal(ish) admissions cycle of 2019-2020. Guess what that means for admit rates. They will plummet even further. Ah, the idyllic days when we did not have to use decimals to quantify admissibility.

That brings me to the second point, as well as a case study to illustrate it.

2) Admit rates have lost significant value as proxies for the level of academic merit required for admission to a particular institution.

Case study: Northeastern University (Overall 2021 admit rate: 18%)

We now live in a world where 73,000 students applied Regular Decision to Northeastern for the Fall of 2021, with only about 3500 of them enrolling in the class. Families who read stats like this understandably think that Northeastern is out of reach for all but the highest-performing students.

Again, a head shake. No.

Remember: the job of the admissions office is not to admit the most deserving students; it is to enroll the next class. Leveraging the power of predictive analytics, enrollment managers know which applicants are most likely to enroll...and which will pay a premium.

A glance at our dataset tells us a few things about Northeastern which allow us to understand better what it takes to be admitted.


  • The total cost of attendance in 2021-2022 was $78,202.

  • Less than half of the enrolled students applied for financial aid, and only 32% qualified for it.

  • The portion of first-year students reporting incomes less than $110K annually was 12%.

  • 40% of the students paid full price. The others who did not demonstrate financial need received scholarships averaging about $15K, thus bringing their average net price down to the low $60Ks.


  • The Early Decision admit rate was 51%; RD rate was 17%, of which 27% enrolled. (The portion of admitted students who choose to enroll is called the yield.)

  • 3% of applicants applied Early Decision. 23% of the class was filled by them.

  • 76% of students were from the top tenth of their high school class. 95% were from the top quarter.

  • The mid-50th percentile SAT range was 1410-1540, and the mid-50th ACT range was 33-35. Those are strong numbers until you realize that only 28% of applicants submitted SATs, and only 15% submitted ACTs.

Admission to Northeastern does not require perfect grades or awesome scores. Certainly, one needs to be a solid student. But they also must stand out as a student with a genuine interest in attending Northeastern. Bonus points if they are willing and able to pay $80K a year.

Message to Evelyn Jerome-Alexander (Magellan College Counseling) and Eric Rath (Rath Education Group): Thanks for the question about admit rates! We'll have to compare our respective interpretations of the info next time we chat!

Until the next viz...


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