College – What’s All of the Hullabaloo?

“Americans are insane,” I say to Greg the other day, “We all flock together for fear of being left behind. What are we so afraid of?”

We’re speaking of the college admission frenzy we’re about to enter with Nick, who is currently a sophomore in high school.

Nick took the PSAT’s at school in the fall and now we’re inundated with college paraphilia being mailed daily. The influx hasn’t stopped over the last 8 or 10 weeks with every college offering ‘free’ information about ‘How to avoid the top 5 horrific mistakes high school students make’ or ‘Don’t destroy your college career before it starts’ or other attention grabbing, fearmongering topics.

Now we’re even getting invitations reading, “Congratulations! We are proud to select you for recognition as a delegate of…”  The letters explain the wonder of the opportunity not to be missed and continue with varying degrees of:

  • The question is, will you ever reach your potential?
  • Will you have the opportunity to play in the big game of life or will you end up frustrated as a follower rather than a leader?

The elitist nature of these invitations has a price as most of these selections include a hefty tuition component. But, not to worry, each delegation has the answer to avoid making the biggest mistakes for a 15 or 16 year old teenager, who at the moment is probably thinking about lunch.

It’s no wonder we’re such an insane and fearful bunch.  There’s so much data and supposed information on getting into college, however, most of its anxiety-feeding, chaos-making and frenzy-creating.

I typically rail against the fear mongers and actively disregard stress-producing trends.

So, I have to ask, what’s the big deal about this college admission business?

How much of it is real?

How much can be attributed to information and selection saturation?

How much is due to colleges trying to rise above the fray and elevate their own importance by falsely increasing their own rankings by artificially creating lower acceptance rates?

I think it’s a combination of all three.

Let’s see. We’re going to get a little ‘mathy’ here, but bear with me.

The reality test:

Actual college enrollment over the years:

Decade Total Enrollment

(M = million)

% Change
1965 6M
1975 11M 89%
1985 12M 10%
1995 14M 16%
2005 17M 23%
2015 20M 16%
2025 projection 23M 15%

The 89% increase in the 60’s and 70’s is interesting, but not pertinent.

Total college enrollment is increasing, but I think the projection of 23M in 2025 is wrong due to the sheer decrease in demographic block size which I will get to later in this analysis.

Now, what about as a share of the total high school population. Is that increasing as well?

‘Decade’ Span Male Female Average
1980 47% 52% 49%
1990 58% 62% 60%
2000 60% 66% 63%
2005 67% 70% 68%
2010 63% 74% 68%
2015 64% 73% 68%

Yes, college enrollment as a percentage has increased from approximately 50% in 1980 to close to 70% now. That’s an increase of 20%.

What of the trends in college aged students in the US? Have these changed over the years and if so, is this pertinent?

Age Males (M) Females (M) Total (M)
12 – 17 12.8 12.2 25
18 – 24 16 15.2 31.2
25 – 34 22.3 21.8 44.1

Yes, in fact. The total numbers factoring with the percentages change dramatically. They decrease a lot.

Age Ranges Total (M) %age enrollment Adjusted Total (M)
12 – 17 25 68% 17
18 – 24 31.2 68% 21
25 – 34 44.1 68% 30



There will be 43% of the students seeking to enroll in colleges over the next few years compared to the early 2000’s.  This is encouraging.

Almost ½ of the competition to get into schools has been removed by demographics. Basically, sheer luck for those looking to get into college in the next few years.

What about acceptance rates? How have those changed in recent years?

Over the last ten years, public colleges have accepted 66% down from 70% and private institutions have accepted 63% also down from 70%. So, acceptance rates have fallen, but not to the extent being heralded by the schools shouting for admission.

So, getting into college now should be markedly easier than a decade ago.

What about saturation?

Okay, saturation is still an issue. College applications have increased 5-fold due to two main factors:

  • Common Application
  • Fear

Colleges applied to for each student have increased from an average of 3 – 5 back in our day to close to 20 now. There have even been outliers of 70+ with 86 being the highest on record!

Note: The average number of applications advised is 5 – 8 if your student is doing extensive leg work on school selection by targeting schools based on the best fit. The most common range advised by college boards is 12 – 15 for those students doing basic leg work, targeting schools for fit, but including a handful of ‘reach’ schools.

For saturation, let’s do the math.

In 2015, 20M people enrolled in college and let’s assume an average of 65% acceptance rate, totaling 30.7M applicants. Multiplying this total by 20 applications per prospective student, college admission officers have to comb through 615M applications!

In response, colleges are getting more savvy about vetting prospective students. They are fettering out those who apply without doing any research. They are comparing the applications with the college search activities of the student. Did he or she attend an information session? Visit the college? Reach out to anyone involved in the college selection process?  They compare this to the qualifications of the candidate. Is he or she vastly over qualified? If so, the application is ‘set aside’ if and until the college wants to further vet this candidate.

College Ranking Calculations:

Colleges historically received higher rankings due to acceptance rates as an inverted relationship; the lower the acceptance rate, the higher the ranking.

However, due to the historic trends of increasingly lower acceptance rates, this figure is now combined with many more rates including enrollment and retention.  If students are applying to schools, but are either not enrolling or not staying, this lowers the schools ranking.

However, public high school funding is partially based on college enrollment right after high school, so many schools are pushing their students to go to college, even when this is not the best fit for the student.  This trend will not reverse anytime soon.

So, colleges will still seek to inflate their rankings by increasing their admission pool. This is good to know when inundated with college paraphilia.

Going further, looking at graduation and post-college employment rates is telling.

For students starting college in 2007, only 56% of students earn degrees in 6 years. So, not 4 years, but 6 and only little over ½. I figure a large portion of this is due to cost, but I couldn’t find data to quantify this assumption.

In 2012, 44% of college graduates are working in jobs not requiring a college degree. Again, almost ½!

These figures are staggering.

So, for my initial question:

What’s all of the hullabaloo? How much of this college fear is real?

With total college age kids down 43%, not much apparently.

With only 56% graduating within 6 years, perhaps we should be doing a better job of aligning the kids with colleges.

For the Woods’ family, we’re going to ignore, to the best of our abilities, the stress of getting into college.

We’re going to have fun.

We’re going to treat this as an adventure.

We’re going to explore the best scenario for Nick based on him.

We’ll take Nick to check out campuses this spring to get a feel for what he wants in a campus. Does he want the city, suburbs or rural? Does he want large or small? Does he want traditional or quirky?  How does he want to live? What types of kids does he want to meet and hang out with? What region of the country interests him?

Then, we’ll look at colleges based on him. Who he is. Who he wants to become. How he wants to grow as a person. How he can enjoy his experience and journey for the next handful of years.

Because, isn’t that what life is about?

Becoming the best version of ourselves while still having a good time.

So, here we go – the college season is upon us.

For me, I’m going to try and enjoy it.

Wish me luck!


As always, wishing you joy,





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