A huge "echo boom" of high schoolers is pushing college acceptance rates at top-tier schools to record low levels.

Richard Martin, Contributor

April 4, 2008

2 Min Read

A lot of science fair winners are feeling blue this week after hearing that they've been denied entrance into geek heaven: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT accepted 1,554 new students for the class of 2012 from a pool of 13,396 applicants, a record-low 11.6% acceptance rate.

Like other elite colleges, MIT is seeing record numbers of applicants and a rising level of excellence among those applying. Harvard accepted just 7.1% of applicants -- "it rejected 93 of every 100 applicants," The New York Times noted -- and Yale took only 8.3%. Both were records.

A huge "echo boom" of high schoolers is pushing college-application rates, to midtier schools as well as the Ivies, to record levels across the country. Other factors affecting the admissions frenzy this year are decisions by top schools, including Harvard and Princeton, to abandon "early admissions" programs -- in which a few highly qualified seniors are notified early they've gotten in, in exchange for a commitment to attend that school -- and to eliminate tuition for many middle-class families. The "changes in the admissions landscape" are dramatic, Stuart Schmill, MIT's interim director of admissions, told The Tech, the Cambridge, Mass., school's campus newspaper.

MIT, which still grants early admissions, offered it to 2% more seniors this year, meaning that the school accepted a higher proportion of early applicants to regular ones than previously, according to Schmill.

The school says it saw a 22% increase in "academic star applicants" -- award-winning and particularly distinguished students -- in 2007. "More students stand out" these days, remarked Schmill. Especially hard hit were women: While the number of female students applying to MIT increased by 12%, the percentage of admitted girls remained at 48%.

The issue of women in math and science has been hotly debated the last few years, since then-Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers provoked academic outrage in 2005 by suggesting in a speech that the "gender gap" in the field could indicate "innate differences" between men and women. Summers later resigned.

The increased competition for undergraduate slots at MIT comes at a time when fewer Americans are earning graduate degrees from the top math and science programs in the United States. MIT says that 35% of its students come from overseas, and many of the foreigners speak languages not taught at the school.

If the United States fails to invest in technology education and train top engineers and scientists, it risks falling behind other countries in innovation and prosperity, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates told Congress last month. Gates was testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Science and Technology.

The number of U.S. high schoolers applying to college is expected to peak this year or next, which should help bring down the number of rejected students -- if not the level of anxiety surrounding the process.

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