Ivy League Freshman Class Size

The Ivy League has always been hard to get into. But over time, it’s become astronomically more competitive. In fact, according to our estimates, the Ivy League has a combined average acceptance rate that hovers around 5 percent.

The Ivy League, a History

Back in the day, Ivies were a place for accomplished rich white men to form powerful networks. While they were still competitive, their acceptances were far higher than the single-digit numbers that make headlines today. In the 1960s, the Ivies began admitting women across the board. Around the same time, affirmative action was introduced. Down the line, more and more jobs began requiring college degrees and the population grew with nearly every generation.

While Ivies largely facilitate the same function for wealthy white men today (one third of Harvard’s most recent admitted class comes from homes with a combined income of $500,000 or more and 46 percent are white), more and more people are applying to college. In an increasingly globalized world, Ivies have also become a popular destination for international students.

But the real kicker was not the inclusion of students who should have been invited to attend these universities long ago, but rather, a shift in the way marketing is done. Colleges are businesses and over the years they have come to demand exorbitantly high tuitions that, in part, go toward increased marketing budgets. The marketing teams at these schools artificially stimulate competition by targeting more and more students who will never get in. If 10,000 more people apply each year, a school’s acceptance rate will go down, making them look more competitive in publications such as U.S. News & World Report. But in order for the formula to work, the number of applicants must grow at a greater rate than the number of acceptances each year. This phenomenon is not specific to the Ivy League. The trend is consistent with most major universities across the country, causing students to be exposed to more schools, and thus apply to more across the board. But, as we just mentioned, while marketing budgets and applicant pools have ballooned, class sizes have failed to keep pace.  

The History of Class Sizes

At the turn of the 20th century, Harvard introduced the College Entrance Examination Boards. If you were academically-inclined, you probably passed. Because of this, around that time, according to a New Yorker article written by Malcolm Gladwell, Jewish admittance spiked at several Ivies. In an effort to limit their acceptance, information about personality and background came into the fray. They made students submit essays and resumes, and also and a mandatory disclosure for high schoolers whose parents changed their names, say to something Anglican from something Jewish-sounding.

So, for largely bigoted purposes, Ivies tamped down admissions instead of opening their doors to the increased number of students who were applying. Still today, class sizes fail to reflect the volume of applications. And it only helps a university’s bottom line.  

Harvard, a Case Study  

Often hailed as the nation’s top university, Harvard is a prime of example of the disproportionate growth between applicants and class sizes within the Ivy League.

In 2017, Harvard received 39,506 applications. That same year they accepted just 2,056 applicants.

Between 2008 and 2010, the applicant pool shot up from 19,750 to 30,000. All the while, the number of admitted students between those two years stayed relatively the same (1,948 in 2008 to 2,110 in 2010). In 2007, citing, in-part, disadvantages for low-income students, Harvard got rid of its early action option, only to bring it back in 2011.  The next few years marked a steady trend in applications, hovering above 34,000.  In 2013, Harvard saw a rare, small decrease in applicants. The next year, applications grew by over 3,000, but interestingly, the number of admitted students (1,990) dropped.  While the applicant pool has grown and grown, the number of accepted students remains around 2,000 each year.

Actually, to make matters a little bit more disturbing, in 2018, 42,749 people applied and only 1,962 got in.  

Other Factors

The thing to note is that the number of accepted students isn’t really representative of your chances as the standard applicant. Within those approximately 2,000 spots (1,962 in 2018) there are numerous seats that will already be filled before you even apply. There are some spots reserved for athletes, some for legacies, and of course, many for students who apply early action.   

Closing Arguments

Schools like Harvard have no incentive to expand their class sizes. They please boards by remaining in the upper echelons of competition and they even generate some revenue with application fees. Acceptance rates are only going to continue to fall. While this is ultimately a discouraging story, it’s one we feel you should know about before considering the Ivy League. Basically, high schoolers applying to almost any university in the country must be uber-human to make it in, presenting the perfect package of scores, grades, extra-curriculars, and essays. It’s not impossible, but it is a challenge.


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