Do acceptance rates really matter?Last week Duke accepted a record low 9 percent of regular decision applicants for the class of 2018. The overall acceptance rate, which includes early decision applicants, was 10.8 percent. While the overall acceptance rate is relatively low, Duke’s emphasis on the sub-ten percent regular decision rate reflects a stubborn obsession with selectivity. Traditionally, low acceptance rates have been a signature of selective and prestigious universities. But in the hypercompetitive world of college rankings, one begins to suspect that there is more to admissions numbers than meets the eye.
Low acceptance rates have become a hallmark of great colleges, often signaling the quality of education promised to prospective students. Common sense might dictate that a large applicant pool signifies a more competitive group of admitted students and, therefore, a better university. But, in reality, admissions statistics are largely a metric for calculating the reputation of a university and do not necessarily reflect the quality of the education provided.
Compare a college that accepts 50 percent of its applicants with a college that accepts 10 percent of applicants. It is likely that this large gap in acceptance rates denotes a difference in the quality of education at the different colleges. But now compare a school with a ten percent acceptance with a school with an eight percent acceptance rate. Is the education at the latter university significantly better than at the former? The likely answer is “no.” Instead of indicating quality, admission numbers merely reflect a school’s reputation and its ability to attract a large pool of applicants. We find it troubling that high school seniors might consider one school to be better than another simply because it boasts a marginally lower acceptance rate.
We would also like to note that acceptance rates do not focus on outputs. Why do we place more emphasis on acceptance rates—which denote not the quality but the selectivity of the school—than on what students do during and after their time at Duke? Part of the reason is that it is very difficult to measure the success of graduates. Using a metric like salary would be questionable because it discounts many fields that begin with low salaries or no salary at all, which is the case for many graduate students. Many people believe, however, that attending an institution with a low acceptance rate acts a screening process for the best post-college jobs. Many students think that, as long as their resume indicates that they attended a prestigious institution, they have demonstrated their professional competency. The focus has shifted to emphasize not what you do at college, but where you go to college.
Lastly, we wonder what effect these numbers will have on Duke’s students, especially incoming first-years. We worry that overemphasizing Duke’s acceptance rate will convince students that they have already “made it.” Paying too much attention to selectivity and prestige might encourage incoming students to treat college as a reward rather than as an opportunity to learn and grow. But, as we have written before, an education at Duke is only the beginning of a life of knowledge in the service to society.