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The incredible shrinking freshman class

Every year, Springtime is signaled by the warming temperatures, looming threat of finals and delivery of much-awaited offers from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to anxious high school seniors across the world to join the incoming Duke freshman class. And as with each Spring prior, the percentage of those that receive such offers has continued to fall. This year, of a regular decision pool of almost 33,000 applicants, only 2,123 of them—6.4 percent—were accepted. Together with the 875 of those who were accepted in the early decision round, Duke’s Class of 2022 acquired an overall acceptance rate of 8.3 percent—the lowest in University history. 

In an era obsessed with quantifiable validation, this annual increase in selectivity is often boasted by administrators and students alike as a testament to their own merit and superiority. Especially in the realm of elite universities, a low acceptance rate is often paraded as the end-all to be-all for prestige, quality and desirability of an institution, as evident by social media posts and online college admissions forums. As students who are often fixated on the validation of our own elitism by the nature of us attending such an institution, we are undoubtedly complicit in perpetuating this standard. 

The yearly increase of Duke’s selectivity is a carefully crafted process, characterized by intentional steps to artifically make the home of the Blue Devils evermore enticing. In recent years, this has been accomplished in part by an uptick in the percentage of an incoming class taken from the early decision pool of applicants. This undertaking, which binds an applicant to attend once admitted, allows universities to accept less from the regular decision pool, leading to lower acceptance rates that make the institution more desirable. Other methods practiced by Duke and other elite institutions include over-marketing themselves to the point that even students who are highly unlikely to gain admission still excitedly apply. Naturally, forgone in this game of numbers and status is any focus on the outcomes and experiences a specific college education can provide. This myopic obsession with selectivity has thus effectively tilted the conversation around college admissions from one centered around the four-year educational journey into one dominated by imprecise measurements and arbitrary rankings. 

Yet, it’s equally important to note that the ethos behind these unseemly tactics are not a recent phenomena. Higher education is fundamentally based upon principles of artificial gatekeeping and exclusion. It is an undeniable truth that a Duke degree is valuable in part because of the swaths of people who could never get access to it. The mechanisms of control and debarment wielded by institutions like Duke help maintain education as an expensive commodity, subsequently keeping it only attainable by certain wealthy and powerful classes.

However, regardless of how unethical these practices may seem, there’s unfortunately not much about admissions processes that can change quickly. Private institutions are bound by the arbitrariness of the market so much so that there are aspects of selectivity that Duke —with its status as an elite institution—must play into. Furthermore, these suspended beliefs regarding selectivity and prestige are very much ingrained within the image and culture of Duke; it is constant thread that winds itself in most of Duke’s institutional problems. However, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions can still take small steps—such as bringing transparency within the admissions process and putting less emphasis on the early decision process—to help lessen this arbitrary standard and ensure that the admissions process is as equitable as possible.


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