Getting into Virginia's best colleges getting more difficult
RICHMOND—Miklos Fridrich, a high school senior is Chesterfield County, has applied to 13 colleges. That might sound like a lot, but he knows classmates who have applied to 20.
The more colleges he applies to, he figures, the better chance he’ll have of being accepted to a quality school.
It’s become more difficult to get into the state’s best colleges, making it harder for high school students to know where they will be accepted and where they’ll be rejected.
“The target is moving every year,” said Jim Jump, a counselor at St. Christopher’s School.
For the past three years, the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary and Virginia Tech have been flooded with thousands more applications, causing their admission rates to go down.
Colleges are reviewing this year’s batch of applications, and most students will hear back by April 1.
At UVa, the number of applications received has almost doubled in 10 years. The university received 57,000 applications this year—an all-time high.
If UVa extends the same number of offers as last year, it will have an admission rate of 17%. Ten years ago, UVa accepted almost 30% of applicants.
No college in the state has transformed like Virginia Tech. A decade ago, it received 21,000 applications and accepted 73% of them.
This year, it took in 47,000 applications and it had an acceptance rate of 57% last year.
At William & Mary, applications rose from 14,000 to 18,000 in two years. The school anticipates accepting between 30 and 33% of applicants, said Suzanne Clavet, a spokesperson for the university.
While William & Mary’s acceptance rate is down compared with recent years, it’s about equal to where it was a decade ago, the result of growth in enrollment and fewer students accepting the college’s offer.
The three colleges charge in-state students between $27,000 and $37,000 a year for tuition, fees, room and board. While UVa and William & Mary are the two most expensive public schools in the state, they are significantly cheaper than the nation’s elite private schools.
Private colleges in Virginia such as Washington and Lee University and the University of Richmond have low acceptance rates, too.
Brand recognition matters
There are a number of reasons why applications are up. These schools stopped requiring standardized test scores, encouraging students who wouldn’t normally apply for an elite school to throw their hats in the ring.
Virginia Tech has worked to simplify its application process by streamlining how student send transcripts. It now allows students to apply using the Common App.
Another factor is the brand recognition these colleges carry.
“A lot of it is still brand,” said Tod Massa, policy analytics director at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. “These are the top-brand schools. Everyone knows who they are.”
As admission rates go down, the academic standards necessary for acceptance goes up, Jump said. It’s not a dramatic increase, but the bar seems to be raised every year.
Such constantly changing requirements make it harder for counselors like Jump and students like Fridrich to predict where they’ll be accepted. Rejection can mess with a kid’s confidence, Fridrich said.
Increased interest isn’t limited to Virginia’s top colleges. What Jump calls the “ESPN schools” — large Southern public universities such as the University of Georgia, the University of South Carolina and the University of Tennessee — have seen their application numbers skyrocket.
Those schools have increasingly recruited Virginia students, who are relatively wealthier than graduates of other states and bring more revenue than in-state students. High school grads in Virginia are increasingly more likely to choose an ESPN school, according to state data.
Colleges continue recruiting and searching for more applicants even when they don’t need more applicants, Jump said. A college’s U.S. News & World Report ranking and its bond rating are affected by the number of applications they receive and their admission rates.
These three schools “aspire to be nationally known universities,” Jump added. “Part of the way you do that is by being selective.”
Some argue that elite colleges should increase their capacity to keep up with demand. Virginia, William & Mary and Virginia Tech have grown in recent years. But growth requires years of planning and additional resources.
Colleges don’t target particular admission rates
Virginia, William & Mary and Virginia Tech don’t aspire to particular admission rates, spokespeople for the colleges said. They focus on attracting the most talented students they can, and they consider the percentage of applicants who accepted the school’s offer last year, known as its “yield.”
Colleges also must strike the right number of in-state and out-of-state students, and they consider the number of open seats in each department or major.
“It is increasingly tough to predict from year to year,” said Brian Coy, a spokesperson for UVa.
While certain colleges can be difficult to gain admission, getting into a four-year college in Virginia isn’t hard.
“We have a place for every Virginia student that wants to go to college in Virginia,” Massa said.
At most colleges in Virginia, admission rates are going up. James Madison University accepted 86% of applicants in 2021, according to the most recent year available. Virginia Commonwealth University accepted 92%.
Altogether, the number of college students in the state has declined in the past decade as costs have continued to increase. This has created a divergence in Virginia colleges, in which some are booming, and others are fighting over a shrinking pool of applicants.
Higher admission rates do not indicate that colleges are accepting substandard students, Massa said. Fewer students are dropping out from Virginia colleges, and a higher percentage are graduating. The way Massa sees it, colleges are working harder to find students and working harder to keep them. That’s a good thing.
“That level of engagement serves students well,” Massa said.
VCU doesn’t shy away from its admission rate. It embraces its goal of serving low-income and first-generation students. Its board of visitors has discussed modeling itself off Arizona State University, which accepts every student who meets a certain academic threshold.
Admission to an elite college isn’t a prerequisite for earning a high-paying job, either. According to earnings data, a student’s major is a far greater determinant of income level than a student’s college.
Jump tells his students their college experience is more important than the reputation of their college.
“There are lots and lots of good places,” he said. “It’s a mistake to set your heart on ‘I have to go here or I’ll be a failure.’ “
Of the 13 schools to which Fridrich applied, he’s gained acceptance to three and is waiting to hear from the rest. He knows the college he chooses won’t define who he is, but he still worries about which schools will accept him.
“It’s not a logical thing,” Fridrich said.