WC’s sudden jump in acceptance rate has no bearing on quality of education

By Megan Loock

Elm Staff Writer

When I was a junior in high school, I paid attention to the college acceptance rates of every school I applied to. I was under the impression that this percentage point mattered. If I got into a school with an acceptance rate that was below fifty percent — which indicated to my very oblivious high school brain that the institution was very “competitive” and “prestigious”— I would be successful. 

But the truth is, college acceptance rates do not matter when it comes to educational quality — it’s nothing but a frugal number for public records. They do not determine, nor do they guarantee, success at one’s chosen institution. 

“I think acceptance rates have the potential to indicate or imply competitiveness of programs or perceived marketability of education from a particular institution, but I think there are other factors which more heavily impact student success and the desirability of different institutions,” senior George’s General Elizabeth Lilly said. 

In 2018, Washington College’s acceptance rate was 48%, according to Forbes.  

As of 2020, it is 92% — a 44-point increase since 2018 — according to US News.

“Our job is not to get out there and get as many app[lication]s as we can get so we can deny as many as we can,” WC Vice President of Enrollment Management Dr. Lorna Hunter said. “We do holistic reviews of applications.” 

WC has always tried to market its unique holistic approach to students — they focus their marketing on what they can offer potential students to support their academic and personal growth. For example, programs like those given by the Starr Center for the American Experience help students expand their academic and career interests beyond the confines of the classroom through access to mentorships, internships, and school funding. 

One of the policies that makes this holistic application process possible is the test-optional policy, allowing students to choose whether to disclose their SAT and ACT scores to the school. 

This was a relief to many incoming freshmen last year when the COVID-19 pandemic and its new virtual world made it impossible for students to take tests, according to Hunter.

“We waived many students in the midst of COVID[-19] because they could not provide those things and it ended up making our acceptance rate blow through the roof,” Hunter said.

WC does a very good job of marketing the eclectic campus experience; whether it be academic or club-related, WC is very niche-specific. From marketing its small class sizes to its unique club and job experiences, WC’s main mission is to shape the liberal arts college experience into a desirable one.

“As a George’s General, I tend to speak very highly of the value of a liberal arts education and the breadth of academic and extracurricular opportunities,” Lilly said.

With all this in mind, what cannot be ignored is how our acceptance rate correlates with the current financial stress WC is under. I was admitted into WC when the school was still considered “selective,” and I was genuinely terrified I wasn’t going to get in.  

“We have taken a couple of hard hits,” Hunter said. “We had a once-in-a-century pandemic. We’ve been here for over 200 years and this is not the first hard-hit rate we’ve ever had. We’ve made it through wars. We’ve made it through Freedom Riders, we’ve made it through a lot of things, and we’ll make it through this.”

“In conversations with prospective students and their families, I often reference my own experiences with interdisciplinary focus and the stellar faculty we have at WC. I truly believe the quality of education at WC is incredibly competitive as compared to other institutions, even considering larger or more popular state schools,” Lilly said. 

It would be doing WC a disservice to base its entire value on an abnormally high acceptance rate in the middle of a pandemic. By placing such a high stake on a singular number, we are devaluing the real purpose of higher education. Just because WC’s acceptance rate is a little high does not mean the school isn’t producing well-rounded graduates for the job market to recognize and reward.

Featured Photo caption: Some WC students are worried that WC’s abrupt jump in acceptance rate will make them less competitive in the current job market. Photo by Ben Wang.

2 thoughts on “WC’s sudden jump in acceptance rate has no bearing on quality of education

  1. Based on this article, I am still not clear what exactly why the acceptance rate jumped so much. My 3 children were accepted in 2018 when it was 48% and, quite frankly, had it been 92%, we would have likely gone elsewhere. We are extremely pleased with the quality of the education and the WC experience; however, the first thing anyone looks at to assess the quality of a school is the acceptance rate and I would really like to better understand what caused the jump.

    1. Hi, Michael.

      A major reason that the acceptance rate increased so drastically is because of the decrease in applicants due to both an overall downward trend in applications at WC and the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused a national downward trend in college applications due to online learning and economic hurt. While freshman applications peaked in 2016 at 6,720 (3,295 people were accepted with a 49% acceptance rate), WC’s overall application pool has decreased annually, but accepted applicants have not necessarily decreased. 2017-2018 saw 4,473 students apply with 2,626 being accepted. 2018-2019 saw 3,637 applications with 1,745 accepted. And finally, 2019-2020 saw 2,225 applications with 2,047 accepted. Because the number of accepted students is not drastically changing annually, the severe drop in total applicants inflates the acceptance rate.

      But it is argued that does not mean that the overall cohort is less competitive than years past. At least academically, there’s no major downward trend in applicants’ SAT scores or GPAs across the years. 2016-2017 had a mean SAT score of 1155 (684 in English ad 571 in Math) and a mean GPA of 3.63. 2017 had the students on average falling into the 600-699 range in English and the 500-599 range in Math; mean GPA was 3.65. 2018 had a mean SAT English score falling in the 600-699 range, and a Math score falling in the 500-599 range again; GPA was 3.63. Finally, 2019 had a mean in English of 560-660, mean in Math of 530-640; GPA was 3.61.

      So, the acceptance rate is not necessarily signaling that the newest cohorts have fewer academic achievements than the former, but that fewer students applied and, of those applicants, more fell within the College’s accepted ranges.

      I hope this was a helpful break down, and please find source documents below.

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