Every year at this time, headlines reveal once again what everyone already knows: America’s top institutions are selective—very. Harvard took a record-low 4.5 percent of the applicants to its 2023 class. Yale accepted 5.9 percent, the same as the University of Chicago.
These numbers—albeit wild—are outliers, representing an almost-negligible slice of the United States’ higher-education ecosystem. Approximately 10.8 million undergraduates were enrolled in the country’s more than 2,500 four-year universities in the fall of 2017, according to an Atlantic analysis of raw figures from the Education Department’s data center.
The majority of students—more than 80 percent—attend schools, such as Texas A&M, Rutgers, and Simmons University, that accept more than half their applicants. In 2017, our analysis shows, roughly 3 percent of the country’s bachelor’s-degree candidates were enrolled at a four-year university that accepts fewer than a quarter of undergraduate applicants; only 0.8 percent of undergraduates were attending one of the handful of universities that accept fewer than one in 10 applicants.
Most schools are not these highly selective institutions, and the application process for millions of students is not the stress-inducing nightmare that gets so much public attention. Excluded from the narrative are the thousands of four-year colleges that serve millions of undergraduates, including many historically black colleges and universities—not to mention the 1,000-plus community colleges.