By Winston Shi
I don’t even know how people get into Stanford anymore.
This is an honest sentiment. And it’s very common. So the first thing people told us during freshmen orientation was that we were not mistakes: that we had been admitted to this exclusive club because we deserved to be there. It was very self-affirming. I enjoyed it. It made me feel good.
And yet that answer, while true, doesn’t tell the whole truth. We got into Stanford because we deserved to be there? Sure, I won’t disagree with that. I see people do great things constantly. You know all the stories of success; most true, a few perhaps contrived.
The fact of the matter is: we deserved to get in here, but most people who got rejected did too.
Is it a little silly to think of Stanford in terms of numbers? We’re not a data set. And yet here’s a few important numbers for you to consider: The incoming freshmen of the 2013-4 year had a 25-75 percentile spread on the SAT of 2070-2350. But in the 2006-7 school year – the year after the SAT added the writing section – the spread was 2000-2300. And this increase has been fairly recent: Only five years ago the spread was still 2010-2300.
What do these numbers tell you? We can say that our admitted students are performing better on standardized tests, and though many criticisms of the SAT are justified, the test is still better than no test at all. For those of you who believe that we students deserve to be here, these numbers should make you feel a lot better. The idea of “deserving” is nebulous, and justifiably so, but if our test scores are trending up, at the very least it looks like we are changing the definition of what “deserving” means.
But why is this happening? Let’s look at that change in a different way. As we’ve all heard, admissions rates are consistently declining. The graduating class of 2014 had an admission rate of 7.2 percent. Since then the rates have been 7.1, 6.6, 5.7 and now 5.07. That last figure is the lowest in the country.
These are all small percentages, of course. But an admission rate of 7.2 percent translates to one out of 14. 5.07 percent means one out of 20. Just by going back to the class of 2016, in two years the selectivity of Stanford has increased by a third. Over the last five years it’s increased by 50 percent.
Theoretically, we could simply be attracting better applicants. But while our students are improving on standardized tests, we’re already attracting smart people; our declining admission rates are primarily due to an ever-expanding applicant pool, not the improved reputation of the University itself. Over the same timeframe of the listed admit rates, Stanford’s applicant pool was approximately 32,000, 34,000, 37,000, 39,000 and now 42,000. At the same time, we know that the vast majority of applicants are qualified to attend Stanford, or any of its peers for that matter. (Harvard quotes its own figure at 80 percent, for example.) College admissions have always been a buyer’s market, and recent trends show that this tendency is only increasing.
These results present to us an oxymoron. The first point is that if you can pick from a bigger pool you’ll get higher scores and – theoretically – more qualified admits. The second is that a lot of people who Stanford would have considered perfectly good candidates in the past are now being rejected. The admissions pool is not being inflated by long shots who add Stanford on the Common Application for the hell of it. The pool is good and it’s getting better. We’re still rejecting valedictorians and team captains and future presidents and Nobel laureates. We’re simply rejecting more of them.
Stanford’s rapidly increasing applicant pools are not an isolated experience: they represent larger trends in college admissions. More people are applying to Stanford than ever before, and while it’s tempting to say that these applicants are drawn to Stanford by the increased visibility of the University – for example, Stanford has an elite football team while the Ivy League schools don’t – that thesis is simply not true. Admissions rates have been declining across the board. And asking whether Stanford has anything to distinguish itself from its peers raises the question of whether Stanford has anything to distinguish itself at all.
Criticisms of college generally fall into two categories. The first – that of people like Malcolm Gladwell – is that a top-flight education doesn’t really help: that a person who is admitted to both Penn State and UPenn will do just as well in life if he attends either school. The second – which is more of a corollary than a separate critique – is that of Peter Thiel, who famously contended (on Stanford’s campus, no less) that the only actual selling point of Stanford and its peers is their exclusivity. And it naturally follows that if the basic underlying premise of university exclusivity – that schools like Stanford make the exclusive different from the excluded – is false, then the exclusivity of schools like Stanford is bound to collapse.
So the question is: What is the point of Stanford?
I won’t try to defend Stanford in terms of its actual education right now. To be clear, I firmly believe that the opportunities Stanford has given me are difficult if not impossible to replicate. I love this University, and if I had the chance to do it all over again, I would attend Stanford all the same. But I don’t have any firsthand experience of the educational opportunities available at other schools. I can’t defend my belief as rigorously as I would like.
But we can see that the expanding applicant pools at schools like Stanford belie the growing national and international stature of these schools. Improving transportation, communication and financial aid resources at Stanford and its peers are slowly eroding the regional nature of higher education, in the same way that a few colleges are creating a national consensus on what school is the “best.”
This is not to say that undergraduate admissions are completely national: While admit yield (the percentage of admitted students who eventually matriculate at the school) is normally dominated by the national institutions you would expect, a list of high-yield schools still features many flagship state universities, such as Alaska-Fairbanks and Nebraska. But despite the continued prominence of regional schools, the portability of a Stanford degree is more apparent than ever.
Does portability transcend utility? I would like to think so: Moreover, I would like to think that a Stanford degree will open any door and get me any job, as silly as that sounds. But a constantly looming sense of uncertainty seems to hang over every student in the humanities, and many students in the less marketable STEM fields too. As a humanities student myself, I think that feeling’s mostly angst. But if it’s angst, it’s angst that the rest of the country feels as well.
Universities are improving their advertising and infrastructure in attempts to market themselves to a student body that is theoretically more and more choosy. Stanford is constantly renovating; Harvard is pouring a small fortune into effectively rebuilding its aging Houses; Yale’s undergraduate colleges are undergoing similarly necessary upgrades; Chicago’s marketing efforts are a story in and of themselves. As students, we are constantly tempted to tell ourselves that we are special and, unlike all others, deserve to be here – and every dollar spent in the arms race between great colleges seemingly reaffirms that sentiment.
Universities have excellent reasons to care more and more about marketing; consider cross-admit yields and the graduate student community, each of which deserves an essay all to itself. But these distant struggles are mostly unseen by us undergraduates, and they do not reflect what happens in our daily lives. As soon as we step onto this campus as students of this University, what affects our lives is not the admissions office but the world that that office opened to us.
What we inevitably see in our own personal experiences here is not affirmation of our status at Stanford so much as a lesson that we are lucky to be here – moreover, a reminder that we need the University more than it needs us. We deserved to get in here, and most people who got rejected did too. But the flip side of that truth is that Stanford could toss out its first batch of admits, pick a new group, toss that one out as well, repeat the process four or five times, and still be the great university that it is today.
What is left to us, then, is to take advantage of what we have been so utterly fortunate to gain. My congratulations to the Class of 2018: There’s a big world within Campus Drive, and now it’s your privilege to be here.
Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 “at” stanford.edu.