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Acceptance Rates Tell Us Nothing

Amid the headlines of Cornell’s record low acceptance rate this year, it is easy to forget a much more important issue: Whether or not the quality of the student body will increase.

Acceptance rates provide a limited amount of information because they neglect to consider who is being accepted and rejected. If a school sees a 10 percent increase in applications, but the additional applicants all fall at the bottom of the applicant pool and are outright rejected, has a school increased its selectivity? No.

Therefore, it may be of concern that the Cornell student body doesn’t seem to have gotten any brighter over the last three years—even as the acceptance rate dropped precipitously. In fact, if the table below (amassed from statistics here, here, and here) is any indication, the quality of Cornell’s entering class has stagnated, if not declined somewhat over the last three years.

Over the last three years, the percent of entering students with SAT scores above 650 on either Math or Verbal tests has actually declined.

Percent of entering class with SAT scores greater than 650
Class of 2008 69 83
Class of 2009 67 82
Class of 2010 66 81

Admittedly, I would be the first to point out that SAT scores aren’t the best measure of student quality, and that a simple threshold doesn’t really tell us much about the distribution of students. Maybe there are a bunch of absolutely brilliant poets being accepted with lousy math skills, or maybe prodigious engineering students are increasingly lacking the ability to read and write. Plus, what is a percentage point or two?

But the trend is counterintuitive, to say the least. We would expect a more competitive student body given a more competitive admissions environment.

Update: A generous reader, PC, writes in to remind us that SAT scores fell as a whole for the high school graduating class of 2007. I'm not certain how much this would affect Cornell's applicant pool, but it is worth considering.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on April 09, 2007 (#)

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