Is NU’s falling acceptance rate really anomalous?
    Graphic by KK Rebecca Lai.

    In late March, Northwestern announced its preliminary acceptance rate for the Class of 2016: a cool 15 percent, the lowest in the University’s history.

    That freshman class, matriculating in the fall, will stand in contrast to next year’s seniors, the Class of 2013, who were accepted in the spring of 2009 with a 27.1 percent acceptance rate. The drop between those four years is enormous, and might speak of Northwestern’s rising profile. But does it actually reflect something anomalous, or is it just a reflection of broader changes in American higher education?

    As data from other schools begins to become available, it is tricky question to consider.

    The rate of change of Northwestern’s acceptance rate – the degree it changes every year, as compared to its value the previous year – has dropped precipitously. Spring 2012’s acceptance rate is 83 percent of 2011’s. Spring 2010’s is 85 percent of Spring 2009’s value. And, staggeringly, NU’s acceptance rate in 2011 (for current freshmen) was 78 percent of its 2010 value, when the acceptance rate itself fell from 23 percent to 18 percent.

    The rate of change of Northwestern’s acceptance rate has outpaced all of the Ivies for the past three years. Yale, Harvard and Princeton, whose acceptance rate slid beneath 10 percent in the middle 2000s, have annually shaved a little less than half a percentage point off their acceptance rates in recent years. Princeton’s acceptance rate in 2012 was about 93 percent of what it was in 2011, and in 2011 it was about 96 percent of what it was in 2010. Such acceptance rates for a university are historically novel – and still they seem to drop, little by little, every year.

    Those eastern private bastions are outpaced by the rate of change of Northwestern’s acceptance rate. But NU is nowhere close to actually accepting applicants at a similar, tiny rate yet. We’re gaining on them, but we’re obviously not there yet.

    When midwestern privates enter the fray, things get more interesting. The University of Chicago’s 2012 spring acceptance rate has yet to be announced, but in 2011 it accepted 15.8 percent of applicants. The year before, UChicago had accepted 18.4 percent of applicants (mirroring Northwestern years later) but – in a staggering drop – as UChicago’s 2009 rate had been 26.8 percent, its 2010 acceptance rate was 69 percent of its 2009 rate.

    This had cause, though – even if it was delayed. UChicago began accepting the Common App in 2009 (when current juniors applied).

    Other midwestern privates don’t see the same changes NU or UChicago see. While Notre Dame’s 2011 acceptance rate (ND isn’t pictured above) was 17 percent lower than its 2010 rate, its acceptance rate hovered for years near the high twenties. While its 2012 acceptance rate is still unreleased, Northwestern’s acceptance rate indeed appears to be dropping much faster than Notre Dame’s.

    And what about Washington University of St. Louis, our erstwhile competitor to the south? Its numbers freakily mirror Northwestern’s. This spring, it accepted 15.4 percent of applicants. NU took 15 percent. Last year, WashU accepted 18 percent of wannabe freshmen. NU took 18 percent as well. And in 2010, they took 21.2 percent; we took 23.1 percent. Our rate of change slightly beats them all those years – our acceptance rate’s dropping about 1 percent faster than their’s is % but it’s close.

    In other words, Northwestern’s acceptance rate seems to be dropping faster than the Ivies or other peer institutions. But its most similar geographic competitor is seeing nearly identical change. For the time being, statistics alone can’t say whether our acceptance rate is anomalous or not.

    Kelly Erickson contributed invaluable reporting.


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