Don't Blame This on Math

Mon, 10 Mar 2008 15:48:39 +0000

In yesterday's New York Times, we are told "Math Suggests College Frenzy Will Soon Ease." Actually, I don't get the math in a couple of places. Let's start here:

Projections show that by next year or the year after, the annual number of high school graduates in the United States will peak at about 2.9 million after a 15-year climb. The number is then expected to decline until about 2015. Most universities expect this to translate into fewer applications and less selectivity, with most students probably finding it easier to get into college.
The article cites projections from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. How can there only be 2.9 million high school graduates per year?

We know from the American Community Survey that in 2006, there were 17.5 million students enrolled in high school and that enrollment rates for those under age 17 are 95% or higher. We also know that only 7% of teens 16-19 are classified as high school dropouts. So we are looking at a graduation number that's in the neighborhood of 17.5*(1/4)*(0.93) = 4.1 million.

So I don't trust the WICHE projections, but it is worth considering the simple population movements. Here is a graph of the number of 18-year olds by year, based on Census projections:

So there is a dip coming up in the population of 18-year olds that will turn back the clock by about 10 years.

Is that a lot or a little? As one example, for the Class of 2010 at Dartmouth, there were 13,938 applicants, of whom 2,186 or 15.7% were admitted. If this were the peak, and we applied the changes in the projections (a drop to 90.7% of the peak), that would boost the admit rate to 15.7/0.907 = 16.9% before it began to fall again. I don't think we'll notice any easing in the frenzy here in Hanover.

Cross-posted at Vox Baby.