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Less Competitive Colleges

Updated 6/1/2022

Like their classmates who are applying to top colleges, students applying to less competitive colleges face good news and bad news.

The Good News

The good news for such students is that the application process at many such schools is simpler and more predictable than at highly selective colleges. The entire application may consist of  no more than the student’s transcript and test scores along with a short form on which the applicant supplies biographical data, a brief summary of extracurricular activities, and one essay.  Better still, a student’s odds of being accepted are much more predictable at a school that accepts 70% of applicants than one that accepts only 7%.  In a nutshell, applicants who meet the academic parameters being sought by the college stand an excellent chance of being admitted.

To make the whole process even nicer, such schools often provide a variety of ways for students to receive their admission decision before April. These include early application programs, rolling admissions – in which students get a decision a few weeks after they submit their application, and even immediate notification – whereby a student completes an application online, brings an official transcript with test scores to the school, and gets a decision on the spot.

While some less competitive colleges do consider extracurricular activities, the essay, and recommendations, these factors are more likely to be used to tip the scales in favor of a student who has borderline academic credentials than to disadvantage a strong student. Unlike their ultracompetitive counterparts, a less selective college is unlikely to reject a student who is in the top 25% of the applicant pool academically because she wrote a lackluster essay, did not make a major impact on her school, or came across as somewhat pedestrian on her counselor recommendation.

On the whole, therefore, the application process is a great deal less stressful for applicants to less selective institutions. So what’s the bad news?

The Bad News

The bad news has nothing to do with getting in to college – it’s about getting out with a degree. Most families assume that their son or daughter will graduate college in four years - and that's what they budget for, but here's a scary statistic; according to College Results Online, in 2017 there were 449 four-year colleges in the U.S. with four-year graduation rates of 20% or lower!  For-profit colleges get a bad rap, so maybe you're assuming that's who these bad actors are, but when for-profit colleges are eliminated, there are still 367 public and nonprofit private schools left. If you search for colleges with a four year graduation rate of 50% or less, the website turns up 1166 schools, including many that would surprise you. I don't want to call out individual colleges, but I strongly encourage you to visit this website as an important component of your college search. For any college, you can easily find four, five, and six-year graduation rates. Another nice feature is that once you've searched for a college, there's a tab called Similar Colleges. If you click it, the website will compare your college to a group of peer institutions with similar student bodies, so you're not comparing the graduation rates of Goldbrick U to MIT.

For more information on ways to increase the odds that your child will get through college in four years, read Academic Strategies to Cut Costs in the Pay for College section of this guide.


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