(See the list for 2022 at the end of the post.) What are the hardest colleges to get into? Anyone going through the college admissions process can’t help but ask the question at least once. It’s a lot like visiting a Parade of Homes that you know you’ll never afford or maybe like rubbernecking while driving past a car wreck on the freeway-which ever analogy works for you. Of course, you can just look at US News College Rankings and get a pretty good idea. And that’s the point, everything in the media seems to reinforce the perception that exclusivity equals quality. Even if when we know better, we can’t help but feel insecure when we choose a lesser-known college.
Instant Download of Hardest Colleges to Get Into List
So what am I doing talking about the hardest colleges to get into given the overall orientation of my website? Simple, I want to show you some numbers including the acceptance rates of these “exclusive” colleges. Also, I would like to remind everyone of one thing: these colleges do not guarantee a job with a minimum salary after graduation. They are happy to let students and families infer that going to their schools will result in better employment outcomes but none will guarantee it. Because they can’t.
Let’s face it, while they would if they could, why bother? They have successfully branded themselves in the same way companies that sell luxury items have convinced customers that their product will enhance their image in some way. There’s no proof, just pervasive marketing that seems to convince even those who don’t actually buy the product.
Colleges with the Lowest Acceptance Rates
Enough of my rant. Let’s talk about the schools. There are approximately 1,600 4-year institutions with at least 500 full-time undergraduates in the country. Generally I focus on those that have at least a 50% graduation rate and accept at least 50% of students. That list is approaching 600 institutions. To create the list of the hardest schools to get into, I selected only schools that accepted less than 50% of students and have a 4-year graduation rate greater than 50%. This leaves me with 126 schools.
Just in case you’re wondering, there are 30 schools that accept less than 50% of students and have graduation rates less than 50%. One thing to keep in mind is that Northeastern University doesn’t show up on the list because it lists it’s 4-year graduation rate as 0. It has an extensive coop program which adds time (for paid work) to graduation and has a 5-year graduation rate of 88%.
Back to the hardest schools to get into. The following is a breakdown of the number of colleges by acceptance rates.
|Acceptance Rates||Number of Colleges|
|Less than 10%||24|
The fact is that when I say hardest schools to get into, most people are probably focused on the 76 that accept less than 30% of students. But here’s the first thing I would like people to think about. Over 75% of colleges and universities accept at least 50% of students. I know, I know, for those concerned with the hardest schools, the issue is are they the “right” colleges?
What a difference 20 years makes
Some of them have to be if for no other reason than demographics. The usual colleges and universities on the list of “elite” schools haven’t been expanding their class size to keep up with population growth. In 2001 there were only 47 schools with acceptance rates less than 30%. In 2001, Harvard accepted 11% of students, Princeton 12%, Stanford 13% which is 3 times the amount it did in 2021. All the students who didn’t get into those universities in 2021 had to go somewhere else which explains why the University of Chicago’s acceptance rate dropped from 44% in 2001 to just 6% in 2021. During the same period, Vanderbilt went from 46% to 7% and Tulane went from 61% to 10%.
Does that mean these universities dramatically improved over 20 years or just got harder to get into as more people were rejected from those schools topping US News College Rankings? If you believe that the quality of the students matter, then you’ve got to imagine many are going to be enrolling at colleges today that will be among the hardest to get into in another decade or two. Even if demographics are shifting to increasingly smaller cohorts of high school graduates, do you really think that Harvard is going to let its acceptance rate ever go past 10% again? I suspect it would lower its application fee before allowing its acceptance rate to go above 10%.
Hardest Colleges to Get Into Characteristics
Enough about the hardest colleges to get into in 2001 compared to 2021. Let’s talk about the characteristics of those on the 2021 list.
The colleges can be found in 30 states. The top five states with the most institutions are:
New York: 17
North Carolina: 6
Some of this can be chalked up to the fact that these are the states with the most population but you notice that Texas doesn’t make the top five. There are eight states with only one institution on the hardest colleges to get into list and 21 without any. Location also includes geographic settings, think big city versus small town. It’s no surprise that half of the schools are located in large cities or their suburbs. Compared to those schools that didn’t make the list, the hardest schools to get into are overrepresented in these location settings. Surely location helps colleges appeal to students.
As with all colleges, the majority of schools on the list, 73, have fewer than 5,000 full-time undergraduates. The rest are split between schools in the 5,000-9,999 category and 10,000 plus category. However, once again, the schools on the list are disproportionately represented in the largest categories. A total of 21% are in the largest category compared to just 13% of those not on the list while 21% are in the middle category compared to the 14% of schools who didn’t make the list.
If you’re hoping to attend one of the schools on the list, expect to pay a premium for the privilege. On average the total cost of attendance for the private schools on the hardest schools to get into list was $74,818 compared to $51,026 for those not on the list. The average out-of-state tuition for public universities on the list was much higher, $52,490, than the average of $35,960 for those not on the list. Even the in-state average total cost of $30,008 for public institutions on the list was higher than the $25,073 average for those not on the list.
It’s common knowledge that very few students pay the actual sticker price (total cost of attendance) for college. Colleges are quick to tell you that 90 something percent of their students receive some sort of financial aid. And in general, that’s true. At private institutions, 94% of freshman receive some sort of financial aid. However, when you consider only private schools on the list of hardest colleges to get into, the average drops to just 74%. That means that at least a quarter of the freshman are full-pay students. Remember these are some of the most expensive colleges around.
This doesn’t mean that schools are stingy with financial aid. The list includes schools with some of the most generous financial aid policies in the country. It means that there are a lot of students that simply don’t qualify for financial aid because their families earn too much even under these generous policies. But it isn’t the case for all of the schools on the list.
The average net price for the private school on the list is $29,043 which is higher than the $24,105 for those not on the list. Average Net Price is the basic indicator of a college’s financial aid generosity. It’s the average price students pay after deducting all gift aid such as grants and scholarships. A total of 26 of the hardest schools to get into have average net prices below $24,105 indicating they are providing generous financial aid. However, there are 11 schools with average net price greater than $40,000 with two schools actually above $50,000. One is the California Institute of the Arts, not that surprising for an art school, but the other is NYU. Families should not assume just because a college is one of the hardest to get into, it will automatically provide generous need-based financial aid.
This is true for Pell Grant recipients as well. Given the low percentage of freshman with Pell Grants at schools on the list, 18% at private institutions compared to 39% at those not on the list, you would think that low-income students could count on having their need fully met. It really all depends how you define need and remember, the schools get to define it.
The average net price for students in the lowest income category (less than $30,000) attending private schools on the list is $11,417 which is better than the $19,118 for those not on the list. Eight of the schools have an average net price less than $1,000 and another 19 are less than $6,000 which put the cost within the price of a student loan. Obviously, these are schools that do well-by low-income students who do attend. Yet, there are 13 schools where the average net price for students with family incomes under $30,000 is $20,000 or higher. And at least two of these schools, Lafayette and Bucknell, claim to meet 100% of freshman need.
126 Hardest Colleges to Get Into
The following is a list of the hardest colleges to get into based on data available from the Integrated Postsecondary Education System (IPEDS) in October of 2022.
Click here for Instant Download of the list in PDF format with average net price, percentage of freshman with Pell Grants, and 2001 acceptance rates.
Hardest Colleges to Get Into
(with at least a 50% 4-year graduation rate)
|Name||Type||State||Full-time Under-grads||4 yr Grad-uation Rate||% Admitted 2021|
|California Institute of Technology||Private||CA||973||86||4|
|Columbia University in the City of New York||Private||NY||7,792||88||4|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology||Private||MA||4,326||88||4|
|University of Chicago||Private||IL||7,351||91||6|
|University of Pennsylvania||Private||PA||10,213||89||6|
|Johns Hopkins University||Private||MD||5,894||87||8|
|United States Naval Academy||Public||MD||4,594||89||8|
|Tulane University of Louisiana||Private||LA||8,078||77||10|
|Harvey Mudd College||Private||CA||827||88||10|
|Claremont McKenna College||Private||CA||1,305||80||11|
|University of California-Los Angeles||Public||CA||32,325||83||11|
|United States Military Academy||Public||NY||4,549||79||11|
|United States Air Force Academy||Public||CO||4,403||85||12|
|New York University||Private||NY||27,464||78||13|
|University of Southern California||Private||CA||19,533||79||13|
|Washington University in St Louis||Private||MO||7,187||87||13|
|Carnegie Mellon University||Private||PA||6,441||79||14|
|University of California-Berkeley||Public||CA||30,385||79||14|
|University of Notre Dame||Private||IN||8,949||90||15|
|Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art||Private||NY||837||64||15|
|Georgia Institute of Technology-Main Campus||Public||GA||15,376||51||16|
|Rhode Island School of Design||Private||RI||1,818||70||19|
|Washington and Lee University||Private||VA||1,831||91||19|
|United States Coast Guard Academy||Public||CT||1,104||91||19|
|University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill||Public||NC||18,756||84||20|
|University of Michigan-Ann Arbor||Public||MI||30,681||81||20|
|University of Virginia-Main Campus||Public||VA||17,173||89||21|
|American Musical and Dramatic Academy||Private||NY||1,664||67||22|
|Wake Forest University||Private||NC||5,417||86||25|
|United States Merchant Marine Academy||Public||NY||1,047||74||25|
|University of Miami||Private||FL||11,307||73||28|
|California Institute of the Arts||Private||CA||705||61||29|
|University of Richmond||Private||VA||3,172||84||29|
|University of California-Santa Barbara||Public||CA||23,527||70||29|
|The University of Texas at Austin||Public||TX||38,500||70||29|
|University of California-Irvine||Public||CA||29,867||68||29|
|Case Western Reserve University||Private||OH||5,355||67||30|
|University of North Carolina School of the Arts||Public||NC||891||67||30|
|University of Florida||Public||FL||33,060||72||30|
|California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo||Public||CA||20,569||57||33|
|University of California-San Diego||Public||CA||31,746||73||34|
|William & Mary||Public||VA||6,393||86||37|
|Florida State University||Public||FL||30,808||70||37|
|Franklin and Marshall College||Private||PA||2,349||78||38|
|Bryn Mawr College||Private||PA||1,332||81||39|
|University of Georgia||Public||GA||29,542||68||40|
|University of Rochester||Private||NY||6,101||76||41|
|College of the Holy Cross||Private||MA||3,047||90||43|
|Illinois Wesleyan University||Private||IL||1,654||76||45|
|Loyola Marymount University||Private||CA||6,711||72||46|
|Columbia International University||Private||SC||713||57||46|
|State University of New York at New Paltz||Public||NY||6,253||58||46|
|William Jewell College||Private||MO||776||61||47|
|St Olaf College||Private||MN||2,982||81||47|
|North Carolina State University at Raleigh||Public||NC||23,751||64||47|
|Stony Brook University||Public||NY||17,676||64||48|
|University of California-Davis||Public||CA||31,201||62||49|
|University of South Florida||Public||FL||31,946||59||49|
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