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Hardest Colleges to Get Into

College campus representing hardest colleges to get into(Updated for 2018-skip to the list at the end of the post.) There are over 400 schools on the 50-50 college list. These are colleges that accept at least 50% of students and have at least a 50% graduation rate. Given that the idea was to provide families with accessible alternatives to just the usual suspects that show up in the rankings, I think 400 is a remarkably useful base to start with. However, there’s always going to be the thought in the back of your mind of what you’re missing by using the list. So I thought I would provide some insight to the colleges not on the list.

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Most Colleges Don’t Graduate Students in 4 Years

As for the graduation rate part of 50-50, there are 856 colleges that have less than four/five-year graduation rates of less than 49%. That’s 53% of all four-year institutions with 500 or more full-time undergraduates. Yes, that means at over half of the colleges, less than half of students graduate in four years at private colleges and five years at public institutions.

There are 238 colleges with acceptance rates less than 49% and they include some you probably have never heard of. There are actually 86 that fall into both groups, they accept less than 49% of students while having less than a 49% graduation rate.

Hardest Colleges to Get Into

The group that I think most people are interested in are the 146 colleges with acceptance rates less than 49% but have a graduation rate of 49% or better. That’s only nine percent of all public and private non-profit institutions. These are arguably the hardest colleges to get into. It includes 35 public institutions and 111 private. 56 are classified as Liberal Arts Colleges and 51 are Universities with very high research activity.

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These colleges can be found in 31 states including the District of Columbia. However, 14 states had only one or two such schools. New York and California had the most number of the hardest colleges to get into with 22 each. They were followed by Massachusetts with 15, Pennsylvania with 13, and Texas with 8.


Yes, I know everyone tells you to ignore the sticker price since very few people pay it. But the fact is that you need to know it so that you can decide if a $20,000 award will make an expensive college affordable. And make no mistake, if a college makes it onto the list of hardest colleges to get into, it’s probably going to be expensive.

Private colleges on the list have an average total cost of over $66,000 compared to “just” $46,000 for those not on the list. In fact, 35 of the colleges have total costs over $70,000 a year. Among the public institutions, those on the list have an average out-of-state cost of over $44,000 while those that don’t make the list average only $34,000. At least 8 of the public universities of the list charge out-of-state students over $60,000 to attend.

Chances for Financial Aid

And don’t be so sure that the extravagant costs will be off-set by equally extravagant financial aid. Given the basic laws of supply and demand, it’s not surprising that on average fewer freshman received institutional aid from the hardest colleges to get into. On average, 64% of freshman at the private institutions on the list received institutional aid compared to 90% of those not on the list.

There is even a difference among the public colleges. The public colleges on the list provided institutional aid to 44% of freshman compared to those not on the list providing 48% of freshman with institutional aid.

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Of course, a good number of colleges on the list of hardest colleges to get into don’t bother to offer merit aid which can explain the differences in institutional aid. For many with financial need, these colleges can be a better deal. The average net price for freshman with family incomes of less than $30,000 was $13,556 at private schools on the list compared to $19,274 for those not on the list.

However, not all are a great deal even with financial aid. A total of 23 of the private colleges on the list still had an average net price of $20,000 or greater for students in the lowest income category. This includes at least 7 colleges that claim to meet 90% or more of need.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that only 17% of freshman at private colleges on the list receive Pell Grants compared to 40% for those not on the list. At the public universities on the list, only 26% of freshman are getting Pell Grants compared to 43% not on the list.

Test Scores

As you might expect from schools on a hardest list of colleges to get into, the average test scores for the entering freshman were high. A total of 83 schools had average ACT scores of 30 or higher which represents the 93rd percentile or higher nationally. 78 had average SAT scores of 1350 or higher which represents the 91st percentile or higher.

Yet, there are 16 schools with ACT averages less than 25 and 14 with SAT averages below 1200. There are also 25 colleges with some version of test optional admissions.

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146 Hardest Colleges to Get Into

The following table lists the hardest colleges to get into based on data available from the Integrated Postsecondary Education System (IPEDS) as of September of 2018. The four-year graduation rate is used for private schools and the five-year rate for public universities.


Colleges With Acceptance Rates of Less Than 49%

Spreadsheet listing colleges that accept less than 49% of students

Hardest Colleges to Get Into

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