Springtime in the US means college admissions season. Elite schools are unveiling the chosen few who will make up their newly admitted class, with many noting successful applicants from all 50 states.
That nod to geographic diversity may sound like a casual detail, but it’s not. With elite private schools accepting increasingly smaller percentages of a growing and well-groomed talent pool, a student’s home state can be the deciding factor between who is in and who’s out.
“Every school likes to be able to stick that little pin on the map and say they have kids from all 50 states,” said Andrea van Niekerk, a college admissions consultant and former associate director of admissions at Brown University. “If you’ve got two kids and one is from this wacky place—not that Wyoming is a wacky place—that might be the factor.”
That geographic spread matters to schools for several different reasons. (We’re talking about private colleges here. Public institutions have different mandates to serve in-state students.) Yes, that “all 50 states” tag is a point of pride. Drawing from a wider geographic pool is also a way for colleges to boost their national profiles.
“If the big man on campus at your high school announces that he or she is going to go to a school that you’ve never heard of before … now kids at that school are like, ‘I’m going to check that school out next year,’” said Elizabeth Heaton, vice president of educational consulting at College Coach, an admissions consulting firm.
Colleges also want diversity in all respects. Diverse perspectives make for dynamic, challenging discussions in classrooms and dorms. They look for the right mix of students from urban and rural areas, different cultures, and different socioeconomic backgrounds. Geography is just part of that goal.
So if home state matters, which states matter most?
“One of the things I half-jokingly tell parents when they ask ‘How can I increase my child’s chances?’ is ‘You should move to Alabama,’” said admissions consultant Irena Smith, a former admissions officer at Stanford University.
She’s kidding. Kind of.
No one state offers its students a leg up on elite admissions nationwide. But being from a place that’s typically underrepresented in the school’s applicant pool can be a big advantage for prospective students.
Colleges closely guard the details of their admissions process, as Quartz found when we sought data on the home states of applied and admitted students at 13 of the nation’s top institutions: the eight Ivy League schools, plus Stanford, the University of Chicago, Duke University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and California Institute of Technology (Caltech). “There’s no upside for them in having everyone understand how the sausage gets made,” explained Anna Ivey, an admissions consultant and former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founder of Anna Ivey Consulting.
Only Brown was willing to hand over its applicant data. A few big caveats here: Data from one year at one school is at best an incomplete snapshot. The makeup of an admitted class varies widely between schools and from one year to the next. But it’s a rare and interesting look at who’s applying and getting in to an elite institution.
Brown accepted 8.5% of all applicants in 2015, the lowest rate in its history. It took that same percentage from California (5,062 applicants), Texas (1,197), and New Jersey (1,620).
But 17.1% of both Alaska’s 35 applicants and Mississippi’s 41 got in. So did 20% of the 20 applicants from North Dakota. Of the 23 students who applied from Montana, seven were accepted—a success rate of 30%.
Sparsely-populated states aren’t guaranteed big acceptance rates. Brown sent fat envelopes to just 1.5% of 68 applicants from Iowa, and to 5.7% of the 53 from Nebraska. But generally, it appeared to be a major advantage to students if few other people from their home state applied.
Five schools—University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, Duke, Caltech, and MIT—were willing to share the home states of their enrolled undergraduate students or 2015 entering freshmen.
Enrolled student demographics are a little different than those of admitted students. Schools handpick admittees, but students have a say in enrollment. Proximity to home, financial aid offers, and myriad other factors influence final enrollment decisions.
All that said, the data show that students from California and the Mid-Atlantic region are often overrepresented at elite institutions.
New Jersey has less than 3% of the nation’s 15 to 19-year-olds, but contributes roughly 6% of the freshman classes at Caltech, Duke, and Yale, and 12.5% of first-years at Penn. New York is home to 6% of 15 to 19-year-olds nationwide but almost 10% of freshmen at Duke and MIT, and 15% of those at Yale.
California, the most-populous state, has 12.5% of 15-19-year-olds but represents 14.2% of first-years at Yale, 18.4% at MIT, and 37.7% at Caltech (understandably; all schools have a preponderance of in-state students).
Successful applicants from underrepresented states “often don’t have as strong grades or as strong scores,” said Brian Taylor, director at the admissions consultancy Ivy Coach. Those students are getting into schools, he said, that “students from New York wouldn’t have a chance on God’s green earth of getting into.”
But when it comes to admissions, most consultants stress, no geographic location can make up for a thoroughly underwhelming application. There are too many qualified candidates. Schools simply don’t admit students who don’t deserve to be there.
“An unqualified student is not going to get in, no matter where they live,” said Michele Hernandez, co-founder and co-president of Top Tier Admissions consulting firm. “There are other factors that count more than geographic diversity. No one’s going to lose any sleep in the admissions office if Montana goes unrepresented.”