The UK is not the same as the US

In Louis Menand’s insightful article about why we have college in this week’s New Yorker, he highlights the increasing selectivity of private US universities (in contrast to the very accommodating nature of public universities) and reinforces his point by comparing them with Oxford and Cambridge:

In 1940, the acceptance rate at Harvard was eighty-five per cent. By 1970, it was twenty per cent. Last year, thirty-five thousand students applied to Harvard, and the acceptance rate was six per cent.

Almost all the élite colleges saw a jump in applications this year, partly because they now recruit much more aggressively internationally, and acceptance rates were correspondingly lower. Columbia, Yale, and Stanford admitted less than eight per cent of their applicants. This degree of selectivity is radical. To put it in some perspective: the acceptance rate at Cambridge is twenty-one per cent, and at Oxford eighteen per cent.

This is not a useful comparison. Under the British university admissions system as administered by UCAS, people can only apply to up to five universities and they can’t apply to both Oxford and Cambridge; they need to choose one or the other. No doubt if these rules were changed (and the UK were as big a country as the US), the acceptance rate would plummet.

This is not to say that I disagree with Menand’s overall point, but it speaks to a disappointing lack of appreciation in how other countries’ university admissions schemes differ from the US.


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