Report: High School Performance Matters Most in College Admission Decisions

Media Contact:
Mary Stegmeir

Arlington, VA (Oct. 30, 2019) — While this past year’s news about college admission was largely dominated by the Varsity Blues bribery scandal, new survey data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) shows that — for most students — getting into college is a fair and straightforward process.

According to NACAC’s recently released 2019 State of College Admission report, a student’s high school record remains the primary consideration of colleges when reviewing applications, a finding that has been consistent over the past three decades.

Specifically, the top four factors in freshmen college admission decisions are: (1) grades in all high school courses; (2) grades in college prep courses; (3) strength of a student’s high school curriculum; and (4) admission test scores (ACT/SAT). Meanwhile, only 1 percent of colleges indicated that a student’s alumni connections or ability to pay had considerable influence during the application review process.

And despite public perception that admission to most postsecondary institutions is highly competitive, very selective colleges represent a small proportion of all four-year institutions. On average, four-year colleges and universities in the US accepted 66.7 percent of all applicants.

“While the Varsity Blues scandal raised important questions about equity in our educational system, it is important to remember that a student’s academic performance in high school is what colleges value most when reviewing applications,” said NACAC CEO Joyce Smith. “We also know that colleges, on average, accept two-thirds of first-time freshmen applicants. The task ahead of us is to continue to communicate openly about the admission process as we strive to ensure all students are treated fairly.”

This year’s report, for instance, shows that low-income students and those who lack the support of a school counselor continue to face barriers in the admission process.

Noteworthy findings include:

  • Students lack equal access to college advising in high school. The average student-to-counselor ratio at public schools in the US is 455-to-1, nearly double the recommended ratio. Lack of access to school counselors can constitute a statistically significant barrier to college access for many students, particularly those in urban and rural areas. (View district-level ratios using NACAC’s student-to-counselor ratio maps.)

  • Students applying Early Decision (ED) get accepted at higher rates. At colleges with ED policies,the acceptance rate for ED applicants is higher than the overall acceptance rate—61 percent versus 49 percent—suggesting that a student’s ability to commit early, often without being able to compare financial aid offers, could improve their chances of admission. NACAC members and researchers have expressed concern that ED policies are advantageous primarily for higher-income students.

  • Demonstrating interest in a college can affect a student’s chances for admission. An applicant’s demonstrated interest in attending an institution was rated as considerably important by 16 percent of colleges and moderately important by another 24 percent. Students who are not aware of this factor face the possibility that their applications will not be considered as favorably at institutions that take demonstrated interest into account when making admission decisions. 

NACAC’s State of College Admission — an annual report examining the transition from high school to postsecondary education — features survey data collected from secondary school counselors as well as admission professionals at colleges and universities across the country. Data concerning college wait lists, yield rates, and application plans is updated each year.

The association will continue to track those factors amid ongoing changes within the profession. In September, NACAC’s Assembly instituted a moratorium on enforcement of the association’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices and removed three provisions addressing student recruitment and Early Decision incentives. The changes came in response to an antitrust investigation by the US Department of Justice.

“The landscape of higher education is shifting,” Smith said. “Understanding the wide range of factors colleges consider when reviewing applications is critical, whether in advising students or promoting best practices within the profession.”

Download the full State of College Admission report.


The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), founded in 1937, is an organization of more than 15,000 professionals from around the world dedicated to serving students as they make choices about pursuing postsecondary education. NACAC is committed to maintaining high standards that foster ethical and social responsibility among those involved in the transition process, as outlined in the association's Code of Ethics and Professional Practices.

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