Are College Freshman Getting Smarter Each Year?
By Katy Murphy
August 18, 2016
Thousands of college students are back on campuses in Greater Cincinnati this week, moving into their dorms before classes start Monday. They’re at different schools, studying for different majors, but what they do have in common is that they’re somehow “better” than students in the class above them.
The 6,900 first-year students at the University of Cincinnati are part of the largest incoming class in school history and one of the smartest.
On UC’s Uptown campus, the new students’ average ACT score is 25.7 with an average SAT score of 1163. Their average high school GPA is 3.58, up from 3.471 in 2015. More than 1,500 of them are Cincinnatus Scholarship recipients and 55 earned a National Merit/Achievement Scholarship.
It’s a trend that universities across the Cincinnati region are seeing and one that experts say is happening nationwide.
“As an institution, you’re trying to bring in a better class than the year before, it’s sort of your responsibility,” said Ian Fisher, director of educational consulting at College Coach. “Admissions focuses on a metric that works for them and helps to serve that institution and the goals of the trustees.”
He said universities are always going to say “this is our most ‘x’ class ever,” and that “x” could be related to diversity, academic caliber or size.
“They will push extra hard on numbers and test scores because those are strongly connected to U.S. News and World Report rankings,” Fisher said.
UC currently ranks 71st among top public universities, according to U.S. News. Many of UC’s graduate programs are among the best in the nation, alongside Xavier and Miami University.
NKU, ranked in the top 100 regional universities in the South, also welcomed its most qualified incoming freshman class in school history to campus this week.
New students coming to NKU have an average ACT score of 25, up from 22 a decade ago. The freshman class’ average high school GPA is 3.45, up from 3.1 in recent years. The class of about 2,000 includes 82 students from 30 countries.
Bari Norman, president of Expert Admissions and former admissions officer at Barnard College of Columbia University, said each year it gets a little bit harder for students to get into a school so they are applying to more places.
“Five years ago, some students wouldn’t have considered a certain school or might have viewed it as a safety school and now they’re looking at is as ‘I hope I get in,’ ” Norman said. “It’s become more difficult to predict the outcome.”
She said as schools tout higher rankings and lower admission rates, students see it’s harder to get in and their perceptions start changing. That attracts higher level students, which in turn moves the university up.
UC expects to hit a new high for fall enrollment with 45,000 students, its fourth consecutive overall enrollment record. This is also the largest incoming freshman class in the university’s nearly 200-year history.
The freshman class reflects growing diversity at UC, with students coming from 33 states and 45 countries.
“You have to think about colleges as businesses,” said Nat Smitobol, a master college admissions counselor at IvyWise and former admissions officer at New York University. “The bigger the class, the more surplus of money they have.”
He said one of the biggest areas of growth at UC has been out of state applicants, which means more net tuition revenue.
Xavier University brought in its eighth consecutive class of more than 1,000 students, and the freshmen had slightly higher SAT scores than last year’s class. It’s one of the university’s most diverse incoming freshman classes. Nearly 20 percent of students are the first in their family to attend college and 20 percent are African-American, Hispanic, Asian or other minorities. More than half of the students are from outside Ohio and there are twice as many international students as last year.
Each year colleges make efforts to improve their reputation through rankings and test scores, but Norman said it’s also important to recognize that the numbers are a “superficial symbol.”
“If everything’s moving at essentially the same pace, then it isn’t meaningful,” Norman said. “No matter how high your rank, none of those numbers speak to the fit between a student and an institution,” nor to the quality of the education.