How Some Universities Are Using Statistics to Trick You Into Applying

What are some statistics universities frequently mislead prospective students with? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Ben Nelson, Founder, Chairman, and CEO of the Minerva Schools at KGI, on Quora:

Using statistics to mislead applicants is a national pastime for university marketing departments. The sad part is that most applicants fall for them. A few of my favorites:

  • "At X university seventy three percent of classes have fewer than twenty students." Boy, that sounds good, doesn't it? Well let's do the math together. At this very prestigious university, seventy three percent of classes have fewer than twenty students (let's say ten on average), fifteen percent have twenty to fifty (let's say thirty-five on average), and twelve percent have fifty or more (let's say one hundred on average). What percentage of credits does this university issue in small (less than twenty student) classes? If you do the math it's less than thirty percent. That's because the large lectures comprise the bulk of credits that the university issues even though they are a minority of the classes. Class distribution as shown in US News & World Report requires you to do rough calculations to figure out the real expected size of your classes. If the average class size for large classes is actually two hundred as opposed to one hundred, then fewer than twenty percent of your classes will wind up being small. What's more, it is unclear if small classes won't be the same dry lectures that happen in big classes. I remember a twelve person course on Dostoyevsky that I took as an undergrad where no student said a word all semester long. It's the reason why one hundred percent of classes at Minerva have fewer than twenty students per class and one hundred percent of classes at Minerva are active learning seminars since lecturing is banned.
  • "We are so generous that sixty percent of our students receive some kind of financial aid" coupled with "We are so generous that anyone coming from a household with annual income of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars or less, and many students that come from households with annual income of more than two hundred and fifty thousand dollars but have multiple students in college receive some form of financial aid." That translates to: forty percent of their students come from the top one percent wealthiest households in the world and they claim that they are a need-blind institution. If you believe that intellectual talent is concentrated in rich households to that extent, you should not be replying to emails from financially distressed foreign royalty that have a great deal to offer. At Minerva, if we were to charge the same as traditional universities, approximately ninety-five percent of our students would be receiving financial aid and even though total costs at Minerva are twenty-nine thousand dollars per year, compared to seventy thousand dollars and more, more than eighty percent of our students still require financial assistance to attend.
  • "Our admission rate is X." Admissions at universities is overwhelmingly an artificial numbers game. First and foremost, class sizes at elite universities are limited by capacity, and therefore more qualified students are rejected from those institutions than are admitted. Deans of admissions at both Yale and Harvard have claimed in the past that the large majority of their applicants are actually qualified to attend as opposed to the five or six percent that actually get selected. Secondly, universities keep massive waitlists (in some cases larger than the number of students admitted) which don't count as part of their admissions statistics. So, if a university doesn't wind up with the number of students it expects, it let's additional students in from the waitlist and those students do not show up as part of the admissions rate. Third, admissions rates are very different for different types of applicants (read: discrimination); at one highly prestigious university with single digit admissions rates, the rate of acceptance for applicants of children whose parents have been regular donors to that university topped fifty percent. These are all reasons why, despite being the most selective university in the United States, Minerva accepts one hundred percent of qualified students, has no waitlist, and applies the exact same criteria in admissions to students no matter what country, socio-economic background, gender, religion, parental lineage they are from.
  • "At X university our applicants have such and such graduation rates, SAT Scores, GPA, class rank, etc." Not if you count your transfer students! At many elite universities, transfer students account for a large portion of the graduating class but none of their statistics show up within the university. Transfers are often times backdoors for those who can pay a lot of money but won't make the cut to get in. Needless to say, Minerva has one admissions process for all applicants.

These are a very small set of examples and we haven't even gotten to misleading statements not using statistics...

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