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Ididio Explores
Defying Selectivity

Selective colleges and universities typically have better outcomes for their students, often because the students they enroll are better prepared. We have analyzed the student outcomes data to identify schools that are bucking that trend.

College-bound high school seniors face a big decision in choosing their perfect school. It’s easy to target this search on the colleges and universities that the many online lists rank in their top 50. However, out of about 2 million bachelor’s degrees awarded each year, far fewer than one tenth come from the schools highlighted in any top-50 list.


The reason many schools are highly selective is that they have the option to be. They are well known and receive so many applications that they can reject the majority and admit only students with the very best high school records and standardized test scores. A school like Harvard has the option to choose the best 2,000 of approximately 40,000 applicants, and as a result, can pick students who will perform well. Without a doubt, Harvard has a good faculty and curriculum to back up their success, but their reputation entices more than enough students to give Harvard selection options.

The most selective schools perform well on any metrics that try to judge their quality, and research shows that many of the students attending would have performed well wherever they went. However, there is some evidence that students from under-represented groups do benefit from attending the most selective school within their means. What that means is that even when the very top schools might be out of reach, applying for the best schools that you can is still the surest route to success. Fortunately, plenty of schools that are not featured in top-50 are still very high quality.


To judge the quality of a school, we use three metrics: selectivity rating, graduation rate, and loan repayment rates.

  • Selectivity rating. This is a combination the percentage of rejected applications, the average high school GPA of accepted students, and the average test scores of accepted students. Combined, this gives us a single score out of 100, with a higher number indicating greater selectivity.
  • Graduation rates. This indicates the percentage of all students, including part-time and transfer students, who are able to complete a bachelor’s degree within eight years. This chart shows the range of graduation rates for all U.S. colleges.
  • Loan repayment rates. This measures a school’s percentage of students who have made progress on repaying their loans after seven years. A student must reduce the total amount they owe by at least $1 to be considered successful. The chart below shows the seven-year loan repayment rate at all U.S. colleges.
Unsurprisingly, the most selective schools provide the best student outcomes

Putting these three things together in the chart below – selectivity ratings, graduation rates, and repayment rates – can show us some useful information. What do we expect to see? Schools that have a high selectivity rating will also have high graduation rates and loan repayment rates. The swath of green which indicates higher loan repayments in the upper right corner shows this, but we also noticed schools towards the bottom-right of the chart with green hues - meaning that some less selective schools also performed well for their students.

The dark gray shading indicates the middle 50% of schools in selectivity, and the most and least selective 10% of schools appear outside of the light gray shading.

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In creating the selectivity rating, we calculated the percentile ranking in comparison to all schools for the following metrics describing the most recently reported entering class: high school GPA, 75th percentile of the combined ERW and math SAT scores, 75th percentile of the composite ACT score. We averaged any of the percentiles available (some schools do not report on all of these measures) to measure student standing, and averaged the student standing with the percentage of rejected applications to arrive at a selectivity rating.
The eight-year graduation rate is taken from the outcomes data reported in the 2018 IPEDS data, and applies to all students seeking an undergraduate degree. Although standings could change for individual schools, the overall trend we see here is preserved if we only consider first-time full-time freshmen and/or six- or four-year graduation rates.
The federal loan repayment rate is from College Scorecard. This and the three-year default rate are available in our school explorer. The three-year rate is more sensitive to recent changes in quality and would result in a similar analysis.
Our Defying Selectivity metric was formed by finding the least squares regression line describing the relationship between our positive selectivity ratings and each of the graduation rate and loan repayment rate. We then averaged the distance between actual performance for each quality metric and anticipated performance as given by the regression line.
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