In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section College Admissions in the United States

  • Introduction
  • Datasets
  • News Media
  • Blogs
  • Research and Advocacy Organizations
  • Journals
  • College Choice
  • The College Pipeline
  • Outreach Programs
  • Family and Parental Influence
  • Enrollment Management, Admissions, and Rankings
  • Special Admissions

Education College Admissions in the United States
Patricia McDonough, Shannon Calderone
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 April 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0053


By the simplest of definitions, college admissions represents a process of entry leading to enrollment in some form of postsecondary education—a process that ensures an institution is identified, paperwork is completed, qualifications are confirmed, and the student chooses an institution in which to enroll. This definitional simplicity, however, belies the complex and highly contestable nature of the college admissions process and the role it plays in ongoing debates over social status mobility, merit, and the equitable nature of K–12 schooling opportunities. How college admissions has evolved into a touchstone for such heady debate is in large part the result of a confluence of factors: a well-established correlation between a college degree and lifetime income earnings, a dramatic increase over the past fifty years in the number of students who both aspire and ultimately enroll in some form of postsecondary education, and a desire by colleges to gain greater market advantage through improving their comparative standing, which relies heavily on admissions selectivity, reputation, and alumni giving as well as success in the job market. These demographic and economic shifts have resulted in similar shifts in public sentiment over the value of higher education to future life chances and the conversion of a four-year degree to income earnings over the lifespan. A great body of research has provided insight into the macro- and micro-level forces that mediate postsecondary opportunity. The brief essays and citation lists provided in this article capture some of this complexity by conceptualizing the college admissions process as a field of activity that, as educational researchers have so often argued, contributes to a form of social sorting vis-à-vis the interactions of institutions, individuals, and marketplace forces. This article begins by suggesting that the college admissions process is best characterized as a series of choices related to college going as mediated by race, class, and gender. Also considered in this discussion is the influence of K–12 settings on sustaining (and derailing) educational aspirations. Highlighted research also focuses on the influence of outreach and families on individual college aspirations, institutional strategic decision making that drives the admissions marketplace, as well as the often confounding ways in which business and public policy interests test the standards of fairness via special admissions considerations. Finally, this article offers some key resource options for further study on college admissions and related topics.


There are a number of different data sources available to researchers wishing to tackle questions related to college admissions topics. The most comprehensive repository of education-related statistical data comes from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). NCES-related data systems, such as the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, provide a depth of freely available data on any number of access- and equity-related issues. There are several nonprofit, nonpartisan groups that provide limited statistical data for general use or for use by permission. These include the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the Education Commission of the States, and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. Finally, a number of statistical databases are available for purchase. The most prominent of these offerings are Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY, Higher Education Research Institute, and Indiana University’s National Study of Student Engagement.

  • Education Commission of the States.

    The ECS is a cooperative effort between state education policymakers from forty-nine US states, three territories, and the District of Columbia and provides some comparative state-level data its website.

  • Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002.

    The ELS offers longitudinal cohort data on high school students using college preparations and planning, among other factors, as key data points.

  • Higher Education Research Institute.

    The HERI offers data generated from its annual Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey and other surveys, which include survey responses from entering cohorts at hundreds of two- and four-year institutions, and periodic follow-up studies.

  • Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

    The IPEDS represents the most comprehensive data set on the postsecondary education sector nationwide. It provides data information regionally (federal, state, and institutional), across institutional types (two-year, four-year, public, and private), for postgraduate education (master’s and doctoral offerings, funding availability, professional schools), on different topics (library resources, staffing, capital building), and across any number of pipeline data points (precollege, during college, postgraduation).

  • National Center for Education Statistics.

    Sponsored by the US Department of Education. In addition to maintaining a litany of easily accessible statistical facts and figures as well as a host of annual trends reports on the state of education writ large, the NCES oversees the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative, which manages the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

  • National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

    The NCHEMS, with the help of the Ford Foundation, Lumina Foundation, and National Postsecondary Education Cooperative, offers freely available higher education data via its online Information Center. Specifically designed for policymakers and researchers, the NCHEMS data offers key college preparation and participation data, affordability, and race/gender indicators.

  • National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

    The NCPPHE operates as a nonprofit, politically independent organization providing national and state-level higher education accountability measures via its annual Measuring Up report.

  • National Study of Student Engagement.

    The NSSE surveys students at hundreds of four-year colleges about the quality of their postsecondary experiences by collecting data on the programs and services in which students participate.

  • Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY.

    PEOP collects relevant data on a full range of access and equity issues at the state and federal level.

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