There are many ways to get into college, and not just the “front door.” By front door, I mean applying as a freshman with a pool of thousands of hopeful applicants, where quite possibly over 80% of those applicants will be denied.

No, I’m not going to share ways to cheat your way in, or photoshop your way onto the crew team. But I am going to discuss how you can gain exposure to the amazing academic community at a particular college by going through a side or a back door.

I am going to tell you about programs, opportunities, and statistics that might reveal a road less travelled to the educational experience you’re looking for.

Apply to A College with “Cross-Enrollment” at another College:

Now this option isn’t always going to get you the prestige of a degree from your favorite university, but it will let you take classes (often many) from another university that may have been higher on your list. In rarer cases, particularly if you’re a female, you may even be able to major or double major in a subject at another university (i.e. earn a degree from a college you didn’t initially enroll in), seamlessly segue into a masters degree program at a nearby college, or begin classes for a general master’s program.

Typically these kind of agreements are called “consortiums” – you can Google it. The traditionally female colleges do have a leg up in this game, as many all-women’s colleges have some of the best offerings when it comes to cross enrollment and dual degree programs: a historical remnant of the times when many competitive colleges were closed to women. The cross enrollment policies between the women’s campuses and these colleges have often endured, even as the more competitive institutions now admit women directly.

The rules vary widely depending on the schools. Some you can just cross register for a class or two per semester. Others you can take 1/2 your courses from the neighboring schools.

True there are other limits. Generally, students from the official school roster get first dibs on class choices, meaning though it’s allowed for you to cross register, you might not get into the juiciest or most popular courses. And some schools prohibit you from taking classes elsewhere that your home campus already offers.

Here are a few of the consortiums out there, with links to the programs’ websites. Many more exist, so don’t hesitate to search online for your dream school plus the word “cross-enrollment” or “consortium” to see what other options are out there.

The Claremont Colleges

(Pomona, Claremont McKenna, and Pitzer for liberal arts; Harvey Mudd for science and engineering; and Scripps, an all-women’s liberal arts institution) also allow cross registration, and even an “off campus” double major. Their admission rates vary (below find the range of 2018/2019 admission rates as available; note because of the small size of the campuses, their admissions rates often fluctuate more than do those of larger schools, both increasing and decreasing year over year); students can apply as freshman to any of the campuses they choose:

8.9%-10.3% Claremont McKenna

6.9%-7.4% Pomona

13.4%-14% Harvey Mudd

13.2%-15% Pitzer

24%-29.8% Scripps

Because of the double major “off campus” option, however, students can gain admission to a less competitive campus (particularly women who apply to Scripps) and obtain a second bachelor’s degree from select programs at neighboring institutions. For example, a student can attend Scripps as a primary campus and then, assuming she maintains a certain GPA and jump through a few registration and application hoops, get a CS degree from Harvey Mudd, or a Policy, Politics and Economics degree from Pomona. Pretty cool, especially considering the admit rate for women at Pomona is hovering around 5% right now (more women apply than men…), or how applying as a prospective interested in CS is more competitive than applying for nearly any other engineering major.

General Cross Enrollment Relationships

Many colleges negotiate with other schools to form cross-enrollment policies unique to their campuses.

For example, Mills College, a liberal arts college in Oakland which has an 84% acceptance rate, allows cross registration at UC Berkeley (16.9% admit rate), California College of the Arts, and over a dozen other local universities. Other universities in the Bay Area have similar programs, though Stanford‘s offerings are probably the most limited, offering only single quarter/semester exchanges with three historically black institutions and a Native American program at Dartmouth.

BOW Consortium

Babson, Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Wellesley College

Olin has a ~16% admit rate, while Wellesley’s is typically in the low 20’s. All students can take courses at any of the partner institutions.

Wellesley student, in particular, though, can do a 4+1 program if you apply junior year to get a second engineering degree with a 5th year of study at Olin.

Plus Wellesley students can take courses at MIT!

The Columbia Connection

Barnard College allows its students to register for courses at Columbia University, and awards degrees co-signed by Columbia University.

The “Bi-Co,” “Tri-Co or Quaker Consortium

Members Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore allow cross enrollment between the three campuses. Plus students at these colleges can take up to two courses a semester at Penn.

Finally, joint degree programs give students the chance to begin working on a graduate degree at Penn (in Education, Engineering, or City and Regional Planning) while earning their undergraduate degree at one of the three liberal arts colleges.

Five College Consortium:

Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst

Consortium of Universities (DC)

American University
The Catholic University of America
Gallaudet University
The George Washington University
George Mason University
Georgetown University
Howard University
Marymount University
Montgomery College
National Defense University
National Intelligence University
Northern Virginia Community College
Prince George’s Community College
Trinity Washington University
Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences
University of the District of Columbia
University of Maryland College Park

Look for 3-2 (Engineering) Programs:

Columbia, Dartmouth University of Illinois, and many other competitive engineering programs admit transfers to 2-year engineering degree programs from select liberal arts colleges—often with much greater admit rates than these institutions have for their general undergraduate populations. Students spend 3 years completing a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts at their initial institution, and then transfer for a final 2 years at an engineering school.

There are also a few 3-2 programs in other fields than engineering, such as Vanderbilt‘s nursing school 3-2 program.

Some liberal arts colleges that participate in these types of programs include:

  • Bard College
  • Beloit College
  • Bowdoin
  • Clark University
  • Colby
  • Davidson
  • Franklin and Marshall
  • Hobart and William Smith
  • Oberlin College
  • Amherst
  • Bates
  • Trinity College
  • Wesleyan University


I know you don’t want to hear it, but transferring sometimes can get you in to a school that favors transfer students. Not all colleges do—if you’re wondering which do, see our blog on best bets for Transfers.

Apply to a secondary campus or easier program:

Some colleges have multiple campuses and one has a higher or lower admit rate than another. This also goes for different “schools” within the same college. NYU has easier to get into campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, for example.

Emory, for example, has two separate campuses for freshman—one, Oxford, is less competitive than the other, and the degree you get senior year is the same.

Graduate school:

Admit rates to elite colleges in particular are often much more generous particularly in some departments for graduate programs. Even the law school or business school admit rates at an Ivy League school might be double or triple that of the undergraduate admissions rate. Rates for masters degrees in obscure academic subjects tend to be even higher, sometimes in the range of 30% or 50% for schools with freshman admit rates below 20%.