A rite of spring: Lots of attention this week to the richest private universities in the country — and just how hard it is to secure a spot at one of them. Spurred by the pandemic, more applications than ever poured into these places.

  • Yale got nearly 47,000 applications, and accepted 4.6 percent.
  • Columbia: 3.7 percent.
  • Harvard: 3.4 percent.

Maybe the issue though isn’t that these places reject so many students — it’s that they have so few spots in the first place.

That’s the argument this week in The New York Times (David Kirp argued Stanford should clone itself) and in the Washington Post (Jeff Selingo, our friend and contributor, said Harvard and its ilk should be embarrassed by how few students they educate).

I helped Jeff out with some of the numbers for his piece and it got me thinking again about just how these universities have grown — or not. For his analysis we focused on the Top 50 universities in the US News rankings.

Right now there are 35 private institutions and 16 publics in that group. I wondered how they’ve changed in size over the past 40 years. The group isn’t entirely static, of course; we’re just talking about the current top 50.

The top line? In a country, where the total number of undergraduates has swollen by 62 percent since 1980, the major public universities have nearly kept pace — growing 55 percent in those decades. The privates are another story. They’re up just 18 percent.

By the way, the massive expansion of NYU and the University of Southern California account for more than 40 percent of that growth on the right in the chart above.

In contrast, Rice University, one of the smallest top universities with about 4,000 students, earned praise last week for announcing plans to grow by 20 percent over the next four years.

For most privates that would be a radical departure:

  • Northwestern actually enrolls fewer undergrads than it did in 1980. So does Boston College. And Northeastern’s meteoric rise in the rankings came, in part, by slashing its enrollment.
  • Others have budged modestly. Princeton, Dartmouth, Stanford and Duke, for instance, have combined to add just 2,400 spots since Jimmy Carter was president.

These small enrollments mean that when we’re talking about how few low-income students the Ivies and similar schools enroll, we’re still talking about relatively tiny numbers.

Taken together, those universities in the top 50 have roughly 158,000 Pell students, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. The private universities, despite dominating the rankings, enroll just 45,000 of them.

Here’s a quick visual depiction of Pell students at those 50 universities (51 really, because of a tie). Click through to explore the interactive version, where you can see that UC Irvine, UC San Diego, and UC Davis each enroll more Pell students than the whole Ivy League.

As Jeff wrote:

Imagine if all the Ivies, with their tax breaks and large endowments, announced tomorrow that they were cutting enrollment by 10 or even 20 percent: Pitchforks would come out. Yet that’s effectively what they’ve done by failing to expand as the nation’s population grew.

I just checked the numbers — if these top 35 privates had grown at the same rate as the leading publics, they would have nearly 100,000 additional students than they do now.

Here’s a final line that jumped out to me from the David Kirp piece in the Times: “Unlike Tiffany or De Beers, top-ranked universities don’t promote themselves as avatars of exclusivity.”

I guess a press release about ultra-low acceptance rates is sort of different from an ad for a diamond ring, right?

—Scott Smallwood

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The Campus Vaccine Debate

Universities have been making headlines in recent weeks by announcing plans to require students to get their COVID-19 vaccine if they want to come to campus in the fall. More than a dozen colleges have now said they will mandate vaccines. (The Chronicle of Higher Education is keeping a running list here.)

Despite the flurry of attention these announcements have brought, most universities probably won’t take this path, public-health experts said. That’s for a couple reasons:

  • Legal headaches. While many experts believe that colleges’ ability to require vaccines would ultimately stand up in court, Inside Higher Ed reported, legal battles are likely.
  • Political headaches. This could especially be an issue at public universities in states with conservative-leaning governments. Governors in Texas, Florida, and Utah, for example, already have signed laws or executive orders that limit some entities (including public colleges, in some cases) from requiring vaccines.

Instead, universities may be more likely to use carrots rather than sticks to strongly encourage students to get their shots. Want to participate in fun activities like intramural sports? Or attend the big football game? A vaccine could become like a VIP pass to a more normal college experience.

No matter the strategy, colleges are going to have to prepare for more outbreaks and be vigilant about mitigation efforts like contact tracing, said Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association.

“You’re going to have some students who didn’t tell you they weren’t vaccinated or have religious exemptions,” he said. “So they need to have a process to make sure they don’t let up on safety measures.”

— Nico Portuondo

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Every one of the 44 million Americans with student loan debt has a story, Jason Gonzales wrote this week. He told five of them, showing how borrowing money for college — and struggling, often, to pay it back — has shaped lives in Colorado.

Student debt, borrowers told Jason, brings tears. It causes shame. Why, one asked, does bettering yourself come at such a high price? “I feel trapped,” another said. “I feel like I’m drowning.”

Also in Colorado, Jason and Erica Meltzer reported on the state’s proposed $34.1 billion budget, which would restore deep cuts made last year to higher ed and provide more money to help students who have traditionally struggled to complete college.

In Santa Cruz, Nick Ibarra previewed the University of California at Santa Cruz’s preliminary plans for the fall: Campus will mostly be open, he reported, with on-campus housing at nearly full capacity and the majority of courses in person.

Nick also wrote about a debate over whether football should return to the local community college, Cabrillo, after it was suspended last year for rules violations.

In The Job, Paul Fain wrote about a new partnership in Miami — among Miami Dade College, SoftBank, and Correlation One — that seeks to close equity gaps in training for lucrative tech jobs.  

In latitude(s), Karin Fischer talked with three students who still managed to study overseas this year about what they learned and why they were so determined to go.


UC grapples with allegations of funding inequities, racism
UC grapples with allegations of funding inequities, racism www.latimes.com
UC Riverside has high proportions of low-income, first generation and underrepresented minority students. Faculty members say the campus is not getting its fair share of funding.


Some employers drop bachelor’s degree requirement to diversify staff

Is a college degree required for that job? It might be — but is it really necessary? Some employers are dropping the requirement for a bachelor’s degree to diversify their staffs and get better candidates.

Study finds campus residence halls have racialized labels
A new study of three universities found that certain dorms on their campuses were widely, but unofficially, considered off-limits for low-income students and students of color.

Half of all Detroit high school graduates don’t enroll in college. Here’s what they do instead.

Too many students in the city don’t know they have options, one advocate for college access said, and the adults around them need to do more to help. (Subscription required.) 

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