Should highly selective colleges open up more space for students?

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Over the last month, the most selective colleges and universities in the U.S. released their admissions decisions for a spot in their Class of 2025. Many schools set records for how many applications they received in this cycle. UCLA alone received a jaw-dropping 160,000 applications, a jump of 25% over the previous year.

Many of these same schools also set records for how many students they “denied”—what the rest of us simply call rejections. Harvard rejected 97%. Princeton and MIT, both 96%. 

It’s the reason Akil Bello, senior director of advocacy and advancement at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, has coined these schools not the “highly selectives” as a group but the “highly rejectives.”

☕️ Good morning, and thanks for reading NEXT. Among the topics we’ll tackle in today’s edition is whether the “highly rejectives” should expand their freshman classes. This comes with the usual reminder that most colleges accept most students: the average acceptance rate is 57%.

?Giveaway: Two new important parenting books launched this month and I’m giving away several copies of both. First up is Your Turn: How to Be an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims. Head over to Instagram or Facebook for details. I’m also giving away The Addiction Inoculation, by Jessica Lahey. Check out the details on Instagram or Facebook for how to win a copy.

? Going Live: We’re also going live with NEXT on LinkedIn and Instagram this spring with discussions about a variety of topics related to the future of higher ed and work post-pandemic. For notifications about when to tune in, be sure to follow me on Instagram and LinkedIn.

The Size of Opportunity

Last week, in a Washington Post op-ed, I laid out the argument that highly selective schools should expand their undergraduate enrollment. It’s not a new idea, of course. Indeed, just a few days before my piece landed, David Kirp suggested in the New York Times that Stanford should clone itself.

Context: There are many different ways to define “selective universities,” but for the purposes of this exercise, I looked at the top 50 universities in the current U.S. News rankings. There are 35 private institutions and 16 publics in that group (there’s one tie).

  • Working with my Open Campus colleague and friend, Scott Smallwood, we crunched enrollment figures of these 51 institutions over 40 years and ran various scenarios about what growth might look like. You can read Scott’s excellent analysis of what we found during our research over at Open Campus.

By the numbers: A few of the more startling trends we found are worth mentioning here.

  • Since 1980, the total number of undergraduates at U.S. colleges has swollen by 62%.
  • The 16 public universities in the U.S. News rankings have nearly kept pace, growing 55% in the last 40 years.
  • But the privates? They’re up just 18%. Some, like Northwestern and Boston College, have actually gotten smaller in that time.
  • Princeton, Dartmouth, Stanford and Duke, for instance, have combined added just 2,400 spots since 1980. Let’s put that number in perspective: that’s about the same as the public-school enrollment in my home county in Maryland grew in just one year (2019)—and we’re one of 3,000 counties in the U.S.

Why it matters: Yes, private colleges are not public entities, but they receive extensive public benefits.

  • Not only do they get federal research dollars and financial aid for their students, but as non-profit entities their land holdings and endowments (for the most part) aren’t taxed.
  • A 2015 study found such benefits account for $41,000 in hidden taxpayer subsidies per student annually, on average, at the top 10 wealthiest private universities. That’s more than three times the direct appropriations public universities in the same states as those schools get.
  • In exchange for those public benefits there are real questions about what these top private colleges do to foster social mobility.
  • The 35 top-ranked privates combined enroll 45,000 students who receive federal Pell Grants, which typically go to families making less than $40,000 a year. By comparison, there are three campuses in the University of California system—Irvine, San Diego, and Davis—that each enroll more Pell students than the entire Ivy League

? Explore this Open Campus interactive of Pell students at the top 50 national universities.

The backstory: The original draft of my Post op-ed didn’t include a specific numerical goal for growing enrollment at the highly selectives—it simply suggested they needed to grow. The editor proposed that I add a target. But what should that number be? 

  • Whatever the numerical goal would be, I felt it needed to be tied to the efforts by highly selective schools to enroll higher proportions of traditionally underrepresented students on their campuses.
  • In recent years, the Ivy League and the near-Ivies have attempted to move beyond their exclusive, prep-school roots. According to a 2017 study, 38 colleges—including five in the Ivy League—have more students from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the bottom 60 percent. 
  • The increasingly heated debate about who “deserves” to attend selective universities is often seen as a zero-sum game—when one student gets in, another is denied. It’s unfortunate because in reality competitive institutions turn down ten highly qualified applicants for every one or two they accept.
  • To get beyond this “us vs. them” game, I looked at how much the 35 top-ranked private schools would need to grow in order for their proportion of Pell Grant recipients to be closer to the national average of 34% and how they can do that without displacing full-payers, legacies, athletes, or other students who are institutional priorities.
  • If the 35 colleges added 4,000 students overall to their freshman classes, after four years they would have grown their student body by 6%, and increased their Pell recipients by more than a third without displacing other students.

Yes, but: Just as we finished that scenario, Rice University announced that it would increase its undergraduate enrollment by 20% over several years—to 4,800 students. That’s not a typo—that will be their enrollment after the expansion.

  • So, my proposal of a 6% increase over 35 universities suddenly seemed like a meager goal. Thus, the final piece suggested a 10 or 20% increase.

Consider this: David Kirp suggested in his New York Times piece that Stanford build a new physical campus. But given all we learned this past year about new ways of doing business in higher ed, there are other approaches selective schools can employ to expand their enrollment:

? A flexible option offered to applicants, where students spend time equal times on campus and off. In off-campus settings, undergrads can take online classes while working, interning, researching, or simply focusing on their coursework.

? Start college elsewhere through programs like Verto Education, which partners with colleges to allow students to study abroad or take a gap year all while earning enough credits to begin on campus as sophomores. 

? Expansion of hybrid courses that enable to students to mix-and-match in-person and virtual courses, opening up classroom spaces on campus.

? Creative use of the academic calendar to offer more courses in the summer and during breaks.

The bottom line: Judging from the emails I received from administrators and trustees at selective universities, don’t expect many top schools to follow Rice’s lead.

“It’s too expensive to replicate our style of education,” one trustee at an Ivy League university wrote. “And the faculty just won’t go for it unless we hire more professors and that leads us back to point one—it’s too expensive.”

Another view: Then this arrived from a president at a public regional university.

“These are country clubs, and people stop trying to get into the country club when it’s too easy to do so. There are thousands of colleges in the U.S. Why not invest in our institutions so we have more opportunity, in more places?”

Indeed, that message reminded me of research studies on social mobility from Raj Chetty’s team. Those studies demonstrated there are a class of institutions that Americans don’t often talk about but do a very good job at educating students from modest backgrounds and pushing them up the income ladder.

What do you think: should top colleges open up more spots or should we grow the pie by lifting up other institutions? Hit reply or drop me a note and I’ll feature some responses in a forthcoming edition.


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Until next time, Cheers — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...