How Most Selective Colleges can Admit a Greater Number of Students
Should Competitive Colleges Admit More Students?
A few experts on admissions and education professors say it's time. And a few colleges are growing.
By Scott Jaschik May 3, 2021 Today is the deadline for lucky students to reply to offers of admission from the Ivy League's colleges, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and some other colleges. Some of those colleges admitted less than 4 percent of applicants and set new records for the number of applications they received.
With the official "close" date for the most competitive colleges finally here, the admissions picture for the year should become clear. If those colleges do not need to make much use of waiting lists, that will disappoint the thousands of students who are on those lists but please the other colleges to which they have been admitted. Most experts expect an unprecedented year in negotiations over where students will enroll. But most expect the colleges at the very top of the admissions list to continue to admit relatively few students. After all, those colleges get to pick whomever they want -- from thousands of applicants.
This year, a few experts on admissions issues and education professors are suggesting that those colleges should admit more students -- either by growing, starting new campuses or educating their students in new ways.
‘Why Stanford Should Clone Itself’
David L. Kirp, a professor in the graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, begins an essay last month in The New York Times with the evidence that the status quo is unfair.
"A 2017 study showed that at 38 colleges, including five in the Ivy League, more students come from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the bottom 60 percent. These hyper-rich youths are a jaw-dropping 77 times as likely to attend an Ivy League college as those whose parents’ income is in the bottom 20 percent," he writes.
He cites public universities that have responded -- in his opinion, appropriately -- to the situation. "Most enterprises where demand far outstrips supply would seize the opportunity to expand," Kirp writes. "A handful of public universities like Arizona State have done precisely that. Last fall, Arizona State enrolled more than 128,000 undergraduate and graduate students at campuses across the state and online. Even as Arizona State has become bigger and more egalitarian -- the number of undergraduates from low-income families has increased nearly 300 percent since 2002 -- it has also gotten better. The percentage of students who earn a bachelor’s degree has climbed to 69 percent, well above the national average."
Kirp's solution is evident from the headline on the piece: "Why Stanford Should Clone Itself."
"Here’s a revolutionary idea: A top private university like Princeton or Yale (or perhaps a renowned college like Amherst or Swarthmore) should open a new campus," he writes. "The institution would not have to lower its standards, because the best and brightest would queue for admission. Professors with glittering résumés would jump at the opportunity to teach there -- indeed, for the adventurous Yale-caliber academic, the opportunity to be present at the creation could be a powerful draw. Cities would perform handstands to land such a school."
Kirp is not the only one who thinks competitive colleges have alternatives to the status quo. The Making Caring Common project of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education last week published a report calling for change at all colleges that currently admit less than 50 percent of students.
"The reality is this: Selective colleges, a portal to leadership and power in a wide array of fields, can now educate far more -- and far more diverse -- students. In part because they have the resources to mount high-quality online courses, these colleges can create exciting, rigorous pathways to bachelor’s degrees that are not simply online but that combine online learning with on-campus learning, exciting field experiences, internships, and new types of communities in all sorts of ways that are more accessible, appealing, and affordable for a broad array of students," the report says. "In creating these pathways, they can maintain and even strengthen their commitment to the liberal arts and civic education. Rather than obtaining status partly from how few students they admit (which, distressingly, is the same as obtaining status from how many students they reject), these colleges could tout a far more just and democratic metric -- how many qualified students they educate."
The report adds, "And they could create these pathways without threatening their revenue. Selective colleges could reduce tuition for large numbers of students but recapture or even increase that revenue with expanded enrollment. Many selective colleges may have stumbled upon a rare moment when they can provide more exciting learning options, do what makes sense financially, and do what is democratic and right."
Other critics focus on those toward the top of the list. Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost of enrollment at Oregon State University, devoted a blog post to "Highly Rejective Colleges" last month -- with credit to Akil Bello, a senior director of advocacy and advancement at FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, for the term.
"These are all the names you know: They all have admit rates below 10 percent; all get less than a third of core revenues from tuition and fees," Boeckenstedt writes. "Think about the implications of those variables, and think about how much the April admissions press releases mean to the reputation of these institutions, and then ask yourself if this makes sense."
And Jim Jump, the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va., writes in this week's "Admissions Insider" that "Over the past 30 years, the number of colleges and universities that qualify as 'highly rejective' has proliferated. In 1992 there were 20 colleges that admitted fewer than one-third of applicants, according to data provided in that year’s U.S. News & World Report 'America’s Best Colleges' guide; today there are 75 to 80. There were two colleges that admitted fewer than 20 percent, and today that number is closer to 40."
He adds, "Thirty years ago, the lowest admit rate for any college was 17 percent. Has the increased rejectivity produced a better college admissions process? Colleges are continually pushed to be more rejective by boards, rankings and even bond-rating agencies. But does a 95 percent rejection rate produce better classes than an 83 percent rejection rate, or does it increase the sense among the public that the system is rigged? College admission depends on public confidence and trust in our process and our profession. That confidence and trust have already been threatened by the shenanigans of wealthy parents in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. Does excessive fealty to the gospel of rejectivity pose a greater threat?"
The Scary Projections and Some College Answers
But what about the projections of Nathan D. Grawe, the economist at Carleton College? He argued in two books, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education and The Agile College (both from Johns Hopkins University Press), that most colleges -- and the vast majority of nonelite institutions -- are about to face severe shortage of potential students.
In this environment, if some colleges were to increase their size to admit more students, other colleges would lose (unless the students admitted were people not currently enrolling in higher education). So if some colleges with highly competitive admissions admitted more students, other colleges would lose out.
Kirp wrote in his column of another fear of colleges: losing their relative rankings or prestige. "Institutions like these, which guard their reputation with mother-bear fierceness, predictably fear that if they took such a bold step, their coin-of-the-realm prestige would suffer and that their U.S. News & World Report ranking would slip a notch or two. Yet if Harvard-San Diego were truly a clone of the mother ship, as it could well be, it is hard to see how the university would be worse off."
And it's important to note that a few colleges -- at the top of the admissions world -- have increased in size.
In 2020, Yale University finished a four-year campaign to increase its class size by 15 percent. Princeton University is undertaking a similar campaign. Princeton had already run a similar campaign starting in 2005. Neither university has suffered for reputation, nor are they admitting a larger share of applicants.
Rice University is not as competitive as Yale and Princeton, but it is plenty competitive, admitting 9.3 percent of applicants this year. The university announced in March that it would open a 12th residential college as a plan to enlarge its undergraduate student body by 20 percent, to 4,800, by the fall of 2025.
Still, most colleges that are competitive in admissions are not undertaking similar initiatives right now.
Angel Pérez, the CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said, "I think that any effort that is going to help institutions increase access and educate more traditionally underserved students is one worth pursuing. Every institution, regardless of 'type,' should be having these intentional conversations, including the most selective with resources that far outweigh others."
But he added that the Harvard paper says that “selective colleges are not higher education’s answer to the deep, widespread problem of inequity. For one, only 3 percent of students attend a college that accepts less than 25 percent of its applicants, and only 20 percent attend a college that accepts less than 50 percent of its applicants. What’s more, almost two-thirds of Americans don’t graduate from a four-year college.”
Said Pérez, "I applaud this important effort but also want to remind the public that the most selective institutions alone won’t solve the access equation. In fact, it’s providing more funding and pipeline support into less selective institutions that could truly be a game changer."
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