Should Elite Schools Be Embarrassed About How Few Students They Educate?
In last week’s Washington Post, former Chronicle of Education Editor Jeff Selingo wrote an opinion piece about Harvard and its peers and their continued low admission rates. According to Mr. Selingo, some of these institutions’ alums may view the low, single-digit admissions rates as a confirmation of their alma maters’ popularity and prestige. He believes that these numbers are signs of institutional failure.
With their large endowments (Harvard’s is $42 billion), these institutions are more than capable of serving the students that they currently admit, argues Mr. Selingo. He further adds that these low admissions rates have been published/publicized at a time when there is a heated debate about who “deserves” to attend selective universities. He cites a 2017 study that found that 38 colleges have more students from the top 1 percent of the income scale than the bottom 60 percent.
One way to theoretically make progress in the access debates, according to Mr. Selingo, is to shift from an argument over who gets admitted to admitting more students. The enrollment of students at Ivy League colleges grew by 14 percent over the past 30 years, while the number of high school graduates grew by 44 percent.
Many of the notable public universities have grown the number of students that they serve without sacrificing quality. I note that one of the universities whose enrollment he cites, Arizona State University, has a substantial percentage of its enrollment online and not on-campus.
Mr. Selingo believes that the reason the top colleges have not expanded their enrollment is “solely” based on the idea that “more exclusive” means “better.” He writes that they’re ignoring evidence from some of our top-ranked public universities, but also from the rest of the world.
I have to disagree with Mr. Selingo for a number of reasons. My first reason is based on geography. When I look at the Ivy Plus universities (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale), I note that all of them are “residential” universities.
At least two-thirds of these educational institutions are located in cities with little opportunity to expand on vacant land. Expanding the size of their undergraduate enrollment would require an expansion of their campus unless they wanted to admit commuter students and/or online students.
Either of these options would trigger a cultural change, and I’m not referring to the admission of more lower-income students. If the university’s culture is based on a residential experience, forcing some students to attend online or commute to campus is a different experience. Harvard’s Extension School, in existence since 1910, now enrolls more than 30,000 students, mostly online, and a substantially higher number than 30 years ago. It’s Harvard, but the experience is different as is the diploma.
Assuming that there are ways to expand the residential campus in order to enroll more undergraduate students, it will take time and money. The more landlocked the university (like Columbia or the University of Pennsylvania), the longer it will take to acquire buildings, receive zoning approval and/or building permits, and demolish or renovate as well as construct new buildings. Based on these facts, increasing an elite residential institution’s undergraduate student enrollment by 20 percent is much more likely than doubling it.
Even Mr. Selingo provides a counterargument to his proposal by writing “expanding undergraduate populations at even dozens of name-brand U.S. universities would have a limited effect, given how small they are in the context of American higher education.” He argues that “every bit helps, because eminent universities are powerful engines of socioeconomic mobility.”
Furthermore, Mr. Selingo writes that “private colleges don’t want to displace students who pay the full cost of tuition, or the children of alumni, to accommodate low-income students.” He argues that expansion offers a way out of that bind. They could increase their freshman classes by 10 percent and if all the spots were reserved for Pell Grant recipients, 29,000 more low-income students could enroll.
Mr. Selingo further extracts the math to write that if those elite colleges expanded by 20 percent, 58,000 more slots would be added for Pell Grant students. If they only admitted Pell Grant students at the same percentage that they currently admit, 9,000 additional students would benefit.
As I have written in several articles related to this issue of elite colleges and who they admit, admissions is a complicated issue. I was a “lottery winner” who attended an independent school and Duke University on scholarships, including the equivalent of a Pell Grant (Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, before they were renamed for Senator Claiborne Pell).
For 18 years, I led an open enrollment online university with a mission to provide quality and affordable education. Our tuition, fees, and books were less for an entire four-year degree than a year at any of these elite private universities.
The highly selective institutions that Mr. Selingo writes about are very sophisticated financially. The employees who manage their multi-billion-dollar endowments are often paid more than the president. They have a business model for their university that is unlike many others.
On the revenues input side, they primarily receive tuition and fees, income from the endowment, annual fund donations, and research grants. The annual list price in tuition, fees, books, and room and board for an undergraduate student ranges between $72,000 and $80,000 per year. At the same time, students with an annual family income below a specific amount — say $150,000 — are guaranteed a financial aid package that does not include student loans.
The business model selected by these institutions is a premium pricing strategy. Everyone arguing for expanded access for low-income students ignores the model. A premium pricing model generally assumes that consumers will pay more for a product that is perceived as higher quality. If you want to buy a Rolex watch versus a Timex, the Rolex company does not assume that they have to give away a certain percentage of Rolexes to low-income people.
Fortunately, due to the nonprofit status of the highly selective institutions, they have an obligation to contribute to “the public good,” however ill-defined that may be. Nonetheless, it’s why they have policies to ensure that students from low-income families are not obligated to borrow monies to attend.
In my opinion, these conversations about having more students from low-income families attend highly selective institutions are not productive. The highly selective, nonprofit private institutions will build in policies to seek lower-income students as long as it fits within the confines of their business model.
The more productive conversation would be to encourage the institutions that educate the vast majority of our college students to provide a more supportive environment for students from low-income families. The numbers alone would indicate a better outcome in terms of overall low income students. At the end of the day, isn’t that more important than providing a very few students on an incremental basis the opportunity to attend a highly selective institution?