selective college admissions games

Alongside the well-publicized scandal of super-rich parents covertly buying their kids entry into super-elite colleges (as distinguished from super-rich parents overtly buying entry through donations, and just-pretty-rich parents doing so through opportunity hoarding), I am interested in two more general patterns in selective-college admissions these days:

  • The incredibly low admissions percentages at elite colleges (public and private), publicized and often understood as indicators of college quality; and
  • Many colleges closing for lack of financial resources, and many others below capacity (in these cases generally, though not entirely, less-selective institutions)

Finally, meanwhile, the “oversupply” of Ph.D.s, particularly in the humanities and some social sciences, is well-documented and anxiety-producing.

The first of these implies that there is substantial undersupply of selective-college seats. Admissions rates for some super-elite schools are in the mid-single digits. Even recognizing that the denominators include the same applicants at many institutions, it seems clear that these colleges could increase their class sizes several fold and still admit very highly qualified classes, fully capable of the level of educational rigor expected at the institutions. And, if the glut of applicants is any indication, the skyrocketing price of attendance at these super-elite private colleges is not scaring away enough to drive up those admissions rates.

The same general pattern is true of the selective “public flagships” like UNC (about 30% generally, compared to 5-10% at the super-elite privates). For many of our students, admission to Carolina is a singular achievement, and there are certainly many more around who could be successful here than can be admitted given our capacity. (UNC is also far more affordable for all students, and particularly low-income students.)

It doesn’t look to me like the difference between these two groups of institutions is in the price, in the majors being offered (i.e., students being attracted to majors promising high-paying jobs), or in the efficiency of delivery of content. What characterizes the institutions that are turning away students vis-a-vis those being turned away by students? I haven’t done the research systematically (though it’s an interesting project that wouldn’t be so very difficult to do), but it looks to me like the “winners”:

  • Have faculty who are actively engaged in research and discovery of new knowledge;
  • Are less likely to use as many adjunct faculty, and when they do are more likely to do so on career tracks as opposed to course-by-course;
  • Offer a range of majors, most of them in traditional academic disciplines in the liberal arts and sciences; and
  • Provide substantial financial aid to support affordability.

I’m particularly perplexed by articles like this one, which asserts that universities like Western Illinois and Southern Illinois are losing students because students want majors that promise quick, high-salary jobs (“such as engineering and accounting majors”), since both WIU and SIU offer both engineering and accounting. Hmmm.

The push in much of higher ed has been to compete on price and access–via online education, larger classes, and similar. But if my observations are right, that’s a losing battle because it also generally means compromising on quality. The better bet–for students and for institutions–would be to compete on quality, increasing the value of a degree by hiring full-time, research-active faculty and making them directly available to students in the service of a range of academically-rigorous, arts-and-sciences majors. And there are plenty of such faculty who would be eager to be part of such ventures–remember that “oversupply” I mentioned above? It’s actually not oversupply at all; it’s underdemand! There are lots of would-be students out there who would like to partake in the educational services of currently-un(der)employed Ph.D.s, and who would be willing to pay for, borrow in the service of, and/or apply for financial aid for, the opportunity.

The obvious reason this doesn’t happen is cost. State investment in public higher education is way down, and is far from recovering from the post-2008 cuts. The investment in increasing quality in the ways I outlined above would be quite substantial. But with new emphasis on reducing student debt, paying attention to the “real college” experience of low-income students, and free college, I think it’s important to emphasize that access to high quality higher education should be the goal, both for students’ financial security and for the citizenship benefits it carries.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

7 thoughts on “selective college admissions games”

  1. “I’m particularly perplexed by articles like this one, which asserts that universities like Western Illinois and Southern Illinois are losing students because students want majors that promise quick, high-salary jobs (‘such as engineering and accounting majors’), since both WIU and SIU offer both engineering and accounting. Hmmm.”

    From the linked-to article: “…a degree from Harvard or the University of Michigan still is highly respected, so their graduates mostly get decent jobs. That is distinctly less true of those graduating from less selective schools…The basic problem is that colleges actually impart directly employable skills for only a very modest portion of the college population (such as engineering and accounting majors) and that employers hiring high paid workers feel they need someone with more than a degree from the College of Last Resort. I do not see this trend changing much soon to help the Western Illinois and Eastern Michigans of the world”.

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    1. Yeah, that’s my point exactly – they are losing students because they’re (perceived as) the “College[s] of Last Resort,” not because they don’t offer the appropriate majors.

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      1. If you are acknowledging that the Vedder article makes your point exactly, then what perplexed you about the Vedder article? I don’t see how noting that “WIU and SIU offer both engineering and accounting” undercuts anything in the Vedder article.

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      2. The Vedder article posits two explanations for declining enrollments: (1) that students prefer majors that promise immediate high-income employment, such as accounting and engineering; and (2) that students see little value in degrees from “College[s] of Last Resort.” Option (1) cannot actually explain declining enrollment at the institutions Vedder highlights, because those majors are offered at those institutions. Option (2) is far more likely, and speaks to my point about how institutions ought to compete.

        Of course, the main point of my post was not the Vedder article.

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      3. I don’t think that Vedder proposes “students prefer[ring] majors that promise immediate high-income employment, such as accounting and engineering” as an independent explanation for decreasing enrollments. For evidence of this interpretation, note that Vedder discusses “the basic problem” (singular) when mentioning “accounting and engineering” alongside the “College of Last Resort” factor: “The basic problem is that colleges actually impart directly employable skills for only a very modest portion of the college population (such as engineering and accounting majors) and that employers hiring high paid workers feel they need someone with more than a degree from the College of Last Resort”.

        Returning to my initial comment, I don’t think that it is correct to describe Vedder’s argument in a way that can be undercut by noting that “both WIU and SIU offer both engineering and accounting”. I’m comfortable letting interested readers compare Vedder’s article with the discussion of it in your post.

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  2. Thinking a bit more about this – I think the main point is that there’s no necessary reason why seats in excellent colleges and universities — those that do more right than wrong in terms of research, education, and faculty careers — need to be so scarce. And there’s no necessary reason why expanding access to higher education needs to mean casualization of academic labor, large impersonal classes, low-quality online delivery, and so on. These are policy choices (as Chris Newfield argues). A strong higher-education policy would emphasize both access and excellence as two sides of the same goal.

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  3. There seem to be multiple layers here. (1) Expanded proportions of people who have been to college reduce the value of a college degree. The new stratification is about which college. This is about credentialism and preservation of status hierarchies, not about quality of education. (2) The increasing in income is reflected in inequality in funding for educational institutions. The rich are getting richer, and the poor, poorer. (3) These seem to me to be closely related trends. The wealthy are funding their own institutions and abandoning egalitarian preferences. Similarly, within any given institution, inequality is increasing in the growing gap between the tenured professorate and the adjuncts who are dong more of the work. Adjunct does not equal poor instructor, although the conditions of employment for precarious adjuncts make high quality instruction difficult in a structural sense, e.g. 2 weeks to prepare, no office, too man courses. (4) Agree with your argument that this is not about what majors are being offered.

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