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.