Selective schools prioritize prestige in face of rising demand for college, report says

Dive Brief:

  • As more students have applied to college over the last several decades, selective institutions have barely increased supply, reducing their admittance rates and suggesting they value prestige rather than scaling with demand, according to new research
  • A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper shows these top-ranked colleges have focused on admissions factors such as their students’ entrance exam scores compared to peer institutions.
  • Conversely, non-elite schools have grown their enrollments as application numbers have soared.

Dive Insight:

Significant growth in college enrollment since the 1970s partly stems from women attending college in increasing numbers and new interest among international students. Rising returns on investment in a higher education may also play a role.

Yet while application numbers have surged, many highly selective colleges have barely filled out their enrollments, according to the new NBER paper. It was written by Peter Blair, a Harvard University education professor, and Kent Smetters, a University of Pennsylvania economics and public policy professor. 

Yale University’s incoming first-year class in 1979 numbered 1,346 students, while in 2015 it was 1,360, a jump of merely 14 students, the report states. Meanwhile, applications to Yale boomed during those years, rising by 300%, from 9,331 applicants in 1979 to 30,932 in 2015. 

In contrast, enrollment at accessible institutions, those in the bottom 25% of average SAT percentiles, jumped by 61% from 1990 to 2015, the period studied. 

Many top-ranked schools — not just those in the Ivy League — have allowed their admit rates to fall as demand skyrocketed. That suggests they are concerned with their exclusivity, rather than access, according to models the paper’s authors developed.

Critics of this idea — that a thirst for exclusivity drives decisions about how many students elite colleges admit — might argue these selective colleges have merely settled on the number of students they want, a method of preserving the “look and feel” of a campus, the authors state. However, when they examined just small colleges that they said should have had a similar look and feel as elite campuses, the trends were the same — elite schools’ enrollments rose much more slowly than the comparison group’s. 

This concern for prestige is socially inefficient, meaning colleges aren’t accounting for all of the costs and benefits across society, the paper states. 

Pursuing prestige “produces a low level of enrollment that makes students and elite colleges worse off,” it says.

The authors suggest the situation could be improved if elite colleges could coordinate their admissions decisions, even if such coordination were basic, such as agreeing to a minimum admit rate. But that coordination is not legal under U.S. antitrust law, the paper says. 

Top-tier colleges have come under fire for boxing out underrepresented students in higher ed as student cohorts diversify and more try to pursue a college degree. They’ve also been criticized for being hyperfocused on their placements on U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges rankings, which many families review when deciding where their students should attend. The rankings also figure into many colleges’ strategic plans.