Almost anyone can tell you that admission to our nation’s most competitive universities is tougher than ever, but very few understood exactly why this is the case. David Leonhardt’s careful exploration of the issue (“Getting Into The Ivies” New York Times 4/27/14) sheds real light.
Population growth is not the issue; the number of US teenagers today is not much higher than it was 30 years ago. And, yes, more Americans do attend colleges than they did in the past, but most of this growth has occurred at community colleges and less selective institutions.
The truth is that as our economy has globalized, so has one of our greatest products: higher education. In the past 30 years, colleges have very consciously increased the number of international students they admit each year, leaving fewer spaces for US students. In absolute terms, for US students it is measurably more difficult to gain admission to Harvard, Brown, Georgetown, Northwestern, MIT, Stanford and other of the most competitive colleges. Had Harvard, adjusting for population, the number of places taken by US students has dropped 27% since 1994. At Yale and Dartmouth, the decline has been 24%. At Notre Dame and Princeton, it is 14%.
On the plus side, parents with children in these institutions see the tremendous learning and social understanding that comes from this true diversity in the student population. But others note that the international diversity has edged out spaces for economic diversity. Add to this the reality that these primarily northeastern universities now actively seek students from outside the northeast, leaving a student applying from New York City, for example, facing even smaller odds.
Colleges which have very specifically increased their enrollments during this time— Columbia and University of Chicago are cited by Mr. Leonhardt— have maintained consistent opening for US students. He goes on to cite universities like NYU and University of Southern California which have improved dramatically, becoming increasingly attractive to top students.
The final analysis is that “…there is scant evidence that the selectivity of the college one attends matters much. Students with similar SAT scores who attended colleges of different selectivity— say, Penn and Penn State— had statistically identical incomes in later years…