Selective colleges getting super-selective: But a college degree isn’t worth anything

April 17, 2013 at 1:53 am 9 comments

When I read about the burgeoning applications to colleges, I’m reminded of the claim that college degrees aren’t worth anything and that higher education is completely broken.

Stanford offered admission to 2,210 students via electronic notification today, producing – at 5.69 percent – the lowest admit rate in University history.…On Thursday, several peer institutions also reported historically low admit rates. Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton admitted 5.8, 6.72, 6.89 and 7.29 percent of applicants respectively.

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  • 1. alfredtwo  |  April 17, 2013 at 8:54 am

    I’m a bit of a super selective skeptic. What I wonder about is if the sorts of students who get into these schools would get as much at a smaller less selective school. At least at the undergraduate level. It’s a complex question with no easy answer. There are too many variables. At some selective universities students will be taught as much, or more, by graduate students and TAs as they will by tenured faculty. These schools do offer an advantage in getting that first job. Not much the second but definitely the first. Companies are so convinced that the top talent attends these selective schools that they often only recruit from those schools. Someone who may be just as good, if not better, may get overlooked because they attend a lesser known school.
    Also there are sometimes (not always) more opportunities for students to get deeply involved in interesting projects and research as undergraduates at a smaller school.
    An old story that some what illustrates the point. Many years ago when I was a recent graduate working at a large company I was visiting with a classmate at the same company. He was telling me that he was working with a lot of graduates of large schools who couldn’t even mount a mag tape. Granted that was a different era but these students didn’t have the same sort of access at their large schools that we did at a small one. Few hand real relationships with faculty (as we did), few had unsupervised access to labs (we had our own keys) and few had gotten as familiar with some of the practical side of things as we had.
    Granted things have gotten better over the years but I think is some areas small schools have positive differences that means they have real value of a different sort than large very selective schools have.

    Reply
    • 2. alanone1  |  April 17, 2013 at 10:09 am

      I think this is a good point.

      Years ago the Whole Earth Catalog people put considerable effort into trying to come up with a “right sized town” that traded off well between small and large. For example, they decided it had to be big enough to have its own symphony orchestra, small enough to allow more participatory government, etc.

      They came up with 20,000.

      I think the ideal size for a university is a fair amount smaller — it would be interesting to estimate.

      1000 seems too small (I went to a college that size for the first two years, and it was nice in many ways, but too few faculty, too small a range of ideas, not enough technical equipment, too small a library, substandard theater and music, etc.).

      When I attended the University of Colorado in the mid 60s, it was better over all with about 10,000 students, but it seemed to be a bit too large. For example, the band and orchestra were highly competitive rather than allowing more possibility of participation. The theater department was better, but only because of the extraordinary number of full productions they put on each year (about 25!).

      4000?

      Of course, we need to have high individual quality in professors, approach to curriculum, etc., regardless of size, but I’m guessing there is a real sweet spot that would provide the maximum opportunity for most students to grow in ways they hadn’t conceived on entry.

      Reply
  • 3. Philip Guo  |  April 17, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    My hunch is that even the most ardent MOOC fanatics (moocnatics?) don’t believe that the top universities are going to die.

    A more interesting stat would be if the next tier of universities (say, ranks 10 – 50) are also getting more selective, which I suspect is true.

    Reply
    • 4. alanone1  |  April 17, 2013 at 12:34 pm

      A real question — from alfredtwo — is can a prestigious university beyond a certain size actually be a *good* university for most students — in the senses we’ve been discussing.

      Americans like brands and use them as a way to avoid having to learn how to assess quality and then make actual decisions.

      Reply
    • 5. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  April 17, 2013 at 2:41 pm

      Yes, many public schools are getting more selective. UCSC, for example, at one time took all UC-eligible students (about 15% of high school graduates), but now accepts fewer than 50% of those eligible (I think it was 47% this year). For the first time this year, The University of California as a whole could not accept all UC-eligible students who applied, even with the relatively new UC Merced campus.

      Reply
  • 6. Bri Morrison  |  April 19, 2013 at 10:47 am

    I think a lot of this has to do with the Common Application and the internet in general. “Back in the day” when students had to type each individual college application by hand (including essays) they were not as likely to apply to as many colleges. Researching which colleges to apply to required time in the library, not just a “click” online. Students are applying to more schools (http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2011/10/20/study-more-students-apply-to-more-colleges) thus the application pool increases and it appears that the colleges are being more selective.

    Reply
    • 7. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  April 20, 2013 at 1:29 pm

      The common app does help increase college applications, but there is a feedback loop—if you have only a 5–10% chance of getting into the schools you want, then you need to apply to 10–20 schools, which increases the number applying and decreases the acceptance rate. What is amazing is how aggressively the super-selective schools market themselves—they have enough applicants but still spend millions trying to get more.

      Reply
      • 8. alanone1  |  April 20, 2013 at 6:23 pm

        To “gas”

        Do you have a theory about why they are trying to get more applicants?

        Reply
        • 9. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  April 20, 2013 at 8:22 pm

          The usual explanation is that campuses are rated by how selective they are, so the more applicants a college can reject the more people are willing to pay money to go there. It is a luxury good, whose primary value is its scarcity, rather than its quality.

          Reply

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