But though this year’s low acceptance rates are due to a once-in-a-century event, it’s also a continuation of an ongoing trend. College admissions at the elite level have gotten ever more competitive. A quarter of a century ago, Harvard accepted 10.9 percent of its applicants. By 2007, when the New York Times headlined its “brutally low acceptance rates,” it fell to 9 percent. It’s now below 5 percent and has declined steadily.
Here’s a suggestion: Harvard should use part of its $41.9 billion endowment to admit more students — and lots of them. Other elite schools should consider doing the same. Doing so would allow them to take in significantly more lower-income and minority students. And it could also, because of these institutions’ positions at the top of the higher education establishment, have an outsized impact on the college admissions rat race.
Over the past several decades, the population of the United States grew by tens of millions of people, the number of high school graduates attending college has also increased significantly, while at the same time, the numbers of foreign students accepted for studying in the United States soared. Compounding a bad situation for college applicants: innovations like the Common App, which made it easier for students to apply to multiple colleges.
True, as Daniel Markovits points out his book “The Meritocracy Trap,” it’s not significantly harder to gain admission to any college than it was in the 1960s. But that’s not the case at the most prestigious schools, where more people — including many from traditionally disadvantaged or underrepresented groups — than ever are seeking the admissions nod.
At the top level, this led to an admissions cascade, with other schools getting more choosy too. Boston University accepted more than half of those who applied in 2007, but only 18.5 percent in 2020. For the class of 2001, Stanford University accepted more than 15 percent of students. In 2001, Duke University gave the nod to over 20 percent. These days, both schools’ acceptance rates are in the mid-single digits.
The selectivity has fueled ever more frantic résumé padding among prospective students and their families, right down to desperate fights over admission to prestigious nursery schools in cities like New York City and San Francisco. The children of upper-middle-class families — the group most likely to fall prey to the hysteria — will be fine no matter which college they attend. But as the price of college soared well in excess of inflation, it makes a certain amount of sense that people will seek to buy what they perceive to be the best. Scolding parents and kids to relax just won’t cut it, especially when graduates of elite colleges do often enjoy higher earnings than those who attended less selective schools. One other thing needs to be said too: for lower-income students, more selective, private colleges can lead to better outcomes.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. Even as applications kept increasing, Harvard’s undergraduate size remained around 6,700. Other elite schools have increased their student body size, but rarely by enough to compensate for the flood of applicants. Duke has increased the size of its undergraduate student body by about 9 percent since 2001, while Yale University added about 15 percent more students beginning in 2017. That sounds significant, until you realize that the number of applications both schools receive has massively increased over the past 30 years.
I am not the first to tell Harvard to step up. In 2018, then Harvard University Kennedy School professor Joshua Goodman, in a now-deleted tweet argued, “expanding access to high quality colleges is good for student outcomes and would lower everyone’s blood pressure when it comes to admissions, affirmative action, etc.” And earlier this year, Jonah Berger, a columnist for the Harvard Crimson, begged the school to up the size of its incoming class and designate the additional spots for lower-income students, arguing that it would still allow Harvard to continue giving some favor to legacy admits, a practice the school — like most schools — insists on continuing.
Demanding the prestige schools up their admissions game puts the onus for fixing the issue of out-of-control college fever on those most responsible for fueling it — the schools. If the most selective schools commit to using their endowments to pay for major expansions, ones that would make a significant dent in those admissions stats, it would send a powerful message, one that could help change the college fever mind-set, and at the same time help many young adults of all income levels and racial and ethnic backgrounds. It’s time to spread the admissions wealth.