Harvard’s announcement this past week that its acceptance rate fell to an all-time low of just 3.4 percent will be viewed by some alumni as a triumph — a sign of their alma mater’s popularity and prestige among high school grads. And some alumni of elite institutions like Yale (4.6 percent), Brown (5.4 percent) and Princeton (4 percent) may feel the same glow of pride. In actuality, these numbers are signs of institutional failure.

That some 55,000 applicants were denied the chance to attend Harvard — which, with its $42 billion endowment, is fully capable of serving more than 1,640 students in an incoming class — is no cause for celebration. Instead, the ever-declining proportion of applicants accepted at such top-ranked universities should spur them to consider making their freshman classes substantially larger. Such a move would be especially appropriate — and, perhaps, more imaginable — after a pandemic year when universities across the country have had to reconceive education in a multitude of ways.

This year’s admissions figures arrive amid an increasingly heated debate about who “deserves” to attend selective universities. Should special consideration continue to be granted to varsity athletes and children of alumni? Is affirmative action fair, or does it punish Asian American students in particular? There’s also a long-overdue reckoning about how these institutions can accelerate their move beyond their exclusive, prep-school roots and combat inequities. According to a 2017 study, 38 colleges — including five in the Ivy League — have more students from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the bottom 60 percent.  

One way to make progress in these debates is to shift from an argument over who gets what slice of the educational pie to a discussion about baking a bigger pie. 

When the selectivity of an institution increases, that obviously doesn’t mean that the education the school provides is getting better. Rather, it suggests that these institutions are missing a significant opportunity to maximize their impact on society. Ivy League colleges grew by 14 percent over the last 30 years, lagging far behind the 44 percent rise in the number of high school graduates.

Many well-known public universities have expanded the number of students they serve without sacrificing quality. For example, the University of Michigan’s enrollment has increased by 35 percent since 1990, but that has not caused it to lose its place among the top 25 schools in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of national universities. Arizona State University, where I am affiliated, has more than tripled its enrollment since 1990, to 100,000. It now enrolls three times the number of federal Pell Grant recipients — a low-income group — as do the eight institutions in the Ivy League combined.

The deep-pocketed private institutions that have declined to increase enrollment significantly have largely avoided scrutiny. But imagine if all the Ivies, with their tax breaks and large endowments, announced tomorrow that they were cutting enrollment by 10 or even 20 percent: Pitchforks would come out. Yet that’s effectively what they’ve done by failing to expand as the nation’s population grew. 

While researching my latest book, “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” I observed the effects of the narrowing acceptance rates firsthand. Application readers at top colleges told me that they could fill multiple freshman classes with deserving students and that, as a result, selection decisions are now often arbitrary. Each year, these colleges turn away thousands of academic superstars based solely on the idea that “more exclusive” means “better.” They are ignoring the example not only of some of our top-ranked public universities but those from the rest of the world. Take Canada, for instance: Its three most prominent universities — the University of Toronto, McGill University and the University of British Columbia — enroll more than 150,000 undergraduates. That’s more students than attend the top 18 institutions in the U.S. News rankings taken together.

Granted, expanding undergraduate populations at even dozens of name-brand U.S. universities would have a limited effect, given how small they are in the context of American higher education. (In 2020-2021, close to 17 million undergraduates are enrolled at more than 4,500 two- and four-year universities.) Yet every bit helps, because eminent universities are powerful engines of socioeconomic mobility: A 2017 study led by the Harvard economist Raj Chetty, for instance, found that 58 percent of Harvard students born into the bottom 20 percent of the income scale were able to climb to the top 20 percent by their mid-30s. To put that in perspective, the chance that the average American in the bottom quintile can make the same leap is 1.7 percent. (The study identified numerous colleges — including the City University of New York and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley — that push far more low-income students up the ladder, albeit more gradually.)

In general, top colleges face growing pressure to enroll more lower-income students — with the percentage of undergraduates who qualify for a Pell Grant serving as a useful metric. Pell Grants typically go to families making less than $40,000 a year. Private colleges do an especially poor job on this front. Of the top 50 national universities in the U.S. News ranking, 16 are public and 35 are private (the numbers add to 51 because of a tie). At the public schools, an average of 26 percent of students receive Pell Grants. At the privates, the figure is just 15 percent. (Nationally, about a third of students at two- and four-year colleges receive Pell support.)

Admissions at highly selective colleges are often seen as a zero-sum game. Private colleges don’t want to displace students who pay the full cost of tuition, or the children of alumni, to accommodate low-income students. But expansion offers a way out of that bind. If the top 35 private universities increased their entering freshman classes by a mere 10 percent, and reserved those new spots for Pell recipients, they would enroll — after four years — 29,000 more low-income students overall.

Low-income students would benefit — though obviously not as much — even if colleges simply expanded while admitting the same proportion of Pell Grant students they currently do. If those same 35 colleges each grew by, say, 20 percent, they’d add a total of 58,000 more slots. With no special preference for Pell Grant students, 9,000 more such students would get to attend these colleges.  

It’s clear that low-income students can do the work at these schools. In 2019, the National Education Equity Lab, a nonprofit group, created a program that enrolled more than 300 11th- and 12th-graders from high-poverty high schools in an online Harvard literature class — one with the same assignments and standards as its equivalent in Cambridge. Nine in 10 were students of color. Eighty-nine percent of the students passed, and nearly two-thirds got A’s or B’s.

Now would be a propitious time for this reform. The coronavirus pandemic, after all, appears to be exacerbating the inequality in higher education: Common App, the organization that supplies a widely used undergraduate college admissions application, reports that applications from first-generation students are down slightly compared with last year, by 1 percent, even as overall application numbers soared by 10 percent.  

And over the last year, we’ve watched the pandemic catalyze substantial adjustments in higher education, potentially paving the way for other changes. Colleges made the SAT and ACT optional, converted their classes and student services to online and hybrid delivery, and rearranged their academic calendars. Schools showed that old ways of doing business could be modified in a hurry.

None of this is to say that there’s an easy-to-copy playbook for expanding enrollment or that doing so would solve all of higher education’s problems. But for too long, our most selective schools have benefited from public funding and billions of dollars in tax breaks while acting more like exclusive clubs than institutions with a responsibility to educate our nation’s growing population. They have it in their power to devote their considerable resources and ingenuity to opening their gates to more students.

Twitter: @jselingo