Slow to Grow
Why Does Enrollment Lag Demand at Elite Colleges?
The chance of getting into an elite college or university seems to be getting more difficult by the year. Every spring, selective institutions promote their latest admit rate, which is almost always as low or lower than the year before. It’s now a figure tracked by the mainstream media, another statistic in an endless line of numbers reported about higher education in the United States
This year, Stanford received 42,487 applications, and accepted 5 percent of them. Harvard collected 37,305 applications, and admitted 5.3 percent. Even Cornell, which has the largest freshman class among the Ivies, accepted just 14.9 percent of the 41,907 applicants it received.
The low acceptance rates, of course, have been driven in part by an unprecedented surge in applications in the past decade as applying to college online has become as easy as shopping on the Web. But while many applicants are clearly hedging their bets by applying to more schools than in the past, the uptick in applications also reflects real demand for a world-class university education.
Enrollment in American higher education grew significantly last decade among domestic and international students alike. Stanford University’s Caroline M. Hoxby has noted how college admissions has become much more of a global game in the past several decades. Advances in technology and less expensive methods of communication and transportation mean that talented students have many more choices beyond just those schools in their backyard.
Yet, for the most part, elite colleges and universities have kept a lid on their enrollment. Even as more qualified applicants come their way, they remain stuck in time, with a size of the undergraduate student body determined decades ago when fewer people went to college. Out of the few dozen most elite colleges in the United States, only one is going on any substantial drive to grow, and that’s Yale University. It’s building a $600-million mini-campus to welcome just 800 additional students.
“It’s like if Apple and Samsung only produced enough phones to meet 5 percent of global demand,” said Ben Nelson. Nelson is founder of the Minerva Project, which aims to build an elite liberal-arts institution that can compete with Harvard and Stanford for the best students.
Last week, Nelson was in Washington, D.C. to deliver Arizona State University’s annual Rhodes Lecture. In his talk, he mentioned that Minerva has extremely high admissions standards, but that it accepts everyone who qualifies. His hope is to have 10,000 undergraduates in a few years.
Minerva is able to grow quickly to meet demand because its courses are online, even though its students have a residential experience in four cities around the globe during their college years. It’s nearly impossible for selective residential colleges to scale like Minerva.
But the question remains why elite colleges can’t grow at all to meet the increased demand they have seen in recent years. The excuse they often use is that adding students requires additional facilities and personnel. But advances in technology often means that colleges don’t need as much physical space as an expansion would have required in the past. Hybrid courses don’t meet as often, freeing up space, and many professors have already experimented with flipped classrooms. Personnel also can be freed up by technology, although that’s a more difficult issue to tackle in any expansion.
Still, if Minerva achieves the success its founder is expecting, elite colleges will be increasingly asked why they can’t adopt some of its innovative practices, especially as the selective institutions continue to promote low admissions numbers each spring.