Tuesday, May 29, 2007

College Admissions Blues

The New York Times ran a decent article a couple of weeks ago about how hard it is to get into college these days. The hook was the crunch at the sub-Ivies, that is, at the safety schools of yesteryear that are now over the heads of a lot of good students who at one time may have felt entitled to Princeton or Yale. Lehigh now gets ten times as may applicants as it has spaces for. Its acceptance rate has dropped from 47% to 31% in just six years. "The admission rate at Pomona, in Claremont, Calif., was about 15 percent this spring; it was 38 percent 20 years ago. Bowdoin's rate was 18.5 percent this year and 32 percent eight years ago." This crunch is taking place all over the country.

What's going on? At least two things. The American middle-class is getting torn into pieces, with income rising steady and quickly only at the very top. There is a growing divergence between the fate of someone who goes to UT-Austin with the goal of a career in marketing and someone who goes to Duke with the goal of Harvard Business School and a major corporate career. Hence more students fight for Duke and Harvard, and more are at least trying to hang onto Lehigh and the University of Rochester. A good public BA isn't the gateway to a secure and prosperous middle class life in the way that it was at least for white folks a generation ago.

Secondly, the country hasn't been expanding the number of places in high-level universities. The elite private universities have had approximately the same sized first-year classes for decades, a period in which the country's population went from 200 million to 300 million people. Public universities did expand, but didn't expand at the top or in the middle as much as they stuffed lots of new college entrants into the bottom of the pyramid, especially the community college system. By the late 1990s, community colleges had 44% of all college enrollments. States did not spend enough after 1980 to make the new seats great seats at great schools. The "senior" public campuses - Michigan-Ann Arbor, Cal-Berkeley, Virginia-Charlottesville, etc. got much harder to get into. My school, the University of California system, was supposed to make all ten campuses as good as the original flagship campus, Berkeley. All the campuses were supposed to offer elite-quality education to state's masses of qualified students, meaning top quality for all. The newer campuses have succeeded to some extent, but never with enough money and by scrimping in all sorts of ways. Class size is massively larger at UC than it is at, say, Pomona College, and that's just one difference in the student experience. So more students are slotted lower in the quality ladder, and access to the top carries even more of a premium in an increasingly stratified society. Hence the rat race at the top.

The middle classes will not rise and expand as they have in the past until they start demanding a major reinvestment in higher ed. And they will have to do it for middle classes that are more diverse racially than at any time in US history. Middle classes of America, wake up!

PS. Universities are supposed to offer objective, unbuyable research. For a good look at how independent financial analysis is attacked by corporations, see Joe Nocera's good column a couple of weeks ago.

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