Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Elite cachet

The news is filled with articles about how competitive college admissions has become. See here for the latest from the Times.

The usual culprit mentioned is demographics -- the number of high school graduates each year is at an all time high due to the baby boom echo. However, as pointed out in the article quoted below, the number of slots at top colleges and universities has grown just as fast as the population of graduates -- there are no fewer slots per high school senior than in the past!

The real cause is the growing cachet of elite education. Students who in the past might have only applied to their local state university are now applying to multiple schools across the country. The pool of applicants to top institutions is deeper than before, but it's a sociological trend, not a demographic one.

Washington Post: ...Driven by the baby-boom echo, the number of high school graduates jumped from 2.9 million in 2002 to 3.1 million in 2006, an increase of 8.4 percent.

"But the number of spaces in elite colleges is increasing too, at a nearly identical rate. According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, the 60-odd colleges and universities rated 'Most Competitive" by Barron's Guide to Colleges sent out 199,821 acceptance letters in 2002. In 2006, the number of 'fat envelopes' had increased to 215,738, an 8.0 percent jump. As the nation has grown, its elite colleges have grown along with it.


Unknown said...

Dear Steve,

This would appear to hurt the fairly distinguished state universities such as UCSB and Oregon. Just yesterday I was telling the incoming chair of the Harvard physics department that at state universities my impression is that undergrads are often better than the grad students (of course I mean the tail, not the mean, and modulo the obvious fact that in general the total country wide grad student population is going to be more selective and on average far better than the undergrad population.) People go to their local state school for family and financial reasons so there could be couple truly outstanding students at a reasonable state school, but by the time they go to grad school the top students are going off to places like Harvard and Princeton. What do you think? This rough theory probably does not apply to the top top top high school kids (like you) whose talents are recognized early.


Steve Hsu said...

I worry about exactly the same thing. When I was in high school in Iowa, many of the brightest kids went off to U Iowa or Iowa State without thinking twice about it. (Sure, a lot of the brightest kids also went off to Stanford or an Ivy, but there were many who didn't.)

Nowadays I don't know. I suspect, based on what is reported in the media, that it is less likely for the top kids to stay in-state at a public school -- they're apparently all trying to get into the top rated schools. I'd be very interested to see some hard data on this.

At Oregon we have one of the oldest "honors colleges" within the university, which lets kids with strong academic qualifications enter a more rigorous program, with special courses and advising. Perhaps this keeps some of the top kids here, but I doubt it has the prestige of, e.g., an Ivy degree.

BTW, my high school was/is the only one in a college town (home of ISU). Interestingly, there were about 15 national merit semifinalists in my class of 400. Looking back, there were probably >5 kids in the class who scored at the 99.9 percentile on the SAT, which is quite an anomaly. It suggests something about the concentration of brainpower at any research university.

Anonymous said...

People who's kids are college age complain that the admissions process has essentially been randomized due to the ease of online applications. People shotgun applications everywhere and there's no telling where they'll get in. I wonder what the average number of applications per student is. In my day, when you still had to fill out the forms with a typewriter, I only applied to four schools, including my two safeties (Berkeley and Chicago).

Steve Hsu said...

Ease of application plays a role, but why would people even apply if they had no intention of attending that school?

What has changed is that parents and kids have broader (higher?) aspirations for university education. If they were satisfied with non-selective state U, they wouldn't even need to fill out the online applications for those other schools...

Anonymous said...

There's not enough information presented here to tell what's really going on. I think we need to know how the yield rates on acceptances has changed over time. An increasing cachet of elite schools would tend to make the yield rates increase; a fixed pool of elite applicants applying to more elite schools than in the past would tend to drive the acceptance yields down.

Steve Hsu said...

Good point -- there's some ambiguity in slots vs acceptances.

But it's probably safe to say the number of slots has gone up a bit -- I know that's the case at most universities: they can increase freshman class size a bit on the margin, and have done so recently. If the demographic increase is only 8%, then whatever frenzy of competition we are seeing is primarily due to other effects.

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