The Chronicle Review
Not long ago, the president of a prestigious university (not the one in which I
now teach) was explaining his strategy to me. "We're very selective, but we
need to become even more selective," he said. "Our SAT's are rising, but not
as fast as I'd like. We should be on par with ," and he named several
institutions even more selective than the one he led. "We're going to market
ourselves more intensively to high-school stars," he told me.
I asked him about his new capital campaign, and how much of the money
raised would go to awarding scholarships to needy students or expanding the
size of the entering class. Apparently, none. "We're going to build a new
student center, upgrade the dorms, and use the rest to attract some faculty
and student stars," he answered. "That's what our competitors are doing. We
can't afford not to."
I nodded sympathetically. Still, it struck me that, if most college presidents
were thinking the same way, the competition for the best and brightest
(measured in conventional ways) was going to become more heated than it
already is, and a lot of children from lower-income families weren't going to
stand a chance.
Meanwhile, children from middle-income families continue to apply to four-year
colleges in ever greater numbers, and competition for admission to the most
selective and prestigious institutions is rising steeply. Acceptance rates at the
most selective institutions are dropping, even though high-school guidance
counselors have been trying to make students more realistic about their
chances. For example, according to data published in a popular guide to
colleges, in 1980 Harvard accepted 16 percent of its applicants; the most
recent data, from 1998, show Harvard accepting 12 percent. Parents and
students are similarly finding out that Stanford accepts only 13 percent of its
applicants these days; 20 years ago, it accepted 19 percent. The pattern has
been much the same at prestigious state universities like the University of
Michigan at Ann Arbor, where the rate of acceptance dropped from 72 percent
to 59 percent over the same interval, or at the University of California at
Berkeley, where acceptances plummeted from 70 to 28 percent.
With colleges seeking to be more selective, and more students seeking
admission to the most selective, it's no surprise that the pressure on students
and their families is rising. Even sixth graders are feeling it, according to a
front-page story in
The New York Times
this summer. The father of one 11-year-old introduced the boy to a university
admissions officer, who advised him to take Spanish rather than Latin and to
sign up for calculus as soon as possible. Other sixth graders are surfing college
home pages on the Web, eyeing future majors and financial-aid opportunities.
That such competitive pressures are building, among both colleges and their
prospective students, seems an accepted aspect of contemporary American
life. Yet, in my view, inadequate attention is being paid to the larger social
consequences of the trend -- especially to how higher-education resources are
being allocated in this era of widening inequality.
Two broad forces are behind the headlong rush toward greater selectivity. The
most basic is that the economic stakes of getting a degree from a reputable
four-year college or university have become much higher, as disparities in
income and wealth have widened nationwide. By the end of the 1990's,
according to data contained in the Census Bureau's annual Current Population
Survey, the income gap between the top and bottom 10 percent of earners
was wider than at any time since the 1920's. During the prosperous 90's, the
incomes of people at or near the top grew twice as fast as those in the middle,
while the wealthiest 10 percent of families got about 85 percent of the value of
all the gains in the booming stock market, and the wealthiest 1 percent got
over 40 percent of the gains. Such changes have large consequences: At the
end of the 20th century, the richest 1 percent of American families, comprising
2.7 million people, had just about as many dollars to spend, after they had
paid all taxes, as the bottom 100 million. And they owned most of America's
marketable assets. That represents the largest concentration of both income
and wealth in more than a century.
The purpose of college shouldn't be solely about earning a good income after
graduation, of course, but the growing correlation between the amount of
education and the level of earnings is striking. In 1998, according to the
Census Bureau, the average income of families headed by someone with no
more than a high-school diploma was $48,434, which was 8 percent higher
than it had been in 1990 (adjusted for inflation). But family income was
$63,524 when the household head had a two-year-college degree, 10 percent
higher than in 1990. A B.A. lifted family income to $85,423, marking a
13-percent increase; an M.A. raised earnings to $101,670, a 17-percent jump.
With a professional degree, family income was $147,170, a whopping
24-percent increase from 1990.
It should not be surprising, then, that more high-school seniors are seeking to
attend college -- and more are graduating. But that's not all: Parents and their
offspring also assume that future earnings will be higher with a degree from a
more selective institution. They figure that future employers will use
institutional selectivity as a proxy for the quality of a prospective employee,
and that prestigious institutions will offer an abundance of valuable
connections to the job market. While the assumption of a direct correlation
between selectivity and future earnings is not borne out by research, the
tenacity with which it's held says much about how parents view the
opportunities and risks faced by young people today. Middle-class and
upper-middle-class boomers are determined to do whatever is necessary to
increase the chances that their youngsters will do well in the new economy.
The second reason for the lurch toward selectivity has to do with technologies
that are knitting together the nation -- and the globe. More students than ever
are competing nationally (and some internationally) for admission to the same
limited set of colleges and universities. Two decades ago, bright high-school
seniors with good records typically aimed for the best university in their state
or region. But rapidly improving technologies of information, transportation,
and communication are on their way to creating a single national, and
eventually global, market for higher education.
Today, high-school students and their parents have an abundance of
comparative data about colleges -- including standardized ratings such as the
annual listings compiled by
U.S. News & World Report --
as well as a flood of information available on the Internet. As a result, bright
high-school seniors with good grades and test scores are more likely to apply
to the big national brands, competing for admission with other students from
around the country. Even the sixth graders in the
sample worried about attending a local or regional university. One child
intoned, "C is community college, B is state college, A is Ivy League school."
At the same time, and for much the same reason, every major college and
university wants a reputation for being among the places that attract the
nation's best and brightest. And colleges and universities have access to much
more information than they used to about who and where those students are,
and they are able to communicate with prospects with ever greater ease.
What does all this mean for us as a society? The danger is that the increasing
competition -- to be selected and to be selective -- will exacerbate the
widening inequalities that are raising the stakes in the first place.
There is no single, simple cause of the growing inequality in the United States,
but a large part of it relates to supply and demand. In the old economy that
dominated the 20th century, profits and productivity gains depended on
making more and more of the same thing. Large numbers of production
workers were needed to undertake relatively routine tasks. Those workers did
not, in general, require much education. In the new economy of the 21st
century, by contrast, businesses depend largely on innovation. To stay
competitive, they have to generate products and services that are better or
cheaper than those of their rivals, and they must innovate faster than their
rivals. Thus, demand is growing for people who can spur innovation by
identifying and solving new problems or figuring out what clients and
customers might need or want.
Even though more young people than ever are attending postsecondary
institutions, the demand for workers with the education and skills needed to
innovate is rising faster than the supply. By contrast, demand for people with
relatively few skills and little education is static or shrinking. And such people
are in abundant supply; in fact, many of them can be readily replaced with
overseas labor or smart machines. Those trends help explain why the incomes
of people with more education have been increasing faster than the incomes of
people with less education. As long as the economy remains reasonably
healthy, less-educated people will continue to have jobs -- but their jobs will
pay comparatively little.
A society concerned about widening inequality -- and its corrosive effects on
democracy, social solidarity, and the moral authority of a nation -- would
logically turn its attention to increasing the supply of people capable of doing
the work that the new economy rewards. It would, in particular, do so by
broadening access to postsecondary education for children from lower-income
Yet almost all the increase in the proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds in
postsecondary institutions in recent years is attributable to children from
middle and upper-income families. As the economist Thomas Kane has noted,
from 1977 to 1993, about 70 percent of 18-and 19-year-olds from families with
incomes in the top quarter attended postsecondary institutions, and that
percentage has been rising since then. Slightly more than 50 percent of
children from families in the second-highest quartile attended, and 50 percent
of children from families in the quartile below that did so. But less than 30
percent of children from families in the bottom quarter enrolled in
postsecondary education -- a percentage that has been dropping since 1993,
even as college enrollments among more affluent students have been rising.
There is a danger that the current competitive rush toward selectivity will make
it even less likely that lower-income children will gain access to higher
education. That's because college and university administrators have
incentives to spend more resources to attract those whom they consider the
best students, rather than accommodating more lower-income students whose
credentials and test scores do not add to an institution's luster.
Too many colleges and universities are using scarce scholarship resources to
lure student stars, who often come from advantaged families and good
secondary schools -- and who already have every chance of succeeding in life.
In fact, an increasing number of institutions are engaging in quiet bidding wars
for such students.
The New York Times
reported last year that Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, for example,
explicitly reassures star applicants that it will match or surpass any offers they
receive from other colleges. "We believe competition among schools is
healthy," Carnegie Mellon's admissions director was quoted as saying. "We are
trying to encourage dialogue, and we have set aside enough dough to do it."
Harvard's admissions materials hint at a similar policy: "We expect that some
of our students will have particularly attractive offers from the institutions with
new aid programs," it writes to newly admitted students, "and those students
should not assume that we will not respond."
Harvard's almost-bottomless endowment allows it to match any bid without
skimping on aid to needier students, but that's not the case for most colleges.
What's doled out to the stars is almost certainly given at the expense of some
needier students who qualify academically, but cannot afford the costs. Across
the country, "need-blind" admissions policies are vanishing. "It used to be,
providing aid was a charitable operation," Michael S. McPherson, the president
of Macalester College, told the
"Now, it's an investment, like brand management."
A second way that colleges and universities have been pumping up the
applicant pool of good students, ratcheting up average SAT scores, and
enhancing selectivity is through direct marketing to high schools and families in
the middle-class and upper-middle-class communities where high achievers can
easily be found. An increasing slice of university budgets is now dedicated to
mailings, brochures, visits by recruiters to suburban high schools, telephoners,
elaborately staged visiting days on campuses, Web pages, and videos.
Similarly, money for recruiting minority candidates is often aimed at
middle-class African-American and Asian-American families already intent on
sending their children to college. Such marketing invites similar responses from
competing institutions, in what has become an escalating round of promotion.
Here, too, the result is often less money to finance the much harder job of
recruiting high-school students from outside the mainstream -- diamonds in the
rough who could benefit enormously from college but who don't know it
because they and their families are too poor, or their high-school teachers and
administrators too overwhelmed, to become aware of the possibility; or
because their performance on standardized tests may not reveal their real
The same competition for the best students is driving many colleges and
universities to expand and upgrade student centers, improve campus
landscaping, make current dormitories more comfortable, and add other
amenities. Administrators argue that they must do so in order to keep up with
other colleges in attracting star students and improving institutional rankings.
But when such expenditures are passed on to students in the form of higher
costs, the consequence is reduced accessibility for needy students who cannot
afford the tab.
Alternatively, those expenditures are financed from the proceeds of capital
campaigns, which might otherwise be used to expand enrollments and provide
more scholarship assistance to the needy. One administrator (again, I should
note, not at the institution in which I now teach) explained the logic to me in
commendably candid terms: "Our goal is to add more students but to reject
more students, If anything, we want a smaller entering class. That way, we
look more selective."
Public resources are not being allocated to counter such trends. From 1988 to
1998, according to the
Digest of Education Statistics,
the average price of attending a public college or university rose 22 percent,
after adjusting for inflation (it rose 28 percent at private colleges and
The new fashion among states to provide merit awards to high-school
students who score well on standardized examinations is not helping, because
children from lower-income families are less likely to succeed on such tests
than are students from higher-income families. Last spring, for example, 63
percent of white high-school students who took the Michigan Educational
Assessment Program test qualified for a $2,500 Michigan merit scholarship,
while only 2.2 percent of African-American students who took the test qualified.
Most of the white students were from families with higher incomes than the
families of the African-American students.
If we are serious about reversing the larger trend toward widening inequality
of income and wealth in the United States -- or, at the very least, about
slowing it -- we need to make it easier, not harder, for children from relatively
poor families to gain access to postsecondary education. As institutions of
higher education, as well as state legislatures, debate issues like how to
allocate student aid, recruit students, prioritize capital construction, and even
create a presence on the Internet, they need to keep in mind the importance
of making higher education available across the economic spectrum.
In light of the nation's widening inequalities of income and wealth, it seems to
me that scarce scholarship resources should be reserved for students who
need them, rather than for student stars who do not. Colleges should refrain
from informally bidding against one another for stars, and from spending
significant resources marketing themselves to middle-class families who
already are being marketed to death. Resources should be used, instead, to
recruit potential students from lower-income families, for whom a college
education would be beneficial, but who do not show that by conventional
measures. And rather than spending funds on amenities that make campuses
more attractive to middle-class children whose families can bear the added
costs, colleges should keep a lid on tuition, room, and board so that more
lower-income kids could afford to attend. Colleges and universities might also
consider how to efficiently expand their enrollments to provide better access to
more students at lower cost. That could include using the Internet to extend
the reach of instructional programs to people who now have little or no access
to higher education.
Some people will say that the competitive pressures forcing colleges and
universities toward more selectivity cannot be reversed. I accept that some
institutional competition is inevitable, even desirable. But I see no inherent
reason why the terms of competition must converge on standardized test
scores, numerical rankings in such publications as
U.S. News & World Report,
or any such uniform calculus. Institutional success could as well be measured in
ways that better respond to the nation's problem of widening inequality -- for
example, by reference to the proportion of promising new admits from
If the challenge is framed more broadly -- as how to help more young people
from lower-income families gain the skills they need to succeed in the new
economy -- other directions may suggest themselves. For example, colleges
and universities might offer associate degrees in various technical fields; or
they might "adopt" high schools in some of the poorer communities in their
regions. They could encourage undergraduates to tutor students in those
communities and professors to give refresher courses to the high-school
faculties, and they could aim scholarships and admissions slots at promising
students from those schools.
By the same token, state legislatures could expand resources and provide
more scholarships for students at community colleges and technical institutes
that offer skills that are in demand. More states could also adopt variations of
plans, already in effect in some areas, to grant automatic admission to the top
public universities to all state students graduating at the tops of their
high-school classes. Because lower-income students increasingly tend to be
concentrated in lower-income communities, such policies would enhance the
access of those students to college.
The rush toward selectivity and exclusivity in higher education is exactly the
wrong direction to take for a society that is already becoming less equal, and
in which higher education is the fault line separating winners from losers. We
should -- and can -- reverse course.