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The higher education divide: The ‘haves’ keep getting richer. Other schools? Not so much.

The higher education divide: The ‘haves’ keep getting richer. Other schools? Not so much.
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Harvard University admitted just 4.6 percent of applicants this year. (Elise Amendola/AP)

The college admissions season is coming to a close and once again, the results demonstrate the growing divide in American higher education between the haves and have-nots.

The “have schools” are selective colleges — those that accept fewer than 50 percent of applicants. Although they enroll only 20 percent of the 17.5 million undergraduates in U.S. higher education, they account for more than one-third of all college applications. Within that group is a sliver of super-selective colleges that accept fewer than 20 percent of applicants, and in some cases fewer than 10 percent.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that the acceptance rate among the eight campuses that make up the Ivy League reached record lows this year. Harvard, for instance, admitted only 4.6 percent of applicants; Princeton just 5.5 percent.

Among these schools, applications are rising every year as students see ever-lower acceptance rates from previous years and hedge their bets by applying to more schools, helped by technology that eases the process. Looking for any advantage, more students are also applying through the early decision process to their top choice so they can learn their fate in December, when they think the chance for admission is a bit easier (it is, ever so slightly). Many top schools now fill more than half their class through early decision.

As these “have schools” reject more students, they also have been trying to ease the disappointment by offering more applicants spots on the wait list. Brown University, for instance, extended a place on the wait list to 2,724 applicants this year — more students than it actually accepted (2,566), according to Inside Higher Ed.

At Boston College, there were twice as many students on the wait list last year (5,689) as the enrollment of the college’s freshman class (2,400). And how many of those thousands of wait-listed students were eventually offered admission? Just a little more than 100.

“We do offer the waiting list to many students,” Boston College’s director of undergraduate admission, John L. Mahoney, told Inside Higher Ed. “This is because they are talented and deserving admissions, but we’re just not able to admit them due to the quality of our pool. To some extent, we want to be respectful of how hard they’ve worked and how difficult it is to receive an outright rejection.”

Oh, how the “have-not” colleges would love to have that many students just waiting for admission. These schools, which accept most students who apply, often struggle to fill their freshman class or need to discount their sticker price substantially to entice students to enroll.

A survey released earlier this year by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that 44 percent of public colleges and 52 percent of private colleges didn’t meet their enrollment goals in 2017. That same survey revealed that 55 percent of private colleges and 52 percent of public colleges had to discount tuition more than they had planned.

It is unclear whether this growing divide in admissions is just a natural evolution of a system designed for another era of students. Several ideas have been floated in recent years to radically overhaul admissions, but many of them present their own problems.

One idea is to allow groups of colleges that compete for students to share information about applicants. Until the early 1990s, dozens of elite colleges would meet regularly to discuss the financial needs of students they had commonly admitted. The goal of the Overlap Group was to ensure that students received similar financial aid packages, so they could choose colleges based on factors other than cost. But the practice ended after the Justice Department brought antitrust charges against participating schools, and colleges have been unwilling to challenge the federal government over the issue since then.

Another proposal floated over the years is to have admissions to selective colleges done by lottery. Each institution would establish its own criteria for admissions and then all the names of qualified students would be put into a hat and picked at random until the class is filled. Of course, such a system doesn’t take into account that students apply to seven schools, on average, or that colleges need to admit enough football players to field a team.

A third idea is to move to a matching system, like the National Resident Matching Program, that uses a computerized algorithm to pair the preferences of medical school graduates and residency programs as closely as possible, based on rank-order lists each side submits. Establishing such a system for more than 3 million high school seniors is surely a daunting, if not impossible, task.

Finally, technology has often been heralded as a solution. Perhaps artificial intelligence will take the decision-making process out of the hands of admissions deans one day. Others have suggested that students take a series of college-level online courses while in high school that qualify them for admission to certain schools based on performance in college courses rather than relying on standardized-test scores and grades.

No matter what, the current system for both the haves and have-nots in admissions is beginning to collapse under its own weight. Much of the current distrust in higher education among the public starts before young adults even arrive on campus because of an admissions process and a financial-aid system that many think is stacked against them. If we are to restore trust in higher education, we need to start by rethinking admissions.



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