A study by Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby asserts that “although the top ten percent of colleges are substantially more selective than they were five decades ago, most colleges are not more selective. Moreover, at least 50 percent of colleges are substantially less selective than they were then.”
Not surprisingly for an economist, Hoxby’s explanation for both trends is supply and demand. Traditionally, highly qualified high school graduates tended to attend colleges near their homes. Over recent decades, with information widely available and communications and transportation substantially cheaper, they have increasingly considered and applied to the very best colleges in the country. (The same logic applies to international students coming to top American schools–a major phenomenon at both Swarthmore and Yale). So, increased demand+relatively flat supply=increased selectivity.
The less selective schools are suffering, if that’s the word, from over-supply: From 1955 to the present, Hoxby says, the number of high school graduates rose 131%, while the number of freshman seats at American colleges and universities rose 297%. Currently, she says, there is more than one seat per “minimally prepared student.” She says most college applicants have no need to worry about increased selectivity: “If anything, they should be concerned about falling selectivity, the phenomenon they will actually experience.”
To me, the most striking (though not surprising) thing about her study does not actually relate to the main point of it, except maybe in showing that qualified students make a rational decision in applying to these top schools. It is a chart showing how much colleges (ranked by selectivity) have spent per student from 1967 to the present: that is, the cost of instructing each student, minus tuition paid. At the schools in the top 1 percent of selectivity, highly endowed places like Swarthmore and Yale, the figure has risen from under $10,000 to, unbelievably, about $75,000. There have been more modest increases for the rest of the colleges in the top 10 percent of selectivity. Every other category is almost completely flat, and well under $10,000 per student.
The rich get richer.