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The Truth About the Colleges

Profiles of American Colleges: 2005

Barron’s Educational Series, 1,669 pp., $26.95 (paper)

Higher education in America is no longer the preserve of a privileged elite, with more than seven million undergraduates now enrolled in the roughly 2,600 colleges and universities that grant bachelor or higher degrees. In 2002, the most recent year for which figures are available, 1,291,900 students received bachelors’ diplomas and 606,958 completed graduate programs. The latter figure is worth noting, since it tells us that almost half of those who are completing college believe that a single degree won’t suffice for what they want to do or be.

A census study last year found that among adults aged thirty to thirty-four, only 41 percent had attended high school without going to college. These high school graduates, moreover, represent a dwindling part of the population. Another 32 percent had earned at least a bachelor’s degree, while 27 percent had spent time on a campus, whether a community college or a four-year college, without finishing. Viewed one way, that figure shows a high attrition rate. Many of the colleges and community colleges, moreover, fail to provide more than perfunctory courses.

The claim that almost six in ten Americans in their early thirties have had some kind of college experience thus needs further scrutiny. The experience can range from small seminars in philosophy at Colgate to lectures in motel management at Southwest Missouri State. Some colleges have rigorous core curriculums: students elsewhere must choose courses from huge catalogs in order to amass the 128 credits needed for a BA. Reed College in Oregon limits its enrollment to 1,312 students, while at Michigan State University an entering student would be one of 34,617.


In fact, there are places open for anyone who wants to pursue a bachelor’s degree and can pay for it, and many colleges must work hard to attract students. In a study published this year, James Fallows concluded that

for all but the richest ten or twenty universities, an important part of managing enrollment is simply being sure that enough paying customers will show up each fall.1

The Princeton Review, a commercial organization with no ties to the university, compiles useful information about what it calls “the best 357 colleges” in the country. It reports that reputable although less well known schools like Creighton, Duquesne, and Evergreen State accept at least 85 percent of those who apply. But for many American families, knowing that there are many openings is not reassuring. On the contrary, increasing numbers of parents are investing money and energy to ensure that their children be accepted by a college that is recognized and admired.

Ross Douthat writes candidly about these efforts in his memoir of student life in Harvard’s class of 2002, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class. “People send their children to Harvard, above all,” he says, “because they want them to succeed.” And an early sign of their success will be the college they attend. When friends ask where the children are going, parents want to give a response that brings congratulatory smiles; yet the number of schools that evoke this reaction is relatively small. True, people may recall having heard, say, of Carleton and Grinnell; but they don’t see them as being among the first tier. As Douthat writes, ambitious parents don’t want to be seen as having children whose attainment was less than the best. Regional loyalties are being replaced by the growing power of a handful of national name brands. A neurologist in Tulsa who himself went to Oklahoma State now wants Dartmouth or Duke for his daughter, and a senior vice-president at Procter & Gamble who went to Lehigh now wants to tell people about his son at Stanford.

From my own observation, perhaps fifteen schools are on aspiring parents’ lists. Table A provides the names of twelve, and some indices commonly used to justify their rankings.2 The first, not surprisingly, is how hard it is to gain admission. On this score, the list starts with Harvard and Princeton, which accept only 10 percent of their applicants, and descends to Duke, which lets in close to one in four. Collectively, admissions officers at these schools considered 171,824 applications last year, and turned down 145,962, for an overall acceptance rate of about 15 percent. In fact, figures like these are public knowledge, reported in guides that are well known in many high schools. Thus the 18,628 students who applied to Stanford knew in advance that only one in eight would be successful. Even given such odds, thousands are willing to try. On their side, colleges don’t discourage applications, since a high rejection rate raises their standing in US News & World Report and similar rankings.

Of course, the 171,824 total contains multiple submissions. In this anxious age, it is not unheard of for a high school senior to apply to as many as ten schools or more. This redundancy is time-consuming and costly for both students and admissions offices. For example, many colleges require applicants to write essays that they hope will reveal clear thinking or creativity or some other quality; they all must be written and read. (A typical topic: “Name five books you would choose for six months on a desert island.”) Each year, some 10,000 applicants to the top twelve colleges receive more than one acceptance.

That produces a second measure of prestige: how many of those a school invites actually enroll. Here Harvard again leads, with 78 percent choosing to attend. What is interesting is that even at Amherst, Duke, and Williams, fewer than half of those invited accept, which means these colleges must admit the equivalent of two classes to fill up one. (Many others count themselves fortunate if a third of their choices accept.) No-show rates would be even higher were it not for offers of early admission, which exact a pledge to attend before the application season is over.

A third way to rate colleges is by student performance on the controversial SAT. The Princeton Review reports the SAT scores needed to reach the top quarter of recent entering classes. Among the top dozen schools, there is actually a fairly small span, from 1590 at Harvard to 1500 at Brown. These numbers are also widely reported and serve as standards for other colleges, such as Northwestern (1480), Emory (1460), and Vanderbilt (1430), that aspire to national recognition. In hopes of reaching the 1500 threshold, they court high-scoring students, offering scholarships even when the students haven’t asked for them. Vanderbilt has sent recruiters to high schools with considerable numbers of Jewish students.3

To place so much stress on the SAT numbers may seem irrational and unfair, since the SATs put a premium on quick multiple-choice thinking that may neglect other qualities of intelligence, and there is much more than those scores in each applicant’s record. After all, students are asked to submit transcripts, references, lists of activities, as well as an essay. Yet consider what must happen at a school like Yale, where 17,735 applications came in last year. After all have been opened and put in files with the students’ SAT scores written on the front, they are read in descending order. Obviously, other factors will be considered, and some applicants with high SAT scores won’t make the final cut, but organizing the admissions process on the ability to score on SATs means that many other qualities of applicants may be ignored. Still, if one were faced with 17,735 folders, what would be a better way to start?

The colleges’ costs are also relevant here. The twelve have similar price tags despite differences in endowments and local labor costs. Even if there isn’t overt consultation, there seems to be a kind of consensus not to engage in price competition. Harvard’s $23 billion portfolio could allow it to charge discernibly less than the rest, but Harvard would reply that it wants to get the full fee from parents who can pay, and then use part of the proceeds to assist less well-off applicants. At last count almost half of Harvard’s students received help. But it should be added that need is viewed generously and aid is now given to students from families with six-figure incomes. Yet budgets at all of the twelve leading schools except MIT expect that the full tuition amount be paid by at least half of the applicants they enroll. The result is that students whose parents can pay the full amount will have an extra edge.4

What Douthat says of Harvard applies to most of the other colleges on the list. His fellow members of the class of 2002, he says, were “a wildly privileged lot, culled from the country’s upwardly mobile enclaves and blessed with deep, parentally funded pockets.” He estimates that 70 percent of his peers came from families with incomes exceeding $100,000 a year, with many well over that. The standard story is that an Ivy League education is open to talented young people regardless of income or origin. Douthat says this seldom happens in practice. “Meritocracy is the ideological veneer, but social and economic stratification is the reality.”

Douthat’s one-word title explains how most of his classmates got to the head of the admissions line. The preparatory schools their parents sent them to taught them how to outwit the entrance tests and gave them a shrewd sense of how college admissions work. Once at college, he tells us, they apply those skills to “avoidance of academic work” and “maneuverings to achieve maximum GPA [Grade Point Average] in return for minimal effort.” This language says more about Douthat and his friends than Harvard students as a whole. All those I’ve met would cite courses they found intellectually challenging, and where they put in more work than was required. But by whatever route, almost everyone at Harvard gets As, and most graduates go on to well-known professional schools that bring them further up the ladder. Benjamin DeMott has noted recently in these pages that special consideration for athletes in many sports aids the already privileged.5 While the elite schools sponsor football and basketball, they reserve even more places for teams like skiing, golf, rugby, crew, squash, lacrosse, and sailing—sports that are harder to master if you haven’t attended a well-endowed high school. Some shrewd parents now tell their children to forget about editing the yearbook and go out for the squash team.

Much is made of “legacies”—the preferment given to the sons and daughters of alumni in the admissions process. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton accept 30 to 40 percent of legacy applicants, as against 10 to 11 percent of all others. But what is seldom noticed is that between 60 and 70 percent of alumni offspring are being rejected by their parents’ alma maters. This is not a small proportion, and it counters the view that inherited privilege is becoming the rule. It tells us that most of the teenagers whose parents went to Stanford or Yale will actually end up at less highly ranked colleges. While they may not fall far, this is still downward mobility. Moreover, many who benefit from legacies do not end up with the high incomes or professional distinction of their parents. Here, as elsewhere, regression to the mean is a fact of social life. Right now, there are students at Boston College and Iowa State who will displace some of their contemporaries who started out at Dartmouth and Williams.6

  1. 1

    College Admissions: A Substitute for Quality?” in Richard H. Hersh and John Merrow, Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 40.

  2. 2

    Cornell was not included since most of its applications are to its less competitive vocational programs.

  3. 3

    Yes, we are targeting Jewish students,” Vanderbilt’s president told The Wall Street Journal. “That’s not affirmative action. That’s smart thinking.” See Daniel Golden, “In Effort to Lift Their Rankings, Colleges Recruit Jewish Students,” The Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2002.

  4. 4

    The exception is MIT, which gives financial aid to 71 percent of its students. At Yale, only 39 percent are awarded such help.

  5. 5

    Jocks and the Academy,” The New York Review, May 12, 2005. The teams cited in this paragraph are among the thirty-four intercollegiate sports played at Dartmouth.

  6. 6

    A study by Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger surveyed two groups of students. One attended highly selective colleges; the other had also been admitted to such schools, but ended up at lesser-ranked campuses. After graduation, the two groups were found to have similar earnings, suggesting that for good students, it doesn’t much matter where they go. See “Estimating the Payoff of Attending a More Selective College” (Industrial Relations Section, Princeton University, 1999).

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