The recent presidential election has spurred plenty of comparisons of how U.S. public policy stacks up against our neighbors to the north, from health care to gun control. Perhaps we should add higher education to that list.
Canada’s three most-prominent universities - the University of Toronto, McGill University, and the University of British Columbia - enroll a total of 110,000 undergraduates. That’s more students than the top 17 U.S. universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings combined.
“The biggest institutions are the most prestigious,” Alex Usher, a higher-education consultant based in Toronto, told me. “When you look at the people in the upper levels of government in Canada, they all went to these big universities.”
And it’s not just true in Canada, Usher said. “When you look around the world, at New Zealand, at Australia, prestige is a function of size. They want to cram in as many of the top students as possible.”
Not so in the United States.
During the past decade, even as the number of full-time undergraduates at U.S. colleges and universities grew by 13 percent - to 11 million students - enrollment at the nation’s most-selective and elite institutions barely grew at all.
There have been some exceptions. Stanford enlarged its freshman class last fall by about 100 students. Yale is expanding the class entering this coming fall by about 200 students, the first expansion at Yale in 40 years, an era when American colleges enrolled 4 million fewer full-time undergraduates.
No wonder why it has become so much more difficult - some would say nearly impossible - to get in to Harvard, Princeton, Amherst and Williams, along with dozens of other elite colleges, where fewer than 1 in 10 students are typically accepted. Even as more students apply for spots in the freshman class, not just from U.S. high schools but also from abroad, the supply of seats remains the same.
Today, less than one percent of the nation’s undergraduates attend the top 50 liberal arts colleges and Ivy League universities. At the same time, many top-tier public state flagship universities, such as Michigan, Berkeley, North Carolina, and Virginia, are becoming more selective and increasingly are turning to out-of-state students - who pay more in tuition - to fill their freshman classes.
In the U.S., prestige in higher education is measured by how many students a university rejects. While the philosophy on Wall Street is that growth is good, within higher education the prevailing wisdom is that increased size comes at the expense of academic quality and reputation.
It’s a philosophy embedded in the birth of the modern higher-education system in the U.S. In the 1950s, for instance, a task force in Florida concluded that the state would need to accommodate three times the number of students within two decades. It predicted the state’s three existing institutions would need to double their enrollment to 40,000 students.
The projections alarmed members of the task force. How could the University of Florida, Florida State University, and Florida A&M University grow quickly in “so short a time without some jeopardy to the quality of programs?” In the minds of the task-force members, there was a limit to the size of a public university and they were quickly on their way to reaching it.
Florida eventually built new universities to accommodate demand, and so too, did other states in the 1960s. Then as undergraduate enrollment continued to grow during the ensuing decades, U.S. higher education evolved into a bifurcated system: the elites with deep pockets maintained their size, while everyone else grew to meet demand, often without the same resources as the top schools.
Today, the expanding U.S. population and the need for a greater proportion of Americans with college degrees require universities of all kinds to grow to meet demand. That task shouldn’t just fall to those institutions in the middle and lowest tiers of higher education.
Officials at elite universities recite all kinds of reasons why they can’t expand their classes, and it’s mostly about cost and quality. As the The Washington Post’s Nick Anderson recently reported, Yale’s expansion required new dining halls, gyms, and “obtaining vast quantities of granite, brick, limestone and slate for the exterior, oak for interior hardwood floors and various other elements - arches, gates, bay windows and the like - to create a polished look that aims to blend into the rest of the historic New England campus.”
Never mind Yale receives generous tax breaks for those buildings and their massive endowment ($25 billion).
Then there’s the question of quality. The admissions standards universities set are artificial and are meant to control the size of their classes. Any elite university can enroll twice as many students without an appreciable impact on their academic rankings.
In the 1950s, for example, Berkeley accepted any graduating California senior who had completed a set of 10 required courses with a 3.0 grade-point average. Today, most of those students certainly would be rejected; Berkeley accepts fewer than 16 percent of California applicants.
“It’s like if Apple and Samsung only produced enough phones to meet 5 percent of global demand,” said Ben Nelson, the founder of the Minerva Project, a start-up university that aims to become an elite liberal-arts institution where all students who qualify are accepted.
Yale’s provost told The Washington Post that its expansion was “about access.” If Yale and other elite universities, both public and private, really wanted to serve the national interest, they would take a page from the playbook of the well-regarded universities to the north and expand their supply of seats for qualified students.
Selingo is the author of “There Is Life After College,” a book about how today’s graduates launch into their careers, and the best-selling “College (Un)Bound.”