Posted on April 29, 2014

Getting Into the Ivies

David Leonhardt, New York Times, April 26, 2014

Ask just about any high school senior or junior–or their parents–and they’ll tell you that getting into a selective college is harder than it used to be. They’re right about that. But the reasons for the newfound difficulty are not well understood.


{snip} One overlooked factor is that top colleges are admitting fewer American students than they did a generation ago. Colleges have globalized over that time, deliberately increasing the share of their student bodies that come from overseas and leaving fewer slots for applicants from the United States.

For American teenagers, it really is harder to get into Harvard–or Yale, Stanford, Brown, Boston College or many other elite colleges–than it was when today’s 40-year-olds or 50-year-olds were applying. The number of spots filled by American students at Harvard, after adjusting for the size of the teenage population nationwide, has dropped 27 percent since 1994. At Yale and Dartmouth, the decline has been 24 percent. At Carleton, it’s 22 percent. At Notre Dame and Princeton, it is 14 percent.


This globalization obviously brings some big benefits. It has exposed American students to perspectives that our proudly parochial country often does not provide in childhood. “It would be a lesser education for them if they didn’t get a chance to interact with some international students,” as William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard since 1986, told me. The trend also fits with the long American tradition of luring some of the world’s most talented people here. Many international students who come for college never leave. Some of them found companies or make other contributions to society.

Yet the way in which American colleges have globalized comes with costs, too. For one thing, the rise in foreign students has complicated the colleges’ stated efforts to make their classes more economically diverse. Foreign students often receive scant financial aid and tend to be from well-off families. For another thing, the country’s most selective colleges have effectively shrunk as far as American students are concerned, during the same span that many students and their parents are spending more time obsessing over getting into one.

Many numbers for individual colleges here come from Noodle, a company that provides advice on education decisions. I combined the numbers with census data on the number of 18- to 21-year-olds in the United States to examine what share of college-age Americans in four different years–1984, 1994, 2004 and 2012–were attending various elite colleges.

The share for any individual college is minuscule, of course. In 2012, about 33 out of every 100,000 American 18- to 21-year-olds were attending Harvard, down from 45 per 100,000 in 1994. These changes in the share tell you how much harder, or easier, admission has become for American teenagers on average. Between 1984 and 1994, it became easier at many colleges. The college-age population in this country fell during that time to 14.1 million in 1994 from 16.5 million in 1984, and the number of foreign students was relatively stable.

{snip} By the 2000s, the so-called echo boom in births had increased the number of college-age Americans. It reached 17.9 million in 2012. The number of foreign students was growing at the same time. They now constitute close to 10 percent of the student body at many selective colleges, nearly double the level of the early 1990s.


And there is still scant evidence that the selectivity of the college one attends matters much. Students with similar SAT scores who attended colleges of different selectivity–say, Penn and Penn State–had statistically identical incomes in later years, according to research by the economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger.

There was one exception, though: low-income students, who did seem to benefit from attending an elite college. Maybe they benefited more from the social contacts they made there or were more likely to drop out if they did not attend a top college.

Either way, the research underscores a problem with the way colleges have globalized. With only a handful of exceptions (including Harvard, Amherst, M.I.T. and Yale), colleges have not tried hard to recruit an economically diverse group of foreign students. The students instead have become a revenue source.


In recent years, college administrators have repeatedly claimed that enrolling a more economically diverse group of students is a top priority. But their actions don’t always match their words. While some have made progress, the students at many remain overwhelmingly affluent. On average, about 15 percent of students at elite colleges receive Pell grants, which as a rule of thumb go to students in the bottom half of the income distribution.

Foreign students–typically well-off ones–have become another group that college admissions offices have decided should be well represented in every freshman class, along with “legacy” applicants (the children of alumni), varsity athletes and underrepresented minorities. A large fraction of these groups comes from high-income families. And all of them, along now with students from around the world, are a higher priority for colleges than poor students.

Low-income applicants are left to compete for the remaining slots with applicants who have the highest test scores, most impressive extracurricular activities and most eloquent essays.