The Selectivity Myth

It’s getting harder to be accepted into college, right? With more and more people applying, it’s an inevitable trend.

Well, maybe not. Inside Higher Ed provides some valuable debunking:

The problem — according to a major research project released Monday by a leading scholar of higher education — is that there are two trends at play.

A small number of colleges have become much more competitive over recent decades, according to Caroline M. Hoxby, an economist at Stanford University. But her study — published by the National Bureau of Economic Research — finds that as many as half of colleges have become substantially less competitive over time.

The key shift in college admissions isn’t increased competitiveness, Hoxby writes. Rather, both trends are explained by an increased willingness by students generally, and especially the best students, to attend colleges that aren’t near where they grew up. This shift increased the applicant pool for some colleges but cut it for others.

“Typical college-going students in the U.S. should be unconcerned about rising selectivity. If anything, they should be concerned about falling selectivity, the phenomenon they will actually experience,” Hoxby writes.

Hoxby spent 15 years gathering the data she needed for this study, and some of the results are fascinating:

The number of high school graduates in the United States, from 1955 to today, increased by 131 percent, she notes, but the number of freshman seats in the U.S. rose by 297 percent. “This suggests that the absolute standard of achievement required of a freshman who successfully competed for a seat was falling,” Hoxby writes.

She adds that the standard of academic preparation to gain admission could still have gone up over the years if the academic standards of all high school students showed gains. But using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and matching those results with college-going patterns, she finds the opposite. The number of college seats available to students who — judging by NAEP scores and college admission records — are only moderately or minimally prepared has gone up.

So while Hoxby’s research puts the lie to the anecdotal “fact” of rising competitiveness, another important anecdotal “fact”—higher education is becoming more and more bloated and less about quality learning—remains intact.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.