The failures of college selectivity

UConn's Gordon W. Tasker Undergraduate Admissions Building.  Our writer discusses the impact highly selective admissions processes have on application numbers. (File Photo/ The Daily Campus)

Every year by the end of March, high school students across the United States finish the long waiting period for college acceptances and rejections. For some students, the focus will be on the schools considered by many to be the “elite” – Ivy Leagues like Harvard and Yale, as well as similarly competitive colleges such as Stanford. Unfortunately for these students, the odds are not in their favor; based on admissions rates, Harvard University accepted only 5.4 percent of undergraduate applicants last year, and Stanford University’s acceptance rate was even lower at 4.8 percent. This means that around 95 percent of applicants faced extreme disappointment last week as they were forced to settle for the colleges they consider “second best.”

This familiar trend in the application process has existed for as long as anyone can remember. The more selective colleges are immediately assumed to be the better schools, and high school students are instructed to strive for them blindly, without consideration for any factors other than a very limited spread of statistics and the educational status quo. This logic, however, is severely flawed. It discourages students from considering the quality of a school’s educational programs or its ability to fulfill their long-term goals, and for many students, these “elite” colleges might simply not be worth it.

First and foremost, the main benefit of these selective colleges can be quantified in terms of funding, as many of them have greater endowments than their less selective counterparts. However, greater funding at this level does not necessarily equate to a greater quality of education, which depends on how the resources are allocated. As a result, it becomes extremely important for students to consider the quality of the programs they are applying to when choosing their colleges. For example, one Ivy League university may spend millions of dollars on its business department but neglect its arts department, and another might have a thriving social sciences program but an engineering program that is not quite as supported. Therefore, some students may find that they can receive the same quality of education at a less expensive and less selective university. Some public universities, for instance, receive a great deal of funding and generally have lower in-state tuition rates and higher acceptance rates for their students, who don’t have the burden of $60,000 of expenses every year.

Of course, many will argue that people who graduate from more selective universities will be rewarded with higher salaries when they enter the workforce. This also is not entirely true. According to a 2011 study by Mathematic Policy Research mathematician Stacy Dale and Princeton University economist Alan Krueger, students who attended selective universities in the 1970s as well as the 1990s saw the same earnings in their 30s, 40s and 50s as students with similar SAT scores who attended less selective colleges. The benefit of elite colleges lies more with the ease of obtaining a job.

The paper found that degrees from elite colleges would have a greater effect on earnings for minorities and students whose parents had received less than 16 years of education. Unfortunately, it is these groups who are unlikely to attend. This is in part due to the admissions process, which, as it currently stands, proves that legacy students are three times more likely to be accepted by elite colleges, according to a report from the Atlantic. But these groups are also 75 percent less likely to even apply to these colleges despite the fact that they include 40 percent of the country’s highest-achieving students. This is likely due to the failure of universities to properly advertise to these groups.


The power behind most elite colleges lies mostly in their brand names, which have carried their prestige far more than their education and allowed them to be so selective about their admissions. But it is time to move away from the philosophy of ranking colleges based solely on their acceptance rates and consider concrete factors like the strength of programs and the ability to cater to the needs of students. After these considerations, many students will find that they have far more options than they first believed.


Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.