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That means in a nation whose total population has nearly tripled since those Depression years, in a country where the number of high-school graduates has risen nearly four-fold, in a land where religious and ethnic quotas have become verboten, in a world where women are as welcome as men to seek degrees from elite institutions, and where thousands of foreign students are also clamoring to secure a place, Harvard has not even doubled its undergraduate enrollment in 85 years. And Harvard is not alone: Most elite private colleges have fallen behind the nation’s demographic transformation.
This is an abdication, a moral failure, an elitist finger in the public’s eye, as damaging to American democracy as the rank discrimination against Jewish, Catholic, and African American men, and women of any ethnicity or race, that elite colleges used to practice. When just 5 to 8 percent of all those who apply to an Ivy League university are admitted — down from double that just 15 years ago — the shortage of freshmen slots institutionalizes elitism no matter how conscientiously admissions officers seek to insure a diverse student body. (Cornell used to admit 30 percent of applicants, but even that large university slashed its acceptance rate to just over 10 percent for the class of 2022.)
Hyper selectivity is a post-World War II phenomenon. At the turn of the 20th century, almost all applicants to the Ivy League were admitted. In 1941 Harvard accepted 1,092 students from the 1,182 who applied, and as late as 1956 The Harvard Crimson headlined the news that for the first time in the college’s history, more applicants were refused than accepted.
Well-endowed selective universities have become an elitist finger in the public’s eye.
Ironically, these were the years when elite colleges expanded their undergraduate enrollment far more dramatically than at any point in the past 40 years. Cold War imperatives and corporate demand for skilled labor provided both the funding and the jobs for a boom in postgraduate education. But undergraduate enrollments grew as well, in two waves that demonstrate the degree to which the expansion of elite universities has normally come as a result of pressure from without rather than any initiative from within.
The GI bill was not welcomed by most elite colleges. Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago thought “sentimental pressures and financial temptation” would corrupt the admissions process, converting colleges into “educational hobo jungles.” Indeed, the surge of highly motivated veterans and the government money that came with them did induce top colleges to boost yearly admissions. Yale undergraduate enrollment jumped from slightly more than 3,000 before World War II to over 4,500 in 1950. Princeton boosted enrollment from almost 2,500 in 1941 to nearly 3,500 in the fall of 1947. For several decades, Harvard’s class of 1950 remained the largest ever enrolled at the college.
Those numbers declined in the 1950s until the Ivy League faced another outside challenge: co-education. African American enrollments in the late 1960s grew substantially but rarely rose above single digits. But the admission of women was another story. At first Ivy League universities thought they might limit women to about a quarter of each class, enabling an increase of total enrollment by just 10 percent or so. But that proved untenable when it became apparent that such a policy would require denying admission to hundreds of women whose qualifications were far superior to male applicants.
So, the Ivies did two things. First, by the end of the 1970s women were being admitted at a ratio of about 1 to 1.1 for the men, thus making sure there were enough male athletes to staff the kind of intercollegiate sports teams that could fill a stadium or arena. Second, colleges stiffened admission requirements for men, reduced the legacy “tip,” and cut the overall number of men admitted. At Princeton, male enrollment dropped by about 500 in the years after women were admitted, while total enrollment has risen 47 percent in the nearly 50 years since 1971, with most of that increase coming in the first decade after the university went co-ed. At Yale, total enrollment rose 22 percent after women were admitted. And there it remained for more than four decades.
A few years ago Yale announced, to much fanfare, that it would build its first new residential colleges since 1962, boosting by 200 the number of admissions each year and increasing undergraduate enrollment from about 5,400 to 6,200 within four years. Princeton says it hopes to increase enrollment by about 125 students per class and Stanford by 100. The Washington Post correctly noted that such modest expansions amount to little more than a “rounding error” when compared to the tens of thousands enrolled by fast growing public universities in Florida, Texas, and Arizona.
Many excellent public universities, despite severe budget shortfalls, have substantially increased their size. In the last quarter century, the University of Virginia boosted undergraduate enrollments by more than 40 percent, to over 16,000, while the University of California added more than 92,000 undergrads, an increase of 73 percent from 1992 to 2017.
All this costs money, of course, but there are mitigating circumstances that would make the added expense bearable. First, undergraduates are relatively inexpensive to educate. Newly co-ed elite colleges were able to handle a rapid expansion in the 1970s, despite a terrible economic environment that ravaged endowments and shrank government support.
More working-class kids will get a chance at a prestige education, and the nation’s culture will become a shade more democratic.
Second, the cost of this expansion could and should rely on public funds. Indeed, these institutions already do. “Private” research universities have long been just as public — when it comes to funding — as many state universities. They enjoy a variety of tax benefits, virtually mandate that undergraduates in need make use of government loans and grants, and secure billions in research funding from the federal government and from the tax-deductible contributions of corporations and individuals. Between 2010 and 2015, more than $41 billion of the Ivy League’s income could be traced back to taxpayer-funded payments and benefits. Combined with more public funding for all of higher education, the continuation of these payments and tax advantages should be predicated on a well-planned expansion scheme for those elite institutions that reap their benefits. None of this would be outside the realm of the possible as part of a broad, government-led effort to reduce social and economic inequality.
You might reasonably ask, “Why throw money at these already wealthy institutions?” Certainly, public universities and historically black colleges and other struggling private colleges deserve it more. But the nation’s elite colleges fill the top ranks of a prestige hierarchy that is so rigidly fixed as to be virtually impervious to change, no matter the passage of time or the transformation of social and cultural mores. America’s economic and social inequality is not only mirrored by the dominance of elite colleges but reinforced each year regardless of the racial or ethnic sensitivity of their admission standards. Thirty-eight of the most selective universities, including five in the Ivy League, enroll more students from the top 1 percent in income than from the bottom 60 percent.
To flatten the pyramid a bit we need to add more places at the top. This will not eliminate the scramble for admission. Nor, in the absence of larger economic and social transformations, will it reduce inequality all that much. But sheer elitism will take a hit, more working-class kids will get a chance at a prestige education, and the nation’s culture will become a shade more democratic.
Elite colleges and universities have shirked their demographic responsibilities for far too long. Time to open them up.