18.1.08

WHY IT MATTERS. More evidence of excess demand for prestige degrees.
Applications to selective colleges and universities are reaching new heights this year, promising another season of high rejection rates and dashed hopes for many more students.
Perhaps it is as simple as each applicant sending out more applications, and when the music stops, everybody matriculates at no worse than his or her third choice (So don't get excited, and don't get all pale/Instead of going to Harvard, they all went to Yale.)
The reasons for the swelling numbers — not all colleges have reported yet — go beyond the growth in the college age population and the preoccupation with name-brand schools. Recruiting by elite colleges among low- and middle-income students and in new regions are bringing in more applications.
On the other hand, perhaps the onus is on the less-well known institutions to think of themselves as alternate sources of the same experience and the same rigor, rather than as a less-demanding safety option. Or perhaps those economic and geographic diversity initiatives imply some upper-income and legacy students will have the land-grants and mid-majors as their choices. Either way, it makes sense for the land-grants and mid-majors to think of themselves as in the same business as Chicago or Northwestern or Wisconsin.

There is also accumulating evidence that the value of the collegiate credential is slipping.
The rising wage premium, however, is due largely to the sharply falling earnings of high-school graduates and dropouts rather than to higher earnings for college graduates, which means that there is a higher relative demand for college graduates. However, this is often taken to mean that the absolute demand for college graduates is rising, and thus that the economy needs a higher proportion of people to get a college degree. That people with college degrees earn more than people without them says a lot about what is good for individuals and whether education is a good private investment, but it says little about how many and what kind of college graduates the economy and the national job structure demand.
The reward to that high-school diploma perhaps reflects the content-free high school curriculum. Again, though, the market test for the land-grants and mid-majors will be that of producing graduates who can hold their own (which isn't that hard to do) with the holders of comparable degrees from the current crop of selectives. Such a repositioning is likely to do much for the morale of the students and faculty at the land-grants and mid-majors, as well as to lower the stress level for admissions counselors and the spinmeisters hired by overly ambitious parents.

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