OF POSITION AND EXCESS CAPACITY. I've long maintained that the positional arms race in higher education enrollments (until the recession brought austerity to the more affluent quarters) has been a flight to perceived quality in the presence of excess capacity in access-assessment-remediation-retention.
Think about it this way: would diners be better served if only 20 restaurants earned a five-star rating, or if (with no dilution of standards) they had a choice among 50, 100, 200 five-star restaurants?
Now comes Caroline M. Hoxby, currently with Stanford, with a related perspective that does not cause me to change my mind.
This paper shows that although the top ten percent of colleges are substantially more selective now than they were 5 decades ago, most colleges are not more selective. Moreover, at least 50 percent of colleges are substantially less selective now than they were then. This paper demonstrates that competition for space--the number of students who wish to attend college growing faster than the number of spaces available--does not explain changing selectivity. The explanation is, instead, that the elasticity of a student's preference for a college with respect to its proximity to his home has fallen substantially over time and there has been a corresponding increase in the elasticity of his preference for a college with respect to its resources and peers. In other words, students used to attend a local college regardless of their abilities and its characteristics. Now, their choices are driven far less by distance and far more by a college's resources and student body. It is the consequent re-sorting of students among colleges that has, at once, caused selectivity to rise in a small number of colleges while simultaneously causing it to fall in other colleges.
I'll be able to obtain the full working paper at the office, time permitting. An Inside Higher Ed column comments.

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.

"[S]ince 1975, there has been more than one seat per minimally prepared student. In short, the achievement standard for obtaining a freshman seat in the U.S. is minimal and is falling," she writes.

The working paper, which I will have to read, provocatively excludes research expenditures, including those at the medical colleges, and still finds that the most selective universities have thrown more resources at students.

While there may be different policy responses to her findings, Hoxby concludes by stressing the need to shift discussion away from a framework that assumes most colleges are impossible to get into.

"Over the past few decades, the average college has not become more selective: the reverse is true, though not dramatically," she writes. "The reason that initially selective colleges are much more selective today is not that they have failed to expand to absorb greater numbers of extremely high aptitude students. In fact, they have expanded modestly, keeping up with the modest growth in the population of such students."

That reckoning of resources probably understates the effect on undergraduate learning: it's possible that Gary Becker's graduate assistant might do more to stretch introductory economics students' minds at Chicago than I do for mine.

At Minding the Campus, KC Johnson pursues one of the possible policy implications.
The clear policy ramifications from Hoxby's study: institutions that currently can't afford to spend the amount of money of students that we see from Ivy League schools ($92,000 per student, according to Hoxby) need to be more selective in both their admissions criteria and in their academic visions.
It's encouraging to read that. Motivated placebound students, and motivated students from modest circumstances, deserve better than to have their aspirations dragged down by unmotivated classmates.

According to the report, the willingness to attend schools far from home produced a "resorting" effect. High-aptitude students increasingly have clustered at the top schools. Decades ago, they were sprinkled more throughout the second-tier schools, but the increasing desire for Harvard-Yale-Princeton-etc. has driven them up the university ladder, resulting precisely in the lower selectivity of the remaining 90 percent.

The report doesn't pursue the implications of this stratification, but it does note that because of the application patterns of high-aptitude students, low-aptitude students increasingly encounter low-aptitude students in their classes. In other words, the resulting student bodies reinforce the division of selective from non-selective institutions. Low-performing students sit in class with other low-performers. They don't have the superior student who didn't want to travel far from home sitting next to them in English 101, raising the quality of class discussion and pushing expectations higher. We sometimes forget that much of the intellectual level of the campus depends not on the faculty but upon the undergraduates. Students often take their cue not from the syllabi but from their roommates.

In that post, author Mark Bauerlein, perhaps in a Swiftian way, proposes that students and professors periodically change places. I bet it's more productive for the land-grants and mid-majors and on down the status hierarchy to work on lifting their efforts. (As a side note, I think the author meant re-sorting, rather than some revealed preference for climbing walls and health clubs.)

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