By CHRISTOPHER C. MORPHEW
The news media have extensively documented how many college applicants receive rejection letters from the country's most-elite higher-education institutions. The coverage has focused on the effort and expense that students and their parents put forth, only to be turned away.
While many private colleges and universities have always been highly selective, what has changed is the degree of selectivity — at the Ivy Leagues and their ilk as well as at lesser-known institutions. Last year Princeton University rejected more than 90 percent of its applicants, and Stanford rejected 89.7 percent. Harvard turned down 1,100 students who scored 800 on the math portion of the SAT, while Yale reported rejecting several students who scored a perfect 2400 overall. Even Pitzer College got into the act, accepting only 26 percent of its applicants.
Yet there is a striking dissonance between how educational value is viewed by the news media and many students and their families, and how it is viewed by the head of the U.S. Education Department, Secretary Margaret Spellings, and the commission she appointed in 2006 to review the state of American higher education. The Spellings Commission calls for greater accountability, efficiency, and cost controls at our nation's colleges — a demand that seems out of step with the very features that make elite colleges and universities so attractive to prospective students and their families. Although the commission concluded that our higher-education system "needs to improve in dramatic ways," it did not differentiate between elite and nonelite institutions, which brings the credibility of its recommendations into question.
The fact is that elite colleges and universities in the United States, although perceived by would-be matriculants and their parents as highly effective, are relatively inefficient organizations — at least according to the Spellings Commission's measure of choice: cost per student. The commission's final report last year called on higher-education institutions to become "more transparent about cost, price, and student success outcomes" and argued that traditional input measures like SAT scores and selectivity indicators were "no longer adequate" for ensuring accountability.
But consider the information you're likely to find in the viewbooks or on the Web sites of our most selective institutions: low student-faculty ratios; images and descriptions of recently renovated residence halls with costly, high-tech additions; and accounts of faculty members who, as a result of low teaching loads, have the time to work closely with undergraduates. Prospective students and their parents are not given detailed information on student learning or institutional spending; they are instead wowed with qualitative and quantitative information describing the accomplishments of faculty members and the quality of the student-life experience.
As headlines suggest, that strategy appears to work: More students than ever want to attend those dazzling-sounding institutions, and employers continue to hire their graduates. What's more — the Spellings Commission's recommendations notwithstanding — it does not seem that those colleges and universities are interested in holding down their costs. Quite the opposite, in fact: They are spending more and touting their spending as a selling point. Elite institutions have the largest endowments per student in the country (although their tuition prices seem disconnected to this reality). Harvard, which has seen its endowment more than double since 1999 to nearly $29-billion, raised its tuition price 3.9 percent this year, to $31,456.
So the commission and its experts on higher education are asking colleges and universities to adopt businesslike "cost-cutting and productivity improvements" while, simultaneously, students and their parents are clamoring to gain admission to a group of institutions openly disdainful of any need to cut costs and become more efficient. The commission report and Secretary Spellings's public comments calling for institutions to cut costs and operate more efficiently and transparently are plainly not aimed at those top-tier colleges and universities.
The report's recommendations fly in the face of what we see at our nation's most prestigious colleges and universities, and are cynical and impractical. The commission's recommendations, if adopted by less-prestigious institutions, would amount to a unilateral decision to disengage from what many scholars of higher education have described as an arms race of spending. Why would any college or university with aspirations of breaking into the top tier choose to drop out of the race? If anything, the increasing attractiveness of prestigious institutions is tangible proof that they should emulate, rather than distance themselves, from the competition.
The Spellings Commission might have made it clear that its report's findings and recommendations were not to be applied to all institutions of higher education — specifically, those receiving record numbers of applications despite their spending habits. The commission didn't do that, though, because doing so would have exposed the duplicity in the way we evaluate our higher-education system.
The United States has at least two different higher-education subsystems. The first serves the vast majority of students, teaching them and helping them to develop literacy and job skills. It is underfinanced, at least in comparison to its more-elite counterpart, and is under increasing attack from the public and politicians for failing to be innovative, efficient, transparent, and subservient to what business leaders say they want in college graduates.
The other subsystem is much smaller and consists primarily of the top-tier institutions that are receiving record numbers of applications. Those institutions are competing among themselves to see who can spend the most money per student to attract the best and brightest. They are increasingly attractive to well-educated parents and students who understand that a comprehensive education in the liberal tradition will provide access to what the economist Richard Florida describes as the "creative class" and a better quality of life. Leaders at those colleges and universities know that, by offering prospective students a rigorous undergraduate curriculum with all the trappings of student life, they need not worry about cost per student.
The Spellings Commission's failure to recognize and speak to the existence of the two subsystems of higher education illustrates why many people remain skeptical about the secretary's agenda and don't take the commission or its final report seriously. If and when the next Spellings Commission produces a report with workable, realistic recommendations that acknowledge the lure of elite colleges and the educational experience they provide, perhaps that skepticism will abate.
Christopher C. Morphew is an associate professor of higher education at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia. He is the author, with Peter Eckel, of The Privatization of the Public Research University, to be published by Johns Hopkins Press this year.