Why Are Selective Colleges Getting So Selective?

The undergraduate admissions rate for Harvard University is under 8 percent. EIGHT! That means its rate has fallen 20 percent (as opposed to percentage points) in the last four years, which is pretty extraordinary. But why? Here's an explanation from an NBER research paper that I hadn't heard before:

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'd add that this could also be due to the explosion, and out-sized influence, of college rankings -- from US News, Princeton Review and every other outlet looking for an easy-money cover story. Studies show that the schools we apply to are a better indication of future success than the schools we attend.* And yet, college rankings play a terribly exaggerated role in deciding where high schoolers apply because they facilely replace a complicated decision about four years and a $200,000 investment with a single number. Harvard = 1. Brown = 15. How easy is that?

School rankings create a dangerous cycle where donors respond to movements, up or down, in prominent school rankings by adjusting their donation amounts. This effect has been measured. It's real, it stinks, and another way the laurel of prestige contributes to this grand resorting of students.

Personal experience, for what it's worth, has born out the "it's-where-you-apply" rule. Of my high school friends who applied to Ivy League colleges, some received offers and some did not, but thinking over their current jobs, there's no bright line separating the young careers of my Ivy friends and my would-be Ivy friends. That said, there are surely some firms and organizations that continue to hire from certain colleges between they trust the "product." To a certain extent, this is perfectly rational. Hiring recent graduates without much of a resume requires employers to intuit their potential, and sometimes that means trusting the name on the diploma. But largely my friends' experience has validated the "it's-where-you-apply" rule.

*Words for senior high school readers to take to heart as they sweat early admission decisions in the next few weeks.