Why Selectivity Is Important

While selective colleges and universities have become more selective, middling and lower-tier schools have become less selective, according to a new study reported on Inside Higher Ed. The study’s author, Stanford’s Caroline M. Hoxby, correctly noted that “typical college-going students in the U.S. should be unconcerned about rising selectivity. If anything, they should be concerned about falling selectivity, the phenomenon they will actually experience.” She added that “policymakers should take care not to enact policies based on the experience of a subset of colleges without considering their ramifications for colleges which have a very different experience.”
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.
That finding certainly reflects my experience at the City University of New York, where over the past decade Chancellor Matthew Goldstein has relentlessly pressed for improving selectivity—through demanding that individual CUNY colleges meet higher SAT targets, or by establishing the widely praised CUNY Honors College. That Goldstein has accomplished all of this in the face of vitriolic opposition from CUNY’s faculty union makes his achievements all the more impressive.

Hoxby also looked into the growing disparity in financial resources between different types of institutions. Since 1967, what she terms the “average annual growth rate of real resources per student” at the most selective colleges has been almost double the rate at their least selective counterparts.
In the comments, Amy De Rosa correctly points out that the study did not show “that low-selectivity colleges necessarily equal poor education. Conversely, the notion that prestige schools for the ‘haves’ provide the best education is not necessarily true either.” We need to know how institutions are spending their money. Throwing resources at hiring groupthink faculty—take Duke as an example—will harm, not improve, the quality of education.
Nonetheless, with technology an increasingly important part of teaching, the financial disparity that Hoxby uncovered raises concerns. For instance, I spent the spring 2005 semester as a visiting professor at Harvard; the in-class resources I had there almost five years ago don’t match what currently exists at CUNY—because we simply haven’t received the level of state funding to keep up.
There is, of course, a linkage between selectivity and funding. Politicians, alumni, and donors are far more likely to want to fund institutions that can show they’re admitting and producing quality students. In this respect, the guidance that more poorly-funded institutions should take from Hoxby is doubly clear: do everything possible to increase selectivity and admit better students.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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