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Harvard Schmarvard: Does more selective mean better?

The Inside Higher Ed Web site rightly picks out the latest research by Caroline Hoxby, a brilliant Stanford University economist very good at starting fights (see this post), as a most intriguing take on our national argument over getting into the best colleges. Hoxby's paper says at least half of our college are LESS selective than they were five decades ago, but the top 10 percent are more so. Those top 10 percent, she says, are spending more per student than ever before, which she says makes them better. I think she is wrong, which I hope will motivate her to stick it to me with more data, thus moving this useful debate forward.

Hoxby sums up this way the reasons for half of schools becoming less selective while the top 10 percent become more selective: "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."

I appear to illustrate both trends. I started college at Occidental, in my home state of California, then transferred to Harvard on the other side of the country. These days Oxy is also among the 10 percent most selective schools, but still not as crazy as Harvard's 92 percent rejection rate. In my book Harvard Schmarvard, I argue that in hindsight, I see many ways in which Oxy, then and now, provided at least as good, and in some ways a better, education than Harvard did, and does. You can find plenty of people more successful than me who stayed at Oxy, such as former Post managing editor Steve Coll, winner of two Pulitzer prizes.

But Hoxby, who has argued for the higher quality of ultra-selective colleges in previous work, suggests in this paper that the top 10 percent must be significantly better because they are spending more per undergraduate---$12,000 for the lowest selectivity colleges compared to $92,000 for the highest selectivity. She is going to have to do better than that.

Most of this difference, I assume, can be explained by salaries, both higher pay for professors and staff and more professors and staff. I don't see how that makes a demonstrably better college experience, particularly since the salary differences between schools in the top 20 percent, where I suspect most Ivy League rejects end up, is probably not that great. We have data showing that the top 300 or so colleges, including the major state universities, all have a critical mass of top level professors and driven, imaginative students, which is what you want in a college. We also have data from the Stacy Berg Dale--Alan Krueger research showing that students with useful character traits---like persistence and charm---do just as well in later life if they graduate from selective or non-selective colleges.

This discussion isn't over. I can't wait to see what Hoxby comes up with next. What do you think?

By Jay Mathews  | October 28, 2009; 11:56 AM ET
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I think Hoxby is right in her observation of there being a "flight to [perceived] quality" but I don't think it has anything to do with the amount of per-pupil spending by college. I think it has to do with the dramatic increase in the number of college graduates.

Back in my grandparents' generation, simply having a bachelor's degree at all was fairly unusual. In my parents' generation, it was more common and there started to be a bit more emphasis placed on where the individual went to school. But it was nothing like when I went through in the '90's. And as nuts as I felt it was then, it's even that much worse today.

Where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are now slightly more college graduates than non-graduates. I suspect the percentage for those in my age bracket (25-34) is even higher.

When there is now such a large number of bachelor's degree holders to compete with, the [perceived] quality of the college attended takes on greater and greater importance.

It shouldn't be this way, but it is.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | October 30, 2009 9:00 PM | Report abuse

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