Canada fact of the day

by on August 23, 2017 at 2:13 pm in Education | Permalink

That means the top 10 universities in the United States – a country of over 315 million people – at any given time are educating a grand total of only 62,150 students.

By contrast, here are the rough numbers of undergraduates at the top 3 Canadian universities:

McGill: 30,000

UBC: 47,500

UofT: 67,000

That is from Joseph Heath, via Alessandro S.  Now, you might wish to argue that the United States is optimally anti-egalitarian in having relatively small classes for its best elite universities.  But then I wonder how much more widely that logic might generalize.  I, for one, still favor Harvard and other top schools trying to do 3x or 5x with respect to their admissions.

1 The Engineer August 23, 2017 at 2:18 pm

Canada ain’t the US.

What’s the top university in, say, Indiana? IU or Purdue or Notre Dame? What’s their enrollment?

The top 10 universities in the US are a lot different than any university elsewhere. Other universities are more like the big state schools.


2 Jack pq August 23, 2017 at 2:26 pm

Yes–and moreover the so-called elite Canadian universities are public, hence they need to admit a lot of students to some extent. The right comparison would be the best UC, or UVA, or Wisconsin Madison, UT Austin etc. These are very good, and they admit a ton of students comparatively speaking.


3 HookEmHorns August 23, 2017 at 6:33 pm

UT Austin has a drop out rate greater than 50%.


4 A clockwork orange August 23, 2017 at 7:01 pm

Go get you sweater and get my shawl. Saturday mornings the electric lights were for eating up the bluebirds and the tigers and the zippers

She said, don’t worry, don’t get tender-hearted. Asked, anything wrong?

Evening Ms. Jenkins. In the middle of nowhere, the pond’s fishy smell enveloped us all. Next thing she knows, she’s waiting for a sign, a whimper or a whisper. She don’t expect to sleep through the night anymore, eyes so vacant, same as yours, it seemed her soul had flown away. Still, the buzzards’ roost made her happy. Her feet swollen from walking in her dreams. But she got cleaned up to runaway to a revival meeting. She sent her spirit up, and her hair was perfect.

That’s what it say. Sure what it say. Her voice, a skinny finger, her shoulders slender, moved with a wispy gait, tiptoed across a tight rope. At the river she stood, she stood, goaded her feet.


5 philip crawford August 24, 2017 at 9:34 am

No. UT graduation rate in 4 years is 60%. Higher when extended to 5 and 6.

Jack pq is correct.


6 Jeff August 24, 2017 at 5:31 pm

Link? curious where you saw that stat. i work there and have never seen a 4yr grad rate. Ive seen 80% in 7 years.

7 mkt42 August 24, 2017 at 8:38 pm

Graduation rates for almost every college in the US can be found at the IPEDS Data Center (now called Use The Data):

According to IPEDS, UT’s 4-year graduation rate for the three most recent cohorts has been 51%-52% (counting only bachelors degree recipients i.e. excluding those who merely got a certificate or associate degree).

The formatting get crummy, but copying and pasting from the website (the “2015” statistics are IIRC for the fall 2009 first-year students who graduated within 4 years; “2014” is the fall 2008 students; and “2013” the fall 2007 students):

Institution Name Graduation rate – Bachelor degree within 4 years, total (DRVGR2015) Graduation rate – Bachelor degree within 4 years, total (DRVGR2014) Graduation rate – Bachelor degree within 4 years, total (DRVGR2013)

The University of Texas at Austin 52 52 51

Of course there may have been other cohorts where the 4-year graduation rate was around 60%. And Philip Crawford is correct that the 6-year graduation rates are considerably higher, 79%-82% for these three cohorts.

8 Ricardo August 23, 2017 at 2:42 pm

Yes… the correct comparison is: the rough number of students at comparable Canadian universities is 0.

Now having said that… I attended the University of Calgary, and my computer science training was clearly a lot better than the training received by Americans who attended state schools. As is often the case, in Canada the medians are higher but the averages are lower.


9 Willitts August 24, 2017 at 8:12 am

My Alma Mater was McGill that prepared me very well for top law schools.


10 Steve Sailer August 23, 2017 at 5:27 pm

I collected the data on the extremely slow growth of prestige colleges in a 2013 column:


11 Steve Sailer August 23, 2017 at 7:24 pm

Here’s what I found back in 2013 (note, some things may have changed since then):

In contrast, consider the growth rate of Harvard, the world’s richest university. The number of undergraduates in its class of 1986 was 1,722. After a quarter of a century, during which the US population grew by 75 million, Harvard’s class of 2011 was 1,726: an increase of four.

Similarly, Yale’s undergraduate student body has been the same size since 1978. Five years ago, the second-richest college announced a proposal for adding a couple of dormitories, but construction won’t proceed until another $300 million is raised.

In 2010, MIT unveiled plans to expand undergrad enrollment by six percent, which would only get it back to where it was in the 1990s.

Among the most prominent colleges, Princeton is the only one over the last generation to have actually succeeded in boosting enrollment (and that by only about ten percent) after it opened the Whitman residential college in 2007.

Some colleges have constricted campuses, but Stanford has it all: a $17-billion endowment, new gifts of over a billion dollars just last year, 36,632 applicants for the freshman class of 1,767, and an immense 8,180-acre campus in the heart of Silicon Valley featuring seven squares miles of undeveloped parkland.

In 2007, Stanford president John Hennessy pointed out that “the size of our undergraduate population has remained nearly level for more than 35 years. In 1970, the undergraduate class size was 6,221; in 1980 it was 6,630; last year it was 6,689.” The consequent increase in the rejection rate allowed Stanford to more than double its percentage of freshmen scoring 700 or higher on the Math SAT. (Over the same period, California grew from 20 million to 36 million—although in fairness, California’s test scores did not improve as much as Stanford’s.) ..

Perhaps the defining activity of American life since the 1960s has been elites conspiring to become more elite.


12 msgkings August 23, 2017 at 7:38 pm

Nice work


13 Jack pq August 23, 2017 at 2:24 pm

As the kids say: that’s a feature , not a bug! The top 10 elite universities are elite **because** they are so selective. Notice that Cornell, the only Ivy to admit a decent number of students, is also not in the top ten? Not a coincidence.


14 John Thacker August 23, 2017 at 2:57 pm

Cornell is also partially public, as some of its colleges are the land-grant university for New York. (Hence you can be a biology major in the Ag school, which is public, or a biology major in Arts & Sciences, which is private.) Exception that proves the rule.


15 Jan August 23, 2017 at 4:41 pm

Harvard could let in twice as many kids each year without a drop-off in quality of student. Their applicant pool is so off the charts impressive that the good rejects are indistinguishable from those accepted.


16 Hasdrubal August 23, 2017 at 5:17 pm

Their bottleneck probably isn’t students so much as it’s teachers. They’d need to double their faculty in order to double their student base and keep classes the same size/quality. Could they keep their faculty the same quality in that case? They’d have to compete even harder to poach the top people from other elite schools.

So, maybe one or two of the top ten schools could seriously expand, but it would be very expensive and more than that are likely to run into constraints on the labor side.


17 Harun August 23, 2017 at 5:45 pm

LOL. Do you really think their teachers are that good?

Or is it that the students are elite?


18 Al August 23, 2017 at 10:31 pm

All the above?

19 Jan August 23, 2017 at 5:48 pm

I’d agree faculty is more a limiting factor, though just as they can easily get more extremely qualified students they could probably get fairly close to the same standards with faculty. I don’t think money would be any problem at all for Harvard given its endowment, though that may not be true with too many other top tier schools.


20 Tom T. August 24, 2017 at 12:18 am

A place like Harvard would not need twice the faculty — just larger lecture halls and twice the TAs to do the grading.

21 anon August 23, 2017 at 6:20 pm

Exactly. They provide no benefit, they just leech off the accomplishments of their students. They know that expanding would have no value and would just hurt their students, who gain from the signalling, and hurt themselves by making them “lower quality”


22 Jan August 23, 2017 at 7:11 pm

I assert the strength of the signal would not much weaken, even if they increased enrollment by 100%. They’re still wicked smart and motivated kids and the education and connections will still be about equally as valuable.


23 Willitts August 24, 2017 at 8:16 am

Right. Why is it surprising that a smaller student body suffers less from congestion of public goods?

The best students benefit greatly from more teacher interaction in terms of their intellectual depth and breadth. Certainly average students can benefit from this too, but the best students have much more valuable marginal products.

By the way, the top public school in the world – Berkeley – ranks somewhere around 25th among US colleges and universities.


24 Nick Jungman August 23, 2017 at 2:26 pm

Given the disparity in size between our countries, shouldn’t we compare enrollment at the top x% of universities? I’m not sure this is meaningful.


25 RPLong August 23, 2017 at 2:27 pm

I once took a trip to Toronto to meet with the Economics faculty and discuss my going to grad school there. One professor was flabbergasted at what I was doing. He couldn’t understand why I’d want to study economics at the University of Toronto when there are already so many great economics schools in the United States.

Don’t get me wrong, McGill and Queens are good schools, but you just can’t compare them to the top 10 US schools. It’s night and day.


26 Al August 23, 2017 at 10:33 pm

Agreed. Sadly.


27 Al August 23, 2017 at 10:45 pm

Although, if I remember correctly some of the faculties in Canadian schools are about the same size as they are in US universities, for example McGill’s engineering is comparable to MIT in size, Law is similar to Harvard, medicine (MD) similar Harvard. However, the faculity of arts, education, management and continuing studies are enormous by comparison to US faculity.

UoT is enormous. Of this there is no doubt. And as for quality McGill has fallen down the rankings badly due to bad governance and policies at the province level.


28 Willitts August 24, 2017 at 8:17 am

Very true. Sad to say.


29 y81 August 23, 2017 at 2:33 pm

Note that the US News rankings encourage professors not to teach many students, because high average class size causes lower ratings. In my father’s day, large lecture classes with Vin Scully or Cleanth Brooks were the norm, but now it’s all seminars, which are much more expensive. (And obviously, the star professors can only teach a few seminars every year, so many of the classes are taught by lecturers and VAPs. Or adjuncts, at lower-ranking universities, though that isn’t so common at the top ten schools.)


30 Steve Sailer August 23, 2017 at 5:26 pm

Indeed, I listened to many lectures by Vin Scully over the radio from 1965 to 2016.


31 y81 August 24, 2017 at 1:24 pm

Haha. Vince.


32 Willitts August 24, 2017 at 8:21 am

I think it is a fallacy that classes taught by adjunct faculty or grad students is inherently worse than those taught by top researchers. There appears to be a strong separation between the abilities to teach and do meaningful research. At the very least there is comparative advantage.

When colleges tout classes taught by Nobel Prize winners, it’s more of a marketing technique than proper resource allocation.


33 Axa August 23, 2017 at 2:34 pm

The guy does not provide a source for the student count. According to the Times of Higher Education Harvard has almost 20K students or 2/3 or McGill. Is it really that different?

Also, UC Berkeley with 35K students is 10-30 places above in the ranking compared to McGill, UBC or Toronto. Thus, comparing public universities with public universities gives another perspective.


34 Borjigid August 23, 2017 at 2:48 pm

Tyler’s numbers are for undergraduates only.


35 Careless August 23, 2017 at 3:13 pm

Which 15% of the readership will instantly realize, 30% will be befuddled by, and 55% will just accept, not realizing how misleading it is.


36 Devin Lavelle August 23, 2017 at 2:37 pm

The US institutions ranked higher than U of Toronto (the highest ranked of the 3 Canadian universities per!/) collectively enroll about 320k students.


37 philip crawford August 23, 2017 at 3:32 pm

Stop with the fake news!


38 Peter August 24, 2017 at 6:46 pm

Again, Cowen’s point is about undergraduate education and enrollments. It looks like these numbers include graduate students, so they are not relevant.


39 rayward August 23, 2017 at 2:38 pm

Cowen wishes to shift the supply curve for the elite colleges. It’s a magnanimous gesture since it would likely hurt GMU (because more of the best students would attend the elites rather than second tier (but very good) colleges like GMU). I am ambivalent. One could argue that by limiting enrollment, the elites will in the long run reduce their influence (fewer of the swells) even as they increase the value of their degrees in the short run. But enough about the elite education. Of greater concern are the schools with very good athletic programs. What if college athletics become a casualty of the culture wars. I can foresee a future in which Berkley refuses to play Alabama, LSU refuses to play Michigan, and everybody refuses to play Duke, resulting in right wing athletic programs competing against right wing schools and left wing schools competing against left wing schools, similar to the split-off of the elite schools who only compete in athletics against each other. Now, that might be a good thing, or it might be a bad thing, but it definitely will be a thing. Getting a good education is one thing, but being able to watch a good college football matchup is far more important.


40 y81 August 23, 2017 at 2:42 pm

But think of the potential for a New Year’s championship, pitting the Red Champion against the Blue Champion! The Color Bowl.


41 Careless August 23, 2017 at 3:19 pm

Cal hasn’t played Alabama since 1973 (one of two total matches). LSU has never played Michigan. Duke is schedule filler.

Could you start pulling some numbers out of your butt? I might play Powerball and need to know what numbers not to use


42 Jan August 23, 2017 at 5:55 pm

Just what I thought, ha.

But what if the SEC turned into the Right Wing Conference, the Pac 12 competed to play in the Bernie Bowl and the Big Ten became known as the Mainly Moderate Midwest Conference.


43 Devin Lavelle August 23, 2017 at 5:24 pm

But if Harvard enrolls 5x as many students, they’ll need ~5x as many economists …


44 GW August 23, 2017 at 7:16 pm

If Harvard enrolls 5x as many students, Mankiw’s lecture course (and purchase of the new edition of his textbook) will still be required, but the enrollment will be 5x as high.


45 Per Kurowski August 23, 2017 at 2:46 pm

Whether Canadian or American, who will come out and dare make higher education more of a joint venture issue?


46 Bill August 23, 2017 at 2:52 pm

Elite Universities is a title of the 1920’s. We have hired people from elite universities and they perform no better no worse than others, except for attitude.

Just remember that Jared Kushner attended an elite University.


47 msgkings August 23, 2017 at 3:06 pm

So did Obama. And Bernie Sanders (U of Chicago).


48 derek August 23, 2017 at 3:28 pm

Well, it did keep them off the street. We should celebrate that success.


49 DevOps Dad August 23, 2017 at 4:23 pm

In Barack Obama’s case, off of Ala Moana Beach.


50 Floccina August 23, 2017 at 2:55 pm

Florida has some huge state schools and state contribution + tuition per student is much lower than most states. Economies of scale?

And BTW UF is quite selective for a state university.


51 me August 23, 2017 at 2:58 pm

Is it really the US that’s exceptional here more than Canada? There are plenty of other places with percentages more similar to the US (Oxbridge, top Grand Ecoles, IIT, etc.).


52 Ted Craig August 23, 2017 at 3:10 pm

Yeah, if you look at say the Times Higher Education Rankings, you quickly see Toronto is the fluke:!/page/0/length/25/sort_by/rank/sort_order/asc/cols/stats


53 Thiago Ribeiro August 23, 2017 at 3:04 pm

So that is what America has become: an elitist heaven where university spots are kept artificially scarce, so that the rich and well-connect can grab it all.


54 msgkings August 23, 2017 at 3:07 pm

I think you should publish a book with a new “So this is what America has become” on each page, and I’m not even slightly kidding.


55 Anon August 23, 2017 at 3:11 pm

Yes, we can’t wait to read all these TRib ulations.


56 Thiago Ribeiro August 23, 2017 at 3:40 pm

Basically, it has been done. Famous American Socialist Michael Harrigton showed the plight of the poor Americans in The Other America. American leading religious intellectual David Kupelian has proved that America has become a bizarre country, “America the Bizarre”, he calls it. American (Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred) Nobel winner Paul Krugman has found that America may already have become a failing state. French intellectual Emmmanuel Todd, who predicted the Soviet collapse, believes that America has become the 21th Century Soviet Union and may collapse soon.


57 Lanigram August 23, 2017 at 3:47 pm

Not a failed state, a flailed state, but not a failed state.


58 Thiago Ribeiro August 23, 2017 at 4:08 pm

He clearly said “failing”: “Is America a failed state and society? It looks truly possible.” He is a (Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred) Nobel winner, he must know what he is talking about.

59 msgkings August 23, 2017 at 4:29 pm

No man, it has not been done. I mean exactly that, a new one on each page, all starting with your perfect phrase, with you (use either of your names) as the author. Help us Thomas Taylor, you’re our only hope.


60 Thiago Ribeiro August 23, 2017 at 5:04 pm

Still, it would going down the beaten path. There is already much gloom and doom about America due to the last months unpleasantries. Most Americans are desperated, angry and tired with what happened to their country.

61 msgkings August 23, 2017 at 5:31 pm

And you can be the one to help them rise up to a glorious new dawn! Isn’t that the fate of Brazil, to lead mankind into its triumphant future? Just one book Thiago, please. You must help us.

62 Thiago Ribeiro August 23, 2017 at 5:52 pm

According to Prophet Bandarra ( ), Brazil will lead the world against Gog and Magog, retake Africa and Asia, defeat the King from North and crush the serpent with its heal, not publish cheap books.

63 msgkings August 23, 2017 at 6:03 pm

So you refuse us in our hour of need? Are all Brazilians as heartless as you?

64 Thiago Ribeiro August 23, 2017 at 6:13 pm

I am not heartless, I have a vision of future. American present woes are just a part of it. We’ve got to fulfill the books.

65 TMC August 24, 2017 at 11:21 am

msgkings – you thinking big coffee table book?

66 Ricardo August 23, 2017 at 5:31 pm

“Famous American Socialists” — one of the shortest books ever written.


67 msgkings August 23, 2017 at 5:33 pm

Well, according to many here everyone who ever pulled a lever for a Democrat is one, so….

68 R August 23, 2017 at 5:44 pm

No, it’d be a long book. Read up on your history of America during the period from roughly 1930 to 1965.

69 Thiago Ribeiro August 23, 2017 at 6:11 pm

Angela Davis, Daniel De Leon, Eugene V. Debs, W. E. B. Du Bois, William James Sidis, Martin Gardner, Bernie Sanders, Gus Hall, Jay Lovestone, Morris Hillquit, Norman Thomas, Lincoln Joseph Steffens, Alfred Rosenberg, William Z. Foster, Earl Browder, Frank P. Zeidler, Hellen Keller, Emma Goldman and more. Half of them are mildly to greatly famous in Brazil.

70 Ricardo August 23, 2017 at 6:14 pm

Fair enough… I guess it depends on what you mean by “famous.”

In my book, group X is not famous if the average American can name, off the top of his/her head, more Kardashians than members of group X.

71 Thiago Ribeiro August 23, 2017 at 7:49 pm

De Leon founded his own party, Sanders almost defeated Hillary, Norman Thomas was the name to go when a Conservative wanted to name a Socialist who was not in Stalin’s payroll. Helen Keller was deaf and blind. Rosenberg fried. William James Sidis was so intelligent, he became a paeiah. Lincoln Steffens saw the future and it worked. Martin Gardner liked Math. Earl Browder may have invented the “American exceptionalism” name. W. E. B. Du Bois was Black. So was Angela Davis and Paul Robeson. Eugene V. Debs was against war and he met Trotsky, who did not like Morris Hillquist. Emma Goldman (anarchist, bur close enough) is said to not want to be a part of a revolution unless she coukd dance. How many famous Kardashians can there be? For this token, the Apostles and the Founding Father were not famous either.

72 AnthonyB August 23, 2017 at 11:48 pm

Alfred Rosenberg, a famous American Socialist? The only Alfred Rosenberg I’ve heard of is the one hanged at Nuremberg.

73 Thiago Ribeiro August 24, 2017 at 6:53 am

You are right. Julius. The eletric chair, not the gallows.

74 Lanigram August 23, 2017 at 3:45 pm


>”…America has become…elitist…”



75 Thiago Ribeiro August 23, 2017 at 4:10 pm

Woe to you, America!


76 athEIst August 24, 2017 at 7:07 am

Yes, America is well on the way to becoming Brazil


77 Regular guy August 23, 2017 at 3:10 pm

Because i’m not well educated this idea of University ranking is alien to me.
99% of learning is in your own mind and the work or reading you perform. Other than as a signalling mechanism that you are a bright overachiever, or were coached to be one, what difference does it make where you went to school? I don’t think calculous is different at Harvard than it is at the local community college. In what way is someone at an elite school better educated? Can someone explain it to me?

Also, if online education becomes rigorously credentialed doesn’t most of this squabble over rankings vanish?


78 Hadur August 23, 2017 at 3:18 pm

Your mistake (and Tyler’s mistake) is to assume in the first place that any of this is actually about learning things or Human Capital.

Go to EconLog for the more accurate signaling model of higher education.


79 Lanigram August 23, 2017 at 3:51 pm

Yep. Legacy students and signaling.

Eventually, the higher ed bubble will burst, but the elite schools will be untouched. Ferraris don’t go on sale.


80 R August 23, 2017 at 5:39 pm

Why do you think it will bust? Sure, it’s an incredibly stupid system, but are people going to just stop being stupid?


81 Lanigram August 25, 2017 at 12:03 am


>Why do you think it will bust (sic)?

The ROI for lower echelon students in many majors in lower tier schools is not compelling.

82 Careless August 23, 2017 at 3:25 pm

Also, if online education becomes rigorously credentialed doesn’t most of this squabble over rankings vanish?

Of course not. It’s mostly in the selectivity in getting in in the first place.


83 R August 23, 2017 at 5:35 pm

“Other than as a signalling mechanism that you are a bright overachiever, or were coached to be one, what difference does it make where you went to school?”

Yep, it’s mostly signalling. But it’s the only “acceptable” way to discriminate by IQ, so it’s not useless signalling.

” I don’t think calculous is different at Harvard than it is at the local community college. In what way is someone at an elite school better educated? Can someone explain it to me? ”

Well, start with the fact that most community colleges don’t teach calculus.


84 Careless August 23, 2017 at 6:33 pm

Well, start with the fact that most community colleges don’t teach calculus.

Whaaaat? Is that really true?


85 Willitts August 24, 2017 at 8:27 am

They DO teach calculus. I have taught it at a CC.

But the vast majority of CC students have difficulty with algebra (and in some cases, fractions). They’re simply not ready for calculus. It’s about student mix, not quality.


86 TMC August 24, 2017 at 11:34 am

And they pass them right on. This how you get the majority of college grads to vote for Hillary

87 Dan Hanson August 24, 2017 at 6:34 pm

You are giving short shrift to Community colleges. There is wide variance between them, and wide variance within them, depending on the program.

I went to a community college before I went to an excellent university. Community college was harder. I studied computer engineering at the college, and physics at university. In college, my two year associates program included the following math: Differential calculus, integral calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, statistics, boolean algebra and logic, and complex functions. When I transferred to university I was given full transfer credit for every one of those courses,

In college I had 32-35 hours of classwork every semester. In university it tended to be about half that. Also, the quality of teaching was higher at college, as the instructors were generally older people who worked in the industry they were teaching, and came back to teaching because they loved it.

On the other hand, this same college offered programs in hairdressing and plumbing. So it really depended on what program you were in.

88 mkt42 August 23, 2017 at 7:26 pm

I’m not an expert on community colleges but the ones whose course lists I’ve looked at did teach calculus.

However classes at Harvard are indeed going to be different from the ones at a community college: the instructor can and almost always does demand more from the students in terms of the quantity and quality of material learned.

E.g. in the past and as far as I know this remains true now: if you take economics at MIT or Reed College, they skip intro econ and go straight into intermediate (so no intro textbook by Mankiw or Cowen & Tabarrok). Chicago used to kinda sorta do that but now they do have intro level principles courses in micro and macro and it appears they expect only a few students will be able to skip them.

Such a sequence would be a disaster at most colleges, where even intro econ is difficult for some students.


89 Willitts August 24, 2017 at 8:28 am

Harvard is well known for grade inflation.


90 Lanigram August 25, 2017 at 12:04 am

I think that is false. In fact, AP calculus is taught in many high schools.


91 Li Zhi August 23, 2017 at 8:31 pm

Well, chances are, if you went to Harvard, you’d have written “calculus”. It is certainly true that you must have internal motivation to optimally learn. It is just as clear (or should be) that the quality of the other students in your classroom and their motivation can significantly affect the amount of material you will be exposed to in a given time period. It is just as clear (or should be) that the teacher(s) of the course can drastically affect the quality and quantity of information you internalize. And don’t get me started with whether resource availability impacts your learning – OF COURSE it does!


92 athEIst August 24, 2017 at 7:13 am

I don’t think calculous is different at Harvard than it is at the local community college.
Of course it is, they spell it right.


93 anonprof August 23, 2017 at 3:16 pm

Is there evidence that a student who would make it into Harvard (or one of the other elite private schools) given the proposed expanded enrollment would be better off at Harvard than say Berkeley, Michigan, Texas, UVA, or other top 10 public institution? Does the school really add value to the students or do the elite schools simply draw the best and brightest? How much of the benefit of going to an elite school is socialization with other elite students? Is the education provided by Caltech diminished by adding weaker students?

Are the elite institutions really interchangeable? If Harvard were to increase enrollment, wouldn’t that mostly draw students currently headed to other elite private institutions? So a lot of students currently at Penn, Dartmouth, Colgate, Duke, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt and Rice are now attending Princeton, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Caltech, Brown, and Columbia. Have we really gained much? Is there evidence that an education from Texas, Berkeley, UCLA, UVA, Michigan, or GA Tech is really inferior to the “elite” private schools with additional space created by the brain drain to the top schools?


94 DB August 23, 2017 at 4:49 pm

> Princeton, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Caltech, Brown, and Columbia

One of these things is not like the others…


95 Steve-O August 23, 2017 at 5:03 pm

Which one?


96 Devin Lavelle August 23, 2017 at 5:28 pm

CalTech students don’t need to buy winter coats?
(But are required to buy athletics shoes)


97 Anonymous Coward August 23, 2017 at 4:53 pm
98 The Anti-Gnostic August 23, 2017 at 6:29 pm

It’s like good students make good schools and not the other way around.


99 Careless August 23, 2017 at 6:35 pm

I recall at least one study concluding that the best college a student was accepted to was more important than the school attended


100 Just Another MR Commentor August 24, 2017 at 2:27 am

I didn’t attend an Ivy League or similar school and it is likely true the education at Harvard isn’t much better than at Michigan or Berkeley. However, without a doubt their is a big drop in quality at some point as one goes down the ranking tables. The lower tier schools are quite pathetic and this is a problem.


101 mkt42 August 23, 2017 at 3:24 pm

Heath thinks the elite US colleges should enroll more students. Among his reasons is that they allegedly have the capacity (in terms of land area and instructors) to teach more students:

“Again, the faculty at these universities could easily teach 5 to 10 times more students – there are important economies of scale in university lecturing.”

It’s the low-tech version of the same mistake that Tyler and Alex constantly make, thinking that MOOCs and online classes are good substitutes for face to face classes, or in Heath’s case that large lectures are good substitutes for small seminars.

They are similar but not the same.

Aside from the degradation of the classroom experience, the large student faculty ratios that Heath envisions exacerbate what’s already one of the areas where the actual college experience falls short of the advertised experience: a top research university such as Harvard has plenty of top faculty, winners of Nobel prizes and MacArthur grants and the like. But how many students will actually work with one of those big-name professors? A few will, but not many on a percentage basis. And fewer still if Harvard were to increase its enrollment as Heath recommends.


102 buddyglass August 23, 2017 at 3:49 pm

It’s hard to have a “best in the world” university with 70k students. If you look at U.S. universities that are comparably ranked to McGill, U of T and UBC, there are some big ones.

In the 2017 the Canadian universities are ranked: Univ. of Toronto #22, UBC #36, McGill #42.

Some large U.S. universities in the same range:

UC Berkeley, #10, 35k students

UC Los Angeles, #14, 38k students

Michigan, #21, 42k students

Washington, #25, 45k students

NYU, #32, 43k students

Illinois, #36, 43k students

UC San Diego, #41, 28k students

Wisconsin, #45, 40k students

And here are the top non-U.S. universities in the world and their student counts. Note that none have much more than 20k students:

Oxford, #1, 20k students

Cambridge, #4, 19k students

Imperial College London, #8, 15k students

ETH Zurich, #9, 19k students

I suspect that an “easy” way to boost one’s standing in these rankings is to admit fewer students and become more selective. This has a multiplicative effect. You eliminate your lowest performing students, and by becoming more selective you encourage more high-ability students to apply, simply because you’re perceived as being “more selective”. If CalTech were to grow its student body from 2k to 20k it probably wouldn’t remain #2 in the world per these rankings. Ditto for Stanford if it were to grow from 15k to 30k.


103 Just Another MR Commentor August 24, 2017 at 2:17 am

Your point about the British schools is taken but Zürich – the whole of Switzerland doesn’t have all that many people so 19,000 is quite a large student body in comparison.


104 T.L. Cubbage August 23, 2017 at 3:50 pm

Most, if not all, of the 10 US schools Heath considered are “residential” schools, in which the vast majority of undergraduates live together on campus (e.g., in colleges at Yale, houses at Harvard, etc.) during their tenure. The relationships among students created by that setting are among their benefits. The Canadian universities differ in that respect, and it’s doubtful that these 10 US schools could retain that character for most students at 3x or 5x current undergraduate enrollment.


105 The Other Jim August 23, 2017 at 4:06 pm

As usual, Tyler has it backwards.

“Elite” schools are not elite schools because of what they provide. They are elite because of whom they select in the first place.

They pick either geniuses (20%) or people who are already guaranteed to succeed because of their pre-existing social connections (80%).


106 BenK August 23, 2017 at 6:02 pm

Yes, and this is part of the promise. Put geniuses who need backers
with established folks who need the company (and ability to employ) geniuses.
In the old days, they called the geniuses ‘scholarship students.’

It doesn’t relieve the school of the obligation to provide an exceptional education and
a pleasant living environment; and they are willing to pay faculty, build facilities,
etc, to achieve these ends. In short, they can be elite for both reasons, in a mutually
supporting fashion.


107 BenK August 23, 2017 at 5:50 pm

Canada just doesn’t have that many schools. If you compare quality to quality, there are plenty of US schools that are very large and competitive with the best Canadian schools.
However, with such a large educational sector, the top 10 schools in the US are very far out on the long tail, even internationally, and generally are not very large – because that’s
part of being out on a long tail; it’s harder to deviate from the median when you are very large.


108 Dinesh August 23, 2017 at 7:14 pm

What matters is % of total population getting higher education. From this does not look like Canada is doing better than USA


109 Willitts August 24, 2017 at 8:32 am

What matters is the value of that education to the market.

Philosophy degrees create 1% philosophers and 99% of the Most Interesting Barristas in the World.


110 msgkings August 24, 2017 at 12:41 pm

More like 1% philosophers, 25% baristas, 2% screenwriters, and 72% lawyers


111 August 23, 2017 at 9:49 pm

“””Professor Alison Richard, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor: “We try to reach out to the best students, whatever their background,” she said. “One outcome of that is that we can help to promote social mobility. But promoting social mobility is not our core mission. Our core mission is to provide an outstanding education within a research setting.” “””


112 August 23, 2017 at 10:21 pm

Interestingly, coming from Cambridge,

The case of California

The California Master Plan for Higher Education became law in 1960,vii negotiated not by government but by the leaders of California’s colleges and universities.

Its founding principles were that affordable post-secondary education and training should be available to all residents of the State;

qualified individuals should be able to extend their education by transferring between institutions within the system;

and research activities should be concentrated in order to achieve international excellence and impact.

It seems to be that the unsaid assertion is that teaching activities should be concentrated somewhere else.


113 Cyrus August 24, 2017 at 12:13 am

Declare endowment earnings beyond a threshold proportionate to the student body as UBTI. It’s not a stretch to say that a fee institutions became along the way hedge funds that happen to run a university.


114 Cyrus August 24, 2017 at 12:13 am

Fee / Few


115 jb August 24, 2017 at 4:52 am

The country size doubles. Some organizations will want to double. Some will want to stay the same size. Some might even want to become smaller for their own reasons. Why are we even talking about this? Do we want to pressure everyone to do it one way or another? It takes all kinds to make the world go around.


116 Dave Bergman August 24, 2017 at 7:43 am

The enrollments at three well-known / elite Canadian East Coast liberal arts colleges–Mount Allison, St. Francis Xavier, and Acadia–_sum to_ roughly 11,000. You can argue about how good these places really are, or whether different schools should be in the top 3, but these are widely respected schools not wholly disanalogous to the Ivy League in America.

So perhaps the same effect exists in Canada and is so severe that most non-Canadians don’t even know that the elite colleges exist!


117 chuck martel August 24, 2017 at 10:08 am

Oddly, in this post and its comments no mention is made of perhaps the most selective and certainly the most legacy oriented institutions of higher learning in the US, the military service academies. Offspring of the highest ranks are practically guaranteed admission and subsequently a place in a dynastic oligarchy that has run the US military for many decades and in some cases the civilian government as well. See John McCain.


118 David B August 24, 2017 at 10:46 am

Ah, but you see, as soon as they increase their admissions totals, their admission % goes up. As low admissions rate is key to being in the top 10, we are right back where we began.


119 P Burgos August 24, 2017 at 10:55 am

I am surprised that no one has mentioned graduate students. I thought that the whole business model (from the faculty point of view) of Ivy league universities is that you sell undergraduates on the prestige of the sheepskin, are so highly selective that it doesn’t matter whether or not the teaching is any good because the students are all smart and hardworking anyway, rely on those smart, ambitious, status hungry undergrads to go make fortunes and donate lots of money to the university, and then enjoy the bounty as the endowment and overall setup allows you ample time to pursue your research agenda armed with the best grad students out there to do the grunt work.


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