Why it’s harder than before to get into your favorite college

Caroline Hoxby reports:

This paper shows that although the top ten percent of colleges are
substantially more selective now than they were 5 decades ago, most
colleges are not more selective. Moreover, at least 50 percent of
colleges are substantially less selective now than they were then. This
paper demonstrates that competition for space–the number of students
who wish to attend college growing faster than the number of spaces
available–does not explain changing selectivity. The explanation is,
instead, that the elasticity of a student's preference for a college
with respect to its proximity to his home has fallen substantially over
time and there has been a corresponding increase in the elasticity of
his preference for a college with respect to its resources and peers.
In other words, 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 show that
the integration of the market for college education has had profound
implications on the peers whom college students experience, the
resources invested in their education, the tuition they pay, and the
subsidies they enjoy. An important finding is that, even though tuition
has been rising rapidly at the most selective schools, the deal
students get there has arguably improved greatly. The result is that
the "stakes" associated with admission to these colleges are much
higher now than in the past.

Here is one summary of the paper.  The ungated version is here.  Note that the incomplete nature of globalization for higher ed means this process still has a long way to run.

By the way, does this logic also apply to romance?  To really good sporting events?  To meeting and befriending celebrities?  Is this a more general prediction in a superstars model?


The answer to all of your questions is yes. As communication costs fall, you get economies of scale in prestige but like all good things this effect won't last forever.

The paper discusses American colleges only ("The Changing Selectivity of American Colleges"). Different factors may (I suspect are) at work in other countries.

I think we all know what's caused this - U.S. News and World Report.

Interesting. Would out-of-state tuition costs be a factor in why the change has had less impact on state universities than the independents?

And how does the study address the question as to whether status competition related to attending a top 50 school (yes, the US News effect) isn't overcoming the proximity factor rather than the other way around (i.e., that the weakening of the proximity factor encourages students to apply to top 50s)?

Ted Craig hit it spot on. US News and World Reports college rankings puts weight on the selectivity number. Schools will do anything to up that number, as it pushes their ranking.

The range in SAT scores between the 25th and 75th percentiles at most colleges is now fairly narrow as students and colleges increasingly stratify on the IQ pyramid.

One exception is Brigham Young University, which is attended both by very smart and very average Mormons. BYU keeps tuition quite low (in part by having large class sizes) so most Mormons can afford it. It's interesting how the the very Republican Mormons have become an island of egalitarianism within an increasingly elitist society, while the very Democratic Ivy League colleges are the shock troops of social stratification.

The first chapter of The Bell Curve describes the process by which, say, Harvard went from being a school for smart Bostonians to being a school for the smartest people from across the country. They see the inflection point as the 1950s.

For example, my wife's uncle, the son of a West Side of Chicago ditchdigger, won a scholarship to MIT in 1952. A Chicago newspaper ran a picture of him getting on the train to Boston, suggesting that this was both still unusual at the time but starting to be an exciting trend that readers were interested in.

This rings true to me. When I see what the typical student as like now at the college I attended 20 years ago, I doubt I* would get admitted now.

* - meaning my 1986 self

> Is this a more general prediction in a superstars model?

i just tested this for Hollywood and the intensity of sorting doesn't seem to be increasing in that field

"Does this logic also apply to romance?"

It might apply. Some people might not restrict themselves to dating within the same city, or even the same country. A person might decide that pursuing overseas opportunities would allow him to find a more appealing spouse.

I think that has already happened to some extent with the rise of Internet-dating services that specialize in international dating and marriage. People wouldn't sign up for these services if they didn't think they could improve their dating/marriage prospects by doing so.

I would be fascinated to see some research on the matches produced by these services (of the sort Dan Ariely and two co-authors did using Match.com's data).

fuwen 2010.03.23

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