When I started touring college campuses 30-something years ago, there was a strong relationship between how hungry the college was and the quality of the meals provided. My colleagues and I—“hordes” is such an unpleasant word—would descend from our chartered buses famished after a two-hour excursion from College A to College B. Schools that were seeking to attract more applicants would begin the visit with a sit down meal; schools that were already admitting only 20% of their applicants would hand us a box lunch; highly selective schools would mention, “…and there’s the cafeteria” as they hustled us from the new 10-million dollar science lab to the new 10-million dollar athletic facility to the new 10-million dollar student union.
Which is why I was puzzled to be invited to a Harvard counselor breakfast not so long ago with fresh orange juice and chefs preparing omelets. Harvard was already admitting some five percent of applicants.
For those of you who were not in my seventh-grade math class, let’s focus on what exactly “five percent’ implies: Admitting five percent of applicants means rejecting 19 of 20. The majority of those 19 “rejects” would have not just survived but thrived in the classroom and the dorm room at Harvard. Many of the “rejects” were first in their class, were presidents of the student counsel, were captains of the lacrosse team, or had perfect scores on their SATs. Some of the “rejects” were first in their class, president of the student counsel, captain of the lacrosse team, AND has perfect scores on their SATs.
Harvard already had brand recognition dating back to 1643. Why the marketing push? Why were attentive serving people offering to refill my glass of fresh orange juice? Why the sophisticated presentation about the new engineering program? Why did all those engaging admissions people travel all the way to Florida, get up early in the morning, and put on nice clothes? Did Harvard wish to reject 29 out of 30 applicants rather than only 19 out of 20?
Apparently so. Because the data have followed those numbers. The Department of Education let us know last week that Harvard admitted 3.4% for the class of 2025. Rather than rejecting 19 or 20 students, Harvard now rejects 29 of 30.
A less sensitive author than I might use the words “piggish,” “elitist,” and “immoral” in this paragraph.
Or as a 19th century English music hall singer lamented,
It’s the same the whole world over,
It’s the poor what gets the blame.
While the rich gets all the gravy,
Ain’t it a bloomin’ shame?
Income inequality continues to squeeze out middle class families in the US. Admissions inequality threatens to close the doors of some of the best colleges in the US. Blaming the “marketplace”—why did colleges in rural locations have the poor judgment not to place themselves in popular cities when they broke ground 150 years ago?—is similar to blaming working people for “choosing” to be born in towns where industries no longer are.
Which is not to say that Waterville, Maine, the location of Colby College, is a threat to better known tourist destinations. Only that Colby—where I used to be able to send solid B+ students—is now accepting only eight percent of applicants. Or that Durham, North Carolina is a thriving metropolis. But Duke University now admits 4.3 % of applicants. Only Columbia and Harvard are more greedily competitive.
To insist that Colby is now “better” than other small liberal arts colleges with more relaxed admissions ratios is to suggest that Proust is “better” than Steinbeck because I can’t understand the endless, twisted sentences of Marcel, but believe The Grapes of Wrath to be one of the most important and gratifying works of 20th century literature. Just because something is harder to understand doesn’t make it better. Just because Harvard is tougher to get into doesn’t make their professors more accessible, their class sizes more attractive, their student body more appealing.
The take-away is simple: don’t equate harder to get into with desirable. I am a big fan of Colby and Harvard with their single digit admissions ratios, but I am not blind to the similar excellence of schools that admit 20 % or—gasp!—50 % of their applicants. As I wrote in 1994 and will continue to explain, the vast majority of colleges continue to admit virtually every qualified applicant.
It’s not where you go but how you do becomes even more glaringly true as the rich get richer. Equating excellence with exclusivity—arithmetically speaking—likely leads to disappointment, 29 times out of 30. And no amount of fresh orange juice can make those 29 rejected students feel any better.