The Number One Reason the Ivy League Schools Are Broken

Ivy League schools are broken, at least to the extent they are true to their word that they are trying to serve mankind and not simply their own prestige.  Consider this from the WSJ:

Harvard hit a new low this year—in terms of its acceptance rate.

The university admitted 4.6% of applicants, or 1,962 students for the class set to begin this fall. Last year, it admitted 5.2% of applicants.

The eight campuses making up the Ivy League notified applicants on Wednesday evening about who will make up their first-year undergraduate class come fall. Seven of the eight posted record-high application numbers, while Dartmouth had its highest number in five years; seven recorded their lowest-ever acceptance rates, as Yale tied with its prior record.

Many of the applicants looked perfect on paper. At Princeton, more than 14,200 of the 35,370 applicants had a 4.0 grade point average. Brown boasted that 96% of its admitted students are in the top 10% of their high school classes, while at Dartmouth that rate hit 97%.

Yale admissions officers were “impressed and humbled” by the volume of qualified candidates, said Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid. That school tied its record-low 6.3% admission rate this year.

These schools invest the vast majority of their impressively-large capital funds in continuing to improve the quality of education by some fraction of a percentage.  In contrast, none of them have made meaningful investments in increasing their capacity to bring their already super-high level of education to more students (by this I mean doubling or tripling the size of its school-- Princeton to its credit did increase its capacity several years ago by something like 15%).   The number of clearly Ivy-qualified students has increased perhaps by an order of magnitude over the last 30 years but Ivy capacity has increased only trivially.

Let's say an Ivy has 5,000 students and a 10 point (on some arbitrary scale) education advantage over other schools.  Let's consider two investments.  One would increase their educational advantage by 10% from 10 to 11 (an increase I would argue that is way larger than the increase from investments they have recently made).  The other investment would double the size of the school from 5,000 to 10,000 but let's say that through dilution and distraction it dropped the educational advantage by 10% from 10 to 9.   The first investment adds something like 5,000 education points to the world (5,000 kids x 11 minus 5,000 kids x 10).  The second adds  40,000  points to the world (10,000 x 9 minus 5,000 x 10).  It's not even close.  In fact, the expansion option is still favored even if the education advantage drops by 40%.

I have written this suggestion in various forms to every Princeton President in the last 20 years and have finally just given up trying.  I have come to the conclusion that the administration and faculty don't actually care so much about Princeton's net contribution to the world, and care more about prestige.  In their hearts, I would bet that most of the administration and faculty -- very rationally from their personal incentives -- want to be associated with what is arguably the top undergrad school in the country, and might even consider cutting the class size in half if that is what is required to get stay there.  They get rewarded for being associated with a school with an educational advantage that is as high as possible, and no one's evaluation of that associated prestige is affected by whether that education is provided to one person or one thousand. If you buy Bryan Caplan's argument that college education is mostly all signalling, then we alumni should have the same attitude.

I did have one Princeton President engage me on this (Shirley M. Tilghman, who also oversaw the modest growth in Princeton's size I mentioned above).  The counter argument I hear is that it is really hard to keep these institutions great while tripling them in size and taking online students or whatever.  But that is a cop out, in my view.  The people who run these institutions preen that they are the thought-leaders in education.  Well any fool can run a capital campaign at Yale and build a new molecular biology building.  One of these folks should take on a harder task.   I have had my issues in the past with Arizona State (ASU) President Michael Crow, but I think it can be argued that he is contributing more to the world trying to figure out how to improve the education of 100,000 kids than is the Harvard President educating the same hand-picked 5,000 undergrads with incrementally-increased intensity.


  1. StillAnOptimist:

    Good points - I would go so far as to say that the Ivies as they are today are really uninterested in education and are interested only in prolonging their own futures/legacies. edx (Agrawal) is indeed trying to educate as many as possible - and has started offering "Micro" (?) Masters (i.e. targeted degree programs) - and so has coursera (Arizona State is very active indeed) - Harvard and others do offer courses on edx and other platforms, but are not really using their supposed talents to scale up the education process - yes, if they are indeed very smart, I would like to see what they can do to reach more (people and share what they are good at ... While "online" is not for everyone, I imagine there are ideas out there waiting to be implemented that will make courses more attractive to more and educate the hundreds of thousands instead of a few on brick/mortar campuses. I also see a slow but definite decline in many state universities that seem to do even less for students (academically) while enlarging their administrative and athletic footprints.

  2. mlhouse:

    I would argue that the reason why they keep enrollment low is that their education isn't significantly better than other college. But by controlling enrollment they create a myth of the elite. This enhances their value in the market and feeds the cycle.

  3. marco73:

    The alumni of the Ivies are going to be overwhelmed in the marketplace by the alumni of everywhere else.
    So how many undergrads do the Ivies graduate each year? Something like 12 to 15 thousand?
    The working population of the United States is roughly 100 million. By age 25, 30% of the working population have bachelors degrees. So roughly 30 million working people in the US have a bachelor's degree.
    The measly 15 thousand Ivies per year are not even a rounding error.
    The Ivies could double their undergrad rate and it would make no difference. Those top students who are all rejected by the Ivies go on to somewhere else, and will do quite nicely, because they are already high achievers.
    And how about the opposite? The Ivies all shut down tomorrow. The vast majority of the US would never even notice.

  4. Peabody:

    "I have come to the conclusion that the administration and faculty don't actually care so much about Princeton's net contribution to the world, and care more about prestige."

    I'm only confused why you didn't start with that conclusion.

  5. me:

    Anecdote time: I always wanted to study at one of the Ivys, and regretted my upbringing until I started meeting folks who'd come from Havard and Yale at work. Great capacity to control meetings and project dominance. Also, dumb as brick and unwilling to reconsider their bold decisions in the face of evidence.

    While this is in no way an indication of general lack of intelligence and capability for critical thinking, the examples I've encountered make me wonder what percentage of graduates are actually useful and what percentage are just very good players.

  6. davesmith001:

    Coyote mentioned this, of course, but this is some evidence that Bryan Caplan is right, and these people know it.

  7. morganovich:

    "The number of clearly Ivy-qualified students has increased perhaps by an order of magnitude over the last 30 years but Ivy capacity has increased only trivially." i think this is a bad assumption based on grade inflation etc.

    having a 4.0 means nothing like what it did 20 or 30 years ago. grading is MUCH easier in HS and a's are now a normal grade and b's mean you need work. a c is what an f used to be.

    i would bet the average gpa in school is up a full point in the last 30 years, maybe more if you factor in the 1.0 bump for an AP course that means you can be running a 5.0 if you take the right classes.

    but look at SAT scores. they are NOT up despite the test being easier than it used to be.

    so what does that tell us? that gpa is not a reliable metric for being qualified for an ivy. i graduated from an ivy in 1994. as a freshman, i suspect 20% of my class was not qualified to be there. of that 20%, probably 75% failed to graduate.

    this idea that these schools could be taking classes twice the size of those currently enrolling without majorly reducing the quality and capability of the classes seems deeply implausible.

    i think you're being fooled by grade inflation, not a rise in the quality of high school seniors.

  8. gr8econ:

    I will admit my bias up front since I teach at the community colleges and by design we take anybody.

    Perhaps one reason to be so restrictive in admissions is because it is easier to teach really good students. It is a lot less work on the faculty.

  9. Matthew Slyfield:

    "In contrast, none of them have made meaningful investments in increasing
    their capacity to bring their already super-high level of education to
    more students (by this I mean doubling or tripling the size of its
    school-- Princeton to its credit did increase its capacity several years
    ago by something like 15%)."

    It would be fundamentally impossible for them to double or triple their size without a negative impact on quality.

  10. gr8econ:

    I'm not sure that they provide a "super-high level of education" to anyone. They do start with super-high students.

  11. Matthew Slyfield:

    It doesn't matter what their initial quality is, because production is a strict matter of human intellect/effort, it would be impossible to make a drastic increase in capacity without lowering quality.

  12. Chris Bickford:

    I'd extend that and point out that there's only so many "elite" positions to go around. If you tripled the number of Ivy graduates, without tripling the number of "top jobs" to go around, you'd see people from the Ivy's ... elsewhere.

  13. SamWah:

    I have never been near any of the Ivies, but being back east, I'm guessing there's very little room to expand.

  14. ErikTheRed:

    Ivy-league schools provide education, but that is strictly incidental - it is not their product. Their product is an Ivy-league degree. Its value is tied to its relative and completely artificial scarcity (kind of like diamonds). If they start producing more of those, it dilutes the value of their product. Any other easy topics on a Friday?

  15. SamWah:

    Their Ivy degrees "prove" their smartness, and so they are convinced.

  16. The_Big_W:

    Looking at the Yale students freaking out about Halloween Costumes, I gotta say, I don't see quality there.

  17. The_Big_W:

    If you think you're the smartest person in the room, its pretty certain that you're not....

  18. John Moore:

    Yes, but those 15,000 carry an elite brand and will be bossing the other 100,000,000. And that is a big part of the motivation to go there - not for an education which is somewhat better than what you get elsewhere, but for the signalling - you are a diamond, not an ordinary rock, and you know a whole lot of other diamonds and they know you.

    My general experience with Ivy League people is that they are not even aware of their superior feeling, and I include Coyote in this, whom I have met a couple of times. I have nothing against Coyote, because while he radiates Ivy in person, he doesn't use his status in place of logic, good sense and good behavior.

  19. marco73:

    If you really want to see people who think they carry an "elite" brand, just work with/for any military academy grad.
    They are all diamonds, and everyone else on the planet is coal.
    Some of them do smarten up with experience, though.
    There's a saying that probably goes back almost to the invention of the Navy:
    Q:"What is the smartest thing an officer has ever said?"
    A:"Go ahead and take care of that, chief, I'm going to get some more coffee."

  20. Matthew Slyfield:

    What part of the current quality of their product is not relevant to my point did you not understand.

  21. John Moore:

    Yep. And if you want to see the officers who deserve elite status, look at the "mustangs" - officers who worked their way up from enlisted. Even chiefs feared the mustangs - you couldn't hide anything from them. Then there's the mustang academy grad, like a relative who is USNA.

  22. b w:

    "The number of clearly Ivy-qualified students has increased perhaps by an order of magnitude over the last 30 years"

    What is the basis for this assertion? Aggregate IQ and standardized test scores in the country have declined, despite the tests being watered down to be more "inclusive." The number of students with credentials and records broadly believed to indicate qualification has increased, but that's not what you said.

    Regarding your point system, certainly you're familiar with the difference between feature and benefit. You haven't established that quality and quantity of graduates should be equally weighted in calculating societal benefit (you also haven't established that the Ivies' goal is societal benefit.)

    "One of these folks should take on a harder task."

    Why? What's in it for them? Oh, you mean for the sake of altruism? Fine, but maybe they disagree with your estimation of the greater good. You haven't established that 100,000 mediocre accountants whose role may soon be automated are more beneficial to society than 10 elite biomedical researchers who might beat cancer.

    You are complaining that Princeton is choosing to compete with 7 other schools of similar capacity in a niche with high barriers to entry, instead of competing with thousands of "lesser" institutions, many backed by massive direct state subsidies, in a niche where the barriers to entry for new competitors are fast becoming non-existent. Have you noticed how many lower-tier schools that embrace quantity over quality are going bankrupt? Did you choose public recreational management as a business because you thought it would change the world, or because you saw a market for your services?

    What sort of craftsman wouldn't prefer to work with the very best raw materials?

    In this "everyone goes to college, qualified or not" era, what post-secondary educator wouldn't look at the incoming crop of deluded morons with their boxes of participation trophies and turn green with envy for those who can choose from among the top students? You're complaining about a very rational response to the circumstances and incentives presented. Hate the game, not the player.

  23. The_Big_W:

    Heh. Touché

  24. ErikTheRed:

    With current educational methodologies that scale unbelievably poorly, that's true. The question becomes why we keep doing the same thing we've been doing for several hundred years. It's like the industrial revolution and the information age have more or less bypassed the formal education system, because formal education systems are still essentially guild-based and the guild demands things be handled in the most labor-intensive manner possible, outcomes and efficiencies be (quite literally) damned.

    We have a (pun-intended) mind-blowing amount of duplicative effort going into preparing lesson plans and individual class curricula, which is then assigned to students by age or seniority ranking with precisely zero regard for their learning styles and preferences, speed, capacity, etc. Colleges and universities give students slightly more control, but at a practical level this just gives them a small set of options that may or may not fit. To make things worse, the faster paced present has severely decreased people's attention spans, so the old methods are losing their efficacy at an increasing pace. As the rest of the world speeds towards mass-customization and satisfying individual preference and needs with amazing precision and flexibility, education remains firmly stuck in the dark ages and will not leave by choice.

    As an employer, a high school diploma or college degree tells me precisely zero about a candidate's ability to perform a task. As far as I'm concerned, this indicates a complete and absolute failure of modern education to produce anything other than Certificates of Attendance and Slavish Levels of Compliance.

    And this is before you even get into the absurd overhead bloat, authoritarian progressive agendas, etc.

  25. Eric J.:

    Is there something inherent in the institution, rather than the faculty, that provides that educational advantage? Because if not, then you're just redistributing faculty and students from the next tier of schools up to the Ivies. This gives more students the Ivy credential, but actually decreases the quality of education for the student body as a whole.

  26. ErikTheRed:

    If you're the smartest person in the room, it usually means usually picked the wrong room. Best case is things will get done but you'll be doing the heavy lifting. Worst case.... let's not go there.

  27. Matthew Slyfield:

    Information age technologies might help with cost vs scale issues, but I am skeptical that they would make a significant difference in quality/scale issue.

    Existing information age technology wouldn't completely remove the necessity of a human instructor.

    As you try ot increase scale in education, the quality of the remaining pool of potential instructors necessarily declines. However, on top of that, the aggregate quality of each increment of students necessarily declines as the higher quality students would have mostly signed up first.

  28. Matthew Slyfield:

    Mostly in the unemployment lines as taking a job less "elite" than their school would be beneath them.

  29. The_Big_W:

    Yep. You have a point.

  30. jt1111:

    Or perhaps the Ivies and Ivy wannabees are smarter than we think. Instead of growing their *undergraduate* enrollment, most schools have figured out that there's much more opportunity in expanding their *graduate* schools (masters and doctorate levels). Undergrads have become increasingly demanding and expensive to support--food courts, fitness facilities, quality health care, on and on. Grad students by comparison are much easier to please: they expect to live in dumpy off-campus apartments and live on raman noodles (or so I'm told). And they work for peanuts, just to be around a small cadre of famous faculty members. It's classic brand extension, whether the education admin people realize it or not. The basic strategy is to look for growth and margin by moving your brand up-market as fast as you can. I suspect that's what's happening, as reflected in the number of colleges that have redefined themselves as "universities."

  31. CC:

    Met some Yale students in my graduate program--they seemed uniquely clueless compared to us state school guys.

  32. ErikTheRed:

    I don't think you can or even should remove all of the human element, but I would bet that by removing 95+% of it you would massively increase quality. Having squishy organic matter of often dubious quality talking at a room full of students will seldom be better than a recording of an absolutely top-notch instructor lecturing in a style geared specifically towards a student's style of learning. You reserve actual human instruction for instances where kids get stuck, need help adjusting the teaching styles to suit them, physical education, field trips, etc.

  33. Dan Wendlick:

    So why are they limited to their current locations? There's no reason they couldn't create satellite campuses or even pick up the whole works and move it lock, stock, and blackboards. the argument of the network effects of being in the Northeast is largely invalidated by jet travel and communications technologies.

  34. slocum:

    Yep, that's exactly what Dale and Krueger research found:

    Which is why I don't care if the Ivy League schools ever expand and didn't push my kids to apply.

  35. Matthew Slyfield:

    I find the fact that you imagine that the tiny number of absolutely top-notch instructors, can produce a vast array of recordings customized to hundreds of thousands of students amusing.

    "You reserve actual human instruction for instances where kids get stuck, need help adjusting the teaching styles to suit them"

    That would be 99% of students.

  36. markm:

    I'd say that college executives that refuse to expand are showing more sense than I'd expect. A 5,000-student campus is a school. A 10,000-student campus is a small city, and it's run by people far less practical and capable of managing a city than even the dolts and petty tyrants that seek positions on small-town councils. I don't think the typical Ivy League school could expand much without the administration being too overwhelmed by city-management details to pay attention to what's happening with the educational goals. (Not that distracting them from following the latest leftist educational fad would always be a bad thing!)

    Encourage them to spread any educational superiority they might have with on-line courses and arranging for distant colleges to act as satellite campuses, but not to expand the main campus. And that could be managed so the University's brand was not diluted - e.g., only graduates from the main Princeton campus would have "Princeton" degrees, while the rest would have a degree from elsewhere with some Princeton classes on the transcript.

  37. TransHat:

    You are right on the money about grad schools. Who has done this better than Harvard with the largest (or almost) medical, law and MBA programs in the country. Those money machines allow extraordinary high level of undergraduate aid.