An Area of Higher Education Growth, that too many are ignoring

In its April 27, 2018 edition, The Atlantic reported the following:

The numbers are wild: Harvard admitted just 4.6 percent of its nearly 43,000 applicants for the class that begins this fall. Stanford accepted only 4.29 percent, and Princeton 5.5 percent. Although selective schools—those that accept fewer than half of applicants—enroll only about one-fifth of U.S. undergraduates, they account for more than one-third of applications each year.

In his book, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, author Nathan Grawe’s research suggests that demand for elite schools is expected to grow by 15% in the coming years. He also reports that high school graduates are dwindling in America, due to a number of factors. The decline may be as much as 15% by 2026.

For the less selective, reduced supply is likely to be magnified by a flight to quality. And we haven’t accounted for the impact of coding camps and other emerging delivery systems. 

Of interest to our team at CFO Colleague is that struggling institutions appear more inclined to loosen admission standards, versus staying the course or becoming more selective. Based on the data above, this behavior seems akin to a thirsty castaway drinking sea water.

What our practice has observed suggests that a lessening of admission rigor engenders unintended outcomes. Late applicants, defined as those who apply after June 1, don’t tend to persist. Those who were “bought” with unsustainable levels of financial aid don’t tend to stay around either. Their pocketbook liked the place but they otherwise did not resonate. Few institutions account for increased costs associated with remedial assistance and administrative burden. Indeed, many of those who are ill equipped academically or financially to begin their higher education will not generate pure marginal revenue. Sometimes they barely cover the cost to recruit, let alone the expense of supporting their short-lived college campaigns.

So, what are we seeing that bucks this trend?

A small number of schools have found success in creating areas of excellence within their program offerings. This began with nursing and education departments; programs needing to ensure quality in their high-demand, person-centric disciplines. Freshmen are free to “indicate an interest” in a program and are encouraged to take a few introductory courses. Near the end of their second semester, they submit and internal application to the school where their desired program is housed. If accepted, they join graduates in a year-end party, celebrating those who are graduating and the up and coming sophomores who will replace them next fall.

It’s a barrier/bar that makes it a major accomplishment to be accepted into the program or school. Students resonate with these forms of internal competition. The winners are venerated amongst their peers. Parents brag about the achievement of their offspring. Schools are now reporting quality statistics representing those who are selected into their flagship programs. For less selective institutions, this can be a game-changer.

Let me suggest that this kind of selectivity elevation need not be limited to nursing, education or engineering disciplines. Programs of excellence should be available within every school or department. Eventually, the performance of these initiatives will boost overall selectivity, putting the institution on the map of those who are looking for a more challenging experience. These are students who will not even consider the price when applying to the best institutions but expect to attend a less selective college for free.

The tyranny of the urgent seems to dictate that we find students who are merely willing to come and fill as many seats or beds in the current year as we possibly can. Rather than being driven by the pressures of the immediate, I suggest strategically creating programs of excellence as a step toward higher selectivity. 

Your successors may not give you credit for these initiatives. But there will be a place for your successors to work.