Why Won’t Elite Colleges Increase Enrollment?

Ivy League and similar schools may have enough applicants and enough money to expand exponentially, but they don't figure to anytime soon.

Published October 31, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
Why Won’t Elite Colleges Increase Enrollment?
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by John Greim / Contributor / LightRocket / Getty Images

  • Despite record applications, elite universities have been slow to expand enrollments, if at all.
  • A Harvard study proposes a unique model for growing enrollments at selective colleges.
  • Universities must build facilities and increase support services to accommodate a larger student body.
  • Prestige and exclusivity define elite college brands, which disincentivizes growth.

Anyone who's taken microeconomics knows that when demand for a product increases, supply normally increases as well. Yet, this theory doesn't hold true for our nation's most selective private colleges.

Despite record-breaking applications, these institutions refuse to significantly expand enrollments to accommodate more students, including those from low-income households. And it's not because they can't afford to.

Could Ivy League schools and other elite colleges double or even triple in size? If so, why don't they?

Elite Colleges Expand Enrollments Only Slightly

In general, as demand for college has grown, so too has supply — measured by available seats.

Over the past 30 years or so, the number of high school graduates has increased by about 44%. During that span, according to Harvard scholar Peter Blair, enrollment at non-elite colleges expanded by 60%.

By comparison, Blair notes, private colleges ranked among the top 2% — the most selective universities — grew by only 7% on average.

In fact, Blair's research paper on the subject, co-authored with Kent Smetters of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, reveals that the "share of aggregate college enrollments captured by elite colleges" actually dropped by 40% between 1990 and 2015.

"Elite colleges, therefore, are serving a smaller and smaller share of total college-bound students, becoming more exclusive over time," the report concludes.

So elite colleges are increasing enrollments … slowly, incrementally … but not nearly at the rate of less-selective institutions. And not nearly enough to satisfy critics who believe these colleges have a moral obligation to expand.

Jeffrey Selingo, writing in The Washington Post, thinks Harvard and its ilk should be "embarrassed" by how few students they educate.

"The ever-declining proportion of applicants accepted at such top-ranked universities should spur them to consider making their freshman classes substantially larger," he writes. "One way to make progress in these debates is to shift from an argument over who gets what slice of the educational pie to a discussion about baking a bigger pie."

Selingo argues elite colleges could play an even greater role in providing social mobility for low-income students. If the top 35 private universities increased their entering classes by only 10% and reserved those seats for Pell Grant recipients, he posits, they would enroll 29,000 more low-income students in just four years.

Proposing a Model for Selective-College Expansion

In their white paper, "Innovation and Justice: Reinventing Selective Colleges," produced by the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, authors Richard and Jake Weissbourd (father and son) present potential pathways for elite colleges to expand.

Their model involves online learning, hybrid arrangements, field experiences and internships, study abroad opportunities, and remote residential campuses, all with varying tuition costs.

The sum total would provide students with various ways to build an educational experience suitable and attainable for them — and would afford universities flexibility in accommodating student needs.

In other words, the authors don't envision larger versions of elite universities as they currently exist. But they do believe that by creating these alternative routes to a degree, top colleges can grow exponentially.

"The elite schools don't need to do it overnight," Jake Weissbourd told BestColleges, "but they certainly have the resources and the expertise and the infrastructure to at least double or triple in size, we think, without compromising quality."

“The elite schools ... certainly have the resources and the expertise and the infrastructure to at least double or triple in size, we think, without compromising quality.”
— Jake Weissbourd, Harvard white paper co-author

Digging deeper into the report's recommendations reveals some radical notions of what an elite college education might entail.

Let's play this out at the authors' home institution, Harvard. Under their scheme, some Harvard undergraduates reside on campus, taking courses in a residential setting, just as almost all do now.

But other Harvard students are living far afield, taking courses online, perhaps coming to campus in cohorts between internships or field experience stints. And some may be enrolled at a regional campus thousands of miles from Cambridge.

"Why not create a Harvard in Detroit," Jake said, "or a Yale in Mississippi?"

The upshot of offering various cost-effective options is increasing access, particularly for the underserved, and jettisoning the entrenched notion that exclusivity equals quality.

"A much more democratic, constructive, and humane metric is how many people you educate," Richard said. "These are places with a lot of resources that should be trying to educate as many people as they can at the highest level."

That's not all.

Their plan also involves exploring the possibility of admitting a far larger percentage of students to online degree programs and funneling through only those who prove themselves academically worthy of a degree. Jake likens it to the Navy Seal approach of winnowing down the candidate pool through a "survival of the fittest" competition.

"The idea is, you make it much easier to get in and have students really demonstrate aptitude, persistence, and perseverance, and the ones that make it through to the end are the ones that earn a diploma," Jake explained. "If they don't finish, they'll have a transferable credit or credential. And then the proxy to employers becomes so meaningful because they know that it's really only the students who have persevered and mastered competencies that have earned a diploma at the end."

Given that their model represents a significant departure from business as usual for these colleges, they're quick to recognize its limitations.

For one, establishing different pathways could lead to a "tiered system" whereby more affluent students choose the traditional campus-based model while financially challenged students settle for the less-expensive pathway, which could be perceived by employers as inferior.

Second, not all faculty will buy into this reimagined vision of a college education. Some of the faculty Richard has discussed his proposal with enthusiastically embrace the concepts, he said, while others are far less sanguine.

And finally, what about the risk to a university's reputation, its brand that for so long has been defined by exclusivity, not inclusion?

"When you start tripling in size, you do run into these brand issues," Richard said, "and you're going to get a lot of resistance."

Still, they argue, these universities wouldn't suffer much brand erosion should they decide to expand access.

"It just doesn't seem to me that if Stanford, which accepts three and a half percent, started accepting seven and doubled in size, there's going to be less interest in Stanford," Richard said.

Are they optimistic these universities will grow significantly? Jake doubts they will in the near term, but Richard bets that in 10 years "you will see it for sure."

Recent Examples of Modest Enrollment Growth

To be fair, some selective institutions have expanded enrollments, or are planning to.

According to The Harvard Crimson, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Brown have each grown their enrollments by about 15% since the 1980s. But Harvard hasn't budged much.

In fact, notes Benjamin Wermund in Politico, Harvard enrolled only 51 more first-year students in 2016 than it did in 1990. During that period, the Ivies collectively grew by 18%, though much of that growth occurred at Cornell. The rest of the league expanded enrollment by only 8% in that span.

Some Ivies have grown more recently thanks to infusions of philanthropic support. In 2016, following a $500 million campaign, Yale opened a new residential college that increased the university's enrollment capacity by 15%. Yale added more than 600 undergraduates between 2016 and 2019.

Similarly, a $20 million gift in 2020 enabled Princeton to build two new residence halls, which opened this fall. The additional space will enable the university to grow its undergraduate population by about 10%.

Elsewhere in the Ivy League, Columbia is exploring the possibility of expanding its undergraduate enrollment. Dartmouth did the same in 2018, and, after much deliberation and numerous reports, determined not to do it.

Stanford entertained similar deliberations in 2016, deciding to boost its entering class by about 100 students.

Among other top private institutions, Washington University in St. Louis added about 180 seats between 2008 and 2013, and the University of Chicago bumped its enrollment by about 120 students during that time frame.

Rice University represents an exception to this pattern of modest or stagnant growth. Last year, Rice announced its plan to increase enrollment by 20%, or 800 students, over four years. This comes on the heels of a 35% increase between 2005 and 2013. When the dust settles, Rice will have increased its enrollment by roughly 80% over two decades.

Building an Infrastructure to Accommodate More Students

To accommodate such enrollment growth, Rice plans to build new residence halls and academic facilities and will add about 50 full-time professors to maintain its student-faculty ratio.

That's only part of what universities should consider when significantly growing enrollment, Nicholas Santilli told BestColleges.

Santilli, senior director for learning strategy at the Society for College and University Planning and a former vice president for academic affairs, said institutions have to buttress student support services, counseling and advising, dining facilities, and information technology infrastructure to satisfy increased demand.

Santilli added it's not simply a matter of enrolling more students but growing purposefully based on an institution's academic strengths and priorities.

"You're not just increasing headcount," Santilli said. "How are you selectively or strategically admitting students into programs where there's capacity?"

He also believes that significantly increasing enrollment can fundamentally alter the student experience.

"What kind of campus culture are you creating by doubling the size of the student body?" he said.

John Hennessey, president of Stanford when the university considered expanding in 2016, had a similar concern.

"We don't know at what point does the size diminish the experience," he told The Washington Post at the time.

Elite College Brands Prioritize Exclusivity

Even if selective colleges were to considerably expand enrollments, the net effect would be minimal. Richard and Jake Weissbourd point out that only 3% of students attend a college that accepts less than a quarter of its applicants, and only 20% are at schools that accept less than half.

On a Freakonomics podcast episode exploring elite-college expansion, Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, addressed the limited impact.

"Let's say we went from 170,000 undergrads to 250,000 undergrads, roughly," he said. "The world would change? I mean, 80,000 more out of 17 million? Will you give me a break!"

Yet Jake Weissbourd noted that selective colleges often act as powerful gateways to socioeconomic mobility, especially for underrepresented students fortunate enough to attend.

"Elite schools serve as a … key portal for leadership positions in our society," he said, "and as long as that continues to be the case, we want to make sure that diverse students have access to these experiences that catapult them into the highest positions of leadership in our society."

Not that Ivy-Plus colleges are the only routes to success. A 2020 study revealed that among 4,000 top executives across 15 industries, including government, less than a third attended one of the "top" 39 colleges.

“A 2020 study revealed that among 4,000 top executives across 15 industries, including government, less than a third attended one of the "top" 39 colleges.”

Another report shows that only 11% of Fortune 100 CEOs attended an Ivy League college. Almost half graduated from a state school. And among the 10 largest corporations, 80% of the CEOs had degrees from public institutions.

Pressures on selective colleges to expand persist, however, especially in an era of record application totals and massive endowment growth. Demand is skyrocketing, fueled by the assumption that a spot at one of these colleges offers a golden ticket to a prosperous future. And with overflowing coffers, elite universities can afford to accommodate some measure of growth.

So why don't they?

Because while economic theory assumes supply increases in direct response to demand, luxury items don't follow that curve. Ferrari won't make more cars because more people demand their product, but Ford and Chevy might. Exclusivity, measured here by dwindling acceptance rates, remains the coin of the realm for elite universities.

"Universities are competing on what we call prestige," Blair said on the Freakonomics podcast, "which is a relative measure of, 'How selective is my university relative to its peer institutions?'"

That's why Jake Weissbourd hedges his bets when predicting his recommendations will take hold.

"The brand is largely rooted in exclusivity," he said, "and as long as the status quo is working for elite schools, the incentives don't really exist to change that."