Overall college enrollments are declining, but not for 'elite' schools : The Indicator from Planet Money Ah, college... the classes, the parties, the debt. Is it still worth it? While most schools are seeing their enrollment decline, 'elite' schools are receiving a jump in applications.

Take NPR's annual podcast survey – especially if you're a new listener! It's short, anonymous, and will help us serve you better!

The lopsided market for higher ed

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1103396029/1103426547" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript




As May turns to June, another graduation season is in the books, and that's got us reminiscing about college - you know, those halcyon days of intellectual exploration...


And untreated acne...

MA: ...Carefree afternoons lounging on the quad...

WOODS: ...Huge tuition bills...

MA: ...Cheering on the team and school spirit.

WOODS: ...A big hangover that is mostly financial.


MA: OK, point taken - the college experience is not for everyone. In fact, it was barely for me. Then most Americans don't have a college degree. In fact, the number of people who are trying to get one is declining.

WOODS: According to a recent report by the National Student Clearinghouse, a research group, the number of undergraduate students enrolled in college declined 9.4% during the pandemic. This group says that this is the biggest drop in at least 50 years. Pandemic disruptions, a booming labor market with rising wages that you don't necessarily need a college degree for - these things altogether mean that a lot of people are putting college on hold, or they're skipping it altogether.

MA: And yet, there is one part of this educational industrial complex that is bucking that trend, the so-called elite schools. This is THE INDICATOR for Planet Money. I'm Adrian Ma.

WOODS: And I'm Darian Woods. Today on the show, what is driving this lopsided college marketplace? We break it down with a couple of higher ed experts.


MA: Like we said before the break, college enrollment is way down. Community colleges are especially feeling that decline, but even four-year institutions are feeling it, too. And yet, a small slice of schools is weathering this downturn pretty well.

WOODS: We're talking about the selective schools, the ones where when you apply, you've got less than a 50% chance of getting in. And for some colleges, it's even lower than that. And last fall, when most schools' first-year classes shrank, these selective schools grew their incoming classes. It was a 4 1/2% increase for public, four-year universities and a 12% increase for private ones.

MA: And not only that, some of the most selective schools saw a record number of applications this year - like University of Virginia, application pool up 6% from last year, Harvard up 7%, Brown University up 9%.

JEFF SELINGO: Really, we're talking about the most selective colleges in the country, which number maybe 100 to 200 at the most.

WOODS: Jeff Selingo wrote a book about college admissions called "Who Gets In And Why." And Jeff says that the situation has become a real haves and have-nots kind of thing.

SELINGO: Meaning, if you're a have school, you're seen as elite. You're seen as selective. You have, in some cases, tens of billions of dollars in endowment, that you have these brand names that cross the world. Those institutions are more popular than ever.

MA: Now, just as this bump in applications is partly because a lot of these schools went test-optional during the pandemic, meaning they didn't require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores. And so a lot of families and kids were like, why not take a shot?

WOODS: But Jeff thinks that this huge interest in elite schools plus this record decline in overall undergraduate enrollment rates, is a sign of something deeper. Prestige names have always had a lot of cultural cachet. But Jeff says that now, in this moment, it's almost that some people have an ivy-or-bust attitude.

SELINGO: They're seeing the value of higher education in those biggest brands. If I can't get into one of those biggest brands, then maybe it's not worth going somewhere else to major in that and take on all this debt.

MA: But Jeff is sort of on a mission to dismantle this idea.

WOODS: Or at least put some dents in it.

MA: We think about, you know, brands as a shorthand for quality.

SELINGO: (Laughter).

MA: So, like, we might, like, you know, buy a certain brand of coffee or a certain brand of clothing because we just think, like, well, it's going to be good because I know that brand. But does that hold up for...

SELINGO: For higher ed? Not at all.

MA: (Laughter).

SELINGO: I mean, it's bizarre. It's bizarre. We're spending as much as we would spend on buying a house or a car. And we have less information about the quality of higher education than we do have of basically any car on any car lot out there.

WOODS: Part of this lack of information is because a college education is the sort of thing that economists would call an experience good, as in a good where you don't truly know the quality of the thing until you experience it.

MA: And sure, sure, there are lots of attempts to measure the quality of colleges through things like rankings. But Jeff would argue that these rankings, you know, the way they're put together, doesn't actually tell you much about the school.

SELINGO: So what is the high school GPA of these students or the high school test scores of these students, or how much do we spend on faculty? These are all inputs. It says nothing to me about what you do when you take a freshman and where they end up as a senior. And what is the quality of education that you're giving them? As I often say, the job of Harvard is really to take a bunch of the smartest kids in the world every year and make sure they don't ruin the smart kids they're already getting.

MA: Now, this idea that elite schools don't actually make high achievers but just sort of pick them out of the crowd has actually been studied by economists.

SELINGO: There was a great study done by Alan Krueger and a few other folks years ago that showed what happened to students who got into elite colleges and those who got into elite colleges but ended up going elsewhere - and maybe just a rung or two down the ladder. And what they found is that the outcomes were remarkably similar.

MA: So what these economists found was for students who got into elite schools but decided to go somewhere else, the school itself didn't matter that much to their future earnings. Now, one important exception was for students from underrepresented backgrounds, like people who were Black or Latino or first-generation college students. The economists found that those students did benefit from attending an elite school because suddenly they had access to this exclusive network of wealthy, connected people that their families often didn't have before.

SELINGO: But if you already are in that situation in life, going to one of these places doesn't necessarily help.

WOODS: So elite education, this vehicle for social mobility, in some cases, yeah, that is true if you can get a seat.

SELINGO: This year, for example, some of these elite colleges only accepted 4-, 5-, 6% of applicants. If you as a parent or a student, if your entire strategy is to get into one of these colleges, I'm sorry. It's a - one of my strategies for parents and students is to really think more broadly and for America to think more broadly about what we consider a good college.

MA: I mean, after all, there are, like, a handful of elite, Ivy League type schools. And rather than expecting kids to, like, "Hunger Games" it out, there are probably some good options among the literally thousands of other colleges.

WOODS: And a lot of them probably have room. Remember that study we talked about at the start of the show about how college enrollment overall is declining because of the pandemic and things like the booming job market? Well, Mikyung Ryu, who oversaw that study, says that this trend seems to be accelerating.

MIKYUNG RYU: If I described the major trends in college enrollment during the pandemic in one word, I would pick the word unprecedented.

WOODS: And Mikyung says that the enrollment numbers have especially declined for Latinos and Black people and lower-income people. And if the trend continues for these particular groups, she worries that it could worsen inequality in the long run.

RYU: I am very concerned about, you know, what we used to call the whole generation of lost opportunity. So if you are coming from low-income background or the underserved student population background, the longer you delay to enter college, the more difficult it is become to get back on track to pursue a higher education.

MA: In other words, in the haves and have-nots world of higher education, we may end up seeing more and more have-nots.


WOODS: Just a reminder, if you want to help out THE INDICATOR, please take our quick, anonymous survey about how you listen to your favorite NPR podcasts.

MA: Yeah, especially ours.

WOODS: That's right. Head to npr.org/podcastsurvey. That is npr.org/podcastsurvey.


WOODS: This episode was produced by Nicky Ouellet and engineered by James Willetts. Corey Bridges and Catherine Yang (ph) check the facts. Our senior producer, Viet Le, edited this episode. Kate Concannon edits the show. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.