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Sam Kissinger

Economic In-Tuition: We could all benefit from a decrease in university acceptance rates

Columnist Sam Kissinger believes if universities were more exclusive when it came to how many students were admitted, it would ultimately benefit those who went to school.


Going to college in the United States has become a social norm in the past 50 years. Often, one is looked down upon in some circles if they do not enroll in a university. The problems of grade inflation, underemployment, college costs and student debt are continuing to rise, and there are still increasing enrollments every year which is only magnifying the problem.

One extreme remedy — one that would have profound effects — would be if universities were required to be more selective in the admissions process. Hypothetically speaking, what if universities could only accept, say 50 percent, of the students who applied to their school? For schools that already do this — less than one-fourth of all public and private not-for-profit colleges — nothing changes. The other three-fourths of schools that currently accept more than 50 percent would be radically impacted.

In my rough estimation, if this 50 percent acceptance rate cap came into effect, there would be about 330,000 students who would no longer be able to go to college, about a 20 percent reduction in first-year students. There are both pros and cons to this remedy.

For starters, colleges would likely only accept the highest quality applicants and would be much more competitive in order to increase their admissions yield rate: Students who get accepted and actually enroll. From this competitiveness, we could see the cost of college decrease. Affected universities might try to lower their sticker price in order to entice students to enroll in their school instead of others (something that’s never happened in the past), since they will need every student they can get. We might also see other alternatives to the classic college experience become more popular, such as online schools, two-year community colleges, joining the military, taking a gap year, trade schools and so on.

This policy could alleviate underemployment problems in today’s recent college graduates, which was about 48 percent in 2012, according to a 2013 report. If colleges were more selective, a degree would be a more effective screening device for employers. The serious students in high school would be much more motivated knowing that it is harder to get into most schools. There would be fewer students who accumulate extreme amounts of debt in their lifetime with no steady job to pay it off. Colleges as a whole would be higher in quality, I believe, with higher graduation and retention rates because students would not take it for granted.

However, there are some downsides to this remedy. Because college is so common today, those kids who would’ve been accepted otherwise (and therefore do not get a degree) will have a much harder time competing with those who do in the job market. Yet, note that the job openings for jobs not requiring college education are projected to rise through 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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Earlier, I mentioned that the cost could decrease, but there is a possibility that the price of attendance could go up. With fewer students to pay for the daily operations, it will be difficult for schools to adjust to the significant decrease in income. Either way, the universities would have to prioritize their smaller budget accordingly, and would likely vary by each school.

This suggestion is mostly concerned with those kids who only go to college because everyone else is and are able to get in easily but have no clue what they want to do, so they stay for 4+ years and fail to graduate all while accumulating enormous amounts of debt. These students’ contribution to society could’ve been realized elsewhere. According to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, the national four-year graduation rate today is roughly 50 percent, and I believe this number would rise significantly if colleges decreased their acceptance rates. However, the possible negatives to this theory cannot be overlooked. Even though this remedy would likely never happen in practice, it’s worth noting the potential impact could be beneficial to students, universities and society as a whole.

Sam Kissinger is a research associate for Center for College Affordability and Productivity

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