Why it’s time to reinvent selective colleges — and how to do it

Kenneth Palmer


When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in 2020, some predicted that many schools would embrace online education not just as a short-term remedy to the closing of campuses but as a longer-term strategy to draw in more students. This post looks at what happened with that thinking with selective colleges and explains why it is time to ye about reinventing them.

It was written by Jake Weissbourd and his father, Rick Weissbourd. Jake Weissbourd is a consultant on higher education strategy who works with Verto Education, which offers overseas opportunities for first-year college students; Outlier.org, which offers affordable and career-aligned online courses and degrees; and College 101, an advocacy organization focused on innovation and accountability in higher education. He is also a founder of the Future of Higher Ed, a professional community in which more than 1,000 leaders across the sector share ideas and exchange feedback on building a more innovative and effective higher education system.

Rick Weissbourd is a child and family psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government whose work focuses on moral development, the nature of hope, vulnerability and resilience in childhood, parenting and effective schools and services for children. He leads an initiative to reform college admissions called Turning the Tide, which has engaged more than 300 college admissions offices in an effort to elevate ethical character, reduce excessive achievement pressure and increase equity and access in the college admissions process.

College enrollment declines for third straight year since pandemic

By Jake Weissbourd and Rick Weissbourd

Faced with a global pandemic, selective colleges — colleges that accept fewer than half of their applicants — made changes in 2020 that they wouldn’t have dreamed of implementing before. They invested heavily in online and hybrid learning, new teaching strategies and cutting-edge technologies in ways they had strongly resisted.

These changes did more than address a crisis; they created new capabilities and expertise. They accelerated opportunities to better educate more — and more-diverse — students. And they revealed that even the most hidebound colleges can pivot quickly.

Yet, the large majority of selective colleges have sped back to normal, and highly selective colleges continue to reject staggering numbers of qualified students. Applicants found it even harder to squeeze themselves into these colleges this year. For the Class of 2026, Harvard University, for example, accepted 3.19 percent of its applicants, Columbia University 3.7 percent, and Princeton University 4 percent. Selective colleges remain wildly inequitable and inaccessible to huge numbers of students. At 38 selective colleges in the United States, there are more students from the top 1 percent of the income spectrum than the bottom 60 percent.

In 2020, New York University Business School professor Scott Galloway famously predicted that elite universities would partner with big tech to scale enrollment. Now, he says, “I was wrong. The highly selective colleges are doubling down on exclusivity.”

But why not move forward, not back? Now is a time that begs for courageous invention, a time to build on innovations created before and during the pandemic. Selective colleges can become far more versatile, expanding and diversifying enrollment by providing multiple, more affordable routes to a college degree.

Fully online degrees are one way of expanding. But what is likely to be far more attractive to a wide range of students are new, varied combinations of traditional campus learning, remote learning, innovative lower-cost campuses and community experiences and the types of exciting public or private-sector internships that universities such as Northeastern University provide. These options would enable more students to build an educational experience that is affordable and accommodates their needs. And these options not only would open doors for low-income students and reduce the brutal competition for seats, they could also enrich learning and better prepare students both for citizenship and modern jobs.

Why are we focusing just on selective colleges? After all, only 3 percent of students attend colleges that accept fewer than 25 percent of their applicants, and only 20 percent attend colleges that accept fewer than 50 percent of applicants. What’s more, almost two-thirds of Americans don’t graduate from four-year colleges. Yes, we urgently need more affordable degree options at many types of colleges, as well as less expensive, non-college pathways to careers for young people, such as skills boot camps and apprenticeships created by employers. But selective colleges are a critical portal for low-income students, especially into key leadership positions across a wide range of fields. And changes in these colleges often influence a broad array of colleges and universities.

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What would more versatile colleges that address these problems look like? Here are a few promising options that far more colleges could take up and combine:

Adding online degree programs

One option is for colleges to reduce costs for students, increase access for underrepresented students and bolster enrollment by offering largely or fully online bachelor’s degree programs, as colleges including Southern New Hampshire, Arizona State University and Purdue University have done while maintaining their traditional campuses. Some colleges also offer fully online master’s degrees in, for example, business, public health and education. These options tend to save costs for students because students can often live at home and maintain jobs in their communities. Aware of these advantages for students and already heavily invested in online learning because of the pandemic, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where one of us works, launched a fully online degree option for full- and part-time students in the summer of 2020. In six weeks, this program attracted 50 percent more applicants, and considerably more experienced and diverse applicants, than typically apply in the standard admissions cycle for an on-campus experience.

To be sure, a big part of the value of the college experience comes from routine face-to-face contact among professors and students in classrooms and on campuses. Yet, many students simply can’t relocate to a college campus. That number includes students with family obligations — such as caring for sick or elderly relatives or younger siblings — some students with disabilities and soaring numbers of adult learners, many of whom are parents. Ultimately, meaningful equity of opportunity in education will require that colleges become far more organized around these students. As Alex Hernandez, who recently left his post as the dean of continuing and professional education at University of Virginia, put it: “We can’t keep expecting people to come to us. To prioritize public access and equity, we also have to go to them. In UVA’s early days, faculty members would load books in covered wagons and take them to families across the commonwealth. There is so much value in that approach.”

Of course, without the right design or investment in both student support and faculty preparation, online courses can be dismal. But various studies indicate that online learning on balance is as effective as in-person learning. Many different types of learners benefit from the rich interactivity of online learning, including live chat, polls, breakout rooms, educational games, rapid feedback and access to guest speakers. And new technologies are in development, including game-based and immersive experiences, and augmented and artificial reality, that may markedly improve online learning outcomes.

Taking only online courses for long periods, though — even when these courses are high quality — is isolating and life-sapping for many students. Most students from all backgrounds, particularly undergraduate students, are more likely to be drawn to options that don’t rely solely on remote learning but that provide a variety of remote and in-person learning options that they can mix.

While taking online courses, an engineering student could, say, do a paid internship at Google; or a student studying hotel management could intern at a hotel, gaining the kind of field experience that employers increasingly prize. A student could work on a local election or do a year of service, receiving some form of compensation from the government or a nonprofit. A recent University of Michigan graduate told us that he is now a fan of online learning because it enabled him to start a job as a baseball scout while still taking courses. Students might also take classes from home for a semester or a year if they have family obligations, or they might take some classes online and some in person to accommodate their work schedules. And online students could still maintain ties to a campus. Online students might attend on-campus institutes several times a year, taking full-day workshops and classes, say, over four days. A far wider array of such options would reduce costs for students and enable higher enrollment by freeing up space on traditional campuses.

Students appear to both appreciate and benefit from having these options. A recent survey indicates that 68 percent of students are interested in taking a combination of in-person and online courses. Most on-campus students at Arizona State University opt to take at least one course online. According to Philip Regier, the university dean of educational initiatives at ASU: “Students prefer and they’re likely to do better academically if they can take courses when they want, where they want and in the mode they want.” As Bharat Anand, the vice provost for Advances in Learning at Harvard, put it: “The reality is that both in-person and online classes have advantages. We should be asking how we can best integrate residential and virtual learning to meet the needs of all students.”

Colleges could also reduce costs for students by allowing students to take online courses while living in less expensive campuses domestically or abroad. That’s the model at Minerva University, a selective private college, started in 2012, that is entirely online-learning. Students take remote classes while living alongside peers in seven cities around the world. The founder, Ben Nelson, says Minerva doesn’t compete in the campus amenities race — no fancy libraries, cafeterias or expensive sports programs — and instead leverages the cities where students live to bring costs down. For example, Minerva students cook for themselves in shared kitchens and use gyms and libraries in their host cities.

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There are also creative ways to provide more seats on campuses without relying on remote learning. While a handful of selective colleges, including Rice and Yale universities, have built additional housing, selective colleges can also expand by adjusting their academic calendar. They could free up space on campus by, for example, allowing students to graduate in three years by taking summer courses. Selective colleges could also create more on-campus space by supporting more students in studying abroad, including during their freshman year. Through in-person course work, hands-on projects with faculty, engagement with local communities and regular reflection, students enter their second year of college with stronger learning skills, clearer direction and global experience.

Will selective colleges resist these innovations? Absolutely. Online courses are often expensive to mount, and support for students taking them is costly. Administrators we spoke with also anticipate resistance from many faculty members, alumni and trustees who treasure a traditional four-year college experience that has been central to their identity.

Yet, selective colleges can recoup the costs of developing online courses over time with increasing numbers of students. Colleges could also reduce their expenses — and lower tuition — by offering at least a few high-quality, low-cost online courses elsewhere. One of Harvard’s most popular classes, a primarily online computer science course, has enrolled more than 2 million students around the world free on edX, and is available for credit for Yale University students. Why shouldn’t an outstanding online political science or economics course from City University of New York or Ohio State University be available for credit for students from selective colleges or any other type of college?

For every individual faculty member who resists change, there may be just as many who are committed to meaningful equity or will welcome the flexibility of remote teaching, including being able to teach at home or from anywhere in the world.

The biggest rub for particularly the 80 highly selective colleges that accept fewer than a quarter of their applicants may be something else entirely. They’ll fear brand dilution if they enroll more students. They’ve relied partly on a scarcity model to convey their value, obtaining status from how few students they admit, and many college trustees, administrators, alums and faculty members covet that exclusivity.

Shifting from a brand built on exclusivity to one built on reach and impact certainly won’t be easy. Yet, it may be that admitting more students won’t hurt many colleges’ brands. It hasn’t hurt the University of Michigan’s brand that it has increased undergraduate enrollment almost every year since 1960, more than doubling undergraduate enrollment during this time. There is, too, a compelling ethical case for gaining status not from how few students you admit, but from a far more democratic and constructive metric — how many students you educate, and how well.

How to get from here to there? Catharine Hill, an economist and a former president of Vassar College, said colleges may be pushed to expand because their exclusivity is generating escalating public hostility heightened by the fact that they receive large amounts of public money in public grants, tax exemptions and incentives for charitable contributions. It would make sense for these schools to get ahead of public policies that are likely to force them to expand in ways they’re determined to avoid, she said.

Selective colleges could start small, piloting new programs with small numbers of students, and success may become contagious. Galloway suggests that large donors could tie their gifts to expansion. Employers might also incentivize colleges by subsidizing internships and online courses. Selective colleges could simply encourage more students to study abroad, freeing up substantial space for additional enrollment on campus. These colleges could also generate goodwill, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic, by raising funds to subsidize tuition for students who do public service for a year.

The time is ripe to reinvent selective colleges.

Correction: Fixing spelling of Columbia University.

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