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College enrollment is down, but applications are rolling in at 'elite' schools


Research shows the number of undergrads enrolled in college declined 9.4% during the pandemic. That's a significant drop. But one part of the education industry is bucking this trend. So-called elite schools saw a record number of applicants. Darian Woods and Adrian Ma with our daily economic podcast The Indicator explain.

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

JEFF 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. Then you have these brand names that cross the world. Those institutions are more popular than ever.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: Now, Jeff says 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: 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.

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: Now, one important exception was for students from underrepresented backgrounds, like people who are 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.

WOODS: So elite education as a 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. 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: Yeah. Rather than expecting kids to, like, "Hunger Games" it out over a handful of schools, there are probably some good options among the thousands of other colleges that are seeing their enrollments decline.

WOODS: Darian Woods.

MA: Adrian Ma, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "SOCIAL INSECURITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.
Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.