Following up on various things I’d seen around the tubes, I was surprised (as US readers may well not be) to discover that most of the Ivy League universities only have around 5000 undergraduate students (altogether, they total around 50 000), and, more strikingly, that this number doesn’t seem to have changed in decades (I found this tablegoing back to the mid-1980s but from what I can tell, the numbers were much the same back in the 1950s). In fact, you could throw in Stanford, Chicago and all the top-ranking liberal arts colleges without reaching 100 000 overall.
A few thoughts about this over the fold
- That compares to a college-age cohort of around 15 million and total enrolments of around 6 million. So, to the extent that a large range of high-prestige jobs (eg Supreme Court justice) are reserved for, or dominated by, graduates of the top colleges, around 99 per cent of the population have missed out by the age of 18.
- Relative to population, this is a
muchfiner filter than Oxbridge or the Grandes Ecoles (around 50 00025000 places for countries with total population of about 60 million).
*Although the size of the college age cohort has fluctuated over time, it has risen over the past twenty years. So, high-end college education is an example of a service for which consumption per person is declining over time. Examples like this help to explain how median real income can be static or declining when consumption of many goods (computers and so on) is obviously increasing
- The picture is worse for those outside the top 10 per cent of the income distribution. I can’t find it now, but I’ve seen studies showing that the proportion of admissions from the top decile is rising, meaning that the absolute number of places for everyone else is declining.
- Given the tightness of the filter the fact that a substantial proportion of places go to legacies and athletics admissions makes the waste of talent even greater.
- Advocates of more differentiation in the Australian higher education system often bemoan the lack of a Harvard or a Princeton. But, scaled down for relative population, these institutions wouldn’t have enough undergrads to fill a lecture hall. Even taking the entire sector, the Australian equivalent would enrol around 5000. And, Australia being what it is, there is no chance of just one state/city getting selected as the site for the elite university
fn1. The same claim could be made (and regularly is) about affirmative action. But, if the US is anything like Australia, entry scores for students from poorer backgrounds underpredict university performance, those from high-status private schools overpredict.
fn2. At the research/graduate level, we did this with the Australian National University in Canberra after the war. But that wouldn’t work today, and, indeed, ANU is now more similar than different to the other Australian research universities.