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Reinventing Selective Colleges

How colleges can seize the moment to create pathways for a more affordable and equitable post-secondary education

May 5, 2021
College campus in fall

A college degree can open pathways to opportunity, leadership, and power. Yet selective colleges — those that accept less than 50% of their applicants — gain that status partly from how few students they allow to access those pathways, both through admission rates and a cost that is prohibitive to large numbers of students.  

A new white paper from the Making Caring Common Project makes the case that these institutions can and should educate a greater number and diversity of students. And, now, with the pandemic forcing innovations in online courses and remote learning, there is an opportunity for selective colleges to reimagine how they can educate students and build more affordable degree pathways.

Here, two of the paper’s authors, Making Caring Common Director Richard Weissbourd and Director of Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives at Verto Education, Jake Weissbourd, expand on their call for greater equity in selective colleges, the ways in which the current moment offers a chance for selective colleges to rethink their educational offerings, and the kinds of educational experiences they might provide.

How does the traditional idea of college — a selective admissions process, followed by a campus experience — contribute to inequity?

Richard Weissbourd: One problem is that selective colleges disproportionally represent wealthier students and are inaccessible to many low-income students. This inaccessibility is in part because they’re unaffordable for many, but some students also have family responsibilities or local work responsibilities so they can’t relocate and go to a campus far away.

Another part of the problem is that highly selective colleges are rejecting so many applicants. They’re accepting 5 or 10%, which means they’re rejecting 90, 95% of students who apply. I think that what’s [been] happening is that these colleges partly gain status from low admit rates. That’s troubling. You shouldn’t gain status from how few people you accept. You should gain status from how many people you educate. We’re making the case that selective colleges should educate more people and a more diverse population.

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"You shouldn’t gain status from how few people you accept. You should gain status from how many people you educate."

It seems like this year has caused colleges to experiment with admissions and with online courses — all things that might make them more accessible. Does this seem likely to continue?

Jake Weissbourd: Colleges have been forced by the pandemic to rethink some very basic things. Many have gone test optional. Many, if not all, have experimented with some online courses. And meanwhile, the most selective colleges are getting unprecedented numbers of applicants. We’re making the case that this is actually a laboratory moment and colleges should seize this opportunity as opposed to reverting to the status quo. Obviously, the status quo really works for a lot of highly selective schools. Many have incredible brand equity and record-breaking numbers of applicants, so the impetus for their evolution and pivoting here is not so strong.

So what might make selective colleges start to consider changing the status quo? How can they seize this moment and think differently about how to serve a larger, more diverse group of students?

JW: The mission selective colleges tout is often related to the societal benefits they produce. But they’re not delivering on that mission. They’re serving a tiny number of students. There’s this incredible demand — why not live up to the mission and educate more students?

One example we talk about in the paper is sharing online resources to bring down costs. One of the most popular courses at Harvard [College] is CS50, which is primarily delivered online. Yale students can take it and get credit for it. Why couldn’t students at a range of schools take the same, high-quality course for and ultimately spend less for it? Another example is having students do a semester or year or an internship in a place with a lower cost of living. I work at Verto Education, which allows students to do their first semester or year of college through experiential semesters abroad. We’re able to offer these semesters affordably because we don’t have fancy buildings or expensive sports teams, and we can leverage cost of living differences in other countries. Our low-income students spend a semester in Costa Rica with us for less than $5,000.

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"Colleges have been forced by the pandemic to rethink some very basic things. Many have gone test optional. Many, if not all, have experimented with some online courses. ... This is actually a laboratory moment and colleges should seize this opportunity as opposed to reverting to the status quo."

RW: We’re not saying these other pathways are necessarily better or more rigorous, but they’re different. And they’re going to work for diverse learners. Some people are going to learn a lot doing internships or through field experiences. For others, taking online courses is going to be better for them than sitting in a classroom somewhere. One thing we want to be clear about is, for most students, the best option isn’t going to be fully online for four years. However, there are all kinds of creative and exciting ways of blending campus learning, online learning, field experiences and internships, that enable students to save money and colleges to be more attuned and flexible when it comes to the realities of students’ lives.

Has the pandemic lowered resistance to some of these potential pathways? If so, how can educators keep the momentum going?

RW: One barrier we name is that many faculty in the past have been reluctant to teach online or they see online education as inferior. And I think one thing that’s changed, and we’ve seen this at Harvard Graduate School of Education, is that many faculty have found they enjoy teaching online and are more effective teachers than they anticipated. They’ve discovered the things they can do online with chats and breakout rooms and polls — ways they can really increase participation. My guess is the next couple of months are going to be crucial for selective colleges around the country in terms of whether they’ll keep innovating or try to speed back to normal, but I think there’s more openness and I’m excited about the possibilities.

JW: I think it’s important to clarify that we list a few promising paths forward, but there are likely thousands of paths forward. We imagine educators at these institutions probably have tremendous ideas. It’s time to experiment and do bold things — to explore ways to serve more students and more diverse students. We want folks to think outside the box and step up in these deeply unequal times.

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Key Takeaways:
  • Think about college status in terms of how many students are educated, rather than how exclusive it is.
  • Establish high-quality pathways that blend on campus learning, online courses, field experiences, or semesters in other parts of the world to meet diverse learning and lifestyles.
  • Consider the affordability of pathways and find innovative ways to reduce the cost of a degree like having a satellite campus in a cheaper part of the country or remote options that reduce the cost of things like building maintenance.
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College and Career Diversity and Inclusion