G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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I emailed the one guy who would know about research into the reasons that Ivy League universities have not increased their student bodies. That’s the question Steve Sailer brought up the other day. Berkeley’s Jerome Karabel, the author of The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton which was a strong source for Ron Unz in his discussion of the quota system enacted by Ivy schools to limit that number of Jewish students, responded that he was not aware of any research that has addressed the question. I take this to mean that there probably is not much if any research on the topic. He added that Princeton is the only elite school to really increase its student body, and even so, not by very much.
The most interesting stuff I could find is by Yale law professor Henry Hansmann who makes the case that education is an “associative good” and that the Ivies essentially have a monopoly on elite education in this country. And since monopolies persist by restricting supply below the socially optimal level, Ivy League schools are stingy with their highly-demanded product. None of this is all that groundbreaking when you think about it, but nobody within academia ever talks about it.
The associative character of higher education also helps explain why private colleges and universities remain relatively small. When demand for admission to an elite institution increases—as it has at most of the elite institutions over recent decades—these institutions rarely respond, as they could, by keeping the quality of their student body constant while increasing its size. Rather, they tend to keep the size of the student body relatively constant, and increase its quality. This reluctance to expand is evidently not because the institutions face important diseconomies of scale, in terms of facilities or curriculum, if they were to expand their student bodies. In fact, it seems likely that most private institutions operate well below the efficient scale for an appropriately varied set of curricularand extracurricular offerings. As some evidence of this, one need simply note the enormous size of many state university campuses.
Rather, the reason for remaining small is that increasing the size of the student body reduces its quality, and this reduces the welfare of the students who attend the institution, of the institution’s faculty, and probably of its administration as well (since administrators would generally like to be known for managing a highly selective institution). To maintain high quality, an institution therefore has an incentive to operate with a student body that is well below the size that minimizes the average cost of producing an appropriately designed college experience. This incentive is particularly pronounced if, as is often effectively the case, a college or university cannot charge different prices to different students according to their personal qualities. It is even further pronounced when the institutions are nonprofit, since a nonprofit is likely to be particularly sensitive to the interests of currently enrolled students, alumni, and current faculty and administrators—and not to the welfare of those students who would like to attend the institution and are willing to pay its tuition, but are rejected.
This works, however, only because the Ivy League schools as a group have some monopoly power that derives from the stratification of higher education. If there were other institutions outside of the Ivy League’s agreement that were close competitors to in the eyes of applicants, the Ivy League schools could not get away with charging monopoly prices to talented students who are prosperous. Indeed, the Ivy League schools were always frustrated that they could not induce Stanford, which they saw as a close competitor, to join their agreement.