Monday, July 2, 2007

Trickle-Down Edunomics

An interesting article in the New York Times a few weeks ago caught my attention. The opening paragraphs are as follows:
Lehigh University has never been as sought after as Stanford, Yale or Harvard. But this year, awash in applications, it churned out rejection letters and may break more hearts when it comes to its waiting list.

Call them second-tier colleges (a phrase some administrators despise) or call them the new Ivies (this, they can live with). Twenty-five to 40 universities like Lehigh, traditionally perceived as being a notch below the most elite, have seen their cachet climb because of the astonishing competitive crush at the top.

“It’s harder to get into Bowdoin now than it was to get into Princeton when I worked there,” said William M. Shain, who worked at Princeton in the 1970s and is now dean of admissions and financial aid at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me. Bowdoin is one of those benefiting from the spillover as the country’s most prestigious colleges turn away nearly 9 out of 10 applicants.

At Lehigh, known for its strength in engineering and business, about 12,000 students applied this year. That is a whopping 50 percent increase in applications over seven years ago and more than 10 times the seats available in a freshman class of 1,150. The median SAT score of admitted students has climbed about 10 points a year in recent years, officials said.

Not knowing enough about the demographics of matriculating college classes, don't immediate questions arise about who is getting a "first-tier" quality education, and what the is quality of the education being received by the students who in another era might have been first tier? It feels like an odd supply and demand problem, but where I'm left wondering - is the increase in demand for top tier education simply a result of demographic shifts and increased access? And is it possible that the quality of the "product," so to speak, of "second-tier" institutions can be elevated to provide the same quality of education to those students who might otherwise have attended Harvard or Yale? And what is the macro consequence? Will we have a more effective, better educated populace? Or a populace who is under-served, in terms of higher education?

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