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How Selective Might Elite Universities Be in 2050?

One trend that is often discussed among both academics and parents is how much more difficult it has become to gain undergraduate admission at the nation’s most selective colleges and universities.

While it is a myth that it is overall more difficult for our kids to get into college, it is true that entry into the most highly ranked institutions has become less likely.

A fun, if admittedly dubious, exercise is to project future acceptance rates based on past trends. Few social indicators change linearly, a caution that is particularly applicable to anything having to do with higher education. Still, if we suspend our disbelief for just a little bit, we can perhaps get a bit of a glimpse into the future of the most selective institutions by looking at the past.

The table below shows the undergraduate acceptance rate of a handful of highly selective institutions in 1992 and 2021. I have then projected the potential acceptance rate in 2050, applying each institution’s rate of change from 1992 to 2021.

School

1992 Acceptance Rate

2021 Acceptance Rate

2050 Potential Acceptance Rate

Brown

23%

8.3%

3.0%

Columbia

28%

5.8%

1.2%

Cornell

31%

8.7%

2.4%

Dartmouth

26%

6.0%

1.4%

Harvard

16%

5.2%

1.7%

Northwestern

42%

6.8%

1.1%

Penn

40%

6.7%

1.1%

Princeton

16%

4.0%

1.0%

Stanford

22%

4.0%

0.7%

Yale

22%

4.6%

1.0%

Mean

27%

6.0%

1.5%

In 1992, the average probability of gaining undergraduate admission to a highly selective institution was more than one in four (27%). By 2021, just over one in twenty (6%) applicants got into these same schools. This change is a remarkable shift in the demand for elite education across a single generation.

Is it possible that this steep trend towards an ever-widening mismatch between the demand for an elite education and the supply of available spots will continue into the next 30 years? If the next three decades are like the past three decades in terms of elite admissions, then the acceptance rate to the hardest to get into universities could drop to less than 1 percent for some schools and 1.5 percent on average.

There are (at least) two reasons why we think that these projections of 2050 acceptance rates to highly selective institutions are at least plausible. The first reason is that scarcity drives demand. The lower a school’s acceptance rate, the higher the value of admission to that school will be judged.

This perceived admittance value will encourage more applicants to apply, further unbalancing supply and demand. As elite schools are slow to grow their enrollments in proportion to demand, the acceptance rate will likely continue to go down.

A second reason to expect that highly selective schools will become more selective between now and 2050 is wealth. Admissions selectivity and institutional wealth are highly correlated — likely causally so. As endowments increase for an already wealthy set of colleges, these schools have the financial flexibility to raise the amount of no-loan financial aid they can provide.

At Stanford, students from families that earn less than $75K a year pay no tuition, room, or board. For students living on campus whose parents earn less than $150K a year, Stanford covers the full cost of tuition. The specific amounts of no-loan financial aid for low and middle-income students vary across elite institutions. But the trend over time is to offer more generous financial terms to admitted students unable to afford to published (and rising) tuition at these schools. 

There is no reason to expect that this strategy of high-tuition/high-scholarship (by family income) pricing will not continue among these schools. The higher the family income ceiling in which costs are covered, the more the demand for available admission slots will grow. 

In a world of 2050 where the US’s already wealthy schools are unimaginably more affluent, it is entirely imaginable that most students at elite schools will be attending for free.

Under this scenario, an acceptance rate of 1 percent seems eminently plausible for the elite university of 2050.

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