Elite colleges are not going to be easier to get into even after the coronavirus pandemic

Colleges across the country are grappling with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and declining state funding, but one author says elite universities are unlikely to change their admission policies.

As millions of Americans remain unemployed due to the economic impact of the virus, many prospective college students are rethinking the idea of attending an expensive college. 

Yet, even with the threat of lower enrollment numbers, elite colleges like the Ivy Leagues are still unlikely to ease admissions standards, Jeffrey Strohl, co-author of “The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America” said on Yahoo Finance’s The Ticker.

“The highly selective institutions … probably are going to have to keep their brand… or they lose credibility of their value, so people will need to maintain the belief that a $50,000 a year education is worth $50,000,” he explained. 

Students walk on campus at Princeton University on February 4, 2020 in Princeton, New Jersey. (PHOTO: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

Post-coronavirus enrollment boom will not affect elite colleges

Along with his co-authors Anthony Patrick Carnevale and Peter Gerard Schmidt, Strohl argues in the book that the entire belief system that keeps these elite colleges in their place is at odds with the ideals of higher education.

People don’t start out on a level playing field:, they say “Fates are shaped by a host of factors over which individuals have little or no control, including race, ethnicity, gender, class, family background, and geographic location.” 

In essence, inequality is baked into the system, and hence results in the disadvantaged not getting enough chances at upward social mobility, they state.

And that inequality is likely to widen.  Particularly during the period after the Great Recession, colleges saw a boom in enrollment as millions of unemployed Americans turned to higher education to re-skill, re-tool and buy some time before the labor market shaped up.

But if that boom happens again as the U.S. economy recovers, it’s mostly going to affect community colleges and open access four-year institutions, said Strohl. 

“The selective institutions are a non-player in the game,” he said. “When we think that their stock and trade, their brand is a capacity constraint — they don’t get where they are because they let people in, they get where they are because they reject people.”

So colleges like Harvard and others “don’t have a motivating factor” to loosen standards and take in more students, as compared to community colleges.

A Harvard Law School graduate in Cambridge, MA on May 28, 2020. (PHOTO: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Decline in international students could worsen inequality

But the elite colleges may see revenue declines as international student enrollment is expected to drop.

Particularly with the recent actions by the Trump administration to levy visa restrictions on Chinese nationals with connections to the People’s Liberation Army, concerns have been voiced by experts over whether international enrollments will drop in the coming years. 

In that situation, disadvantaged students are likely to suffer the most, Strohl argued.

“The selective institutions as well as state flagships, et cetera, which are usually considered selectives, always have to play a balancing act between full book students, or people playing full tuition and those getting some types of merit and scholarships,” Strohl explained. But “if you remove foreign international students from that mix, you’re going to put a lot more pressure on your revenue model, which could mean less access for disadvantaged groups.”

In other words, disadvantaged groups have in the past benefited from generous aid packages financed by those paying in full, such as international students. Hence, a decline in enrollment could hurt lower-income families, according to Strohl.

“I would hate to see us lose what little ground we had made in getting disadvantaged students into the selective institutions,” he said.

Aarthi Swaminath is a reporter for Yahoo Finance covering student debt and higher education. 

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