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Elite universities should enroll one million students

What would a Harvard, a Duke or a Stanford of a million students look like? It is a question that all … [+] elite universities should ask themselves.


What would a Harvard of one million students look like? Have you ever wondered? I have been thinking about what my alma mater, Duke University, would be like with a million students enrolled. It is not just a provocative question and a crazy idea. It is very practical and important. Indeed, the expansion of elite universities may be instrumental in helping US higher education deliver on the long-standing and yet unfulfilled promise of equity, access, and social mobility.

Raj Chetty's groundbreaking work on social mobility provides the first impetus for this thinking. Among “Ivy Plus” colleges (the Ivy League plus the University of Chicago, MIT, Stanford, and Duke), more students come from the top 1% of the income distribution than the bottom 50%. Together, this group of institutions enrolls only 3.8% of students in the bottom quintile of income distribution. But they also produce the highest success rate with nearly 60% of these bottom quintile students moving to the top quintile. SUNY-Stony Brook, however, has nearly 4 times the social mobility rate of Ivy Plus colleges. It enrolls 16.4% of its students from the bottom quintile and 51% of them end up moving to the top quintile, making their social mobility rate 8.4% compared to 2.2% for Ivy Plus. What does all this suggest?

Elite universities are among the most successful in boosting students' social mobility, but they enroll only a small fraction of these students to begin with. Well-regarded institutions like SUNY-Stony Brook (ranked 88th in US News's top national universities, by the way) are almost as successful in boosting student social mobility and provide a much greater overall impact because 4 enroll , 3 times more students in the bottom quintile than Ivy Plus institutions. If elite universities enrolled more students from the bottom quintile, there is simply no reason to believe that they could not produce robust social mobility outcomes for these students.

As our country strives to improve equity and access in many dimensions of life, school, and work, higher education can and should be one of the most important and positive forces in this effort. Instead, higher education has become as much a sticking point in equity and access as it is a boost. Currently, six out of ten students in the upper quartile of socioeconomic status graduate from college, while only one in ten graduates from the lower quartile. This disparity has grown over the decades, it has not diminished. And it's one of the top reasons today's employers struggle to build the various talent channels they want. The transfer of talent from the university to the workforce does more to reduce the diversity of our country's talent pool than to develop it.

So what do elite universities have to do with all this? Isn't equity and access the domain of community colleges and regional public universities? At least, that's how we've always gotten to talk about it. But the real opportunity lies in leadership, the "follow me" power of elite brands. With so many institutions of higher education trying to emulate the footsteps of elite institutions and with a disproportionate amount of attention paid to elites by the media and the general public, they indeed hold the key to unlocking a new paradigm. in higher education. Instead of the elite being defined exclusively by selectivity, it can be defined by inclusivity. This is not a new playbook; Arizona State University has soared to the top of the world's universities by doing just this: defining its success by the number of students it serves versus the number of students it rejects.

The brand of higher education in the United States has had a great impact in recent years. Enrollment in degree programs has declined for 10 consecutive years. Opinion polls show a rapid decline in confidence in higher education. And high-profile scandals like the “Varsity Blues” admissions debacle further undermine the college's vision as a true meritocracy. In his recent book "The Tyranny of Merit," Michael Sandel (a Harvard professor) articulates a scathing case against elite universities in particular. He argues that our obsession with meritocracy and, in particular, selectivity in elite college admissions has produced a toxic policy of credentialing that he calls the "last acceptable bias" in America. The only institutions that have the power to change this are the elites themselves.

So what would a Harvard or Duke of a million students look like? To begin with, it would not mean that a million students live on the Cambridge or Durham campus. That part of the vision for these institutions may end up looking a lot like how they look today. But we've already seen a glimpse of the future through efforts like edX and Coursera, where elite universities and some of their professors offer courses. A Stanford machine learning course, for example, was taken by 3.6 million students on Coursera. This is a preview of what an elite university with one million enrolled students would look like, that is, completely in line with a global student base. Right now, the vast majority of courses offered by elite colleges at MOOCs like edX and Coursera are not for credit. But that step is not very far.

Elite institutions have raised billions of dollars from donors to invest in their physical campus, continually adding more buildings without increasing enrollment in many cases. They have also worked to increase their selectivity in admissions, driven by college rankings that place great emphasis on this criterion. However, the future can be defined by fundraising campaigns aimed at building the 'virtual campus' by developing fully online degree programs designed to serve a wider swath of students from both the US and everyone, to be able to enroll in these elite programs. institutions from their homes. Through continuing education divisions or through the establishment of a new "Harvard 2" or "Duke 2" brand, these institutions can leverage their incredible brands to provide differentiated admission criteria and differentiated tuition prices for online students. And with fully online options, they would literally have no limit to the number of students they could enroll over time.

If brands unknown only 20 years ago such as Western Governor's University and Southern New Hampshire University can become among the largest universities in the country with more than 100,000 students, elite universities have the power of the brand to grow ten times or more over these numbers. Some have argued that Harvard is the most valuable brand in the world, more than any major corporate brand like Coca-Cola or Google. And from a global perspective, there are millions of students who have the aptitude and intelligence to perform at an academically rigorous elite university. The problem is that most cannot afford tuition and even the world's largest donations will not support a million students with financial aid or scholarships.

But what about a priced online degree like Georgia Tech's online master's in computer science at roughly $ 7,000? Georgia Tech is the 35th-ranked institution in the U.S. News and has created a clinic regarding the scaling of a valuable, affordable and quality online degree from an elite university. Has this in any way undermined the Georgia Tech brand? No. If anything, it has boosted it enormously. Has offering courses on edX and Coursera hurt elite university brands? Not at all. It has helped strengthen them. Would a Harvard or Duke University with a million students online take the experience away from the few students who enroll there on campus each year? No.

It's time to broaden our thinking about what the elite means in higher education. It is time for elite universities to grow their mission and impact not by accumulating more resources on the same number of students each year, but by seeking to serve more students. And with the explosion in acceptance of online education and degrees globally, now is the time for them to build the largest virtual campuses in the world. Their brands and fundraising capabilities could power them to millions of enrolled students in just a few years. His leadership will help launch a new type of arms race in higher education: a race for equity, access and affordability.

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