The excellent student scarcity myth

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With so much of our economy and society depending on educated men and women, what justifies the cutthroat competition among elite institutions for students?

While many in higher education have criticized such rankings as those published by U.S. News & World Report, colleges and universities still play the game, competing on measures like average SAT scores and class rank that lead to higher placement. In doing so, they give credence to a pair of harmful falsehoods: (1) A limited number of elite institutions offer a uniquely valuable education and, (2) excellent students are a scarce commodity.

Even higher education's own analysts perpetuate the scarcity myth. One economist argues that higher education can best be understood as an arms race, in which schools compete for highly qualified students in order to better their relative position. Another claims that higher education is the quintessential winner-take-all market, in which only a few of many players win disproportionate rewards.

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Understanding college admission in win/lose terms depends on the belief that there is a limited number of excellent students who can add unique value to the quality of education a college or university offers. That's a difficult proposition in today's market, where an unprecedented number of students now go to college.

In the past 30 years, college enrollments have almost doubled, from 6.9 million students enrolled in 1969, to 12.7 million in 1999, the result both of a growth in population and an increase in students going to college. Are students today less qualified, less bright, less creative than students were three decades ago? That hardly seems likely. If we assume that the relative distribution of intelligence and creativity in the population remains constant, an increase in population should yield more highly qualified students than ever before.

The scarcity myth does more than fuel parents' and students' already heightened anxieties. It permeates schools' missions in subtle ways. It motivates colleges and universities to spend financial aid dollars not on the neediest students but on those it judges most meritorious. It motivates unnecessary spending on ancillary programs and facilities to attract students, spending that drives up tuition. Worst of all, it leads some faculty members to think less well of the worthy students right in front of them.

Higher education is not an arms race, and it is not a winner-take-all market. The breadth, number, and variety of colleges and universities in this country are a unique strength, providing wide access to the higher education that promotes economic development and social mobility.

All of us, not only educators, students, and their families, but employers, businesses, and society as a whole will benefit from thinking about educational opportunity as a widely distributed resource that nurtures extraordinary talent in many settings. Millions of excellent students have excellent choices, and the only real scarcity these days is a fitting appreciation of their talents and gifts.

• Carol T. Christ is the president of Smith College.

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