Are “Affordable Elite” Colleges Growing in Size, or Just Selectivity?

A new addition to this year’s Washington Monthly college guide is a ranking of “Affordable Elite” colleges. Given that many students and families (rightly or wrongly) focus on trying to get into the most selective colleges, we decided to create a special set of rankings covering only the 224 most highly-competitive colleges in the country (as defined by Barron’s). Colleges are assigned scores based on student loan default rates, graduation rates, graduation rate performance, the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, and the net price of attendance. UCLA, Harvard, and Williams made the top three, with four University of California campuses in the top ten.

I received an interesting piece of criticism regarding the list by Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (and my dissertation chair in graduate school). Her critique noted that the size of the school and the type of admissions standards are missing from the rankings. She wrote:

“Many schools are so tiny that they educate a teensy-weensy fraction of American undergraduates. So they accept 10 poor kids a year, and that’s 10% of their enrollment. Or maybe even 20%? So what? Why is that something we need to laud at the policy level?”

While I don’t think that the size of the college should be a part of the rankings, it’s certainly worth highlighting the selective colleges that have expanded over time compared to those which have remained at the same size in spite of an ever-growing applicant pool.

I used undergraduate enrollment data from the fall semesters of 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2012 from IPEDS for both the 224 colleges in the Affordable Elite list and 2,193 public and private nonprofit four-year colleges not on the list. I calculated the percentage change between each year and 2012 for the selective colleges on the Affordable Elite list and the other less-selective colleges to get an idea of whether selective colleges are curtailing enrollment.

[UPDATE: The fall enrollment numbers include all undergraduates, including nondegree-seeking institutions. This doesn’t have a big impact on most colleges, but does at Harvard–where about 30% of total undergraduate enrollment is not seeking a degree. This means that enrollment growth may be overstated. Thanks to Ben Wildavsky for leading me to investigate this point.]

The median Affordable Elite college enrolled 3,354 students in 2012, compared to 1,794 students at the median less-selective college. The percentage change at the median college between each year and 2012 is below:

Period Affordable Elite Less selective
2000-2012 10.9% 18.3%
1990-2012 16.0% 26.3%
1980-2012 19.9% 41.7%


The distribution of growth rates is shown below:


So, as a whole, less-selective colleges are growing at a more rapid pace than the ones on the Affordable Elite list. But do higher-ranked elite colleges grow faster? The scatterplot below suggests not really—with a correlation of -0.081 between rank and growth, suggesting that higher-ranked colleges grow at slightly slower rates than lower-ranked colleges.


But some elite colleges have grown. The top ten colleges in the Affordable Elite list have the following growth rates:

      Change from year to 2012 (pct)
Rank Name (* means public) 2012 enrollment 2000 1990 1980
1 University of California–Los Angeles (CA)* 27941 11.7 15.5 28.0
2 Harvard University (MA) 10564 6.9 1.7 62.3
3 Williams College (MA) 2070 2.5 3.2 6.3
4 Dartmouth College (NH) 4193 3.4 11.1 16.8
5 Vassar College (NY) 2406 0.3 -1.8 1.9
6 University of California–Berkeley (CA)* 25774 13.7 20.1 21.9
7 University of California–Irvine (CA)* 22216 36.9 64.6 191.6
8 University of California–San Diego (CA)* 22676 37.5 57.9 152.5
9 Hanover College (IN) 1123 -1.7 4.5 11.0
10 Amherst College (MA) 1817 7.2 13.7 15.8


Some elite colleges have not grown since 1980, including the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Boston College, and the University of Minnesota. Public colleges have generally grown slightly faster than private colleges (the UC colleges are a prime example), but there is substantial variation in their growth.

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.

1 thought on “Are “Affordable Elite” Colleges Growing in Size, or Just Selectivity?”

  1. It’s not in the interest of “elite” colleges and universities to grow; it’s just algebra. If you need more enrolling, you need to admit more. And unless your applicant pool grows dramatically, you won’t stay as selective. And if you’re not selective, you won’t be elite.

Comments are closed.