Why don’t elite universities expand their enrollment?

For high school seniors, January 1st marks the college application deadline, the culmination of months of high stakes essay writing, testing, and filling out applications. This is then followed by four months of anxious waiting for the decisions to come back. Having applied to college over 15 years ago, I’m always shocked at how much harder getting into college appears to have gotten – acceptance rates for top schools have fallen to just 5-8%.  With lower acceptance rates comes increased stress and pressure to perform.

Our first thought is to remind high school seniors that in our experience with our peers, a constant desire to learn and improve (and perhaps picking computer science as a major) has a bigger impact on career success than what US News ranking your college was. But then our second thought is “does it need to be this hard to get into a top school?” – isn’t it strange that financial resources at elite institutions appear to have grown immensely, while the number of students they serve appears to have not? As 501c3 charitable organizations, when profits pile up into large investment positions (like in our personal financial model example), shouldn’t elite colleges seek out ways to serve more people and provide more high quality educations to meet the increased demand from qualified students?

One of the most useful applications of spreadsheets is that they allow us to organize and display data in useful ways. This can be done to support an argument. Our goal here will be to find and display data so as to determine whether or not financial resources growth far outpace undergraduate enrollment. If the data supports our thesis, the results would get people thinking more about our original question, Why won’t elite universities expand their enrollment?

Spreadsheet Inputs: Historical information on Stanford/Harvard/Yale/Princeton’s long term investment position size, net tuition revenue, undergrad enrollment, total full time equivalent enrollment, acceptance rates.  These can be found in annual financial reports from the universities:

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Spreadsheet Outputs: Our goal is to create figures that highlight how financial resources have grown, how enrollment has grown less, and how student demand has grown.

Figure #1 – Table: We can compare data from the year 2000 with data from the year 2015 for our four schools.  Then we can calculate percentage changes to show that financial resources growth has outpaced enrollment growth:

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The table appears to confirm out suspicions – over the past 15 years, these elite colleges have grown their investment positions by 1.5-2 times, while only growing undergraduate enrollment by single digit percentages.  Surprisingly, Harvard’s undergrad enrollment actually fell 0.5% over the past 15 years even as its investment position almost tripled from $19.6 billion to $54.7 billion. During this period, it became twice as hard to get into these schools as acceptance rates fell from the low to mid teens to between 5-8%. These colleges haven’t gotten any cheaper, as net tuition revenue has outpaced FTE growth for all the schools (though notably Princeton’s net tuition revenue has only increased 31% despite a 26% increase in FTE students). Harvard now has $8.2 million for every undergrad student and $2.8 million for every FTE student, up from $2.9 million and $1.1mm in the year 2000. Is that amount of total dollars sitting around per student really necessary? At a 4% investment return, $8.2 million could generate $328,000 in annual revenue per undergrad, a figure that far exceeds tuition.

Figure #2 – Graph: A graph can accomplish a similar goal with a more visually appealing output but with constraints on the number of variables that can be displayed effectively:

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In conclusion, finding raw data and displaying the data in a logical manner through spreadsheets allowed us to see deeper into the question of whether elite colleges should expand enrollment in line with their financial resources. What other problems in your daily life might benefit from the data analysis and display capabilities of spreadsheets?

The Excel spreadsheet can be found here: Why Don’t Elite Colleges Expand Enrollment?

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