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It's Time to Rethink What "Elite" Should Mean

October 28, 2015
College graduates

All across the country, newly minted college students have settled into their campuses—making friends, absorbing the wisdom of their professors and beginning to think about the future. 

Some of these undergraduates may take particular delight in having landed a spot at one of America’s prestigious, highly selective schools—and rightfully so. The combination of a widely admired pedigree and academic excellence positions them for success. 

But what if our valuation of these exclusive clubs has been wrongly applied? What if we turn this thinking on its head and judge our schools not by the number of students that they turn away but by their ability to grant access and ensure student success? 

Every year “elite” colleges and universities select a tiny fraction of the thousands and thousands of smart, talented and capable students who apply. These institutions then show up on highly touted rankings of the most selective schools in the country, as if a razor-thin acceptance rate was in and of itself a sign of achievement and a model of success. 

Today less than one percent of the nation’s undergraduates attend the top 50 liberal arts colleges and leading Ivy League schools. At the same time, many of our top-tier public universities are becoming increasingly selective. That means more and more qualified applicants are being denied access to world-class education.

This represents a missed opportunity for them and a problem for us all.

Higher education is critical to driving innovation and increasing our nation’s economic competiveness. By educating larger and increasingly diverse segments of our population at the highest levels, we expand our ability to succeed in an increasingly global knowledge economy. 

This could not be more important: In the next three years, the U.S. is expected to face a shortage of 3 million highly educated college graduates, a gap projected to grow to 16 million by 2025, according to a Lumina Foundation report. Not only are poverty rates for Americans 25 years or older with no college education triple those with at least a bachelor’s degree, only 5 percent of graduates of public research universities come from families in the bottom fifth of income levels. 

In short, the current system is stacked against those who come from the wrong zip code, a reality that is increasingly troubling as our minority populations grow. 

How many potential Nobel laureates are these restrictive admissions policies missing? Even if the answer were only one—or none—the fact is that our society benefits from a growing legion of educated citizens capable of earning a good wage and making a difference in their communities. As a society, we should be determined to find a way to make the most of our nation’s intellectual capacity. 

I firmly believe that expanding access to higher education is a national imperative. At Arizona State University, we are admitting every qualified Arizona student (in addition to a growing population of qualified out-of-state and international students). This is something that schools like Berkeley and Michigan used to do back in the 1950s, but don’t anymore. 

Expanding enrollment need not undermine quality. Quite the contrary. A growing population of qualified students pushes us to pursue innovations—new technologies, new approaches to teaching, new schools—to accommodate their needs and help them achieve their potential. We saw our four-year graduation rates increase nearly 20 percentage points between 2002 and 2010, buoyed especially by our eAdvisor tool that helps students track their progress. 

This only works if we are aiming for excellence across the entirety of our enterprise. 

Rather than cling to a static, time-worn—and elitist—model based on exclusivity and tradition, we encourage our faculty to think and act beyond the confines of academic disciplines. With a growing student population drawn from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, we are continuously evaluating our organizational design and the ways knowledge is produced and students are taught. 

This creative mindset includes expanding the number of multidisciplinary degrees and programs to more closely link our students’ experiences with the needs of the real world that awaits them after graduation. I believe this positions us for greater impact. It raises our chances of bettering our society.

To be sure, expanding enrollment requires a shift in university culture and behavior. Not every institution is prepared for the demands of dramatically expanding opportunity while simultaneously raising quality. But the change can begin with expanding our notion of what “elite” really means.