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(un)Conventional Wisdom: Bigger and Better

September 19, 2017

Last week, I kicked off a series of posts exploring what I believe is a growing disconnect between higher education and the American people. In that piece, I unpacked one of the possible causes of that disconnect – the ways in which academe celebrates exclusivity over opportunity.

This week, I’m taking on another widely-held assumption in the postsecondary world: 

#2: Bigger can’t be better: There is a school of thought in our enterprise of higher education that institutional size is inversely related to quality, that colleges and universities with lower student-to-staff ratios are better than those with higher ratios. Proponents of this argument maintain that large institutions, especially those in urban centers, are simply too impersonal and too hard to navigate, and that instruction at scale lacks the personal element that is essential to great teaching and learning.

The problem with that line of argument is that we have data that indicate otherwise, particularly when the definition of quality embraces the concept of social mobility. We can see this in a comparison of key indicators from The Equality of Opportunity Project for Princeton University (which enrolls approximately 8,000 students) and California State University-Los Angeles (which enrolls approximately 28,000 students).

Looking at traditional outcome measures such as graduation rates and initial earnings of graduates, Princeton would appear to be a slam dunk in terms of quality:

 

Graduation Rate   

Initial Earnings  

Princeton

96.9%

$78,000

CSU-LA

38.3%

$43,000

But let’s take into account the inputs for each institution, in other words, who they serve:

 

Admission Rate   

Average ACT   

Median Family    Income   

Princeton

6.5%

31-35

$186,000

CSU-LA

68%

15-20

$40,000

So it stands to reason that Princeton would show up better on certain measures.

Now let’s look at the two institutions in terms of how well they do at serving low-income students, specifically, the percentage of students from the lowest income category (bottom quintile) that make it into the top income quintile: 

 

Mobility Rate   

Princeton

1.3%

CSU-LA

9.9%

In other words, CSU-LA is nearly 10 times better than Princeton at offering economic mobility for low-income students. Now, we don’t yet know what’s behind this differential, but Raj Chetty and his colleagues at The Equality of Opportunity Project are setting out to explore and understand it.

The experiences of institutions like the University of Central Florida (UCF) and Georgia State University (GSU) are also important in looking at the relationship between size and outcomes. Both universities have grown significantly over the past decade, and a good part of that growth has been among low-income and first-generation students. At the same time, both have notched impressive performance gains: UCF has increased its graduation rate by nearly 10 percentage points, and GSU has closed its graduation gap by race/ethnicity. They are getting bigger and better.

This is critical at a time when we urgently need more capacity in higher education rather than less. By 2025, our workforce will require that 60 percent of all adults have some education after high school. To achieve that goal (from today’s attainment rate of about 46%), our colleges and universities will have to produce at least 11 million graduates beyond those already estimated. Put another way, every university and college in this country will need to increase the number of credentials it awards by five percent per year between now and 2025. Today, credential growth is less than one percent per year.

Significantly increasing access and success presents unprecedented challenges, which demands that we challenge old assumptions and habits. No, bigger is not always better when it comes to higher education. But neither is smaller always better. It’s all in how we define “better,” and—for me—that definition puts opportunity ahead of exclusivity.

Dan Greenstein is postsecondary director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

 

 
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