Competition vs. Learning

It's harder to get into top colleges. But do long odds encourage students to learn more or game the system? Study finds minimal evidence of the former, and much of the latter.
August 25, 2009

Another admissions season is revving up, with the annual avalanche of rankings, the release of data on standardized test scores -- and colleges and high school seniors working to court one another. These days, each year brings reports of an increasing frenzy in admissions -- with more stress for students and their families.

Three scholars of education and economics on Monday released a study designed to get at some of the key issues related to that competition. Using a range of data, they show first that the increased competitiveness isn't imaginary and that it is indeed more difficult to get in (at least at some institutions) these days than it was in previous generations.

But they go on to explore whether or not this is a good thing in terms of learning. After all, high school students could respond to the pressure by taking more rigorous courses and studying more -- or they could focus their attentions on gaming the system and trying to impress.

The study found some evidence of the former, with more high schoolers -- during the time period in which admissions became much more competitive -- taking calculus or Advanced Placement courses. But the analysis found considerable evidence of the latter -- with more students taking multiple standardized tests, more students taking test-prep courses, more students (in states where admissions frenzy is highest) seeking special accommodations when they take standardized tests. Given that many of those behaviors relate to test taking as opposed to learning, the authors question whether the admissions frenzy is encouraging learning.

The study -- released by the National Bureau of Economic Research -- is by John Bound and Brad Hershbein of the University of Michigan and Bridget Terry Long of Harvard University. (An abstract and ordering information may be found here.)

On the issue of how competitive it is to get into college, the scholars say that it's important to distinguish among institutions and students. The most competitive colleges, which generally have not increased their size significantly, have seen dramatic increases in applications, meaning that they are much more difficult to get into. But this trend doesn't apply in the same way to most colleges. Further, the scholars note that -- if one goes back to the '70s and compares applications then to now -- the period covered starts when top colleges still had a deficit of female applicants. So the reality that women who can get into top colleges now apply in greater numbers shouldn't be viewed as a bad thing or a sign of admissions frenzy, the authors suggest.

With those caveats of perspective, however, the authors use College Board data to show that the percentage of students accepted by top private and public universities has indeed declined. The private figures in the following table come from both universities and liberal arts colleges (a pool of 20 each), while the public figures come from universities (a pool of 20).

Acceptance Rate of Top Colleges and Universities

Year Private Public
1986 38.58% 63.15%
1991 38.39% 56.78%
1996 37.55% 58.98%
2001 31.49% 50.55%
2002 30.72% 48.81%
2003 29.85% 47.72%

Faced with those odds, are students doing more to prepare themselves for college -- or for the admissions process?

The authors, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics and elsewhere, find a mixed verdict. In terms of academics, they note significant gains from 1992 to 2004 -- generally a period when admissions frenzy is believed to have heightened -- in the percentage of high school students who took calculus (to 15.2 percent, from 10.3 percent), and in the percentage who took at least one Advanced Placement exam (to 30.9 percent, from 16.5 percent). But on average, the percentage of high schoolers who did at least 10 hours a week of homework fell during that period, from 26.7 percent to 20.4 percent.

Among those students applying to selective colleges, a greater proportion took calculus and AP, and a greater proportion did more than 10 hours of homework a week, but the trend lines are the same.

Studying and Course Taking Among High School Students Applying to Selective Colleges

  Applying to Selective Private Applying to Selective Public
Took calculus, 1992 43.6% 29.4%
Took calculus, 2004 52.3% 36.8%
Took an AP exam, 1992 60.0% 39.7%
Took an AP exam, 2004 77.9% 60.8%
Spent at least 10 hours a week on homework, 1992 49.5% 40.0%
Spent at least 10 hours a week on homework, 2004 45.2% 33.7%

The authors call the decline in homework time "somewhat mystifying," given that the focus on college acceptance and the more rigorous courses would presumably require more study time. Further, they note that some of the positive educational trends, such as more students taking an AP course, were most pronounced outside the Northeast (where admissions frenzy is strongest) and for students outside the top academic ranks (for whom Ivy applications aren't likely).

What are students spending more time on? Testing. For instance, one way to improve one's chances of getting into college might be to take both the SAT and the ACT and to submit the score that makes you look best -- a strategy that may take some time as such students are probably those who will prepare extensively for each test. The scholars found that from 1972 to 2004, the percentage of students who took both tests increased from one in eight to one in five. Among those applying to selective private colleges, the jump was from 15 to 35 percent.

Another strategy is for students to request "special accommodations" (such as extra time) on the SAT, an approach that has increased since such scores are no longer "flagged" for colleges. The scholars note that in states where more students are applying to highly competitive colleges, the percentage of students taking the SAT under such conditions is about 5 percent, more than twice the percentage in states where smaller shares of students apply to competitive colleges.

Other data in the paper suggest that more of students' time in high school is being spent with test-prep coaches. Some test preparation is the norm for students now and increasing shares, especially of those applying to competitive colleges, have private tutors or private classes.

Shifts in Percentage of High School Students Using Test-Prep

  Private classes/tutoring Test-prep in any form
National average, 1992 14.1% 59.7%
National average, 2004 18.1% 62.6%
Applying to selective privates, 1992 32.8% 80.4%
Applying to selective privates, 2004 36.4% 83.0%
Applying to selective publics, 1992 18.0% 74.0%
Applying to selective publics, 2004 27.0% 76.8%

The authors acknowledge that some educational value is possible from test prep, as students may learn words or concepts. By and large, however, the authors are dubious, and note not only that lots of time is going into non-educational activities, but that all of the approaches that are taking up the time of college applicants are more readily available to the wealthy (test-prep services and so forth cost money) than to other applicants.

"The increased competition that currently exists for admission to a more selective college might have real benefits if it were to increase learning amongst high school students," the authors write. "However, our analysis suggests that there are reasons to be suspicious that this congenial outcome might not hold true. Moreover, the increased resources parents and students are able to use to improve their odds of admission at top colleges put low-income students at a disadvantage."

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