Journal of Economic Perspectives: Vol. 23 No. 4 (Fall 2009)


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The Changing Selectivity of American Colleges

Article Citation

Hoxby, Caroline M. 2009. "The Changing Selectivity of American Colleges." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23(4): 95-118.

DOI: 10.1257/jep.23.4.95


Over the past few decades, the average college has not become more selective: the reverse is true, though not dramatically. People who believe that college selectivity is increasing may be extrapolating from the experience of a small number of colleges such as members of the Ivy League, Stanford, Duke, and so on. These colleges have experienced rising selectivity, but their experience turns out to be the exception rather than the rule. Only the top 10 percent of colleges are substantially more selective now than they were in 1962. Moreover, at least 50 percent of colleges are substantially less selective now than they were in 1962. To understand changing selectivity, we must focus on how the market for college education has re-sorted students among schools as the costs of distance and information have fallen. In the past, students' choices were very sensitive to the distance of a college from their home, but today, students, especially high-aptitude students, are far more sensitive to a college's resources and student body. It is the consequent re-sorting of students among colleges that has, at once, caused selectivity to rise in a small number of colleges while simultaneously causing it to fall in other colleges. This has had profound implications for colleges' resources, tuition, and subsidies for students. I demonstrate that the stakes associated with choosing a college are greater today than they were four decades ago because very selective colleges are offering very large per-student resources and per-student subsidies, enabling admitted students to make massive human capital investments.

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Hoxby, Caroline M. (Stanford U)

JEL Classifications

I23: Higher Education and Research Institutions


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