Postsecondary Education and the Ivy League: Vanguard or Foul Play?

Seminar Paper, 2010

19 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

List of Figures

1 Introduction

2 The Role of the Ivy League in Higher Education
2.1 Terminology
2.2 Changing Selectivity and the Market for Education

3 The Issue of Equality in Admission
3.1 Conceptual Basics of Admission and Merit
3.2 Factors in being admitted
3.3 The Financial Burden
3.4 The Influence of High School Education

4 Concluding Summary

Works Cited

List of Abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt

List of Figures

Figure 1.1 Supply trends, labour force aged 25 and over, EU-25

Figure 3.1 Influencing factors within the admission process

Figure 3.2 Distribution of admitted students dependent on race

Figure 3.3 Distribution of admitted students dependent on SES

Figure 3.4 Development of total college costs for 4-year public and private Universities

Figure 4.1 Admission rates at selective private schools dependent on race and SES

1 Introduction

Today’s increasing economic challenges, together with the fast development of technological possibilities and the constant need for innovation, lead to a dynamic and complex business environment (Müller 839). Especially the countries of Western Europe, given their high labour costs and shortage of raw materials, have to rely on their capabilities to provide innovative solutions and services in order to succeed on the global market. As the main economic sector of the EU has shifted from agriculture and production towards non-productive industries (CIA online),[1] the demand for highly educated employees rises constantly. A skill supply forecast for Europe up to 2020 conducted by the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training expects a considerable increase in the proportion of the adult labour force with high- and medium-level qualifications. On the contrary, the number of employees with low-level qualifications will probably decline in most European countries (Cedefop 2-4). Figure 1.1 depicts the projected distribution of labour force aged 25 and over, according to their qualification level for the EU-25 without Malta and including Norway.

Figure 1.1: Supply trends, labour force aged 25 and over, EU-25

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Source: Cedefop 2.

In this context, knowledge as a key competence enables companies to persist and succeed in the changing and increasingly complex environment. The know‑how of its employees creates an organization’s capacity to translate data into ideas and ideas into decisions and thus determines its value (Billen 19). In order to generate a knowledge-based society and therewith a highly skilled workforce, as an essential competitive factor within the global economy, it is necessary to maintain a progressive educational system. This essay deals with the question whether the American system of privatized postsecondary education (sometimes referred to as the Ivy League) might be an exemplary approach to an optimized educational system.

To answer this question, two perspectives are taken into account. On the one hand the effectiveness of the system is considered by considering a market model of education. On the other hand the efficiency of private postsecondary education will be examined. Hence, chapter 2 will define the term ‘Ivy League’ and present a market model of education. In section 3, the focus shifts to whether the system follows the principles of meritocracy and equality by examining influencing factors of the admission process including the role of high school education. Finally a conclusive summary of the findings is provided.

2 The Role of the Ivy League in Higher Education

2.1 Terminology

The term ‘Ivy League’ dates back to the year 1933 and was coined by a sports writer for the New York Herald Tribune, who used the phrase ‘ivy colleges’ to describe schools which had common athletic programs. In 1954 the Ivy League was formally founded as a network of athletically competing institutes. It consisted of eight universities, namely Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale (Karel online). Meanwhile, the phrase represents an educational philosophy inherent to the nation's oldest schools and is usually applied more general, also including universities like Stanford, Duke, or the MIT. Consecutively, the term should refer to the ‘most selective’ and ‘private’ universities that have been examined within the surveys cited in the following chapters. Furthermore, the words ‘college’ and ‘university’ will be used interchangeably to refer to an institution of postsecondary education.

2.2 Changing Selectivity and the Market for Education

A market model for education implies that a college with a more demanding curricular is disproportionately useful to high‑aptitude students. These students are able to invest in colleges that offer high inputs (e.g. concerning the quality of faculty, libraries, etc.) that lead to high tuition fees, because they can take advantage of these inputs in terms of later returns to a greater extend. Thus, to maximize their benefits, students with a high aptitude will choose universities that offer capacious resources connected with high tuition fees, and low‑aptitude students will prefer institutes that are charging lower fees (Hoxby 106-107). The development of U.S. universities concerning their selectivity can be explained using these assumptions, or the market mechanism respectively.

Overall, the selectivity of colleges in the U.S. is declining for two reasons. On the one hand, the number of available places in college is growing faster than the number of college‑ready students. On the other hand, the students’ choices of a college are driven more by a college’s resources and reputation and are less home‑biased. This second reason also explains why the Ivy League colleges are an exception to the decreasing trend in terms of selectivity. Colleges that were the most selective in the past have further increased their selectivity[2] as a consequence of resorting among the students. As the costs of information as well as of long‑distance communication and transportation are falling constantly, the market for education globalizes, or rather integrates (Hoxby 95-96). Hence, the students have the possibility to gather information about a variety of different colleges, and to match themselves to those which fit their needs best or where their peers attend to. In this connection, standardized tests like the SAT or the ACT help to identify one’s own achievement state (Hoxby 104). Just as in the economic model of supply and demand, the reduced allocation costs increase the efficiency of the market mechanism and lead to better matches of colleges and students. At this, the process of resorting increases competition between the institutes and enforces the development of the educational sector, in which highly qualified elites might evolve.

3 The Issue of Equality in Admission

3.1 Conceptual Basics of Admission and Merit

‘Admission’ describes the annual process of applying to and being accepted by institutions of higher education in the U.S. that usually takes place during the senior year of high school. The institutes’ basic goals within the process are to enroll enough students to meet bottom-line budget targets, to matriculate students of sufficient quality, and to ensure variety and diversity among the student body. The most selective institutions have a surplus of quality candidates and therefore can afford to employ additional selection criteria. These comprise, for example, the student’s ability to capitalize on an institution‘s intellectual and other resources and to contribute to the education of his peers. Further factors are the student’s ethnicity, geographic origin, socioeconomic status (SES), artistic talent, or athletic ability. In other words, judgements about an applicant’s qualities are made on the basis of his or her academic and personal attributes at highly selective universities (Espenshade and Radford 74-75).

There is a common sense in the U.S. that opportunity should be based upon ability and merit and not on the circumstances of one’s birth, or social status. Consequently the most capable students should be admitted to the best universities, whereas factors like social heritage or ‑networks should not play a role (Hartmann 46). However, academic excellence, measured by grades or standardized test scores, is not the only form of merit considered by admission officers. At selective institutions merit describes a broad, relative and variable concept, which is dependent upon the institutional mission (Espenshade and Radford 77-78). The aim is to create a first‑year class that best expresses the values and objectives of the particular institution (Espenshade and Radford 83). When looking at the numbers of matriculates of the most selective colleges, it turns out that students from low‑income families are persistently underrepresented. In this respect, the gap in college enrollment between students in the highest‑ and the bottom‑income quartiles narrows to about 15 percentage points. This underrepresentation leads to the question whether elite colleges or universities contribute to the educational inequality by failing to provide enough opportunities for students from low‑income families (Pallais and Turner 128-132). Also the admission process might possibly not be based on merit only and therefore corrupt the principle of meritocracy and its implied commitment to equal opportunity and intergenerational mobility.


[1] Estimated GDP composition of the EU by sector for 2009 is: agriculture: 2.1%, industry: 25.2%, services: 71.8% (CIA online).

[2] Contrary to that, colleges which were initially least selective become less selective. In 2007, more than 50 percent of colleges were less selective than in 1962. Altogether the market for college education became more stratified (Hoxby 98-99).

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Postsecondary Education and the Ivy League: Vanguard or Foul Play?
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Fachbereich 03: Rechts- und Wirtschaftswissenschaften, Lehrstuhl für Wirtschaftspädagogik )
Seminar: Education in the USA
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Ivy League, Elite, Elite Colleges, Education, Education USA, Postsecondary Education, US Education, Harvard, Princeton, Private Bildung, Private schools, Elite universities, admission, admission process, SAT, ACT, tuition fees
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Dipl. Kfm. Peter Weyel (Author), 2010, Postsecondary Education and the Ivy League: Vanguard or Foul Play?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • Peter Weyel on 4/23/2011

    In der vorliegenden Version wurden formale Schwächen behoben und Korrekturen des Dozenten eingearbeitet.
    Inhaltliche Bewertung: 1,3.
    D. Verf.

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