Less than one-third of American adults say that a college degree is worth the cost. Yet, college enrollment rates continue to soar to all time highs.
Across the country, universities have launched campaigns to increase incoming class sizes, including at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 2023, UW-Madison admitted its second-largest class of freshmen in school history, bumping its total student enrollment above 50,000 for the first time.
At the same time, UW-Madison has become increasingly more selective with the student body they admit. The university’s acceptance rate has fallen from 67% to 49% in the past decade. This number takes an even steeper drop when you take into account the out-of-state acceptance rate falling to roughly 18%.
This trend is not unique to Madison. Public universities nationwide — such as Michigan, Texas, Alabama and University of California schools — have become much more competitive. Places like Alabama used to be notorious for extremely high acceptance rates, but now, while still no Harvard, the acceptance rate has fallen significantly.
So how can class sizes rise and acceptance numbers fall?
Numerous factors play into the complex game of public college admissions, ranging from the success of athletic programs to universities’ incapability to expand classes as applicant numbers rise.
For example, Deion Sanders’ “Coach Prime” craze among mainstream sports media has already had direct effects on the University of Colorado Boulder’s applicant rates. Applications have come in at a higher rate than the growth of the incoming class, making Colorado a more competitive school to attend.
Moreover, Sanders’ program has brought in a new revenue stream for the university, allowing the school to create more attractive facilities and programs for potential applicants. This activity, the “Flutie Effect,” named after former Boston College Heisman winner Doug Flutie, describes the phenomenon that a more successful football program increases applications by nearly 20%.
But there is also social change occurring within public university systems. For a long time, private universities were considered to be the “selective ones.” Now, there are public colleges with acceptance rates nearing the single digits, such as the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina.
This has ignited a culture change among other universities and created the idea that there is nothing stopping public colleges from competing with private universities in terms of selectiveness. Wisconsin is following suit, looking to perhaps be the next University of Michigan in the Midwest. Given the current trend, this is a legitimate possibility.
However, this culture change comes at a cost. Public colleges have steadily increased recruitment aimed at out-of-state applicants while in-state acceptance rates drop. This has shown to make schools more competitive, and it could also lead to a policy headache for state governments that have a commitment to their constituents to make public education accessible.
As college becomes a more realistic possibility for more Americans, the landscape of college admissions will continue to evolve. Sooner or later, state governments will have to take action against selective admissions to ensure in-state applicants are adequately prioritized for admission.
As UW-Madison continues to become more competitive to attend, so will the job for admissions officers, who will have to make difficult decisions between prioritizing accessible, high-quality education for Wisconsinites or chugging along toward the goal of a lower admission rate.
Furthermore, as UW-Madison continues to become more competitive, this will undoubtedly affect many other facets of the university and the city on a broad scale.
A more competitive school in the heart of Wisconsin’s capital has the potential to lead to economic growth. With more students, specifically more sought-after students, the city of Madison has a new, almost endless stream of high-quality talent.
This talent translates into highly skilled workers, new innovation and more attractive opportunities for students to stay after graduation.
Public universities play a large role in educating the next generations of residents in their state. It’s baked into the ethos of this university — The Wisconsin Idea.
Carrying it on will require the university not to forget its contract with Wisconsinites.
GL Sacco is a junior studying economics & political science. Do you agree rising class sizes and increased selectivity will change the nature of public education? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org