Why don't schools with low acceptance rates expand?

It seems that a lot of businesses, if they see demand for their product exceed supply, are grateful and use the oppurtunity to expand operations to meet the demand, and make more money.

Why don’t universities do the same? There are many universities with abysmal acceptance rates, in that many many more people want to attend than the school is able to educate. Why don’t those schools accept those students and use their tuition dollars (along with per capita government funding if it is a public university) to build additional buildings and hire more teachers?

Industry Manager:

"Our widgets are hot. So many people want one that stores are running out within the day of receving a shipment. We need to build more manufacturing plants, run the existing plants for more hours, and hire a lot of new factory workers. We’re on the road to success and we’ll double our profit if demand continues. Market research indicates that widgets will continue to be in demand for years at the level we’re seeing. Get cranking.

University Dean:

"Our school is hot. So many people want in that we can only accept 5% of applicants. We don’t really have a vision of being a great or powerful school, so let’s end this meeting and go watch our football team get creamed again.

Can you give examples of schools with low acceptance rates that aren’t good schools? Generally speaking, lower acceptance rates correlate with better quality schools, because those schools can choose the best prepared students out of the applicants.

Why won’t a school increase enrollment? Several reasons come to mind.

  1. Selectivity equates to prestige. This is a corollary to my explanation above. You might see Toyota increasing output to meet demand, you’re unlikely to see Bentley do the same.
  2. Schools aren’t businesses in the traditional model, they don’t exist to make profits.
  3. Many schools are landlocked - they can’t expand without moving to a new campus, which is problematic for multiple reasons. First, its extraordinarily expensive for a school of any size to move. Second, don’t overlook tradition in academia. It’s a driving force behind things like alumni donations. Tradition includes things like old campus buildings and landmarks. Finally, colleges tend to have tenuous enough relations with neighboring towns. Moving a campus outside of town wouldn’t exactly endear the campus leadership to the local business community.
  4. Student tuition doesn’t cover the cost of educating the students. More students means more money from elsewhere is required to cover the gap.
  5. Class offerings don’t scale up well. Many universities have problems finding enough rooms for classes as is. New classroom buildings would open years down the line, and aren’t a panacea anyway. They would instantly fill, bringing the same problems.
  6. These schools also tend to be selective in choice of faculty as well. Doubling the student body not only means letting in students who were previously deemed not worth, it also means bringing in new faculty who were previously deemed not worthy.

For the most part, I agree with President Johnny Gentle, except for “2. Schools aren’t businesses in the traditional model, they don’t exist to make profits”. At both schools I attended, they are heavily interested in research, patents, and out-licensing technologies to the business world. They are most assuredly businesses out to make a profit, even if those profits are recycled into the university itself for more research facilities, equipment, etc. Don’t mistake “non-profit” for “losing money”

I also have some disagreement with “3. Many schools are landlocked”. Yes, they often have a city or housing that has developed around them, but they always find a way to expand within the same land area, though this is usually in the form of more research/faculty facilities. How? Easy, you turn one parking lot into a multi-story parking structure, then take other parking lots and put buildings where they used to be. Or you move all parking to an off-campus location and use all the parking lots, then bus everyone in.

Agree with responses above. Having 20 applicants for each opening is not a problem for a University, it’s a benefit. They get to accept the very best (however they want to define “best.”) Adding another hundred (or thousand) students may very well cost a whole lot more than the tuition revenue from those students, as pointed out above.

Still, Universities do grow, by adding programs, graduate degrees, etc. It’s usually gradual, with attempts to “manage” the change. It doesn’t surprise me that they don’t just go double their “capacity” to meet the demand; that would be a logistical nightmare, and would water down what they perceive to be part of the reason for their great reputation (the very selelctivity you are worried about).

The societal advantage of the “top schools” accepting a relative small number of students is that requires a great many very good students to go to other schools, raising the reputation and environment of some “lessor” institutions.

I should have said something like they’re not in the business of trying to maximize profit in the same way as corporations. There is certainly an attempt to make money, but not generally for the sake of making money. Or, to put it more succinctly, I pretty much agree with you.

That land can run out however. This isn’t a concern for everyone, but, for example, I’ve been told my university has problems with the soil and the water level. We can’t build down or up. This leaves outward. Luckily, we’re not entirely boxed in.

FYI, Yale is actually doing this. They’re planning to build two new residential colleges, which will expand undergraduate enrollment by about 15%.

Why should they? When it comes to learning institutions, bigger is not necessarily better. There are advantages to size and growth, but there are significant disadvantages as well, especially if you do it by admitting less-qualified students. If it became a bigger school, it wouldn’t have the same qualities and students (and faculty) might not want to be there any more.

What does it mean for a school to be “great and powerful”? You’ll have to explain what you mean by that, why it’s a good thing, and why having more students would make a school greater and more powerful.

A school isn’t selling widgets; it’s selling itself; and if it expands, it might not really be itself any more.
Note also that not all who apply to a college or university, even if they are admitted, actually attend there. It’s common practice to apply to several institutions. So just because a lot of applicants are not admitted doesn’t necessarily mean they’d choose to go there if they were admitted.

Some colleges make being small a selling point because many students prefer a small college experience, where they don’t feel “lost in the shuffle.” Growing might actively deter students.

It used to be that in Spain you could study Chemical Engineering at one school, Institut Químic de Sarrià. 1st-year slots were “if you want in and you have the secondary education requirements, you’re in”; the restrictions were for the 2nd year. The school increased the amount of slots during the 1987-8 school year, from 70 to 80, of which about 95% would graduate.

There was a university reform in 1992: many new universities were built, and many of them took a look at “employability studies” and said “aha! ChemE are the engineers with the best employability! Let’s build a ChemE school!” Suddenly there were several thousand 1st year ChemE students and as many 2nd years where before there had been about 200 and 80 respectively.

Employability for ChemE plummeted, since it had been based on having about as many new ChemE per year as the market needed.

Sometimes, the “high demand” requires the apparent “scarcity”: “law degrees from Harvard” wouldn’t be as valuable if there were 50,000 of them granted every year.

Interesting. Did you have to apply for the second year through a competitive process where only a certain percentage were accepted, or was it more of a “weeder” course thing where your first year GPA or department exam scores had to be above a threshold or you were expelled? Did they e.g. rate everyone by GPA and automatically cut off a percentage for admission to the second year, or was it a more rounded process where you submitted a full application and they evaluated your first year grades, projects, your high school grades and activities, and faculty recommendations?