Has any college in the US managed to unite being prestigious and being open access, at undergrad or grad level. I mean open enrolment in the European sense, where they have kind of minimal requirements (language cert, high-school and not much more).

I wonder, given that they could charge thousands $/year, what's the problem with admitting mass-wise new students (and provide them with decent teachers, materials and the like). Why limit the number of clients you get?


There are two fundamentally opposing ideas here. Yes, it would be nice if everyone could afford, and be admitted to, a top-tier university. But that's simply not how prestige works.

  • If you admit lower quality students, the number of truly excellent graduates is diluted and your university will lose prestige.
  • The loss of prestige may mean a gradual decrease in the quality of faculty, as the very best are hired by other prestigious universities. You'll certainly need to hire more professors to teach the extra students, and can you be sure that all the new hires will be just as good as those you've already got? There are only so many researchers in the world worthy of Nobel prizes.

An everyman's university will never have the prestige of a university such as Oxford, Caltech, or MIT. The key to the success of these top universities is consistency. Damn near every one of their graduates is a top performer, which is very desirable to employers (and also quite attractive for prospective faculty).

Once you lower the barrier to entry, their perceived quality will head downwards, and the flow-on effects will snowball.

There are many very excellent (and open) universities that are not as prestigious as they perhaps deserve, for example ETH Zurich is a truly excellent university that is open to all Swiss citizens who have passed their high school exams. This Times Higher Education ranking page shows somewhat quantitatively the elitism that is at play.

  • Don't Oxford, Caltech, or MIT have legacy admission? Or being admitted as athlete, minority and the like? Or any other non-academic rules that push the level down? – Quora Feans May 29 '14 at 21:24
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    @QuoraFeans See my updated answer. They may be extremely good, but they don't command the level of prestige that they perhaps deserve. – Moriarty May 29 '14 at 21:51
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    If folks are going to downvote my answer, I'd appreciate knowing why you disagree. – Moriarty May 29 '14 at 22:16
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    One minor comment though - I am not sure how ETH could be more prestigious. In my circles, ETH is widely considered the by far best european university for technical sciences. – xLeitix May 30 '14 at 6:20
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    @nivag Given that the system seems to be working rather nicely since a long time, I assume it is not "mad". For your concrete case: what prevents this from happening is simply basic statistics - you don't get that large, unpredictable changes in student interest in practice, even if you don't specifically prevent it. Small changes are simply covered by small resource re-allocations (e.g., move some TA money). – xLeitix May 30 '14 at 17:30

The best example, that I can think of, of a mainstream US university that is respected at both the national and international levels with a policy that is something like open access is Arizona State University. They have a fixed bar admissions policy: https://students.asu.edu/freshman/requirements

Applicants must also meet at least one of the following:

Top 25% in high school graduating class

3.0 GPA in competency courses (4.0 = A)

ACT 22 (24 nonresidents)*

SAT Reasoning 1040 (1110 nonresidents)*

Prestigious is a difficult concept to quantify. To some if it is not Harvard, then it is not prestigious. That said, ASU ranks in the top 150 in both the US news and THE rankings. Which I think puts them well within a reasonable definition of prestigious.

However, I think they are probably on the border of both "open access" and prestigious. That said, Arizona is not a particularly affluent state, so I think there is the potential for the model to work.


In partial disagreement with Moriarty's answer, I think that ETH in Zurich is an excellent example of a university that is both prestigious and open-access.

I was told by people there that the university is very sink or swim, and that each year they routinely fail a majority of the students taking, say, freshman calculus. (And that "freshman calculus" there is more like real analysis in the US.) A bit harsh, but I think necessary if you want to maintain extremely high standards but be open to all.

I don't know of any US university that does this.

  • Question is about US universities that have done this, and if not why. This therefore does not seem to answer the question. – StrongBad May 30 '14 at 15:33
  • Well, I said that no US university to my knowledge does this. As to why; why is no US university willing to fail 80% of its students? I don't think this admits a factual answer, other than to perhaps say it goes against American culture. – Anonymous May 30 '14 at 15:45
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    Indeed, there are many pressures on a US university to have a high graduation rate (rankings, etc). – Nate Eldredge May 30 '14 at 16:35
  • The "throw everybody in and see who swims" approach is also commonly applied in other open universities, e.g., in Austria. In my alma mater we had graduation rates way below 25% in computer science. Really kills us in rankings, but that's more a systemic difference than anything else. – xLeitix May 30 '14 at 17:34

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