Universities With a ‘Clear Moral Message’ Expecting Higher Enrollment, as Students Flee Chaotic Campuses Like Columbia

Schools where disruptive protests have been swiftly scaled down already saw an uptick in applications this year.

The New York Sun
Anti-Israel protesters at Columbia University, April 18, 2024. The New York Sun

Ivy League schools erupting in protests could soon see “a multi-year migration” of applicants toward universities offering a “clear moral message and calm” and away from their chaotic campuses. That’s the prediction of the admissions director at the New College of Florida, Bruce Abramson, whose Sarasota campus has seen little political protest since Governor DeSantis overhauled the school’s “woke indoctrination” last year. 

Columbia University has been splattered across the news because of the drama surrounding the pro-Palestinian tent encampment that surfaced on its main lawn last month. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce is launching a robust investigation into Columbia, Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania over the growing antisemitism on their campuses in the wake of the October 7 terrorist attacks in Israel. Some schools, though, have been free of such scrutiny.

“On any campus, there has to be a rule of law,” the president of New College, Richard Corcoran, who previously served as the speaker of the Florida house, tells the Sun. “You can’t have a just functioning college without that.” There is a constitutional right to due process, he says, yet some student protesters have exceeded the protections of free speech and broken the law.

“The difference among these schools is leadership,” Mr. Abramson says. “What you need is leadership that is prepared to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong. This is antisemitism.’” Attorney Jay Edelson, who represents a Jewish student suing Columbia over its alleged failure to offer sufficient protections from harassment, tells the Sun that while Columbia has been in crisis, “other schools — like the University of Florida, that haven’t equivocated — are fully functional.”

After an encampment surfaced at the University of Florida, its president, Senator Sasse, said in a statement that the school “is not a daycare, and we do not treat protesters like children — they knew the rules, they broke the rules, and they’ll face the consequences.” Mr. DeSantis warned students they could be expelled for engaging in unsanctioned protests. 

Unlike Columbia, which has canceled its main graduation ceremony, at America’s largest public university, Arizona State University, 24 successful commencement-related ceremonies took place this week without interruption from student demonstrators. “You might note that we are holding our graduation and we protect free speech at the same time,” ASU’s president, Michael Crow, told a stadium full of 6,000 graduates and 30,000 spectators on Monday. “Welcome to Arizona State University.” 

The university has warned that bringing in flyers, banners, and flags “will result in removal and Student Code of Conduct consequences — even for graduates.” When a pro-Palestine protest surfaced on campus two weeks ago, Mr. Crow called in the ASU police and the state police, later touting that “there were no weapons that were used … it came out about as well as could be expected given the complication of the nature of the demonstration.”

An exodus from California state schools, which have been seeing clashes between student demonstrators and police, could benefit universities in the southwest like ASU, along with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the University of Arizona.

High school applicants preferring private universities could create a bump in admissions at southern schools like Vanderbilt, Emory, and Duke, where violent protests have been scaled down swiftly. Each of those schools saw more competitive admissions cycles this year.

Vanderbilt saw a historically low overall admission rate of 5.1 percent this cycle, contributing to a steady decline in the past few years. Repercussions for student protesters have been among the most severe there, leading to the exclusion of three students from the Nashville campus. “If you’re forcing your way into a closed building, you’re engaging in vandalism,” the school’s chancellor, Daniel Diermeier, told NPR. “That’s not an expression of free speech.” 

Duke, meanwhile, has stayed clear of national attention because its on-campus demonstrations have been mostly calm. The Durham campus saw its acceptance rate drop to a record-low 4.1 percent this year as it received its highest-ever number of applicants. Another southern school, the University of North Carolina, received more than 67,800 applications for first-year students, an increase of 15 percent from last year.

“Since UNC’s enrollment deadline is May 15, it is too early to comment on the number of accepted students for fall 2024 who enroll and how that compares with previous years,” the school’s office of media relations tells the Sun. “Any effect of the protests on future admissions would only be speculation at this point.” 

If recent history is any guide, UNC, the no. 4 public school in the country, has seen an increase of 22 percent in the number of transfer applications this year, meaning that 5,150 college students sought to switch to its campus.

Harvard College, on the other hand, saw an overall 5 percent decline in the number of applications this year, down to 54,008 from 56,937 last year. Its overall acceptance rate was 3.59 percent, the least competitive in four years. That drop follows an outcry over surging campus antisemitism that culminated in the resignation of Harvard’s president in January.

Enrollment trends could reflect broader migratory patterns, as growing numbers of Americans move toward the south and the southwest. “It’s easier to send a high school kid to a new state than it is to uproot your family,” Mr. Abramson says. The trends also suggest a growing resentment toward the politics of prestigious Northeast campuses.

Since New College abandoned its office of diversity, equity, and inclusion, it has seen an almost 300 percent increase in the enrollment of Black students — to 39 students from 10 — while Hispanic enrollment has nearly doubled, to 93 students from 47. That’s according to demographic data, shared with the Sun by Mr. Abramson that compares the fall of 2022 and the fall of 2023. 

Swinging away from an overwhelming liberal student body, New College broke its record for the largest incoming class last year and is on pace to grow its enrollment to between 1,200 and 1,500 students from just less than 700 students today. Mr. Corcoran expects the student body to become more diverse this year as the school picks up more out-of-state students, internationals, and athletes. 

“Through all the changes that have been made and by getting rid of the DEI office, we’re getting a real diversity and we’re getting real inclusion of all walks of life and we’ve eliminated the indoctrination,” Mr. Corcoran says. 

Some have derided the reforms as pushing toward conservative thought, though Mr. Corcoran insists they are reviving fairness: “You are not affording students a good education if you’re one side or the other — I don’t care if it’s hard right or hard left.”

Mr. Corcoran estimates that 10 faculty members have since left for “ideological reasons.” Yet the school brought in new faculty to offset those departures and is set to announce in the coming weeks 40 new hires for the fall.

Other schools that abandon DEI could soon see similar trends. On Sunday, MIT became the first elite American university to announce it will no longer require aspiring faculty members to include “diversity statements” as part of their job applications. Admissions trends may also be affected by the recently reinstated SAT and ACT requirements at Yale, Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, and MIT, a reversal of test-optional policies. 

Yet the prestige of elite campuses, no matter how chaotic they may get, is enduring. “The brand needs are valuable and it will take a long time for them to erode,” Mr. Abramson notes. “And the alumni networks are valuable.” When it comes to corporate hiring, though, some employers are expanding their recruiting efforts beyond the Ivy League.

“This is all part of the reform move to reform higher ed,” he says, “emphasizing education over indoctrination. Educated students will debate, indoctrinated students will destroy.”

The New York Sun

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