Does Where You Go To School Matter? (And Why Reporters Get This Wrong…)August 15th, 2008 · 29 comments
The Person or the Pedigree?
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reports the results of a major compensation survey. The clear conclusion was that students who attend selective schools make more money than those who do not. Specifically, they found that an Ivy League graduate will enjoy a median starting salary 32% higher than that of other liberal arts graduates.
(Interestingly, after this initial advantage, the rate of salary growth remains constant over time. Ten years after graduation, for example, Ivy Leaguers’ salary advantage over other students remains at 34%.)
In terms of which schools reported the highest earnings, I was quite pleased to discover that graduates from my alma mater, Dartmouth College, have the highest median income: $134,000 10 years after graduation.
Suck it Harvard.
These results, however, belie a more significant question: do Ivy League students make more money because of the school or because of their talent? That is, would a student who could get into Dartmouth make the same salary even if he attended somewhere less selective? Or is the pedigree more important than the person?
The Most (Mis-)Cited Study Ever.
The standard answer is that the person trumps pedigree. For example, consider this article from the Brookings Institute, written by Gregg Easterbrook, a visiting scholar and contributor to The Atlantic Monthly.
The piece is titled “Who Needs Harvard?” It starts with the standard admissions-season reporter condescension — “winning admission to an elite school is imagined to be a golden passport to success…” — then throws in the requisite contrarian idea:
But what if the basis for all this stress and disappointment—the idea that getting into an elite college makes a big difference in life—is wrong? What if it turns out that going to the “highest ranked” school hardly matters at all?
Easterbrook proceeds to break out the big guns: a 1998 study by Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger, of the Mellon Foundation and Princeton, respectively. The study is titled “Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College,” and as Easterbrook gleefully exclaims: “[it drops] a bomb on the notion of elite-college attendance as essential to success.”
Krueger and Dale studied what happened to students who were accepted at an Ivy or a similar institution, but chose instead to attend a less sexy, “moderately selective” school. It turned out that such students had, on average, the same income twenty years later as graduates of the elite colleges.”
Question answered! Right? Busting your ass to get into Harvard is for losers. Real talented people will find success regardless of whether they engage in the chaotic admissions-related activities that reporters like Easterbrook find so objectionable.
But is this true? Or did the reporter read only what he wanted to read…
Fun with Statistics
As the Half-Sigma blog puts it, the Dale and Krueger report is “possibly the most mis-cited study ever.”
I recently re-read the report, and I came away with the exact opposite conclusion as Gregg Easterbrook. In my opinion, Easterbrook clearly cherry-picked the results to support the answer he wanted to find.
The statistic he cites has to do with students who got accepted both to schools with high average SAT scores and those with low average SAT scores, and then chose to attend schools with the low scores. As the researchers note, however: “the average SAT score is a crude measure of the quality of one’s peer group.” By contrast, when they analyzed the selectivity of the college — i.e., position in the Barron’s College Guide rankings — Dale and Kruger found:
Men who attended the most competitive colleges earn 23 percent more than men who attended very competitive colleges, other variables in the equation being equal.
Remember, this is a regression analysis. This means that the researchers are looking at students who were accepted at both highly ranked and less highly ranked schools, and then found that those who chose to attend the higher ranked schools earned significantly more than those who chose the lower ranked schools. The researchers argue that ranking is a better indicator of selectivity than average SAT score as it better captures society’s common understanding of the school’s prestige.
In other words, Gregg Easterbrook is wrong. He cherry-picked a value that the researchers themselves labeled an outlier, and ignored their main findings.
The New York Times Gets it Wrong Too
Easterbrook is not alone. In 2006, the New York Times published an article titled: “Off the Beaten Path.” Once again, it opens with the standard admissions-season reporter condescension: “If you live and die by status, if the name Harvard, Yale, Stanford or Penn must hang etched in sheepskin on your wall, then read no further.”
(Ouch! You really called us out on our foolishness! You’re so clever Mr. New York Times reporter!)
The article then cites — you guessed it! — Dale and Krueger, noting:
A 1999 study by Alan B. Krueger of Princeton and Stacy Dale of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that students who were admitted to both selective and moderately selective colleges earned the same no matter which they attended.
This is 100% wrong! It’s clear that they’re just aping Easterbrook’s bad reporting without even bothering to read the original study. (The term “moderately selective” is used by Easterbrook, in the actual study, however, the range used was “most competitive “highly competitive,” and “very competitive;” the word “moderate” does not appear on the scale.)
Lest you think that the reporters merely missed a minor conclusion hidden in the middle of the study, let me quote the abstract — yes, the abstract, the very first paragraph of the report, the can’t-miss summary of its main finding. It states:
[The] rating of school selectivity and the tuition charged by the school are significantly related to the students’ subsequent earnings.
How do we get from that to the NYT’s conclusion that “students who were admitted to both selective and moderately selective colleges earned the same no matter which they attended?”
Whether We Like it Or Not…
I don’t know why reporters sometimes seem so desperate to discount the value of wanting to attend a top college. I’d like to think that it’s born of good intentions — helping to relieve the stress of the college-bound masses. But I get the impression — from the haughty tone of these articles — that it has more to do with the reporters thumbing their noses at what they deem to be annoying behavior by parents who live in their elite Manhattan or D.C. neighborhoods.
You know my thoughts on this issue. It’s not my role to judge your ambitions. Instead, I focus on helping you pursue your educational goals — whatever they are — in a sustainable manner. To me, the big problem with admissions season stress is not that so many students want to go to Harvard, but that they think joining 10 clubs is the key to doing so.
It helps no one to ignore data that we don’t like. We should start with the truth — regardless of what it says — and then work forward from there.