Assessing the value of an Ivy League education

In an exposé of the sad history of college admissions strategies in the Ivy League, Malcolm Gladwell explains how an Ivy League university is like a modeling agency and unlike the Marine Corps (via The New Yorker):

Social scientists distinguish between what are known as treatment effects and selection effects. The Marine Corps, for instance, is largely a treatment-effect institution. It doesn’t have an enormous admissions office grading applicants along four separate dimensions of toughness and intelligence. It’s confident that the experience of undergoing Marine Corps basic training will turn you into a formidable soldier. A modelling agency, by contrast, is a selection-effect institution. You don’t become beautiful by signing up with an agency. You get signed up by an agency because you’re beautiful.

At the heart of the American obsession with the Ivy League is the belief that schools like Harvard provide the social and intellectual equivalent of Marine Corps basic training—that being taught by all those brilliant professors and meeting all those other motivated students and getting a degree with that powerful name on it will confer advantages that no local state university can provide. Fuelling the treatment-effect idea are studies showing that if you take two students with the same S.A.T. scores and grades, one of whom goes to a school like Harvard and one of whom goes to a less selective college, the Ivy Leaguer will make far more money ten or twenty years down the road.

The extraordinary emphasis the Ivy League places on admissions policies, though, makes it seem more like a modelling agency than like the Marine Corps, and, sure enough, the studies based on those two apparently equivalent students turn out to be flawed. How do we know that two students who have the same S.A.T. scores and grades really are equivalent? It’s quite possible that the student who goes to Harvard is more ambitious and energetic and personable than the student who wasn’t let in, and that those same intangibles are what account for his better career success. To assess the effect of the Ivies, it makes more sense to compare the student who got into a top school with the student who got into that same school but chose to go to a less selective one. Three years ago, the economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale published just such a study. And they found that when you compare apples and apples the income bonus from selective schools disappears.


About Guy N. Texas

Guy N. Texas is the pen name of a lawyer living in Dallas, who is now a liberal. He was once conservative, but this word has so morphed in meaning that he can no longer call himself that in good conscience. Guy has no political aspirations. He speaks only for himself.
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Income inequality. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Assessing the value of an Ivy League education

  1. hortonw says:

    Why is income the right metric? The right metric would be how well the school does at enabling you to do what you want to do. For some, that means income maximization. For many others, it does not. If your goal was to become President or a great philosopher, would you turn down Harvard? If your goal was to be in upper management at Exxon or WalMart, you might well turn down Harvard.

    12% of students at UT major in “business/marketing”, which is not generally even offered at the Ivies. It may simply be in the nature of people who choose the Ivies that income maximization is less likely to be their goal. They are, after all, notoriously ivory-towered places. If you want to make connections for the “real world” rather than ponder meta physics, your state university may be the better choice.

    I am not knocking these other choices. But, the people who make them may tend to be more practical in their orientation and therefore more likely to pursue a business path.

  2. Guy N. Texas says:

    Income (or possibly net worth on date of death) is always the right metric. Have you not been paying attention at the GOP fundraisers?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s