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College Prestige "Lies" (overcomingbias.com)
28 points by quizbiz on Mar 23, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 25 comments

I find it interesting that the reports tend to consistently state that college prestige is indeed important for students from lower income families. I found that to be enormously true, myself. I am from a working-class background -- did my undergraduate degree at a state school, and found it boring and, really, a waste of time -- much like high school. But I also think now that a lot of this was my own fault -- I had no idea how to approach college, and how to really make it work for me.

Later, I then did a graduate program at an Ivy League school -- and the scales fell away from my eyes. The most important thing I learned there, I think, was how successful people work in the world -- how to resourcefully make the most out of every opportunity, how to seize the initiative, how to make connections. I have the feeling that if I hadn't been brought up in the class I was, I would have inhaled these things at my parents' knee -- as it was, it took me much, much longer than it should have; but it was an enormous lesson, and almost worth the ridiculous student loans I now owe. ;-)

(I am also by no means saying that an Ivy League school is the only place for lower-class kids to learn how to work the world -- far from it! I was just not talented enough to figure it out myself, and the experience made all the difference in the world for me.)

Cool. I'd be curious to know some of what you picked up in grad school. Care to elaborate?

Good question! I have tried to answer this before, and always fallen flat -- I think that the reason is that if it could be transmitted by writing, I would have picked it up without the need to have spent all that money and time. But that sounds like such a cop-out! So I'll try:

At the Ivy League school I went to (and I did not study a technical subject here -- it was an architecture school), I was surrounded by people who had an agenda for their lives -- in fact, they often already had their career plotted out, and many were already working on the side. School was for them a set of tools (people, information, opportunities) to be hacked resourcefully to get what they wanted. At Big State U, the kids seemed to think of themselves more as subject to the whims of an institution, and to think of the institution as something they needed to please to get "a degree." The degree was hardly worth mentioning at Ivy League School; the professors were seen as either equals or, in a sense, servants/tools. The Ivy League kids also seemed far more ready to create their own programs and experiences; they would see a niche, form a group, and suddenly the school was filled with minority kids learning architecture on the weekends; or suddenly a local youth group had a student-made meeting place.

Of course this kind of volunteerism and spirit of service happened at Big State U as well! What I thought was really different at I.L.S. was the self-assurance and lack of self-consciousness involved; these kids saw ownership and power in the world as their natural right -- they seemed to act and take command as naturally as another young person might turn on the television.

I hope this doesn't sound arrogant or somehow fanboyish; I am trying to explain how being thrown together with these people for years changed me deeply -- made me both able to see beyond where I came from and to be more proud of it, and of myself. It was really almost more a matter of physical knowledge -- of mimicry and group identification, perhaps -- than of something you could pick up in a book.

That is really interesting. Just out of curiosity, how much could be attributed to maturity? Was this change in behavior just within the graduate program or throughout the entire school?

FWIW, I went to Big State U (had a nationally ranked CS program, though), and I agree with much of what you said. However, I don't have anything to compare it to.

Edit: learn grammar.

Another good question -- some of it definitely might be, but I also did find the behavior at Ivy League School was characteristic of the entire school.

Then again, I did some grad-level coursework at the B.S.U. before I switched to the I.L.S., and found the same sort of differences that I described in my note above. In fact, after I.L.S., I wanted to go back to my former classmates at the State University and bring the message "you have power! You can change things! You are in charge!" But, of course, this is what every commencement speaker in the world tells every graduate, and you can't really understand what it means until you've felt it in your own bones, one way or another...

Several of the comments lead me to believe that people aren't reading to the end of the article.

Robin's final conclusion is that the more prestigious name does matter, and that the study has been misinterpreted. That's why he says "Ack! I was almost conned by elite journal editors and media reporters into believing a comforting lie!"

Moreover, a response to the Krueger and Dale study's methodology by Avery and Hoxby in the article "Do and Should Financial Aid Packages Affect Students' College Choices?" National Bureau of Economic Research (Cambridge, MA), 2003 showed that Krueger and Dale aggregated their data in a way that tended to underrepresent the advantage of going to the better college for ALL students, not just low-income students. So if you carefully read the Krueger and Dale study, you can tease out an advantage to the better colleges that they admit is especially strong for low-income students. But they might have found an even stronger effect size if they had analyzed their data differently.

Anyway, yes, for low-income students who manage to get admitted the lesson from all studies is clear: go to the best college that admitted you, and take advantage of your opportunity for an elite education.

Also interesting, one of the links on the site leads to another discussion which claims that there is a correlation between higher intelligence and lower wages for those whose highest degree is a bachelors. The study partially attributes this to the bad advice that more intelligent students tend to get from their parents ("study what you love", as opposed to "study something practical").

(Referenced link is http://www.halfsigma.com/2006/07/higher_intellig.html )

I get the suspicion the causal progression here is deeper than just f(intelligence) - g(wages) = 0.

As an alternate hypothesis, the reason why students who study what they love earn less than students who study something practical is because of the intrinsic value the student finds being employed to do what they love. As a result of this, they don't need or demand to be paid as much to perform the same work, and so salaries tend to be depressed.

But maybe it doesn't bother them; maybe there is something to the advice more intelligent people are given. Perhaps the needs most people fulfill by earning and spending money have already been fulfilled by these people through other means. If you do what you love by trade, perhaps there is less need to spend money in exchange for spare time to work on it.

How much people earn is not the only test of the quality of their education.

True, but it's the easiest to measure, and so it is.

The value that people deliver to the world should be a good determinant. :-)

Prostitutes deliver huge amounts of value with no education required at all. I'm not sure if that's for or against your point--I've never studied economics--but it seems damning of something. ;)

The positive value that prostitutes deliver to the world is very fleeting. An orgasm lasts at most several seconds. After a few days, the average male will be jonesing again.

The long term value production of the average prostitute strikes me as damn near zero, unless the outlet prevents the john from sexually assaulting someone else. I agree, though, that the short term value can be quite high, and I think that is what people pay for.

It seems to me that value delivered to a sufficiently large audience would have to be of the long-term variety, because otherwise it wouldn't last long enough to get sufficiently dispersed. It's possible something might contradict that assertion, but I can't think of any examples right now.

You might as well claim that the value delivered by restaurants is fleeting.

Right, but you didn't pick the best example. After all, people need to eat to survive, and survival is a long-term value. I'd mention the whole entertainment industry :-)

The main point of "eating out" is not nourishment.

Ok, I will. The value of restaurants is fleeting.

Here's why: The value derived from an individual from a restaurant is food, and perhaps being in a pleasing ambient environment for a short while. They derive value from the environment only while they are there, and from the food for the next day or so. After that, no more value unless you think he might have died otherwise, in which case he gained long term value in still being alive.

The deal with restaurants is that they continuously deliver short term value to a stream of people who, hopefully, come back again and again. The value of an individual meal is fleeting, but they're willing to provide that value again and again.

My point is not to confuse a steady stream of short term value with a discrete instance of long-term value. I can use a well-built chainsaw for far longer than I can use a New York strip steak from a high class restaurant. Maybe you and I are discussing value from different perspectives though, but I'm not arguing that short-term value is a lesser degree than long term value. I'm just arguing that they aren't the same.

It clearly depends on how you define value. So, in general, your case is against my point because you have taken out a lot negative factors in your argument. :-)

How do you suppose one would measure "value"?

I believe the answer implied was "the market"...

Value is defined in many levels. The easiest definition for everyone should be the value they can think for themselves.

For a country, most economists would consider GDP. For me, I would consider sustainability and happiness.

Additionally, I've found that the smartest people who go to prestigious schools care more about prestige and interesting work than about salary. The best CS and math students at Harvard wanted to be professors or do research. It was the average Harvard students, for the most part, that went to finance or consulting to make the big bucks.

PG made a point (I think in one of his essays that I can't remember - correct me if I am wrong) that I've found to be fairly true (though of course not always) - that often, jobs for a given level of qualification have a set wealth they will pay, and this payout can come in the form of a more interesting job or more money. This generalization does have a subtlety though - when you are a higher valued candidate for work, you are not only offered more wealth but a greater diversity of choices of work that offer different proportions of interest vs. money. Essentially what I mean here is that it is much easier, coming out of Harvard, to get a high paying job than it is to get a really interesting job. When you are in the middle rungs of math at Harvard, it is not that hard to get a job as an I-banker (lots of money, but two years of very boring work), but you can't just trade off some of that money for a more interesting job. It is only when you are smarter that you get the option of having either the high paying I-banking job or a lower paying job that is more interesting (i.e. cutting edge grad school work at MIT's AI lab). A lot of the smartest people want this more interesting job not only because they are driven more by their interests than money, but also because these jobs are more prestigious since only the smartest people can have them.

On top of this, I knew a lot more people from Harvard who were willing to forgo making much money in their earlier life by taking travel grants or just going off to some country to make some documentary or doing a startup (something that I think has a much lower total expected outcome of income than a finance job). A lot of the smarter people were willing to sacrifice money for freedom because they were sure they would probably eventually make enough money to survive (and the degree helped this), and freedom was just more important to them.

Given all this, measuring money in these studies doesn't even seem good enough to me to be a heuristic for success. People at the most prestigious universities seem to often have the freedom and luxury to have different priorities and to simply not care as much about money. It seems like even a study asking people about their job satisfaction some number of years later would be better.

The real question is the value of an exclusive education vs the cost of such an education. An extra 100k by graduation requires a huge increase in lifetime earnings to balance it out.

"those who attended the most selective colleges would earn an average of $2.9 million during their careers; those who attended the next most selective colleges would earn $2.8 million; and those who attended all other colleges would average $2.5 million." (Clearly, with those numbers paying for such an education is an net economic loss on average.)

PS: Granted if your getting a free ride then it's not that big a deal. However, the only reason the question shows up is an increase in tuition to the student and or their family.


Did you read the article?

First of all, it's just talking about undergrad - not graduate school. They are different.

Second, the study cited shows that attending a prestigious school does increase earnings, contrary to some misinterpretations in the mainstream media. The article is about how/why the mainstream media misinterpreted/misrepresented the Dale and Kruger study.

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