What Colleges Sell

The recent college-admissions scandal has me, and probably many of you, thinking about the institutional power of elite colleges. It’s remarkable that even those we would consider society’s “winners” aren’t immune to their pull. Take for example Olivia Giannulli, who is from a wealthy family; has nearly 2 million YouTube followers; owns a successful cosmetics line (pre-scandal, anyway); and whose parents, Laurie Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, allegedly paid $500,000 to get her and her sister accepted to USC.

Why?

The standard line is that the point of college is to learn. Getting into a better school avails one of better information, which translates into more marketable skills—human capital accrual, in economics jargon. The many deficiencies of this view have birthed the somewhat-cynical “signaling theory”: the idea that college degrees serve mainly as signals to employers of positive, pre-existing characteristics like intelligence or attention to detail.

Signalling theory is powerfully convincing, but it doesn’t fully explain the insanity endemic to the elite college scene. There’s more going on at the individual, familial, and societal levels.

First the individual. If the human capital isn’t the point, social capital could be. The student bodies of elite schools are well curated for networking among the intelligent, the wealthy, and what we might call the “legacy crowd”—non-mutually exclusive groups that mutually benefit from this four-year mixer. Who you sit next to in class might matter more than what’s being taught.

Colleges, particularly those of renown, provide a sense of unabashed community that is in short supply elsewhere in American life. If you read universities’ marketing or speak with admissions staff, this is often a selling point. The idea that former classmates and fraternity brothers become a nepotistic social network post-graduation is intuitive, and probably a very compelling reason to attend a particular school.¹

What’s true for the individual is true for the family. Parents want the best for their children, and they know the kinds of doors attending the right school will open. But for parents, there are added elements at stake: self- and peer-appraisal.² That is, as educational attainment has become accepted not only as a means to but validation of social mobility, parents have come to define their success by the institutions their children attend. YouGov polling found that thirty-four percent of parents would pay a college prep organization to take a college admittance test on their child’s behalf. One in four would pay college officials to get their child into a good school.

college bribery 2

I’d bet this is an understatement caused by social-desirability bias.³

Last up, and most interesting, is society at large. Even though most of us won’t attend a very prestigious university, if we attend one at all, the legitimacy of those institutions still rests on our perception. For us to be bought in, we need a culturally acceptable premise for the power enjoyed by Harvard, Yale, and the like—a role that can’t be filled by the networking and status-driven benefits I’ve described so far. This brings us full circle, back to the idea of higher education as a method of information conveyance.

Though the human capital accrual theory of education is probably bunk, most people’s belief in it feels sincere. In my view, this is the confluence of three phenomena: observed correlations between educational attainment and positive outcomes, our cultural commitments to self-sufficiency and equal opportunity, and a mostly unstated but potent desire to manufacture equality of outcomes.

Elite colleges sell these ideas back to us by marketing education as a transformative experience, an extrinsic asset to be wielded. In an unequal society, this is a particularly comforting message, because it implies:

  1. The world works on meritocracy. High-status individuals not only are better than most, they became so through efforts the rest of us can replicate.
  2. We can achieve equality of outcomes with sufficient resources. This has the added bonus of perpetuating the demand for high-end education.

The meritocratic, knowledge-driven higher education model is a product we’re all happy to buy because we like what it says about us. Its violation is disillusioning on a societal level, hence the disproportionate outrage created by scandal involving some 50 students.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to reexamine our relationship with and expectations of the upper echelons of higher education. If we find signaling theory compelling, and I personally do, shouldn’t a society committed to equality of opportunity and social mobility seek to marginalize, rather than fetishize, the institutional power of these universities?

Somewhat more darkly, we should ask ourselves if our belief in the transformative power of education might not be the product of our collective willing ignorance—a noble lie we tell ourselves to avoid confronting problems to which we have few or no solutions. If pre-existing traits—innate intelligence, social connections, wealth, and others—most accurately explain one’s success, what of the increasingly selective institutions that facilitate their convergence?

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Footnotes:

  1. Though I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal claims to this effect (including from an admissions officer during a grad school interview), I don’t have any hard proof. If one of you knows of a such a study, point me in the right direction.
  2. I just wanted to note that this feels very in line with the general trend of wealthier people having fewer children but spending an enormous amount of resources to give them even very marginal advantages.
  3. This is when people respond to polls in the ways they think are more likely to be viewed favorably by others. Basically, people under-report bad behavior (maybe using drugs or committing crimes) and over-report good behavior (like voting).

The Kids Are All Right: Follow-up

My post on the relationship between ideology and fertility rates generated some great feedback and critiques (albeit mostly on a Facebook thread). Sadly, none of this was related to the awesome pun in the title of the piece. (Seriously, no love for “The Kids Are All Right”?)

Well, life goes on.

In light of the interest in the subject, I’ve decided to do a quick follow-up piece to address some readers’ questions and adding a bit of information, particularly as relates to this graph from the original post:

Conservative have more kids

1. Are there more people on the political left?

A couple people asked about the ideological composition of the nation and the sample I used. This is an important question, because if the political right makes up a small enough minority of the population or sample, then my graph, which shows the average number of children per respondents of different ideologies but doesn’t convey sample sizes, is a bit misleading—or at least less compelling. So my fault for not going into it in the first place.

Per the most recent polling by Gallup, The American electorate identifies as roughly 26% liberal, 35% moderate, and 35% conservative. This is after two decades of a slow, steady increase in the percentage of Americans calling themselves “liberal.” More on that later.

The sample I pulled from the General Social Survey (GSS) reflects Gallup’s national numbers pretty well: out of the total 8,539 respondents sampled, 2,346 (27.47%) identified as some degree of liberal, 3,285 (38.47%) as moderate, and 2,908 (34.50%) as some degree of conservative.

sample distribution

2. Are there more women on the political left?

I believe this question is getting at the same idea: if the majority of women are left of moderate, then the higher fertility of women on the right is less consequential for the electorate. According to Gallup’s national numbers, 30% of women identify as liberals—the same percentage as call themselves conservatives. For men, those numbers are notably different: 40% and 21%, respectively.

The sample I used showed more gender parity in ideologies, but it’s not hugely off. At any rate, the important thing is that the elevated fertility rates of conservative women can’t be written off as the effect of a small sample size.

men and women political ideologies

3. But the population has been getting more liberal. Doesn’t that kind of throw a wrench in this narrative?

Only time will tell, I suppose! To be clear, this is how many people read the tea leaves, and the story I’m telling is a bit of heterodoxy. While I can’t offer a firm answer to this question now, I have a few remarks:

  • The past is no guarantee of the future. (Ask GE shareholders, amirite?) Just because the electorate has been getting more liberal doesn’t mean it will continue to.
  • I suspect the secular trend toward liberalization is as influenced by macroeconomics and sociological factors as it is individual characteristics and experiences. The question is, what will be the effects of today’s macroeconomic and sociological upheaval on future voters—or their children?
  • Relatedly, I think time horizon matters a great deal when evaluating whether or not the future looks liberal or conservative. This is theory on my part, but maybe populations naturally move to the right over the long term (because conservatives reproduce more) unless cultural forces pulling leftward—economic globalization?—are sufficiently strong and sustained.
  • Finally, I think it’s worth noting that America’s liberal ranks are mostly swelling at the expense of its moderate contingent, perhaps due to increasing political polarization.

americans becoming more liberal
America has been getting more liberal at the expense of its moderate contingent

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There were a few questions brought up to which I don’t have good answers at the moment. Without promising when, if at all, to address them—I’ve learned not to make firm commitments relating to this fine blog—here are two excellent threads I should follow:

  • Does completing various life milestones (having children, buying a house, getting married) make people more conservative? There must be some longitudinal studies on this somewhere…
  • To what extent do children’s political views match their parents’, and is there symmetry between liberals and conservatives in this regard? (I linked to one study by Gallup in the last post that suggested a 70% match between parents and their children, but there’s probably a lot more work on this out there.)

The Kids Are All Right

A notion that’s become somewhat common among the left in recent years is that American conservatives are demographically doomed. Very often, this is discussed in terms of race and age—an allusion to the declining share of the non-Hispanic white American population and the accompanying erosion of its political sway, as well as the fact that conservatives tend to be older.

On its face, this seems like a tidy theory. But under the surface, I think it’s a great deal more complicated than the (sometimes wishful) theorizing of liberal pundits allows.

First, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the American concept of race, whiteness in particular, is a moving target. I think there’s a solid chance it will look quite a bit different in a couple of decades. But a more interesting foil, I think, to the liberals-own-tomorrow theory manifests itself in fertility rates.

People are having fewer children the rich world over, causing consternation among governments of countries whose economic futures depend on population growth. The political implications of this alone are fascinating, but the general trend obscures another interesting story: the intranational ideological disparity in fertility.

Liberals, it appears, are having fewer children than their conservative counterparts. Combing through General Social Survey (GSS) results from the last 10 years provides a clear view of this phenomenon. Among heterosexual men between the ages of 35 and 50, those who identify as “extremely liberal” had on average 1.79 children, whereas those describing themselves as “extremely conservative” had 2.43. For women, the difference was even starker: “extremely liberal” women had 1.69 on average to “extremely conservative” women’s 2.63.

Conservative have more kids

Many factors contribute to this disparity—most of which concern liberal women’s increased preferences for family planning. Anecdotally, liberals are later to marry, more likely to pursue advanced degrees, less religious, and, among women, more likely to pursue careers—the confluence of which makes for fewer babies. This trend seems to have gotten stronger over the past few decades.

Widening Child Gap
Note: Data for this graph are inclusive of all respondents 18 and older, meaning there’s probably some bias toward conservatives having more children, as they tend to be older. It’s also possible that causality flows both ways: having families might make people more conservative.

All this is significant because there’s at least some evidence that, most of the time, children end up inheriting their parents’ political views. This makes sense whether you view political ideology as a product of nature—differences in brain structure that give some a proclivity for novelty and others an aversion to risk—or nurture. Either way, if liberals are bearing and raising fewer children, it could mean fewer liberal adults down the line.

There are a few signs this might already be happening. One study found that after decades of decline, high school students’ support for traditional gender roles in the family has been rising steadily since 1994. Goldman Sachs pegs the ascendant Generation Z as especially fiscally conservative. Finally, a survey by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation of 50,000 14 – 18-year-olds found—shockingly, in my view—that the majority identified as Republicans and would support Donald Trump in the 2016 election. (An important caveat to this survey was that nearly a third of those polled would have declined to vote, had they been able.)

The policy preferences of an increasingly conservative nation are one thing—and obviously ideology colors one’s assessment of how good or bad that would be. But what really worries me is the thought of an even more politically segmented society; one in which an increasingly liberal minority of elites maintains control of the nation’s cultural power centers and an increasingly conservative majority grows frustrated with its obsolescence in the new economy, which, intentionally or not, places a premium on educational attainment, city-living, and delayed entry into family life.

Whether it comes to pass or not, we shall see.

Sex!

Now that I have your attention

A week or two ago, the Atlantic published a great article by Kate Julian about the declining rates of sexual activity in young Americans. This was a bit of serendipity, as I’d recently been digging through the General Social Survey (GSS) searching for evidence of the same trend.

Looking at 18- to 35-year-old respondents—segmented by race and sex and without adjusting for other factors—I found that, loosely speaking, almost all demographic groups seemed to be experiencing a slight increase in celibacy.

No Sex
Note: In 2012, respondents from almost all groups reported nearly zero instances of sexlessness in the last year. I chalked it up to an outlier year and left it off to (hopefully) lend more accuracy to the trend lines.

This is rather surprising, given societal and technological developments over the last 30 years. To paraphrase Ms Julian’s opener: Sexual mores have greatly relaxed. Birth control and other forms of contraception are ubiquitous and affordable. Dating apps make it easier than ever to link supply and demand.

The stage seems set for a hedonistic revolution, but that’s not what we’re seeing.

Some factors implicated by her reporting include the over-scheduling of young adults, helicopter parenting, bad sex that leaves them (particularly young women) hesitant to come back for more, and increased inhibition among Millennials of both sexes.

But what interests me most is how the decline in sexual activity is partly due to a rise in anti-social behavior brought on by technology—a retreat from the interpersonal “meatworld” to bespoke pornography, sexting, and often fruitless screen-swiping. A feedback loop forms: The rarefication of in-person courtship has rendered it overly forward, which leaves less opportunity for young people to develop the social skills necessary to meet partners without the aid of an app.

I’ve never considered myself a Luddite; as recently as a few months ago, I was praising the internet for making “it easier than ever for people to exchange ideas.” But I have to admit I’m finding myself increasingly disillusioned by technology of the social media variety. Insofar as its mission is to bring people together, it seems to be failing.

Perhaps I’m growing cynical and dismal in my old age. Or—more likely “and”—perhaps there’s no suitable substitute for IRL socialization, and our quest for online community-building is inherently quixotic.

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P.S. I looked into sexual activity frequencies for respondents ages 18 through 22 since the GSS started including the question in 1989, looking for changes in the college-age population. It’s not much, but it’s a bit interesting, so I’m including it here.

18-22 sex