What Colleges Sell (continued)

I’m obviously not one to prioritize quantity when it comes to writing. Counting this one, I’ve written four blog posts this year — not great for a guy whose New Year’s resolution set the pace at two per month. Even less so when you consider that half of them have now been follow-up posts.

However, there was some interesting Facebook discussion on my last post that I felt merited some elucidation here, where those who don’t follow me on social media can digest it. (I won’t ask anyone to follow on social, but to those of you who are here via social media, you should subscribe to get these posts by email.) I’m also working on something else that’s a bit involved, and I thought this would be a good stopgap.

As loyal readers are aware, my last post touched on the college-admissions scandal and the cultural legwork being done by our vision of education as a transformative asset.

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.

An observation I couldn’t figure out how to work in is that getting into elite colleges seems by far the hardest part of graduating from them. Admissions is, after all, the part of the process the accused parents were cheating, and to my knowledge, none of the students involved were in danger of failing out, despite having been let in under false pretense.

The low bar for good grades at elite colleges, the “Harvard A,”¹ is so widely acknowledged that to call it an open secret would be misleading.² Stuart Rojstaczer, the author of gradeinflation.com documents two distinct periods of grade inflation in the last 50 years: the Vietnam War era, in which men who flunked out would likely be sent off to fight an unpopular war, and the “Student as a Consumer” era of today.

The transition to the latter has meant a change in teaching philosophy and an increased centrality of the admissions process. On his website, Mr Rojstaczer quotes a former University of Wisconsin Chancellor as saying, “Today, our attitude is we do our screening of students at the time of admission. Once students have been admitted, we have said to them, ‘You have what it takes to succeed.’ Then it’s our job to help them succeed.” (Emphasis mine.)

This is consistent with my not-so-between-the-lines theorizing that the later-in-life achievements of elite colleges grads are mostly attributable to selection effects, not education. It turns out this was studied by Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale, who found salary differences between elite college graduates and those who applied to elite schools but didn’t attend were “generally indistinguishable from zero.”

Of course, this is kind of depressing, because if good schools don’t make “winners,” but rather attract and rebrand them, then it’s a lot easier to attribute their graduates’ success to factors that are not only beyond their control but for which there are likely no or few policy levers — genetics, culture, family structure, and others.

I think this is an unwelcome conclusion to the point that even incontrovertible evidence — whatever that would look like — would be ignored or stigmatized by polite society. Most people probably agree that public policy should keep away from these areas of life.³

Regardless, I think we should be more honest with ourselves about our obsession with elite schools and our expectations of education more generally.

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Footnotes:

  1. In case you don’t feel like clicking the link: In 2013, Harvard’s dean revealed the median grade awarded at the school to be an A-, while the most common grade given was a straight A.
  2. Though apparently to a lesser degree, this has been the case at four-year colleges across the board, not just top-tier private ones.
  3. Then again, maybe they don’t. A recent survey of over 400 US adults found “nontrivial” levels of support for eugenic policies among the public, increasing with the belief that various traits — intelligence, poverty, and criminality — are heritable and also associated with attitudes held by the respondent about the group in question. The questions in the study were framed as support for policies that would encourage or discourage people with particular traits to have more or fewer children. (If you have 10 minutes, read the study, freely accessible at slatestarcodex. Also good: Scott Alexander’s piece on social censorship, in which the aforementioned paper is linked.)

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).

Ben Carson’s Tragically Mundane Scandal

Whatever else it might accomplish, President Donald Trump’s administration has surely earned its place in history for laying to rest the myth of Republican fiscal prudence. Be they the tax dollars of today’s citizens or tomorrow’s, high ranking officials within Mr. Trump’s White House seem to have no qualms about spending them.

The latest in a long series of questionable expenses is, of course, none other than Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s now infamous $31,000 dining set, first reported on by the New York Times.¹ Since the Times broke the story, Mr. Carson has attempted to cancel the order, having come under public scrutiny for what many understandably deem to be an overly lavish expenditure on the public dime.

At first blush, Secretary Mr. Carson’s act is egregious. As the head of HUD, he has a proposed $41 billion of taxpayer money at his disposal. Such frivolous and seemingly self-aggrandizing spending undermines public trust in his ability to use taxpayer funds wisely and invites accusations of corruption. It certainly doesn’t help the narrative that, as some liberals have noted with derision, this scandal coincides with the proposal of significant cuts to the department’s budget.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m puzzled as to why people are so worked up about this.

Let me be clear: this certainly isn’t a good look for the Secretary of an anti-poverty department with a shrinking budget, and it’s justifiable that people are irritated. At a little more than half the median annual wage, most of us would consider $31,000 an absurd sum to spend on dining room furniture. The money that pays for it does indeed come from private citizens who would probably have chosen not to buy Mr. Carson a new dining room with it.

And yet, in the realm of government waste, that amount is practically nothing.
Government has a long, and occasionally humorous, history of odd and inefficient spending.

Sometimes, it can fly under the radar simply by virtue of being bizarre. Last year, for example, the federal government spent $30,000 in the form of a National Endowment for the Arts grant to recreate William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” – with a cast of dogs. Other times, the purchase at hand is too unfamiliar to the public to spark outrage. In 2016, the federal government spent $1.04 billion expanding trolley service a grand total of 10.92 miles in San Diego: an average cost of $100 million per mile.

Both of those put Mr. Carson’s $31,000 dining set in a bit of perspective. It is neither as ridiculous as the play nor as great in magnitude as the trolley. So why didn’t either of those incidents receive the kind of public ire he is contending with now?

The mundanity of Mr. Carson’s purchase probably hurts him in this regard. Not many of us feel informed enough to opine on the kind of money one should spend building ten miles of trolley track, but most of us have bought a chair or table. That reference point puts things in perspective and allows room for an emotional response. It’s also likely this outrage is more than a little tied to the President’s unpopularity.

Ironically, the relatively small amount of money spent might also contribute to this effect. When amounts get large enough, like a billion dollars, we tend to lose perspective – what’s a couple million here or there? But $31,000 is an amount we can conceptualize.

So it’s possible that we’re blowing this a little out of proportion for forces that are more emotional than logical. But I still think the issue is a legitimate one that deserves more public attention than it usually gets, and it would be interesting if the public were able to apply this kind of pressure to other instances of goofy spending. Here’s hoping, anyway.

A version of this article originally appeared on Merion West

1. I wrote this article the day before word broke that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke had spent $139,000 upgrading the department’s doors.