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.



  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’s Up with U.S. Public Education?

*I wrote this a while ago, but didn’t publish. I was on vacation–sue me. I know the internet has the attention span of a five-year-old, and people aren’t really talking about DeVos anymore, but I’m hoping this is still interesting to someone.

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education was perhaps the hardest-won victory of President Trump’s nascent administration. Opposition to the DeVos ran deep enough to require Vice President Pence to cast a historic tie-breaking vote.

To hear it from those on the Left, DeVos is uniquely unqualified for the position. Her lack of personal experience with the public school system, coupled with her one-sided approach to education and purported ignorance of education policy make her unsuited to the position, they argue.

On the Right, the response has been to call into question the political motivations behind opposition to DeVos. Teachers’ unions, after all, are some of the biggest spenders in U.S. politics and their economic interests are threatened by the kind of reforms DeVos’ appointment might foreshadow.

It’s hard to know if either or both sides are being overly cynical. I don’t pretend to have any deep knowledge of DeVos or her new mantle. But one thing seems empirically true: the status quo of public education isn’t above reproach.

More Money, Same (Math, Science, Literacy) Problems

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), per pupil spending on public education has increased roughly 1.7% annually since 1980. Student performance, however, has largely stagnated over the same period by various metrics. To somewhat immodestly quote myself:

The statistics are damning: Literacy rates among 17-year-old Americans peaked in 1971. Standardized testing reveals that math scores peaked in 1986. Test scores show a lack of improvement in math, science, and reading, in which respectively 25%, 22%, and 37% of American students are proficient.

This kind of stagnation isn’t typical among other nations; the United States showed much smaller levels of inter-generational improvement than other OECD nations. Up until about 1975, Americans were scoring significantly higher in math and literacy than Americans born before them. Since 1975, scores have plateaued, even adjusting for race and foreign-born status of students. As [Gallup’s] study states, this implicates the entire US school system.

Test scores aren’t the only indicators of educational dysfunction. Fully 60% of first-year college students need to take remedial courses in either math or English (to be fair, you might attribute this in part to college admission policies). Companies are also reporting longer vacancies for STEM positions and increasingly are forced to delay projects or look outside the U.S. for workers.

To be clear, it’s not that US public schools are producing particularly terrible outcomes (though they’re admittedly middling among the developed world). The real problem is spending on public education is becoming increasingly inefficient; we’re putting more and more resources into it and receiving little or no additional benefit. This is a long-term trend that should be addressed immediately to avoid throwing good money after bad.

In fairness, I have to point out that speaking of public schools in national terms risks obscuring that some public schools–usually found in high-income neighborhoods–perform incredibly well. However, unequal educational outcomes are often considered a bug, rather than a feature, of the public school system, which charter schools have in some cases been able to address with varying degrees of success (though there are charges that this is only possible because charters are given greater latitude in selecting their students).

The Status Quo Is Hard on Teachers, Too

There is a perception among some that public school teachers are profiting hand over fist as a result of teachers’ unions, to the expense of students. But the truth is a little more complicated.

On one hand, strong teachers’ unions have engendered some policies that arguably favor educators over students. Teacher firing rates, for example, are extremely low. This is especially true for tenured teachers, of which an average of 0.2 are dismissed per district for poor performance annually, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

This is made possible (at least in part) by what effectively amounts to state-sanctioned local monopolies on education. Constraints on demand impede normal market mechanisms from weeding out inefficient suppliers (at least, that’s the theory embraced by school choice advocates). This isn’t illogical, and it explains the somewhat rare rift between black parents and the Democratic party line on school choice.

Consider a thought experiment: Imagine families were forced to shop for food only in their own neighborhoods. What might we expect to happen to the quality of food consumed by people in poor areas? What if we put limits on the amount of new stores that could open?

In this light, it might be accurate to say that policies that require students to attend schools in their district prioritize the school system over the scholars.

On the other hand, a lot of teachers are being harmed by the current system–particularly the young and good ones.

Under current agreements, teacher compensation rates are in large part determined by longevity, both within the profession and teaching district. Young teachers–especially women teaching young children–are often underpaid relative to other professions.

Source: No Recovery, Gallup 2016

Additionally, collective bargaining agreements have led to pay compression (a narrowing of the pay gap between high and low performers) among teachers, which penalizes high performing teachers and benefits low performing teachers. Correspondingly, there has been a detectable decline in standardized test scores of new teachers since the 1960s.¹

The combination of longevity-driven pay and salary compression has made teaching a less attractive profession for the best candidates, who can earn more in other comparable fields. A 2014 survey by the American Federation of Teachers revealed merely 15% of teachers report high levels of enthusiasm about their profession, despite 89% feeling highly enthusiastic at the beginning of their careers.


What might we say about an education system that grows increasingly expensive without improvement for students or teachers? We might say that it needs work and we should be open to new ideas, in whatever form they might come. It might also be wise to proceed with caution; for better or worse, this is the system we have right now.

I don’t know if Mrs. DeVos’ agenda will result in improvements. The divergent problems of climbing spending and poor teacher incentive could prove difficult to address simultaneously, especially in the current political climate. But we should all remember the true goal of an education system–public, private, or somewhere in between–is to efficiently increase human capital. How that happens should be of secondary concern.

  1. The study I cited found these results to be true only among female teachers. For some reason, scores of incoming male teachers improved slightly over this period. If anyone has any theories as to why this might be, I’d love to hear them.

Smith College Protests: Beneath Outrage, Statistical Confusion

Two leaked letters between staff and administrators at the Smith College School for Social Work have led to mass student protests of perceived institutional racism.

Professors alleged that admissions staff were doing a disservice–particularly to minority students–by admitting unprepared students to the program, despite “overwhelming data that demonstrates that many…students, including white­-identified students, cannot offer clients a social work intervention that is based upon competence, skills and ethics.”

The unnamed source of the leak, as well as students, took umbrage over some of the terminology and implications of the letters, citing “violent, racist rhetoric.”

Protests at Smith College are somewhat of a perennial occurrence, but this case is particularly interesting because it deals in part with matters that can be verified through existing data. Moreover, arguments from the students present good opportunities to debunk common fallacious assumptions and underscore the importance of viewing statistics in proper context.

The first such assumption is that members of differing groups should be expected to achieve similar results and outside factors are to blame when this isn’t the case.

Contemporary politics are inundated with references to various forms of inequality. Why would we expect that there would be huge differences across people of varying (ethnic) groups except when it comes to academic performance? Indeed, racial achievement gaps are a widely acknowledged phenomenon.

For this reason, student Chris Watkins’ statement that a “disproportionate amount of black and Latino students” are under review, which can endanger their chances of graduation, isn’t enough to indicate racism. There’s no reason to assume that black and Latin students as a group would do as well as whites or Asians besides that we might find it ideologically appealing.

The second assumption is that multivariate groups of people can be divided neatly by single variables. Speaking of black, Latino, and white students assumes that the students that fall into these categories share all other variables that might affect educational performance.

Students could just as easily be separated by family income or some other variable that correlates to academic success. We wouldn’t expect black students from poor, single-parent households and upper class black students whose parents are Ivy League alumni to succeed at the same rates, even though both are black. Any discussion of racial outcomes that doesn’t take other factors into account is too blunt to deserve much weight.

Even if racism were a factor in determining which students are put on review, as Watkins seems to allege, the proportion of students on review by race wouldn’t tell us that, which brings me to my third point: Gross statistics are easily digestible, but can rarely be trusted to convey the nuances of a situation. Discrimination could be inferred statistically, but Watkins is looking in the wrong place for evidence.

In 1991 the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that after adjusting for several factors, blacks loan applicants were rejected about 17% of the time, compared with 11% for white applicants. The Boston FED felt that this was enough to infer racial discrimination on the part of lenders, which confirmed an existing belief held by the researcher.

It was only later that a writer at Forbes pointed out that racial discrimination would be evidenced not in the percentage of rejected applicants, but in the default rates of the borrowers. Lower rates of default among black borrowers would indicate that their applications were being held to tighter standards than comparable white applications. Since black and white default rates were even, it appeared that race was not a deciding factor in the lenders’ decision-making process.

We can apply the same logic to this accusation of faculty racism at Smith College. It’s not enough to demonstrate that a higher proportion of black and Latino students are placed under review; we need to know they’re outperforming white students who are also placed on review, or inversely, if among students not under review whites had a lower GPA than black and Latino students.

Similarly, we can evaluate the complaints of Professor Dennis Miehls and the “Concerned Adjuncts.”

If, as the letters from staff seem to imply, unqualified students were being admitted because of an administrative predilection for non-academic qualities,[1] we would probably find some evidence of that in the incoming GPAs (or other metric of gauging academic preparedness) of students under review relative to their successful peers. Since the Smith College MSW program doesn’t require applicants to take a GRE, work experience, undergraduate GPA, and SAT scores might be the best such indicators.

In a school so often embattled by protests and accusations of racism, students and faculty should take this chance to quantitatively assess whether or not racism is affecting the performance of minority students on campus. With any luck, someone with access to the right data will perform a competent analysis.

[1] It would hardly be the first time a university admitted based on preferential characteristics that had nothing to do with academic success. Among students admitted to medical schools between 2013 and 2016, black and Latino students have lower median GPAs and MCAT scores than white applicants, who are similarly behind Asian applicants. Among applicants with comparable MCAT and GPAs, black and Latino students are far more likely to be accepted, indicating an admissions preference.