Thursday, September 09, 2004

The value of the college brand 

Students, as we are often told, work hard to get into the best schools. Yet Gregg Easterbrook wonders is it worth it?
Some students and their parents have always been obsessed with getting into the best colleges, of course. But as a result of rising population, rising affluence, and rising awareness of the value of education, millions of families are now in a state of nervous collapse regarding college admissions. Moreover, although the total number of college applicants keeps increasing, the number of freshman slots at the elite colleges has changed little. Thus competition for elite-college admission has grown ever more cutthroat. Each year more and more bright, qualified high school seniors don't receive the coveted thick envelope from a Gotta-Get-In.

But what if the basis for all this stress and disappointment�the idea that getting into an elite college makes a big difference in life�is wrong? What if it turns out that going to the "highest ranked" school hardly matters at all?

The researchers Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale began investigating this question, and in 1999 produced a study that dropped a bomb on the notion of elite-college attendance as essential to success later in life.
The bomb, which is this paper (well, that's the summary -- the real paper is here in an earlier form for free and published here for subscribers of the Quarterly Journal of Economics 2002), is that it matters much more where you applied than where you actually attended. The implication, of course, is that success in later life is more correlated with the things you brought to college than the things you brought out of it. As Easterbrook points out, the results aren't clear-cut. It may be that working around smarter students makes one work harder, a "peer effect". And colleges will always sell the value of their alumni networks, which might have value separate from the value added by professors. But Easterbrook is worried that students are too stressed out about admissions.

It's understandable that so many high schoolers and their nervous parents are preoccupied with the idea of getting into an elite college. The teen years are a series of tests: of scholastic success, of fitting in, of prowess at throwing and catching balls, of skill at pleasing adults. These tests seem to culminate in a be-all-and-end-all judgment about the first eighteen years of a person's life, and that judgment is made by college admissions officers. ...

Surely it is impossible to do away with the trials of the college-application process altogether. But college admissions would be less nerve-racking, and hang less ominously over the high school years, if it were better understood that a large number of colleges and universities can now provide students with an excellent education, sending them onward to healthy incomes and appealing careers.

I am sure I've plugged this several times but it bears repeating -- parents need to be involved in these decisions, and they need to become informed of what the choices are and what really matters in choosing where their children will attend college. Here's an online book by Thomas Sowell on the subject, and here's ISI's Choosing the Right College.

(Hat tip for Easterbrook link: Orin Kerr.)