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In Defense (Sort Of) Of Harvard

Gregg Easterbrook has an interesting article entitled "Who Needs Harvard?" in the latest Atlantic that suffers, I think, from one serious analytic flaw and also serves as a good jumping-off point for a qualified defense of elite universities against one of the more common lines of attack you see. Both below the fold.

There's a lot of stuff in the article, but the core data is easily summarized here:

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. Krueger, a Princeton economist, and Dale, affiliated with the Andrew Mellon Foundation, began by comparing students who entered Ivy League and similar schools in 1976 with students who entered less prestigious colleges the same year. They found, for instance, that by 1995 Yale graduates were earning 30 percent more than Tulane graduates, which seemed to support the assumption that attending an elite college smoothes one's path in life.

But maybe the kids who got into Yale were simply more talented or hardworking than those who got into Tulane. To adjust for this, Krueger and Dale studied what happened to students who were accepted at an Ivy or a similar institution, but chose instead to attend a less sexy, "moderately selective" school. It turned out that such students had, on average, the same income twenty years later as graduates of the elite colleges. Krueger and Dale found that for students bright enough to win admission to a top school, later income "varied little, no matter which type of college they attended." In other words, the student, not the school, was responsible for the success.

Interesting stuff. After adding on a bunch of padding along with some discussion of why this might be the case and why it might not have been the case in the past, Easterbrook reaches his flawed conclusion:
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. Harvard is marvelous, but you don't have to go there to get your foot in the door of life.
The point here is that you shouldn't worry so much about whether or not you (or your child) gets in to Harvard (or some other elite school, I'll just use "Harvard" as shorthand from now, like Easterbrook, on with no slight intended to those who were admitted to other highly selective institutions). The proper conclusion to draw from the Krueger and Dale data, however, is rather different. Their research indicates that there may be no good reason to attend Harvard if you can, as will usually be the case, get a more attractive financial aid package from a less selective school or else simply find a lower tuition at a public university. Their research most emphatically does not support the conclusion that whether or not you can get admitted to a highly selective college matters. On the contrary, the research indicates that the methods used by the admissions officers at these schools are rather good at identifying persons who are likely to achieve high incomes later in life. Going to Harvard, then, may have no particular value, but it's still of a great deal of interest to you whether or not you.

Now this is an interesting conclusion, because one of the more common lines of attack we Harvard graduates receive is the notion that we are disproportionately represented within the ranks of the American elite not for reasons of merit, but because of some kind of nefarious networking we do. Now this may well be the case in certain micro-domains of American life (Harvard-derived connections certainly seem to have been an important factor in securing employment at The Atlantic for many low-level staffers there of my acquaintance), but the Krueger & Dale data suggests that, on the whole, this is not the case. Rather, Harvard graduates are disproportionately represented in the American elite because Harvard graduates are, by definition, people who were accepted to Harvard, and people who were accepted tend, whether or not they actually attend school there, to be successful. So nothing particularly nefarious is going on.

Now this is only a qualified defense, because a real defender of Harvard would presumably want to say that the success enjoyed by the school's graduates has something to do with the quality of the education being provided. The Kruger & Dale data indicates that this is not the case. Harvard's admissions department does a very good job of selecting students from a wide applicant pool, but the faculty does no better at educating the students than does the faculty at any number of less-selective institutions. There is, perhaps, nothing especially surprising about this when one considers that teaching ability is not a factor in hiring decisions at highly-selective universities which, ex ante, should make one suspicious of the notion that the professors there are particularly good at teaching. Were it to turn out that the quality of the research being done at top research universities was no better than the research being done at less distinguished institutions (and perhaps it does turn out this way, I have no idea), then one would need to conclude that something had gone seriously wrong. That Harvard's teaching isn't particularly good simply reflects the fact that Harvard doesn't try to hire particularly good teachers -- they do try to find particularly good students and, apparently, they find them.

So . . . should you go to Harvard? Apparently not. It's not an especially fun place to spend your time and the weather's terrible. Plus, it's expensive -- even if your family can afford it, if this information is to be believed they'd be better off just giving you the cash and putting it in an IRA or something.

September 7, 2004 | Permalink

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