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Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Review: The Years that Matter Most - How College Makes or Breaks Us

In recent years it's been fashionable in Silicon Valley to denigrate the value of a college education. The Years that Matter Most isn't just a book that argues that yes, college has value. It also explores the difficulty the mostly private college system have in balancing revenue, fairness, prestige, and offering a leg up to the underprivileged. As I read the book, I found myself highlighting page after page of fantastic data:
High-prestige colleges do pay off for the students who attend them, and in fact they pay off in a big way. According to Hoxby’s data, if you attend a highly selective college where incoming freshmen have average SAT scores above about 1400 on a 1600-point scale (or about 30 on the ACT), your future lifetime earnings are likely to be more than $7 million—and that’s about $2 million more than you’ll earn if you take the identical skill set to a nonselective college. If you attend an even more elite college—one with average incoming SAT scores cresting 1500 (33 on the ACT)—the extra value that particular college will contribute to your lifetime earnings, on average, will be even higher, approaching a bonus of $3 million. (pg 34)
 Average-selectivity colleges spend between about $10,000 and $20,000 per student per year. The higher you climb on the rungs of the selectivity ladder, the faster institutional spending rises. Schools with a 1400 median incoming SAT score (like the University of Maryland) spend about $100,000 educating each student each year, and schools with a 1500 SAT score (like Washington University) spend about $150,000—far more than they charge in tuition. (pg. 35)
The school’s take soon hit $7 billion, and then $8 billion, and then $9 billion. Harvard’s fundraisers were operating at this point a little like the cartoon character Scrooge McDuck, searching desperately for a spare corner in the giant money bin in which to stash the latest billion. “We’re running out of professors to be endowed,” one fundraiser told Harvard’s student newspaper, the Crimson. When the five-year campaign concluded in the summer of 2018, the total haul was announced: $9.6 billion. And as Harvard grew steadily richer, so did its freshman classes. The Crimson surveys Harvard’s incoming freshmen each year, and its surveys from 2013 to 2017 showed that each new class was slightly more affluent than the previous one. In 2013, 15 percent of Harvard’s incoming freshman class came from families with incomes under $40,000, and 14 percent came from the families in the wealthiest category, those with incomes over $500,000. Four years later, the proportion of the incoming class from the under-$40,000 cohort had fallen to 12 percent, while 17 percent of freshmen now came from the ultra-affluent group. (pg. 37) 
So it makes far more economic sense to go to a higher university than to a lower tier one.  They simply are far better values!  The book discusses the SAT and describes the situation today: SAT scores tend to favor the privileged, who have access to test preparation, and whose SAT scores tend to be higher than their high school GPA would predict.

What about admissions for blacks. What's impressive is that all the Ivy league schools have gotten together and colluded on an "acceptable percentage" of black students admitted, about 8%.
Shaun Harper, executive director of the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California, made a rather dramatic charge. He suggested that Ivy League colleges were essentially colluding with one another to keep their black student populations at exactly the same level. “It’s just too much of a coincidence,” Harper said in his NACAC speech. “You mean to tell me that the exact same number of black folks applied to Dartmouth and to Stanford and to MIT and to Yale and to Princeton, and they all landed at the same place in terms of their enrollment? It just seems to me that there has been some determination about how many black students are worthy of admission to these institutions. It’s just too similar.” At this litigious moment in the history of affirmative action, admissions officers at those colleges would be anxious to assure you that they do not collude, especially on matters of admissions and race. But when you look at the data, it is hard to refute Harper’s point. The numbers really are startlingly consistent. About 15 percent of American high school graduates are black, according to the federal education department. But Princeton’s student body is 8 percent black. Cornell’s is 8 percent black. Brown’s is 8 percent black. Yale’s is 8 percent black. Harvard’s is 8 percent black. The pattern is hard to miss. (pg. 123)
What's impressive, however, is that even that level of collusion isn't sufficient.  The sub-population of the black students admitted is also skewed towards a particular demographic, that of first and second-generation immigrants:
Nationally, somewhere between 9 and 13 percent of the total population of black American eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds are immigrants or the children of immigrants. But at the highly selective colleges that Massey surveyed, 27 percent of black students were immigrants or the children of immigrants. At Ivy League colleges, the figure was 41 percent. (pg. 122)
This reason for this skewing is fairly obvious:
students descended from voluntary immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean are more likely to have attended private school than students descended from Africans brought to the United States in slavery. They are more likely to come from intact two-parent households. Their fathers are much more likely to have graduated from college and to hold an advanced degree. And their SAT scores are, on average, more than fifty points higher. Admitting those students, instead of students like KiKi, solves two problems at once for Princeton’s admissions department. Princeton can hit its 8 percent black-student target (if, indeed, it does have a target), while still admitting students who, in every way but their race, have backgrounds a lot like the rest of Princeton’s student body. (pg. 125)
So those places that were taken away from say, Asian applicants and given to black students aren't even going to the under-privileged. They're going to people every bit as privileged (or even more privileged) as the Asians who were rejected.

The book also goes into great lengths with regards to what happens when students graduated and how the recruiting from the high paying jobs on Wall Street and consulting firms went:
The criterion they chose for this second screen was surprising to Rivera. It wasn’t college GPA. It wasn’t relevant work experience. It was the extracurricular activities, especially athletics, that candidates pursued in high school and in college. Students who merely studied hard and learned a lot—like the Doubly Disadvantaged students who told Tony Jack that the responsible thing to do in college was focus on “the work”—were seen by recruiters as “bookworms” or “nerds” and frequently passed over....Recruiters were mostly unimpressed by students who took part, even at a high level, in easily accessible sports like wrestling or basketball or soccer. Instead, they preferred candidates who played sports with a high barrier to entry, either because of specialized equipment or expensive club fees or both—sports like lacrosse, field hockey, tennis, squash, and rowing. Of course, these sports, as Rivera notes, are played almost exclusively by rich and upper-middle-class white kids. They generally require a serious commitment in time and money, not just from students but from parents as well, often beginning in middle school or even earlier. This created a system that was apparently open and meritocratic but that actually strongly favored young people from high socioeconomic backgrounds and eliminated the rest from consideration...“less affluent students are more likely to enter campus with the belief that it is achievement in the classroom rather than on the field or in the concert hall that matters for future success, and they tend to focus their energies accordingly.” They still believed in “the work,” in other words, in the version of the American meritocracy they had been taught as children to respect and put their faith in. And their chances to land a lucrative job after college suffered as a result. (pg. 140-142)
I've always wondered about the prevalence of sports like lacrosse at the elite universities. Now I no longer wonder.  It's a class/status signifier.

Are universities then cursed to maintain the status quo and make the rich richer? Tough has one big idea in this book, which is to eliminate the use of tests like SAT and rely more on high school GPA. Even more interestingly, he points to the UT system as one that actually created more diversity:
Despite fears among some on the left that the Fifth Circuit’s decision would put an end to diversity at UT Austin, the introduction of the Top 10 Percent Rule actually made the campus more diverse than it had been under race-based affirmative action. And the university’s new diversity was not just racial. In the decade after the law went into effect, minority enrollment at UT did increase, but at the same time, so did enrollment from rural communities and from schools statewide with high-poverty populations. Meanwhile, enrollment went down among students from suburban schools and from “feeder” schools that had, in the past, sent a lot of students to UT Austin. In 1996, before the Top 10 Percent Rule, the university admitted students from fewer than seven hundred different Texas high schools; by 2007, UT was admitting students from more than nine hundred high schools across the state. (pg. 207)
The book ends by comparing the rise of free public high schools and what could be free public colleges by shifting the lens with which we view higher education:
There is plenty of evidence that Americans believe in the transformative power of education just as much as they did a century ago. What is different today is that we tend to consider that transformation in individual terms rather than collective ones. Over the last few decades, we have come to think of higher education principally as a competitive marketplace, one where our natural goal is to get the best that we can for ourselves or our children or our institution, even at the expense of others. When college educations are redefined as private goods, rather than public ones, the fact that they are so unequally distributed seems less jarring. Not everyone gets a big house or a sports car; not everyone gets a high-quality college education. But at other moments in our nation’s history, including the period of the high school movement and the GI Bill era, Americans have thought about the education of our young people very differently. And so we made decisions about higher education that promoted equality and shared mobility over competition and the hoarding of opportunity. (pg. 328)
As a parent of kids who hopefully will one day be college bound, I consider this book excellent reading.If you're a tiger parent (or maybe even if you're not), the book has a great list of sports that your kids should engage in, and a big explanation of why rich parents spend huge sums of money on college prep schools --- it's not just about academics, it's also about learning how to fit into the incredibly wealthy culture at the elite universities. Highly recommended.

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