Elite degree doesn’t matter for STEM grads

Graduating from an elite college doesn’t boost earnings for science, math and engineering graduates, conclude Eric R. Eide and Michael J. Hilmer in the Wall Street Journal. A prestige degree does help business and liberal-arts majors, according to the Journal‘s analysis of a survey of graduates.

STEM grads with a degree from a low-priced state university earn as much as those from elite private schools, they found.

The analysis controlled for “factors that might influence earnings, such as family income, race/ethnicity, gender, marital status, SAT score, postgraduate degree and age at graduation and more.”

In STEM fields, “curriculums are relatively standardized and there’s a commonly accepted body of knowledge students must absorb,” write Eide and Hilmer. Employers seem to be looking for skills rather than prestige.

Assessing a job applicant’s competence is harder if the degree is in what we used to call “fuzzy studies.”

College graduates’ “well-being” — financial security, health, sense of purpose and other factors — isn’t related to their alma mater’s selectivity, size or whether it was public or private, concluded the Gallup-Purdue Index in 2014.

Gallup will use its Well-Being Index  to certify universities that produce the happiest graduates. George Mason is the first university to seek  certification.

Harvard touts public good — for teens

Elite colleges should encourage applicants to care more about the common good than their personal achievement, advises Turning the Tide, report from Harvard’s Making Caring Common project.

Many praised the report, but Robert Pondiscio, writing in U.S. News, is dubious. He wonders why prioritizing the public good is only for teenagers, not for the elite colleges they aspire to attend.

By my calculation, the schools that employ the top administrators who have endorsed “Turning the Tide” have amassed combined endowments of approximately $225 billion. I need to be convinced that these institutions are maximizing the public benefit of those funds, which grow tax-free, before I’m asked to accept that careerist kids and ambitious parents pose a significant challenge to society.

Harvard’s endowment is $35 billion. Spending less than 5 percent would provide a full scholarship for every undergraduate, estimates Pondiscio.

very small subset of U.S. high school students are competing for slots at elite colleges, writes Pondiscio. Some are “overloading on Advanced Placement courses they’re not interested in and larding up on extracurriculars they don’t care about, merely to impress the admissions office at Brown.”

Stanford will build more housing so it can expand the number of undergraduate seats.

Stanford will build more housing so it can admit more undergraduates.


Rather than the report’s recommendations — discouraging applicants from taking SATs more than twice or submitting “overcoached” applications — he suggests an admissions lottery to choose among qualified applicants.

The elite colleges already provide generous scholarships to their students, few of whom come from low-income or working-class families. I think the only thing that will ease competition — a little — is to create more seats for undergrads as Stanford and Yale are doing.

80% of top students get into a top college

Harvard accepted 5.9 percent of the nearly 35,000 students who applied for admission to the class of 2018, writes Kevin Carey in the New York Times. Stanford accepted 5.07 percent of applicants. But most top students get into a top college, he writes.

The admissions data is misleading because so many students — some of them not well qualified — apply to so many schools, writes Carey, a New America Foundation scholar with an upcoming book, The End of College.
Eighty percent of “well-qualified students who apply to elite schools are accepted by at least one,” according to Parchment.com, which helped 800,000 students send more than 1.6 million transcripts.
I applied to five schools and got into two, including my safety school. My daughter applied to 10 and got into four, including her safety school. These days, some students apply to 20 or more.

Ivy League sheep?

Don’t send your kids to Ivy League colleges, writes William Deresiewicz in New Republic. After teaching at Yale for 10 years, he thinks elite colleges are filled with talented, driven, anxious conformists with “little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.”

So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them.

Bright students would learn more — and meet a more diverse bunch of people — at their flagship state university, he argues.

David Brooks made a similar argument in 2001 in The Organization Kid.

Deresiewicz has a book coming out next month, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life.

Daniel Drezner, also a professor, responds:  Entitled little shits are a minority at elite colleges.

Elite colleges ask more of homeschoolers

Are Elite Colleges and Universities Discriminating Against Homeschoolers? asks Paula Bolyard, a recently “retired” homeschooler, on PJ Lifestyle.
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Homeschooled student “enter college with significantly higher test scores than their public (and even private) school peers,” she writes. “They graduate from college at a higher rate­—66.7 percent compared to 57.5 percent—and earn higher grade point averages while in school, according to one study.”

Princeton seems to get it, she writes. Applicants who can’t supply a traditional transcript can submit an outline of the homeschool curriculum.

Yale wants to make sure homeschooled kids are not socially awkward:

We look for evidence of social maturity from all our applicants and especially from home-schooled students. Your personal statement, interests and activities, and letters of recommendation should speak to your ability to integrate well with other students and tell us about your non-academic interests.

But elsewhere Yale says “academic strength” is the “first consideration” with “motivation, curiosity, energy, leadership ability, and distinctive talents” in second place.

“We’re going to want to know what the reason for homeschooling is,” a Dartmouth admissions official told Lindsay Cross at the Mommyish blog.

“Was the student busy with another demanding pursuit, like playing music? Were they traveling with their family? Was there a lack of resources in their area? Somewhere in the application, they’re going to need to explain.”

Private school students aren’t asked to explain why they didn’t attend public school, Bolyard points out.

Some elite colleges ask homeschooled students to submit additional SAT II test scores. That strikes me as reasonable. A straight-A student who’s been graded by Mom will need objective evidence of achievement.

But what about a teacher’s recommendation when Mom is the teacher?

In addition to a “not-so-subtle interrogation about the family’s choice to opt out of public education,” Brown also asks for “letters of recommendation from instructors who have taught you in a traditional classroom setting and who can speak to your abilities and potential in an objective way.”

Brown “would prefer not to receive letters of recommendation from your parents, immediate relatives, or from academic tutors in the paid employ of your family,” unless the applicant has no classroom instructors to ask.

Higher ed is due for creative destruction

Higher education is due for some creative destruction. Professors will resist, but online education will transform postsecondary ed, leaving only the most elite colleges and universities relatively untouched.

To get into college, be perfect — or lie

Elite colleges are looking for genius tigerkids, the ethnically and sexually diverse  — and liars, writes Suzy Lee Weiss, a high school senior in Pittsburgh, in  To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me in the Wall Street Journal.

Colleges tell you, “Just be yourself.” That is great advice, as long as yourself has nine extracurriculars, six leadership positions, three varsity sports, killer SAT scores and two moms.

Weiss worked at a pizza place and ran last on the track team.

Worse, she is white — not even 1/32 Cherokee — as well as middle class and heterosexual, the antidiversity trifecta. And she didn’t redeem herself by starting a “fake charity.”

Providing veterinary services for homeless people’s pets. Collecting donations for the underprivileged chimpanzees of the Congo. Raising awareness for Chapped-Lips-in-the-Winter Syndrome. Fun-runs, dance-a-thons, bake sales—as long as you’re using someone else’s misfortunes to try to propel yourself into the Ivy League, you’re golden.

Teens without traumas of their own are supposed to write their admissions essays about their trip to Africa — “spending that afternoon with Kinto changed my life” — but Weiss went to summer camp instead.

With a 4.5 GPA, 2120 SAT scores and a stint as a U.S. Senate page, Weiss was rejected by Princeton, Yale, Penn and Vanderbilt. Critics complain she’s whiny, but I read her as sarcastic and quite funny.

Admissions directors should stop demanding that applicants tell absurd lies, writes Megan McArdle.

 These days, a nearly-perfect GPA is the barest requisite for an elite institution. You’re also supposed to be a top notch athlete and/or musician, the master of multiple extracurriculars.  Summers should preferably be spent doing charitable work, hopefully in a foreign country, or failing that, at least attending some sort of advanced academic or athletic program.

Naturally, this selects for kids who are extremely affluent, with extremely motivated parents who will steer them through the process of “founding a charity” and other artificial activities.  Kids who have to spend their summer doing some boring menial labor in order to buy clothes have a hard time amassing that kind of enrichment experience.

In her day, applicants faked epiphanies about themselves. Now they have to fake epiphanies about the suffering of others, preferably foreigners. “This proves that they are really caring human beings who want to do more for the world than just make money so that they, too will, in their time, be able to get their children into Harvard.”

Solving the smugness problem

Elite colleges can solve the smugness problem by admitting community college transfers.

Also on Community College Spotlight: Here’s how to succeed in community college and beyond, writes Isa Adney in a new book geared to first-generation college students.

Community is back on TV, but will its characters ever graduate?

Elite colleges don’t boost most graduates’ pay

Graduating from an elite college doesn’t boost most graduates’ pay, concludes a new study by economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger. But there’s a big exception for black, Hispanic, low-income and first-generation college students, notes David Leonhardt in the New York Times.

Graduates of elite colleges make more money than graduates of less elite colleges, even controlling for SAT scores and grades. However, the new study added a variable: Where did students apply?

Someone who applies to Duke, Williams or Yale may be signaling that he or she is more confident and ambitious than someone with similar scores and grades who does not apply. Someone who is accepted by a highly selective school may have other skills that their scores didn’t pick up, but that the admissions officers noticed.Once the two economists added these new variables, the earnings difference disappeared. In fact, it went away merely by including the colleges that students had applied to — and not taking into account whether they were accepted. A student with a 1,400 SAT score who went to Penn State but applied to Penn earned as much, on average, as a student with a 1,400 who went to Penn.

The average SAT score at the most selective college students apply to turns out to be a better predictor of their earnings than the average SAT score at the college they attended, Krueger told Leonhardt. However, “attending a more selective school increased earnings significantly” for disadvantaged students.

Perhaps they benefit from professional connections they would not otherwise have. Perhaps they acquire habits or skills that middle-class and affluent students have already acquired in high school or at home.

It’s not clear how the research applies to unselective colleges, Leonhardt notes. He wonders “what happens to students who try to save money by first attending community college, with plans to transfer later, even though they were admitted to a four-year college.”

Elite students don’t need elite colleges

Elite college graduates earn 40 percent more than graduates of non-elite schools, but is it the chicken or the egg? Top students who go to second-tier universities do as well in life as top students who go to elite colleges, concludes research by Princeton and Mellon Foundation economists.   Only students from disadvantaged backgrounds get an edge from attending an elite school.  From the New York Times:

. . . they compared students at more selective colleges to others of “seemingly comparable ability,” based on their SAT scores and class rank, who had attended less selective schools, either by choice or because a top college rejected them.

The earnings of graduates in the two groups were about the same — perhaps shifting the ledger in favor of the less expensive, less prestigious route.

The super-elite schools tend to have large endowments and the ability to discount tuition significantly for middle-income students.  I wonder why non-wealthy students still choose second-tier and third-tier private colleges where the sticker price is close to the real price.

My stepdaughter Susie’s boyfriend works in admissions for a private, non-elite university, where he’s known for rejecting applicants who aren’t prepared to earn a degree.  Colleagues call him The Dream Crusher.  Of course, he’s also The Debt Preventer.

Update:  More on the “higher -education bubble.”