Been thinking more on my piece last night on the problems of poor smart kids choosing not to apply to selective colleges. I still think seeing this as an unqualified national crisis is overblown, and a bit elitist.
But I do want to leave space for a few complicating factors. First, when people from poor backgrounds do find success by leaving their communities and entering elite halls of academia, I applaud them. One of my other friends at Harvard came from a poor background, went to Harvard, then Columbia Law School and is now a successful corporate lawyer. If he had chosen a less selective CUNY would this path have been as open to him? I would acknowledge likely not. I really appreciated Ron Suskind’s book, A Hope in the Unseen, chronicling the journey of one student from a truly disadvantaged background (unlike my own privileged background despite being low-income) of Ballou High School in DC to Brown University. Despite many struggles, both at home in DC and with the huge cultural differences between Brown and Ballou, Cedric Jennings graduated and is successful. I certainly don’t mean to say that he should have gone to the University of the District of Columbia, or Prince George’s Community College, like many of his classmates. But this was not clearly and unambiguously a better path for Cedric all the way through. The book shows that there were real difficulties at Brown that were not only Cedric’s lack of intellectual background. And there are some Cedric’s who don’t end up at those places. Are they wasting their time? No. If we are displeased with the fate of smart kids at less selective places, we should improve those less selective places instead of taking their institutional poverty as a given and trying to funnel the “achievers” away from them.
And we should do that without saying things like:
Getting these students in our best colleges should be a national ambition. It would increase social mobility, raise national productivity, increase taxable income, shrink our deficit, cut income-support payments … you get the point.
But there is one more point I want to make. The Hoxby paper and commentary seem to treat the link between less selective schooling and salary/success etc as a law of the universe. Go to Harvard, make big $ because you are smart. Go to Chico State, make no money, because you don’t get the smarts and skills you would have gotten at Harvard. But there is an alternative explanation, provided by this interesting “class autobiography” written by University of Oregon economist Mark Thoma:
I did well at Chico, really well, but I was naive. This is going to sound dumb to all of you, but I really didn’t understand the difference between Stanford, Berkeley, and Chico State. Where I grew up, there were two types of people, those who went to college, and those who didn’t. It didn’t much matter where, just going and getting a degree was enough. I suppose the “upper class” understood the difference, but in working class land where I grew up, such distinctions weren’t drawn, at least not in my house. The Ivy league was for other people, and people either went to college or they didn’t, to Chico, maybe to a UC if they could afford it. And those who went often never returned. When I hear Bryan Caplan say in his essay “What if I had grown up rich? … I would have gone to the Ivy League instead of UC Berkeley, but it’s not like Berkeley held me back,” I have to laugh because to me, Berkeley was an elite school, a dream, not something I could ever do. My third year at Chico a faculty member took me aside and told me I needed to go to a UC school, Chico wouldn’t do. I called my parents and told them, and they said, simply, that’s not going to happen.
I had no idea how limiting coming out of Chico would be. I’ve seen a lot of graduate applications in my life, and mine was more than competitive as a math/econ/stat major with really good GREs and great supporting letters. But I was denied every place I applied and to this day I think that still affects my attitude about this profession. I can remember opening the letter with the last chance I had on my front porch and feeling crushed. I was going back to the tractor store just like my dad, brother, and grandfather. You can’t get there from Chico no matter how good your record is.
Fortunately for me, I was working for a faculty member doing work for Medicaid estimating reimbursement levels for pharmaceutical drugs and he got to know me pretty well (he’s president of a university now). When he found out I had been rejected everywhere, he made a phone call and got me into Washington State University with money, the place where he had gone to graduate school (in an afternoon – it wasn’t until much later that I realized how much I owed him for doing that).
The whole thing is interesting. Please read it. It is definitely more complicated than just this point. But it introduces this possibility that maybe, just maybe, part of the reason that high achieving students coming from “low” places don’t get ahead is not their own relative incompetence, but active discrimination. Lauren Rivera published this important paper in which she interviewed hiring officers at many elite firms (banking, consulting, etc) What is the way to appropriately address that discrimination? It seems that Hoxby, Wolfers, and Thompson would rather ignore it and send more high achievers to “top-flight” schools? I disagree. Of course, this need not be an either/or proposition. But I happen to think diminishing and turning away excellent people from Chico State is a bigger problem than the fact that the Mark Thoma’s of the world don’t apply to Stanford.