Arnold Kling  

Steinbrenner U.

A Child Understands the Fall o... Macroeconomic Disconnects...

Inside Higher Ed reports,

A small number of colleges have become much more competitive over recent decades, according to Caroline M. Hoxby, an economist at Stanford University. But her study -- published by the National Bureau of Economic Research -- finds that as many as half of colleges have become substantially less competitive over time.

Tyler Cowen finds a link to the new paper.

I am not sure that I buy Hoxby's explanation for the phenomenon, which is that high school graduates nowadays are willing to travel farther to go to college. I suspect that high school graduates nowadays are the product of assortive mating, and college has become the ultimate status good for their parents. Affluent parents want their children to attend the colleges that the children of other affluent parents attend. This creates a highly skewed equilibrium.

Think of Harvard as like the Yankees. Enough money to buy whatever it needs to be a contender every year. Think of the typical college as like the Orioles or the Blue Jays. If they are fortunate, they can groom a few stars, but they will have too many weaknesses to be able to compete with the Yankees. Harvard's advantages are actually more durable than the Yankees'. One can imagine the O's or the Jays winning it all one of these years. Not so with Rutgers or George Mason.

By the way, in this metaphor, the analogue to Sabathia and Teixeira is not necessarily the faculty (even though you probably think this song is about you). I am thinking more about students. Steinbrenner U has a much larger share of outstanding students than outstanding faculty. If you have a Ph.D and want an academic position where you can encounter highly intelligent colleagues, you can go to any of at least three hundred institutions. But if you want to teach high-ability undergraduates, do not sink below the 40 most selective institutions. And if you want high-potential graduate students, do not sink below the top 10 graduate schools in your field.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Dr. T writes:

Why is there debate about the causes of lowered college standards? The cause is obvious. Since 1950 an increasing proportion of teenagers have gone to college. When I started college in 1973, approximately 25% of high school grads went to college. Thirty-five years later the number grew to approximately 68%. Today's teenagers are no smarter and no better educated than those of 20 or 40 years ago. Teenagers who would never have been accepted by colleges 35 years ago are attending four-year schools today. The only way that could happen was for colleges to lower their standards. No other explanation fits.

Taimyoboi writes:

As a Phillies fan, I appreciate your using the Orioles and Jays in your example. Many thanks.

Steve Sailer writes:

The opening chapters of the Bell Curve review this phenomenon thoroughly. They find the 1950s are when Harvard went from being a school for smart kids from the Boston area to being a school for smart kids from around the country. So Hoxby's go-away-from-home explanation works for two generations ago, but the continued increase in stratification over the last generation needs additional explanations.

David writes:

Until recent years, the Orioles had a reputation for big spending on free agents without too much much to show for it. Once the novelty of Camden Yards wore off (or was duplicated in enough new stadiums) and Cal Ripken retired, the Orioles assumed their latest position in the pecking order. Not sure what analogous colleges would fit that narrative.

wm13 writes:

Mr. Kling's explanation doesn't seem inconsistent with Prof. Hoxby's. Forty years ago, an upper middle class couple in Duluth probably would have wanted their child to go to University of Minnesota. Their welfare was improved modestly by having a child at UM, both because it helps the child succeed in life and because it enhanced their status, but having the child at Yale or Harvard brought no additional benefit. Now that same couple would want their child to go to an Ivy League or equivalent college, if possible, in part for the status reasons Mr. Kling mentions. So (i) the child's willingness to travel has increased, (ii) the University of Minnesota has trouble enrolling the top one percent of Minnesota high school graduates and (iii) there is less space at Harvard for bright--but not super-bright--kids from Medford.

conner writes:

It is unclear whether Caroline Hoxby is referring to competition among colleges to attract better students or if she means that some colleges have more competitive standards in accepting students. If she were referring to the second explanation, it would be surprising that only a small number of colleges are more competitive. Given that so many states now offer state funded scholarships through lottery revenue, more and more students can afford to go to college creating more competition for available slots.
In the state of Georgia for example, acceptance into the top two schools, University of Georgia and Georgia Institute of Technology, has become almost impossible for even above average students. In addition to the hope scholarship, a tougher economy has forced many students to stay in state who might have considered out of state schools. This only increases the number of applicants. Around 18,000 students applied to UGA in 2009 and only 4700 were admitted. The average GPA is now over 3.8 and the average SAT is about 1250. Georgia Tech’s standards are even more competitive. Maybe there are other states that do not have this kind of competition, but Georgia’s competition has definitely increased over the last few years.

Dave Tufte writes:

Interesting. I've been wondering to other economists over the last 10 years or so why universities don't organize themselves more like minor league baseball.

Why couldn't, say, Harvard have a "farm" university? Or a string of them? For the sake of example, thinks of Tufts as Harvard's AAA school. A student on probation at Harvard could be given a choice of going to Tufts for a year. A top student at Tufts could be given preferential admission to Harvard as a transfer students.

Eric Fisher writes:

The higher educational system in California works that way. The feeder schools are the junior colleges. AAA ball is played by some of the good Cal State campuses, and the "major leagues" are the good UC campuses. The lower division of the major leagues are the poorer UC campuses and perhaps Cal Poly and San Diego State.

I end up having students who cannot figure out that 3/5 = 60% without using a calculator. A few of them will write 0.6% if they do have a calculator.

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