Bryan Caplan  

Education and Sibling Contrast

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You probably know a family where some of the kids went to college and others didn't.  IQ aside, what are the crucial differences between the ones who went and the ones who didn't?

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COMMENTS (34 to date)
John Thacker writes:

My grandfather, his parents both died when he was in junior high or high school, and he, the oldest, dropped out to support his siblings. His youngest brother went to college.

Philo writes:

"IQ aside, what are the crucial differences between the ones who went and the ones who didn't?" I expect you will get a lot of "just so stories" in response. Chance is probably a big factor in these cases, but people don't like to accept that, and so they make up plausible-sounding explanations.

Peter Finch writes:

Birth defects, uterine environment, labor and delivery experience.

I've wondered how much of the small negative happiness effect of children comes from the contribution of unusual, but tragically bad, outcomes.

Thomas writes:

Expectations, which usually are higher for first-borns.

jb writes:

My oldest son is quiet and studious, and rules-oriented. He seems to really enjoy structure. I think he will do well in college.

My daughter (the youngest of three) is creative and talented artistically, comfortable in almost any environment. I suspect that while she will not be pursuing a career in academia, she would perform well in school, and translate that into a good career.

My younger son, however, is athletic and full of energy. He loves to climb and take physical risks. He hates sitting down and studying. He dreads deadlines, and worries himself sick about them. I see him being miserable in college. I'm ok with this, of course - he will make a great firefighter, or policeman, or competitive rock-climber or adventure tour guide or something like that. It's a pity, really, because I see a lot of prototypical computer-science skills in his make-up but I just don't see him enjoying the requirement to sit down and code all day.

wesley writes:

I know two sisters in their mid-20s, two years apart, who are pretty alike. The older one did just a year at community college, the younger got a B.A. Right now the older is a bank teller, the younger is a waitress. I suspect the main difference was circumstance -- the older got married young and moved away with her husband, leaving college behind.

OneEyedMan writes:

The sister got pregnant while the brother did not get anyone pregnant. That seems symbolic for underlying differences in self-discipline and temperament between the two, but it really may have been bad luck.

Example writes:

I graduated college early and my brother dropped out and did not graduate.

Besides IQ - work ethic, emotional intelligence and organizational abilities were the main differentiators. What caused those differences, I'm not sure...

Ella writes:

I went to college and my younger brother didn't. We both work in software development. He's a programmer while I'm a tech writer, and he makes more money than I do.

There is very little IQ difference between me and my brother and both of us are intelligent. In real life, he's probably more studious than I am. He just didn't have the patience or temperament for formalized education and he honestly didn't need a school certificate to be successful. So, college would have been a waste of time and resources for him.

That's a pretty atypical story, I bet.

Seth writes:


In my extended family, two in my generation didn't go to college in the traditional sense had preferences for earning a living where traditional college doesn't help much.

Both seemed to find what they liked to do early in life and spent their time developing those skills and didn't see traditional education being much help in that respect.

My older brother was one of those. He's an artist/filmmaker/jack-of-all-trades in the creative world. While he didn't go to college in the traditional sense, he did later earn a degree in film making.

I went. I didn't know what I wanted to do, so why limit my options? I'd say the others who went either went for the same reason as me or they had a preference for a specific profession that required traditional college (e.g. lawyer).

I happened to have written about about a conversation I had with my brother about this topic last March here.

AMW writes:

My brother and I both have PhD's. My sister (who is the oldest) became a beautician after high school. (She took a few college courses later in life, but never earned a degree).

I actually don't think my brother and I have IQ's that are that much greater than my sister's. She can keep up with us in a conversation about our disciplines if we're not using the technical terminology of our fields.

I think part of the reason she never went on to college is that the classroom environment didn't suit her. She has a much more independent, non-conforming personality than my brother and (especially) myself. She tended to chafe at authority more than we did.

Finances may have played a role as well. When she graduated high school my parents were financially comfortable, but not particularly well off. Not long afterward, my dad's career really took off, and by the time I was college age my parents were pretty wealthy. Of course, they could have put her through college at that point, but I don't think that really crossed her mind.

Heather Cavanaugh writes:

In today's society it is very hard to find jobs without a high school or even college diploma. The markets are more interested in having employees with college graduates rather than employees with just a high school diploma. If we had more people who attended a college or university then income inequality will become more balanced. It is pretty obvious that most companies pay more to the person who has a college diploma, or having a college diploma can also factor in whether or not you even get the job. With the way the economy has been looking in the past few years, a college diploma can help get a good job so that the economy doesn't fall farther behind with people just sitting at home, doing nothing, and on welfare supported by the government.
Another crucial difference between college graduates and people who do not attend college at all is that most people believe if they go to college then they will waste more money paying for it, whereas they can just go ahead and work at a job where you don't have to pay for an institution to teach you. I believe that everyone who attends college, whether they are paying for tuition or not, will still end up making more money than the ones who do not go to college at all. With my theory, the college diploma allows someone to more job opportunities and better incomes at the end of the year. Even if you have to pay off student loans, you will be making more money in your job than you will if you just graduate high school and work as a waitress or in a fast food industry. I'm not saying that everyone who does not go to college works in a place like this; however, no matter what kind of job you receive with only a high school diploma, I'm sure that you can get paid more or higher benefits at the same exact job just by having a paper that clarifies you graduated from a college or university.

darjen writes:

My sister had some college but didn't graduate. She makes about the same money in marketing as I do in software engineering. I almost wish I didn't waste those 5 years and did something productive and earned money instead of getting a degree. But I don't know if I would have had the discipline.

Jason Brennan writes:

I'm a first generation college graduate. I have a (fraternal) twin brother, who has a high IQ and did very well on the SAT (I think he got >1300 in 1996), if not as well as I did. He did not go to college. Ultimately, the difference was this: I very much wanted to go to college--I wanted to spend my days chatting about ideas with other smart people who were excited by ideas. He didn't want this. As for why we have these different preferences, I'm not sure.

Hyena writes:

We were essentially required to attend college, but my brother dropped out after the first year. We also went to the same school in the same time-frame (he's only 3 years my junior and I spent a lot of time in college).

The major difference seemed to be whether college offered anything over working outside college. In my case, the immediate returns were substantial and there were few negatives. My brother, by contrast, disliked class immensely and really gained no immediate benefits versus working.

Russ writes:

Our family has 3 boys. I am the only one who went to college. I am a lawyer with my own firm. One brother has a construction company. The other one is a programmer and is famous in computer gaming circles (as famous as one can be).

I think they both make more than I do.

John B. writes:

In a family in which everyone went to college, my middle brother did not. These days he'd be diagnosed as dyslexic but not in the early 1960s.

The result of his dyslexia was a dislike of school and thus worse performance at school -- positive feedback in a negative direction.

He went into sales and did ok.

Steve writes:

My grandmother was a woman, so despite being valedictorian she went to work at the factory to put her brother through school.

Ella writes:

Heather, I don't think your theory is necessarily true. I do know deadbeats who didn't go to college; I also know unemployable deadbeats who did.

The main issue for employers is work ethic. That can be demonstrated by academic performance, but I don't think that's the only thing.

The main driver for a college degree is because the education level of high school graduates is so dismal. There's no effort (or even minimal literacy) required to graduate, therefore the degree is meaningless. That's why BA's became desirable. As more people have at least some college, now master's degrees are becoming more desirable.

But there's also a small backlash against the necessity of going to college. A college grad will come out with about $100,000 in student loans and absolutely no guarantee of job-worthy skills. A similarly intelligent high school grad with a good work ethic will have no student loans and 4 years or more of direct work experience. In a lot of fields, the work experience may be more desirable than the education, particularly if it's a degree in worthless fields like history, music, art, or English. Those degrees simply aren't marketable, which means that having the degree isn't that much of a benefit. I have friends with masters degrees in history who can't scrape together a job, and my brother with no degree and fantastic programming skills is, ahem, quite successful.

Lode Cossaer writes:

we all went to college, but not all of us did as well. It wasn't IQ; more than it was hard work. (The one with the 'lowest' intelligence, did best. The 'smartest' one of us did 'worst'.)

Travis Cassada writes:

I come from a rather large family and alot of my family members have some what of a college education but my aunt is the only one to finish and I plan on being the second. But I believe that college dont define how successful you will be I mean yea it helps alotbut it does not define you. Both my parents and brother are both very successful and make a good living for their families so college isnt everything.

Christopher Seager writes:

I am the first in my family to go to college except for a few distant relatives. This goes to show that past generations and their education influence doesnt always effect a child for the worst. In my case both of my parents dont have a college education, therefore; they have learned the hard way how important education is. For this reason they have pushed me even harder to persue my college degree.
This same situation is not always the case though. In many cases, parents without a college education are financially strapped and may not be able to afford sending their kid to college. Its also an abvious fact that many kids fallow in their parents footsteps. Parents are clearly and big role model in many kids lifes and if their parents have been succesfull without a college education they are likely to make the assumption that they dont need it either. Either way it ultimately comes down to the determination a drive of the kid.

wintercow20 writes:

I am the 5th of 6 children. 5 of us are boys. The second oldest child, my sister, dropped out after a few years. My youngest brother dropped out, went to the army, ditzed around, and finally got a degree in his 30s. The rest of us went "conventially."

The two "outliers" were the family outliers in general. My sister was largely ignored in a home full of boys (she was the only one with her own room, the rest of us shared one among the 5). My little brother got the hell beat out of him for much of his young life, the rest of us, not as bad.

As for the other 4 of us, we were clearly the guys who "just did what we were supposed to do" without giving it much thought. I am not entirely sure my little bro and older sis made bad choices in retrospect.

Lee Kelly writes:

In Big Five terms:

Those with high conscientiousness and agreeableness, and, perhaps less importantly, low introversion and neuroticism, tend to go to college and stay the course.

That's how it was in my house, and it appears quite true for others.

I was the unconscientious, disaggreeable, introveted, and neurotic child. But my siblings all think of me as "the clever one", even though they have all the academic qualifications.

Thing is, they aren't genuinely interested in academic and intellectual matters. They promptly forget most of what they learn as soon as it no longer serves the purpose of earning the qualification. In some ways, I think this disinterest in the actual topics made it much easier for them, because it allowed them to focus on the important thing: signaling.

Charlie writes:

In the examples I can think of, sex seems to be a big difference. In my parents and grandpartents generation, females did not go to college while some males did.

In my generation, more of my female cousins went to school than male cousins.

This seems to have to do with expectations in my family. In previous generations, females were expected to stay home. In my generation, it is more dependent upon a person's desired profession and whether or not that needs a degree.

Bob writes:

I've been reading all of these comments, and I'm fascinated. I fit many of the descriptions listed here of the type that drops out of college. I am in college. And I hate it. The grades are easy, it's the will that is hard to find. I should have graduated long ago given my talents, I rarely have to study (but don't consider myself a genius).

After a year of easy As, I learned I could get away with little-to-no regular study, just a few hours before a paper or exam. I then learned that attendance wasn't even that necessary. Now I feel like I've wasted years of my life; I feel this painful experience was all for a mere symbol of arbitrary accomplishment. Everybody I know in college that does not have a career lined up, is planning on grad school! I cannot help but think what a big house of cards.

Every emotion, every instinct, every fiber in my being told me to quit and move on. But I was just doing what was expected of me. That took a heavy toll--I think I'm dropping out. The only motivation for me to get a degree I can think of, is to burn it at ceremony.

Beyonder writes:

Although the evidence on this point is still disputed, one predictor of success in any number of areas (including college attendance) is birth order. First-born children consistently achieve at a higher level than their siblings. It is still unclear whether the reasons for this are somehow genetic and tied directly to IQ, or whether it has somthing to do with a first-born chlid's access to greater parental attention or resources. Harvard professor Michael Sandel does an interesting experiment with his first year "Justice" class where he asks his students to raise thier hands if they are the first born in their family. To hear him tell it, every year the percentage of hands raised ranges from 75% to 80%.

BZ writes:

Thomas was right: these days, expectations is the correct answer.

ThomasL writes:


I'm more impressed that the definition of success can be reduced to attendance of Prof. Sandel's Justice 101. :)

Doc Merlin writes:

Drug use. The ones that started smoking pot in highschool seemed a lot less likely to go to college.

frogger writes:

Assuming average or above average IQ I would say life experiences (pregnancy, caring for older family members, putting spouses through college) and not needing college to get ahead are the two most probable reasons for not finishing college. Laziness is probably a factor that I simply don't see as much because I live on the wrong side of town. It may be a major factor in some circles though I have my doubts.

Bill writes:

6 kids
3 College 3 not.

3 not:

Marriage/not pregnant
Drafted and then found his true calling computers, hardware then software and is the most financially successful of us all.

Dan Weber writes:

A middle child among sibling overachievers rebelled (such as it was) in high school, and nearly didn't make it into college. Got over it and ended up with a BA and later a professional degree.

floccina writes:

Both of my parents did not go to college but had siblings that graduated from Brown University. My mother is well read and a real intellectual, other than that I see no difference in intellectual development of the siblings.

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