Bryan Caplan  

Ambition Revisited

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I just ran across some more striking evidence that ambition really matters.  James Rosenbaum's "College-For-All: Do Students Understand What College Demands?" (Social Psychology of Education, 1998) shows degree completion as a function of high school students' GPA and educational aspirations.

Exhibit A: Percentage of high school seniors who plan to get a BA who successfully do so.


Exhibit B: Percentage of high school seniors who plan to get an AA who successfully do so.


The simplest reading of the evidence is that getting a BA is easier than getting an AA!  After all, holding high school GPA constant, students are vastly more likely to complete the BA.  Over two-thirds of A-students who plan to get a BA succeed; less than half of A-students who plan to get an AA succeed.  This pattern extends all the way down to the weakest students.

A better interpretation, though, is that seniors who say they want a BA have a lot more ambition than their peers.  As a result, they are - holding grades fixed - markedly more likely to achieve their goal despite its intrinsic difficulty.  Seniors who say they only want an AA, in contrast, simultaneously aim low and fall short.

This probably doesn't mean that students can improve their prospects merely by mouthing the words, "I plan to get a BA."  The reasonable interpretation, rather, is that people who place a high value on conventional success are much more likely to achieve it.  A B student who says, "I want a BA" is as likely to cross his personal finish line as an A student who says, "I want an AA."  And as far as I know, no estimate of the return to education properly adjusts for this factor.

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Troy Camplin writes:

Makes sense. I wonder how this holds up for people who go into college intending to get a Master's or a Ph.D.

I wonder, because when I was in high school I wanted to eventually get a Ph.D. And I have one.

Glen Smith writes:

Granted it is colored by my interactions mostly with guys in my field but ambition is not how I read it. In my field, an AA is worthless so most people just get a 4-year degree. If I extrapolate that out to other fields, I'd expect there are also many who just quit altogether. Many of those who I've run into with an AA got it while working towards a BA or got it using a benefit given to them by their job. The rest would best be explained if this ambition is just a signal that they really have the capability to deal with higher education.

mobile writes:

What the heck is an AA, and why would anyone want one?

Yancey Ward writes:


I think you overlooked that in the second chart it is "AA or higher".

Jon Finegold writes:

Or, there are many people who originally aim for an AA, but then decide to continue for the BA by transferring to a four year college.

Jeff writes:

I concur with Troy. What percent of high school graduates who expect to get an MA/MS or higher complete a BA/BS. As an aside, most of the people I know with PhDs expected to go to graduate school in high school, but did not expect to complete a PhD (but then attaining a PhD and ambition are likely less correlated than graduate school and ambition, depending on what occupation an individual desires).

Further, thinking out loud should MFs, JDs, and MDs be considered equivalent to PhDs in terms of ambition as they all are terminal degrees, though they do not all require the same number of years of schooling.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

On the other hand, Bill Gates was so ambitious, he didn't wait to graduate from college.

(If I was more ambitious I would have left graduate school a few years earlier and would have been a dot-com millionaire)

Joanne Jacobs writes:

"A" students who aim for an AA probably are less ambitious, less likely to have a parent who's completed college and poorer. They're also enrolling in community colleges, where their classmates are less academically motivated and competent.

An AA in general education will improve earnings only if it's the first step to a bachelor's degree. Most community college students say they want a bachelor's or beyond; few achieve that goal.

However, an associate degree in applied science -- that is, a vocational degree -- can be quite valuable in the labor market. Many nurses, radiology techs, computer techs, etc. qualify with an AAS. Recent graduates often earn more than people with non-technical bachelor's degrees. A dental hygienist with an associate degree averages $68,250.

Finch writes:

I think Mr. Econotarian has a good point. This breaks down after undergrad. In technical fields, ambitious people get jobs or start companies and people who want to delay adulthood get PhDs. This is partially because you need to be in industry to have any real money to do things with.

It's certainly different for fields like physics, where at least in some areas industry is not leading.

awp writes:

I don't know about AAs but attending Community College has to be strongly related to family income->graduation.

Brian writes:

This is a bit off topic, but it's worth noting that the paper by Clark and Martorell that concludes that signaling is negligible for the high school diploma is scheduled to be published in the Journal of Political Economy

I'm not sure how it's possible to maintain the signaling theory, including for ambition, given this data.

Seb Nickel writes:

Like mobile, I had never heard of AAs (non-anglo-saxon here), so I worked the Googles:

"If you're looking into getting an undergraduate degree, you may not know that there are 2 kinds--AA and BA. An AA is an Associate's of Arts, and a BA is a Bachelor's of Arts. A BA often takes 4 years of full-time study, while an AA will take 2 years. The time spent is not the only difference between AA and BA degrees, though. The degrees also vary in the fields of study available, perks and purpose."

Source: eHow

*flies away*

JVM writes:

My reading is that those that wish to get an AA quickly realize it's useless and get a job instead.

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