Bryan Caplan  

The Ambitious Case Against T.J.

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In northern Virginia, parents yearn to "get their kids into T.J." - the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.  It's our answer to New York's Bronx Science and Stuyvesant - publicly-funded high schools for the best and brightest.  Parents' underlying theory, as far as I can tell, is that attending elite high schools helps their kids get into elite colleges.  Most of these parents are so convinced that they see their theory as proven fact.  But such confidence is misplaced.  While elite high schools send tons of kids to elite colleges, this could easily reflect the initial quality of the students rather than the transformative power of the school.

What's really going on?  Stuyvesant graduate Ben Lanier recently pointed me to Paul Attewell's eye-opening "The Winner-Take-All High School" (Sociology of Education, 2001).  Bottom line: Correcting for student quality, elite high schools hurt students' prospects for elite college admission.  Why?  Because colleges put heavy weight on high school class rank:
[F]ormulas used by elite colleges in the admissions process, especially an emphasis on class rank in high school, create a higher hurdle for students who are educated in public high schools where there is a high concentration of talented young people in one school. Students who have excellent test scores and high grade point averages (GPAs) from rigorous courses but are not at the top of their class are downgraded by these formulas. For such students, entry into elite colleges from star public schools requires higher test scores than entry from elsewhere.
Attewell begins by using Dartmouth's published admissions algorithm to run some simulations, noting that "there is a high degree of agreement between admissions decisions using this method and decisions made by other highly selective colleges that use the same basic inputs but in a slightly different way."
The formula calculates an AI by combining three components: SAT I scores, SAT II scores, and the student's class rank in his or her particular high school.
Illustrative results:

attewell2.jpg

To complete the argument, Attewell shows that class rank works in the obvious way.  Being the biggest fish in the biggest pond is hard.

attewell3.jpg

Translation:
The odds of being in the top decile for a student in an exam star public school was only 24 percent of the odds of a student with the same SAT scores from a nonstar public school (the reference category). The odds of a student from a nonexam star public school being in the top decile was 30 percent of the odds of an equivalent-scoring student in a nonstar public school. 
Attewell covers a range of other fascinating issues, including elite high schools' perverse efforts to discourage their locally-mediocre-but-absolutely-outstanding students from taking Advanced Placement courses.  Don't just read the whole thing.  Rethink your children's educational strategy.  I know I am.




COMMENTS (23 to date)
Eric Rasmusen writes:

The real question is whether a college uses its standard algorithm for all applicants. It's very easy to correct for high school quality for extreme schools like TJ. So why wouldn't colleges do it?

Guolla writes:

Doesn't this ignore the obvious fact that elite high schools teach students how to take the SAT, or else create a better culture of preparation? A student from an elite high school who scores a 1400 on the SAT is probably of lower quality than the student from a normal high school who gets the same score.

E. Harding writes:

Eric, to correct for underprivilege. Colleges want students who get through conditions of adversity. A low class rank in a high-ranking High School doesn't signal that as well as a high class rank in a low-ranking High School.

Matt H writes:

When I went to Stuyvesant, it didn't report class rank to colleges. About 1 in 12 students went to an ivy league school the year I graduated. But that was over 20 years ago.

So who knows.

John Thacker writes:

When I went to the North Carolina School of Science and Math, also almost twenty years ago, it didn't publicize class rank for the same reason.

John Thacker writes:

That was close enough in time that I am not sure that the paper is based on the reality of these larger selective admission public schools. It may apply to the public schools where you get your child in through buying an expensive house or winning a lottery only, but all the schools like Stuyvesant and NCSSM didn't report class rank to colleges for this reason and placed many students in Ivy League and other selective schools.

As well, for many people the smaller pond schools will not have advanced courses or AP offered to much extent anyway.

BC writes:

I remember once a professor at MIT saying that there was some disadvantage to students from a high school like Stuyvesant. One of the types of "diversity" that the admissions committee was trying to build was to not accept "too many" students from the same high school. According to him, one would have a better chance of being admitted if one was from a rural high school in a state like Montana, Utah, etc. from which MIT didn't have many students. On the other hand, I'm not sure if the committee would consider graduates of some other NYC high school as really bringing much in the way of "geographic diversity".

There probably is some merit to the idea that you don't want to be from a high school class from which the admissions committee has already accepted 24 of your classmates ahead of you and you would be number 25.

OneEyedMan writes:

@BC: That depends on the school. Some schools like NYU and SUNY Rochester take more than a hundred kids a year from a place like Stuyvesant. Certain other schools take 20+ (Columbia, Carnegie Mellon, U. Penn.)

@Eric_Rasmusen, many years ago in the 300 (314?) best colleges book they had a point system for determining how competitive you were for selective schools. Your base score was from your GPA, and like @BC says, you got bonus points from being from a large, square, state and lost them from being in a major east-coast city. But you also got bonus points for a high SAT score or being from a high school that has a name that was nationally notable (IIRC, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Andover, and Exeter were mentioned by named) and then locally notable magnet schools were also worth more points (but fewer than the famous ones).

John Hamilton writes:

Even assuming you're right, there are other points to consider:

(1) Peer effects matter, and having classmates who are smart and hardworking benefits you, esp. in high school.

(2) This argument may also apply to elite colleges, so why worry about getting accepted to elite colleges. Therefore being a stand-out student at a non-elite university will help your chances for grad school applications. (I know grad school admissions are very different.)

(3) Elite colleges may be overrated.

(4) If your children want to get into professional school, there is no need for them to attend an elite college.

(5) Are any academic scholarships determined partly by class rank? If yes, then this may be a factor.

Thomas B writes:

Any thoughts on switching as late as possible to a less-privileged school, so as to benefit from the social environment of a high-achieving peer group, and then jump to a "smaller pond"?

Floccina writes:

Yes but if you do not get your child into TJ you loose 4 years of bragging to your friends.

At some point I realized that I was a little disappointed in my son's school performance (he did well but less well that I expected) because I wanted to brag. I feel the tug to brag but try to suppress it.

I often hear from the people about the good things their children have done. I think it is more for the us, the parents, status that we care so much about the children. My son who works as a plumber's helper likes the people he works with, does not hate the work and is living a great, enjoyable life. I have learned to love that.

Ray writes:

This assumes that the only purpose of going to these schools is to get into the best college. I went to Stuyvesant, and there are tons of additional advantages. Most importantly:

1. Finding smarter and more intellectual and ambitious friends (which can last a lifetime)

2. Getting a better education (is this still important?)

Brad writes:

This is also the case for a lot of the flagship state universities.

Lots of them like U Texas are required to take the top X% of the each HS. Or weight heavily in that direction.

I know for instance that admission to UNC was drastically different depending what HS you went to creating a really big difference in the qualifications of the students there.

John Thacker writes:

The paper explicitly addresses the issue of the (especially competitive examination admission public) school leaving off all possible class rank information. There's an arms race: first high schools went to deciles, so universities just put people in the average of their decile. Then schools stopped doing ranks, so universities used the grade distribution provided in school literature to attempt to calculate a class rank. So the high schools responded by stopping listing their grade distribution. As the paper notes on page 15 and 16:

In these situations of incomplete information,colleges reluctantly calculate CRS points directly from a student's GPA, irrespective of class rank...
It is important to note that a few high schools have successfully avoided the class-rank issue for years. They have done so by using unconventional grading systems (scales other than 1 to 4 or 1 to 100) and/or“methods that are not specific enough for determining rank.” Hernandez (1997:68-69) listed the schools in this special category. They constitute a “Who's Who” of America's leading private preparatory schools, plus a few of the most prestigious star public schools. Evidently, these schools have long avoided the problem of having their many strong students handicapped by the CRS class rank process.

John Hamilton writes:

Even assuming you're right, there are other points to consider:

(1) Peer effects matter, and having classmates who are smart and hardworking benefits you, esp. in high school.

(2) This argument may also apply to elite colleges, so why worry about getting accepted to elite colleges. Therefore being a stand-out student at a non-elite university will help your chances for grad school applications. (I know grad school admissions are very different.)

(3) Elite colleges may be overrated.

(4) If your children want to get into professional school, there is no need for them to attend an elite college.

(5) Are any academic scholarships determined partly by class rank? If yes, then this may be a factor.

Bob McGrew writes:

I went to the Oklahoma School of Science and Math, which is similar (and a boarding school.) Most of the students, including me, were from small rural high schools with maybe one AP course. They were just fine schools but in a town with a small enough population that they just didn't have enough students to offer a lot of courses.

The main benefit to going isn't about college - it's that you learn things you could never learn in your own high school. In two years, I learned enough to essentially cover all of freshman math and physics at Stanford.

For admissions, my thinking is that even though I wasn't valedictorian at OSSM, I was able to have a lot of experiences that let me distinguish myself and tell an interesting story to admissions officers. If I was valedictorian at Ada High, what made me different from the valedictorian at Ardmore or Seminole or Cement or any of the other dozens of similar schools graduating a valedictorian with straight As?

Don't worry too much about college admissions. Take the best opportunities you can get in high school to do something interesting and that's all you can do.

I went to Beverly Hills High School. It had good teachers. I benefited very much from those teachers, though I did not use all the skills I learned there later. Mr Smart the music teacher was just one example. But I remember the other teachers who were all dedicated and very talented. My only frustration was that I wanted to be able to concentrate on just a few things. But today I can say going to a good school I think is very important. And later I saw this in yeshiva also. Going to a good school I have to say is of utmost importance to be able to get anywhere.

Tom West writes:

I think Bryan misses the point that Mr. Hamilton suggests, which is much of school choice is about influencing who your child's peers are.

A well-adjusted, reasonably socialized young person will naturally use their peers as the measure for how hard one should work. I don't think it's coincidence that most of the very strong students I knew from rural schools were somewhat socially isolated.

I think most parents want their children to be both academically *and* socially successful. And the easiest way to do that is to attend an institution with high achieving peers, even if it diminishes the opportunity for attendance at an elite institution.

static writes:

TJ grad (from long ago). They don't do class rank or valedictorians- although elite schools try to reverse engineer it. The advantages: getting to have classes full of intelligent hard working students means you go faster and cover more material, they offer more advanced classes than other schools, they offer decent research lab facilities, they have unique internship opportunities.

Getting into elite universities now is not just about a perfect transcript and test scores, students have to differentiate with meaningful projects. Several high schoolers I know have started their own nonprofits with the tile of CEO. It's a nondeterministic process, unfair and confusing. Everyone iTJ grad (from long ago). They don't do class rank or valedictorians- although elite schools try to reverse engineer it. The advantages: getting to have classes full of intelligent hard working students means you go faster and cover more material, they offer more advanced classes than other schools, they offer decent research lab facilities, they have unique internship opportunities.

Getting into elite universities now is not just about a perfect transcript and test scores, students have to differentiate with meaningful projects. Several high schoolers I know have started their own nonprofits with the title of CEO. It's a nondeterministic process, unfair and confusing. Everyone is trying to game the system, even though the rules are arbitrary and obscure.

static writes:

[less-garbled version: hitting the submit button did a weird paste operation on phone]

TJ grad (from long ago). They don't do class rank or valedictorians- although elite schools try to reverse engineer it. They absolutely don't discourage people from taking AP courses. The advantages: getting to have classes full of intelligent hard working students means you go faster and cover more material, they offer more advanced classes than other schools, they offer decent research lab facilities, they have unique internship opportunities, and the universities know that students capable of that workload are likely to survive difficult coursework.

Getting into elite universities now is not just about a perfect transcript and test scores, students have to differentiate with meaningful projects. Several high schoolers I know have started their own nonprofits with the title of CEO, as an attempt to stand out (while also checking the "left sympathetic" box). It's a nondeterministic process, unfair and confusing. Everyone is trying to game the system, even though the rules are arbitrary and obscure.

isomorphismes writes:

Bryan, I don't know if you've changed your tune about efficient hiring over the last couple years. Isn't this evidence that inefficiency and irrational bureaucracy are the norm in assessment, whether it's for admissions or hiring?

jon writes:

How to game the admissions system and get your otherwise average kid into an above average college in two easy steps:

1. Move to Wyoming. Other neighboring states like Montana, Idaho or the Dakotas would also work, but Wyoming is the least populated. Low population East Coast states might also work, but would be a bit more risky because of their close proximity to most of the really good schools.

2. Get your kid started early in one of those obscure sports that are mostly only played at elite colleges. Or if that's not an option (since you know live in Wyoming), have them at least specialize in a sport that is something other than football, hockey, basketball or baseball.

Now, the hardest part about all of this is figuring out how to pay for it, because a lot of these elite schools don't offer athletic scholarships.

Michael Crone writes:

I attended both TJ and other high schools. For me, TJ was much more enjoyable than the other high schools. I suspect the same is true for most students who can get into TJ.

This factor is important because (1) the four years of high school count as part of one's life and (2) happy teenagers will probably achieve more by more objective standards too or be more motivated at college admissions time to impress.

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