Harvard by Lottery
If spring is the season of budding expectations, it is also a time of educational hopes and aspirations as high-school seniors around the country await letters from college admissions offices. But like so many other institutions, four-year colleges seem to be running in place. They have not increased the proportion of bachelor’s degrees they turn out in relation to the number of high-school graduates since the late 1990s, while ratcheting up the competitive bar for entrance. That is, rather than casting a wider net to accommodate more high-school graduates, they have spent increasing effort in competing for position on a fixed playing field.
Gone are the days when, back in the 1980s, my best friend, Rob, and I shot pool and hoops after school and were left largely to our own devices to figure out where we wanted to go to college. Our only resource—even though we attended the so-called best public high school in the county—was Barron’s Guide to the Most Competitive Colleges. Over iced tea, we joked that we should apply to Hood College in Maryland—in order to learn the art and science of mugging. We made more-ribald jokes about our other favorite, Ball State University. Then I took the SAT’s, one time, with no formal preparation, and left my future in the hands of fate, chance, and luck.
In the end, I applied to a range of colleges. At the last minute, a classmate handed me an application for the University of California at Berkeley that she had filled out in pencil before deciding that it was too far from home. So on the last possible day, I erased her info and penned in my own. Little did I know that I would fall in love with the University of California on my visit the next spring and make that my choice. Rob, meanwhile, attended New York University, where he received tuition remission on account of his father being an employee.
Perhaps we (and our laid-back parents) had it right back in the 1980s. After all, as a professional social scientist, I am privy to the dirty little secret of higher education: All available evidence suggests that it makes not one whit of difference where we attend college—at least on outcomes like future earnings that are fairly easy to measure. All that matters is being smart, savvy, or lucky enough to get into top institutions, regardless of where you end up enrolling.
A 2002 study by the economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger followed kids who were admitted to elite colleges but for whatever reason—usually related to finances or family—instead went to their local state U. Their postcollege socioeconomic success was equivalent to other students who attended the fancy institutions those students shunned. Of course they may have been a self-selected group with the intellectual confidence to eschew a Brown University degree in order to take care of an ailing parent, or to save that parent tuition. So in a more recent study, Dale and Krueger examined where folks applied, assuming that the range of institutions, from safety to dream school, represented a self-assessment of a student’s relative strength on the admissions market. Once that range was accounted for, it didn’t seem to matter where the student went.
In other words, while the difference between Stanford and no-name college may still matter, within a general range—say Stanford versus San Diego State University—it doesn’t make much of a difference where a student goes. Similar analysis has been conducted at the high-school level, examining high-stakes entrance exams in Boston and New York. Logic suggests that there is not any real difference between the ability of two kids, one who just made it over the line for admission to say, my alma mater, Stuyvesant High School, and one who barely came up short. The point or two gap probably reflects luck in the particular mix of questions on exam day or who got more sleep the night before or even who guessed right as they were running out of time. And as it turned out in a recent study by Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Joshua D. Angrist, and Parag A. Pathak, those who went to the most-sought-after high school were little better off than those who went to the next best one in terms of standardized text scores by their senior year or in their rates of college enrollment.