Phi Beta Cons

Another Imaginary Higher Ed Problem

What if a student from a relatively poor family has the academic aptitude to perhaps gain admission to a “prestige” college or university but instead goes to a non-prestige school close to home? In a New York Times piece, economics writer Dave Leonhardt tries to make that sound like a tragedy, referring to a recent study.

Briefly, there are two great mistakes in the piece.

One, it assumes that going to a “prestige” college means getting a much better education, thus leading to more success in life. That’s not necessarily the case. Students (no matter what their family’s economic circumstances) often get a better, more individualized education at smaller, non-prestige colleges. And graduating from such a school does not hinder the individual in succeeding in life.

Second, Leonhardt uses a bit of deception to create the impression that it’s bad to attend the lowly colleges that these students allegedly “settle” for. He points out that they tend to have high dropout rates. There is a good reason for that, of course — they accept lots of very weak applicants. A student who enters with good academic capabilities and discipline will graduate. The fact that many of his or her classmates don’t have the stuff it takes is irrelevant. It’s not like playing a casino game where the odds are stacked heavily against you. 

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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