The Illusory Aura of Ivy

Salam, Douthat, and Menashi have taken over at Weirdness ensues, and it’s almost entirely Reihan’s fault (or to Reihan’s credit). Anyway, good stuff, at least that which is non-free-associative enough to comprehend.

The exchange between Reihan and Douthat about the pointlessness of affirmative action at elite schools reminded me of Marie Gryphon’s talk on affirmative action at a Cato panel this summer. (Check out Marie’s talk and replies in the newest Cato Policy Report.) Here’s the bit I had in mind:

But contrary to what many assume, attending a selective school does not raise student incomes, regardless of race. This is an important new finding. A couple of years ago, economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger generated shockwaves by solving a persistent problem of older research on this issue. They compared students who were accepted to Cornell, for example, and went to Cornell, to students who were accepted to Cornell but chose, for reasons of their own, to attend a less selective school, like the University of Washington. Comparing students with identical acceptances allowed them to control for all of the factors that colleges consider when they accept students. Dale and Krueger found that when genuinely equivalent students are compared, those who attended the fancier schools make no more money at all—not an extra dime—than students who attended the less selective schools. The idea that the Ivy League will make you rich is just another part of the myth. The Dale and Krueger paper, by the way, is in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Fall 2002, in case you need to print it out and give it to that neighbor who is so proud that his son got into Penn early admission this year.

This is an extremely satisfying finding to people like me who did not attend prestigious schools, but who fancy that there is a very nearby possible world in which they were admitted to Princeton. Now, I find that this news is not entirely welcome in DC, a town choked in Ivy. As Reihan or Ross point out, pedigree really matters in the reputation- (and not so much money-) based nepotistic professions, like academia and journalism (I could never have been a TNR “reporter-researcher” like Reihan or my eminent Columbian housemate). And it is of course from journalists and academics from whom we receive our opinions about things like affirmative action. So we should not be surprised that the transformative effects of Yale are rather overplayed.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center