Two Paths Diverged…

Yesterday, I wrote about the different college experiences of students able to sustain a single curricular engagement than of those who transferred credits to complete their degrees at another college. One of the facts I hinted at was that different kinds of colleges offer their students “different kinds of life prospects.” Let’s explore that a little more, with the help of an economist.

(This is one of those brilliant empirical moments, by the way, that takes something you’d always suspected, and asks a couple of simple questions that make a phenomenon way clearer…)

So Joni Hersch, an economist teaching about employment discrimination at the Vanderbilt University Law School, asked a simple question. Let’s say that person A and person B both graduated from an elite graduate school; let’s say, oh, with MBAs from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. You’d expect that similar degrees with similar records would lead to similar outcomes in career terms—employment patterns, income, leadership positions over time.

But Dr. Hersch asked a simple question: What if person A and person B did their undergraduate degrees at different kinds of schools? What if person A got a bachelor’s degree from USC, and person B got a bachelor’s degree from Sonoma State?

Well, you guessed it. The reputational value of one’s undergraduate institution was “sticky,” resulted in better employment prospects and greater earnings throughout adult life. I’ll let Dr. Hersch have the floor here for a moment:

Few graduates of nonselective institutions continue to graduate or professional schools, and among those that do, very few move to higher-ranked post- BA programs. And even when they do, their earnings do not catch up to their counterparts with elite undergraduate degrees… [The phenomenon of] “undermatching… may have permanent consequences if high ability students who do not attend elite institutions for their bachelor’s degree are unable to overcome their initial placement by moving up to an elite graduate or professional school for a post-baccalaureate degree.

Hersch, “Catching Up Is Hard To Do: Undergraduate Prestige, Elite Graduate Programs, and the Earnings Premium,” 2014.

When I went to college forty years ago, no one in my family had college experience. So when I was accepted to the University of Michigan, to Michigan State University, and to Michigan Tech, I had no way of knowing the differences among them, and no one I knew who could coach me into understanding. Millions of kids now are in the same boat; they’re about to be first-generation college students, smart as hell, but no one to tell them that saving a little money by living at home and going to Castleton State College (excuse me… Castleton University) is going to hinder their earnings for a lifetime compared to attending Middlebury College or the University of Vermont.

As David Labaree writes in A Perfect Mess, his marvelous history of American higher ed:

Stratification is at the heart of American education. It’s the price we pay for the system’s broad accessibility. We let everyone in, but they all get a different experience, and they all win different social benefits from those experiences. In this way the system is both strongly populist and strongly elitist, allowing ordinary people a high possibility of getting ahead through education and a low probability of getting ahead very far.

We imagine that “a bachelor’s degree” is the name of a recognizable thing, but really, it’s more like saying “a restaurant.” We might mean The French Laundry or Eleven Madison Park. We might mean a nice night in a nearby town. Or we might mean Denny’s. Our focus on college accessibility and degree attainment is simultaneously noble and misleading.