It’s Not the School, It’s the Student

Yesterday, I read a fascinating research paper by Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger (you can read the abstract here) which offers up a surprising result. In a nutshell, once you take a student’s pre-existing talents into account (as shown by standardized test scores), the school they attend has almost no impact on their lifetime earnings. In other words, a student’s natural talents lead to career success, not going to the right school.

That’s not to say that students who attend a more selective school don’t earn a higher salary – they do. However, it is the selectiveness that causes the higher income, not the exceptional quality of that school’s education.

What does that mean for saving for our children’s education?

First of all, it shows that setting your children up for success comes much earlier than we might think. Challenging them and encouraging them to solve problems on their own during their earlier years and providing opportunities for them to grow and learn when they’re young sets them up to be ahead of their class during their secondary school years – a lead they’re likely to maintain no matter what they do.

Second, it reinforces the notion that it’s more important for a parent to save for their own retirement than for a college education. Remember, a college education can always be covered with scholarships and loans, but there aren’t loans that will pay for your retirement.

Third, it doesn’t deny that getting into a good school is a wortwhile goal. If a student’s goal is to get into an Ivy League school, the work you’ll have to do to get there – pushing yourself hard in school, involving yourself in intense extracurricular activities – will themselves create the foundation for success in a student’s life.

Here’s the key message behind that paper: if you’re making a choice to spend less quality time with your kids so that they can afford to get into a good school, you might be making the wrong choice. The school doesn’t make the kid – the kid makes use of the school. While quality time and effort are never a guarantee of such success, they’re certainly a strong step in the right direction.

It’s not the school, it’s the student.

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  1. Faculties says:

    Unless they want to be an academic, when having gone to more rigorous schools provides the kind of training that will get them into graduate school. For instance, for success as a Latin professor, you need to go to a school that teaches Latin (many unselective schools do not) and that teaches it well. This is a simplified example, but it also holds true for many other disciplines. A person aiming to be a Latin scholar might be “as successful” in many other jobs, but if the job you *want* requires a particular kind of training, you’ll want to do well at a school that offers it.

  2. Rick Francis says:

    Something else to consider- in some fields you don’t have to pay tuition for a graduate degree. For those fields you can go to an inexpensive public college for your undergraduate degree and then go to an expensive private university for your graduate degree. I never had to pay tuition for my PhD in chemistry from Stanford. I even received a small stipend for living expenses. I didn’t have a special scholarship or grant either. The professor’s research grants paid for the students and in return the students did a lot of work.

    A final thought – the PhD program had a lot of students from both public and private colleges. However, you really couldn’t tell which were which other than by asking! The best students from all the schools tended to be fairly similar.

    -Rick Francis

  3. chris says:

    I taught at public school for 18 years in Southern California. I was astounded with how many times I heard, “I can’t go to college because I don’t have anyone to pay for it.” Excuse me, while I clean the wax out of my ears….I was always shocked. These kids grew up thinking that someone else had to pay for what you wanted or wanted to do. Now, I do believe that a lot came from the culture at home. Many parents were on the dole and they also believed that someone else had to pay their way. Never once did they consider a student loan or working while going to school. Of course, that does make a statement for the state of California and its current condition.

    As an aside, my husband worked odd jobs for a few months while attending a local community college to learn a skilled trade and get certified. He now brings home more than one hundred thousand dollars a year. I think it is true a lot depends on the person. He took the initiative to present a resume, where most just went to ask for work. They took him seriously and he is well thought of on the job.

    There is a lot to be said for hard work, taking your job seriously and being a good person. It will pay off. (and you don’t have to go to a fancy, expensive school to have a good career or make a decent living)

  4. Mneiae says:

    Thank you for linking to that paper. I just read it and it is a relief, as an 18 year old in a state school, to know that I haven’t damaged my earning potential. Whether I’m in the top percentile or not is questionable, but I’m mostly at the school I’m at because I want to get my MBA before I go to law school.

  5. Johanna says:

    Three things:

    – Lifetime earnings is not the only, or even necessarily the best, measure of career success. You’ve got things like recognition, prestige, and personal satisfaction to consider too.

    – It looks like the paper’s analysis dealt with students who went to college several decades ago. (How, after all, do you determine the lifetime earnings of someone who is just starting out in her career?) A lot of things have changed since then. Many fields have gotten more competitive. I would not be terribly surprised if this result were no longer true.

    – The paper’s result is, of necessity, a statement about averages. And we all know how averages lie. :)

  6. Steven says:

    While I think the article makes a good attempt at trying to support their argument, their premise is inherently flawed, and so are their methods and the immense generalization they make.

    SATs as a measure of pre-existing talent (which i will interpret as intelligence)? Laughable at best. There are studies that have been done that show standardized tests are precise, but questions the accuracy. The fact that there are techniques/strategies, outside of knowledge and critical thinking, that increases your score hints at the flaws in the test. Basically, if you can’t guarantee that your are accurately measuring talent, then what is it measuring? And by using this as the starting point brings everything else into question because this is the premise they built their argument on.

    The authors’ substantiations make sense on the surface. But when you question the assumptions and generalizations made, their argument falls apart. I applaud their efforts in the attempt to quantify something so abstract, but it’s lacking in many ways. Maybe the next attempt will be better.

    But in the end, you summed it up nicely. “It’s not the school, it’s the student.” Right with you on that one Trent.

  7. imelda says:

    Hahahaha wait, what? They’re using standardized test scores to predict for success, and then saying that the school has nothing to do with it?

    Do they really, truly assert that the quality of a person’s education doesn’t impact their test scores? What planet do they live on?????

    Let’s compare the private high school I went to with my brother’s public school. In my school, we had PSAT test prep sophomore year and SAT prep junior year. My brother’s school didn’t offer the PSATs, let alone free test prep for either. In our English classes, we read more advanced novels and wrote more essays, answering questions similar to essay questions on the SATs. This was standard starting in freshman year. The more exposure any student has to the *types* of questions or thinking that are on the tests, the better they’ll do. And private, wealthier schools offer much more exposure.

    My mother teaches in an underserved, underperforming school in Washington Heights. I find it offensive that anyone could say “the school doesn’t make the kid – the kid makes use of the school.” Sometimes there’s very little to make use of.

    This post is one of the most outrageously ill-informed things I’ve read on this blog. Where’s Johanna when we need her?

  8. Little House says:

    I’d like to add that this is specifically talking about selecting colleges, not elementary, middle, or high school. I agree that the college doesn’t make the person. However, I wouldn’t say this applies to all other areas of academics.

    As required class reading, I’ve just finished two of Jonathan Kozol’s books about inequality in elementary, middle, and high schools. Based on his research, it definitely makes a difference where children attend school. Some inner city schools are so dilapidated, contractors have condemned them, yet states get a waiver to keep them open due to lack of funds. The depressing conditions only add to the hopelessness in the student’s life. The chances of these students ever graduating from high school is cut in half.

    I agree with you that it would be great if all parents spent quality time with their children. This positively affects a child’s overall education.

  9. Little House says:

    P.S. I just read Imelda’s comment, I’m in total agreement with her.

  10. Meri says:

    You can have the best teachers in the world in a school and if the student chooses not to take advantage of what is offered, if the student choose not to read those advanced novels nor put effort into all those essays, then the quality of the school’s education program means zilch.

    On the flip side, a motivated student who does everything to his/her best ability, perseveres when the material becomes challenging, works through obstacles instead of giving up, will come out of school (elementary through college levels) with a fabulous education and a work ethic that sets him/her apart, even if the student is in a non-selective public school.

    THAT is the point on this article, the student’s attitude and effort, and not the name of the school, determines their success level however it’s measured.

  11. steve says:

    I have to side with Imelda and Little House: there are way too many schools in the United States where teachers are more concerned about their safety and tenure than they are about teaching. Often it is because they have to little resources in the school and community. Many of those students will never even get around to taking the standardized tests. Quite a few of them will wind up dropping out to either support themselves or help support their families. I’m sure the study paints a true picture of those who make it through the system, but it doesn’t begin to account for all those who fall through the cracks.

  12. Jen says:

    The kid does need a school worth making use of, though.

  13. Jane says:

    I think Trent’s point holds when you are talking about college, which is what he is arguing. Certainly the discrepancy in the quality of high schools in this country means that some students are in a district where they will have difficulties succeeding even if they are hard working and/or smart. But there is less of a discrepancy in colleges in this country. Yes, you get some leg up if you go to a top tiered university based on name recognition alone, but I think if you surveyed high earners in this country, you would come to realize that there are plenty of successful people that went to state schools.

    I went to a university that cost $20,000 a year in tuition (in the nineties – by now it’s significantly higher), and I can tell you that in many respects it was not worth the money both in terms of the education and in terms of my long term financial prospects. I could have accomplished the same goals if I had gone to my in-state university. I was the same student either way – motivated and relatively hard working – so I see Trent’s point that, given a solid educational foundation in the earlier years, it’s not the university, it’s the student.

  14. imelda says:

    Wow, I would have spoken much less strongly if I’d understood that this post was about colleges, not lower schools. Sorry about that. Trent, it might help if you changed the last word of the first paragraph from “school” to “college.”

    While there are certainly big differences among colleges in this country, i.e. community colleges vs. Johns Hopkins U. et al, I would never say the difference is as impactful as that between lower schools. I see your point much more clearly now, Trent, and I do agree to a large extent.

  15. This is not really news. It has been studied before. See e.g. the infamous Bell Curve book.

    What this essentially means is that if you’re qualified to go somewhere, you don’t really need to go there. (Study hard in K12, get accepted into a top tier univ. Then proceed to save the money by going to an in- state school.) Your lifetime earnings is essentially determined by your IQ level. “Unfortunately” companies are not allowed to screen for IQ during interviews, so therefore they use a degree which acts as a proxy. Obviously universities make a hefty buck on this piece of legislation. If it did not exist, companies would just use a ten dollar test and put very many so-called advanced education providers out of business. Truly, probably 50% of those going to college are not there to learn anything they’re ever going to need. They are simply there to engage in a costly prescreening process for corporate America. It’s all very sad.

    Bonus information: Interview performance matters very very little for job performance. If you’re looking to hire, find out the applicant’s IQ and then get his/her track record either directly or by asking for references. If you’re sure they’re not lying on their resume, you can just ignore the interview. In particular, if anyone performs badly on the interview, it’s not very relevant.
    So says statistics.

  16. Jenny says:

    Chris, you are so totally accurate. And I live in a state where parents think taxpayers should pay for their kids’ college educations. K-12 I can accept, but why do people think they are so entitled to taking poorer taxpayers’ money to pay for their college? On another note, I know many parents who think schools are entirely responsible for motivating their kids to be academic stars. That is the kid’s responsibility, so don’t be so quick to diss public schools, people.

  17. Ben says:

    I’m late in this conversation but I do think it’s important to put a child in a school that’s safe with as high a portion of “good” kids as is possible. You would decrease the likelihood that the child would fall in with the bad crowd.

    Also, as per selectivity. I have went to a highly selective school but the school’s name ID is primarily in the northeast. With that said, if I moved to anywhere outside of the northeast, no one would know how selective my school was.

    Finally, employers stopped asking or caring where I went to school or how well I did in school after my first job. Thereafter, they were primarily concerned with job performance.

  18. Nick says:

    I have to disagree somewhat. The important thing, in choosing a college, is finding the *right* fit for the student. I chose to go to a public college because, as their top applicant that year, they offered me a full scholarship (tuition, housing, food, books…everything). I struggled with boredom all through college – I couldn’t find intellectual peers, because the other students were more concerned with finding free beer than with studying or learning. I couldn’t find professors who cared much about teaching. And I actually cried, literally sat there with tears streaming down my face, in required classes where students couldn’t seem to understand material that I understood from the first day of class.

    After that, I got accepted into the #1 PhD program in my field of interest, but I was woefully underprepared compared to the rest of the students in my class, all 20 of whom came from Ivy League schools. I eventually dropped out, after hiring a tutor and doing everything else I could think of to learn the material, because I was failing every class due to lack of sufficient background information. If my college had been more rigorous, that wouldn’t have happened.

    My wife, on the other hand, attended a top ivy league institution. Sure, we’re still paying her student loans, but she was able to have a full intellectual life in college. To us, it was totally worth it.

    I know this is just one story, and that the article is concerned with the big picture and the average student. I haven’t read the study, so I’m not prepared to comment on their methodology. Maybe their conclusion is reasonable. Still, I think it’s important to recognize that not every student is the “average” student, and that those conclusions don’t hold for all.

    In my opinion, it’s BOTH the school AND the student.

  19. Amateur says:

    For motivated and hardworking students, the school will give them an edge over a poorly run school where the material is light or poorly taught. That is a fact, if the school does not teach challenging material, the student will not be able to learn to overcome difficult topics, which are essential for college, grad school, and eventually phd programs if they choose.

    Since grades and everything else is varied by school, the A student from a poorly run school with light material taught is not equivalent to the B student who went to a demanding high school. It’s really hard to compare, the demanding high school would have pushed someone to complete higher level math classes which are essential for those going into engineering programs in college. The edge is present right there. This does not mean a student unprepared cannot catch up, but they will need to be self-motivated to work harder or they may feel too pressured to continue like #18.

    Lastly, lifetime earnings does really depend on the individual to make use of his/her time, resources, and abilities plus a side of attitude. Successful people know how to manage all three, and with some extra elbow grease and maybe some luck, the possibilities are really endless. Though I’m sure the alumni network for hiring from an ivy would count as a good resource.

  20. T says:

    Agree that should change wording of post to make clear it’s only talking about colleges.

  21. Amy says:

    I grew up in public schools as the top student. Then I applied to a state-funded boarding school for 11th/12th grade, where almost all the students were like me: high achievers, now able to attend a great school with great teachers, without cost as a factor. Most came from other public schools, a mix of urban and rural backgrounds.

    We were challenged in this high school, and students tended to sort as super-smart vs regular smart, but the school did not calculate class rank and that took a lot of pressure off (we had enough pressure from the amount of studying we had to do). We were required to take the PSAT and 20% of my class became National Merit Finalists. A whole lot of my peers went to selective colleges, but a large portion went to state universities as well. I noted that my first year at a selective school was a little easier than boarding school, but I was very well prepared and the remaining three years were on par with the amount and type of hard work I did in that boarding school.

    Sixteen years later, almost everyone finished college and many people have advanced degrees. I don’t see a lot of success difference between the state-uni alumni vs. the Ivy/selective alumni. What is apparent is that all the students worked very hard as well as had natural talent, and success was the result.

    I went to a highly selective school in the NE but returned to my midwest roots after college. Occasionally employers have recognized my school name, but it’s not well known in this part of the country and I’m not sure it has given me a specific advantage over time. A great work ethic, natural talent, and a good job fit have been my greatest strengths, and I’m very successful but not taking over the company or anything like that. I’ve noted over time that when I worked for ‘average’ employers I tended to be a very high performer relative to my peers, but now that I’m at a ‘selective’ employer most of my peers are very worthy, hard workers. It’s been harder to stand out (much like boarding school and college), but easy to succeed among other smart, hard workers.

    I would never trade my expensive liberal arts college experience (just paid off my school loans, yay!), but I think the confidence it gave me as a ‘reward’ for hard work before college, and the work ethic I learned was necessary, factors more now than name recognition.

  22. Helen says:

    Nick #19′s comments about intellectual life are very important. I went to a small country college and found my peer group very limited. I relate to that experience of frustration – attending literature lectures where most of the students hadn’t even read the book. You couldn’t have a conversation about it.

    We choose to send our children to a state (not private) school because of cost, and also because all the private schools are religious.

    We bought a house in the right area and feel it was a very good move. A child’s peer group is very important, and my kids have really nice friends. The school offers streamed classes and they will be in the top class where kids want to be there, and the teacher doesn’t waste time on behavioral issues.

  23. Jane says:

    “I went to a small country college and found my peer group very limited. I relate to that experience of frustration – attending literature lectures where most of the students hadn’t even read the book. You couldn’t have a conversation about it.”

    I hate to break it to you, but students at the elite universities often don’t read the books either. As a graduate student, I was a TA for years at a top tiered undergraduate institution (in the top 20 in the country), and there were many times that the discussion was non-existent because the students had obviously not read the material. Sure, perhaps they were more able to use their verbal skills to mask the fact that they didn’t do the work, but it was still obvious to me. The reality is that many of the students at any institution are just there for the degree and do not care about learning. It’s sad, but true.

  24. Sierra says:

    I went to an expensive, fairly elite private college and have never regretted it. I was the first person in my entire extended family to get a college degree, and I think doing it at a private school that was top in my field of interest mattered a lot.

    I might not be making more money now than I would be if I’d gone to the state university near my mom’s house. In fact, I’m almost certainly not – I’m self-employed in a creative field.

    What I did get though, was exposure to a vivid intellectual culture, and experience in the kinds of creative and thoughtful lives it was possible to have.

    Growing up, I didn’t know anyone other than teachers who had gone to college. Every adult I knew worked in an office or a factory. They worked for other people, doing work they didn’t like much in exchange for an OK salary, and lived their real lives on the weekends.

    College taught me that people can have lifelong creative and intellectual pursuits at the center of their lives, even if they’re not famous. Going to a small, elite school also helped me build a lifelong network of creative friends and allies – something I’m pretty sure would have been a lot harder at a state school.

  25. Excellent info – I linked to this on my weekly roundup (post is under my name). Really good food for thought!

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