Slate magazine has an interesting article on how George Mason University attracts undervalued prospects in their economics department and on their basketball team. Here is a quote that summarizes much of their article:
“GMU lacks the resources and reputation to recruit McDonald’s All-Americans or Alan Dershowitzes. So instead, GMU has hunted for inefficiencies in its markets. Coach Jim Larranaga follows the Moneyball model of recruitment: hunting for the undervalued players—the ones who everyone else thought were too short, too thin, or too fat—and then building them into a team. In its astonishing defeat of UConn, GMU’s players were giving away 4 inches at nearly every position…
One reason is that coaches who take chances on oddball players risk making themselves look foolish. A coach who goes after the same jock that everyone else wants, or an investment analyst who picks the same stock that everyone else recommends, at least can’t be made to look worse than average. Herd behavior means that unpopular opportunities remain unexploited. An unusual coach who’s willing to look unfashionable with the in-crowd has a chance to excel.
This is also the idea behind GMU’s free-market-oriented economics department. The department got started with a heretical premise: The academic market is inefficient, so how can we exploit it? GMU knew it couldn’t afford to be a first-class MIT and didn’t want to be a second-class MIT, so successive chairs of the department, backed by entrepreneurial university presidents George Johnson and Alan Merten, looked for unexploited opportunities.
James Buchanan, GMU’s first Nobel Prize winner, has never had an Ivy League position and indeed he has never taught above the Mason-Dixon Line. Gordon Tullock, a potential future Nobelist, has no degree in economics and took only one class in the subject. Vernon Smith, who moved his team from the University of Arizona (again, no Harvard) to GMU in 2001, had to fight to get people to treat experimental economics as more than a cute parlor game.”
Malcolm Gladwell, writing for the New Yorker, discusses how the Ivy League schools keep their outstanding reputation:
Social scientists distinguish between what are known as treatment effects and selection effects. The Marine Corps, for instance, is largely a treatment-effect institution. It doesn’t have an enormous admissions office grading applicants along four separate dimensions of toughness and intelligence. It’s confident that the experience of undergoing Marine Corps basic training will turn you into a formidable soldier. A modeling agency, by contrast, is a selection-effect institution. You don’t become beautiful by signing up with an agency. You get signed up by an agency because you’re beautiful.
At the heart of the American obsession with the Ivy League is the belief that schools like Harvard provide the social and intellectual equivalent of Marine Corps basic training—that being taught by all those brilliant professors and meeting all those other motivated students and getting a degree with that powerful name on it will confer advantages that no local state university can provide. Fuelling the treatment-effect idea are studies showing that if you take two students with the same S.A.T. scores and grades, one of whom goes to a school like Harvard and one of whom goes to a less selective college, the Ivy Leaguer will make far more money ten or twenty years down the road.
The extraordinary emphasis the Ivy League places on admissions policies, though, makes it seem more like a modelling agency than like the Marine Corps, and, sure enough, the studies based on those two apparently equivalent students turn out to be flawed. How do we know that two students who have the same S.A.T. scores and grades really are equivalent? It’s quite possible that the student who goes to Harvard is more ambitious and energetic and personable than the student who wasn’t let in, and that those same intangibles are what account for his better career success. To assess the effect of the Ivies, it makes more sense to compare the student who got into a top school with the student who got into that same school but chose to go to a less selective one. Three years ago, the economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale published just such a study. And they found that when you compare apples and apples the income bonus from selective schools disappears.
“As a hypothetical example, take the University of Pennsylvania and Penn State, which are two schools a lot of students choose between,” Krueger said. “One is Ivy, one is a state school. Penn is much more highly selective. If you compare the students who go to those two schools, the ones who go to Penn have higher incomes. But let’s look at those who got into both types of schools, some of whom chose Penn and some of whom chose Penn State. Within that set it doesn’t seem to matter whether you go to the more selective school. Now, you would think that the more ambitious student is the one who would choose to go to Penn, and the ones choosing to go to Penn State might be a little less confident in their abilities or have a little lower family income, and both of those factors would point to people doing worse later on. But they don’t.”
Krueger says that there is one exception to this. Students from the very lowest economic strata do seem to benefit from going to an Ivy. For most students, though, the general rule seems to be that if you are a hardworking and intelligent person you’ll end up doing well regardless of where you went to school. You’ll make good contacts at Penn. But Penn State is big enough and diverse enough that you can make good contacts there, too. Having Penn on your résumé opens doors. But if you were good enough to get into Penn you’re good enough that those doors will open for you anyway. “I can see why families are really concerned about this,” Krueger went on. “The average graduate from a top school is making nearly a hundred and twenty thousand dollars a year, the average graduate from a moderately selective school is making ninety thousand dollars. That’s an enormous difference, and I can see why parents would fight to get their kids into the better school. But I think they are just assigning to the school a lot of what the student is bringing with him to the school.””
These articles provide interesting commentary on individual differences, selection bias, and ‘correlation does not equal causation’ issues. There are many individual difference issues that one might not ever be able to predict outcome of a college experience. Selection effects bias the data even more. Another question is whether our graduates are good because they graduated from here or are they good because they were good to begin with (probably both are correct to some extent with variation dependent on individual differences).