As I’ve already written about, there’s no end to the discussions of crushing student loan debt that keep today’s young people struggling well into their 40s and 50s. The average price of college tuition has ballooned to over triple the price tag from the 1980s.
The fact of the matter is, though, that those swollen prices don’t necessarily reflect an increased quality of education, an increased return on investment, or even an increased chance at finishing college with the degree you enrolled to earn.
Malcolm Gladwell has been a vocal advocate of greater transparency on the part of college about where their multi-billion dollar endowments go. To him, the mark of a successful college isn’t necessarily how well it treats the students that attend there, but how well it provides access to college for students who otherwise may not have the opportunity. Especially considering that colleges are nonprofits, and thus tax-exempt, Gladwell wants colleges to be held accountable to their doctrine to do good in the community.
In his most recent book David and Goliath, Gladwell discusses an elegant study in which he argues that, not only is it unnecessary for students to take on the debt private liberal arts schools want them to, but that such elite schools may deter students from earning the degree of their dreams.
Gladwell elegantly laid out his study about how to tell which students will finish college with STEM degrees, and the tell may surprise you. First, he took the SAT Math scores of all incoming students who declared STEM majors at one of the most selective private colleges in the US. Using these scores, Gladwell divided the students into three groups — the top, middle, and bottom third of scores. Now, for this school, the average SAT Math score for the top third of incoming students was in the 700s, the middle third had scores in the 600s, and the bottom third was in the low-600s to high-500s. Gladwell traced the performance of these students, and the numbers shook out this way: About half of the top third finished with STEM degrees, about a quarter of the middle third, and about ten percent of the bottom third walked with the degree they entered college to earn.
Then, Gladwell performed the same experiment on a very average college in the US. He took incoming STEM majors and divided them into thirds based on their SAT Math scores — in this case, though, the top third’s average was closer to the mid to low 600s, and the bottom third’s clocked in towards the low 500s. However, the completion rates of the thirds were nearly identical to those from the elite school: loosely half the top third, a quarter of the middle third, and a tenth of the bottom third graduated with degrees in STEM.
Now, consider an “average” American student with an SAT Math score of 610. According to Gladwell’s study, that student’s chances of graduating with a degree in STEM nearly doubles if the student chooses to go to an “average” college over an “elite” one. Gladwell wraps up his writing on the matter saying that common wisdom is wrong — sending a child to the “best” school that child gets into may actually inhibit their dreams. Often, an “average” school is the better bet for that child and will result in an ending closer to the one of their dreams.