How Much Does College Matter? Plus New Wonky Folk…

Jed Wallace and I did another WonkyFolk. We cover some trivia – do you know what education personality, Clooney-like, has a tequila company? Who was there for the inception of the Grateful Dead? We discuss our summers – and it’s a bit of a travelogue. Mine explains why the light posting, my teenage daughters had hoped for a hot girl summer but they got lot girl summer instead and saw a lot of live music. In addition to the usual stuff you’d expect from me (TTB, Dead & Co, Neil Young, Billy and the Kids) I recommend Noah Kahan. Jed breaks his vow on the Dead. And then we discuss Virginia because Jed’s obsessed with our fair commonwealth. We also revisit Moms For Liberty briefly and preview some special guests coming at the end of the month – who I am really excited about.

or here:

Here’s a rundown thanks to Jed:

  • The gentrification of college athletics (00.00.25)
  • Traveling, family and summer fun before becoming empty nesters (00.01.30)
  • Two amazing mystery guests, who specialize in educational politics, advocacy, parent organizing and empowerment, and will join us during our next WonkyFolk podcast (00.09.23)
  • Setting the stage for states, like VA, putting the interest of the Commonwealth and the kids of the Commonwealth before political expediency in adopting new K-12 history and social studies standards (00.14.17)
  • The education factor in Virginia elections (00.16.00)
  • School choice and the lack of robust parent groups in Virginia (00.20.23)
  • The political calculus to be made by rural Republicans in various states (00.22.20)
  • The juxtaposition of the two parties on school choice and reproductive choice (00.24.10)
  • Education, culture wars, and universal vouchers (00.28.00)
  • The existential crisis for public school supporters (00.30.22)
  • The juxtapositions of two articles focused on Mom’s for Liberty (00.36.03)

Does it matter where people go to school?

As I’ve noted before, when you’re in a large river or ocean the various currents often aren’t visible to you except at key moments, like crossing into the Gulf Stream. But when you get an elevated view suddenly you can see forces shaping things. In social science, research Raj Chetty continues to provide that elevated look – especially at questions about social mobility and education.

Earlier this summer I wrote about how the debate over affirmative action largely misses most of the young people education reformers purport to be most concerned about. That’s because a lot of people don’t go to college and especially not to the selective colleges where affirmation action matters (most schools admit everyone so there is no need for it). In a new analysis (here’s an overview in The Atlantic from Annie Lowrey) he shows how the super elite schools shape the structure of American leadership.

From Lowrey:

“People sometimes ask: Within the broad scope of trying to increase social mobility and address inequality in America, why is it important to spend your time focusing on 12 colleges that educate less than half a percent of Americans? Surely this can’t be important by the numbers,” Chetty told me. “That is right. But if you look at the people in positions of great influence—leading politicians, scientists, journalists—an incredibly disproportionate number come from these 12 colleges. To the extent those folks have a big influence on lots of other people’s lives, diversifying who is in those positions matters.”

This matters, yes, but a few pauses and caveats:

First, as with many of these problems improving the pipeline is the highest leverage solution. We see this on STEM and we see it here more generally with elite colleges. Yet improving the pipeline is attainable but awfully hard – substantively and politically – so we’re understandably attracted to quicker fixes or the sense that we’re doing something.

Second, it seems hard to juxtapose a need for greater diversity with what pretty clearly was anti-Asian discrimination (still less than 75 years since formal discrimination in immigration was ended). No, you can’t compare that to slavery, Jim Crow, or racial terror, but what was happening was also not a tenable solution to either the impact of those issues or the structure of American life today – not only the Supreme Court but voters feel that way. People do value diversity – they tell pollsters this and vote with their feet – but are leery of formal schemes. So there has to be a better way and, again, the pipeline seems like a pretty key place. It’s also worth noting that how affirmative action was practiced most recently is different than how it was originally conceived.

Third, it does seem that we have a diversity problem in our nation’s leadership if you look at say the United States Senate, the c-suites of large companies, elite institutions, and so forth. Yet one can argue that in addition to a problem of representation it’s also a viewpoint diversity and conformist problem. College students self-censor, so do professionals. If the last few years taught us anything it’s that we don’t have a healthy culture of dissent and free expression and that can lead to bad decisionmaking and policy. Preference falsification is rampant on the right and left because of the consequences of perceived wrong think and there is more common ground than a lot of unwilling combatants in the culture wars realize. There is plenty of really diverse, interesting, and robust culture happening – just a lot less in elite spaces and in politics right now.

Meanwhile, when some people say they want more diversity what they really mean is they want more like-minded progressives. But as we’ve also seen the past few years, and this is impacting the education sector now, racial determinism doesn’t translate cleanly to political behavior. And if the idea is to increase a progressive worldview then affirmative action doesn’t seem especially needed. There was relatively little disagreement in elite left spaces about affirmative action, for instance, look at Rick Kahlenberg. And white progressives are further to the left on race issues than many Black Americans anyway (in 2020 white Democrats were far more bothered that Joe Biden was a white guy than Black Democrats were). If anything, genuine diversity that includes viewpoint diversity might improve how we talk politically about these various issues and might have set the stage for a more fulsome defense of some kinds of affirmative action.

So, you have to hold two things in your head at once. Sure, who goes to the super elite schools matters at some levels in general *and* it’s still largely irrelevant to the experience of most of the individuals reformers say they want to help because they are not in that conversation around those schools. That of course brings us back to why, post-pandemic, post-affirmative action and pre-even greater disruption from technology and automation we’re not having a more serious conversation about K-12 schools? It’s hard not to think that perhaps has something to do with the conformist problem and the lack of viewpoint diversity as well.