3 Ways of Understanding American Universities


Pinker, Arum & Roksa, Caplan 

Steven Pinker

“Ivy admissions policies force teenagers and their mothers into a potlatch of conspicuous leisure and virtue. The winners go to an exorbitant summer camp, most of them indifferent to the outstanding facilities of scholarship and research that are bundled with it. They can afford this insouciance because the piece of paper they leave with serves as a quarter-million-dollar IQ and Marshmallow test. The self-fulfilling aura of prestige ensures that companies will overlook better qualified graduates of store-brand schools. And the size of the jackpot means that it’s rational for families to play this irrational game.”

“We have already seen that test scores, as far up the upper tail as you can go, predict a vast range of intellectual, practical, and artistic accomplishments.”

Arum and Roksa

“Even after statistically controlling for students’ sociodemographic characteristics, college majors and college selectivity, those who finished school with high C.L.A. scores were significantly less likely to be unemployed than those who had low C.L.A. scores.”

Bryan Caplan

“The main reason why college is a good deal for good students, a mediocre deal for mediocre students, and a poor deal for poor students: good students usually finish college, mediocre students usually don’t, and poor students almost never do. And most of the payoff for college comes from finishing.”


  1. There appear to be tests that can reasonably measure who will succeed in college.
  2. There appear to be tests that can reasonably measure how well college graduates are prepared for the workforce.
  3. The information from these tests is consistently ignored by families, students, and employers.
  4. Non-profit universities make collect money when students attend college and either (a) learn little and / or (b) drop out.

If I were in alien, I might ask the question: what the f*** is going on?

As a human, I understand that optimism bias, status seeking, and greed can wreak havoc on our species. 

I hope that, overtime, using data will allow us to better prepare students for college, increase the percentage of students that actually learn something at college, and help our society allocate funds more equitably and efficiently in supporting the pursuit of higher education. 

I’m unsure if this will occur. 

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