Researchers Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger made a big splash several years ago when they found that students who were admitted to schools with high average SAT scores but instead attended schools with lower scores earned just as much as students who attended high SAT schools. This led some in the media to conclude that in terms of earnings, it “didn’t matter” where a student goes to college, though in fact the study found that students attending schools with higher tuition costs, and greater levels of selectivity earned substantially more, as did low-income students attending schools with higher SATs.
Now Dale, a senior researcher with Mathematica Policy Research, and Krueger, a professor at Princeton University, are back with an extension of their earlier research, examining earnings over a longer period of time, looking also at a second more recent cohort of students and using a new database for earnings. They find that neither average school SAT nor tuition cost affects earnings on average, but that certain groups—black and Hispanic students and those with parents with less than 16 years of education—do receive a wage premium from attending a high SAT college.
For the 1989 cohort of students, the authors write, “our results suggest that attending a college with a 200-point higher SAT score would lead to 5.2 percent higher earnings in 2007 for those with average parental education of 12 years (equivalent to graduating from high school); however, for those whose parents averaged 16 years of education (approximately equivalent to college graduates), there was virtually no return to attending a more selective college.”
Why do disadvantaged students benefit? “One possible explanation,” the authors write, “is that highly selective colleges provide access to networks for minority students and for students from disadvantaged family backgrounds that are otherwise not available to them.”
Shouldn’t these data be relevant to admissions officers? I’m not one to suggest adult earnings are the be all and end all. (I wrote a memoir of Harvard Law School criticizing the manner in which students began “wanting to be Atticus Finch and left as Arnie Becker”—a wealthy attorney on the then-popular television show, “L.A. Law.”) But shouldn’t the fact that disadvantaged students benefit more from a high SAT school be a consideration?
Selective institutions have 25 times as many wealthy first quartile students as they do disadvantaged fourth quartile students. There are several reasons to be concerned about this. Low-income students who have worked hard and overcome odds are morally deserving but almost completely shut out. We’re missing out on a lot of talented low-income students who have a lot to offer. We’re creating a leadership class that has very little understanding of what it means to grow up disadvantaged. And we have sterile classroom discussions when virtually no students come from the wrong side of the tracks.
But Krueger and Dale add an efficiency rationale. Forget about liberal notions of what’s fair and equitable for a moment. Advantaged students will earn roughly the same whether they go to a high or low SAT school. But for disadvantaged students, the earnings payoff is far greater. Shouldn’t this matter to conservatives?