Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Best and the Brightest? Maybe Not

by Jonathan Leirer

It’s a tired cliché: the American Higher Education Industry educates the “best and the brightest”, but recent evidence may suggest otherwise. I recently stumbled upon a little “snapshot” by the Economic Policy Institute, from October 2005. The data are a little old, but the results are surprising. I’ve recreated their chart below to help illustrate the point.

The graph uses data from this study. It measures the "Percentage distribution of 1988 eighth-graders’ educational attainment by 2000, by eighth-grade mathematics achievement and selected student characteristics". As you can see, there is a nearly parallel shift in bachelor degree attainment based on income, after controlling for ability (although, it is admittedly a rough proxy for ability), which calls into question the validity of that old cliche. Apparently, it isn't the best and the brightest that are going to college, but the richest. Students from the top income quartile who perform in the bottom achievement quartile complete college at a higher rate than students from the bottom income quartile who perform in the top achievement quartile. That is to say, the least mathematically capable rich kids are completing college more often the the most capable poor kids.

In concordance with full disclosure, I have to admit that I was one of those kids who were in the bottom quartile of income and top quartile in mathematics (indeed, in 8th grade my family was probably in the bottom decile in income and I was performing in top decile in mathematics). When I see statistics like these, not only do I take them to heart, but I witness their effect every time I visit my home town or talk to my old high school friends.

While we haven't been explicitly discussing income issues much lately, we are the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and likewise access and affordability issues are high on our lists of priorities. Figures like the one above remind us of these issues and serve to reinvigorate our research to such ends. Expect to see more posts and research devoted to these issues of access and affordability coming out of CCAP in the near future.

1 comment:

capeman said...

How is "mathematical ability" measured and defined in this study? That is the nub of the matter. I simply don't believe the "conclusions" here. I've read these claims before, and never gotten a good answer.