A Social and Cultural Choice
For decades scholars have explored matters pertaining to the access to and impact of higher education. As the demand for better-educated workers increases and the demand for less-educated workers decreases, there has been a growing push to improve levels of college attainment. These questions have thus become more urgent: What factors influence a student's likelihood to choose college, and what effect can higher education have on a student's socioeconomic outcomes?
As Jennie E. Brand and Yu Xie point out in their recent article, Who Benefits Most from College? Evidence for Negative Selection in Heterogeneous Economic Returns to Higher Education, most scholars have relied on an economics-based rational-behavioral model to answer those questions. This model assumes that the two are inherently related: People choose college because they expect economic returns. In other words, if you go to college, it's because you've determined that the financial benefits associated with college will outweigh the costs. The logical conclusion that the literature typically draws from this assumption is that since students are making a purely economics-based decision, the people who are most likely to attend college are those who would benefit most from it. Brand and Xie label this the 'positive selection hypothesis.'
Sociology takes a more nuanced view of students' motivations to attend college. The literature argues that college-going behavior is governed by social and cultural norms and circumstances as much as rational choice. For example, students from a socially advantaged background - those from wealthier families who typically have access to better K-12 education - grow up with the expectation that they'll attend college. This expectation comes from their families and, according to some theorists, the education system, which tends to groom more advantaged students for college. Furthermore, the costs of college are less likely to be out of reach for this group.
This social pressure tends to split along economic class lines. Students with lower socioeconomic status are not typically pushed into college by their families. Likewise, the school system tends to prepare them to accept their lower status, rather than pushing them to succeed alongside their more advantaged peers. These students are also much less likely to have access to school counselors or college-going peers who can guide them through the application process, and much more likely to have family obligations that require them to stay close to home and work after high school. As a result, college is a 'novelty' for these students and they are much more likely to perform an economic cost-benefit analysis. For many, the short-term costs of college may be so daunting that they appear to eclipse any long-term benefits. The authors theorize that, as a result of the above disparities, those who stand to gain the most from higher education are the least likely to obtain a college degree. They call this the 'negative selection hypothesis.'
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Positive vs. Negative Selection
In order to test the positive and negative selection hypotheses, Brand and Xie analyzed empirical data from two large American longitudinal studies, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) 1979 cohort and the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS) of 1957 cohort. To eliminate certain confounding factors, they limited their analysis of NLSY participants to those who were between 14 and 17 at the time of the study, and had at least completed grade 12 by 1990. The WLS focused solely on those who graduated from high school in Wisconsin in 1959. Although the data may seem old, it allowed the authors to examine the returns of higher education over the course of subjects' lifetimes - each study followed its cohort past the age of 40.
Brand and Xie sought to identify which group benefited the most from the college wage premium, which refers to the increase in earning potential associated with a college degree. According to the positive selection hypothesis favored by economics, those who are most likely to attend college should show the greatest benefit. The negative selection hypothesis proposed by the authors suggest that those who are least likely to attend college should see the most benefit from higher education.
Every analysis that Brand and Xie performed supports the negative selection hypothesis. Men in the NLSY who were most likely to attend college (and who attained a degree) only earned 10% more between the ages of 29 and 32 than their similarly advantaged peers who never attended college. However, men who were the least likely to attend college (but did attain a degree) earned 30% more than their peers between the same ages. The pattern was similar for women - those who were least likely to attend college gained a 40% wage premium over their peers by earning a degree, whereas those who were most likely only gained 25 percent.
Although returns from college were lower overall for the older WLS cohort, their analysis showed a similar pattern: Those who were least likely to attend college obtained the most benefit from earning a degree.
The reason for this pattern may be relatively simple: socially advantaged individuals already have access to significant financial and social resources before they attend college. They're also more likely to have access to high-quality K-12 education. Socially disadvantaged individuals tend to have much less social and cultural capital, and therefore stand to gain the most from college. But for the reasons discussed above, socially advantaged students are still much more likely to attend college.
There has been a big push to shift this balance in recent years, particularly from the Obama administration. Money is being directed toward improving college preparation in underprivileged schools as well as bolstering the public universities and community colleges that are most likely to serve students of low socioeconomic status. Yet some critics have suggested that the push to get all students into college has gone too far. They point to statistics that show that many students are languishing in college, unable to graduate, simply accumulating debt while losing valuable working years. These individuals argue that students may have a low propensity for college precisely because they would receive a low benefit.
Brand and Xie's results would seem to contradict that statement, but they caution that their study doesn't offer easy answers to these complex policy questions. In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jennie Brand noted that they cannot rule out the possibility that the low-propensity students in their study had certain un-measurable traits that explained their higher rates of success. They could be exceptionally self-disciplined, or especially motivated to seek out higher-paying jobs after graduation due to their disadvantaged backgrounds. But those caveats don't explain away the fact that most of the high-propensity students who dropped out of college still earned almost as much as their peers who graduated, which supports the idea that socioeconomic background is the driving factor.
In the end, the study seems to suggest that college is not, in fact, a waste of time and money for those students who seem least likely to succeed. To the contrary - it may prove to be the most beneficial for precisely this group.