Obsessions and higher education

The United States has the least centralized government, with the strongest norms in behalf of individual freedom among well-to-do democracies. Among its detailed traits are
  • Variations in public policy between states and localities
  • Commendable indications of research and innovation in science, medicine, and technology
  • High flow of immigrants--not all of them legal--seeking individual opportunity
  • The developed world''s greatest inequalities as measured by family incomes
  • The developed world''s highest levels of violence and incarceration
  • The developed world''s greatest reliance on profit-making health insurers
  • The developed world''s lowest levels of life expectancy
  • Great unevenness in the qualify of secondary education
  • The highest levels of attendance in post-secondary education
  • Great unevenness in the quality of post-secondary education
A long article in the New York Times describes some implications of Americans'' pursuit of individual opportunity via higher education: the obsessive drive for entrance to prestige colleges and universities by high school students, their parents, teachers and school administrators.
The headline and theme of the article is, "Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill." It describes high schoolers who have learned that certain drugs can increase their concentration and capacity to get good grades after long nights of cramming. They have also learned how to persuade physicians to prescribe the medications, or how to obtain them from friends or others illegally, and to profit from selling them.
Authors of the article claim that use of the pills are highest in the more affluent suburbs, better urban neighborhoods, and more prestigious private and public schools. They report the claims of young people and parents that "everybody uses them," and the claims of school administrators that such reports are exaggerated, especially as they pertain to their schools.
The drive of ambitious parents and teenagers for admission to high ranked colleges has been part of the American scene since college attendance became widespread after World War II. It has produced a small industry of researchers and claimants about the benefits of good colleges, not all of it well done or free of self-interest. Mass circulation journals compete with their annual rankings, college administrators do what they can to get their institutions on one or another list, and high school administrators do what they can to improve their record of getting graduates into the places with high scores.
There is no end of claims that the graduates of the high ranking institutions are most likely to get the best job offers upon graduation and have the highest incomes years after graduation.
Not so simple is the question about how much value the prestige colleges add to their students'' life chances, and whether the value added is worth their high tuition.
A compilation of research findings goes by the title "College Prestige Lies." It argues that students with innate skills and the advantages acquired from well-educated and high-income parents are more likely than others to do well in their careers no matter what college they attend. Among the items cited is a sophisticated article in the distinguished Quarterly Journal of Economics.
Its most prominent findings, reflecting research done years after graduation:

"Estimates of the effect of college selectivity on earnings may be biased because elite colleges admit students, in part, based on characteristics that are related to future earnings. . . . we find that students who attended more selective colleges earned about the same as students of seemingly comparable ability who attended less selective schools. Children from low-income families, however, earned more if they attended selective colleges."
This squares with other research showing that school and family both affect academic success and life opportunities. Well healed kids are likely to do well. What most students receives from home by way of parents with education, a concern that their children learn, and money, is likely to be more important than what the student receives by way of instruction in school. It is children from disadvantaged families who are most likely to be helped by good schools and colleges, if they can surmount the hurdles of admission and expense.
My own life chances may have depended on that scholarship to Wesleyan, which got me out of a poor industrial city whose adults had an average 8 years of education, and the low quality of schools that one might expect in such a place. Subsequent experiences led me to appreciate the quality (and the benefit-cost advantage) of state universities in the US, and universities in Europe and Israel more thoroughly monitored by governments than in the US. European and Israeli universities lack the wide diversities of quality along with the nerve-wracking concern with applications and admission that mark the American scene.
Three of Israel''s seven universities have achieved international renown for their faculties'' research, and there are not great differences among the universities with respect to undergraduate education. Admission depends almost entirely upon scores on standardized national examinations. Tuition resembles that at American state universities. Faculty salaries and working conditions are similar across departments and institutions.
The development of more than 50 colleges has come in the last two decades of growing national wealth and a larger incidence of young people wanting higher education. The colleges are less regulated than are the universities by the national authority for higher education. Tuition in many is not subsidized, and varies along with admission standards, the quality and working conditions of the teaching personnel. The colleges include some older institutions that provide high quality training in music and art, some that specialize in engineering, computer science,and the preparation of teachers, and a number that resemble American community colleges.
Israeli young people show some of the anxiety of their American peers as they prepare for national examinations. By the time they are ready for university or college, however, most have matured via several years in the IDF. The selection process is less frantic than what is described for the United States. On the basis of my poking and prodding over the years, it appears that most of the talented people who want a high quality education find places in the universities or better colleges.
For the upper-income American family that is the focus of the New York Times article on drugs and grades, it is best to relax, wean the kid from the drugs, and talk up the less competitive state university with tuition a quarter or less than that at a private college. If the same families wish to be socially responsible for the sake of children from poor families who are most likely to be helped by an elite institution, they should send the money they save on their kids'' tuition to the scholarship fund of a distinguished school, whether it be public or private.