The Elusive Idea of Quality: A Tale of Two Titles

March 17, 2013

There is an important story given prominence in the today’s New York Times: talented, low-income high school students are not applying (and therefore not attending) highly selective colleges and universities, even though it wouldn’t cost them any more to attend those highly selective institutions given the availability of financial aid.  That’s a story worth telling. But the Times messes the story up in an important way. Here’s the headline:

NYT Better CollegesNotice the word “better” in the headline”? and notice the word “best” in the first sentence?  That’s not the language used in the research paper on which the story is based. Here’s the abstract of the research paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research:

Missing One-Offs paper

The paper, sensibly, uses the term “selective.” That is, the analysis focuses on those institutions that admit only a small fraction of their applicants: that’s the sense in which they are “selective.”

But are “selective” colleges and universities better? How would we know? If you think quality in higher education means “most sought after,” then sure, you equate “selective” with “best.” But a more straightforward meaning of “best” has to do with evidence that students are learning more: the best colleges are those where students have demonstrably greater gains in learning.

Has anyone demonstrated that the most selective colleges and universities are the ones where student learning is the greatest. In a word, Nope. Not demonstrated. Never has been.

So while the study is an important one, worth our attention, the Times is hyping it beyond its importance. We do not know from this research whether the low-income students who are not applying to more selective institutions are, in fact, receiving a less good quality education.

Stay tuned for the day we have good, independent measures of quality.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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