You don’t become beautiful by signing up with a modeling agency

Saturday, November 13th, 2021

Social scientists distinguish between what are known as treatment effects and selection effects:

The Marine Corps, for instance, is largely a treatment-effect institution. It doesn’t have an enormous admissions office grading applicants along four separate dimensions of toughness and intelligence. It’s confident that the experience of undergoing Marine Corps basic training will turn you into a formidable soldier. A modelling agency, by contrast, is a selection-effect institution. You don’t become beautiful by signing up with an agency. You get signed up by an agency because you’re beautiful.

At the heart of the American obsession with the Ivy League is the belief that schools like Harvard provide the social and intellectual equivalent of Marine Corps basic training—that being taught by all those brilliant professors and meeting all those other motivated students and getting a degree with that powerful name on it will confer advantages that no local state university can provide. Fuelling the treatment-effect idea are studies showing that if you take two students with the same S.A.T. scores and grades, one of whom goes to a school like Harvard and one of whom goes to a less selective college, the Ivy Leaguer will make far more money ten or twenty years down the road.

The extraordinary emphasis the Ivy League places on admissions policies, though, makes it seem more like a modelling agency than like the Marine Corps, and, sure enough, the studies based on those two apparently equivalent students turn out to be flawed. How do we know that two students who have the same S.A.T. scores and grades really are equivalent? It’s quite possible that the student who goes to Harvard is more ambitious and energetic and personable than the student who wasn’t let in, and that those same intangibles are what account for his better career success. To assess the effect of the Ivies, it makes more sense to compare the student who got into a top school with the student who got into that same school but chose to go to a less selective one. Three years ago, the economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale published just such a study. And they found that when you compare apples and apples the income bonus from selective schools disappears.

“As a hypothetical example, take the University of Pennsylvania and Penn State, which are two schools a lot of students choose between,” Krueger said. “One is Ivy, one is a state school. Penn is much more highly selective. If you compare the students who go to those two schools, the ones who go to Penn have higher incomes. But let’s look at those who got into both types of schools, some of whom chose Penn and some of whom chose Penn State. Within that set it doesn’t seem to matter whether you go to the more selective school. Now, you would think that the more ambitious student is the one who would choose to go to Penn, and the ones choosing to go to Penn State might be a little less confident in their abilities or have a little lower family income, and both of those factors would point to people doing worse later on. But they don’t.”

(I’ve cited Malcolm Gladwell’s Getting In before.)


  1. McChuck says:

    The Harvard grad will get hired by other Harvard alumni for high paying, prestigious jobs.

    The Ivy league schools do not provide an excellent education. They provide a full Rolodex and recognition codes.

  2. David Foster says:

    Very good. It applies not only at the level of individual schools, but also at the level of analyzing the economic benefit across the board.

  3. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “… the Ivy Leaguer will make far more money ten or twenty years down the road.”

    Let’s also be careful about extrapolation from the past. The Politically Correct Ivy League of today is not the same as the more academically rigorous Ivy League of 20 years ago.

    Aside from declining quality of education, what the selection bureaucracy considers to be “beauty” is clearly changing. Past performance may not be a good guide for today’s student making a choice between institutions.

  4. David Foster says:

    The Ivy Rolodex can be of real value, especially in certain industries (consulting, investment banking, government), but possessors of this Rolodex sometimes over-rate its value. I met a startup founder who was quite sure that his Harvard degree would give him entree in establishing a partnership with a certain well-known company. It’s been several years and I haven’t seen an announcement of any such deal.

  5. VXXC says:

    They’ll model well in the Tumbrels. In the end all outcomes are the same.

Leave a Reply