Ross Douthat’s most recent column, and a follow-up post on his blog, treat the arguments of a recent book about the “party pathway” through college at a large, unnamed Midwestern university. The book’s point is that this fraternity and sorority-centered path is only realistically available to wealthier students, and poorer students wind up suffering in one of two ways: either from exclusion from a social world that is vital to future economic prospects, or by being sucked into that world, and spending money they don’t have on activities that actively hurt their grades, and hence their future economic prospects.
I haven’t read the book, so I probably shouldn’t comment on the picture it paints. But I do have an overarching question, to whit: what’s described sounds like massive market failure that I’d like to understand better.
Here’s what I mean. The “party pathway” is only possible if you don’t have to study much. That means you have to take less-demanding classes. That means you graduate with a degree in a less-demanding field, or that your degree in a more-demanding field didn’t actually require you to master the most demanding material.
This is information that employers, presumably, both care about and can acquire. That is to say: they should know that communications majors from Rich Party U will be less well-educated on average than English majors from Less-Prestigious Grind College. They should also know that they have demonstrated poorer work habits. So why would students from Rich Party U be preferred for employment?
They shouldn’t be. And if they are, that’s a pretty substantial market failure.
Of course, I can think of a wide variety of reasons why such a market failure would persist for a good while, from hiring managers favoring fellow alumni, to the slow pace at which perceptions of institutional quality change, to the noise associated with a variety of other demographic changes obscuring the signal of changing institutional quality, to old-fashioned racial, ethnic or regional prejudice, to the possibility of pre-selection, i.e., that the more prestigious schools are still attracting students who are smarter and worked harder in high school, so that employers effectively look past the actual college record, and are paying attention only to the selection process by which they got into college in the first place. And no doubt there are other factors in play.
Nonetheless, at the end of the day we’re still describing a market opportunity for any firm that decides: I’d rather hire 4.0 GPA graduates of Nowheresville State Teacher’s College than 2.5 GPA graduates of Big Midwestern, because they’ll work harder, and probably for less money. And if those decisions start happening more and more, then Big Midwestern will have to re-think its party-oriented recruitment strategy (and maybe even its spending priorities).
At a minimum, I’d like to hear an argument why not. Because hectoring has a poorer track record of driving cultural change than losing money does.