Cultural Caviar

Alma Mater Blotter

June 28, 2017

Multiple Pages
Alma Mater Blotter

What’s the worst college in America in terms of taking in kids from rich families and turning out young adults who, despite all their privileges, still won’t earn very much?

By one way of counting, the biggest loser is Middlebury College in the Vermont ski country, site of the recent Charles Murray riot. The median parents of Middlebury students earned $219,600 per year (in 2015 dollars), while ten to twelve years after college, the children (as 32- to 34-year-olds in 2014) earned $61,800.

Granted, $61,800 isn’t bad, but it’s still $157,800 less than their parents were earning while they paid their tuition, which is a lot.

In contrast, the biggest income gainer among over 2,000 American undergraduate colleges is the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, where parents had a median income of $92,500 and their early-30s children average $123,600. That’s also the highest income of any college in the country. (But it should be remembered that St. Louis’ D. Pharm. degree is six years of study and one year of professional training, so it’s not exactly a fair comparison against typical undergraduate colleges.)

The highest-paid students from a general-purpose university are, unsurprisingly, those who attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who have a mean income in their early 30s of $98,500 (although the median MIT parents earn $141,000, so even MIT is a downward proposition in the short run).

Mean incomes are typically higher than median incomes due to small numbers of people with huge compensations skewing the mean. The highest mean income students are from Stanford, with $174,000. (Stanford parents earn a mean of $472,000.)

These numbers don’t mean that smart people don’t send their kids to Middlebury. (After all, one reason Charles Murray tried to give a talk there last winter was because his daughter is a Middlebury grad.) But they do add some perspective to the ongoing Bell Curve wars that the site of the most pitched battle was at the college (representative alumnus: Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues) with the second-highest median income parents in the country. Moreover, Middlebury has the highest mean income parents at $559,000, which is nice.

“In the future, Chetty could use his database to look into how to acquire rich in-laws.”

The one college with even loftier earning median income parents is conservative Washington and Lee University in Virginia. (A prototypical alumnus is Tom Wolfe.) Third place is, not surprisingly, Princeton (the alma mater of F. Scott Fitzgerald).

These data points gratifyingly fulfill stereotypes I’ve long harbored about rich-kid colleges. But how do we know these numbers about colleges?

Once again, we are indebted to Stanford economist Raj Chetty’s ability to talk his way into a trove of 1040 tax-return data that nobody previously seems to ever have had the gall to imagine they could get their hands on. Chetty has persuaded the IRS to pseudonymize for him the social security numbers on the tax returns of 11 million Americans born in 1980–82, plus their parents, which allows him to plumb the mysteries of economic mobility across two generations.

What are the government or educational policies that unlock upward mobility?

Unfortunately, after four years of Chetty’s research, there don’t seem to be many secrets of income mobility. His earlier work on hometown counties, for example, revealed such unsurprising results as that black children regress toward lower mean incomes than do white children as the fundamental logic of statistics would suggest. And you’d be better off being raised in white-bread Sioux County in Iowa than on a Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s nothing of interest in Chetty’s vast databases, just that you likely won’t hear the fun stuff from him. After all, Chetty wants to be an important, respectable man—he counseled Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush in their 2016 White House bids, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has taken to citing Chetty on his pre-campaign tour of Iowa. Being boring is the price of influence.

In Chetty’s own measures of income mobility, the most beneficial colleges are all public institutions in lucrative New York or Los Angeles, or in the impoverished Rio Grande Valley of Texas. For example, Cal State Los Angeles (median parents’ income $37,000, median student’s income $43,000) is a great college according to Chetty’s calculations (but generally not according to people more familiar with CSLA than the economist). Yet Chetty himself recently relocated from Harvard (median parents’ income $174,000) to Stanford ($173,000).

I suspect that Chetty is falling into his usual problem with failing to adjust for cost-of-living differences. New York and Los Angeles are expensive places to live, so graduates’ salaries (his numerator) are fairly high. South Texas is close to the Third World, so parents’ incomes (his denominator) are low.

Another issue is that all three regions have sizable gray-market cash economies and much tax evasion, which artificially reduces parents’ reported incomes. Southern California, which was heavily settled a century ago by relatively honest folk from places like Iowa and Minnesota, used to be fairly law-abiding. But it’s now full of Iranians, Russians, Mexicans, Israelis, Chinese, and others who don’t really see the point in the American custom of telling the government exactly how much you are raking in.

Chetty likewise finds that Glendale Community College, a junior college north of downtown Los Angeles, is the fourth-best college in America for upward mobility.

Perhaps.

After all, my father graduated from the junior college next door in Pasadena eighty years ago with a degree in aeronautical engineering and was quickly hired by Lockheed to help design P-38s. But they don’t let you design airplanes anymore with just an AA degree.

Chetty is upset that the student body at Glendale CC has been getting more upscale. But looking at Chetty’s list of the colleges that have been growing more downscale, such as the Baltimore School of Massage, suggests that there are worse things than your college becoming more appealing to those with more choices in life.

I suspect that a lot of the Armenians in affluent Glendale send their kids to the local JC for two years so they can transfer to the more prestigious UCLA as juniors. UCLA has become extremely hard to get into as a freshman due to competition from Asian Tiger Cubs (number of applicants for UCLA’s freshman class: 102,000; average high school GPA among entering freshmen on a 0-to-4 scale: 4.2).

But UCLA accepts several thousand community-college graduates as transfers each year. White Americans, however, have largely forgotten about this path. Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic, who was once a college admissions adviser at L.A.’s top prep school, Harvard-Westlake, has recounted the curious fact that so many Beverly Hills zillionaires she counseled were desperate to send their kids to Eastern private colleges even though they typically had done very well for themselves with a local UCLA degree.

On the other hand, the well-to-do “new whites” of Glendale tend to be aware that they can get their kids a cheap UCLA degree through the community-college route. And why send your child across the country when they can simply commute to Westwood?

What if you want your child to earn a One Percent income? The top-ranked colleges are the usual suspects: 23 percent of former Princeton students are in the top one percent in income among their age cohort, followed by Penn (i.e., the Wharton School, where President Trump studied), Stanford, Duke, MIT, Yale, and Babson, a business college in wealthy Wellesley, Mass.

Babson doesn’t get in the news much, except in the wake of the recent presidential election when The New York Times ran two articles about how a couple of Babson students had committed a horrific hate crime by driving around Hillary’s alma mater of Wellesley College (median parents’ income $142,000) waving a Trump flag. But after much investigation, it was eventually discovered that, even in Massachusetts, celebrating Hillary’s defeat was not against the law, yet.

A reformer might suggest that one way to upgrade the earning power of people with bachelor’s degrees is to encourage them to major in business as undergrads, as Penn and Babson do. The more common tradition at top private colleges of not offering a business concentration to force top undergrads to major in economics as a proxy for business and then pick up an M.B.A. in their late 20s seems wasteful. This delayed route to maximum earnings is particularly difficult for individuals without rich parents.

Colleges with more graduates in the One Percent than parents in the One Percent include MIT, Caltech, Rice, Stanford, and Cornell, all universities with strong engineering programs. Other schools that are founts of upward mobility are technical specialty institutions like Maine Maritime Academy, Colorado School of Mines, and various pharmacy programs.

Another interesting set of numbers Chetty has scraped from 1040 forms is marriage rates by college attended. Parents want their children to attend an elite college to find an elite spouse, while also worrying that elite education discourages marriage. On the other hand, making money can help young people afford to get married.

Among 32- to 34-year-olds, the highest rate of being married is found at the United Talmudical Seminary in Brooklyn: 94 percent. (Oddly enough, this school also has the poorest average parents in America at $21,200.)

Brigham Young is close behind at 85 percent. With the exception of a few beauty colleges and the like, BYU has the highest percentage of ex-students who had no individual income in 2014 (27 percent): Presumably most were housewives rather than unemployed.

Most of the other highly marital colleges are similarly sectarian, followed by big public universities in conservative parts of the country, like Clemson and Texas A&M. Well-paid technical colleges like St. Louis College of Pharmacy (82 percent) and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (63 percent) are above average for their regions.

The worst marriage rates are at black colleges like Grambling (19 percent).

Most elite colleges do middling well at marrying off their students by their early 30s. Princeton is at 59 percent, Harvard at 53 percent. Elite grads tend to get married in their 30s. While only 9 percent of former Harvard undergrads are married in the year they turn 26, by the year they turn 34, 58 percent are married.

Brown and Vanderbilt have equally rich parents (just under $200K in median income), but reputations as liberal and conservative. Vanderbilt is 64 percent married, while Brown is 53 percent.

The well-known colleges where former students are least likely to be married by their early 30s tend to be artsy, gay, or hippie schools such as Bard (37 percent), Rhode Island School of Design, Bennington, Hampshire, and Evergreen State.

In the future, Chetty could use his database to look into how to acquire rich in-laws. What are the secrets to making your fortune the old-fashioned way: marrying into wealth?

Because Chetty has his paws on two generations of tax returns, his numbers can answer all sorts of class-porn questions like: Where do extremely rich parents, not just the One Percent but the One-Tenth of One Percent, send their less bright scions?

In the past, there was a fair amount of divergence between the top colleges academically and the top colleges financially. For example, I got my B.A. at Rice U. in Houston in 1976–80 and my M.B.A. at UCLA in 1980–82. Rice, a low-profile science and engineering school, had higher test scores, but it was less glitzy than the much larger UCLA. My impression at the time was that Rice students tended to be the smartest children of engineers, while UCLA students tended to be the second-smartest kids of executives and lawyers.

Rice is undiscovered no longer. Despite being in a cheaper part of the country, it now has much wealthier parents than UCLA.

Growing up watching 1970s-80s teen sex comedies, I was under the naive impression that there are lots of colleges that exist mostly to coddle hedonistic blond coeds with doting millionaire dads. Disappointingly, however, it turns out that most rich-kid schools today instead demand tiresome displays of political virtue-signaling.

For example, the two most notorious hate hoaxes of the century occurred at rich-kid schools in the South: Duke (median parents’ income $196,000) and U. of Virginia ($151,000).

Is there no refuge?

In sorting through Chetty’s numbers, I ranked all the colleges in America in terms of percent of parents whose incomes are not just in the much-denounced One Percent, but are in the rarefied One-Tenth of One Percent, the 99.9th percentile. The top of the list is fairly predictable: SMU, Princeton, Duke, Brown, Colgate, Williams, and Harvard.

Except, No. 1 for superrich parents was a place I’d never heard of: Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. Judging from write-ups at Urban Dictionary, Lynn has targeted a lucrative market: good-looking, German-car-driving airheads who will inherit more than they will earn.

It turns out that while attending Lynn U. sounds like a blast in the short run, it doesn’t do your bank account much good in the long run. Former Lynn students ages 32–34 make a median of only $28,300 per year, 81 percent less than their parents. That’s even worse than notorious money holes like Bennington and Sarah Lawrence.

So while it takes money to make money for your offspring by sending them to, say, Princeton, MIT, or Babson, sometimes all the money in the world doesn’t much help.

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