Stephen Gordon: Canada doesn’t have a Harvard, and that’s a good thing

Stephen Gordon on the weakness of the US elite college system in terms of social mobility:

It’s hard to tell which theory is correct: human capital models and signalling models both make the same basic prediction about the salaries of university graduates. Researchers are obliged to leverage information from natural experiments to distinguish between the two theories, and it’s usually the case that evidence that seems to support one side can be re-interpreted as supporting the other as well. A reasonable conclusion is that both stories have support in the data, and that each may play stronger roles in different contexts.

This brings us back to Harvard. The lengths to which people will go in order to obtain a Harvard degree are easier to understand if you think if a Harvard degree as a signal, and not a measure of human capital. To be sure, Harvard’s faculty deserves its reputation, but to the extent that teaching assistants and contract lecturers are responsible for much of the teaching at the undergraduate level (as is the case at so many other universities), the amount of human capital on offer at Harvard is unlikely to justify the prestige a Harvard degree conveys.

A more plausible story is that a Harvard degree conveys a signal: it shows that you have what it takes to get into Harvard in the first place. And indeed, the signalling story would also explain the trend to grade inflation at Harvard and other Ivy League universities. The grade most frequently awarded at Harvard is an A, and the median grade is A-. If students (and their parents) are paying for a signal, elite universities are going to be expected to provide it.

Signalling — and the wasted effort that goes with it — is much less pervasive in the Canadian university system. While some universities and some programs may have relatively higher entrance standards, getting into a “top” Canadian university is nowhere near as difficult as entering an elite U.S. college: the entire undergraduate population of the Ivy League is roughly equivalent to that of the University of Toronto. Moreover, the consequences of not getting into a top Canadian school are relatively minor: those who graduate from a Canadian undergraduate program are on a much more equal footing than they are in the U.S.

The U.S. has a rigid hierarchy of universities: the fact that they have a certain number of high-prestige schools has to be set against the fact that access to them is extremely limited, and that those who don’t make it into the top are at a permanent disadvantage. And since children from high-income families have greater access (elite universities typically offer “legacy” admissions to children of alumni), post-secondary education in the U.S. is at best a weak force for social mobility.

If — as available evidence suggests — Canadian social mobility is significantly greater than it is in the U.S., then much of the credit goes to the fact that there is no Canadian university that plays the prestige-signalling game that Harvard does. A “Harvard of Canada” is the last thing we need.

Source: Stephen Gordon: Canada doesn’t have a Harvard, and that’s a good thing | National Post

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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