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What if I told you there was one economic activity that is a silver bullet for income inequality?

Christina PAXSON: It is an equalizer that’s really important. 

And it’s not just income.

Morton SCHAPIRO: The monetary returns are really important, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

Just about any economist you talk to — they all come around to that same word.

Peter BLAIR: Incredibly important.

Amalia MILLER: Very important.

Miguel URQUIOLA: Immensely important.

Can you guess the economic activity I’m talking about? Here’s a hint:

Ruth SIMMONS: You learn more in those four years than you do at any other point in your life. 

Yes, the activity we’re talking about is college. You probably don’t need to be told that going to college is important. Given the demographics of the Freakonomics Radio audience, it’s likely that you have a college degree — at least one — or you’re working on one. Despite the cost in time and dollars, our economist friends see college as one of the best investments possible. An investment for yourself:

Catharine HILL: If you can get yourself a college degree, your lifetime earnings are going to be significantly higher. You’re going to have better health insurance, you’re going to be more satisfied with your job. 

And a good investment for society:

SCHAPIRO: People who have higher education, they are much more likely to vote, they’re much more likely to volunteer, they’re much more likely to do all kinds of things that enhance the democratic process and the social fabric of the country. 

But what about people who aren’t economists? Well, they are not quite as enthusiastic about college. According to a recent Gallup poll, the share of U.S. adults who express either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education has been slipping; it’s now below 50 percent. The decline is strongest among Republicans, but Democrats and Independents are also trending down. So that’s the sentiment around college — let’s look at the data. You may be surprised to learn that only 38 percent of Americans over age 25 have a bachelor’s degree. College graduates tend to bunch up with other college graduates — they work together, they intermarry, they socialize — so if you do have a degree, it’s easy to forget that most Americans don’t. For decades, the share of the U.S. population attending college was rising — but over the past decade or so, it’s been declining, and the pandemic has exacerbated the decline.

HILL: The number of students enrolled in college has gone down by about a million in the last two years, since Covid.

Catharine Hill is an economist and a former president of Vassar College; she now sits on the board of trustees at Yale.

HILL: What’s scary about that is that many of those students may not make it back to college once they’ve stopped out. As a country, we’ve been working really, really hard to get educational attainment up, and this is now pushing us in the wrong direction.

During most recessions, college attendance rises; when it’s hard to find a good job, people are more inclined to go to school. The pandemic recession has been different, and it has disproportionately affected one cohort of would-be college students.

HILL: They tend to be from lower-income families, and they tend to be from Black and Latino families.

If college is such a powerful way to shrink income inequality, and if people on the lower end of the income spectrum are becoming less likely to attend college — well, you can see the problem. Over the years, we’ve done several episodes about higher education, and we find ourselves coming back to this fundamental conflict: college is incredibly valuable for individuals and society, but it’s still a somewhat rarefied activity, and even a shrinking one. So we wanted to go back to first principles, and ask a very basic question: What, exactly, is college for?

SCHAPIRO: It’s a darn good question. 

Within that question are many others:

MILLER: Why are more women going to college than men? 

Zachary BLEEMER: What happens when Black and Hispanic students lose admissions advantages? 

BLAIR: The title of the paper is “Why Don’t Elite Colleges Increase Supply?” 

And here’s one more question: since students from higher-income families are more likely to attend the better colleges, how do we know that college itself is such a magic bullet for income inequality? How do we know that college isn’t just another case of the rich getting richer? We’re going to spend the next few episodes trying to answer all these questions. We’ll hear from college presidents:

PAXSON: My name is Chris Paxson. I’m president of Brown University.

SIMMONS: My name is Ruth Simmons. I’m president of Prairie View A&M University. 

We’ll hear from academic researchers:

URQUIOLA: The U.S. system is peculiar for the astronomical levels of tuition.

MILLER: Typical boy behavior doesn’t fit as well with good student behavior.

And we’ll hear from people who are trying to bust the old college model: 

D’Wayne EDWARDS: All we did was borrow from nursing schools and welding schools and electrical schools.

By the way, this is the 500th episode of Freakonomics Radio. Some of you have listened to every single one. If this is your first, there are 499 more waiting for you, available for free wherever you get podcasts. And now, here’s the first episode of “Freakonomics Radio Goes Back to School.”

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HILL: I had a colleague at Williams whose name was Gordon Winston. 

That, again, is the economist and former college president Catharine Hill.

HILL: And he used to refer to higher-ed as part church, part car dealer.

It’s tempting to focus on the church function of college — the quest for knowledge, for self-discovery, for improving society. But what about the car-dealer part?

HILL: They also ultimately have a bottom line. They’re not-for-profit, which does not mean they can’t make a profit. It means they can’t distribute it to shareholders. We don’t have shareholders. But we do compete.

It may distress you to hear universities described in terms of the profit motive, but these are economists we’re talking to.

URQUIOLA: I do something which economists often do, which is think of institutions a little bit like firms that interact in the market. 

That’s Miguel Urquiola. He’s chair of the economics department at Columbia University.

URQUIOLA: My main work is on how schools compete, how universities compete.

Stephen DUBNER: And what do you mean by that, how schools and universities compete — compete with whom, against each other? 

URQUIOLA: Yeah, basically compete against each other. How they seek to differentiate their products, how they might appeal to different consumers. 

Differentiation is what competitors do in every kind of market. They produce a variety of goods and services to try to capture different segments of demand. One way colleges differentiate is on price. Community colleges, on average, charge less than $5,000 a year — when they charge tuition at all: nearly 30 states now offer free community college. Four-year state schools might charge $10- or $15,000 a year for an in-state resident; the average cost at a private university, meanwhile, is around $38,000 a year. In each case, prices have been rising.

URQUIOLA: The U.S. system is peculiar for the astronomical levels of tuition. You could get a European parent to faint if you tell them how much you have to pay for a kid to go to college here.

Public universities in Germany, for instance, are free. In the U.K., tuition is capped at around $12,000 for U.K. students, even for schools like Oxford and Cambridge. The U.S. system does not feature this sort of price control.

URQUIOLA: The U.S. often relies on the market and on chaos to configure its systems.

DUBNER: What do you mean by chaos? 

URQUIOLA: Well, chaos meaning like you just leave the design up to market players or to individuals, to churches to private institutions. For example, one thing that happened in Europe, starting with the late Middle Ages, is that states tended to take control of the higher-education sector. And then they designed it, as European countries often do, in a fairly deliberate, fairly rational way. This did not happen in the U.S.

The earliest universities were founded in Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. Places like Oxford, the University of Bologna, the University of Paris. They were typically run by the Church. With the Reformation 500 years later, they were mostly taken over by governments, and as Urquiola said, European governments are still heavily involved in universities today. This does have its upsides.

URQUIOLA: If you were going to fall into a random German university or a random American one, you might want to choose the German setting. There’s going to be a lot less inequality and differentiation than in the U.S. 

The U.S. has weaker colleges on average, but more of the very top universities, like Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago. And there is a reason these places draw students from all over the world, even with the high prices. Their prestige is linked to their strength as research institutions. In a book called Markets, Minds, and Money: Why America Leads the World in University Research, Urquiola charts the development of these institutions.

URQUIOLA: What you would have found is that around 1880, the U.S. was a very weak country in terms of research output among rich countries. And what you find is that by 1920, 1930, it was pretty much ahead of the pack. 

What changed over just those few decades? To understand that, we have to go back to before the Civil War, when there were roughly 900 colleges in the U.S.

URQUIOLA: What were colleges doing? They would teach a two- or three-year curriculum that was absolutely fixed. No choice about anything. You’re taking things like Latin, Greek, rhetoric, some history. 

But after the Civil War, as the U.S. industrialized and as the economy boomed, a host of innovators opened new colleges with new models. They were more specialized, with more focus on intensive graduate training for particular occupations. Colleges scrambled to get the best faculty talent they could in order to attract new students. This created winners and losers. Consider Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was founded in 1887 as a graduate research institution.

URQUIOLA: It had several good departments, never was able to take hold fully as a research university. It was victimized partially by Chicago.

Meaning the University of Chicago, which was founded in 1890 with Rockefeller money.

URQUIOLA: And one thing that the first president of Chicago did was basically go to Clark and raid various departments. Many people know less about Clark. It’s still a good university, but it’s not Johns Hopkins or Harvard. And it could have been. 

The competition for top talent meant that, by the mid-twentieth century, there was an established tier of elite U.S. universities that had attracted top scholars and the best students. And then came the Cold War. The Federal government, eager to accelerate scientific and technological innovation, they looked around to see where they could get the best return on their funding dollars. The obvious answer: the universities where the best researchers were already doing the best work. This led to the creation of the modern grant system.

URQUIOLA: The way this was set up is also somewhat peculiarly American, is that the scheme was basically to give money to the universities that present the best projects. A sort of meritocratic, if you will, approach that created a lot of concentration in terms of who was going to get this money. 

The government wound up directing massive funding to a select few institutions rather than trying to spread it around. This imbalance still exists: the University of Chicago, for instance, gets around $350 million in federal research funding in a given year. How about Clark University? It gets about $3.4 million, or one one-hundredth the UChicago amount. But Miguel Urquiola does not see this inequity as a bad thing.

URQUIOLA: The genius of the U.S. university system is that research is funded on the backs of the wealthy. 

The wealthy families, that is, who send their children to these universities. Most students at the elite research institutions come from well-to-do families. Not only do they pay the full sticker price of the tuition — unlike the lower-income students who get in; they pay much less, and often zero. But the rich families also donate a lot of money to those universities — sometimes before a student has been admitted, especially if they’re a legacy candidate, and after as well; these donations help to further burnish the reputation of their alma mater.

URQUIOLA: If you look at a school like Stanford, it does a lot of research. It’s mainly paid for by two agents: the state has a role because the federal government gives Stanford money. It certainly gives it tax breaks also. But it’s a lot of private individuals giving it money, wealthy people giving it money. And if you have a system where wealthy people are giving money, that generates good things for lots of people. So, if it generates vaccine technology and we’re all better off because of that, that system to me seems like it has properties that you want to basically keep, which is wealthy people giving for the common good. 

That said, this system does have its flaws.

URQUIOLA: The U.S. has more inequality than almost any industrialized country. It’s not a coincidence that we have an unequal educational system and that we have an unequal country. 

One sign of the inequality in the U.S. university system is how much time we spend talking about a handful of elite schools, which educate a tiny fraction of all college students. The Ivy League schools, for instance — Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale — they have a combined undergraduate and graduate population of 145,000, or roughly 0.8 percent of all U.S. college students. Now, some of the attention paid to the elite schools is warranted — that’s where much of the best research is happening; that’s why a research-based show like this one features so many professors from UChicago and Harvard and Penn. But what are we missing when we pay so much attention to the top of the pyramid? For a good angle on that question, we need to talk to this man.

SCHAPIRO: Morty Schapiro. I’m a professor of economics and president of Northwestern University. 

Yes, Northwestern is an elite school; it’s ranked ninth in the country by U.S. News & World Report — and yes, the whole college-ranking thing is a weirdness unto itself. We’ll touch on that later in this series. Anyway, Northwestern is on everyone’s list of excellent U.S. universities, and it receives about a half-billion dollars a year in federal research funding. And before Northwestern, Morty Schapiro was president of Williams College — not a research university but, according to the U.S. News ranking, the No. 1 liberal-arts college in the country. So, you might think Schapiro himself attended an elite college. He did not; in fact, he barely made it to college at all.

SCHAPIRO: I went to an under-resourced public high school and most of my friends were not college-track. 

This was in New Jersey, in the early 1970s.

SCHAPIRO: They had a very good auto-mechanics thing, and they had a hair-dressing thing. I once spent a summer in the graveyard shift of UPS loading trucks. I made $1.71 an hour if I remember correctly, the minimum wage. I worked as a dishwasher in a catering place, and I worked for one summer on an assembly line in a factory. 

But Schapiro did have a strong incentive to apply to college.

SCHAPIRO: I didn’t want to go to Vietnam. I had no intellectual interests at all. But fortunately, I tested okay on the SAT, so I got a merit scholarship to go to Hofstra, which was pretty much an open-enrollment commuter school. 

Hofstra is a private university on Long Island. Even today, its acceptance rate is around 70 percent, so way less selective than elite schools like Northwestern and Williams; their acceptance rates are, respectively, 9 percent and 15 percent. At Hofstra, Schapiro was just trying to do well enough to keep his scholarship and avoid Vietnam. And then he found the economics department.

SCHAPIRO: I just fell in love with the life of the mind.

After graduating from Hofstra, he got a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Pennsylvania.

SCHAPIRO: It does show for me the randomness and how many people who could have pretty successful academic careers who just never get the opportunities. I don’t think I was the smartest of my friends at Union High School, but they never had the chance, and I did. 

Schapiro is a quintessential college success story: he went from loading trucks for the minimum wage to making around $2 million a year as a college president. But it’s no coincidence that the springboard for this big jump was a school like Hofstra and not an elite school like Northwestern or Williams. Research shows that certain types of colleges are much better at moving students up the income distribution rather than simply taking in students from well-off families and helping them stay well-off. A 2017 study by the economist Raj Chetty and several coauthors found that most top-ranked colleges source their student population from wealthy families. At both Northwestern and Williams, for instance, around two-thirds of the students come from families in the top 20 percent of the income distribution; the researchers found 38 top colleges, including five from the Ivy League, where “more students came from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.” So, most elite schools aren’t doing much heavy lifting when it comes to addressing income inequality. That task falls to what are called the “mid-tier” schools, like Hofstra.

URQUIOLA: Here in New York City, CUNY would be one example.

That, again, is Miguel Urquiola from Columbia. CUNY, or City University of New York, is made up of several colleges including City College, which is just up the road from Columbia and has been called “the Harvard of the proletariat.” One of its specialties, going back several decades, was admitting Jewish students whom the Ivies wouldn’t accept, and watching those students go on to win Nobel Prizes. While a school like Columbia may excel on the research front, Urquiola says, CUNY still does a better job at creating income mobility.

URQUIOLA: It’s taking lots of students who are not from wealthy backgrounds and really making them better off. That engine is part of the U.S. ecosystem.

So if we’re thinking about college in terms of education that drives better life outcomes — those elite schools are kind of a sideshow, whether it’s a private school like Northwestern or a relatively selective public school like the University of Michigan. Morty Schapiro again:

SCHAPIRO: I’m all for the Northwesterns, and the University of Michigans, and everything, but that’s just a sliver, educating a very small sliver of the American population who already get tremendous resources allocated to them. I’m not worried about them. I’m worried about everybody else. 

So what about everybody else? Where do they go to college? Around 35 percent of college students these days attend mid-tier publics and privates. Another 10 percent attend for-profit colleges. Some of those are controversial.

SCHAPIRO: The for-profit privates — since a couple of my friends, including my best friend in high school, went to one of those and it transformed them, and made up for the fact that he graduated high school with very limited reading and writing skills. He had loans, he paid him off. He got a job, and had a good career. So I don’t have this knee-jerk reaction that some people do, that all of the for-profit sector is an abomination. There are abominations within it, but it’s not all that bad. 

And then there are community colleges, about 2,000 of them in the U.S., and they enroll “nearly half of all college entrants,” a great many of them from low-income families. Community colleges typically offer two-year programs, rather than four-, and an associate’s degree versus a bachelor’s degree. But only 40 percent of community-college entrants get their degrees within six years; for four-year colleges, that figure is over 70 percent. The economist Catharine Hill again:

HILL: Something like 80 percent of students who enroll in community colleges say that they would like to go on and get a bachelor’s degree. They understand the value of getting a bachelor’s degree. Their families understand it. But we have a system that doesn’t make that work very well.

Indeed, fewer than 20 percent of community-college students go on to get a bachelor’s degree at a four-year school.

HILL: Community colleges have significantly less resources to devote to their students. They’re spending about $8,000 a year per student. If you happen to get into one of the selective, private nonprofit institutions, the Ivies for example, they may be spending up to $100,000 per student. Now, every dollar might not be used efficiently, but I can tell you, you’re going to have more success if somebody’s spending $100,000 on you than if they’re spending $8,000 on you.

Morty Schapiro again, from Northwestern.

SCHAPIRO: I’ve always been in awe of them, to be honest with you. They’re generally open enrollment. And people look at them and say, Well, how come the percentage of people who enroll in a community college who aspire to a bachelor’s degree only what, 19 or 20 percent get them? And I’m thinking, “That’s pretty good.” The question I’ve always thought about community colleges is, how do they succeed so vastly in excess of the resources that go into them? They’re so underfunded.

DUBNER: Some people would like to see a lot more funding, including certain members of the Biden administration. Do you see that as a viable path, or do you see that as potentially a waste of money? Because there are those who say, Well, it could be throwing good money after bad because those are not the most motivated students. What’s your thinking there? 

SCHAPIRO: I love your question, the premise of the question. Given my background and my experience, I think there’s a lot of people who can have their lives transformed if somebody took interest in them and invested in them. And I’m not so sure that the people at the flagship publics and the great privates need a lot more government support.

Coming up:

SIMMONS: I understand the value of education. It doesn’t all have to be the same.

We’ll hear from another person who wasn’t a likely candidate for college — and went on to become the president of not one, nor two, but three colleges or universities.

SIMMONS: I want students to succeed. Period.

Also: there’s been a revival of interest in — and funding of — historically Black colleges, so where does that fit in?

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If you think about U.S. college education as a monolith, you’re thinking about it wrong. The elite schools that get so much attention educate a tiny fraction of the college population, and those students tend to come from the upper reaches of the income distribution. There is a vast middle of the spectrum, represented by public universities and so-called “mid-tier” privates. And on the far end of the income distribution are community colleges, which tend to serve lower-income and minority students. In fact, half of all non-white public college students in the U.S. attend a community college. As we heard earlier, only 40 percent of community-college students get their associate’s degree within six years. There is, however, another group of colleges that’s had more success at driving income mobility, especially for Black students: H.B.C.U.s, or historically Black colleges and universities. There are just over 100 of them in the U.S., so only 2.5 percent of all colleges, but they produce 20 percent of all Black graduates, including 25 percent of Black graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, recently donated hundreds of millions of dollars to a large group of H.B.C.U.s, and more money to community colleges and tribal colleges. The Federal government has also invested: in 2019, Donald Trump signed a bill to “permanently provide more than $250 million a year to the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities.” The Biden administration has said it wants to invest even more. So how do H.B.C.U.s fit into the college landscape? We called up the president of one to find out more.

DUBNER: Hello there, it’s Stephen Dubner, is that Dr. Simmons? 

SIMMONS: It is. Hi, Stephen, how are you? 

Ruth Simmons is the president of Prairie View A&M University, a public H.B.C.U. outside of Houston, Texas. It’s the second-oldest public university in Texas. Simmons hadn’t planned to become president of Prairie View. She was happily retired; she had moved back to her native Texas after a long career in academia. She worked as a professor and administrator at schools including Princeton, Spelman, and U.S.C., and then became president of Smith College, the elite all-women’s school in Massachusetts. After six years there, she became president at Brown University in Rhode Island; this made her the first Black president of an Ivy League school. When Simmons retired some years later from Brown, she thought she was done.

SIMMONS: I had been offered other jobs when I retired. And of course, I laughed each time somebody came to me and said, “Would you be president of… ?” because I had no intention to come out of retirement. But then I thought about all the help I got as a young person with people looking out for me, trying to help me, and I thought, “I owe something for that.” So I’m happy to be back trying to do my part.

When Simmons talks about the help she got as a young person, she’s talking about her teachers, growing up in segregated Texas.

SIMMONS: They were very devoted teachers, the most brilliant teachers. They were focused not on how bad things were at the moment and what we couldn’t do as African-Americans. You know what they focused on? They focused on a future that we couldn’t see. And so saying to me, “Ruth, you don’t have to be a maid. You can go to college, and you can do something else.”

Simmons was the youngest of 12 children; her parents were sharecroppers in East Texas.

SIMMONS: We lived on a large farm that had almost 100 sharecropper families on it. You got up every day and everybody went into the field to work. We had a wonderful family, and we were all together for a very long time in a rural area of Texas. When I stepped outside the family, there was nothing. There was danger. There was denigration. There was lack of opportunity. But when I was in my family, that was a place of safety. 

Once she got to high school, though, Simmons did have those devoted teachers who urged her to go to college. In 1963, she got a scholarship to Dillard University, an H.B.C.U. in New Orleans.

SIMMONS: So I was a spoiled brat as the youngest person in my family, and when I went off to college, I behaved like a spoiled brat. I thought I had the best ideas in the world, and nobody was as good as I was. Education introduced me to the reality of who I was in the context of the world, and that was a very helpful thing for me.

DUBNER: Are you saying it humbled you a bit or it just broadened you? 

SIMMONS: I would say it broadened me. I had a wonderful teacher in college who was Latin American, and he told me I should go to Mexico and live with a Mexican family. I knew nothing about Mexico. I knew about my country. I knew how hard it was here. I knew how I was treated here as an African-American, and I went across the mountains and into a place where a person of a different race opened her front door and let me in, showed me to my room, and made me feel as if I was somebody who was actually worth something. I mean, as a 17-, 18-year-old, imagine leaving a country where race was so prominent and going to Mexico and then having Mexican people not stare at me as if I was an alien. So that was phenomenal. And my experience also in the class was very different because it was the first time I’d actually been in any classes with whites. Many southerners — because Mexico is very close — went to Mexico to study Spanish. I was the only African-American there. Mostly, it was white southerners. So that was my first experience in a learning environment with whites. And it wasn’t a uniformly happy experience, let me say.

DUBNER: Now, if I had asked, let’s say, 12-year-old Ruth Simmons back in the 1950s in Texas the likelihood that she would not only go to college but become a college professor and then become a president of three different colleges, what do you think your younger self might have said to that idea?

SIMMONS: “Balderdash,” because I talked like that when I was 12.

DUBNER: I believe you. 

SIMMONS: I was a very odd kid. The country was still deeply segregated. I didn’t know people who were college-educated, except the teachers in my public school. So no, I would have thought it was preposterous, and somebody was really making fun of me by saying it. So it’s very useful to get to know what’s important to you and what matters. When I was an undergraduate, I did some pretty dumb things. But the one thing I learned to do as an undergraduate is I decided that the required chapel at my university was improper because I said, “It’s Protestant. What about Jews and Muslims?”

DUBNER: Were there any Jewish or Muslim students at your college?

SIMMONS: No, but it didn’t matter to me.

DUBNER: It’s the principle, sure. 

SIMMONS: It’s the principle. And so that person in college who fought for that principle and almost didn’t graduate because I didn’t meet the chapel requirement is the same person today sitting here speaking out on issues. That’s where I developed that; that’s how I learned to protect who I was and what I cared about.

As much as Simmons already believed in the mission of H.B.C.U.s — that’s the reason she came out of retirement to run Prairie View A&M — she says this mission was further accentuated a couple years ago.

SIMMONS: The moment of the Floyd murder was a very important moment for most H.B.C.U.s. We thought we were out of that. And suddenly, there’s this wake-up call that says, “No, we’re not there yet.” What do you do? It reminds me of the moment in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was killed and I was in college. We huddled together as college students to try to understand what was going to go on now in the world. We felt so shaken by what was happening at that moment in time and throughout the civil rights struggle. So, it’s not a flight from reality. It’s an effort to become stronger to face that reality. And that’s what we’re trying to do for our students, help them face that reality. 

DUBNER: You’ve said that you believe in the “transformative power of education,” and in your personal biography, it’s hard not to imagine that you wouldn’t make that claim, because it plainly did transform you. Let’s talk a little bit more broadly, though, and let’s bring it up to the current situation. A lot of economists spend a lot of time doing very fancy econometrics to prove the returns to education, as I’m sure you well know, particularly college education. I assume that you also believe the returns to education are significant, but you’re not using econometrics to come to this conclusion. So give me your argument for why education today, particularly college education, has the power to truly transform. How does that work? 

SIMMONS: Well, I would start with the earliest education, to be perfectly honest with you. So here are the fundamentals. We’re all in an uneven situation, no matter where we are. Some of us may have immense privilege; on the opposite extreme, there are people who are born with nothing, who have no one to care about them. In both cases, these children have the opportunity to learn, to be better people, to be more aware of the world that they live in. And whether they become that is highly dependent on the kind of educational experience they’re able to have. A privileged child can be privileged but still not be educated, although they have access to the books and all the toys of education, but they might not have an understanding of how to be in the world, as one of many. 

At Prairie View, the median family income of students is just under $40,000 a year; only 11 percent of Prairie View students come from the top 20 percent of the income distribution. So, unlike her students at Smith and Brown, Simmons is not dealing with highly privileged students. But she says her philosophy doesn’t change at all.

SIMMONS: I’m doing the same thing I’ve always done. I’m trying to make trouble if I can, and chastising my students, as I did at Smith and at Brown, to be better at what they are doing. I’m trying to set a model for them of what is possible if they work hard, and trying to insist that this university can be as good as any other university if we make the right decisions.

DUBNER: So only about 10 percent of all African-American college students in the U.S. today attend H.B.C.U.s. But those schools produce 25 percent of Black graduates in the STEM fields. Roughly 80 percent of Black judges in the U.S. have come from an H.B.C.U., 70 percent of Black doctors, and 40 percent of the Black members of Congress. What does that mismatch tell you? Is that a feather in the cap of H.B.C.U.s, or does it say something about the Black students that are going to non-H.B.C.U.s, and why are there not, for instance, more Black STEM graduates coming out of those schools? 

SIMMONS: Well, these institutions are mission-driven. Now, here’s the important thing to understand about missions. Institutions have certain purposes, and those purposes are reiterated constantly. You hire people who understand the mission. You evaluate people on whether or not they understand the mission and whether they’re committed to it. So, what is the mission of H.B.C.U.s? The mission of H.B.C.U.s is to make sure that their students are successful. Our motto is: “Prairie View produces productive people.” We’re looking to make sure that every single person who comes into this university is successful. Now, let me switch and talk about the other model, which is a more competitive model. So I used to complain about this all the time at Princeton, and all of these places, and that is: what’s the model? Well, the model is to eliminate. So think of engineering at Princeton and Harvard. You come in and you take prerequisites. And what do those prerequisites do? They knock you out of eligibility to pursue engineering. So, most of the students coming in who want to do that have to switch to some secondary interest. One model is about eliminating people so that there is a special class of achievers at the highest end, and that’s where they make their reputation, the other model is about making sure everybody gets through. 

DUBNER: You’ve been engaged, obviously, in both models. Do you have a preference? 

SIMMONS: I want students to succeed. Period. I understand the value of education. It doesn’t all have to be the same.

DUBNER: All right, one last question. It’s very short and it’s very easy. What is college really for, would you say? 

SIMMONS: I would have said it’s to make us the best possible human being that we can be. Developing our mind fully. 

DUBNER: So that’s a nice answer. The only problem is that sounds like it may be describing a certain kind of college, like a very well-regarded public university or private. But what about community colleges? Are they serving that same purpose? 

SIMMONS: Of course they are. 

DUBNER: And what about all the people who aren’t going to college, and they want to develop their minds?

SIMMONS: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I know people who want to be the best person they can be, and they’re doing it in different ways. I have a niece who just for a while couldn’t figure out what she was going to do. So she went to a community college to do nursing. And that’s been her journey, and we’re very proud of her, and that’s an incredible thing for her to do. I have lots of family members who are doing it a different way. I always encourage people no matter what course they’re taking, however, to develop their minds as fully as they can. You can do that no matter who you are, no matter where you are. Some of the best people I’ve known have been non-college-educated people. It’s not a matter of going to a particular college, it’s not a matter of that at all. It’s a matter of investing in yourself and taking that seriously. 

Ruth Simmons recently announced she’ll be stepping down as president of Prairie View A&M in 2023. She will leave in her wake a few generations of students who have benefitted from her philosophy — and people who weren’t even her students, too! For instance, while preparing to interview Simmons, I read and listened to a lot of other interviews. In one of them, she said something I’ve been thinking about ever since, something so wise that I think it should be the motto of every company and institution in the world. She said: “I always tell the people that I hire that I don’t hire them because they are able to follow rules. I hire them because they have good judgment.” Thanks for that great insight, Dr. Simmons.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Gabriel Roth, Zack Lapinski, Ryan Kelley, Mary Diduch, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Morgan Levey, Julie Kanfer, Emma Tyrrell, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman; we had help this week from Jeremy Johnston. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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  • Catharine Hill, former president of Vassar College; trustee at Yale University; and managing director at Ithaka S+R.
  • Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University.
  • Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University.
  • Miguel Urquiola, professor of economics at Columbia University.



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