How to Get the Best out of College? Your Questions Answered

We recently solicited your questions for Peter D. Feaver, Sue Wasiolek, and Anne Crossman, the authors of Getting the Best Out of College. Your questions ran the gamut and so do their replies. Thanks to all for participating. And feel free to check out our podcast on the value of a college education, “Freakonomics Goes to College” (Part 1 herePart 2 here, and together as an hour-long special). 

Q. Michael Pollan summed up his philosophy of nutrition in seven words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Do you have similarly pithy advice for students trying to maximize their college experience? Don’t feel limited to seven words – I’m just looking for something aphoristic. -Glen Davis

A. Your choices in college matter more than your choices of college, so choose wisely. 

How to Get the Best out of College? Bring Your Questions

We recently put out a two-part podcast called "Freakonomics Goes to College" (Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and together as an hour-long special). The main question we tried to answer was if, and on what dimensions, a college education is "worth it" -- i.e., whether the returns to education are as robust as we've been led to think. (Short answer: yes.) Along the way, we talked to economists including David CardBetsey Stevenson, and Justin Wolfers, and  poked into the market for counterfeit degrees.

But let's say you're interested in the question from a practical, rather than a theoretical, perspective. That is, let's say you're an actual college student, or related to one, already deep in the throes of higher education, and that your primary question is: Okay, now what? Now that I'm here, what do I do to get the very most out of this expensive, time-consuming endeavor?

Glad you asked. Peter D. Feaver, Sue Wasiolek, and Anne Crossman are the authors of Getting the Best Out of College: Insider Advice for Success From a Professor, a Dean, and a Recent Grad, and they have agreed to field questions from Freakonomics readers.

Can Selling Beer Cut Down on Public Drunkenness? (Ep. 91)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “Can Selling Beer Cut Down on Public Drunkenness?” 

(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

It features Oliver Luck, the athletic director at West Virginia University, whose Top 10-ranked football team opened the 2012 season by beating Marshall 69-34. Luck himself played quarterback at West Virginia from 1978 to 1981 and, after a four-year NFL career, got into sports administration. These days, he is best known as the father of Indianapolis Colts' rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.

As the A.D. at West Virginia, here's what Luck saw happening at home football games:

“People drinking far too much at pre-game parties and tailgate parties before games. Sneaking alcohol into games. Leaving at halftime or any point during the game to go back out to the tailgate to drink even more and come back into the game. ... They would usually drink hard liquor -- ‘get their buzz back on’ and come back into the game for the third quarter.  And the police again would know exactly at what point in the third quarter these ‘throw-up calls’ would start to come over the radio.”

How to Get a Doctorate in Six Weeks

I assume this is only a coincidence but still, it's a good one.

Shortly after putting out the first half of our "Freakonomics Goes to College" podcast, which included a segment on the market for fake diplomas from counterfeiters and diploma mills, I got the following piece of spam. It appears to be from a Norwegian e-mail domain:

How Much Do Football Wins Pay Off for a College?

An NBER paper by Michael L. Anderson looks into the how a university's football performance affects its academic performance:

Spending on big-time college athletics is often justified on the grounds that athletic success attracts students and raises donations. Testing this claim has proven difficult because success is not randomly assigned. We exploit data on bookmaker spreads to estimate the probability of winning each game for college football teams. We then condition on these probabilities using a propensity score design to estimate the effects of winning on donations, applications, and enrollment. The resulting estimates represent causal effects under the assumption that, conditional on bookmaker spreads, winning is uncorrelated with potential outcomes. Two complications arise in our design. First, team wins evolve dynamically throughout the season. Second, winning a game early in the season reveals that a team is better than anticipated and thus increases expected season wins by more than one-for-one. We address these complications by combining an instrumental variables-type estimator with the propensity score design. We find that winning reduces acceptance rates and increases donations, applications, academic reputation, in-state enrollment, and incoming SAT scores.

A Distinguished Alumni Award for Dubner

I was recently humbled and thrilled to return to my undergraduate alma mater, Appalachian State University, to receive its Distinguished Alumni Award. Here's the introductory video the school made:

Getting and Giving: How Does Receiving Financial Aid Affect Later Donations?

We ran a blog post a while back about how alumni should think about giving money to their alma maters. A recent NBER paper (abstract; PDF) by Jonathan Meer and Harvey S. Rosen looks at the "donative behaviour" of alumni who received financial aid. It has some really interesting conclusions:

The empirical work is based upon micro data on alumni giving at an anonymous research university.  We focus on three types of financial aid, scholarships, loans, and campus jobs. ...

Our main findings are:  1) Individuals who took out student loans are less likely to make a gift, other things being the same.  We conjecture that this phenomenon is caused by an "annoyance effect" --
alumni resent the fact that they are burdened with loans.  2) Scholarship aid reduces the size of a gift, but has little effect on the probability of donating.  The negative effect of receiving a scholarship on donations decreases in absolute value with the size of the scholarship.  We do not find any evidence that scholarship recipients give less because they have relatively low incomes post graduation.  3) Aid in the form of campus jobs does not have a strong effect on donative behavior.


Is College Worth It? Non-Grads Say Yes

Notwithstanding the ongoing controversy over rising college tuition costs, there's one group of people who think that college is worth the cost: people who haven't gone. Catherine Rampell of Economix blogs about a new survey of recent high school graduates:

Seven in 10 of these recent graduates said they would need more education if they were to have a successful career. Despite their belief in the value of post-secondary education, though, only 38 per cent definitely planned to attend college to get more education in the next five years. Barriers included skyrocketing tuitions and family obligations.

Many of the respondents felt differently at the start of high school -- 35 per cent thought they would "definitely" go to college and 28 percent believed they would "probably" go.  Minority students were even more optimistic at the start of high school:

Differential Pricing in Higher Education

The New York Times of March 30 reported that a California junior college planned to set two levels of tuition for some of its classes.  Many colleges set differential tuition based on in-state residence, level of class, or type of course.  But this plan would have explicitly set tuition differentially in order to fund additional offerings that would not otherwise be provided.  Essentially, the college was trying to move up the supply curve of courses, recognizing that demand far exceeds supply at the current (very low) tuition level.  The plan generated an outcry among people bothered by the pricing of education and was "indefinitely postpone[d]." But higher education requires resources; and if taxpayers refuse to pay taxes but insist on services, this seems like a perfectly reasonable way of meeting demand.  I expect that, as in so many areas, California will once again lead the nation, this time into an expansion of additional differential pricing of course offerings in higher education.

Exploitation in College Sports: It's Not Just Football and Basketball

When we think of money and college sports, we tend to think only about basketball and football.  In fact, defenders of the excesses we see in those sports – with respect to salaries to coaches and university expenditures – argue that these sports are necessary to support all the other teams universities field. People often argue that outside of football and basketball, athletes in other sports don’t generate enough revenue to justify their scholarships. 

A recent paper by Leo Kahane (editor of the Journal of Sports Economics) challenges this line of thinking.  Kahane’s paper looks at college hockey, which will hold the Frozen Four this week in Tampa, Florida (really, Tampa).  This is college hockey’s championship, an event which doesn’t get quite the same attention as the NCAA Final Four for men and women. (Perhaps also because people don’t associate hockey with Tampa?)