Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Intelligence, Education, and Earning Power

In a couple of recent posts (e.g., "Lessons from Brooklyn's New Economy" and "An Atypical Perspective on Health Care in the NY Times") we touched on the politics and economics of education. An article in the business section of Sunday's New York Times, a somewhat fawning profile of Google executive Marissa Mayer (pictured above) included a brief, tangential bit of candor on the subject ("Putting a Bolder Face on Google"). The main responsibility of Ms. Mayer at Google is controlling the "look and feel" of the company's search engine, but the article notes that she also has personnel responsibilities:

At a recent personnel meeting, she homes in on grade-point averages and SAT scores to narrow a list of candidates, many having graduated from Ivy League schools, whom she wanted to meet as part of a program to foster in-house talent. In essence, math is used to solve a human problem: How do you predict whether an employee has the potential for success?

How indeed. Why would Ms. Mayer, who holds a masters degree in computer science from Stanford, be interested in the SAT scores of college graduates? Presumably, because SAT scores are a more objective measure of intelligence than a college degree or grade point average, since the later two can be distorted by admissions preferences and grade inflation. This suggests some problems with President Obama's "college for all" initiative. Some advocates of education as tool for economic advancement seem to confuse the correlation of education and high earning potential with causation. Many high-paying employers (such as Google) demand highly-intelligent knowledge workers. The law since Griggs v. Duke Power restricts the use of broad aptitude tests, so employers often rely on other indicators of intelligence, such as SAT scores, or diplomas from elite schools (that generally require high SAT scores).

What would change if college degrees became as common as high school diplomas? Presumably, the use of college diplomas as a proxy for intelligence would decline, and employers would look more closely at SAT scores, or demand a higher degree to replace the signaling function of a college degree (e.g., jobs that now require bachelors degrees might require masters degrees). That would be a boon for the education industry, but it's unclear how it would help the average American worker increase his earnings potential.

I suspect that the focus among elites in government and punditry on the potential of higher education as a ladder to economic advancement is partly the result of most elites having gone to exclusive private high schools, where virtually all of their classmates were relatively bright and college bound. Had more elites gone to public high schools, where not every student was on a track to college, there might be more skepticism in public policy discussions about the broader utility of higher education.

The photo above accompanied the NY Times article.

Update: for the benefit of new readers of this post, I am now blogging at Steam Catapult and Shadow Stocks.


JK said...

"Controlling the look and feel" of Google is a major part of the company business, and Ms. Mayer is a serious coder. I don't think there's have been any issue with her if in her leisure time she played golf with the good ole boys, smoked Cubans and attended boxing matches.

Re SAT's:

I had a high SAT score myself but I have to say that an SAT score is a very poor measure of anything, IMO. Most of the kids in in school who did well on that test, did well just because their parents made them incessantly practice for it, and had a knack for trivia memorization.

Many who scored high were also completely unimpressive in class. In fact, that frequently provided the impetus to study for the SAT, since that became their saving grace, the last chance to stand out.
Unless a job requires both factoring polynomials every 30 seconds for an hour and critical interpretations of Woodsworth, an SAT score has very little bearing on any real life ability ...except general knowledge test-taking ability, wherever that occurs in real life.
Elite schools also have more than their share of idiot tools. The appearance of intelligence can definitely be "bought", and there are many smarter people among some of my blue collar friends than among the pot/coke-head, preppy world of my Honors college program dormitory.

DaveinHackensack said...

"Controlling the look and feel" of Google is a major part of the company business, and Ms. Mayer is a serious coder."

True on both counts, and I didn't intend to suggest otherwise. I put "controlling the look and feel" in quotes because I quoted that phrase directly from the article, which also mentions her coding ability. As for her interest in fashion and art, the article goes into the connection between her aesthetic sensibilities there and her decisions at Google.

Re SATs: I'm sure the folks at Google could come up with a more better test for their purposes, if the law didn't discourage that. So they look at SAT scores. I would guess, though, that you'd find a fairly high correlation between SAT scores and scores on other quasi-intelligence tests.

The Grammar Policeman said...

"I'm sure the folks at Google could come up with a more better test for their purposes."

MORE BETTER? Did Dave have such a low VERBAL score on his SATs?

DaveinHackensack said...

"MORE BETTER? Did Dave have such a low VERBAL score on his SATs?"

I started to write "more appropriate" and then switched to "better" and forgot to delete "more".

Brational said...

ha! "elites." Darn tootin! Those eggheads in Warshington don't realize that most Americans are just a herd of burger flippers. Why stop at college? Shut down the high schools and middle schools too. You don't need those to mow lawns, or make widgets. Let me keep my hard-earned tax dollars, and let the great unwashed fend for themselves. The cream will rise to the top!