19 January 2013

Causation, wealth, and grades

Lion of the Blogosphere | I doubt that wealth causes low grades

The New York Times, today, is featuring an article which tells us:
Students from wealthy families are more likely than those from poor families to go to college, and those whose parents pay their way are more likely to graduate. But according to “More Is More or More Is Less? Parent Financial Investments During College,” a study by Laura Hamilton, a sociology professor at the University of California, Merced, greater parental contributions were linked with lower grades across all kinds of four-year institutions.
The implication from the article is that parental contributions cause kids to become lazy brats who don’t study. But I think this has the cause and effect wrong.

Smarter students get better grades. Students from wealthier backgrounds are more likely to get into top colleges even though they’re not quite as smart, whether it’s because they are legacies, because their parents paid for them to attend private schools that help to build up their curriculum vitae and leadership skills which colleges like, or because colleges blatantly favor students with wealthy parents because they pay full price and donate more money. Because students with wealthy parents get into the same college without being quite as smart as the middle class students at the same college, they will naturally tend to get lower grades.
(0) When it comes to social situations, the answer to the question "does causation run this way or that way?" is almost always some of both. You know what? Scratch that. It's always some of both.

The magnitude of A→B may drastically out weight that of B→A, or they may be evenly balanced, but if the situation is complex enough to warrant asking which one is the "real" effect, then it's vanishingly unlikely that the magnitude of either iz zero.

(1) To extend LotB's theory, students from richer families*
NB the study was not of family wealth, but of the percentage of costs the parents ponied up for
don't get grades that are as good because they don't have to. If Mom and Dad were willing and able to pony up a few hundred grand for college they're probably also able to get you into a not-shitty job. There has to be some non-zero amount of (potentially rationally) reduced motivation.

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