The Project

One of my (Justin’s) interests, as you can see below, is the impact of behavioral science on educational outcomes. Within that realm, my particular curiosity isn’t just the type of outcomes most educational institutions are able to easily measure – GPAs, test scores, graduation rates –  but what happens long after school is over. Anecdotally, I have noticed that the outcomes for people of color I’ve known at the selective schools I have attended have been less stellar, but I don’t really have any data on that (and I’d like to gather it). Having said that, it might just be who I happen to know, as there are plenty of doctors and lawyers out there.

I want to dive deeper, though. The external trappings of success are quite obvious, and salaries, real estate, and zip codes are easy enough to track. But are we, as minority graduates of so-called elite institutions, actually satisfied with their lives? Or, to put a finer point on it, are we at the same levels of satisfaction as our classmates? We know that racism exists no matter how much money you have, but the bill of goods we’re sold by such institutions implies that we’ll be somewhat safer from discrimination because of our closer promixity to traditional success. So, if this is true, bigotry should have less of an impact on people who are more externally successful, and, even if we’re not as satisfied as our peers, we should, perhaps, be closer to their level than people who, say, only have a high school degree. But ultimately, my real question is this: if it turns out that we’re not as satisfied as our peers, and that our graduation from selective schools does not, by itself, close the gap between our level of satisfaction and those of our classmates, can we use behavioral science to change this? And, to circle back to the beginning, can increasing satisfaction then have a positive impact on our more concrete success?

There are a few questions here to be asked and answered, starting with one that is more straightforward (and is probably answered out there already, so I just have to go and look): what are the concrete, long-term outcomes for minority (and I’d split it up into different ethnicities) graduates of top-tier schools? That’s the normal stuff, starting with GPAs and carrying on to salaries and perhaps other factors like homeownership. I also want to know about social lives, rates of marriage and divorce, substance abuse/mental health issues, even premature death if it happens to have occurred.  I am theorizing, of course, that race has a legitimate correlation to such results, but I don’t know for sure, so I want to find out, gradually. And of course, we’d need to compare to people who didn’t graduate from selective schools, to see if the gap in satisfaction (if there is one) is larger, smaller, or the same.

In other words, for example, two such graduates, same age range, same career track, same type of zip code, same marital status, etc, but different ethnicities. Is one more satisfied than the other? You will not be surprised to hear what I suspect to be the answer to be, but I am perfectly willing to be wrong. And is that satisfaction gap smaller than it is for two counterparts with a different level of education?

You have to get into the weeds on this, of course. Maybe someone who isn’t satisfied at age thirty-five felt the same way when they were in school. And we’d have to analyze minority students who were raised in affluent areas from those who weren’t to see if there’s a difference there, as well (or maybe there isn’t, but we have to see). Or maybe I’ll just find out that my theory is entirely baseless.

There is also the undeniable fact that it’s still going to be self-reported self-assessment. There will be something squishy in there, because there always will be when you ask someone to describe something emotional.

And frankly, I do not yet have the research skills to piece this all together yet. But that’s okay, because I intend to acquire them.

What’s the point of all this?

Well, one of two things will happen if I pull this off. Either I find out that, no, race and satisfaction for graduates of selective schools – when compared to same for those without said degrees – do not correlate whatsoever and I move on to something else. Or my theory is right, and then I can think of ways that behavioral science can have a positive impact on these students to help them as they grow and strive to achieve.

The genesis of this project, way before I knew about any of it, was probably a day in the fall of freshman year, fourteen years ago. Our Resident Advisor gathered us in a group to ask us what we thought of our school experience thus far. And I took note of the fact that the white students all rated their experience at an eight, nine or ten, while the black students all chose two or three. Lying to myself and others, I said five, trying as I always did at the time to hedge my bets. (This project will cover more than just black students, to be clear, but that group only had white and black boys and girls.)

I’ve seen rather dispiriting outcomes for many of my classmates from both high school and college, substance abuse and dependency and really serious financial struggles the likes of which one might not expect from selective school graduates of any race. But again, those are my own friends, and perhaps many white students have had the same issues that I just don’t know about. And of course haven’t a real idea of someone else’s inner feelings. I think the schools try, they do, bless their hearts, but there is still something missing in the way they provide support to people who don’t resemble their typical and historical graduate. And I don’t say this out of self-pity or self-absorption – I’m fine, or, in the language being used here, very satisfied. But some folks aren’t, and I wonder if I can help figure out why, and how to change it.

I think, if there are thousands of adolescents out there who are thinking they are the only people who feel how they feel in the school where they’re expected to be molded into superstars, then perhaps behavioral design can help more than what the schools are already doing it.

I don’t really know. But I very much want to try and find out.

Thanks for reading, and I hope to begin sharing at least my initial research (on the type of traditional outcomes I mentioned at the outset) very soon.