Published on Development Impact

Weekly links July 28: online math camp, causal impacts of elite college, nudges reconsidered, and more…

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·       For those of you about to start PhD programs, or who want to feel glad that you don’t have to start one again, Nathan Williams (@NathanEcon) notes that the University of Arizona’s Econ department has put up a full set of videos for their Econ PhD Math Camp. Why watch Barbenheimer when you can relive “lower hemicontinuity of the budget set correspondence”? Looks like a great public good, with refreshers on optimization, real analysis, etc.

·       David Deming has a new substack called Forked Lightning. He is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, and one of the authors with Raj Chetty and John Friedman of the very newsworthy working paper on elite college admissions in the U.S.  His first post summarizes this work – which linked data on test scores, internal college admissions data, and parental income from tax records -  and which shines light on the ridiculousness of legacies and athletic recruiting in shaping who gets into top colleges. From an impact evaluation viewpoint, the interesting piece is that they attempt to look at what the causal impact of attending an “Ivy-plus” college is. They do this by comparing students on the waitlist who end up getting offered admission to waitlisted students who don’t. They find no impact on average earnings, but a big impact on the likelihood of ending up in the top 1% of earnings – which highlights the importance of not only looking at treatment effects on the mean, but also the advantages of large samples and administrative data for looking at what happens at a tail.  His second post discusses in more detail this causal estimation strategy (why are all these examples always obsessed with schools needing an oboe or saxophone player as their examples?), and compares it to the Dale and Krueger approach, noting the top-coding of income issues in the data Dale and Krueger used. His third post delves into on-campus recruiting and notes how a one percent difference in income rank is very different depending on where you look in the income distribution: “We find small impacts on mean income rank, but the value of a “rank” is different at different places in the distribution. The difference between 78th and 79th percentile (the average for people who attend selective public flagship schools) is about $2,000 per year, but the difference between 98th and 99th is almost $40,000 per year. We find mean impacts of about 1.5 ranks, or an increase of about $3,000 relative to a base of around $60k. But we also find that Ivy-Plus students are much more likely to get to the 99th percentile of income and beyond.” Post four takes on holistic admissions: “Our paper shows how rating applicants on non-academic factors favors the wealthy, even though it doesn’t predict success”

·       Of course what you study can matter a lot more for income than where you study. Zachary Bleemer, Amelia Davidson, and Aashish Mehta have a post on Brookings which documents the growth of a within-University racial disparity in majors, with major requirements such as requiring a certain GPA on introductory courses for popular STEM majors a cause.

·       Kathleen shared with me the podcast “If Books Could Kill”, which has a cool name, and a 2-part series discussing the book Nudge (part 1, part 2). They provide a good critical discussion of the book and the fuzziness of what counts as a nudge, the problems of thinking tweaks will solve problems that need resources or regulations, and of the dangers of pop science taking good ideas way too far out of where they apply. Their first episode takes on Freakonomics. Looks like a fun series.

·       Call for papers: The World Bank Research Observer (WBRO) seeks to publish policy relevant surveys of development issues, aimed at a broad audience including non-specialists. Papers for consideration at the Fall 2023 meeting of the WBRO Editorial Board should be submitted to  no later than Friday, September 29, 2023.


David McKenzie

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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