A Tale of Two Classes

One surprise from my first two years at college is how earnest students are relative to those in high school. Instead of Googling for the answer to every AP Physics Quest question, people in my Analysis class honestly answer every problem set even though the answers are in the back of the textbook. Instead of a default expectation that we would Sparknotes every book assigned in AP Lang, I now shake my head in disbelief when it becomes apparent that all my classmates carefully read an assigned paper or text. 

To be clear, the college culture doesn’t at all feel like ostentatious intelligence signalling or brutal workaholism - just that the informal expectations of my peers now seem more or less in line with the formal expectations of, say, a professor or syllabus. Age/maturity and selection for enthusiasm/intelligence/conscientiousness are two obvious explanations, but I don’t think these tell the whole story. 

Why? For one thing, the difference was noticeable even between classes of almost entirely high school seniors and those of almost entirely of college freshmen, and I don’t think six months or a year’s worth of maturity can account for the difference. And yes, my observations hold even when I ignore the Senioritis-infected days of second semester senior year. For another, it doesn’t seem to me that the average talent of the students in my classes changed much from high school to college. 

I have been fortunate enough to attend both a great public high school capable of offering almost every AP course and then Georgetown University, a selective but not every-student-is-already-a-famous-author-or-something-hyper-selective college. Both are located in wealthy, liberal, Type A professional neighborhoods near Washington, D.C. and filled with students largely of those demographics. This is to say that I think the difference I am referring to is not endogenous to the students themselves, but rather some feature of the different environments.

What’s Going On

In particular, I think one important explanation is a social dynamic created by bottom-up voluntary participation and amplified by top-down voluntary selection. In other words, groups will develop a norm of earnest effort when every member knows that every other member chose to join the group, especially when some authority (like a college admissions officer) affirmatively chose or admitted them to the group. This might seem obvious, but my point here is that the same might not be true of a very similar group made of the same people, but without the voluntary participation and selection. 

In the real world, of course, you’re virtually never going to get two groups - one voluntary and one involuntary - made of the very same people. But you will frequently get two such groups made of similar people. And this is where the social dynamic becomes noticeable. 

So why does this happen?

Consider a group convened involuntarily - not (necessarily) through physical coercion, but through a network of social and legal obligations as with a K-12 school class. Every member of the group knows that the others didn’t choose to participate, even if it remains ambiguous whether anyone would have chosen so if the option was presented. 

First, “having better things to do” is usually an indicator of status, so everyone knows that he or she will socially benefit from maintaining the image of having been coerced into attendance, and visibly showing low effort can indicate a lack of desire for attendance. To a first approximation, being seen as having better options is always socially beneficial, even if every member in fact values or enjoys the group activity. 

Second, each member may or may not think that the group activities or goals are important or worthy of effort. Therefore, everyone knows that showing earnest effort might be seen as silly, wasteful, or low-status by anyone else - regardless of the true beliefs of those in the group.

These two factors are likely to form a feedback loop in which the first biases members towards showing low effort, which signals to others little appreciation of the group activity. This, in turn, strengthens the second factor such that everyone is even less likely to show earnest effort. 

Now, consider a similar group formed of truly voluntary attendees. Here, no one can credibly signal “having something better to do” by showing low effort because everyone knows that everyone else is there by choice. More, voluntary participation strongly indicates that one assigns value to whatever activity the group is involved in, so it becomes common knowledge that showing effort is likely to be seen as worthy or high-status. 

As an added bonus, suppose each member was admitted to the group via some competitive selections process. Many groups made of competitive selection are in a network of other groups with more or less competitive admissions criteria. There might be literally a dozen levels of selectivity between the lowly rec baseball team and the most elite, and every student knows the absurd college prestige hierarchy. 

Now, not only does attendance become an even stronger signal of interest and dedication to the group task, but it becomes much harder to come across as overqualified for the group because a truly overqualified person would be part of some more competitive group instead. So, competitive selection discourages appearing overqualified by displaying high performance despite low effort. 

As I emphasized before, none of this depends on the groups being made of people with different beliefs. Rather, the differences arise as a function of what information is credibly conveyed by voluntary attendance. 

Back to School

In real life, there is no strict voluntary/involuntary dichotomy; there are always social influences favoring or discouraging group participation, and few are ever literally physically forced to be in some location. Even still, it’s pretty clear to me that a high school class falls more on the “involuntary” side of the spectrum.

True, my classmates and I could have dropped out after 8th grade, and by junior year we have some modest latitude in deciding our class schedules. Still - at least for my high school classmates and I - there is overwhelming social and familial pressure to attend school, and the options available to us were not particularly plentiful. If you feel that physics and chemistry are your only two options, choosing one over the other doesn’t exactly demonstrate enthusiasm for the subject. 

College, on the other hand, has a few important new layers of optionality. While there’s still strong social and familial pressure in many areas to attend college, it doesn’t feel quite as strong as the pressure to attend high school. Also, many students such as myself are privileged to be able to choose which school to attend - hundreds to select from for application, and then likely between 3 and 15 to choose from once admitted. Finally, there is much more freedom in class selection. While a few specific courses are required for all students, other classes are determined by free choice of major and even then perhaps half of major-required credits come from electives. 

By the time I sit down for an elective (say, Philosophy of Science, which begins in two days), I would have decided to attend college, decided to apply to Georgetown, been admitted, decided to attend Georgetown, selected philosophy as a minor, and then selected this specific class. Most importantly, I know the same is true of everyone else sitting besides me (or really, scattered around the world on a Zoom call). 

So, everyone knows that everyone else in the class has a good amount of interest in philosophy of science and thus likely will appreciate, say, reading all of the assigned texts or earnest discussion of the ideas. No one plausible has anything better to do, either. Finally, it’s hard to come across as much smarter than other students by showing low effort because, hey, we all got rejected from Harvard.


If this theory is true, one important consequence is that we should expect pretty large improvements in group performance by making participation voluntary and/or formed via competitive admission - larger than what we would see from selection effects alone. A tryout-only band might select the better and more serious musicians, but it will also benefit from the synergistic social pressure I’ve described. 

It also should push us some amount in the direction of not requiring various activities or programs. There are many countervailing reasons why we might want to make, say, elementary school or jury duty mandatory, but we should accept that, even controlling for the stable characteristics of participants themselves, mandatory group programs will be of lower quality than their voluntary counterparts. 

To wade ankle deep into the culture war, I think this is a plausible contributing reason why largely-mandatory workplace diversity training programs seem to have little to no impact but voluntary programs indeed see modest success

Finally, it’s worth noting that the lowest-hanging fruit will likely come from making voluntary those mandatory group programs whose members would have chosen to participate anyway. 


I find all this plausible because the social norms feel so palpable. In high school, there was a visceral sense that it’d seem kinda weird Hamlet cover-to-cover instead of reading Sparknotes right before a test, for example. I still haven’t gotten the surprise of all 40 students showing up to a Japanese history class with dozens of pages of readings annotated. Are we all just pretending that this is normal?

Then again, I’d likely have the very same thought if I had Benjamin Buttoned my way from college down to high school. As it turns out, there is no fact of the matter as to which type of norm is the “default” rather than the bizarre result of some social dynamic.