Information Deserts

I am a tenured professor at an R1 research department who gets to work every day with scholars at universities all over the world. In 2002, when I applied to get my PhD at a local school, I did not know how grad school, academia, or research worked. More importantly, I didn’t know that I didn’t know, so I didn’t try to find out. I tell you this only to illustrate, via personal example, the depth of ignorance that is possible among exactly the people who, in theory, should be be the most informed, or at least trying the hardest to become informed. 1

When you spend enough time with the same group of people, there is a tendency to treat shared in-group knowledge as universally common knowledge. I don’t think this tendency is unique, or even especially strong, among academics, but it is something I am acutely aware of when discussions turn to higher education. The paper linked to in the tweet below reports the results of a field experiment where subjects in the treatment group received a packet of information regarding the availability of financial support to attend the University of Michigan for qualified applicants. It was impeccably designed and well-funded, and included the composition of informational materials rivaling any educational marketing I have ever seen. Go read the paper yourself, but the punchline is that the exogenous shock of information mattered, significantly increasing applications and subsequent matriculation to the University by students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

The results did not surprise me in the slightest (that is not a dig at the paper, which is tremendous). What surprised me when I saw the paper presented was the shock expressed by so many fellow members in the audience, who simply could not reconcile the implication that students (and their families) were unaware that college education was accessible to them. How did they not know? How could they not know? The information was everywhere.

Ivory tower academics live in bubble, yeah yeah. Shrug. I don’t think this is an ivory tower phenomenon, to be honest. This is, instead, a story about information deserts. Food deserts, yeah they’re not real. But information deserts, in my carefully cultivated opinion very much are. Academics expressing shock that people don’t know how much financial aid is available, that Harvard of all places is entirely “need-blind” in their application process (and to be clear, every university with a multi-billion endowment should be ashamed to not be need-blind in their application process). It’s easy to forget that the majority of people don’t get an undergraduate degree. They don’t interact with the aid process, it’s not something that people discuss with their neighbors. I don’t buy a lot “economic class as causal mechanism” theorizing, but there is something to be said for the fact that, culturally, we don’t discuss money with our friends. We don’t talk about our salaries and loans, how we are paying for education or how your kid might be able to pay for theirs. It’s simply not the kind of information that fills the air, doubly so in communities where most of the parents never attended college. Compounded the with greater urgency of day-to-day living for poor families, there just aren’t a lot of channels through which students can get a first moment’s traction to start asking the question about how they can go to college, let alone arrive at answers.

When smart and good technocrats like me are looking for policies that can stand up to the rigors of cost-benefit analysis from skeptics, information campaigns manage to be some of the very worst and very best ideas out there. When they’re bad, they talk down to disadvantaged communities with condescending messages filled with information they already have (crack is bad!), common sense everyone has (guns are dangerous!), or the kind of avuncular suburban conservative wisdom that leaves no one an ounce more informed.

But, when they’re good, they’re great. Information campaigns scale, with manageable marginal costs and often zero downside risk. They provide a very specific kind of information– information you didn’t even know you were missing, often answers to questions you didn’t know you should be asking. Did you know there was a Hepatitis vaccine? Did you know that you can save for our kid’s college education tax free? Did you know you qualify for the EITC and if you file your taxes you’ll get a check for $4,600? Did you know the flagship university of the state, one of the very best in the world, guarantees sufficient financial support to allow 100% of admitted students to attend without being financially crippled for life?

Rather than focus on what you think people know and don’t know, just start from the basics. What is the information that you relied on when making the biggest decisions in your life? Do other people have that information?

Are you sure?

1 I’ll abstain from telling the long version here, but I had absolutely no clue how graduate school and academia worked when I applied to a PhD program. I was a public high school teacher, I thought I’d work hard, write a dissertation, and make 50k a year teaching in a local community college. It’s funny in hindsight because what was then an ocean of unknowns is now the entirety of our academic working lives. Being told that families don’t know how college works is can feel like being told people don’t know the water we live in is wet.

5 thoughts on “Information Deserts

  1. James Bailey June 22, 2021 / 3:39 pm

    I didn’t know full-ride merit scholarships were a thing until I got a letter from Alabama offering one and then wondered, “what is the best school that does this?”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jonathan Meer June 28, 2021 / 2:25 pm

    This is a really excellent piece. Thanks, Mike.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mdmakowsky June 28, 2021 / 7:05 pm

      Thanks! As a member of the Fab 40 i.e. the 40 people who consistently show up to read my posts even when something doesn’t spread around twitter, your positive feedback is especially appreciated!


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