Raising the Aspirations of the Young: Is It Always a Good Thing?

Sandy Huffaker/ZUMA

Tyler Cowen tells a story from back when he was Graduate Director of Admisstions at George Mason University:

One of my favorite strategies was to take strong candidates who applied for Masters and also offer them Ph.D admissions, suggesting they might to do the latter. My lunch partner was a beneficiary of this de facto policy. At least two of our very best students went down this route. Ex ante, neither realized that it was common simply to apply straight to a Ph.D program, skipping over the Masters. I believe this is now better known, but the point is this.

At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind.

I have two questions. First, did many students a couple of decades ago really not know that it’s common to apply straight to PhD programs? That seems like such common knowledge. How did it happen?

Second, Cowen says that at least two great students went straight to PhD studies after he suggested it. That’s wonderful. But he must know what I’m going to ask next: how many of them bombed out and would have been happier and better served if they had ignored his advice and stuck with just a masters? Raising aspirations can be a wonderful thing, but not always.