I just ran across some more striking evidence that ambition really matters. James Rosenbaum’s “College-For-All: Do Students Understand What College Demands?” (Social Psychology of Education, 1998) shows degree completion as a function of high school students’ GPA and educational aspirations.
Exhibit A: Percentage of high school seniors who plan to get a BA who successfully do so.
Exhibit B: Percentage of high school seniors who plan to get an AA who successfully do so.
A better interpretation, though, is that seniors who say they want a BA have a lot more ambition than their peers. As a result, they are – holding grades fixed – markedly more likely to achieve their goal despite its intrinsic difficulty. Seniors who say they only want an AA, in contrast, simultaneously aim low and fall short.
This probably doesn’t mean that students can improve their prospects merely by mouthing the words, “I plan to get a BA.” The reasonable interpretation, rather, is that people who place a high value on conventional success are much more likely to achieve it. A B student who says, “I want a BA” is as likely to cross his personal finish line as an A student who says, “I want an AA.” And as far as I know, no estimate of the return to education properly adjusts for this factor.