Archive for the ‘education’ Category
When I wrote about universities and the ethics of donations the other day, the takeaway was that we should 1) protect academic freedom and 2) avoid resource dependence but 3) not give donors political litmus tests. Then I threw in a line at the end about the biggest funder of all: the government.
Of course, there’s a simpler solution to this – full public funding for public universities, so that we can all Just Say No to any money with strings attached. Given our current financial reality, though, I’m curious if others have ideas about where to draw the line.
A couple of people have rightly jumped on this — August in the comments, and Graham Peterson at his own blog. They point out, fairly enough, that being government-funded just makes you dependent on bureaucrats and their agendas rather than the Koches or Bill Gates or whomever.
I’m very attuned to this possibility. During the Cold War, the government was often the biggest threat to academic freedom. There were government-sponsored Communist witch-hunts (see here for a gripping account of threats made to Robert Bellah at Harvard). There was classified research with lots of academic-freedom-stifling strings attached (see, e.g., Kelly Moore’s Disrupting Science). Government-sponsored military research was, in fact, one of the things ripping universities apart in the late 1960s.
And yet. I still prefer the government money.
The final installment in our readings on higher education:
- Why Are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care? by Neil Gross
- The American Academic Profession, edited by Hermanowicz
- The American Faculty by Schuster and Finkelstein (probably the definitive work adjunctification)
- I actually don’t know a great social science treatment of tenure.
Add more in the comments.
This week, some readings on who goes to college and why:
- College Choice in America by Charles Manski. The standard model of how students choose the college they attend. Just add $40k to the tuition bill to update it.
- Read a bunch of reports summarizing the results of the annual freshman survey fielded by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. Start with the 70s and move forward.
- How elite schools choose students: Crafting a Class by Duffy and Goldberg; Creating a Class by Mitchell Stevens; and The Chosen by Jerome Karabel. Each a classic in its own way.
- Academically Adrift by Arum and Roksa. Shows the limited learning in higher ed.
- Read Becker on human capital, Arrow & Spence on signalling, and Collins on credentialism. Each is a classic statement of different theories of how college plays into employment and income.
- Read Carnevale, Strohl and Melton on the incomes associated with different college majors.
- On student protest: Freedom’s Web by Richard Rhoads and From Black Power by myself.
Use the comments for more suggestions.
Last week, Elizabeth wrote about Finland’s educational system. Like many high performing school systems, Finland relies on a relatively elite teacher corp. However, Elizabeth and other commenters were skeptical that the same approach would work in the US. I.e., you can’t get improvement by firing the worst teachers. The commenters responded that the issue was that the “new” worst teachers would still be matched with the lowest SES students. This response is not persuasive because it conflates two issues: relative improvement and absolute improvement.
While we would love all students to get exactly equal treatment in school, the most realistic goal for an institution in the short term to seek improvements with existing resources. I.e., the typical school in the South Side of Chicago needs *better* teachers, not the exact same teachers as the elite school in Winnetka. There are two reasons for this.
First, even modest improvements in outcomes matters. The typical low SES school instructor probably won’t have the same effect as the elite math teacher in Winnetka, but improving a graduation rate from 55% to 60% would result in literally hundreds of low SES kids having the high school credential or admission to college. It matters.
Second, in a system of local control, it is not entirely clear why we should expect random assignment of teachers to schools. The way the teaching profession works is that schools compete for teachers by offering higher salaries, nicer facilities, and higher SES students that are easier to teach. One can imagine a Federal system for assigning teachers to schools, but that isn’t coming any time soon. For now, we work with what we have.
Bottom line: Yes, firing the worst teachers will almost certainly increase the educational outcomes of a school. Don’t give up real, achievable gains in an attempt to stamp out all inequality.
A loyal orghead asked for a post on readings that address the organization of higher education, to help them understand why the system is set up the way it is. Today, we’ll start with some basics:
- The Emergence of American University by Laurence Vesey.
- The Academic Revolution by Christopher Jencks.
- The Higher Education System by Burton Clark
- The Evolution of Educational Thought by Emile Durkheim
- The Organization of Higher Education edited by Michael Bastedo
The last volume is an anthology that summarizes recent work in a number of areas, including a chapter by me on movements and higher ed.
Yesterday, I described how Indiana sociology conducts graduate education. It’s a really good system. In fact, when prospective students visit, I describe the system and then say: “Look, if you get an offer from Princeton, take it! They have prestige, money, and an amazing placement record. But if you don’t have an offer from a place like that, you are probably making a mistake if you turn us down.”
Still, nothing is perfect and it is worth talking about the drawbacks of the Indiana model. First, the system only works because most faculty do research where it is easy to get people involved. We do a lot of survey research, interviews, health, education, and public opinion. Thus, it’s probably not the best place for doing certain types of research that are not large team based like ethnography or comparative historical. Our students do well in those areas, but there are other better options out there.
Second, we don’t do well with what I call the “Foucault” kids. These are students who have some insanely interesting project that spans disciplines and is very sui generis. These students need less structure, not more of it. They don’t need all the stuff that IU provides. All they need is one or two older scholars who can give some honest feedback and make sure they don’t take 12 years to finish. I encountered one such student during a visit. This student unleashed this insane ethnographic/multi-site study of health on me and I said: “You are clearly very good. Just go to Harvard. Tell Bob I said hello.
Mind you, a lot of people think they are Foucault, but they’re not. IU is built for people who want to do high quality work within the confines of normal social science – which means most of you! For a few people, or people in specialties where the model doesn’t fit, it may not be appropriate.
Last week a judge struck down tenure for California teachers on civil rights grounds. (NYT story here, court decision here.) Judge Rolf Treu based his argument on two claims. First, effective teachers are critical to student success. Second, it is poor and minority students who are most likely to get ineffective teachers who are still around because they have tenure — but moved from school to school in what Treu calls, colorfully, the “dance of the lemons.”*
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about teacher tenure. I’d rather see teachers follow a professional model of the sort Jal Mehta advocates than a traditional union model. This has personal roots as much as anything: I’m the offspring of two teachers who were not exactly in love with their union. But at the same time, the attack on teacher tenure just further chips away at the idea that organizations have any obligation to their workers, or that employees deserve any level of security.
But I digress. The point I want to make is about evidence, and how it is used in policy making — here, in a court decision.
I am often asked: how does Indiana consistently place people so well? Just to be clear, in terms of elite placement, we do as well as other programs of our rank. Our ranks floats in the 10-15 range, and we can do a good R1 placement every other year. Every few years we place at or near the top. What is amazing is that we consistently place all of our students, not just the “stars.” We place students that routinely get discarded at other programs. How does that happen?
First, it starts with the faculty. In hiring at both the junior and senior levels, we have a preference for people who are committed to graduate education. Also, in terms of culture, our faculty have a very different attitude towards graduate work. We don’t work on the “star system” where a few people get most of the attention. We believe that with the right training, we can help most graduate students start a career in either teaching or research. Finally, in terms of the faculty, we also tend to attract people who are productive and collaborative. Not much dead wood.
Second, we choose graduate students very carefully. Sure, we’ll hand out acceptance letters to a few “stars” of the market every year. That’s because, like most graduate programs, we take GPA and GRE scores very seriously. But the difference is that Indiana doesn’t mark you down because you didn’t go to the “right” school. We’ve taken people from regional state schools, small liberal arts colleges, lower ranked MA programs, and other places. We read the entire application, not just the name of the BA school or the letter of recommendation. We’ve picked up some fantastic people who’ve gone on to great careers by looking for diamond in the rough.
Third, we have an insane amount of structure. It doesn’t work for everyone, but most people do well in a system that makes you jump through a lot of hoops. Like most soc programs, we have theory and methods in the first year. But we also have a summer research program, required writing workshops, a required minor, a required teaching workshop for TAs, and a bunch of other stuff. Annoying? Yes. But do people have the OLS model hammered into their brains at the end of the sequence? You bet.
Fourth, we have a deep “culture.” Our expectation is that all students should be able to complete the PhD. We also support students on multiple career tracks. We even have a special program for people interested in teaching intensive institutions. And nearly all faculty collaborate and believe in intensive 1 on 1 interaction. More than one visiting scholar has been shocked by this system.
Fifth, we have reasonable expectations and a high level of professionalism. We don’t pretend MA or PhD theses are master pieces. We want them to be good and we want them to be done. We also push people, but we (mostly!) don’t yell at people or treat grad students like children. We tell you what to do and then we try to help you. We’ll get back to you in a few weeks on your dissertation, not a few semesters.
Sixth is funding. While far from perfect, we’ve developed a system where most students can rely on 4-5 years of funding. Then, we have various mechanisms for helping most students. The pay is low, but we don’t play games. You get funding. You will get help. No games.
The issue with many programs is that they drop the ball on one or more of these issues. During my time at Chicago, for example, they had a nearly structureless program and very poor funding. Other programs will chase famous faculty without considering how well they place students. It’s too easy to slide into the star system of graduate training. Considering all that, it’s a real testament to this department that we can go head to head with programs that have a fancier brand and a much bigger budget.
Consider the following fictional story: Let’s say that I was sexually assaulted as I walked around my hometown of Cape May, New Jersey. I found out that the perpetrator was employed at Google in California, where I also held a job and worked with that person. Upon returning to California, I decide to file a complaint with Google about the sexual assault.
What is your response to this story? I’ll tell you mine. I think that it would be unwise to assume that Google has any responsibility to conduct a criminal investigation. Google is not a police department, does not have the resources to investigate, nor has it been invested with the responsibility insure the personal safety of the citizens of California or New Jersey.
The primary purpose of informing Google would be to tell them that they have a dangerous person at work and they should take all precautions to ensure employee safety. If an employee has been accused of a violent offense, then they should be given leave while the issue is investigated by the police. Or, they could work in a capacity that will not endanger other employees until the employee has been cleared of wrong doing. Google also has the responsibility to call the police. Any citizen has the moral duty to call the appropriate authorities if there is a reasonable suspicion that someone is violent. An accusation of assault would in normal circumstances be a reasonable cause. We don’t assume that a special Google court will punish sexual offenders using special Google rules. That’s why we have the police and state law.
Now, all this reasoning immediately disappears when it comes to college student crime. Even though most college students are adults, we ask that universities shoulder the burden of investigating and punishing sexual offenders. For example, Slate recently recounted the story of a young woman who was sexually assaulted in Alaska, allegedly, by a fellow Stanford student. She then filed a complaint at her university. The story also discusses the difficulty that colleges have in getting people to file sexual misconduct complaints.
But this, I believe, misses the point. PhD’s are not police officers or prosecutors. Stanford, and other schools, have duty to provide a safe environment for women students, but they aren’t district attorney offices. The insistence that colleges punish sexual offenders likely stems from the in loco parentis doctrine that gives colleges a strong role in student discipline. It’s time to abandon that belief, treat adults as adults, and shift the burden of public safety to police departments. It’s their job to protect women, including college students, and we should insist that they do it on our campuses.
Org theorists know a thing or two about what happens when you rate things. People change their behavior. In this case, that’s the point — Arne Duncan et al. are hoping that the ratings will create incentives for colleges to graduate more students with less debt and higher post-graduation incomes.
Now, those are obviously not objectionable goals. There are some clear challenges in adjusting for the expected performance of different student bodies, and worries about disincentives to go into low-paying fields like teaching or social work, but who doesn’t want college to be more affordable, somehow?*
The big problem is the outcome that is missing in there: students who have learned things. If you create a system that measures access, completion, debt, and eventual income, and it has any teeth at all, you will get colleges that aim for those things. Unfortunately, those things have a limited relationship to actual learning. Where one conflicts with the other, learning will lose.
Of course, I’m kind of hesitant to say that, because heaven knows what would happen if we started trying to measure learning outcomes at the federal level. No Young Adult Left Behind, I guess. Coursera can sell us the curriculum.
* Another problem worth mentioning is that many adults without degrees don’t see graduation rates and average student debt levels as relevant to their college decision — they think it depends on them, not the school.
Wired recently produced a nifty graphic that showed were the major tech firms recruit their employees. The messages are obvious:
- Physical proximity – this is West Coast/Canada intensive.
IBM is the exception, in that it recruits from India. But still, it recruits from the big Indian engineering programs.
The other message that I get is from the absences. 1. The Midwest engineering powerhouses (Ohio, Kansas, Michigan, Illinois) are under represented due to geography. Path dependence is cruel. 2. The Ivy League and elite liberal arts are sparsely represented, probably due to a lot recruitment by finance and smaller engineering departments. So in terms of the upper strata of the economy, West Coast is for innovation, East Coast is elite training, and the Midwest is for building cars and stuff.
“Is College Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say.” So reads the headline, and what follows does not surprise:
The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else reached a record high last year, according to the new data…Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. That’s up from 89 percent five years earlier, 85 percent a decade earlier and 64 percent in the early 1980s.
You hear this a lot. And at one level, it’s absolutely true. But what the payoff-to-college headlines often miss is that it’s graduating from college that is worth it. The NYT’s own chart implies this, though the piece never makes the connection. The earnings of people with some college have hovered around 1.1 times those of HS grads since 1975, while earnings of those with a 4-year degree have increased from about 1.45 to 1.8 times those of HS grads.*
What doesn’t help, and in fact makes things worse, is taking out loans to go to college but then failing to finish. Your income goes up almost none, but now you have debt. About 44% of students who start a four-year degree don’t finish it within six years. I couldn’t find quick numbers on the percentage of dropouts who have loans, and of what size, but 29% of those who borrowed between 2003 and 2009 dropped out by the end of that period.
The problem is that the policy takeaway of “College is a great investment!” is 1) let’s get more people into college and 2) let’s get more people to finish college once they start. But the people who aren’t now starting college after high school — the ones we might get to enroll — look an awful lot like the students who drop out with debt. It seems entirely possible that a heavy focus on increasing enrollment would create more indebted dropouts than successful graduates.
The second part makes more sense. Here, though, the incentive is usually to improve graduation rates by making it easier to graduate, rather than by improving students’ academic performance. Assuming that the point of college isn’t just to keep people off the labor market for a few more years, we need ways to offer students support while raising standards.
But how do we actually do that? I don’t have a great answer. One possibility might be to push community colleges and four-year programs in different directions. Keep community college as cheap as possible. Let people try multiple times if they need to, or move in and out as their life circumstances change. Ignore completion rates entirely.
Then for the four-years, raise standards — on both the front end and the back end. Accept that a four-year degree comes with a certain level of indebtedness for most people these days, and that most people will be worse off if they start (and borrow money) but don’t finish. Don’t emphasize “access” for students who are likely to end up in that position — send them to the low-cost option and tell them to prove themselves before they take on big debt. Provide support for the students you do accept — financial, academic, and to help with the kinds of small but potentially derailing crises students of modest means are likely to encounter. And then hold colleges accountable for completion rates.
I don’t really like this option. It limits access while not actually fixing the incentives to water things down. Given the current loan-driven, state-disinvestment model we’ve got, though, I don’t see better ways to minimize the number of dropouts with debt** while increasing, rather than reducing, the rigor of college.
* The income of HS grads, interestingly, has remained basically flat during this time — dropping from $33,500 to $32,600 in 2012 dollars. See data here; I adjusted for inflation. I expected it to drop more — but changes in the demographic mix may explain that.
** Doing something about for-profits, which have terrible numbers on this, would certainly help.
The NYT reported on Sunday about horrid conditions among the 6,000 construction workers, mostly migrants, responsible for building a new campus at NYU Abu Dhabi. According to the Times,
Virtually every one said he had to pay recruitment fees of up to a year’s wages to get his job and had never been reimbursed. N.Y.U.’s list of labor values said that contractors are supposed to pay back all such fees. Most of the men described having to work 11 or 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, just to earn close to what they had originally been promised, despite a provision in the labor statement that overtime should be voluntary.
The men said they were not allowed to hold onto their passports, in spite of promises to the contrary. And the experiences of the BK Gulf strikers, a half dozen of whom were reached by The Times in their home countries, stand in contrast to the standard that all workers should have the right to redress labor disputes without “harassment, intimidation, or retaliation.”
Some men lived in squalor, 15 men to a room. The university said there should be no more than four.
“Not happy,” Munawar, a painter from Bangladesh who only gave one name declared, speaking in limited English. Back home, he said, they have lives, families. “Come here,” he concluded, “not happy.”
News about harsh labor conditions in the UAE is nothing new. But news that NYU is supporting it raises a whole new set of questions.
It looks like international branch campuses are here to stay. Major American and European universities realize that they have become not just educational institutions but “global brands.” NYU has perhaps gone farthest on this front, calling itself the “Global Network University,” but there are now more than 200 such campuses, with the center of gravity shifting from the Middle East to Asia.
These campuses raise a number of issues — about academic freedom, educational quality, and simple economic payoff. But what, outside of pulling a William F. Buckley and standing athwart history, yelling Stop, should those of us who care about universities do, when news like this comes along?
Certainly we should be holding NYU’s feet to the fire on this and other issues. The administration has apologized for the “troubling and unacceptable” abuses, but its plan “to try to correct, to the extent still possible, any lapses in compliance” sounds…well, less than compelling.
But it is hard to find points of leverage when the incentives for universities to look the other way — not just on this but on a whole host of issues — are so great. My thought at the moment: challenging universities’ tax-exempt status or access to federal aid are the ways to really get their attention.
Over the course of my life, I have shifted from a highly conventional view of education to a highly skeptical view. Like most young people, I thought that most educational practices were adequate. Now, I think that that many pedagogical practices are not supported by data. For example, new research that encourages me toward the extreme – a new meta-analysis of studies shows that straight up lecturing is inferior to interactive learning. From Science:
To weigh the evidence, Freeman and a group of colleagues analyzed 225 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods. The meta-analysis, published online today in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that teaching approaches that turned students into active participants rather than passive listeners reduced failure rates and boosted scores on exams by almost one-half a standard deviation. “The change in the failure rates is whopping,” Freeman says. And the exam improvement—about 6%—could, for example, “bump [a student’s] grades from a B– to a B.”
Gordon Gee, former president of Ohio State, made more than $6 million in FY 2013, including the $1.5 million “release payment” he got in exchange for
not letting the door hit him agreeing not to sue the university on his way out. Now the New York Times is reporting that the 25 public universities with the highest-paid presidents have greater increases in student debt and numbers of adjuncts than other publics.
I had a story for this, an organizational story. Ah, I thought. The NYT is implying that the high pay is taking away money that would be going to the other stuff. But really, this just reflects a new model for flagship publics: limit faculty costs (hence the adjuncts), increase the proportion of out-of-state students paying high tuition (hence the debt), and pursue corporate-style CEOs who can lead us into this brave new world (hence the salaries). The non-flagships can’t pursue this strategy successfully, so we’re seeing a divergence between the two groups.
But it turns out that the data don’t, in fact, support that story. They don’t really support any story. The NYT article is based on a report from the Institute for Policy Studies, a progessive think tank. And as I read it, things didn’t seem quite right. IPS reports on the number of adjunct faculty at these institutions, but I haven’t seen good data anywhere on the number of adjuncts. And administrative spending at publics increased 65% between FYs 2006 and 2012, as states slashed budgets?
Yeah, basically the IPS report is just a mess. IPEDS made some major redefinitions of terms in the middle — like who falls under “Part-time/Instruction, Research and Public Service,” what IPS is calling “Adjunct Labor” — so the years aren’t comparable with each other, and AFT appears to have mislabeled some of the years entirely. The University of Minnesota’s impressively fast PR office has a debunking report up, and while I haven’t checked all the numbers, my impression is that it’s right on target.
That doesn’t disprove my theory that there will be increasing divergence between the model for flagships and the path taken by the rest of the publics. And it’s entirely possible that universities with highly paid presidents have underwhelming outcomes in other areas. But if we’re going to argue over what to do about it, it would be nice if it were based on numbers that actually mean something.
NPR has a wonderful interactive graph that allows you see what % of students were majoring in a particular topic from 1970 to the present. A few lessons are clear. The NPR article notes the rise of business and the decline of education. Health is also on the rise. A few other trends are also worth noting. Nearly all social science and humanities have declined in both relative and absolute numbers. Sociology is typical. In 1970, 34,000 graduates accounted for about 4% of the total. The number has declined to 30,000 for about 1.8% of the total.
Some exceptions are easy to understand. Computer science increased eight fold in relative size. Other exceptions are puzzling. In a world of shrinking journalism, how are communications and journalism getting more students? Is it driven by the modern media environment?
Concluding note: This is brutal news for the graduate education in the arts and sciences. They’ve built themselves on a model of hiring many PhD students so they could teach massive lectures. At the big public flagships, where most doctoral education happens, this is sustainable. The problem is graduation – the jobs are simply not there as people have collectively shifted from arts and sciences to vocational majors.
A number of analyses have shown that (a) college tuition has outpaced inflation, (b) administrators have increased in number and in cost, and (c) graduate student and faculty pay have remained flat. This isn’t to say that the only force behind higher tuition is administrative growth, but it’s certainly one important factor. The way that this normally interpreted is that you have greedy administrators who are just voting themselves raises which, in the absence of competition, go unrestrained.
Here is a slightly different framing. Increased college costs are a collective pay increase for faculty. How? It helps to realize that faculty salaries are fairly constrained. In the arts and sciences, salaries top out at, about $95k, for full professors at most colleges. Research profs can add about $10k, liberal arts can subtract $10k. Not bad, but still modest compared to top professionals in other fields. It also helps to realize that people start hitting the full professor rank in their forties, which means you could have 20-30 years of work with few pay increases in real terms.
The solution? Stop being a professor. Switch to a more fluid labor market for executives. Unlike professor jobs, your skills are portable and there is actual demand. Luckily, there has been a recent increase in college cash flows, so the budget is bigger. If you believe this story, then the escalation of tuition and costs is simply society’s way of paying more to people who used to get “stuck” at the full professor level. They’re just called associate deans now.
When thinking about increasing the presence of under represented minorities in the professoriate, I think of the pipeline process model. Roughly speaking, a pipeline process suggests that something happens in multiple stages. The immediate consequence of the model is that if you want X to happen you have to make sure that all the stages that make X are working properly. In terms of faculty diversity, that means recruitment to graduate school, professional training, job placement, career development, and the tenure process.
A while ago I reviewed evidence from ASA reports showing that the pipeline is leaky. On the one hand, graduate programs seem to recruit a fair number of minority students. Then, once training is complete people seem to do well getting the jobs. Then, there is a massive drop in the pipeline as people go up for promotion.
Now that I’ve been on the job for a while, I think the following is happening: the core faculty of the PhD programs are not working with minority PhD students. They are admitting students, awarding degrees, and writing letters of recommendation, but they are not collaborating with students in ways that lead to publications and grants. In other words, most successful students work with faculty who “get them started” while their own research takes a little time to develop. My hypothesis is that if you looked at PhD minority students they are way less likely to co-author with faculty and that they are less likely to receive an offer of co-authorship. I’d also hypothesize that this gap is largest for top tier journal publications. This will be small or non-existent in areas focused on race and ethnicity. In other words, when faculty build teams to shoot for that ASR or AJS publication, the minority students come last for invitations, except in race & ethnicity areas. I didn’t think this is conscious, but this might be happening and explains the drastic leaking throughout the later stages of the pipeline.
Am I right? If you are a faculty member at a top 20 or 30 program in your field, the test is simple. Look at your list of co-authors for your big papers. Look at your list of minority students. Look at the overlap. Use the comments section.
When I argue that we have too much college, people quickly fall on the well established fact that college graduates make a lot more than non-college graduates. But you don’t need to be an education skeptic to ask a sensible question: what’s the variance? Are some people not making the college premium? How many? Well, turns out that a firm has been calculating the rate of return for college and it varies a huge amount. There are folks who don’t make it back. Some college graduates are making a *negative* rate of return. From the economist:
A report by PayScale, a research firm, tries to measure the returns on higher education in America (see article). They vary enormously. A graduate in computer science from Stanford can expect to make $1.7m more over 20 years than someone who never went to college, after the cost of that education is taken into account. A degree in humanities and English at Florida International University leaves you $132,000 worse off. Arts degrees (broadly defined) at 12% of the colleges in the study offered negative returns; 30% offered worse financial rewards than putting the cash in 20-year Treasury bills.
None of this matters if you are rich and studying fine art to enhance your appreciation of the family Rembrandts. But most 18-year-olds in America go to college to get a good job. That is why the country’s students have racked up $1.1 trillion of debt—more than America’s credit-card debts. For most students college is still a wise investment, but for many it is not. Some 15% of student debtors default within three years; a startling 115,000 graduates work as caretakers.
In other words, before we rush more people into the college, we have to make it cheaper, much cheaper. And we shouldn’t facilitate degrees that massively bad consequences for your economic life chances.
Having spent a lot of time doing higher education research, I get asked about college all the time. Here are my major talking points.
For high school students:
- Even though social scientists disagree on why college is correlated with income, the evidence does show that there is a very large difference in life outcomes between college degree earners and everyone else.
- Don’t worry about which college to go to. Find one that you enjoy and that is affordable. In general, most people will move into jobs where pedigree does not matter.
- Getting into college: With the exception of the top 40 schools in America – out of 4,000! – most colleges have high acceptance rates, including a lot of good ones.
- The exception: There are a few careers where pedigree matters a l0t – the law, politics, some the performing and visual arts, and academia. Not a guarantee of success, but specific colleges do substantially boost your chance of success.
- Major: The big secret of higher education is the difference between STEM majors, business majors, and everyone else. In general I urge people to study what they enjoy because you will get the college degree income boost in any case. But if income is important, focus on STEM or business/econ.
For college students:
- People sort early into “tracks.” By the first year of college, most people will fall into a “party track” or a serious track. If you have any concern with professional school or completing in a timely fashion, don’t fall into the party track. It is hard to get out of.
- Performance: The easiest way to do well in college is not to master the lecture notes, it is to study previous tests and papers.
- Graduate school: Some jobs (e.g., medicine) require a post-graduate credential. Most jobs don’t. If you are wondering if you should go to graduate school, make sure you need the degree first.
- 529s, people. 529s.
- Cost: With the exception of a few career tracks (e.g., academia), where you go to school doesn’t seem to have a big effect, although people do enjoy college more at small liberal arts institutions. So unless you have a lot of discretionary income, encourage children to go to public university. You’ll save the price of a house.
- Students typically enroll in academically comparable schools that are close by. So, yes, a few ambitious kids will move cross country for school, but most won’t.
For policy makers:
- Costs are out of control due to administrative growth and student services. The solution is to relieve colleges of administrative burdens and cut services and administrators.
- Faculty salaries have been flat.
- There is a massive increase in part time labor/adjuncts.
- State support for higher education will never come back. Alternative income sources must be found.
Scatter has a great post on why we need to treat the Introduction to Sociology course with great importance by Nathan Palmer:
The 101 class is the public face of our discipline. Every year there are roughly a million students in the United States who take Soc 101, that is, if my publisher friends’ estimates are to be believed. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, 101 will be their only exposure to our discipline. Sure, they might hear about our research findings in the media, but chances are they’ll have no idea that it was a sociologist who produced the research.
…How do the faculty in your department think about 101? Is it something to be avoided like the plague? Is it a hazing ritual that you put newbs through so that senior faculty can get to teach their “real classes” (i.e. their upper division classes within their area of interest)?
Undergraduates are significantly more likely to major in a field if they have an inspiring and caring faculty member in their introduction to the field. And they are equally likely to write off a field based on a single negative experience with a professor.
Second, it matters because of Krulak’s law which posits, “The closer you get to the front, the more power you have over the brand.” Put simply, if the 101 class is the frontline of sociology, then the 101 teacher is the ambassador for us all.
Read the whole thing.
Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Rhode Island College and is the author of Student Activism and Curricular Change in Higher Education. Her current research explores network effects on curricular change in higher education. Her primary teaching responsibilities include social research methods and law and society courses, and this spring she is teaching a new interdisciplinary upper-level general education course on higher education.
One of the hallmarks of modernity is the focus on rationality and efficiency in organizational function: organizations of all types, from hospitals to Fortune 500 corporations, from universities to small not-for-profits, seek to improve their performance in terms of measureable outcomes. But, as the aphorism goes, “What gets measured gets done, what gets measured and fed back gets done well, what gets rewarded gets repeated” (variously attributed to any number of management scholars). For example, pharmaceutical companies’ focus on stock prices, sales figures, and the next blockbuster drug has led to a focus on treatments for common, chronic conditions, such as the umpteenth heartburn medication, and less focus on the development of new antibiotics, a trend that may soon prove to have devastating effects on our attempts to control infections disease.
In higher education, a similar dynamic is occurring. In the past, colleges and universities were primarily measured (and funded) based on enrollments. This meant that encouraging more students to enroll, and keeping them enrolled in classes until after the third week (or whenever official enrollment statistics are due), was often the highest priority, and whether students ever graduated did not matter nearly as much. You get what you measure: students in seats.
More recently, the emphasis has shifted to retention and graduation as measureable outcomes. This change encouraged administrators to consider what was necessary to keep students in school and to improve time-to-degree, but it came with its own perverse incentives. For example, administrators turned to student evaluations as a way to increase student satisfaction; some colleges and universities discourage faculty from failing students because failures decrease graduation rates and increase dropout rates. This leads to colleges in which students can graduate with a 2.0, never having written a paper (a phenomenon discussed in recent books like Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift and Armstrong and Hamilton’s Paying for the Party). It also contributes to rampant grade inflation, including elite institutions where over half of all grades awarded are As (happy students=repeat customers). You get what you measure: grads with high grades.
A variety of colleges and universities have thus sought ways to curb grade inflation, such as providing average class grades on transcripts and setting strict grading curves. By encouraging tougher grading standards, these methods may indeed reduce the average GPA of enrolled students, but tougher grading standards do not necessarily translate into better educated graduates—and in any case, most colleges and universities have not chosen to enact these sorts of reforms. Indeed, the ease by which average grades can be manipulated highlights the fact that grades themselves may not be even an adequate proxy measure of student learning, and thus the assessment movement was born.
Today, accrediting agencies require colleges and universities to demonstrate that students meet measurable learning outcomes, and projects like the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile encourage institutions and departments to clearly state the intended outcomes of their programs in measureable language. Some colleges and universities have gone further, developing competency-based degrees in which students supposedly demonstrate their skills rather than their seat time to graduate. At first blush, many critics argued that these programs are just another kind of teaching to the test. But teaching to the test is only a problem if the test is not actually able to test the desired learning outcomes—you get what you measure: results on the test.
It has already become clear to advocates of competency-based learning that competency is a pretty low floor, and instead they have begun to use the term “proficiency.” One goal of proficiency-based degree plans has been to shorten the time and cost of a degree, particularly by reducing Baumol’s cost disease by disrupting the relationship between seat time, faculty workload, and degree production. So far, competency- and proficiency-based programs are rare and likely appeal only to a particular self-selected group—but as Chambliss and Takacs point out in their forthcoming book How College Works, college only works if it works for all students, including the lazy, the unmotivated, and the perhaps not-so-smart.
So if we get what we measure and what gets rewarded gets repeated—and we measure proficiencies and reward completion—what do we get? Degrees as checklists? Students who cannot earn a college degree because, while they are excellent writers and have superb disciplinary knowledge, they cannot (in Lumina’s language) construct and define “a cultural, political, or technological alternative vision of either the natural or human world,” a key bachelor’s-level competency? An even more extreme bifurcation of the higher education field in which some colleges and universities develop rigorous proficiency measures and provide students with the supports necessary to excel while others assess writing, critical thinking, and speaking with machine- or peer-grading?
Or is it possible to build a system that measures proficiencies in a real, valuable way and which rewards completion without reducing the rigor of these proficiencies? In other words, can find a way to measure what we want to get instead of getting what we happen to have measured?
What do the Cooper Union and the University of California have in common? They both promised no tuition and have abandoned that. This leads to an interesting idea about higher education. My hypothesis is that free tuition is an “unstable equilibrium.” Once you get it going, it can be sustainable, since people exert great pressure to keep it that way. But once you charge tuition, it’s impossible to go back. For the University of California, it was the freedom to charge a “registration fee.” Originally meant to cover bureaucratic costs, it very quickly became de facto tuition. It was even litigated and the courts openly admitted it was de facto tuition but needed. The same for the Cooper Union, which is now just another private school with a hefty tuition, after nearly a century of being tuition free.
In a world where college is a certification for the labor market, and entry is restricted, you invite monopoly pricing by producers. In that world, any excuse you can provide that allows you to start charging tuition is the first step in extracting huge amounts of money from students and parents. And that is very hard to resist.
Shamus and I have a long standing debate over the 2002 Dale/Krueger paper and whether it really does show that elite college premia are due to ability bias (e.g., kids who go to Harvard make more money because they are smarter/better connected/whatever, not because Harvard gives them any particular human capital). Via Econlog, I discovered thet D&K have a working paper, which bolsters this claim with newer analysis. From the abstract:
We find that the return to college selectivity is sizeable for both cohorts in regression models that control for variables commonly observed by researchers, such as student high school GPA and SAT scores. However, when we adjust for unobserved student ability by controlling for the average SAT score of the colleges that students applied to, our estimates of the return to college selectivity fall substantially and are generally indistinguishable from zero. There were notable exceptions for certain subgroups. For black and Hispanic students and for students who come from less-educated families (in terms of their parents’ education), the estimates of the return to college selectivity remain large, even in models that adjust for unobserved student characteristics.
In other words, if going to Harvard causes you to get more income, the income associated with going to Harvard should remain unexplained when we control for sensible individual covariates. In the data, when you include data on school you applied to, which indicates how ambitious you are, the Harvard effect goes away, except for low-SES students.
Bottom line: Elite college attendance is a marker of ambition. That’s important to know, but shouldn’t be conflated with a human capital effect, except for populations which don’t have wealth or social connections.
“There’s a literature on everything.” – Tyler Cowen
Yup, it turns out that not only is there is a network analysis literature on mean girls, but it has been published in the ASR. I quote from an article by Bob Faris and Diane Felmlee called “Status Struggles: Network Centrality and Gender Segregation in Same- and Cross-Gender Aggression:”
Literature on aggression often suggests that individual deficiencies, such as social incompetence, psychological difficulties, or troublesome home environments, are responsible for aggressive behavior. In this article, by contrast, we examine aggression from a social network perspective, arguing that social network centrality, our primary measure of peer status, increases the capacity for aggression and that competition to gain or maintain status motivates its use. We test these arguments using a unique longitudinal dataset that enables separate consideration of same- and cross-gender aggression. We find that aggression is generally not a maladjusted reaction typical of the socially marginal; instead, aggression is intrinsic to status and escalates with increases in peer status until the pinnacle of the social hierarchy is attained. Over time, individuals at the very bottom and those at the very top of a hierarchy become the least aggressive youth. We also find that aggression is influenced not so much by individual gender differences as by relationships with the other gender and patterns of gender segregation at school. When cross-gender interactions are plentiful, aggression is diminished. Yet these factors are also jointly implicated in peer status: in schools where cross-gender interactions are rare, cross-gender friendships create status distinctions that magnify the consequences of network centrality.
A few weeks ago, we all laughed when MIT was praised for its well known (but nonexistent) sociology department. But a serious question went unasked: why doesn’t MIT have a degree granting sociology unit? At first, you think the answer is obvious. MIT is an engineering and science school. We shouldn’t expect it to offer any sociology aside from a few courses for general education of engineering students.
But hold on! MIT offers lots of non-STEM degrees. For example, it has a highly regarded business school and an architecture school. Ok, you say, maybe it’ll offer nuts and bolts professional programs that are closely allied with STEM fields. Yet, that argument doesn’t hold water. MIT also allows students to major and/or concentrate in music. It’s also got well known PhD programs in humanities fields like philosophy, social sciences like political science and economics, and a sort of catch-all program that combines history, anthropology, and science studies. Heck, you can even get the ultimate fluffy major – creative writing.
It’s even more baffling when you realize that it is amazingly easy to create a BS or PhD degree focusing on the quantitative side of sociology (e.g., applied regression, networks, demography, stochastic process models, soc psych/experimental, survey analysis, simulation/agent based models, rational choice/game theory, etc.)
My hypothesis is that the typical MIT faculty or alumni relies on the reputation of sociology, not what the field is actually about. Like a lot of folks, the field is written off as a hopeless quagmire of post-modernism, even though, ironically, most sociologists are not post-modernists. The reality is that the field is a fairly traditional positivist scholarly area with normal, cumulative research. Even qualitative research is often presented in ways that most normal science types would recognize. It’s really too bad. Sociology could use a healthy dose of ideas from the hard sciences, and MIT could be the place where that could happen.
In my undergraduate social network class, I tried to explain how social network analysis could be used to identify a certain “type” of person. I often use high schools as an example. One could ask students to identify friends and then use that data to map groups, cliques, and the like. At one point in the discussion, I then said, “for example, we could use network data to discover the most popular people, the MEAN GIRLS.” I then asked, “how would we discover mean girls?”
In our discussion, I think we settled on the following:
- Mean girls would have high centrality scores.
- With asymmetrical friendship network data, mean girls would not reciprocate.
- If people rated the content of the network tie, mean girls would receive a lot positives but send out negatives.
- Mean girls would cluster, or have structurally equivalent roles.
A student asked, “Fabio, were you a mean girl in high school?”
I said, “probably not, I was very shy and I rarely taunted kids or got in fights. In some ways, though, I am a mean nerd.”
The student responded, “Fabio, you are definitely a mean nerd. I read what you wrote about the critical realists.”
In the spring, I wrote a series of posts about Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy, which argues that industrialization was precipitated by cultural change in the UK. This final (?) post on Mokyr’s book extracts some of Mokyr’s observations about education and contrasts them with a popular theory of the education/growth link.
First, what are some standard stories of the education/growth correlation?
- By-product: The by-product thesis says that you first get growth, due to technical or institutional change, then people are wealthy enough to invest in education.
- Average worker productivity: The standard story in the media (and among social scientists) is that education increases the average productivity of workers, which lead to growth. Education is an across the board “upgrade” in the economy.
What is the alternative? Well, Mokyr’s history suggests an alternative:
- Elite reformation: Education mainly changes elites in two important ways that lead to economic growth. First, education shows innovators (the technical elite) the idea of translating abstract knowledge into concrete application. It also provides a common stock of knowledge (e.g., we all know chemistry or law). Second, education of political elites might make them more tolerant of wealth accumulation by innovators. Science and engineering are no longer threats to be punished through force or tax.
This Mokyrian theory is motivated by the observation that the UK saw massive economic growth with an almost illiterate population. Mokyr’s (implicit) elite reformation theory has a number of attractive features. It doesn’t require a massive re-education of the population before growth in the historical record. Second, it provides a concrete mechanism linking cultural change to institutional change (ie., the ideas get broadcast in educational institutions that elites tend to hang out at, like Oxbridge in the UK). Third, it explains why having an educated technical elite is not enough for growth, which explains why some nations with strong technical elites but misguided political elites remain mired in poverty (e.g., India). Finally, elite reformation theory doesn’t require you to explain why it is that sending the masses to trigonometry class – which they will promptly forget – makes them more productive.
Jessica Collett, scatterista and social psychologist supreme, has a thoughtful post summarizing her recent research on “impostor syndrome” among academics. If you aren’t familiar with the idea, it means that people feel like they are fakes and subsequently curtail their ambitions or work. From her post at Scatterplot:
At this year’s ASA meetings in NYC, Jade Avelis and I presented research on the effect of impostorism (also known as the impostor syndrome or feelings of fraudulence) on academic career ambitions. We were specifically interested in impostorism as a potential causes of “downshifting”* (entering graduate school programs aspiring to a tenure track position at a research institution and changing during the course of study to a non-tenure track position or one with an emphasis on teaching), a trend almost twice as common among women as it is among men.
In the literature to date, researchers attribute higher rates of downshifting among women to their increased concerns about family friendliness compared to men. Drawing on qualitative and quantitative days from PhD students at a private, research institution in the Midwest, Jade and I test both this common explanation and an impostorism account. As reported today in Science Careers, over at the website for Science, we found trends consistent with previous research. Women were more likely to suffer from impostorism, more concerned about family friendliness, and more likely to downshift during graduate school than men were. However, we also found that women’s increased concerns about family friendliness did not explain their increased likelihood to downshift. Impostorism, on the other hand, played a significant role.
This is crucial research for anyone interested in gender disparities in the academy. Jessica has a concrete suggestion at the end – that imposterism might be combated by changing the atmosphere within PhD programs. Knowing that other people have anxiety is a nice way to help people overcome it. Fabio’s suggestion: RCT where some programs implement an anti-imposterism program for 1st years, then we follow up every few years to see if it made a difference.
There’s a recent study by researchers at Northwestern showing that part time instructors do better than tenured full timers. A few clips from an Inside Higher Ed piece addressing the issue:
A major new study has found that new students at Northwestern University learn more when their instructors are adjuncts than when they are tenure-track professors.
The study — released this morning by the National Bureau of Economic Research (abstract available here) — found that the gains are greatest for the students with the weakest academic preparation. And the study found that the gains extended across a wide range of disciplines. The authors of the study suggest that by looking at measures of student learning, and not just course or program completion, their work may provide a significant advance in understanding the impact of non-tenure-track instructors.
Let’s follow up on Brayden’s post on higher education, which focused on alleged problems in higher education. There is one issue that nearly all observers agree is large and important – the massive shift to part time faculty. This has two consequences. First, it means that the average wage and compensation package for faculty is, on the average, shrinking. Second, it means that there are fewer and fewer stable tenure track jobs waiting for graduate students. This nice post illustrates the trend. It is taken from this article from The Society Pages.
lifting the crimson curtain: Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education
As a grad student, I always found crossing the bridge over the Charles River from Harvard University to the Harvard Business School (HBS) to be a bit like approaching Emerald (or more appropriately, Crimson) City. On the Allston side, the buildings seemed shinier (or, as shiny as New England vernacular architecture allows), and the grounds were undergoing constant replantings, thanks to a well-heeled donor. In addition, HBS has loomed large as an institution central to the dissemination of organizational theory and management practices, including Elton Mayo’s human relations.
HBS has certain peculiarities about teaching and learning, like the use of case studies which follow formulaic structures as the basis for directed class discussion.* Moreover, instructors follow a strict grading break-down: mandatory “III”s assigned to the lowest-performing students of classes – a source of concern, as students with too many IIIs must justify their performance before a board and possibly go on leave.** To help instructors with grading, hired scribes document student discussion comments.***
Such conditions raise questions about the links, as well as disconnects, between classroom and managerial leadership, so I was delighted to see a new ethnography about business school teaching at the UChicago Press book display at ASAs.
With his latest book, Michel Anteby lifts the crimson curtain from HBS with his new book Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education (University of Chicago Press, 2013).
Here’s the official blurb:
“Corporate accountability is never far from the front page, and as one of the world’s most elite business schools, Harvard Business School trains many of the future leaders of Fortune 500 companies. But how does HBS formally and informally ensure faculty and students embrace proper business standards? Relying on his first-hand experience as a Harvard Business School faculty member, Michel Anteby takes readers inside HBS in order to draw vivid parallels between the socialization of faculty and of students.
In an era when many organizations are focused on principles of responsibility, Harvard Business School has long tried to promote better business standards. Anteby’s rich account reveals the surprising role of silence and ambiguity in HBS’s process of codifying morals and business values. As Anteby describes, at HBS specifics are often left unspoken; for example, teaching notes given to faculty provide much guidance on how to teach but are largely silent on what to teach. Manufacturing Morals demonstrates how faculty and students are exposed to a system that operates on open-ended directives that require significant decision-making on the part of those involved, with little overt guidance from the hierarchy. Anteby suggests that this model-which tolerates moral complexity-is perhaps one of the few that can adapt and endure over time.”
Check it out! And while you’re at it, have a look at Anteby’s previous book, Moral Gray Zones (2008, Princeton University Press).
Guest blogger emeritus Hilary Levey Friedman has just released her new book, Playing to Win, which is a thoughtful account of competitive children’s activities. Drawing from fieldwork done in three competitive youth circuits (chess, dance, soccer), Hilary provides us with an engaging treatment of the topic. She raises important questions about how we’ve reshaped childhood in response to the growing importance of higher education for young adults.
The core strength of the book is that it successfully explains how two organizational fields – higher education and children’s leisure – collide. Since colleges are the “key” for mobility, we recreate childhood in ways that reproduce status via college entrance. Thus, the book is an extension of Bourdieu’s approach to stratification, as expressed through Lareau and her school. This attempt at social reproduction is seen when parents strategize about how much effort to expend and how these activities teach the right life lessons. And, of course, as with all good ethnography, there are lots of juicy bits, such as the discussion of female chess players, which is a great discussion of counter-signalling theory in childhood.
The biggest question I had when reading the book is “does it matter?” In the final chapter, Hilary alludes to arguments made by Dalton Conley (and myself, by the way) that the specific school doesn’t matter much. In other words, if it doesn’t matter which college you go to, then why should you torture your kid with violin lessons so he’s get into Yale?
Even if I’m wrong, and there is an Ivy League treatment effect, it’s still puzzling. Higher education researchers know that only about 50 colleges in the United States are hard to get into (consistent admit rates below 50%). About 18 million people a year enroll in college, but very competitive schools like the Ivies and the public flagships account for a small fraction of that number. Being a chess champ may be helpful for the smartest kids who have a shot at an elite school but this whole scene is irrelevant for most people who are trying to get into college.
My guess is that parents probably know, on some level, that these activities usually have marginal effects on admission when compared to GPA or SATs, but they still want to show that they are invested in their children. And of course, many of this activities are enjoyable. So in many cases, no harm no foul. If you buy this argument, you can skip soccer camp with a clean conscience.
Overall, great job and a pleasure to read. Recommended!