Archive for the ‘productivity and performance’ Category
Higher education has become dependent on human capital arguments to justify its existence. The new gainful employment rule for for-profit colleges, announced yesterday by the Obama administration, reminded me of this. It clarifies what standards for-profits have to meet in order to remain eligible for federal aid, which makes up 90% of many for-profits’ revenues.
Under the new standard, programs will fail if graduates’ debt-to-earnings ratio is over 30%, or if their debt-to-discretionary-earnings (income above 150% of the poverty line — about $17,000 for a single person) is over 12%.
Now, we could have a whole other conversation about this criterion, which is really, really, weak, since it no longer takes into account the percent of students who default on their loans within three years. By limiting the measure to graduates, it ignores, for example, the outcomes of the 86% of students who enroll in BA programs at the University of Phoenix but don’t finish in six years — most of whom are taking out as many federal loans as they can along the way.
But I want to make a different point here. More and more, we are focused on return on investment — income of graduates — as central to thinking about the value of college.
Last week, discussed how police interact with urban communities and the hypothesis that police are rewarded for focusing on the drug trade and they are less rewarded for just keeping the peace. Once commenter asked: what are the goals of the police? What are they trying to maximize?
Upon reflection, I realize that I had no idea, but I could generate some hypotheses:
- Department budgets
- Violent crime
- Non-violent crime
- Property crime
- Victimless crime
- Social control (i.e., controlling specific populations)
- “Broken windows” – making certain locations look desirable
- Votes (for D.A.’s especially)
I’d be interested in any data show the relative importance of these goals, say, in police budgets, arrests, prosecutions, police hours, etc. Criminology readers – how would you rank these goals given your knowledge of the field?
Do people know about social impact bonds? I hadn’t heard of them till recently. Since then, though, I’ve developed a train-wreck fascination. They have the potential to combine all the worst features of the public and private sectors. And they can be securitized, to boot!
Let’s take a step back. What is a social impact bond, anyway?
Well. Imagine you have a social problem you’d like to solve. Say that you want to reduce recidivism among young people in prison. That sounds good, right? The problem, of course, is that taxpayers don’t want to pay for rehabilitative programs, and there’s lots of disagreement about what kind of program would actually help solve the problem, anyway.
The government says, Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody would take care of this for us, and we’d only have to pay them if they actually succeeded?
Enter Goldman Sachs.
A recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives reports a recent attempt to curb grade inflation. High GPA departments at Wellesley College were required to cap high grades. The abstract:
Average grades in colleges and universities have risen markedly since the 1960s. Critics express concern that grade inflation erodes incentives for students to learn; gives students, employers, and graduate schools poor information on absolute and relative abilities; and reflects the quid pro quo of grades for better student evaluations of professors. This paper evaluates an anti-grade-inflation policy that capped most course averages at a B+. The cap was biding for high-grading departments (in the humanities and social sciences) and was not binding for low-grading departments (in economics and sciences), facilitating a difference-in-differences analysis. Professors complied with the policy by reducing compression at the top of the grade distribution. It had little effect on receipt of top honors, but affected receipt of magna cum laude. In departments affected by the cap, the policy expanded racial gaps in grades, reduced enrollments and majors, and lowered student ratings of professors.
My sense is that this shows that grade inflation, whatever its historical origins, acts as a competitive advantage for programs that few other market advantages. If you don’t have a strong external job market or external funding, then you can boost enrollments via grade inflation. It also absolves programs by masking racial under performance. The lesson for academic management is this: If you have inequality in funding, departments will compensate by weak grading. If you have inequality by race, departments will compensate by weak grading. Thus, academic leaders who care about either of these issues should implement policies where departments don’t choose standards and are accountable for results.
Over at Scatterplot, Jeremy’s been writing about his life gamification experiment, which involves giving himself points for various activities he’d like to be doing more of. I find this sort of thing totally compelling and have to admit I’m now giving myself all sorts of points in my head. (Finish unpacking one box — 5 points! Send an email I’ve been procrastinating on — 5 points!) Although not in 100 million years could I get my husband to play along with me, even for brunch, of which he is fond.
Anyway, the game brought to mind this post from Stephen Wolfram, in which Wolfram presents a bunch of data from the last 25 years of his life. Here, for example, are all the emails he’s sent since 1989. (Note the sharp time shift in 2002, when he stopped being completely nocturnal.) He’s also got keystroke data, times of calendar events, time on the phone, and physical activity.
Fascinating to read about, but perhaps not terribly healthy to pursue in practice. Although in Wolfram’s case, it sounds like he was mostly just collecting the data, not using it to guide his day-to-day decisions. Others become more obsessive. I don’t know if David Sedaris has really been spending nine hours a day walking the English countryside, a slave to his Fitbit, or if he’s taking poetic license, but it’s a heck of an image.
Clearly there are a lot of people into this sort of thing. In fact, there is a whole Quantified Self movement, complete with conferences and meet-up groups. One obvious take on this is that we’re all becoming perfect neoliberal subjects, rational, entrepreneurial and self-disciplined.
For me, though, what is fun and appealing as a choice — and I do think it’s a choice — becomes repellent and dehumanizing when someone pushes it on me. So while I’ll happily track my work hours and tally my steps just because I like to — and yes, I realize that’s kind of weird — I hate the idea of judging tenure cases based on points for various kinds of publications, and am uneasy with UPS’s use of data to ding drivers who back up too frequently.
It’s possible that I’m being inconsistent here. But really, I think it’s authority I have the problem with, not quantification.
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.
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.