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state-of-the-field article “School choice’s idealized premises and unfulfilled promises” now available

Just before 2019 ends and we enter 2020, I’ve finally broken the superstition that whatever you do on New Years will be what you will do for the following New Years.  This year, a R&R converted into an accept and page proofs before New Years hit!

My co-authored paper with Megan Moskop is now available under the Organizations & Work section of Sociology Compass!  In this paper, using critical sociology and education research, we overview the variants of school choice systems in the US and their impacts on students, schools, and society.

Here’s the abstract:

School choice’s idealized premises and unfulfilled promises: How school markets simulate options, encourage decoupling and deception, and deepen disadvantages

Abstract

In school choice systems, families choose among publicly funded schools, and schools compete for students and resources. Using neoinstitutionalist and relational inequality theories, our article reinterprets recent critical sociological and education research to show how such markets involve actors’ enacting myths; these beliefs and their associated practices normalized white, privileged consumption as a basis for revamping public education as market exchanges between schools and families. Proponents argue that choice empowers individuals, focuses organizations on improving quality, and benefits society more broadly by reducing inequality and segregation. We argue that such school choice myths’ excessive emphases on individual decision‐making and provider performance obscure the actual impacts of school choice systems upon people, organizations, and society. First, rather than enlarging alternatives that families can easily research, select, and (if needed) exit, school choice systems often simulate options, especially for disadvantaged populations. Second, rather than focusing schools’ efforts on performance, innovation, and accountability, they can encourage organizational decoupling, homogeneity, and deception. Third, rather than reducing societal harms, they can deepen inequalities and alienation. Future research should examine both how markets are animated by bounded relationality—routines that enable them to form, maintain, and complete exchanges with organizations—and how activism can challenge marketization.

Please consider assigning this state-of-the-field article in your sociology of education, inequality, economic sociology, and/or organizations courses!  (If your institution doesn’t have access to Sociology Compass, please contact me directly for a copy.)

This paper began when Megan approached me during a March 2018  Future Initiatives “Publics, Politics, and Pedagogy: Remaking Higher Education for Turbulent Times” event at the Graduate Center.  After hearing me talk on a faculty panel about my research interests, Megan asked whether we could do an informal reading group on school choice readings.  We exchanged emails and agreed to meet in person to discuss readings.

At the time, Megan was working on her masters classes and thesis in urban education at the CUNY MALS program.  She was looking for a way to manage her growing collection of citations as she analyzed her past experiences with teaching 8th graders and their families about how to participate in the mandatory school choice market in NYC .

As a new entrant to research on learning and schools through my on-going ethnography of a democratic school, I had the sense that whatever was happening in the insurance market for older adults seemed to exist in other emerging markets for other age groups.  To understand the education options in NYC, I had attended a few NYC Dept. of Education and other orientations for families on how to select pre-K and higher program.  I found these experiences comparable to my observations of orientations for professionals and older adults about enrolling in Medicare: palpable waves of anxiety and disorientation were evident in the reactions and questions from these two differently aged audiences to workshops about how they were supposed to act as consumers felt similar.  I thus became interested in learning about research on the comparable school choice market for my ethnographic research on how intermediary organizations try to orient consumers to the health insurance market.  (Indeed, a side benefit of this collaboration was that the school choice readings helped amplify my development of the bounded relationality concept that ultimately appeared in Socio-Economic Review.)

Megan and I met regularly discuss readings that Megan had suggested and I had found through literature searches in sociology.  After several of these meetings, I raised the possibility of writing a state-of-the-field overview article.  Working on this draft helped us keep track of what we had learned.  It also helped us understand how to map existing research and to identify a void that our respective expertises and writing could address: synthesizing critical studies emerging from organizations and education.   For Megan, I hoped that this experience would give her a behind-the-scenes look at the academic production of research, so that she could decide whether to head this direction.

As we read more about school choice, I realized that we hadn’t come across a chart mapping the types of school choice systems currently in operation.  Megan thus worked hard at developing a table that describes and compares different types of school choice systems.  (In my opinion, this paper’s table is a handy first step for those trying to understand the school choice landscape.)

Meanwhile, I focused on applying an organizational framework to categorize research from the sociology of education and education fields.  As we worked on the drafts in response to writing group and reviewers’ and Sociology Compass section editor Eric Dahlin’s comments, we also realized that no one had systemically broken down the impacts of using market practices to distribute public goods across levels of individual persons, organizations, and society at large.

Along the way, thanks to Megan’s connections to education and activism, we got to learn directly from people about on-going activism and research.  For instance, youth organization IntegrateNYC sent representative Iman Abdul to talk to my “Future of NYC” honors college students about efforts to racially integrate NYC public schools.  Megan and I also attended Kate Phillippo’s talk about her research on school choice in Chicago from her latest book, A Contest Without Winners: How Students Experience Competitive School Choice (2019, University of Minnesota Press).

In all, writing this paper has been a great journey with a fun and insightful collaborator.  Had you asked me back in spring 2018 what the outcome of presenting at a CUNY event would have been, I could not have predicted this.  I am forever grateful that Megan came to talk with me!

Happy New Years, readers!  May the new year bring you joy, happiness, and health.

 

“Talk with your family about [Medicare] Part D over Thanksgiving dinner”: How markets require bounded relationality

 

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Question: What do the following three scenarios have in common?

Scenario A.  Congrats, you’re turning 65 years old!

You’re turning 65 years old.  In the US, if you have worked enough units, you are eligible for Medicare; you must select health insurance by choosing among traditional Medicare and HMO plans.  You also need to choose insurance that will cover  your current or anticipated prescription medications.  Depending on where you live, this could involve comparing around 50 different plans.

You start by consulting the Medicare booklet and wading through the flood of mail from insurance providers.  Despite this information, you’re having difficulties understanding the differences among plans and determining how much plans will charge for your medications.  Moreover, you’re not quite sure which medications that you’ll need in the upcoming year.  Each year after this, you’ll have an almost two-month-long window for making these decisions – a period that is happening now, ending Dec. 7.

If you have a long life, you’ll have plenty of practice working with this market.  How do you select a plan appropriate to your needs right now and then in the future?

Scenario B.  Congrats, you’re getting ready to enter high school!

You are a student at a NYC public middle school.  Since students are not automatically assigned to public high schools, you and your family must choose from among 750 programs and rank order your choices.  (If you are two years old or older, your parents must do the same for public pre-K and kindergarten school programs.)  To learn about your options, you can look at a directory of descriptions of these programs and then research each school online.  If possible, you and your family will also attend information fairs and schools’ open houses and tours, where you might be asked to fill out additional forms or leave your information.

Some schools have different criteria for what kinds of prospective students they prioritize, and most selective programs don’t provide rubrics for how they rank prospective students – information crucial for ascertaining your chances of acceptance.  After you submit up to 12 rank-ordered choices, an algorithm, modelled after a medical residency matching program designed by a economist, will generate a match based on schools’ priorities and your listed options.  And, btw, charter schools and private schools have their own admissions processes and admissions deadlines.

How do you choose and rank public high school programs?  Should you try to maximize your choices by also applying to charter schools and, if you have the financial resources, private schools?

Scenario C.  Congrats, you’re rich!

You have amassed enviable, immense wealth.   But, your mattress is bursting, and you distrust regular banking.  And, for whatever reason, you’re not fond of having the state taking a portion to support the common good, social insurance, military spending, etc.  Thinking ahead, you worry about your family having unfettered access to your financial legacy; relatives might fritter away that wealth!  Also, you have a few relationships that other family members don’t (yet) know about, and you want to make sure that those loved ones are also taken care of after your inevitable passing.  So, what to do?

Answer: Most likely, you’ll need what I call “bounded relationality” to assist you with entering complex markets and making exchanges.   To explain what bounded relationality is, I’ll preview excepts from my advance, online first article “Bounded relationality: how intermediary organizations encourage consumer exchanges with routinized relational work in a social insurance market.”

The bounded relationality concept combines two of my favorite theories: (1) economic sociology’s relational work by Viviana Zelizer, Fred Wherry, and Nina Bandjel* and (2) Herbert Simon’s theory about how organizations compensate for people’s bounded rationality, or difficulties with making decisions.

During several years of my research on organizations that support older adults, I observed workshops and meetings for organizational representatives and professionals, including social workers, on topics such as how to select Medicare insurance plans.

At one of these workshops, a representative from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, described officials’ hopes that families would discuss prescription plans at family get-togethers: ‘We tried to say, “Talk with your family about [Medicare] Part D over Thanksgiving dinner,” but we don’t know if people did.’   His comment revealed how much the market relies upon relational work, or connections formed and sustained with other persons (Zelizer 2012) and organizations.

Using observations of US governmental, advocacy, and human service organizations’ (GAHSOs) talks, I show how these intermediary organizations endorsed “bounded relationality” when teaching conventions for participating in the market of social insurance.  Unlike conventional consumer goods and services markets, insurance options are difficult to evaluate and exchanges are challenging to switch.  Decisions are also consequential, with suboptimal decisions impacting personal well-being and requiring support or intervention by family members, if they are available.

Read more about bounded relationality after the jump: Read the rest of this entry »

“don’t be afraid to push big, bold projects” and “be brave and patient”: Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey on producing Relational Inequality Theory (RIT)

 

Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, who collaboratively published their book Relational Inequalities: An Organizational Approach (Oxford University Press), graciously agreed to do a joint email interview with orgtheory!  Here, we discuss their book and the process leading up to the production of the book.  Readers who are thinking of how to apply relational inequality theory (RIT), join and bridge scholarly conversations, and/or handle collaborative projects, please take note.

First, I asked Dustin and Don substantive questions about RIT.  Here, both authors describe how they used their workplaces in higher education as laboratories for refining their theory.  Also, Don channeled his disappointment with the limits of Chuck Tilly’s Durable Inequalities into fueling this endeavor.

1. Katherine.  How did you apply the insight of relational inequality in your own lives?  For example, both of you are at public universities – how does knowing relational inequality affect your ways of interacting with other people and institutions?

Dustin. I think for me one of the ways I see this is becoming faculty during the process of writing the book and being in a transitioning institution. I was hired out of grad school to Augusta University when it had just merged with the Medical College of Georgia. With this merger, Augusta University moved from being a teaching-focused college to a comprehensive research university that includes both graduate and undergraduate programs and a mission focused on research. Experiencing this transition  made me think through the daily lives of organizations in a much less structural way as I saw people negotiating and renegotiating the meaning of the institution, the practices and policies, creating new ways of fulfilling institutional roles, etc. I guess in that way it highlighted the work of Tim Hallet on inhabited institutionalism. As university faculty and staff, we didn’t just copy a bunch of templates from the environment, people were translating them and challenging them in the organization. And we still are, 7 years later, and I suspect we will be for a very long time. Organizations at that moment became enactments rather than structures for me, something to be relationally negotiated not simply imported. Don and my endeavor then to understand inequality in this context actually began to make more sense. And in fact during our weekly conversations about the book, I do remember often relating stories to Don of what was going on, and this certainly shaped how I thought about the processes we were thinking through.

I don’t know if that is what you were after in your question, but it is for me this experience shaped how I have come to think about organizations, and became central to how we think about organizations in the book. 

Don. No fair, actually apply a theory in our own lives? Seriously though, I became pretty frustrated with the black hole explanations of local inequalities as reflecting “structure” or “history”. These can be analytically useful, but simultaneously disempowering. Yes, some students come to the University with cultural capital that matches some professors, but this does not make them better students, just relationally advantaged in those types of student-teacher interactions. At the same time the University exploits revenue athletes for its purposes while excluding many others from full participation. The struggles of first gen students and faculty are produced by relational inequalities. 

As a department chair I was keenly aware of the university dance of claims making around status and revenue and that this had to be actively negotiated if our department was going to be able to claim and sequester resources. This sounds and to some extent is harsh, since success might mean taking resources indirectly from weaker or less strategic departments, although it can also feel insurgent if the resource appears to be granted or extracted from the Provost. But the truth is that university resources flow in a complex network of relationships among units, students, legislators and vendors (beware the new administrative software contract!). 

The Dean will pretend this is about your unit’s “productivity”, it’s never that simple.*  It’s also great to have allies, at UMass we have a great faculty union that works to level the playing field between departments and disrupt the administrative inequality dance.

* Katherine’s addition: Check out this satirical twitter feed about higher ed administration for laugh/cries.

Read the rest of this entry »

remaking higher education for turbulent times, wed., march 28, 9am-6pm EDT, Graduate Center

For those of you in NYC (or those who want to watch a promised live webcast at bit.ly/FuturesEd-live  http://videostreaming.gc.cuny.edu/videos/livestreams/page1/ with a livestream transcript here: http://www.streamtext.net/player?event=CUNY), the Graduate Center Futures Initiative is hosting a conference of CUNY faculty and students on Wed., March 28, 9am-6pm EDT at the Graduate Center.  Our topic is: “Remaking higher education for turbulent times.” In the first session “Higher Education at a Crossroads” at 9:45am EDT,  Ruth Milkman and I, along with other panelists who have taught via the Futures Initiative, will be presenting our perspectives on the following questions:

  1. What is the university? What is the role of the university, and whom does it serve?
  2. How do political, economic, and global forces impact student learning, especially institutions like CUNY?
  3. What would an equitable system of higher education look like? What could be done differently?

Ruth and I will base our comments on our experiences thus far with teaching a spring 2018 graduate course about changes in the university system, drawing on research conducted by numerous sociologists, including organizational ethnographers.  So far, our class has included readings from:

We will discuss the tensions of reshaping long-standing institutions that have reproduced privilege and advantages for elites and a select few, as well as efforts to sustain universities (mostly public institutions) that have served as a transformational engine of socio-economic mobility and social change.  More info, including our course syllabus, is available via the Futures Initiatives blog here.

Following our session, two CUNY faculty and staff who are taking our class, Larry Tung and Samini Shahidi will be presenting about their and their classmates’ course projects.

A PDF of the full day’s activities can be downloaded here: FI-Publics-Politics-Pedagogy-8.5×11-web

If you plan to join us (especially for lunch), please RSVP ASAP at bit.ly/FI-Spring18

Written by katherinechen

March 21, 2018 at 4:53 pm

what is the sociology of education?

Over the last couple of years, a friend or colleague will occasionally turn to me and say, “people don’t think what I do is ‘sociology of education’ even though I study schools.” They will then order another round of Jim Beam and down it faster than you can say “Willard Waller.”

What gives? Why do I hear this from my buddies? Here is the answer I came up with. Within the ASA, sociology of education primarily means status attainment research. Secondarily, it may mean the social contexts of policy and instruction. Anything beyond that is not deemed “sociology of education.” Evidence for my conjecture? Check out the “most recent” articles on the Sociology of Education website.  As of Feb 26, four were directly about achievement (two on college application prep, one on income segregation, and parental involvement/achievement). The rest are about school policy and classroom practice. Go through the old issues – about 50% of the journal is about stratification in one way or another.

There is nothing wrong with this, but it does mean that a lot gets left out. Compare the contents of Sociology of Education with the various sections of the AERA. Historical work on schooling is non-existent. Or the politics of education. Or many of the other sociological aspects of education that people examine.

This isn’t a “finger pointing” post. Personally, I think Soc of Ed and the ASA section on education are great. But it is more of a “where are we today?” and “could we be different?” sort of post. It is worth thinking about.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

March 2, 2018 at 5:04 am

student evaluations? sad!

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how I changed my mind about student evaluations of teachers. Early evidence showed that they correlated with student learning, but newer analysis reverses this conclusion. The James G. Martin Center, with my permission, edited and reprinted the post. A teaser:

The fundamental issue is that colleges should probably not be judged using the logic of consumer satisfaction. The metric of customer happiness makes sense for products that are meant to be immediately entertaining, like watching television. But education, especially higher education, is about learning which, by nature, is a stressful and inconvenient thing. And the onus for success should be at least as much on the student as on the teacher.

Check it out!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

March 1, 2018 at 5:53 am

winter book forum 2018, part 3: so what?

In this last installment, I ask – “so what?” Is the argument presented in The Case Against Education important? My response is addressed to two groups – the skeptics and the persuaded.

The skeptics: I think that skeptics, people who believe that education is good because it directly improves people, should take away two main messages. First, very well meaning people will often just assert the benefits of education without a lot of evidence to back it up, especially when it comes to teaching things like “critical thinking.” More sophisticated people may justifiably cite the evidence on the college premium (i.e., college educated make more money than high school grads). But in both cases, there is often direct evidence that the hypothesis is wrong (e.g., no transfer learning), overblown (e.g., educated people are better citizens, but by a modest amount) or there is additional evidence that undermines the basic human capital story (e.g., people don’t retain what they learn or the infamous sheepskin effects). And these conclusions are not from one or two analyses, but from decades of academic work. Thus, skeptics should probably try harder to appreciate this evidence or come up with equally strong counter evidence.

A second lesson for skeptics is that we should really adopt a more humane approach to individuals with limited academic skills. One of the strongest arguments in The Case Against Education is simply that low academic skill people drop out of college at very high rates.  It’s a very simple point that is almost certainly true. This is crucial because it means that low academic skill people may spend years of their lives and thousands upon thousands of dollars for degrees they never get or benefit from. Instead of demanding more and more education for these people, the skeptics should really just admit that formal education isn’t right for these people and sensibly move people into vocational schools or workplace based apprenticeships.

The persuaded: What if you believe the gist of Caplan’s argument – that formal education may benefit individuals through signalling but are a socially wasteful signal? Caplan is a radical in that he thinks all education, not just public education, should be scaled back. Most people probably aren’t ready to “push the button” and massively de-school society. But there are some sensible policies that are worth thinking about.

The first, which Caplan, argues for is vocational training. And I understand what he means. When I was in high school, vocational training was seen as a failure – the “vo-tech kids” were the left overs. But that is a very wrong attitude. There is no dishonor in learning a trade! In today’s world, it can be exciting. Why not have high schools teach programming (not theoretical computer science) and web design? Or the basics of business management and accounting? In large urban centers, many kids could get a start in creative industries like advertising, video production, and hospitality. Once people master the basics of literacy and numeracy, surely, these topics would be much better for many students than an additional year of quickly forgotten algebra.

Second, people in higher education should start seriously re-thinking the overall structure of the American university system. Right now, we have over 8,000 institutions that award post-secondary degrees. This is insane. What should we have? In a world where we focus higher education on those who are academically strong and reduce credentialing, we’d probably still keep the research intensive institutions because there are careers where intensive educations seems to make sense (e.g., medicine or engineering, or training for the elite humanities). Then, we’d probably scale back schools that offer this education to those with weak academic skills. Ironically, there might be a case to be made for junior colleges as low-cost open access places where people could either quickly get vocational skills or get certified for more intensive education.

I hope you found this discussion of The Case Against Education useful. I’d love to hear what you think.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

February 27, 2018 at 5:01 am

students evaluations are garbage and so are letters of recommendation – but NOT gre scores, haters!

For a long time, I believed that student evaluations were valid measures of teaching effectiveness. My belief was based on the following issues.

  • First, there are a fair number of studies that claim a correlation between student evaluations and learning. The critics conveniently overlook this literature.
  • Second, I believed that students can spot a miserable teacher. You don’t need to be steeped in pedagogy theory to see if an instructor is disorganized, or is simply a horrid lecturer.
  • Third, most complaints about student evaluations seemed pretty self-interested. Who complains about evals the most? The professors!* Doesn’t mean they are wrong, but one should examine self-interested claims with some caution.
  • Fourth, critiques of student evaluations of faculty are often couched in bad logic. For example, if an instrument is biased against group X, it doesn’t mean automatically that the instrument is not consistent or valid. It might be the case that the instrument is less valid and consistent for group X, but still points in the right direction. You can only say that student evaluations are “worthless” if the correlation between evals and learning is zero and that is a stubbornly empirical point. Yet, critics in the popular media jump from bias to a lack of validity.

But over time, there have been a parade of better studies that explore the link between outcomes and evaluations and the answer is often null. So what should any seriously interested person do? Wrong answer: Cherry pick studies that confirm one’s belief. Better answer: look for a meta-study that combines data from new and old studies. This fall, Studies in Educational Evaluation published on such meta-study of student evaluations of teacher. Bob Uttl, Carmela White, and Daniela Wong Gonzalez performed such a meta-analysis can come to the following conclusions:

• Students do not learn more from professors with higher student evaluation of teaching (SET) ratings.

• Previus meta-analyses of SET/learning correlations in multisection studies are not interprettable.

• Re-analyses of previous meta-analyses of multisection studies indicate that SET ratings explain at most 1% of variability in measures of student learning.

• New meta-analyses of multisection studies show that SET ratings are unrelated to student learning.

There article is not perfect, but it is enough to make me seriously reconsider my long standing belief in student evaluations. I am very willing to consider that student evaluations are garbage.

However, I want to the reader to be consistent in their intellectual practice. If you believe that student evaluations are bunk, then similar evidence suggests that letters of recommendation are garbage as well. Here is what I wrote two years ago:

I slowly realized that there are researchers in psychology, education and management dedicated to studying employment practices. Surely, if we demanded all these letters and we tolerated all these poor LoR practices, then surely there must be research showing the system works.

Wrong. With a few exceptions, LoRs are poor instruments for measuring future performance. Details are here, but here’s the summary: As early as 1962, researchers realized LoRs don’t predict performance. Then, in 1993, Aamondt, Bryan and Whitcomb show that LoRs work – but only if they are written in specific ways. The more recent literature refines this – medical school letters don’t predict performance unless the writer mentions very specific things; letter writers aren’t even reliable – their evaluations are all over the place; and even in educational settings, letters seem to have a very small correlation with a *few* outcomes. Also, recent research suggests that LoRs seem to biased against women in that writers are less likely to use “standout language” for women.

The summary from one researcher in the field: “Put another way, if letters were a new psychological test they would not come close to meeting minimum professional criteria (i.e., Standards) for use in decision making (AERA, APA, & NCME, 1999).”

 

If you are the type of person who thinks student evaluations are lousy, then you should also think letters of recommendation are garbage as well. To believe otherwise is simply inconsistency, as the evidence is similar in both cases.

While I am at it, I also want to remind readers that similar analysis shows that standardized tests are actually not bad. When you read the literature on standardized tests, like the GRE, you find that standardized tests and grades are actually correlated – the intended purpose. And I haven’t seen many other meta-analyses that over turn the point.

To summarize: student evaluations and letters of recommendation are bunk, but standardized tests are not.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

*For the record, my evals range from slightly below average to very good. And I’ve actually won multiple teaching awards. So this is not a “sour grapes” issue for me.

 

Written by fabiorojas

January 5, 2018 at 4:53 am

the PROSPER Act, the price of college, and eroding public goodwill

The current Congress is decidedly cool toward colleges and the students attending them. The House version of the tax bill that just passed eliminates the deduction on student loan interest and taxes graduate student tuition waivers as income. Both House and Senate bills tax the largest college endowments.

Now we have the PROSPER Act, introduced on Friday. The 500-plus page bill does many things. It kills the Department of Education’s ability to keep aid from going to for-profit schools with very high debt-to-income ratios, or to forgive the loans of defrauded student borrowers . It loosens the rules that keep colleges from steering students into questionable loans in exchange for parties, perks, and other kickbacks.

And it changes the student loan program dramatically, ending subsidized direct loans and replacing them with a program (Federal ONE) that looks more like current unsubsidized loans. Borrowing limits go up for undergrads and down for some grads. The terms for income-based repayment get tougher, with higher monthly payments and no forgiveness after 20 years. Public Service Loan Forgiveness, particularly important to law schools, comes to an end. (See Robert Kelchen’s blog for some highlights and his tweetstorm for a blow-by-blow read of the bill.)

To be honest, this could be worse. Although I dislike many of the provisions, given the Republican higher ed agenda there’s nothing shocking or unexpectedly punitive, like the grad tuition tax was.

Still, between the tax bill and this one, Congress has taken some sharp jabs at nonprofit higher ed. This goes along with a dramatic downward turn in Republican opinion of colleges over the last two years.Capture

Obviously, some of this is a culture war. Noah Smith highlights student protests and the politicization of the humanities and social sciences as the reason opinion has deteriorated. I think there are aspects of this that are problems, but the flames have mostly been fanned by those with a preexisting agenda. There just aren’t that many Reed Colleges out there.

I suspect colleges are also losing support, though, for another reason—one that is much less partisan. That is the cost of college.

I think colleges have ignored just how much goodwill has been burned up by the rise in college costs. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been buried in data about tuition rates, net prices, and student loans. Although intellectually I knew how much prices risen, it was still shocking to realize how different the world of higher ed was in 1980.

The entire cost of college was $7,000 a year. For everything. At a four-year school. At a time when the value of the maximum Pell Grant was over $5,000, and the median household income was not far off from today’s. Seriously, I can’t begin to imagine.

The change has been long and gradual—the metaphorical boiling of the frog. The big rise in private tuitions took place in the 90s, but it wasn’t until after 2000 that costs at publics (both sticker price and net price—the price paid after scholarships and grant aid) increased dramatically. Unsurprisingly, student borrowing increased dramatically along with it. The Obama administration reforms, which expanded Pell Grants and improved loan repayment terms, haven’t meant lower costs for students and their families.

Picture1What I’m positing is that the rising cost of college and the accompanying reliance on student loans have eroded goodwill toward colleges in difficult-to-measure ways. On the one hand, the big drop in public opinion clearly happened in last two years, and is clearly partisan. Democrats have slightly ticked up in their assessment of college at the same time.

But I suspect that even support among Democrats may be weaker than it appears, particularly when it comes to bread-and-butter issues, rather than culture-war issues. Only a small minority (22%) of people think college is affordable, and only 40% think it provides good value for the money. And this is the case despite the growing wage gap between college grads and high school grads. Sympathy for proposals that hit colleges financially—whether that means taxing endowments, taxing tuition waivers, or anything else that looks like it will force colleges to tighten their belts—is likely to be relatively high, even among those friendly to college as an institution.

This is likely worsened by the common pricing strategy that deemphasizes the importance of sticker price and focuses on net price. But the perception, as well as the reality, of affordability matters. Today, even community college tuition ($3500 a year, on average) feels like a burden.

The point isn’t whether college is “worth it” in terms of the long-run income payoff. In a purely economic sense there’s no question it is and will continue to be. But pushing the burden of cost onto individuals and families, rather than distributing it more broadly, makes it feel unbearable, and makes people think colleges are just in it for the money. (Which sometimes they are.) I’m always surprised that my SUNY students think the mission of the university is to make money off of them.

This perception means that students and their families and the larger public will be reluctant to support higher education, whether in the form of direct funding, more financial aid, or the preservation of weird but mission-critical perks, like not taxing tuition waivers.

The PROSPER Act, should it come to fruition, will provide another test for public institutions. Federal borrowing limits for undergraduates will rise by $2,000 a year, to $7,500 for freshmen, $8,500 for sophomores, and $9,500 for juniors and seniors. If public institutions immediately default to expecting students to take out the new maximum in federal loans each year, they will continue to erode goodwill even among those not invested in the culture wars.

The sad thing is, this is a self-reinforcing cycle. Colleges, especially public institutions, may feel like they have no choice but to allow tuition to climb, then try to make up the difference for the lowest-income students. But by adopting this strategy, they undermine their very claim to public support. Letting borrowing continue to climb may solve budget problems in the short run. In the long run, it’s shooting yourself in the foot.

 

 

Written by epopp

December 4, 2017 at 3:55 pm

the purpose of teaching sociology

I have been asked to write a short piece on the topic of teaching social theory. My answer will have three parts. On the blog, I will post initial thoughts:

  1. What is the point of teaching sociology at all?
  2. What are the different goals and reasons we teach social theory?
  3. Why did I move to the mechanism oriented approach that I advocate in Theory for the Working Sociologist.

Why teach sociology?

I begin this brief essay with a simple question – why teach sociology? I respond with a simple answer: there are many reasons to teach sociology. We might teach sociology because it is a body of scientific and humanistic knowledge about the social world. Another reason to teach sociology is that we want people to think carefully about their social world. We might also teach simply to broaden a students knowledge. If nothing else, teaching is a variety of public sociology, where we bring our discipline to the public via the classroom.

You can also answer this question in reference to the student. Most students have a tangential interesting in sociology, only a handful will want academic careers. Thus, we teach because we want the public to have basic familiarity with sociology.

If you buy these answers, then it guides you toward a general attitude toward teaching. Most of our time we should focus on the basic facts of the social world and the ideas we can use to analyze them. We should only occasionally used oddball ideas or examples. The instructor should boil down their discipline to core ideas that will be easy to remember and relentlessly focus on them in class. It also draws toward the idea of respect for students. We care what they think and we want them to have a positive view of the field.

What do you think about teaching sociology? Use the comments.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

December 1, 2017 at 5:01 am

conflict vs. consensus theory: another bogus teaching distinction

In a lot of old textbooks, and a few newer ones as well, you get this argument that social theories can be divided up into theories of conflict vs. theories of consensus. Marx is a conflict guy because his theory revolves around class divisions. Durkheim is consensus guy because he talks about social solidarity.

Sad! Social theory is not built in this way. Usually, consensus and conflict are dependent variables that are explained by other independent variables. Let’s take Marx. Did he *always* claim that there would be class conflict? Nope! Example: the theory of false consciousness describes the conditions under which people do not resist capitalist institutions. So, for Marx, the degree of conflict is a variable that is driven by other things. Same for Durkheim. The degree of social solidarity varies in Durkheim’s theory and is affected by things like urbanization and the division of labor.

The conflict/consensus distinction is not a horrible idea, but it is not one that supported by further examination of sociology’s major theories. It conflates dependent and independent variables.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

June 8, 2017 at 12:02 am

contemporary vs. classic social theory: another bogus teaching distinction

A while back, I was telling a friend on the phone about my book, Theory for the Working Sociologist. He asked me about it and I said, “it’s social theory but illustrated with modern research.” He then said, “oh, that could be a book for a contemporary theory theory course.” I mumbled, “sure,” but soon as we were done, I was like, “no, that’s not right.”

In this post, I want to explain why I don’t buy into the “classic v. contemporary” distinction in theory. Let’s start with a statement of what I do and do not argue:

  •  Claim: Breaking up social theory courses into “classic” and “contemporary” is not a great way to teach. It misleads people about the basic nature of sociology and it is not an optimal way to teach *average* undergrads and grad students about how sociology works,
  • Do not claim the following: Sociology/social theory has no historical phases. A historical treatment of theory has no value. The humanities (e.g., close readings of classic texts) has no place in sociology.  Older texts have no value. I reject these claims.

Let me lay out the argument in a number of steps:

  1. The purpose of a social theory course is to teach undergraduates and beginning graduate students “theory,” by which I mean some set of broad applicable ideas that relate to the empirical investigation of society.
  2. The history of social theory and social theory are different things. History of thought is about understanding specific ideas and texts in relation to the biographies of authors and their institutional and historical context. Social theory is a body of thought that motivates thinking throughout sociology. Overlapping? Sure. But theory and history are distinct. For example, a wrong idea can be important for history of thought, but now irrelevant for theory.
  3. Advanced students can learn social theory in any format (historical, mathematical, sign language, you name it!). *Average* students, at the B.A. and Ph.D. level, are confused by historical approaches. By teaching theory in a historical format, most students take away the lesson that “theory” is synonymous with “history.” Nice to know, but not relevant to research.
  4. Historical approaches to theory are sup-optimal for learning because older texts tend to be written in a highly verbose fashion and refer to a lot of things that even modern educated people may not know about. Example: In Weber’s description of bureaucracy, he alludes to Bakunin, the Russian anarchist, as a foil. Just explaining that single reference to undergrads took me about 20 minutes. Now imagine doing that for all of Weber’s references!
  5. Finally, historical approaches make it hard for typical students to transfer what they learned in theory class to another class, and thus undermine the entire purpose of theory class!

Also, I’d add that no other discipline, except philosophy, teaches its core theory in a historical classic/contemporary format. Economists teach it in terms of scope conditions – micro an macro-economic theory. In political science, it is also broken down by topic (“American politics”) – only the political philosophers (“theory” in poli sci) do it by time period, E.g., classic political theory (Greeks) vs. modern (1500 and beyond). Literary theory (“criticism”) gets its own course while historical groupings are used for specific subjects (“early American novels”). Theories of art courses are different than art history courses. The physical sciences pretty much separate all historical scholarship into a few highly specialized courses. You learn proof writing in math either in a proof writing course or in real analysis, which is the modern theory of calculus. The history of math is its own course. The same goes for physics – you learn physical theory (stripped of history) in classical mechanics (not time period – classic means stemming from Newton’s laws; classical mechanics is still a real area of physics) and quantum mechanics. If you really want mechanics the way Newton did it, you can take a course in that. But no one pretends it is teaching you how to do physics in general. You get the modern, better presentation in your basic physics course.

I think that the classical/contemporary approach to teaching theory comes from a desire to be an old style humanist. I suppose there is nothing wrong that. But for most students, this is an incredibly inefficient and misleading way to teach theory. Even if they do learn some of it in your class, I guarantee many will forget everything you said once grades are submitted. Instead, boil down sociology’s main arguments, illustrate them with modern research and move on. If you want to assign my book, that would be great. If not, that’s ok. Just teach social theory, not history.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

June 7, 2017 at 12:01 am

class and college

When awareness about the impact of socio-economic class was not as prevalent among the public, one exercise I did with my undergraduates at elite institutions was to ask them to identify their class background.  Typically, students self-identified as being in the middle class, even when their families’ household incomes/net worth placed them in the upper class.  The NYT recently published this article showing the composition of undergraduate students, unveiling the concentration and dispersion of wealth at various higher education institutions.

As a professor who now teaches at the university listed as #2 in economic mobility (second to Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology ), I can testify to the issues that make an uneven playing field among undergraduates.  Unlike college students whose parents can “pink helicopter” on their behalf and cushion any challenges, undergraduates at CCNY are supporting their parents (if alive) and other family members, bearing the brunt of crushing challenges. (In a minority of cases, students’ parents might help out, say, with occasional childcare – but more likely, students are caring for sick family members or helping with younger siblings.)

To make the rent and cover other expenses in a high COL city, CCNY students work part-time and full-time, sometime with up to two jobs, in the low-wage retail sector.  They do so while juggling a full load of classes because their financial aid will not cover taking fewer classes.  For some students, these demands can create a vicious cycle of having to drop out of classes or earning low grades.

I always tell students to let me know of issues that might impact their academic performance. Over the years (and just this semester alone), students have described these challenges:

  • long commutes of up to 2 hours
  • landlord or housing problems
  • homelessness
  • repeated absences from class due to hospitalizations, illness/accidents, or doctor visits for prolonged health problems
  • self-medicating because of fear about high health care costs for a treatable illness
  • anxiety and depression
  • childcare issues (CCNY recently closed its on-campus childcare facility for students), such as a sick child who cannot attend school or daycare that day
  • difficulties navigating bureaucratic systems, particularly understaffed ones
  • inflexible work schedules

These are the tip of the iceberg, as students don’t always share what is happening in their lives and instead, just disappear from class.

For me, such inequalities were graphically summed up by a thank you card sent by a graduating undergraduate.  The writer penned the heartfelt wish that among other things (i.e., good health), that I always have a “full belly.”  Reflecting this concern about access to food, with the help of NYPIRG, CCNY now has a food pantry available to students.

Written by katherinechen

March 22, 2017 at 5:18 pm

global resistance in the neoliberal university

intlconf
Those of you who are interested in fending off growing neoliberalism in the university might be interested in the following international  line-up at CUNY’s union, PSC.
You can watch a livestream of the conference via fb starting tonight, Fri., March 3, 6-9pm and Sat., March 4, 9:30am-6pm EST:
…an international conference on Global Resistance in the Neoliberal University organized by the union will be held today and tomorrow, 3/3rd-4th at the PSC, 61 Broadway.  
 
Scholars, activists and students from Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, Greece, India and the US will lead discussions on perspectives, strategies and tactics of resisting the neoliberal offensive in general, and in the context of the university in particular.
 
You can visit this site for a link to the conference program:
 
Due to space constraints, conference registration is now closed. But we’re thrilled by the tremendous interest in the event! You can watch a livestream of the conference here: https://www.facebook.com/PSC.CUNY.  If you follow us on our Facebook page, you will receive a notification reminding you to watch.  
 
We look forward to seeing some of you tonight and to discussing the conference with many of you in the near future. 
 

 

 

Written by katherinechen

March 3, 2017 at 11:29 pm

free college: not dead yet

im-not-dead-yet

I’m not dead yet.

While higher ed has certainly been under attack since the election, Donald Trump hasn’t said too much about his agenda for higher education, and with Betsy DeVos, charter school aficionado, at the helm of the Department of Education, it seems like K-12 issues may be at the forefront of the new administration.

What’s pretty clear, though, is that “free college”, a la Bernie or, more reluctantly, Hillary, is not on that agenda. But free college, it turns out, has not disappeared: New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced a free college proposal of his own, to apply to SUNY and CUNY schools.

Cuomo’s proposal would make SUNY/CUNY tuition-free for families with incomes of up to $125,000. It would require full-time attendance, and be “last-dollar” aid—i.e., the fee waiver would kick in after federal Pell grants, NY state Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grants, and any scholarships were already used up.

New York is not the first state to set forth some kind of “free college” proposal—see Tennessee and Oregon. However, it is the first to take it beyond the community college level. And the mere size of the NYS system—enrolling a million students—makes it impossible to ignore.

So, some caveats. “Free tuition” probably doesn’t cover fees, which at my SUNY, at least, are nearly $3000 a year. And it definitely doesn’t cover living expenses. New York also has low tuition, compared to most states—it is still only $6470 at four-year SUNYs. And it has a decent—though not as generous as California’s—state grant aid program in TAP. If your income is low enough—I’d guess below $50k, though that’s just a ballpark—between Pell and TAP you’re not paying any tuition anyway. As Matthew Chingos accurately points out in the Washington Post, families with incomes between $80,000 and $125,000 will benefit most.

And the fact that living expenses are still, at SUNY/CUNY, larger than tuition costs means that it’s also not going to make that much dent in student loans, which are lower-than-average (about $20k for four-year degrees) for SUNY graduates anyway. Cuomo’s headline about “alleviating crushing burden of student loans” is hyperbole.

So what this is, is a significant, and expensive, expansion of grant aid for the middle-class, and a reframing of what college costs (nothing! I know, I know) that may encourage lower-income students to go to college. And tying the benefit to full-time attendance may encourage more full-time enrollment, which evidence suggests (though there are a lot of selection effects here) facilitates completion.

And, of course, this is just a proposal. It’s not yet legislation, and there are a lot of steps between here and there. Nevertheless, despite its limitations, if this became a reality I think the implications for higher ed would be huge—for the symbolic value of committing to the idea that students should not pay for tuition, if nothing else.

Several commentators have explored the policy and student effects of Cuomo’s proposal. But what would the organizational impacts look like? Here, there are a couple of things to think through.

One is the question of whether this would be resource-neutral for SUNY and CUNY. There’s no indication it’s not intended to be, but a lot will depend on the details. For SUNY, at least, funding has only been loosely linked to tuition levels. Sometimes New York State has raised tuition to plug its revenue gaps, without SUNY ever seeing the money.

A second is how it intersects with the push for larger enrollments, which has been a pounding drumbeat over the last three or four years at SUNY (not sure about CUNY). Right now, additional students—even in-state ones—bring marginal benefits, but would that still be the case if many of them weren’t paying tuition? I don’t think the enrollment push has been particularly good for the institution, but it’s also been sold as the path to financial solvency. If free tuition means no benefits to larger enrollments, SUNY will have to find a new strategy for achieving long-term fiscal stability.

This could also affect who gets to enroll. Free tuition might make selective schools more competitive—which is probably good for them as institutions. But it also might encourage an even heavier focus on out-of-state and international students who can bring more revenue. That, in turn, could lead to battles over who gets the seats—New York residents or non-New-Yorkers paying full freight—which have been brutal in California, but largely absent in New York.

Finally, this clearly affects the complex organizational ecosystem of higher ed. It’s bad for private institutions in New York, especially small struggling colleges like Albany’s Saint Rose, which cut two dozen tenure lines last year in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. It’s probably also bad for for-profit colleges—largely because of the symbolic value of making college “free” rather than real changes in relative cost, since for-profit students are disproportionately in the lower-income group that wouldn’t benefit anyway.

But I’d hold that the biggest impact of such a plan would be the symbolic one. Is it ideal that it’s basically a middle-class tax benefit that does nothing material for lower-income families? No. But the institutional details of the New York State system—its relatively low tuition and preexisting state grant aid—make it possible to create “tuition-free college” here for less money than it would cost in many places. Showing that it can be done will make free college more than a pipe dream. SUNY/CUNY is the 500-pound gorilla of public higher ed. Where New York leads, others will follow.

Written by epopp

January 5, 2017 at 6:05 pm

Posted in academia, education, policy

telluride thoughts 2: what i learned from my students

Telluride Thoughts 1

In this post, I want to tell you about what I learned from my students. To review, last summer, I taught a six week long seminar on “The Black Struggle for Freedom” for uber gifted high school students. We read everything from abolitionist writings to Octavia Butler’s novel, Kindred.

First, of all, I really learned to trust students. Normally, teachers assume that students know nothing and that you are here to set things straight. I was constantly surprised at how creative students could be and how much they will engage if you give them the chance. These students were enormously gifted and it showed. One student did a presentation where he communicated what he learned through monologue in the format of a talk show. And yes, he interviewed himself! Probably the funniest class presentation in my career. Others put together films about Creole speech, tribal disputes in Eritrea, and negative stereotypes of Black women in popular culture.

Second, I learned that students are human beings with ups and downs. In a normal college class, you see people in large groups, maybe two or three times a week. In a Telluride seminar, you meet every day, for a minimum for three hours. Instructors also have one on one meetings and they may have meals with the students. There are also field trips (which did happen once, when the class went to see Sweet Honey in the Rock). With this much exposure, I could see the ups and downs, the good and the bad. I see a more complete profile of the person.You don’t love them less. You love them more. They aren’t warm bodies in chairs. They’re complete people, warts and all.

Third, I learned that it’s ok to let students take control. Not too much control, but more control than is normal in a college class. We began with two weeks of normal college style “let’s discuss the readings.” Then we let students do debates, class presentations, and other activities. There was even a spontaneous dance one day, Footloose style. Not everything worked. Some of it didn’t work at all. But that’s ok. Students have access to the readings and they were beginning to absorb the major points, which is appropriate for their age. The bigger point is to encourage people to be active in their lives. And if that included a few in class debates that melted down, that’s ok.

Next week: what I learned from the readings.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

PS. I haven’t mentioned our courageous TAs. The Telluride Association hires two young adults (usually graduate students or late career undergrads who are program alumni) who operate as resident assistants/coordinators/class facilitators. They were fantastic, but I won’t delve into it here. Just want to recognize their awesomeness.

Written by fabiorojas

December 13, 2016 at 12:15 am

telluride thoughts 1: what i learned from dr. abegunde

This past summer, I had the opportunity to teach a six week long seminar called “The Black Struggle for Freedom,” sponsored by the Telluride Association. The seminar is aimed at gifted high school students who want to immerse themselves in a particular topic. I taught a seminar that was an interdisciplinary exploration of how African Americans fought for their rights.

Telluride summer seminars are co-taught and my partner in crime was Maria Hamilton Abegdune. She’s a very accomplished individual – the first person to receive a Ph.D. in African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana, a published poet, a collector and curator of art, a counselor for doctoral students, university administrator, and a health care provider. Even this enumeration is a woefully incomplete account of my colleague. So I want to dedicate the first of my posts about teaching the Telluride seminar to what I learned from my partner in the classroom.

First, Abegunde, as she prefers to be called, has a completely different classroom presence than I do. I do a lot of lecturing in large classes and my small classes tend to be technical, like network analysis. As a result, I am either a “transmitter” of information or I have to be an entertainer, where I try to encourage students to be comfortable in class and not be scared of the material. In contrast, Abegunde has a much more interactive classroom presence. She can have students do close readings of texts while opening up a very personal dialogue. The result is that her classroom is a very emotionally open space that is simultaneously rooted in the slow and laborious task of textual interpretation. That’s very hard to accomplish.

Second, Abegunde is extraordinarily attuned to the emotional contours of the classroom. This turned out to be extremely important since the class  was composed of high school students. To give one example, our class met the day after Philando Castile was shot and the class was devastated. In my view, Abegunde helped manage the conversation in ways that allowed people to express their frustration in constructive ways. Not surprisingly, Abegunde is adept at allowing people to fully feel the emotions that emerge and then channeling that in a constructive way.

Third, Abegunde represents a very different intellectual model than I do. As a trained humanist and creative writer, she approaches her teaching in a very “thick description” way. Her class discussions are full of allusions to pop culture, African culture, diaspora culture, literature, and a whole lot more. I am a bit more positivist in my teaching in that I focus on social science theory and method. I think we make for an interesting contrast that shows how you can be intellectual, rigorous, and engaged in two very different ways.

I think that Abegunde’s teaching method emerges from her varied experiences. Her graduate work in the humanities and active poetry career provide her with a rich language for contextualizing reading. At the same time, her work with traumatized populations allows her to fully appreciate the emotional depth of her students and the work they need to do that will help them get the most from the class and their lives. Spending a lot of time with Abegunde has also taught me a lot. As a teacher, I try to more fully understand where my students are emotionally. On an academic level, I am much less hesitant to fully jump into a more humanistic presentation of the material.

Next week: what I learned from the students.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

December 6, 2016 at 6:13 pm

the mind blowing achievement of john hattie – or, we know how to run schools

We often act as if running a school is a mysterious thing. It’s not. There have been thousands of studies looking at every sort of education policy. John Hattie is an educational researcher in Australia who took the time to collect data from thousands of studies and do a meta-meta analysis to figure out what works.

He has a number of books and articles that summarize his findings. Below, I have included a diagram where he standardizes the effects of 195 factors that might affect achievement and ranks them. Major take home points. Here is what predicts achievement in a big way:

  • Prior performance – by far, the biggest predictor of future achievements are estimates of past work (#1 teacher assessment, #3 self reported grades).
  • Process oriented learning (“Piagetian programs” – don’t focus on outcomes, but on how you get the outcome – #4)
  • Teacher practices aimed at individual students – such as intervening directly disabled pupils (#10, #11), micro-teaching (e.g., one on one interaction with students – #9),  and integrating classroom discussion (#10).

What clearly has a negative effect?

  • Home corporal punishment (#193)
  • Television watching (#192)
  • Summer vacation (#190)
  • Student depression (#195)

What has surprisingly small effects (defined as about .1 or less)?

  • School type – being in a charter school, a single sex school, or learning at a distance (all have nearly zero effects)
  • Mentoring
  • Student diversity
  • Teacher credentials

In other words, the baseline is student ability, which determines who well they do. But you can also get big effects through hands on, processed based, and interactive learning. You should avoid disruptive things, like vacations or television, and the school and teacher credentials don’t get you much.

Thank you, John Hattie.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Hattie rank below:

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by fabiorojas

September 12, 2016 at 12:01 am

the three student loan crises

Among higher ed policy folks, there’s a counter-conventional wisdom that there is no student loan crisis. For the most part (the story goes), student loans are a good investment that will increase future wages, and students could borrow quite a bit more before the value of the debt might be called into question. Indeed, some have argued that many students are too reluctant to borrow, and should take on more debt.

Just this month, two new pieces came out that reiterate this counter-narrative: a book by Urban Institute economist Sandy Baum, and a report by the Council of Economic Advisers. Yes, everyone agrees the system’s not perfect, and tweaks need to be made. (Susan Dynarski, for example, argues that repayment periods need to be longer.) Fundamentally, though, the system is sound. Or so goes the story.

What can we make of this disconnect between the conventional wisdom—that we are in the throes of a student loan crisis—and this counter-conventional story?

To understand it, it’s worth thinking about three different student loan crises. Or “crises”, depending on your sympathies.

First, there’s the student who has accrued six figures of debt for an undergraduate degree. Ideally, for media purposes, this is a degree in women’s studies, art history, or some other easily-dismissible field. The New York Times specialized in these for a while.

Since student loan debt is not bankruptable, these people really are kind of screwed, although income-based-repayment options have improved their options somewhat. And they make for a dramatic story—as well as lots of moralizing in the comments.

Second, there’s the student who took on debt but didn’t finish a degree. These people often struggle, because their income doesn’t go up much, if at all. In fact, the highest default rates are among those who left school with the smallest debts (< $5000), presumably because they didn’t graduate.

These folks disproportionately attend for-profit institutions, whose degrees have less payoff anyhow, but even more importantly, have abysmal graduation rates. (Community colleges have low graduation rates too, but they’re a lot cheaper.) The debt-but-no-degree people are also kind of screwed, although again, income-based repayment plans can help them a lot, as would a bankruptcy option.

So we’ve got the crisis of people who borrow too much for a four-year degree, and the crisis of people who borrow a little, but don’t complete the degree, often because they’re attending a school whose entire business model is to sign up new students for the purpose of taking their loan money.

These are both problems—even “crises”—but they are solvable. For the first, cap federal loans (including PLUS access) for undergraduate degrees, and make all loans bankruptable, so private lenders are leerier of loaning large amounts to students.

For the second—well, I’d probably be comfortable eliminating aid to for-profits, but let’s say that’s beyond the political pale. Certainly we could place a lot more limitations on which institutions are eligible for federal aid, whether that’s tied to graduation rates, default rates, or some other measure. And, again, making student loans bankruptable would help people who really needed to get a fresh start.

Wait, so what’s the third crisis?

The thing is, these two “crises” may be devastating to individuals, but in societal terms aren’t that big. The six-figure-debt one really drives policy wonks crazy, because every student debt story in the last ten years has led with this person, but the percentage of students who finish four-year degrees with this many loans is very small. Like maybe a couple of percent of borrowers small.*

Proponents of the Counter-Conventional Wisdom (C-CW) take the second group—those who borrow but don’t finish a degree—more seriously. This group is often really hurting, despite having smaller loan balances. But they only make up perhaps 20% of borrowers, and since their balances are relatively low, an even smaller fraction of that $1.4 trillion student loan figure we hear so much about.**

The real question—the one that determines whether you think there’s a third crisis—is how you react to the other 75-80% of borrowers. The C-CW crowd looks at them and says, eh, no crisis. These folks come out with four-year degrees, $20 or $30,000 of government-issued student loan debt, will pay $300 a month or so for ten years, and then move on with their lives. We could argue about how much of a burden this is for them, but it’s clearly not a crisis in the same way it is for the NYU grad with $150k in loans, or for the Capella University dropout trying to pay back $7500 on $10 an hour.

This C-CW is based on the premise that 1) college is a human capital investment that is worth taking on debt for up to the expected economic payoff, 2) individual borrowing is a reasonable and appropriate way to finance this investment—indeed, more sensible than paying for the costs collectively—and 3) as long as debt is kept to a “manageable” level (as indicated by students not going into default and having access to forbearance when their income is low), then there’s no crisis.

Why this understates the problem

I take issue with this position, though, on at least three fronts.

1. “Typical” student debt is increasing .

Individual borrowing levels are still rising rapidly, and there’s no reason to think we’ve neared a max. A recent Washington Post editorial cited the CEA report as saying that “[t]he average undergraduate loan burden in 2015 was $17,900.” But that’s not what the average graduate holds. That’s what the average loan-holder holds, including those who have already been paying for a number of years. Estimates for the average 2016 graduate, by contrast, are considerably higher—in the $29,000 to $37,000 range—and growing. The fraction of all students who borrow also continues to increase.

College costs keep rising. State budgets are still under pressure. The penalties for not completing college keep increasing. We can only expect loan sizes to continue to go up. At what point does “reasonable borrowing” become “unreasonable burden”? And tweaks like expanding income-based repayment or extending the standard repayment period won’t bend the curve (to borrow from another debate)—if anything it will enable the further expansion of lending.

2. We are all Capella now.

These debates often overlook the effects of federal aid policy on colleges as organizations, something I’ve written about elsewhere. (The exception is the attention given to the Bennett hypothesis, which suggests that colleges will simply turn federal aid into higher tuition prices.)

But that doesn’t mean organizational effects don’t exist. Continuing to shift the cost burden to individual students is going to accelerate the already intense pressure on public colleges in particular to recruit and retain students, because with students come tuition dollars.

The drive to attract students is already undermining a lot of traditional values in higher education. It encourages schools to spend money on marketing and branding, rather than education. It promotes a consumerist mindset among students who quite reasonably feel that they have become customers. It encourages schools to develop low-value degree programs simply to generate revenue, and recruit students into them regardless of whether the students will benefit.

The values that limit colleges from doing kind of thing are what separates nonprofits from for-profits in the first place. If they go away, we all become Capella. And allowing “reasonable” lending to keep expanding moves us straight in that direction.

3. It gives up on actual public education.

Ultimately, though, the biggest problem I have with this position is that it concedes the possibility, or even the value, of real public higher education entirely. It doesn’t matter whether that’s because the C-CW sees it as a pipe dream, or because it sees it as an irrational use of public funds, since individuals benefit personally from their education in the long run.

This post is already too long, so I won’t go into a detailed defense of public higher ed here. But I do want to point out that if you accept the premise of the C-CW—that student loan debt will only become a crisis if it increases individual costs beyond the returns to a college degree—you’ve already given up on public higher education. I’m not ready to do that.

And it looks like I’m not the only one.

 

* This number is actually surprisingly difficult to find. In 2008, it was only 0.2% of undergrad completers, but average debt for new graduates has increased about 40% since then, so the six-figure camp has undoubtedly grown.

** Again, exact numbers hard to pin down. 15% of beginning students who borrowed from the government in 2003-04 had not completed a degree six years later, nor were they still enrolled. This figure has doubtless increased as nontraditional borrowers—who are less likely to finish—have become a bigger fraction of the total pool of borrowers, hence my 20% guesstimate.

Written by epopp

August 3, 2016 at 12:15 pm

education vs. philanthropists, part XXVI

A common theme in the history of education is that outside reformers run into a brick wall when they try to work in the K-12 arena. There is something incredibly sticky about K-12 that makes it impervious to outsiders. Mark Zuckerberg learned this when he gave $100m to Newark schools and got nothing in return. The LA Times recently described how Bill and Melinda Gates learned the same lesson and have dialed back their donations to K-12:

In 2009, it pledged a gift of up to $100 million to the Hillsborough County, Fla., schools to fund bonuses for high-performing teachers, to revamp teacher evaluations and to fire the lowest-performing 5%. In return, the school district promised to match the funds. But, according to reports in the Tampa Bay Times, the Gates Foundation changed its mind about the value of bonuses and stopped short of giving the last $20 million; costs ballooned beyond expectations, the schools were left with too big a tab and the least-experienced teachers still ended up at low-income schools. The program, evaluation system and all, was dumped.

It’s not just one grant, but many that failed. There are multiple reasons – stakeholders can’t be bought, a resistance to reform of any type, and decentralization of the system. Also, education is an area where there is an aversion to simple ideas that work and an emphasis on consultants and technology. Add your own theories of philanthropic failure in the comments.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

June 10, 2016 at 2:21 pm

tying our own noose with data? higher ed edition

I wanted to start this post with a dramatic question about whether some knowledge is too dangerous to pursue. The H-bomb is probably the archetypal example of this dilemma, and brings to mind Oppenheimer’s quotation of the Bhagavad Gita upon the detonation of Trinity: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

But really, that’s way too melodramatic for the example I have in mind, which is much more mundane. Much more bureaucratic. It’s less about knowledge that is too dangerous to pursue and more about blindness to the unanticipated — but not unanticipatable — consequences of some kinds of knowledge.

19462658349_0e7d937d6d_b

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

The knowledge I have in mind is the student-unit record. See? I told you it was boring.

The student-unit record is simply a government record that tracks a specific student across multiple educational institutions and into the workforce. Right now, this does not exist for all college students.

There are records of students who apply for federal aid, and those can be tied to tax data down the road. This is what the Department of Education’s College Scorecard is based on: earnings 6-10 years after entry into a particular college. But this leaves out the 30% of students who don’t receive federal aid.

There are states with unit-record systems. Virginia’s is particularly strong: it follows students from Virginia high schools through enrollment in any not-for-profit Virginia college and then into the workforce as reflected in unemployment insurance records. But it loses students who enter or leave Virginia, which is presumably a considerable number.

But there’s currently no comprehensive federal student-unit record system. In fact at the moment creating one is actually illegal. It was banned in an amendment to the Higher Education Act reauthorization in 2008, largely because the higher ed lobby hates the idea.

Having student-unit records available would open up all kind of research possibilities. It would help us see the payoffs not just to college in general, but to specific colleges, or specific majors. It would help us disentangle the effects of the multiple institutions attended by the typical college student. It would allow us to think more precisely about when student loans do, and don’t, pay off. Academics and policy wonks have argued for it on just these grounds.

In fact, basically every social scientist I know would love to see student-unit records become available. And I get it. I really do. I’d like to know the answers to those questions, too.

But I’m really leery of student-unit records. Maybe not quite enough to stand up and say, This is a terrible idea and I totally oppose it. Because I also see the potential benefits. But leery enough to want to point out the consequences that seem likely to follow a student-unit record system. Because I think some of the same people who really love the idea of having this data available would be less enthused about the kind of world it might help, in some marginal way, create.

So, with that as background, here are three things I’d like to see data enthusiasts really think about before jumping on this bandwagon.

First, it is a short path from data to governance. For researchers, the point of student-level data is to provide new insights into what’s working and what isn’t: to better understand what the effects of higher education, and the financial aid that makes it possible, actually are.

But for policy types, the main point is accountability. The main point of collecting student-level data is to force colleges to take responsibility for the eventual labor market outcomes of their students.

Sometimes, that’s phrased more neutrally as “transparency”. But then it’s quickly tied to proposals to “directly tie financial aid availability to institutional performance” and called “an essential tool in quality assurance.”

Now, I am not suggesting that higher education institutions should be free to just take all the federal money they can get and do whatever the heck they want with it. But I am very skeptical that, in general, the net effect of accountability schemes is generally positive. They add bureaucracy, they create new measures to game, and the behaviors they actually encourage tend to be remote from the behaviors they are intended to encourage.

Could there be some positive value in cutting off aid to institutions with truly terrible outcomes? Absolutely. But what makes us think that we’ll end up with that system, versus, say, one that incentivizes schools to maximize students’ earnings, with all the bad behavior that might entail? Anyone who seriously thinks that we would use more comprehensive data to actually improve governance of higher ed should take a long hard look at what’s going on in the UK these days.

Second, student-unit records will intensify our already strong focus on the economic return to college, and further devalue other benefits. Education does many things for people. Helping them earn more money is an important one of those things. It is not, however, the only one.

Education expands people’s minds. It gives them tools for taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves. It gives them options. It helps them to find work they find meaningful, in workplaces where they are treated with respect. And yes, selection effects — or maybe it’s just because they’re richer — but college graduates are happier and healthier than nongraduates.

The thing is, all these noneconomic benefits are difficult to measure. We have no administrative data that tracks people’s happiness, or their health, let alone whether higher education has expanded their internal life.

What we’ve got is the big two: death and taxes. And while it might be nice to know whether today’s 30-year-old graduates are outliving their nongraduate peers in 50 years, in reality it’s tax data we’ll focus on. What’s the economic return to college, by type of student, by institution, by major? And that will drive the conversation even more than it already does. Which to my mind is already too much.

Third, social scientists are occupationally prone to overestimate the practical benefit of more data. Are there things we would learn from student-unit records that we don’t know? Of course. There are all kinds of natural experiments, regression discontinuities, and instrumental variables that could be exploited, particularly around financial aid questions. And it would be great to be able to distinguish between the effects of “college” and the effects of that major at this college.

But we all realize that a lot of the benefit of “college” isn’t a treatment effect. It’s either selection — you were a better student going in, or from a better-off family — or signal — you’re the kind of person who can make it through college; what you did there is really secondary.

Proposals to use income data to understand the effects of college assume that we can adjust for the selection effects, at least, through some kind of value-added model, for example. But this is pretty sketchy. I mean, it might provide some insights for us to think about. But as a basis for concluding that Caltech, Colgate, MIT, and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (the top five on Brookings’ list) provide the most value — versus that they have select students who are distinctive in ways that aren’t reflected by adjusting for race, gender, age, financial aid status, and SAT scores — is a little ridiculous.

So, yeah. I want more information about the real impact of college, too. But I just don’t see the evidence out there that having more information is going to lead to policy improvements.

If there weren’t such clear potential negative consequences, I’d say sure, try, it’s worth learning more even if we can’t figure out how to use it effectively. But in a case where there are very clear paths to using this kind of information in ways that are detrimental to higher education, I’d like to see a little more careful thinking about the real likely impacts of student-unit records versus the ones in our technocratic fantasies.

Written by epopp

June 3, 2016 at 2:06 pm

“i’m awfully glad i’m a beta”: the educational effects of status groups

Thad Domina, Andrew Penner and Emily Penner have a really interesting new paper out in Sociological Science, AKA the official journal of people on my Twitter feed.

So it turns out that some crazy Californians had the great idea to assign high school students color-coded IDs based on their standardized test results. Everyone got a white, gold, or platinum card based on their level of proficiency on the California state tests. The students had to display their ID card whenever they were on campus, and gold and platinum card holders got certain perks, including discounts on school events, but most visibly an “express” line in the cafeteria. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, this raised some eyebrows once word traveled beyond the schools themselves. The article doesn’t name the two schools, so I won’t either, but Google exists, and it sounds pretty clear that creating these visible new categories had real status effects. You can find quotes about how kids in honors classes with platinum cards told other kids in honors classes who only had a gold card that they shouldn’t even be there, and a principal apparently told some girls they should try to find platinum prom dates.

The program was in place for two years, then was shut down after quite a bit of unfavorable press. But not before our intrepid sociologists managed to collect some data.

Domina et al. isn’t really about these kinds of categories at all but this is pretty funny (h/t Gabriel Rossman)

The article looks at two main things: first, did the rewards affect test scores and other academic outcomes, and second, did creating status groups have effects.

The answer is yes on both accounts. Scores went up significantly on both math and English language arts (ELA) exams. As predicted, effects on other indicators of achievement (grades and scores on exit exams, a different test) were less consistently positive. Moreover, the effects were greater for students near the threshold (i.e. if you just barely missed the gold card one year, your scores increased more). Effects were larger for Asian students than white students, and larger for white students than Hispanic students.

So far, this is consistent (well, with the exception of the racial/ethnic variation) with behavior of the “adolescent econometricians” (p. 266, quoting Manski) assumed by the program. But here’s where it gets interesting.

The authors also use the card cutoffs to perform a regression discontinuity analysis. The students just above the gold card threshold basically look like those just below it. But it turns out they do much better. Or more accurately, kids who got the low-status white card do worse – to the tune of 0.35 SDs on the ELA test, and 0.10 SDs on the math test (both significant at p = 0.01 level).

Interestingly, the impact on grades is even greater: receiving a low-status white card reduces math grades an amount equivalent to moving from a C- down to a D, and ELA grades all the way from a C+ to a D. That’s a big drop. Domina, Penner & Penner speculate that this may be because the status categories are particularly salient for teachers, who may then treat or grade low-status students differently.

So as usual, the lesson here is that while yes, people respond to incentives, they do so in social contexts. You can’t just assume incentives are going to have similar effects on all groups of people, or ignore the effects of new status groups that are produced.

Two other thoughts here. The one interpretation I might quibble with is the authors’ attribution of the racial/ethnic differences to stereotype threat. While that’s one possibility, it’s also certainly plausible that the different response reflects cultural difference (e.g. in the importance attached to test results).

The other is about generalizability. Admirably, the authors don’t really try to generalize at all beyond saying that status categories have effects. But I can imagine people looking at an experiment like this and assuming that whatever the results were, they’d hold up across schools.

But status systems vary from place to place, of course. At the small rural high school I went to, wearing around a card advertising your high test scores would have been a fast ticket to social exclusion. Fryer and Torelli’s “Acting White” paper is hotly debated (and I haven’t followed the whole debate), but they argue that there are racial differences in whether academic achievement is associated with higher social status, and that this gap is greater in schools with more interracial contact. Clearly not every school mirrors the relatively wealthy, high-achieving schools that implemented this program, and not every kid associates high academic achievement with high social status.

That’s just a caution against assuming too much uniformity across social settings, though, not a criticism of the actual paper, which is a great use of a natural (?) experiment. And just think, they didn’t have to suffer through multiple R&Rs to publish it.

Written by epopp

May 20, 2016 at 12:10 pm

once again: college effects do not matter, college major effects are huge

I just discovered an Economist article from last year showing that, once again, which college you go to is a lot less important than what you do at college. Using NCES data, PayScale estimated return on investment for students from selective and non-selective colleges. Then, they separated STEM majors from arts/humanities. Each dot represents a college major and its estimated rate of return:

college_return

Some obvious points:

  • In the world of STEM, it really doesn’t matter where you go to school.
  • High prestige arts majors do worse, probably because they go into low paying careers, like being a professional painter (e.g., a Yale drama grad will actually try Broadway, while others may not get that far). [Ed. Fabio read the graph backwards when he wrote this.]
  • A fair number of arts/humanities majors have *negative* rates of return.
  • None of the STEM majors have a negative rate of return.
  • The big message – college matters less than major.

There is also a big message for people who care about schools and inequality. If you want minorities and women to have equal pay, one of the very first things to do is to get more into STEM fields. All other policies are small in comparison.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

May 11, 2016 at 12:01 am

on getting into harvard, yet again

I’m pretty sure that Atlantic-NYT-New Yorker-etc. readers have a near-bottomless appetite for articles on the elite college admissions process. I kind of do too, although I always feel a little gross afterwards, like I had one too many pieces of my kids’ Halloween candy. Not that I would ever eat their Halloween candy.

Anyway, the latest offering in this genre is a three-part series in the Atlantic (part one, part two, part three) by Alia Wong. Mostly it’s about how the process became so competitive, and what elite colleges are doing to try to make it less insane — in particular, how to stop incentivizing a certain kind of self-obsessed self-discipline among the the young demographic aiming at these schools.

The piece is well-researched, although a lot of this ground has already been covered exhaustively. But I did think the article overlooked a couple of key things.

First: Although the article is clear at the outset that this is a problem of “the 3%”, as Derek Thompson put it, it folds broader college-admissions developments in with elite college-admissions developments in ways that don’t always work. In particular, both parts point to enrollment management as a factor driving change in the elite admissions process.

I think enrollment management — the emergence of rationalized practices for selecting and aiding students to achieve some institutional objectives (financial, rankings, whatever) — is incredibly important in understanding changes in higher ed as a whole. But I suspect it doesn’t explain much of what’s changed in elite admissions in particular.

Enrollment management started as a financial tool for mid-level private colleges that were having trouble making ends meet (gated link). Elites have never embraced it quite so much, though they have adopted some of its practices. Where enrollment management matters is in understanding the rise of merit aid at less-elite colleges, for example, or in explaining the shift toward out-of-state students at public universities.

Second: So far, at least, the article overlooks the extent to which the elite-admissions-frenzy is driven by an increasingly winner-take-all society. If the returns to being in the 1% are increasing, then the returns to an Ivy degree are likely increasing as well. Conversely, as the middle class is hollowed out, to upper-middle-class parents, the costs of not getting one’s kids on the academic fast track look like dooming them to lifelong economic instability, as opposed to pointing them toward a nondescript but perfectly pleasant middle-class life.

Finally: There’s a simple solution to this problem: a lottery. Set some baseline GPA and SAT criteria, then admit people at random. Tweak the criteria to ensure racial and socioeconomic diversity, if you like. Even favor alums, if you absolutely must. But ditch the whole magical individualized selection process.

Of course, that’s pretty much a nonstarter. The whole point of Harvard admissions is, as Karabel suggests, to get to choose the next generation of elites. A lottery would undermine the very purpose.

[Edited to add link to part three, which doesn’t really affect my overall take. If anything, it further conflates general commercialization of higher ed with the elite admissions frenzy in an unhelpful way. Both important, but not closely related.

Also, ’cause I haven’t done nearly enough promoting — though still planning to — see Craig Tutterow and James Evans’ piece modeling how rankings might drive the development of enrollment management here in our new volume of RSO on “The University Under Pressure“. (Links gated, email me for copies.)]

Written by epopp

March 30, 2016 at 12:34 pm

i am so sorry, the GRE is still a valid tool in graduate admissions

A recent Atlantic article by Victoria Clayton makes the case that the GRE should be ditched based on some new research. The case for the GRE rests on the following:

  1. The GRE does actually, if modestly, predict early graduate school grades and you need to do well in courses to get the degree.
  2. Many other methods of evaluating graduate school applications  are garbage. For example, nearly all research on letters of recommendation shows that they do not predict performance.

To reiterate: nobody says GRE scores are perfect predictor. I also believe that their predictive ability is lower for some groups. But the point is not perfection. Th point is that the GRE sorta, kinda works and the alternatives do not work

So what is the new evidence? Actually, the evidence is lame in some cases. For example, Clayton cites a 1997 Cornell study claiming that GRE’s don’t correlate with success. True, but if you actually read the research on GRE’s there have been meta-analyses that compile data from multiple studies and find that the GRE does actually predict performance. This study compiles data from over 1,700 samples and shows that, yes, GRE does predict performance. Sorry, it just does, test haters.

Clayton also cites a Nature column by Miller and Stassun that correctly laments the fact that standardized tests sometimes miss good students, especially minorities. As I pointed out above, no one claims the GRE makes perfect predictions. Only that the correlation is there and that is better than the alternatives that simply don’t predict performance. But at least Miller and Stassun offer a new alternative – in depth interviews. Miller and Stassun cite a study of 67 graduate students at Fisk and Vanderbilt selected via this method and note that their projected (not actual) completion rate is 80% – much better than the typical 50% of most grad programs.

Two comments: 1. I am intrigued. If the results can be replicated in other places, I would be thrilled. But so far, we have one (promising) study of a single program. Let’s see more. 2. I am still not about to ditch GRE’s because I am not persuaded that academia is ready to implement a very intensive in-depth interview admissions system as its primary selection mechanism. The Miller and Stassun column refers to a study of physics graduate students – small numbers. What is realistic for grad programs with many applicants is that you need to screen people for interviews and that screen will include, you guessed it, standardized tests.

Bottom line: The GRE is far from perfect but it is usable. There is no evidence to systematically undermine that claim. Some alternatives don’t work and the new proposed method, in depth interviews, will probably need to be coupled with GREs.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

March 16, 2016 at 12:01 am

the university under pressure

A quick post to announce the publication of “The University Under Pressure“, a new volume of Research in the Sociology of Organizations. Edited by Catherine Paradeise and myself, contributors include Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur, Julien Barrier, Sondra Barringer, Manuelito Biag, Amy Binder, George Breslauer, Daniel Davis, Irwin Feller, Joseph Hermanowicz, James Evans, Ghislaine Filliatreau, Otto Hüther, Daniel Kleinman, George Krücken, Séverine Louvel, Christine Musselin, Robert Osley-Thomas, Richard Scott, Abby Stivers, Pedro Teixeira, and Craig Tutterow. A short description:

Universities are under pressure. All over the world, their resource environment is evolving, demands for accountability have increased, and competition has become more intense. At the same time, emerging countries have become more important in the global system, demographic shifts are changing educational needs, and new technologies threaten, or promise, to disrupt higher education. This volume includes cutting-edge research on the causes and consequences of such pressures on universities as organizations, particularly in the U.S. and Europe. It provides an empirical overview of pressures on universities in the Western world, and insight into what globalization means for universities and also looks at specific changes in the university environment and how organizations have responded. The volume examines changes internal to the university that have followed these pressures, from the evolving role of unions to new pathways followed by students and finally, asks about the future of the university as a public good in light of a transformation of student roles and university identities.

I’m sure I’ll write some more substantive posts about the volume and some of the papers in it — as well as why I think developing an organizational sociology of higher ed is important — in the days to come. But in the meanwhile, take a look. And drop me a line for access to pdfs.

Written by epopp

February 18, 2016 at 1:36 pm

recent gre scores for economists vs. other social scientists

socsciGRE

On Twitter, Michigan higher ed prof Julie Posselt compares the quantitative GRE scores for various social science disciplines. Take home message: social sciences are comparable in terms of recruits, but economics has stronger math skills. Take home point #2: there is still a lot of overlap. The bottom third of econ overlaps with other social sciences. This probably reflects that the extraordinarily mathematical approach to econ is a phenomenon of the strong programs that attract those with degrees in physical science and they have pushed the more traditional economics student to the bottom of the distribution.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

February 16, 2016 at 12:00 am

amazon won’t destroy college as we know it

I’m really bad at keeping up with the media cycle.

So last Wednesday, Vox put up this cute piece with the catchy title, “How Amazon Could Destroy College as We Know It.” Written in the form of a letter from Jeff Bezos to shareholders in the year 2030, it tells the story of how Amazon came to supplant traditional higher education by developing, and selling at cost, badges that people could earn to demonstrate particular skill sets. As the value of badges became evident, companies became more and more interested in using them in hiring—to the detriment, presumably, of traditional indicators like college degrees.

It’s a clever article, and well-written. It also doesn’t quite make the claim the headline implies—that the rise of Amazon badges would destroy higher education. Nevertheless, although I think that the piece gets at something real that is going on, and that is eventually going to be an important source of change, this is not how I see it going down.

Anyway, Wednesday night I started writing a blog post using a similar Bezos-to-shareholders conceit, but from a 2030 that looked quite different. It just wasn’t quite working, I think because it’s hard to see Amazon pioneering the kind of change I can imagine. Pearson, maybe. But even I can’t name the CEO of Pearson. (Apparently it’s John Fallon.)

So the format wasn’t quite working, but the underlying point still nagged. While badges may become a thing, and perhaps Amazon may even pioneer them, they are not going to be “the” new form of educational currency. The world in which “as many as half of major US employers now consider Amazon badges to be one of their top five criteria when determining whom to hire” will remain a fantasy.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by epopp

February 1, 2016 at 1:20 pm

james coleman: a rememberance

At Education Next, Sally Kilgore offers a thoughtful overview of James Coleman’s career. For example, the aftermath of the EEOC report:

Coleman’s claims drew a vitriolic response, particularly from some fellow sociologists, who assumed he no longer favored desegregation.  At the 1976 meeting of the American Sociological Association, posters bearing swastikas and Coleman’s name were displayed in the main auditorium, and the ASA’s president, Alfred McClung Lee, led a failed attempt to have him expelled. The flap eventually subsided, and though Coleman’s work on education remained controversial for more than a decade, he was elected president of the ASA in 1990.

The attacks by colleagues must have been especially painful for a man who had actively opposed segregation. In July 1963, he and his first wife, Lucille, had taken their three boys—Tom, 8, John, 6, and Steve, 5 months—to participate in a demonstration at a whites-only amusement park outside of Baltimore. As the Colemans attempted to enter the park with a black family, they were arrested, as anticipated, along with nearly 300 fellow demonstrators.

And:

“Public and Private Schools,” which reported our results to the Department of Education, generated a new wave of controversy for Coleman. The report’s most contentious finding was that minority students attending Catholic schools had higher levels of achievement than those in public schools. The study also found that students in private schools increased their participation in extracurricular activities in each succeeding grade, while public school students appeared to decrease their participation. Critics pointed out, justifiably, that we had not adequately controlled for initial differences in the student populations as they entered either public or private schools. For instance, the family background variables we used to control for such differences may have failed to capture more nuanced variations in parental interest in education. Coleman never balked at criticism; he quickly looked for alternative methods to improve the control over initial differences. (A few years later, using survey data from the second round of “High School and Beyond,” the team showed that students in private schools had greater learning gains between their sophomore and senior years than did students in public schools. Thus, the achievement gap could not be attributed solely to the performance of the incoming freshmen.)

Read the whole thing.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

January 26, 2016 at 12:01 am

racial biases for low and higher performing students

Former BGS Yasmiyn Irizarry’s research on how teachers treat students of different races is featured in Scientific American’s podcast. From the Social Science Research article:

Education scholars document notable racial differences in teachers’ perceptions of students’ academic skills. Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort, this study advances research on teacher perceptions by investigating whether racial differences in teachers’ evaluations of first grade students’ overall literacy skills vary for high, average, and low performing students. Results highlight both the overall accuracy of teachers’ perceptions, and the extent and nature of possible inaccuracies, as demonstrated by remaining racial gaps net literacy test performance. Racial differences in teachers’ perceptions of Black, non-White Latino, and Asian students (compared to White students) exist net teacher and school characteristics and vary considerably across literacy skill levels. Skill specific literacy assessments appear to explain the remaining racial gap for Asian students, but not for Black and non-White Latino students. Implications of these findings for education scholarship, gifted education, and the achievement gap are discussed.

Check it out.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

January 15, 2016 at 12:01 am

why do universities salivate over money-losing grants?

Happy new year. Guess what my New Year’s resolution is. To that end, a few quick thoughts on universities and the grant economy to dip a toe back in the water.

We all know that American universities (well, not only American universities) are increasingly hungry for grants. When state funding stagnates, and tuition revenues are limited by politics or discounting, universities look to their faculty to bring in money through grants. Although this may be a zero-sum game across universities (assuming total funding is fixed), it is unsurprising that administrations would intensify grant-seeking when faced with tight budgets.

Of course, it’s only unsurprising if grants actually make money for the university. But a variety of observers, from the critical to the self-interested, have argued that the indirect costs that many grants bring in – the part that pays not for the direct cost of research, but for overhead expenses like keeping the network running, the library open, and the heat and electricity on – don’t actually cover the full expense of conducting research.

Instead, they suggest that every grant the university brings in costs it another 9% or so in unreimbursed overhead. In addition, about 12% of total research spending consists of universities spending their own money on research. While some of this goes to support work unlikely to receive external funding (e.g. research in the humanities), I think it’s safe to assume that most of it is related to the search for external grants – it’s seed funding for projects with the potential for external funding, or bridge funding for lab faculty between grants. (These numbers come from the Council on Government Relations, a lobbying organization of research universities.)

If that’s the case, it means that when faculty bring in grants, even federal grants that come with an extra 50% or so to pay for overhead costs, it costs the university money. Money that could be spent on instruction, or facility maintenance, or even on research itself. So how can we make sense of the fact that universities are intensifying their search for grants, even as the numbers suggest that grants cost universities more they gain them?

I can think of at least three reasons this might be the case:

1.  The numbers are wrong.

It is notoriously difficult to estimate the “real” indirect costs of research. How much of the library should your grant pay for? How much of the heat, if it’s basically supporting a grad student who would be sitting in the same shared office with or without the grant? There are conventions here, but they are just that – conventions. And maybe universities have a better sense of the “real” costs, which might be lower than standard accounting would suggest. COGR has an interest in making research look expensive, so government is generous about covering indirect costs. And critics of the university (with whom I sympathize) have a different interest in highlighting the costs of research, since they see a heavy grants focus as coming at the cost of education and of the humanities and social sciences. (See e.g. this recent piece by Chris Newfield, which inspired the line of thought behind this post.)

Certainly the numbers are squishy, and the evidence that grant-seeking costs universities more than it gains them isn’t airtight. But I haven’t seen anyone make a strong case that universities are actually making money from indirect costs. So I’m skeptical that these numbers are out-and-out wrong, although open to better evidence.

2. It’s basically political and/or symbolic, not financial.

A second possibility is that the additional dollars aren’t really the point. The point is that universities exist in a status economy in which having a large research enterprise is integral to many forms of success, from attracting desirable faculty and students, to appearing in a positive light to politicians (more relevant for public than private universities), to attracting donations from those who want to give to an institution that is among the “best”. Or, in a slight variation, maybe the perceived political benefits of having a large grant apparatus – of being on the cutting edge of science, of being seen as economically valuable – is seen as outweighing any extra costs. After all, what’s an extra 10% per grant if it makes the difference between the state increasing or cutting your appropriations over the next decade? (Again, most relevant for publics.)

These dynamics are real, but they don’t explain the intensification of the search for grants in response to tight budgets, except insofar as tight budgets also intensify the status competition. But it really seems to me that administrators see grants as a direct financial solution, not an indirect one. So I think that symbolic politics is a piece of the puzzle, but not the only one.

3.  Not all dollars are created equal.

Different dollars have different values to different people. Academic scientists often like industry grants because they tend to be more flexible than government money. Administrators, on the other hand, don’t, since such grants typically don’t cover overhead expenses.

Perhaps something related is going on with the broader search for grants. Maybe, even if grants really do cost more than they bring in for universities, administrators don’t perceive the revenues and the expenses in parallel ways. After all, those indirect costs provide identifiable extra dollars the university wouldn’t have seen otherwise. But the “excess” expenses are sort of invisible. The university is going to pay for the heat and the library either way; even if you know the research infrastructure has to be supported, you might assume that the marginal overhead cost of an additional grant doesn’t make that much difference. (Maybe you’d even be right.) And people might not see some costs – like university seed funding for potentially fundable research – as an expense of grant-seeking, even if that’s why they exist.

I think this is probably a big part of the explanation. The extra revenues of grants are visible and salient; the extra costs are hidden and easy to discount. So, rightly or wrongly, administrators turn to grant-seeking in tight times despite the fact that it actually costs universities money.

There are some other possibilities I’m not considering here. For example, maybe this is about the interests of different specific groups within the organization – e.g. about competitions among deans, or between upper administration and trustees. But I think #2 and #3 capture a lot of what’s going on.

So, if you think this dynamic (the intensification of grant-seeking) is kind of dysfunctional, what do you do? Well, pointing out how much research really costs the university – loudly and repeatedly – is probably a good idea. Make those “extra” costs as visible and salient as the revenues. (Though it would be SO NICE if the numbers were better.)

But don’t discount #2 – even if any extra costs of grants are made clear, universities aren’t going to give up the search for them. Because while the money grants bring in matters, they also have value as status capital, and that outweighs any unreimbursed costs they incur. Grants may not quite cover those pesky infrastructure costs. But the legitimacy they collectively confer is, quite literally, priceless.

Written by epopp

January 4, 2016 at 1:54 pm

summer program for academically oriented high school students interested in black studies

Do you know a bright and motivated high school student who is interested in issues of race and ethnicity? If you do, please direct them to the Telluride Assocation website. Every year, the Telluride Association sponsors summer seminars for dedicated students on a range of topics. This coming summer, I will co-teach, with Maria Hamilton Abegunde, a seminar for high school sophomores called “The Black Struggle for Freedom: An Interdisciplinary Perspective.” It will be taught at the Indiana University campus. The cost of the seminar, including housing and meals, is fully covered by donors and the Association. It is the policy of the association that cost will not be a barrier for entry.

If you know a student who might be a good match, please check out the application web site. The Telluride Association also hosts programs on other topics for sophomores and juniors – so check it out!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

December 9, 2015 at 12:01 am

critical thinking courses do not teach critical thinking any better than other courses

Critical Thinking Wars 1 and 2

A recent meta-analysis of studies of critical thinking (e.g., seeing if students can formulate criticisms of arguments) shows that, on average, college education is associated with critical thinking. From “Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A Meta-Analysis” by Christopher Huber and Nathan Kuncel in Review of Educational Research:

This meta-analysis synthesizes research on gains in critical thinking skills and attitudinal dispositions over various time frames in college. The results suggest that both critical thinking skills and dispositions improve substantially over a normal college experience.

Now, my beef with the whole critical thinking stream is that there is a special domain of teaching called “critical thinking.” The looked at studies where students were in special critical thinking instruction:

Although college education may lag in other ways, it is not clear that more time and resources should be invested in teaching domain-general critical thinking.

How the Chronicle of Higher Education blog summarizes the issue:

Students are learning critical-thinking skills, but adding instruction focused on critical thinking specifically doesn’t work. Students in programs that stress critical thinking still saw their critical-thinking skills improve, but the improvements did not surpass those of students in other programs.

Bottom line: Take regular courses on regular topics and pay close attention to how people in specific areas figure out problems. Skip the critical thinking stuff, it’s fluff talk.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

October 30, 2015 at 12:01 am

free college vs. cost-benefit thinking

Last month, Howard Aldrich made—as he often does—a good point in the comments:

There’s been an interesting subtle shift in the rhetoric regarding whose responsibility it is to pay for an individual’s post-secondary education. My impression is that there was a strong consensus across the nation 50 years ago, and certainly into the late 1960s, that governments had a responsibility to educate their students that extended up through college. However, I perceive that consensus has been under attack from both the left and the right….Liberals argue that much of the public subsidy goes to the wealthier high income students whose parents don’t really deserve the subsidy. Conservatives argue that as students benefit substantially from their college education, they should pay most of the cost.

This month, I’ve been writing about the history of cost-benefit analysis. (Why yes, I do know how to have a good time.) On the surface, it has nothing to do with universities. But there are important links to be made.

One of the arguments I’m playing with is that economic thinking—here just meaning a rational, cost-benefit, systematic-weighing-of-alternative-choices sort of thinking—has been particularly constraining for the political left. On the right, when people’s values disagree with economic reasoning, they ignore the economics and forge ahead. On the left, while some will do the same, the “reasonable” position tends to be much more technocratic. Think Brookings versus Heritage. Over time, one thing that has pulled “the left” to the right has been the influence of a technocratic, cost-benefit strain of thought.

Yes, I know these are sweeping generalizations. But stay with me for a minute.

There are a couple of big economic arguments for asking individuals, not the public, to pay for higher education. Howard’s comment gets at both of them.

One is that while there is some public benefit in educating people, individuals capture most of the returns to higher education. If that is the case, it makes sense that they should pay for it, with the state perhaps making financing available for those who lack the means. Milton Friedman made this argument sixty years ago, and since then, it has become ever more popular.

The other is that providing free higher education is basically regressive. The wealthier you are, the more likely you are to attend college (check out this NYT interactive chart), and relatively few who are poor benefit. Milton Friedman made this argument, too, but it is particularly associated with a 1969 paper by Lee Hansen and Burton Weisbrod, and continues to be made by commentators across the political spectrum.

Both of these arguments have become economic common sense (even though support for the latter is actually pretty weak). Of course it’s fair for individuals to have to pay for the education that they benefit so much from. And of course it doesn’t make sense to pay for the education of the upper-middle class while the working poor who never make it to college get nothing.

Indeed, these arguments have been potent enough that it has become hard to argue for free higher education without sounding extreme and maybe economically illiterate. Really, it kind of amazes me that free college is even being talked about seriously these days by President Obama and Bernie Sanders.

But even the argument for free college now depends heavily on claims about economic payoff. The Obama proposal headlines “Return on Investment,” arguing that “every dollar invested in community college by federal, state and local governments means more than $25 [ed: !] in return.” The Sanders statement starts, “In a highly competitive global economy, we need the best-educated workforce in the world.” The candidate who is a self-described socialist relies on a utilitarian, economic argument to justify free higher education.

So what’s the problem with thinking about college in terms of economic costs and benefits? After all, it’s an expensive enterprise, and getting more so. Surely it doesn’t make sense to just wantonly spend without giving any thought to what you’re getting in return.

The problem is, if the argument you really want to make is that college is a government responsibility—that is, a right—starting with cost-benefit framing leads you down a slippery slope. Benefits are harder to measure than costs, and some benefits can’t be measured at all. All sorts of public spending becomes much harder to justify.

Now, this might be fine if you generally think that small government is good, or that the economic benefits of college are pretty much the ones that matter. But if you think it’s worth promoting college because it might help people become better citizens, or increases their quality of life in some difficult-to-measure way, or you just want to live in a society that provides broad access to education, well, too bad. You’ve already written that out of the equation.

If you really believe there are social benefits to making public higher education freely available, then cost-benefit arguments will always betray you. But rights, on the other hand, aren’t subject to cost-benefit tests. Only a moral argument that defends higher education as a right—as something to value because it improves the social fabric in literally immeasurable ways—can really work to defend real public higher education.

Seem too unrealistic? Think about high school. There’s no real reason that free college should be subject to a cost-benefit test when free high school is not. Individuals reap economic benefits—lots of them—from attending high school, too. And high school is at least as regressive as college: the well-off kids who attend the good public schools reap many more benefits than the low-income kids who attend the crummy ones. It only makes sense, then, that families should pay for high school themselves, right? Perhaps with government loans, if you’re too poor to afford it.

And yet no one is making this argument. Because we all still agree—at least for now—that children have the right to a free primary and secondary education. We may argue about how much to spend on it, or how to make it better, but the basic premise—governments have a responsibility to educate students, in Howard’s words—still holds.

So I support the free college movement. But I’d like to see its champions stop saying it’s because we need to be globally competitive, or because it’s got a huge ROI.

Instead, say it’s because our society will be stronger when more of us are better educated. Say that knowing higher education is an option, and an option you don’t have to mortgage your future for, will improve our quality of life. Say that colleges themselves will be better when they return to seeing students as students, and not as revenue streams.

Say it’s because it’s the right thing to do.

Written by epopp

October 23, 2015 at 12:00 pm

please stop lecturing me

The New York Times has run an op-ed by Molly Worthen, a professor of history, who implores against active learning in college classes and wants to retain the lecture format:

Good lecturers communicate the emotional vitality of the intellectual endeavor (“the way she lectured always made you make connections to your own life,” wrote one of Ms. Severson’s students in an online review). But we also must persuade students to value that aspect of a lecture course often regarded as drudgery: note-taking. Note-taking is important partly for the record it creates, but let’s be honest. Students forget most of the facts we teach them not long after the final exam, if not sooner. The real power of good notes lies in how they shape the mind.

“Note-taking should be just as eloquent as speaking,” said Medora Ahern, a recent graduate of New Saint Andrews College in Idaho. I tracked her down after a visit there persuaded me that this tiny Christian college has preserved some of the best features of a traditional liberal arts education. She told me how learning to take attentive, analytical notes helped her succeed in debates with her classmates. “Debate is really all about note-taking, dissecting your opponent’s idea, reducing it into a single sentence. There’s something about the brevity of notes, putting an idea into a smaller space, that allows you psychologically to overcome that idea.”

As we noted on this blog, there is actually a massive amount of research comparing lecturing to other forms of classroom instruction and lectures do very poorly:

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 the Proceedings 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.”

If you’d like your students to master the art of eloquent note taking, continue lecturing. If you’d like them to learn things, adopt active learning.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

October 21, 2015 at 12:01 am