Sunday, August 14, 2016

House of Cards

A Facebook post called my attention to a neat little article about why swimming rules only recognize hundredths of seconds even though modern timing technology allows much more precise measurements. The gist is this: swimming rules recognize that construction technology limits the precision with which pools can be built to something like a few centimeters in a 50 meter long pool.  At top speed a swimmer moves about 2 millimeters in a thousandth of a second.  So, if you award places based on differences of thousandths of a second, you can't know if you are rewarding faster swimming or the luck of swimming in a shorter lane.

This observation points to the more general phenomena of false precision, misplaced concreteness (aka reification, hypostatization), and organizational irrationality rooted in sloppy and abusive quantification.

These are endemic in higher education.

Students graduate with a GPA and it's taken as a real, meaningful thing. But if you look at what goes into it (exams designed less and more well, subjective letter grades on essays, variable "points off" for rule infractions, quirky weighting of assignments, arbitrary conversions of points to letter grades, curves, etc.), you'd have to allow for error bars the size of a city block.

Instructors fret about average scores on teaching evaluations.

"Data driven" policies are built around the analysis of tiny-N samples that are neither random nor representative.

Courses are fielded or not and faculty lines granted or not based on enrollment numbers with no awareness of the contribution of class scheduling, requirement finagling, course content overlap, perceptions of ease, and the wording of titles.

Budgets are built around seat-of-the-pants estimates and negotiated targets.

One could go on.

The bottom line is that decision makers need to recognize how all of these shaky numbers are aggregated to produce what they think are facts about the institution and its environment.  This suggests two imperatives. First, we should reduce individual cases of crap quantification.  Second, when we bring "facts" together (e.g., enrollment estimates and cost of instruction) we should adopt an "error bar" sensibility - in it's simplest form, treat any number as being "likely between X and Y" - so that each next step is attended by an appropriate amount of uncertainty rather than an inappropriate amount of fantasized certainty.

Monday, August 1, 2016

"Free College" and the System of Higher Education

Finally, someone is writing about the consequences of "free" college for the system of higher education in the US.

From The Chronicle of Higher Education 1 August 2016

How Clinton’s ‘Free College’ Could Cause a Host of Problems


The policy proposals of presidential campaigns aren’t often burdened by details or even realism. A candidate’s ideas are supposed to represent vision, ambitions, principles — all while taking on the latest American anxiety.

These days, some of that anxiety concerns the cost of college and the notion that student debt burdens young people as they head out to get jobs, buy homes, and start families. Hillary Clinton’s answer is her “New College Compact,” which includes a plan — adapted from her tenacious primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders — that would cover tuition for students from families earning up to $125,000 a year.

“College used to be pretty affordable,” says a fact sheet on Mrs. Clinton’s compact. “For millions of Americans, that’s not the case anymore.” Colleges’ systems of grants and other financial assistance are complicated, and “free tuition” is a lot easier to pitch than a plan to tweak the existing patchwork of aid. Simple messages tend to resonate best.

And this message is a particularly resonant one. Higher education is widely seen as a necessary step on the road to a middle-class lifestyle, and most policy makers agree that the country needs a more educated work force. But as more of the burden of paying for college shifts to students and their families, proposals like Mrs. Clinton’s make a powerful suggestion: that higher education is a public good, which deserves to be treated as such.

The plan is grand — and very likely dead on arrival in Washington. Although the notion of free college is popular among progressives and young people, conservatives — who will probably retain control of the House of Representatives and many state governments after November — have balked at the cost of various free-college plans. Even some left-leaning policy wonks have questioned whether the plan would drive up tuition, put new burdens on the tax system, or even undermine college access.

Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether the plan could ever become reality and treat it as a thought experiment: If Mrs. Clinton’s plan passed, what would happen to the higher-ed landscape? Many of the specifics aren’t known yet. But one thing is clear: Policy makers could write a free-college plan that does significant harm and questionable good.


First in line for harm, most experts agree, would be private colleges. Although many people (and some policy makers) picture elite, wealthy institutions at the mention of “private colleges,” the category also includes hundreds of small, remote institutions, with tiny endowments.
“These colleges are concentrated in rural areas in the Midwest and Northeast, where high-school populations have been fairly stagnant,” says Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. What’s more, he says, high-school graduates are increasingly minority or first-generation college students with lower incomes. “Because of that, these students might be more price-sensitive and may be interested in going to a public college rather than a private college.”

There’s a big variable here: Mrs. Clinton’s free-college plan does not make clear whether students at private colleges could still get grants and loans from the federal government. And while free tuition would surely appeal to many families, students don’t choose colleges on price alone. They also care about finding a strong academic program and a good fit. Geography, too, is key: Most students go to college relatively close to home.

But if public colleges became free for those lower-income students, says Kent John Chabotar, a former president of Guilford College, “small private colleges without endowments in states with highly regarded public universities — particularly the flagship universities — would be in trouble.”

The private colleges would have to compete to attract students who would be less prepared for college and have lower expected family contributions. “You’re going to see a combination of dropping enrollments and skyrocketing tuition discounting, killing off the weaker, private, unendowed colleges,” Mr. Chabotar says.


So let’s say that the migration happens, and a new crop of students chooses public institutions over the private ones. It’s unclear that regional public and community colleges have enough capacity to meet that demand.

Public two- and four-year colleges already enroll more than three-quarters of the nation’s undergraduates. Even if a college had been planning to grow when Mrs. Clinton’s policy took effect, government funding probably would not keep pace with its needs over time, says Donald Hossler, a senior scholar at the Center for Enrollment, Research, Policy & Practice at the University of Southern California.

Colleges, he says, would be expected to educate more people with fewer resources per student. The quality of public education could erode. When enrollment is high and funding is tight, it can be hard for students to get all the classes they need to graduate on time.

At flagships and other selective public colleges, the picture would be more complicated. Flagships already tend to enroll more relatively affluent students, whose socioeconomic advantages give them an edge in admissions. Unless the government were to give the flagships some incentive to grow, they’d have little reason to take on more students. That would mean even more competition for a fixed number of seats.

So while free in-state tuition might sound like a boon to low-income students, it doesn’t help them much if they can’t get into the public college they want to attend, says Donald E. Heller, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of San Francisco.

In fact, some experts worry that free tuition for most families could exacerbate existing inequalities and further stratify higher education. While poor students would attend crowded, lower-tier public colleges at no cost, affluent students could buy their way into elite colleges, public or private.

Flagships have long worked to bring in more revenue from sources beyond state appropriations, like tuition — by enrolling more out-ofstate students, for instance. That’s unlikely to change. One big question is how much flexibility the institutions would retain in those efforts. What would students whose families make $125,000 or more be asked to pay?

If the policy applies to out-ofstate students, that eliminates a source of additional revenue. But if it applies only to in-state students, enrolling out-of-staters with family incomes below $125,000 would get harder when those students could attend their in-state colleges free, says Robert K. Toutkoushian, a professor in the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia.


Free in-state tuition might also change when some students enroll. Mrs. Clinton has proposed that the program start out covering families making $85,000 or less, with the cap rising $10,000 annually for the next four years, until all families making less than $125,000 are covered. A family making $104,000 in the first year of the program might hold off on sending their children to college for a couple of years, Mr. McPherson says.

You might think that a plan that saves students money, possibly reducing how much they must work outside of class, ought to help them graduate, Mr. Hillman says. But graduation rates are higher at private four-year colleges than at public ones. That probably can’t be chalked up entirely to the colleges themselves — the students who enroll matter, too — but it makes it harder to think of the plan as a boon to college completion.
In the end, the free-college proposal is about one thing: mitigating debt. “Every student should have the option to graduate from a public college or university in their state without taking on any student debt,” says Mrs. Clinton’s website.

Sure, students from families making up to $125,000 wouldn’t have to borrow for tuition, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have to borrow. They would still have to pay their living expenses, which can be a bigger burden than tuition, especially for needy students. Studies have shown that students on a low hourly wage have a hard time covering those bills.

Barring sizable government investment, many students would still take out loans, a pattern already established in other countries that have tried “free college.” Even at the handful of wealthy American colleges that meet students’ full financial need — accounting for the full cost of attendance, without loans — some students still borrow.

Here’s one more unanswered question: Does “free” mean tuition alone, or does it include fees? That’s no small detail: If colleges can’t get more tuition out of most students, they might look to increase fees instead.


Colleges are economic engines in their towns — machines that move money around, particularly in rural communities. In many parts of the Northeast, Rust Belt, Midwest, and beyond, small colleges are anchor institutions, helping to prop up communities that long ago lost the manufacturers and farmers that helped create them in the first place.

Let’s assume that students chase free tuition at the public colleges, abandoning fragile private colleges and leading to their closure. What would happen to a place like Rensselaer, Ind., home of Saint Joseph’s College?

Saint Joseph’s is a Roman Catholic institution with 2,000 students; 45 percent are first-generation students, most of whom would be covered by the Clinton plan. “If you take 45 percent of our population, and you allow them to go to Purdue or Indiana University or any of the state schools in Indiana for free, more than likely they are not going to be coming here,” says Robert A. Pastoor, the college’s president. “The viability of the institution is going to be seriously called into question.” Indiana has 31 private institutions, he adds, and many of them would find themselves in the same situation.

In a town of 6,000, the college employs about 250 people. and is a significant economic engine. Students, parents, and alumni shop at the grocery store, eat at the restaurants, sleep in the hotels. Locals go to sports games, celebrate Mass in the college’s Romanesque chapel, and hold wedding receptions and meetings in college facilities.

“All of that would go away,” says Mr. Pastoor, “and there is nothing to take its place.”