The Economist highlights grade inflation and data from

The Economist talks a quick look at grade inflation in American colleges and universities:

Stuart Rojstaczer, a critic of grade inflation, has estimated average grades over time by combining dozens of unofficial and official sources. The results are startling (see chart). In 1950, Mr Rojstaczer estimates, Harvard’s average grade was a C-plus. An article from 2013 in the Harvard Crimson, a student newspaper, revealed that the median grade had soared to A-minus: the most commonly awarded grade is an A. The students may be much cleverer than before: the Ivies are no longer gentlemen’s clubs for rich knuckleheads. But most probably, their marks mean less.

Universities pump up grades because many students like it. Administrators claim that tough grading leads to rivalry and stress for students. But if that is true, why have grades at all? Brilliant students complain that, thanks to grade inflation, little distinguishes them from their so-so classmates. Employers agree. When so many students get As, it is hard to figure out who is clever and who is not.

This is a big change in a relatively short amount of time. For more information, see Rojstaczer’s work and data at

Northeastern University moved up 113 spots in the USN&WR rankings in 17 years

Northeastern University successfully moved itself up the US News and World Report college rankings in a relatively short amount of time:

Figuring out how much Northeastern needed to adjust was one thing; actually doing it was another. Point by point, senior staff members tackled different criteria, always with an eye to U.S. News’s methodology. Freeland added faculty, for instance, to reduce class size. “We did play other kinds of games,” he says. “You get credit for the number of classes you have under 20 [students], so we lowered our caps on a lot of our classes to 19 just to make sure.” From 1996 to the 2003 edition (released in 2002), Northeastern rose 20 spots. (The title of each U.S. News “Best Colleges” edition actually refers to the upcoming year.)

Admissions stats also played a big role in the rankings formula. In 2003, ranked at 127, Northeastern began accepting the online Common Application, making it easier for students to apply. The more applications NU could drum up, the more students they could turn away, thus making the school appear more selective. A year later, NU ranked 120. Since studies showed that students who lived on campus were more likely to stay enrolled, the school oversaw the construction of dormitories like those in West Village—a $1 billion, seven-building complex—to improve retention and graduation rates. NU was lucky in this regard—not every urban school in the country had vast land, in the form of decrepit parking lots, on which to build a new, attractive campus.

There was one thing, however, that U.S. News weighted heavily that could not be fixed with numbers or formulas: the peer assessment. This would require some old-fashioned glad-handing. Freeland guessed that if there were 100 or so universities ahead of NU and if three people at each school were filling out the assessments, he and his team would have to influence some 300 people. “We figured, ‘That’s a manageable number, so we’re just gonna try to get to every one of them,’” Freeland says. “Every trip I took, every city I went to, every conference I went to, I made a point of making contact with any president who was in that national ranking.” Meanwhile, he put less effort into assessing other schools. “I did it based on what was in my head,” he says. “It would have been much more honest just to not fill it out.”…

In many ways, Aoun tries to distance himself from Freeland. He resists talking about the school’s meteoric rise over 17 years—from 162 to 49 in 2013—and plays down the rankings, brushing them aside like an embarrassment or a youthful mistake. “The focus on the ranking is not a strategy, for a simple reason,” he says. “You have thousands of rankings. So you will lose sleep if you start chasing all of them.” While it’s true that U.S. News no longer appears in the university’s strategic plan, it does appear in NU’s portrayal of itself: The school has no qualms using its high ranking in recruiting materials and publicity videos. Yet multiple Northeastern administrators expressed concern over this article’s focus on the rankings. One vice president telephoned Boston’s editors in a panic.

Despite Aoun’s carefully crafted image, the school’s actions undercut his words, as gaming U.S. News is now clearly part of the university’s DNA. And Aoun is a willing participant. “He may not admit to it, but that’s definitely what’s going on,” says Bob Lowndes, who is retiring as vice provost for global relations. Ahmed Abdelal, provost under both Freeland and Aoun, says the two presidents have shared “the same goal: further advancement in national ranking.”

These rankings clearly matter and few schools can ignore them completely. A few parts of this that I found interesting:

1. There are some indications in the article that some faculty resisted this rankings push. It would be interesting to hear more. At the same time, doesn’t being ranked #49 now mean faculty would also benefit?

2. The article suggests but doesn’t say exactly how much Northeastern was able to budge the reputational assessments. These can take take a long time to move. Another difficulty is that for a school like Northeastern to move up, others have to move down. But, it sounds like the gladhanding campaign had some effect.

3. Articles like these suggest that gaming the rankings is a bad thing. Lots of academics would talk about how this goes against the true values of a college education. Yet, the rankings matter to the public. The success of the US News & World Report Rankings has helped lead to a whole cottage industry of other assessments based on the best financial value schools, the best schools for public service, and so on. And, it is hard to imagine that once you introduce a quantifiable system like this in any industry that is highly based on status – and academia is perhaps a status industry par excellence – that one of the outcomes will be that different actors will want to work their way to the top.

A college education as another object of conspicuous consumption?

A law professor argues the price of a college degree is related to seeing it as part of conspicuous consumption:

More than a century ago, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe the practice of buying luxury goods in order to display social status. In its purest form, conspicuous consumption involves purchasing expensive goods precisely because they are expensive, which means that the true conspicuous consumer will have what economists call an inverted demand curve.

Normally, when the price of a good rises, demand for it will fall. Demand for a Veblen good, by contrast, goes up as it becomes more expensive. The purpose of buying it is to display wealth, so the fewer people that can afford to buy a good, the more valuable it becomes to conspicuous consumers…

In economic terms, higher education is a positional good: It is valuable to have a college degree because other people don’t have one. It is also to a significant extent a Veblen good: Sending one’s children to college, and most especially a prestigious (meaning expensive) college, is a way of signaling social status via the conspicuous consumption of a luxury good.

All of this helps explain why college tuition has increased three times faster than the cost of living over the past three decades. University administrators have discovered that, to a remarkable degree, the more they charge for what they’re offering, the more people will want to buy it.

This reminds me of the argument Mitchell Stevens makes in Creating a Class. After a prolonged study of college admissions, Stevens suggests prospective college students tend to select the school they will attend primarily based on status (my note: which is often tied to price). The emphasis is not on learning but rather on the economic benefits this can lead to (better jobs, better social networks) as well as the status the college confers to its graduates.

I encountered a bit of this with my graduate education at the University of Notre Dame. While Notre Dame does not have one of the highest ranked sociology programs, people who heard I was at Notre Dame expressed they were impressed since it is viewed as a good school. The implication was that I must be a good student if Notre Dame thought highly of me – a transfer of status from the university to the individual. However, I suspect their claims were based on the undergraduate ranking (usually between #15-20 in US News) and not on the specific of the sociology graduate program.

How much do academics cite work in another discipline?

Sociologist Jerry Jacobs has a new book about the value of specific academic disciplines and presents this data regarding how much academics cite work outside their field:

“Interdisciplinarity depends on strong disciplines,” he said.

He said he became interested in the topic while serving as editor of American Sociological Review. He wanted to see if the articles in that journal were showing up as citations in the work of non-sociologists, and found that they were, leading him to question the idea that disciplines don’t communicate with one another. Using National Science Foundation data, he looked at where science journals are cited, and found that a “substantial minority” of citations come in other fields.

Citation Outside of Disciplines

Discipline % of Citations From Outside Field
Physics 18.3%
Chemistry 31.0%
Earth and space sciences 16.8%
Mathematics 22.6%
Biology 38.3%
Biomedical research 24.6%
Clinical medicine 28.6%
Engineering and technology 38.1%
Psychology 34.5%
Social sciences 22.7%

Jacobs then analyzes the various social sciences, and finds that scholars in the interdisciplinary field of area studies are more likely to cite non-area studies work than their own fields, while economics scholars are mostly likely to cite their own field. “These data on cross-field citations raise an important question for advocates of interdisciplinarity, namely whether the fields that are most open to external ideas are also the most intellectually dynamic,” Jacobs writes. “If this were true, area studies would be the envy of the social sciences, and economists would be busy trying to figure out how best to emulate the success of areas studies scholars. In fact, the reverse is true: economics is the most influential field in the social sciences, and it is also the most inwardly focused.”

While interdisciplinary is a hot topic, it is nice to see some data on the topic. How much should scholars cite those outside their disciplines? Jacobs suggests here that he thinks 20-30% of citations outside of one’s field is a good total – roughly one-fifth to one-third of citations. Should this be higher? Who gets to set these guidelines? The table also suggests this can vary quite a bit across disciplines.

I’ve noticed in my own research that certain topics in sociology lend themselves to more interdisciplinary citations, particularly for certain subject matter and new areas of study. I study within the subfields of urban sociology and the sociology of culture, subjects with plenty of sociologists but also plenty of interest in other disciplines. Some of my recent projects have been more historical, meaning I’m interacting more with historians, and about the media, meaning I’m interacting with work in media studies, communication, English, and elsewhere. Also, studying less-studied topics means one has to go further afield to understand what all of academia has said. In my work with McMansions, I’ve found that sociologists haven’t said much so I’ve worked with sources in history, planning, law, and housing (a rather interdisciplinary field).

Colleges with whiter student bodies present more diversity in their promotional materials

A sociologist talks about race and ethnicity in the promotional materials colleges offer:

Even without Photoshop, colleges try to shape the picture they present to prospective students, says Tim Pippert, a sociologist at Augsburg College in Minnesota.

“Diversity is something that’s being marketed,” Pippert says. “They’re trying to sell a campus climate, they’re trying to sell a future. Campuses are trying to say, ‘If you come here, you’ll have a good time, and you’ll fit in.’ ”

Pippert and his researchers looked at more than 10,000 images from college brochures, comparing the racial breakdown of students in the pictures to the colleges’ actual demographics. They found that, overall, the whiter the school, the more diversity depicted in the brochures, especially for certain groups.

“When we looked at African-Americans in those schools that were predominantly white, the actual percentage in those campuses was only about 5 percent of the student body,” he says. “They were photographed at 14.5 percent.”…

Rawlins says that showing inflated diversity can actually be a step toward creating a more diverse campus. It helps students imagine themselves at those schools. But balancing representation and aspiration is difficult.

It would be interesting to then take the next step and look at the effects of the differences between what is represented in the promotional materials versus what is actually happening on campus.

Gallup to start surveying college graduates to find if their college degree led to “a great life”

Gallup is working on a new initiative to measure a wider range of life outcomes for college graduates:

As the old saying goes, money can’t buy happiness. And yet, in measuring alumni success and satisfaction, colleges – often prodded by those seeking to hold them accountable – typically look at two things: whether their former students are gainfully employed, and whether they’re making a decent salary.

A new project announced today, led by Gallup and debuting at Purdue University, aims to change that. Focusing on a set of factors that are shown to correlate with “a great life,” the survey of 30,000 graduates annually will provide data on how alumni of groups of colleges (public or private institutions in certain states, for instance, or athletic conferences) are faring and how they compare to national averages. The final product will be a benchmark for student success against which any campus can measure its own graduates, if it works with Gallup individually…

The survey’s line of questioning goes beyond job placement and salary, also inquiring about work place and community engagement, personal relationships, physical fitness, sense of purpose and happiness, and economic management and stress…

“No one is going to suggest that colleges and universities are responsible for 100 percent of your great job and great life,” Busteed admitted, “but obviously, if you go to college and you get a degree, the odds are you increase the probability of having a good outcome.”

Given the arguments about the cost of college, I’m not surprised efforts like this are quickly moving forward. And, as the article notes, there are lots of methodological questions in play: what exactly is “a great life”? How many years after college should people be asked these questions? How can the effects of college be separated out from other life experiences (though people’s perceptions about whether college mattered is important as well)?

At the same time, I’m not opposed to trying to get at these life outcomes after college. Colleges often make the argument they improve the lives of their graduates from earning more to training for careers to giving students room to start living to critical thinking to a broader understanding of the world. Is some of the concern about measuring these things that colleges might not be able to live up to lofty claims? For example, given the findings of Academically Adrift from a few years ago, not all college students are benefiting. Once findings start trickling out, it will then be imperative to see what gets counted as “success” for colleges.

Intro to Sociology with 82 year old “godfather of Canadian menswear”

I imagine Intro to Sociology might be a little different with a 82 year old menswear magnate in class:

Even in his school duds — no tie, sometimes even jeans, if you can believe it — Harry Rosen was the best-dressed student this fall in Intro Sociology.

“I dress casually for class, but never without a jacket,” stated the godfather of Canadian menswear, who, at 82, decided this year to start studying humanities at Ryerson University.

He has been excused from exams because he still juggles part-time duty with his luxury clothing empire — he has a meeting Friday with a customer who still prefers to “Ask Harry,” semi-retired or not; some are now fourth-generation clients. He also fundraises for Bridgepoint Health and the University Health Network’s stem-cell team that created a research chair in his name, and serves on boards of institutions such as Ryerson…

History Prof. Martin Greig said he enjoyed the “octogenarian sitting amongst the 17- and 18-year-olds who made up the bulk of this first year course on medieval Europe. He was very attentive and seemed genuinely appreciative of my efforts. It was fun to have him there and I hope that he follows through with his intention to take my Cold War course in the winter term.”

“I love learning and I need that activity, in good measure because of my regrets at not getting a university-level education when I was young,” said Rosen, a self-taught retail mogul who went from high school straight to work, opening a modest men’s shop with his brother and then spending the next 60 years learning what he needed from carefully chosen partners.

It is good to hear about life-long learners who want to find out more about the world. Of course, this doesn’t have to happen in a college classroom. Yet, I think his example could go a long way with younger college students. With some of the figures about student learning in college and completion rates, his interaction with students might be the most valuable thing that happens in the classroom.

The wealthy continuing to give to wealthy universities and colleges

Gregg Easterbrook, ESPN’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback, continues to highlight a pattern: wealthy donors giving to already wealthy universities and colleges:

Don’t Give to Harvard! A running TMQ cause is that rich people give money to schools such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford, places already possessing gargantuan endowments, rather than to schools where money is needed. The rich underwrite elite schools for ego reasons — at cocktail parties they can say, “I just donated $10 million to Harvard, now a shower stall will be named after me.” At colleges and universities that serve average people, donations can change lives. If you’ve got money, donate to noble Berea College, which accepts only poor students and charges no tuition, or to gallant Bethune-Cookman, a historically black school that mainly serves the underprivileged. Alumnus Charles Johnson just gave $250 million to Yale — which is already sitting on a $19 billion endowment. At a place like Berea College, $250 million would have been a transformative event in the lives of the deserving. At Yale, it’s a rounding error in the lives of the privileged.

Reader Jon Miller of Beaumont, Texas, notes that despite having a world’s-best endowment of $32 billion — nearly double the GDP of Honduras — Harvard just kicked off a capital campaign, asking for another $6.5 billion. Rich people, show a little class: Don’t give to Harvard. Or Yale, Princeton or Stanford. Make your donation count.

This gets back to an old question: do elite universities perpetuate social inequalities? If giving patterns changed as Easterbrook suggests, perhaps there might be a shift…

Results from tracking hundreds of CUNY sociology PhDs since 1971

Here is a look at what has happened to 471 sociology PhDs who graduated from CUNY since 1971:

Where the 1993 graduates are working post-Ph.D. isn’t a mystery, thanks to the diligence of a longtime professor of sociology at Queens College, also part of the CUNY system. During a particularly tough academic job market in the early 1990s, Dean B. Savage started the work of tracking down every student who had earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the Graduate Center to find out where they went on to work. With the help of graduate students, he has created an ever-growing database of 471 people that dates back to graduates from 1971…

The data he has collected document the bleak reality that many people already know about the academic market: A full-time job as a professor isn’t a given for those who want one. In fact, since 1980, fewer than half of the sociology graduates hold full-time tenured or tenure-track jobs. But the data, which were most recently updated last year, also reveal some good news: The program’s record of placing students in full-time jobs inside and outside academe has shown improvement over the years…

Mr. Savage’s data set, which spans more than 40 years, is unusual because of its depth. A quick glance at his list shows many Ph.D.’s who became professors, deans, lecturers, and academic researchers. Among the many nonacademic jobs that the Graduate Center program’s alumni hold are crisis counselor, behavioral scientist, social worker, children’s-book author, art-gallery curator, and health-care consultant. Some people have retired. When Mr. Savage updated the data last year, he found at least seven people who earned Ph.D.’s in 2012 who were trying to gain some traction on the academic ladder, working in non-tenure-track positions. Graduates of the sociology program work at four-year colleges, two-year institutions, regional colleges, and flagships. Workplaces in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are heavily represented.

Collecting placement data like Mr. Savage’s can be complicated, as his experience shows. It is a little easier now than when he first started, since he can search for people through Google and on sites like LinkedIn. Mr. Savage started his efforts with a list of the program’s graduates from the CUNY registrar. Before the Internet, he said, “we would get in touch with their thesis adviser or someone we knew they were friends with or even members of their dissertation committee.”

But even with the advent of online aids, there are still gaps in the information that Mr. Savage has collected. He has found some students, only to lose track of them in subsequent updates. More than 112 students have never been found. Older alumni are less likely to appear on sites like LinkedIn, and some people who do show up list vague or inflated titles or may have profiles that are out of date.

The rest of the article goes on to ask broader questions about why more PhD programs don’t go to the efforts Savage has (and there are still issues with the missing cases) to track down this information. Graduate schools tend to trumpet the cases of students who do well but don’t say much about those who don’t or don’t complete the program. We could also ask questions about colleges who will likely will be asked more and more in the future to provide evidence from alumni that college led to learning as well as positive career outcomes.

So if the CUNY data is decent enough, how representative is it? As described here, the data suggests some cycles (forces within the academy as well as larger American economic issues), lots of attrition, and a variety of careers.

American colleges have Gothic architecture because they wanted to be linked to English universities, make clear their intellectual heritage

American colleges adopted Gothic architecture to make statements about their connections to the past as well as to other well-known schools:

American universities had always treasured the influence of Oxford and Cambridge. The colleges that would become the Ivy League were meant to model the Oxbridgian ideal of constructing a college around a quadrangle. In practice, though, American colleges of the 18th century were quite different. They were more devoted to scholarship than their British brethren. They were disconnected from a university. And they were poorer: Often, they didn’t have enough money to complete a ring of buildings around their quad…

“What Gothic meant changed depending on the time,” Johanna Seasonwein, a fellow at Princeton University Art Museum, told me. When Victorians emulated Gothic, they did it sloppily, mixing styles and idioms. “Something Islamic, something Byzantine,” might get thrown in there, says Seasonwein. This was the Victorian Gothic of the 1860s and ‘70s: a mishmash.

Collegiate Gothic, which followed Victorian Gothic, was much more precise. It emulated Oxford and Cambridge more directly.

There’s even a patient zero, of sorts, of Collegiate Gothic. In 1894, Bryn Mawr commissioned a new building, Pembroke. Its interpretation of Gothic so inspired other schools that they commissioned similar plans from the architects which designed the hall. (That firm, Stewardson & Cope, wound up constructing a near-copy of Pembroke on Princeton’s campus, where it’s called Blair Hall.)…

Collegiate Gothic was not a naive emulation, though. The Gothic revival “was just as much saying who was accepted in this atmosphere [of the college] as who was not,” says Seasonwein. Universities were expanding, and welcoming new students, but they were still mostly populated by WASPy men. Before the 1890s, many college presidents would have resisted a filigreed medieval style for fear it would look too “papist.”

Woodrow Wilson, when president of Princeton, has a now-famous quote about the revival: “By the very simple device of building our new buildings in the Tudor Gothic style we seem to have added a thousand years to the history of Princeton,” he said. Normally, the quote is truncated there, but in fact it continues: “…by merely putting those lines in our buildings which point every man’s imagination to the historical traditions of learning in the English-speaking race.” (Emphasis mine.)

All together, this is a good reminder that an architectural style we associate with a particular set of activities didn’t necessarily have to be. Social forces pushed colleges to adopt a particular architecture and they assumed this design communicated key messages.

The examples of collegiate Gothic cited in this article tend to be from elite Northeast and Midwest institutions. So does this architecture today still function in a similar manner, clearly demarcating these campuses as a cut above the rest? Other kinds of colleges, perhaps marked by region or the year they were founded or the students they serve, might have intentionally adopted other architectural styles to communicate other messages. Let’s say we wanted to look at the architecture of community colleges. I suspect more of them are post-World War II institutions that more modernist and functional architecture. What exactly does this communicate? Some counterfactuals might be interesting to look at as well: the community college with more traditional architecture or the elite school, like a Caltech, that has a different architectural style.