Guidelines for using big data to improve colleges

A group of researchers and other interested parties recently made suggestions about how big data from higher ed can be used for good within higher ed:

To Stevens and others, this massive data is full of promise –­­ but also peril. The researchers talk excitedly about big data helping higher education discover its Holy Grail: learning that is so deeply personalized that it both keeps struggling students from dropping out and pushes star performers to excel…

The guidelines center on four core ideas. The first calls on all players in higher education, including students and vendors, to recognize that data collection is a joint venture with clearly defined goals and limits. The second states that students be told how their data are collected and analyzed, and be allowed to appeal what they see as misinformation. The third emphasizes that schools have an obligation to use data-driven insights to improve their teaching. And the fourth establishes that education is about opening up opportunities for students, not closing them.

While numbers one and two deal with handling the data, numbers three and four discuss the purposes: will the data actually help students in the long run? Such data could serve a lot of interested parties: faculty, administrators, alumni, donors, governments, accreditation groups, and others. I suspect faculty would be worried that administrators would try to squeeze more efficiencies out of the college, donors might want to see what exactly is going on at college, the government could set new regulatory guidelines, etc.

Yet, big data doesn’t necessarily provide quick answers to these purposes even as it might provide insights into broader patterns. Take improving teaching: there is a lot of disagreement over this topic. Or, opening opportunities for students: which ones? Who chooses which options students should have?

One takeaway: big data offers much potential to see new patterns and give decision makers better tools. However, it does not guarantee better or worse outcomes; it can be used well or misused like any sense of data. I like the idea of getting out ahead of the data to set some common guidelines but I imagine it will take some time to work out best practices.

Prediction: homeownership rate will continue to drop through 2025

One analyst suggests the falling homeownership rate will continue to fall:

Burns predicts the homeownership rate will continue to fall through 2025. Which means that millennials will be renting for a lot longer than their parents’ generation did.

In 2004, when the overall homeownership rate peaked at just under 70 percent for all age groups, those born in the 1970s were 25–34 years old, moving out on their own and forming new households…

Today, with mortgages harder to get and memories of the housing bust fresh in buyers’ minds, the homeownership rate among 25–34-year-olds has fallen to just 39 percent…

Based on his estimates, the overall homeownership rate will fall to just 60.8 percent by 2025, the lowest since the mid-1950s.

As noted in the last paragraph of the article, there will still be more homeowners than before (because the population of the United States continues to increase) but the percentage of Americans owning homes will drop. If the rate matches that of the mid 1950s, we would be back in a early suburban boom era except it would be hard to imagine a similar new boom on the horizon.

When realtors dislike McMansions

Realtors sell homes. So how do they feel about McMansions? A piece at Realtor.com offers some hints:

We’ve struggled to cover McMansions. For starters, they’re not pleasing to the eye. And, more importantly, we can’t put our finger on exactly what it is about these sad but pricey structures that inspires such a visceral negative reaction…

Q: We’ve grappled with this one for a long time here at realtor.com®. McMansions are like the classic definition of obscenity—”I know when I see it”—but we’ve never come up with a concrete definition for them…

All of the mail from realtors I’ve gotten has been really positive as well. I think that realtors are generally tired of McMansions, especially since they’re so difficult to sell. They find a lot of catharsis in reading McMansionHell.

Does this mean that realtors wouldn’t help sell or buy a McMansion because of their refined architectural sensibilities or because McMansions use of a lot of resources? While McMansions could generate profits for builders, they could also be good for realtors who could make larger commissions.

Based on this, I would enjoy seeing some realtors discuss their approach to McMansions. If I had to guess, I would imagine fewer realtors would be openly critical of such homes because it might limit their business. Perhaps some want to sell such homes while others avoid them like the plague. If they have strong feelings either way, would they openly share these opinions with buyers and/or guide them in certain directions? How many realtors live in homes that could be considered McMansions?

Getting a handle on the increasing complexity of large cities

Richard Florida interviews the author of a new book on cities and complexity. Here is one of the more interesting questions:

What do you think is the best way to think about cities: as machines, ecosystems, living organisms, or something else?

The fascinating thing about cities is that different aspects of them allow us to think about them in many different ways. At the level of urban infrastructure, cities certainly have features of machines, with vast constructed networks involved in transporting people, water, electricity, and waste.

At the level of the economy, cities resemble complex ecosystems, with companies and individuals filling specific niches and all living and working in a symbiotic dance. And at the level of growth and change, cities also feel like living, breathing, constantly growing and changing organisms.

But ultimately, the fact that a city has features of both a machine, a societal ecosystem, as well as a living thing means that a city is truly its own category: a novel type of socio-technological system that humans have made, and is perhaps one of our more incredible inventions.

I like this response: we have a tendency to reduce complex social phenomena to understandable objects (like machines – think of how often the brain is compared to a computer) but this often isn’t possible. Understanding all of the social relationships involved – and this could include relationships between people as well as between people and objects or nature – should lead us to some humility of how much we can know and predict as well as a fascination regarding how it all works. (Or, perhaps this fascination just applies to people like sociologists)

If indeed cities are complex systems, this could lead to questions of whether that complexity has drawbacks in the long run that cannot be overcome. (Parenthetically, such questions could also apply to nation states.) At some point, complexity may produce diminishing returns as argued by anthropologist Joseph Tainter. This reminds me that Jane Jacobs suggested organizing cities in districts that weren’t too big or small so that they could attend to smaller matters while also allowing community involvement. Americans tend to like smaller local government but the combined resources and interactions between larger groups of people can lead to more unusual benefits.

How McMansions affect the children who grew up in them

The founder of the Tumblr McMansion Hell was asked about the effect of McMansions on younger generations:

Returning back to our earlier conversation about why your Tumblr seems to especially be popular among young people, it would seem that not only are young people rejecting their parents’ values but they’re also coming of age during a time that has other trends affecting the decline of McMansions. For instance people are choosing to remain in cities rather than move to suburbs, they’re prioritizing the quality of possessions versus the quantity, there’s a focus on minimalism and everyone’s obsessed with Marie Kondo and de-cluttering. What do you think about all of this?

I think that what it really boils down to is the previous generation — the McMansion buyers — [placed an emphasis] on owning and having assets and this [younger] generation is now more interested in having experiences. Having the experience of community by living in the city, having the experience of having a house that’s well-crafted. This is also the first generation that really grew up with the concept of global warming and we have more of an urgency because our lives are going to be impacted by it. For a lot of young people that grew up in the suburbs, once you reached adolescence, there was a quality of life that was really impacted by the isolation of the suburbs and I think that has played a huge role as to why the younger generation is rejecting this notion of ‘the big house’ and this notion of always being in the car.

There are a number of broad assumptions made here on both sides – interviewer and interviewee – and how they may be affected by McMansions. It is still not entirely clear that younger Americans don’t want to own homes in the suburbs or that consumerism has abated. Younger Americans do seem to have less interest in driving – as evidenced by delayed drivers licenses – though McMansions aren’t only located in exurbs. Some of this will take time to sort out as there have also been large scale economic events that have had some effect.

Among those who discuss McMansions, you would be hard pressed to find many who would argue McMansions are good for children. The opinion above is that children who grew up in such homes will react in certain ways to their negative effects. Yet, how many people reject the general values and norms of their parents? Americans often celebrate this ideal – teenagers should have room to explore, adults should be able to make their own choices and be their own person – but there is often more continuity in society than we suspect. Social change can indeed take place across generations but not all of life necessarily changes.

I can see it now: let’s replace the term Millennials with the McMansion generation. While most people didn’t grow up in such homes, it would fit certain narratives…

Builders turning from McMansions to smaller housing units?

Alongside recent news of reduced price premium for McMansions, data from the second quarter suggests builders are constructing more townhouses and smaller units:

Reversing years of ballooning home sizes aimed at upper-bracket buyers, builders have begun refocusing their efforts on entry-level and more modest-sized homes. According to new data from the National Association of Home Builders, the median floor area in new-home starts dropped during the second quarter of this year by about 3 percent.

Meanwhile, townhouse construction has been increasing fast — up 25 percent over the past year as of the second quarter. New townhouses, which typically are smaller and cost less than detached single-family homes, now account for 13 percent of all single-family starts, the highest it’s been since 2008.

NAHB chief economist Rob Dietz told me the quarterly decline is no fluke and the trend is likely to persist. “What you’re seeing is the beginning of builders trying to expand the market” and pull in first-time and other buyers who are frustrated by the lack of affordable alternatives in the resale arena, he said. Many shoppers, especially those with or planning on children, now find growing opportunities in townhouse and entry-level detached-home communities in the suburbs and exurbs compared with closer-in, higher-cost homes.

Critics of McMansions as well as advocates for affordable housing have been asking for years why builders have been focusing so much of their efforts on larger homes. The short answer: such homes can generate a lot of profit while building smaller homes lead to less profit per unit. Yet, this article also suggests that demand has increased for smaller homes as entry-level buyers haven’t been able to find much thus far.

One point to note: even as builders and buyers are looking for smaller spaces, I suspect builders will do what they can to raise the values/prices of these units. Smaller doesn’t necessarily mean that much cheaper once numerous features are added and locations are considered. This doesn’t necessarily mean that builders are going to be constructing bare bones, cheap units – unless they are significantly farther away from city centers and job centers.

Gov’t plan to reduce infrastructure barriers between communities

Several months ago, the Department of Transportation started a project intended to reverse infrastructure barriers between communities:

Wednesday marks the launch of an initiative from the Department of Transportation aimed at mending some of those old wounds. The Every Place Counts Design Challenge calls on local governments to identify neighborhoods that face barriers to (or created by) existing transportation infrastructure, and to compete to work with experts who’ll assist in knocking them down.

Four communities around the U.S. will be selected to receive a specialized DOT design session in their hometowns, which will offer “in-depth facilitation of design strategies, on-site advice from subject-matter experts, targeted guidance related to USDOT program funds, and identification of resources to address an existing transportation infrastructure project challenge,” according to a federal notice provided to CityLab.

To be eligible, elected officials, urban planners, designers, and a cross-section of local residents must all convene around a transportation project that is already in the works and has the potential to reconnect communities to essential services such as jobs, healthcare, and schools. Applications (due June 3) must demonstrate how the existing infrastructure cuts people off from those needs, and how working with transportation and design experts could help these areas achieve better outcomes.

As this later article suggests, such monies could be used to counter earlier efforts that often emphasized driving (particularly in the form of highways in urban areas) or development at the expense of poorer neighborhoods. There are numerous classic cases of this including the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago between the Bridgeport (white) and Bronzeville (black) neighborhoods or Gans’ classic study Urban Villagers involving an Italian neighborhood in Boston. Instead of enforcing outside interests on existing communities – usually along racial/ethnic or class lines – planning today would often advocate for more community input. At the same time, there are still plenty of current situations where neighborhood and outside interests are not aligned and conflict can arise. Additionally, what may look advisable now may seem crazy in a few decades even as we would often imagine that we would never do something as destructive as post-war urban renewal.

Perhaps efforts like this are simply necessary: while better planning could help limit future remediation, monies should always be available to address past plans that didn’t quite work as intended or that were more misguided.