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.

The Economist highlights grade inflation and data from gradeinflation.com

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 gradeinflation.com.

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.

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.

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.