Thursday, February 14, 2013


Friday Fragments

From the “other duties as assigned” file: yesterday I had to go in for a medical procedure.  In the course of making small talk with the tech, she mentioned that her daughter is looking at colleges, but they’re both worried about student loans.  I mentioned where I work, and for the next half hour, the conversation was all about transfer, comparative tuition levels, student loans, and the difficulty for new grads who can’t find jobs but have huge loans to pay off.  All of this during the procedure.  

If nothing else, it brought home to me that the issues we’re dealing with are not abstract in any way.


The Girl: “The future may take a while.”


I’ve mentioned before my complete bafflement at the ubiquity of flat roofs in snowy climes.  As those of us who’ve lived through snowy winters can attest, snow has a way of melting.  And when the roof is flat, the water has a way of just sitting there.  All that water is up to no good.

Now I’ve got some scholarly backup.  Apparently, the flat roof fetish was an outgrowth of a really unfortunate flirtation with modernism in the mid-twentieth century.  By a cruel accident of timing, the worst of the modernist fad hit at the exact same time as a building boom in public schools and colleges.  

Gravity, people.  Gravity.  Pitched roofs are your friends.


The government’s “college scorecard” is out.  

It’s a bit mystifying.  It doesn’t include any measure of academic quality, which you’d think would be a key component of “value.”  And its cost of attendance figures are simply mystifying.  It’s supposed to help prospective students determine how much bang for the buck they’ll get at one school as opposed to another, but there’s no measure of “bang,” and a severely flawed calculation of “bucks.”  Color me unimpressed.

If it wants to achieve something, take a page from Moneyball, and figure out the academic outcomes a college achieves as measured against the outcomes expected from the profile of its entering students.  If a college punches above its weight, then it’s doing something right; if it skews wealthy but still gets lousy results, it’s doing something wrong.  

I understand that any single scorecard will necessarily be reductionist; that’s the nature of a scorecard.  It will have to focus on just a few numbers.  All the more reason to choose the right numbers.


Convinced that The Boy got taller in the three seconds I was looking in another direction, I measured him the other day.  At age eleven, he’s five foot eight.  

The future may take a while, but he seems to be in a hurry.  I don’t know what we’ve been feeding him...

The government scorecard also uses (of course) the flawed IPEDS data set for graduation rates, although I did notice that they give a "transfer rate" that might really should be included in their success meter.

Flat roofs also make little sense in areas that get a lot of rain.

Tell TB to keep working on his jump shot. Even top academic schools have athletic scholarships or admit preferences.
The boy will be the only male in his 8th grade class taller than his date. This is no bad thing!
The girl must have been misinformed. My understanding is that (according to the all-knowing Jonathan Coulton) it's gonna be the future soon.
Hmmm. But, when assessing academic quality, the real question is, quality for whom? You can easily measure the "quality" of those who are admitted, and less easily measure the jobs, graduate degrees, and incomes of those who graduate. You can even theoretically measure the increase in knowledge and thinking skills of those who attend. But all of this is hard to apply to any individual young person who is considering applying for admission. For some the college will be an overmatch; for some an undermatch.
See, now, I'd look at that first anecdote and see it as, what an awesome stroke of luck that that particular tech had you for a patient on that particular day. Now she's got information that will help her and her daughter make a better-informed decision. (This happens to me all the time as a librarian. Also I get asked for directions a lot.)
Many of our university roofs are flat. Prevailing winds help but not nearly enough. Partner works at the local francophone college which has many flat roofs including, sadly, the one over the library (technically "the Resource Centre"). Leaks like a sieve. . . .
Of course, the Wall Street Journal looked at the scorecard results for some regional or community colleges, and decided that the low graduation rates indicated that, "you get what you pay for" ( She decided that the low grad rates indicated low education quality. Of course, those of us who work in community colleges know that many students never intended to graduate, and that some of our most successful students transfer to 4-year colleges before earning an Associate's degree.
Al brings up a good point. This points out the objectionable side effects which can occur when one manages an organization strictly by the numbers.

If one simply looks uncritically at a community college's graduation statistics, a student who attends a community college for a brief time and then transfers to a four-year college without getting an Associate degree counts as a dropout. If there a lot of these transfer students, this will make the community college look bad to the accrediting agencies and to the state and local governments who provide the funding. But these students should be counted as successes for the community college rather than as failures. These students got what they came to college for, and the community college contributed a great deal to their ultimate success in getting a four-year degree.

We need to figure out a way that community colleges can be rewarded for such transfers rather than being dinged for them.
Maybe the NYTimes would understand if it was pointed out to them that they are victimizing poor children by adopting the language of the oppressors, but the Wall Street Journal wouldn't care. ;-)

ArtMathProf falls into that same trap by referring to "a community college's graduation statistics" as if there is only one and IPEDS is the right one. (The government actually gives two different measures but only displays one on their meter). Who gets credit when a student drops out of a 4-year, gets an AA, and then graduates from the original 4-year school after 6 years?

The way to get credit is to fix IPEDS. The present version does not measure what colleges do.

For example, I doubt if they/we correct the IPEDS data when a student who enters saying they want an AA discovers their actual goals will be met with an AS in accounting or a certificate in computer aided design and graduates -- but with a different degree than originally stated. I doubt it.
I should have read that Wall Street Journal article first, since it is worse than wrong. Not only are there no data provided to support the claims made (and no link to any report or press release by the person cited), the three examples given are all described as "primarily associate degree" institutions in the federal data base, not 4-year colleges as described in the article. According to Wikipedia, all three are junior colleges that have some 4-year majors.
At 11 I was 4'11" at 30 I'm still that height. Feed me some of whatever you are feeding him.
Has anyone of you heard about Obama's Admin's announcement about College Scorecard?

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