Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Big Fat Hairy Facts

Yesterday’s post, co-written with Susanna Williams, got some unexpected and very welcome backup from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.  The post was a response to a piece by Harry Holzer, of AIR, arguing that community colleges are preventing students from succeeding.  Among the highlights of the new report:

87 percent of students who transfer from a community college to a four-year college in the US do so before earning a credential at the community college.  They show up in the community college’s numbers as dropouts, even as they go on to graduate with bachelor’s degrees.

51.3 percent of students who transfer out of public four-year colleges transfer TO community colleges.  It’s actually more common than a “lateral” transfer.

18.5 percent of students who transfer from community colleges cross state lines, evading state-level data collection.  24 percent of students who transfer from four-year colleges do the same.

I swear that Susanna and I had no idea it was coming when we wrote yesterday’s post.  But it provides wonderful empirical confirmation.

In policy circles, you sometimes hear discussion of Big Fat Hairy Ideas.  They’re the enormous goals, or underlying theories, around which everything else gets organized.  Alternately, they’re the unconscious and unexamined assumptions that most people take as given.

But sometimes, some Big Fat Hairy Facts come along and show that the reigning Big Fat Hairy Ideas are simply wrong.  They’re empirically false.  The “difficult truths” that some claim we need to face up to, aren’t truths at all.

The test of intellectual honesty is in whether one is willing to revisit the “givens” in light of new facts.

We mentioned yesterday that judging community colleges entirely in light of graduation rates was a category error, since many students attend community colleges intending to do a year and then transfer.  As it happens, “many” is the overwhelming majority of students who transfer.  We were more right than we knew.

Getting the meaning of the graduation rate wrong leads to other errors.  For example, the “undermatching” thesis, which is popular in policy circles, takes the original measurement error and layers the ecological fallacy on top of it.  It assumes that a student attending a college with a twenty percent graduation rate has only a twenty percent chance of graduating.  Therefore, partisans of the undermatching thesis conclude, colleges with low graduation rates should be avoided.

As flawed arguments go, it’s a whopper, but it’s widely held.  It plays to certain popular prejudices -- race, class, academic prestige -- and it gets seeming confirmation from a statistic that looks simple and transparent.  And it leads to a conclusion that tends to flatter people in high places.  Some folks who should know better -- people I otherwise respect -- embrace the “undermatching” thesis.

They shouldn’t.  It’s thoroughly bunk, and now we have proof.

Partisans of the undermatching thesis could never explain just how it’s possible that 46 percent of bachelor’s degree holders in America attended community college, which almost perfectly matches the percentage of undergraduates in America who attend community college.  If community colleges are fatal to degree ambitions, why do so many people with bachelor’s degrees have cc experience?  How is that mathematically possible?

Now we know.  It’s because 87 percent of the cc students who transfer to four-year schools don’t bother completing the two-year degree first.  They do a year or so, and then move on.  Even if they finish the total package in four years, they show up as dropouts, and policy wonks wring their hands about difficult truths.  A performance funding mechanism that ignores the 87 percent in the name of “accountability” is ironic at best.

And that’s before addressing the ecological fallacy.  In the piece we examined yesterday, Harry Holzer managed simultaneously to base his argument on undermatching while -- at the same time -- acknowledging that cc graduation rates are very different for high-achieving high school grads, as opposed to low-achieving ones.  It’s an impressive feat of cognitive dissonance.  

As anyone on a community college campus knows, different profiles of students succeed -- whether defined as passing, transferring, or graduating -- at different rates.  Any competent sociologist could predict the fault lines.  The overall rate for an institution reflects the mathematically average student, but actual students are different.  Success rates are higher for women than men, for whites and Asians than African-Americans or Latinos, for full-time students than part-time, and so on.  The undermatching thesis holds that subaltern status somehow rubs off.  I can’t even.

No.  The discussion to have about public higher education, especially but not only community colleges, should not be around how to discredit them.  It should be around how to help them do right by their students.  For all of public higher education’s flaws -- regular readers have seen me mention a few -- the fact that it serves the public that actually exists isn’t one of them.  That’s a feature, not a bug.  

If we want accountability, let’s start with accountability for accuracy.  The “undermatching” thesis holds no water.  Let it go.  And let’s focus policy discussions instead on ways to help the students who actually exist, succeed.  They’re worth it.  That’s a big fat hairy fact.