Education could use some systematic evaluation

by Andrew Gelman on April 20, 2012 · 18 comments

in Education,Media,Methodology

David Brooks writes:

There’s an atmosphere of grand fragility hanging over America’s colleges. The grandeur comes from the surging application rates, the international renown, the fancy new dining and athletic facilities. The fragility comes from the fact that colleges are charging more money, but it’s not clear how much actual benefit they are providing. . . .

This is an unstable situation. At some point, parents are going to decide that $160,000 is too high a price if all you get is an empty credential and a fancy car-window sticker.

One part of the solution is found in three little words: value-added assessments. Colleges have to test more to find out how they’re doing.

I agree with that last paragraph. Eric Loken and I said as much in the context of statistics teaching, but the principle of measuring outcomes makes sense more generally. (Issues of measurement and evaluation are particularly salient to statisticians, given that we strongly recommend formal quantitative evaluation in fields other than our own.)

I don’t have anything to add on the substance (beyond again expressing my agreement on the desirability of empirical measures of student performance) but I do want to hypothesize on the sources of Brooks’s doomy impressions.

After all, on first impression, top public and private colleges and universities are doing well, and there’s a lot of demand for their services. Just for example, when I was growing up in suburban Maryland, it was my impression that lots of students who were in the middle of the pack academically in high school could graduate and go to the University of Maryland in nearby College Park. In the decades since, the University of Maryland has become more competitive, reflecting the increasing demand (not matched by increasing supply) for high-quality college education.

So why is Brooks so sure that universities are in trouble? Why paint their current success as an “it’s always brightest just before the dark” situation (to borrow the words of Jim Thompson) rather than a more conventional presentation of universities as a shining success?

I see three reasons. I don’t know that any of these are conscious on Brooks’s part, but I suspect they all went into his reasoning.

1. Politics: Brooks is a political conservative. Universities are bastions of liberalism, thus it is pleasant of Brooks to see universities as struggling institutions in need of radical change.

2. Personal experience: Brooks has worked all his adult life at newspapers. Newspapers twenty years ago were where universities are now. Newspapers were making tons of money (from the business press, I recall that “Wall Street” was demanding 15 percent annual returns, and newspapers were delivering), in many cases they were close to local monopolies (consider the Washington Post) and successful both financially and in the sense of doing their job well (delivering lots of news), but there was a sense that this was all going to end. Not too many people were starting new newspapers, which was a bad sign, and many people were (correctly) worried that the social and economic basis for newspapers was disappearing. We no longer need to spend that quarter a day to read Peanuts, Art Buchwald, and the story of the latest Redskins game, and advertisers can reach us from other directions.

In short, Brooks has seen it happen in slow motion right in front of him, so he’s primed to see the same pattern of gradual and then panicked decline elsewhere.

3. Economics: Universities are indeed doing well intellectually and financially, but much of that comes from government support. Consider three leading sectors of the economy in the past twenty years: education, health care, and government (including the military). What do they all have in common? Guaranteed or near-guaranteed flows of tax money.

Just for example, one small contribution to the prominence of Columbia University is my research and this blog. I have time to do all this (rather than, for example, spending 40 hours a week grading papers) partly because I have millions of dollars of government grants. (And the granting agencies give extra funding to the university, so my grants also helps support the work of my Columbia colleagues who are not externally funded.) I think this is a good use of tax dollars—-but of course I’d say that, just as Gen. Ripper supports the use of taxation to pay for expensive bombers. My point here is not to argue the merits of the case, just to point out that much of the financial success of universities relies on public funding for research, student loan guarantees, etc.

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