Archive | Education

Credentialism, elite employment, and career aspirations

Steve Hsu has posted a series of reflections here, here, and here on the dominance of graduates of HYPS (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford (in that order, I believe)) in various Master-of-the-Universe-type jobs at “elite law firms, consultancies, and I-banks, hedge/venture funds, startups, and technology companies.” Hsu writes:

In the real world, people believe in folk notions of brainpower or IQ. (“Quick on the uptake”, “Picks things up really fast”, “A sponge” …) They count on elite educational institutions to do their g-filtering for them. . . .

Most top firms only recruit at a few schools. A kid from a non-elite UG school has very little chance of finding a job at one of these places unless they first go to grad school at, e.g., HBS, HLS, or get a PhD from a top place. (By top place I don’t mean “gee US News says Ohio State’s Aero E program is top 5!”—I mean, e.g., a math PhD from Berkeley or a PhD in computer science from MIT —the traditional top dogs in academia.) . . .

I teach at U Oregon and out of curiosity I once surveyed the students at our Honors College, which has SAT-HSGPA characteristics similar to Cornell or Berkeley. Very few of the kids knew what a venture capitalist or derivatives trader was. Very few had the kinds of life and career aspirations that are typical of HYPS or techer kids. . . .

I have just a few comments.

1. Getting in to a top college is not the same as graduating from said college with good grades (or some countervailing advantage). So, yes, the people doing the corporate hiring are using the educational institutions to do their “g-filtering,” but it’s not all happening at the admissions stage. Hsu quotes researcher Lauren Rivera as writing, “it was not the content of an elite education that employers valued but rather the perceived rigor of these institutions’ admissions processes”—but I don’t know if I believe that!

2. As Hsu points out (but maybe doesn’t emphasize enough), the selection processes at these top firms don’t seem to make a lot of sense even on their own terms. Here’s another quote from Rivera: “his halo effect of school prestige, combined with the prevalent belief that the daily work performed within professional service firms was “not rocket science” gave evaluators confidence that the possession of an elite credential was a sufficient signal of a candidate’s ability to perform the analytical capacities of the job.” The reasoning seems to be: The job isn’t so hard so the recruiters can hire whoever they want if such people pass a moderately stringent IQ threshold, thus they can pick the HYPS graduates who they like. It seems like a case of the lexicographic fallacy: the idea that you pick IQ based on the school and then clubbability, etc., among the subset of applicants who remain.

3. I should emphasize that academic hiring is far from optimal. We never know who’s going to apply for our postdoc positions. And, when it comes to faculty hiring, I think Don Rubin put it best when he said that academic hiring committees all to often act as if they’re giving out an award rather than trying to hire someone to do a job. And don’t get me started on tenure review committees.

4. Regarding Hsu’s last point above, I’ve long been glad that I went to MIT rather than Harvard, maybe not overall—I was miserable in most of college—but for my future career. Either place I would’ve taken hard classes and learned a lot, but one advantage of MIT was that we had no sense—no sense at all—that we could make big bucks. We had no sense of making moderately big bucks as lawyers, no sense of making big bucks working on Wall Street, and no sense of making really big bucks by starting a business. I mean, sure, we knew about lawyers (but we didn’t know that a lawyer with technical skills would be a killer combination), we knew about Wall Street (but we had no idea what they did, other than shout pork belly prices across a big room), and we knew about tech startups (but we had no idea that they were anything to us beyond a source of jobs for engineers). What we were all looking for was a good solid job with cool benefits (like those companies in California that had gyms at the office). I majored in physics, which my friends who were studying engineering thought was a real head-in-the-clouds kind of thing to do, not really practical at all. We really had no sense that a physicist degree from MIT degree with good grades was a hot ticket.

And it wasn’t just us, the students, who felt this way. It was the employers too. My senior year I applied to some grad schools (in physics and in statistics) and to some jobs. I got into all the grad schools and got zero job interviews. Not just zero jobs. Zero interviews. And these were not at McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, etc. (none of which I’d heard of). They were places like TRW, etc. The kind of places that were interviewing MIT physics grads (which is how I thought of applying for these jobs in the first place). And after all, what could a company like that do with a kid with perfect physics grades from MIT? Probably not enough of a conformist, eh?

This was fine for me—grad school suited me just fine. I’m just glad that big-buck$ jobs weren’t on my radar screen. I think I would’ve been tempted by the glamour of it all. If I’d gone to college 10 or 20 years later, I might have felt that as a top MIT grad, I had the opportunity—even the obligation, in a way—to become some sort of big-money big shot. As it was, I merely thought i had the opportunity and obligation to make important contributions in science, which is a goal that I suspect works better for me (and many others like me).

P.S. Hsu says that “much of (good) social science seems like little more than documenting what is obvious to any moderately perceptive person with the relevant life experience.” I think he might be making a basic error here. If you come up with a new theory, you’ll want to do two things: (a) demonstrate that it predicts things you already know, and (b) use it to make new predictions. To develop, understand, and validate a theory, you have to do a lot of (a)—hence Hsu’s impression—in order to be ready to do (b).

A simpler response to Hsu is that it’s common for “moderately perceptive persons with the relevant life experience” to disagree with each other. In my own field of voting and elections, even someone as renowned as Michael Barone (who is more than moderately perceptive and has much more life experience than I do) can still get things embarrassingly wrong. (My reflections on “thinking like a scientist” may be relevant here.)

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Are Econ Students More Likely to be Republican?

A recent New York Fed paper says yes.

those who took more economics classes or who majored in economics or business were more likely to be members of the Republican party and less likely to join the Democratic party. Those findings hold even after controlling for the higher salary, higher equity in real estate holdings, and earning a graduate degree.

Unfortunately, as the authors note, it is impossible with their data to know whether this is a selection effect (e.g. people who are more likely to vote Republicans are also the kind of people who more likely to study economics) or a causal one (e.g. people are more likely to vote Republican because they have studied economics). Still, interesting.

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Does Teach for America Build Civic Engagement?

No, according to a new study by Doug McAdam and Cynthia Brandt. This New York Times piece has the details:

In areas like voting, charitable giving and civic engagement, graduates of the program lag behind those who were accepted but declined and those who dropped out before completing their two years…

The comparison of graduates to those who declined or dropped out is an interesting way to mitigate the obvious concern: people who join Teach for America are more engaged in their communities than those who do not.

McAdam compares these findings to his previous research on participants in Freedom Summer:

Professor McAdam’s findings that nearly all of Freedom Summer’s participants were still engaged in progressive activism when he tracked them down 20 years later have contributed to the widely held notion that civic advocacy and service among the young make for better citizens….Professor McAdam, 57, said Freedom Summer was the exception, not the rule. “Freedom Summer is the odd civic experience, and hardly representative of what happens when young people do service,” he said. “A lot of the impact of any experience is where it’s historically situated.”

The founder of Teach for America, Wendy Kopp, suggested the study but seems to object to its findings:

It’s hard to see the incredible outpouring of interest among this generation and think of it as a lack of civic engagement. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem as if this study looked at Teach for America’s core mission, by evaluating whether we are producing more leaders who believe educational inequity is a solvable problem, who have a deep understanding of the causes and solutions, and who are taking steps to address it in fundamental and lasting ways.

Interestingly, McAdam suggests that the part of the problem is that some graduates come to doubt Teach for America’s approach to educational inequity:

The reasons for the lower rates of civic involvement, Professor McAdam said, include not only exhaustion and burnout, but also disillusionment with Teach for America’s approach to the issue of educational inequity, among other factors.

The study is forthcoming in Social Forces.

[Hat tip to Doug Hess.]

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Advice to asipring journalists

Alekx passed on this advice from the Gladwell:

Q: If you had a single piece of advice to offer young journalists, what would it be?

A: The issue is not writing. It’s what you write about. . . . Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today, I would go get a master’s in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that’s the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.

I like his advice to study statistics, but I might recommend a few psychology courses instead of taking accounting.

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Kicking PowerPoint Out of the Classroom: What Goes Around Comes Around


I’m a Luddite in terms of educational technology. Never learned how to use PowerPoint because the PowerPoint-driven talks and lectures I’ve sat through have almost invariably been boring. And the slides have always struck me as another step in the direction of student passivity; students just sit there and copy down what it says on the slide, so why bother to pay attention to the lecture, get involved in the discussion, or think about the subject matter? I think Edward Tufte nailed this several years ago.

So I’m old-fashioned. But sometimes it pays to be old-fashioned, because if you wait long enough, chances are you’ll come back into fashion. Here’s hoping.

Case in point: At least at one school (SMU), the dean is trying to talk faculty members out of using PowerPoint and to banish computers from the classroom.

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The Uptick in Standardized Test Scores in the Nation’s Capital: Less than Meets the Eye (A Rant)

Institutions respond in myriad ways to mandates to provide quantitative evidence of performance improvement. Sometimes they actually try to improve performance itself. Their first line of defense, though, often consists of taking steps that make everything, themselves included, look better irrespective of whether any real improvement has taken place.

For example, the university from which I draw my paycheck wants to move up in the US News ratings. So one thing it does is look very closely at the criteria US News uses and try to game them. US News takes points off for class sizes above 20? Easy! We’ll cap enrollments at 19 in classes that had typically enrolled 21 to 25 students, and herd the excluded students into classes that were way above 20 in the first place.

Keep that in mind as I tell you about much-ballyhooed recent improvements in the DC school system.

DC has a bright, energetic, attractive, ambitious, smooth, omnipresent, self-promoter of a mayor, Adrian Fenty. Shortly after he was elected, Fenty cloned himself by hiring the bright, energetic, ambitious, attractive, ambitious, smooth, omnipresent, etc., Michelle Rhee to be chancellor of the horrendous DC public school system. Both preached reform, and Rhee was given near-dictatorial powers to make change happen. She fired principals willy-nilly and closed underperforming schools at will. It seems like every day, there are Fenty and Rhee, smiling for the cameras, making some new announcement of the educational reform du jour.

Fine. As Lenin is said to have said, “If you want to make an omelet, you must be willing to break a few eggs.” And Fenty and Rhee are hardly the only publicity hounds in the politics business.

Last week, Fenty announced that standardized test scores in the District were way up – good news at long last! “Powerful evidence of the incredible work being done by teachers, principals, and most importantly our students” (and, of course, by Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee). This was great stuff – a story about the DC schools so unusual (because it was positive) as to be of “man bites dog” or “bull throws congressman” proportions. All that adoring media coverage must have been right – the long-awaited progress was finally happening!

Well, maybe not. In today’s Washington Post, Bill Turque details how those DC test scores rose.

Students who had been close to scoring at a level that would be counted as indicating proficiency were given special tutoring designed to inch them over the proficiency hurdle – a step that Turque quotes one teacher (who belongs to a group that opposes some of Rhee’s programs) describing as being “less about serving children and more about make the adults who run the school system look good. … There are students in my classes who are struggling with basics, and yet we’re pouring all of this money into a program not just focused on tests, but on tests for a few students so the scores will look good.”
The school system’s databases were reorganized, which resulted in dropping some students (apparently bottom-feeders in terms of academic achievement) from the ranks of those who had to be tested.
Failure was redefined. In earlier years, students who didn’t take the test were counted as failures. Starting in this year, those students were treated as missing data, not failures.
Taking advantage of the fact that after a few years of standardized testing, teachers generally improve at “teaching to the test” and students’ test-taking skills improve, too.

Rhee herself describes these strategems as the pursuit of low-hanging fruit and says she’s “very excited about next year.”

Hip, hip, hooray for performance measurement. Things are going so well in the DC school system!

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Who wants school vouchers? Rich whites and poor nonwhites

As part of our Red State, Blue State research, we developed statistical tools for estimating public opinion among subsets of the population. Recently Yu-Sung Su, Yair Ghitza, and I applied these methods to see where school vouchers are more or less popular.

We started with the 2000 National Annenberg Election Survey, which had responses from about 50,000 randomly-sampled Americans to the question: “Give tax credits or vouchers to help parents send their children to private schools—should the federal government do this or not?” 45% of those who expressed an opinion on this question said yes, but the percentage varied a lot by state, income level, and religious/ethnic group; These maps show our estimates:


Vouchers are most popular among high-income white Catholics and Evangelicals and low-income Hispanics. In general, among white groups, the higher the income, the more popular are school vouchers. But among nonwhites, it goes the other way, with vouchers being popular in the lower income categories but then becoming less popular among the middle class.

You can also see that support for vouchers roughly matches Republican voting, but not completely. Vouchers are popular in the heavily Catholic Northeast and California, less so in many of the mostly Protestant states in the Southeast. We also see a regional pattern among African Americans, where vouchers are most popular outside the South.

See here for more, including maps from 2004.

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Informed Opinions about Spending on Education and Teacher Salaries

…if the public is given accurate information about what is currently being spent on public schools, their support for increased spending and confidence that more spending will improve student learning both decline. And they find that knowing how much the average teacher earns lowers support among the general public for salary increases.

That’s from research by William Howell and Martin West, digested here.

Some details:

…The average per-pupil spending estimate from respondents to the 2008 Education Next/PEPG survey was $4,231, and the median response was just $2,000; but for these respondents, local average spending per pupil at the time exceeded $10,000. When told how much the local schools were spending, support for increased spending dropped by 10 percentage points, from 61 percent to a bare majority of 51 percent…
…As with per-pupil expenditures, the public significantly underestimates how much their states pay public school teachers. On average, Education Next/PEPG survey respondents underestimated average teacher salaries in their state by more than $14,000, nearly one-third of the actual average salaries of $47,000. When asked directly, 69 percent of the public supported increasing teacher salaries. African Americans and teachers appeared most enthusiastic about increasing teacher salaries, with roughly 9 out of 10 endorsing the idea. When provided with the facts, support among the general public decreased by 14 percent.

Even more interesting: teachers responded similarly to the correct information.

[Hat tip to Eric Lawrence.]

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Little Consensus on Higher Ed Problems and Solutions

Public Agenda[1] has a new report that “summarizes the ‘state of the debate’ about college costs and prices among different higher education stakeholders,” drawing on interviews with state higher education officials, college presidents, college and university presidents and chief financial officers, faculty members, and members of the general public. It’s a small-scale study – so small-scale, in fact, that they don’t even provide quantitative summaries of the responses. Even so, the responses, as summarized below, are intriguing. They indicate, first, that the various groups of “stakeholders” (can we all agree to banish that word from the language?) disagree fundamentally about what “the problem” really is. And from that it follows that they also disagree fundamentally about what “the solution” may be. Note in particular that faculty members are way out there by themselves in terms of their understanding of both problem and solutions.

State higher education officials
Understanding of the problem

  • See higher education institutions as not producing enough graduates.
    Possible solutions
  • Productivity—asking hard questions about things such as class size.
  • Focus on retention—easier to keep students than to get them.
  • Incentives—incentivize schools for students completing programs, not for enrolling in programs.
  • Technology—expand online education.
  • Dual enrollment—students take college classes in high school.

College and university presidents
Understanding of the problem

  • See institutions as caught between declining state revenues and rising expenses. Result: either higher prices, decreased availability or lower quality.
    Possible solutions
  • Productivity—colleges have already done most of what can be done; only marginal efficiency gains possible.
  • Redefine education as public good—deserves massive increase in funding, e.g., portion of stimulus package.

Higher education CFOs
Understanding of the problem

  • See institutions caught between declining state revenues and rising expenses.
    Possible solutions
  • Productivity can be increased.
  • Willingness to explore alternatives such as larger classes, distance education; new ideas should all be on the table.

Understanding of the problem

  • Seldom focus initially on declining revenues and increasing costs, or sometimes blame increasing costs on higher administrative costs.
  • Major problem: quality.
  • Declining quality of incoming students.
  • Remediation dilutes quality.

*Too many students going to college (nottoo few), drags down quality for good students.

*Administrative pressure to retain students, leads to lowering standard.
Possible solutions

*Skeptical of many solutions proposed above, fearing they will decrease quality. Concerns include:

*College classes in high school aren’t equivalent to collegiate courses.

*Distance education; good only for most motivated; requires more work from faculty.

*Rewarding completion: more graduates does not mean more educated citizens.

*Business models inappropriate.

*Productivity means asking faculty to do more with less.

*Raise standards; produce better-educated individuals—more important to produce fewer better-educated graduates, even if it means fewer people will have degrees.

Understanding of the problem

*Students and individuals are caught between growing sense that a college education is absolutely necessary for success and growing fear that increasing college tuitions/fees make college out of reach.
Possible solutions

  • Protect access to higher education. High support for measures that protect access. Growing sense that colleges are inefficient and can educate more students without necessarily needing more money.

fn1. From the Public Agenda website:”For over 30 years, Public Agenda has been providing unbiased and unparalleled research that bridges the gap between American leaders and what the public really thinks about issues ranging from education to foreign policy to immigration to religion and civility in American life. Nonpartisan and nonprofit, Public Agenda was founded by social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in 1975. Public Agenda’s two-fold mission is to help American leaders better understand the public’s point of view and citizens know more about critical policy issues so they can make thoughtful, informed decisions.

[Hat tip to Inside HigherEd]

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