Saturday, January 26, 2013

Not Getting What You Paid For. From

Everyone knows there's a reason the most expensive colleges in the country -- generally private residential institutions -- charge so much. The money they spend on hiring the best faculty members (full-timers of course) and on keeping student-faculty ratios low results in a higher-quality education. Right?

The crowd gathered here for a standing-room-only session at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities certainly wanted to believe. From a show of hands at the start of the session, the vast majority of attendees were
administrators at those institutions. And the researchers who presented new data on the economics of liberal arts education threw cold water all over that conventional wisdom.

Research presented here by researchers from Wabash College -- and based on national data sets -- finds that there may be a minimal relationship between what colleges spend on education and the quality of the education students receive.



  1. Of course not: the biggest influence on student outcomes is the quality of students coming in, and money won't affect that. I have given hours and hours of individual tutoring to students that just have no clue and no idea how to get a clue. One could give half my students their own permanent tutors and they would learn almost nothing.

  2. Look, we all know the mini-construction booms going on at the colleges with money are just pity projects to keep local construction outfits going. This is why they are taking their frakkin' time building or rebuilding Whoopty Hall.

  3. I was thinking along the same lines as Doctor BPD. As a graduate of a couple of very selective (and very expensive, at least if you go by sticker price, which very few students/families pay these days) private schools, I'm willing to admit that they may not provide a lot of added value, or at least not value added by professors' efforts. Those places are playgrounds for very smart, very well-prepared (and, often, very privileged) students who don't require all that much teaching. Put 'em in big lecture classes for the first few years, let them be taught by (also very smart) grad students, don't bother to advise them much -- it doesn't really matter, most of them will come out just fine, because they've already learned how to learn, and have access to an incredible array of resources (and decent, though perhaps not particularly carefully-crafted, class materials and activities), and to a considerable extent will teach themselves.

    At the other end of the spectrum are the extremely expensive, not at all selective places that hold the hands of equally or more privileged, but not very smart, or very disciplined, or otherwise not-up-to-the-task (and/or fish-out-of-water) students who mommy and daddy desperately want to have a college degree (or at least hang out somewhere other than the house for four years). These are the students who would immediately wash out in a big public university, and probably in most community colleges as well, but may somehow make it through a teaching-oriented college with enough hand-holding (and enough relaxation of standards).

    And somewhere in the middle are the state (nominally) funded schools, and some semi-selective not-too-expensive privates (e.g. some of the Catholic schools) that do as much as they can with limited resources, and succeed quite well with students with the same level of drive and self-discipline (if not, perhaps, quite the level of intellectual orientation or preparation) as those at the most selective privates, and considerably less well with the less-privileged counterparts of the slackers (or young people who really shouldn't be in college at all, but instead developing other talents) described above. The more such schools can select at least for "soft" qualities such as initiative and self-discipline, and preferably to some degree for preparation and intellectual ability as well, the better they're going to succeed, because the students, like those at the Ivies, will to some degree teach themselves (or at least have the smarts to know when they need help, and the initiative to seek it out).

    There's also the fact that many faculty (including adjuncts and others who are underpaid) do see teaching as a calling, and are willing to essentially volunteer time and effort above and beyond that for which they're paid. That's all very well, but it becomes less and less feasible as families are increasingly dependent on two real incomes (not one real income and one "spousal" -- i.e. wife's -- one). It's also going to stop working when the armies of younger adjuncts realize that their jobs are not stepping-stones to better-paid "real" ones.

    Finally, they don't seem to have taken into account the question of whether higher-paid faculty are doing more research than lower-paid faculty, though I suspect that's the case. That can cut both ways: research can feed teaching, or it can lead faculty to neglect (or at least spend less time on) teaching. What effect that has on students depends on the students, and also on whether the faculty who do most of the teaching are the same faculty who are doing the research. Part of the problem here is treating the "faculty" at a particular institution as a homogeneous entity, when in most places the faculty as a body is extremely stratified.

    1. Actually, that's a study I'd like to see: which institutions succeed best, those where most faculty are in (or in a position to be gradually promoted to) similar positions, or those where the largest class divisions (TT/non-TT, full/part-time, research-focused vs. service/teaching-focused vs. teaching-only) exist? I'm betting that the we're-all-in-the-same-boat-together (even if the top is running alarmingly close to the water line) places function better. Or at least the egalitarian optimist in me hopes so.

      And of course I'd also like to see a study of whether spending on administrators correlates in any way with positive outcomes (good teaching/learning as measured above, retention, fewer arrest/suicides, whatever).

    2. @Cassandra: I like what you're thinking, but how are you going to overcome the between/within subjects issue? Especially in light of the complexity of the issue? Very chicken-and-egg. Even if you could clone students and get it all past the IRB, your results would suck (meaning, your results would be criticized by nonfucktards).

      I'd like to see whether (or to what extent) "learning" or "quality of education" is correlated with the amount of money spent on the admissions office (adjusted for cost of living, etc.).

      And now I am going to get so fucking drunk for the rest of the day, that Strel is going to roll his eyes (more than once). Bourbon, here I come.

  4. There was recently a study that shows that the person you become in high school -- the internalizing emotions, the values, the challenges, and the reactions -- define more or less who you are as an adult.


    My theory is that high school education is a much bigger deal than they let on. Most high school teachers have only education degrees and measure success through numbers rather than skills. And those students go on to be abject failures in college, regardless of the quality of teaching going on or the price of tuition.

    We should make a bigger deal out of high school ed than we currently do.

    1. Depends on the school. My high school was very big on college prep, and as such, the work I did in college was graded about as harshly as the work I did in high school (except for when I took courses as a visiting student at the local state school and community college, in which everything was graded super easily), and I never felt cheated by the grades I got; they were always what I deserved, good or bad. On the flip side, being in that intense of a high school ended with me having a bunch of emotional and mental issues that, while less intense, I still struggle with today.

  5. Ugh. Smells like another attempt to justify cramming more students into lecture halls and hiring more adjuncts, as my school has done this year while jacking up tuition eight percent. Professors don't cost that much, so I don't know why we're always trying to hire fewer of them. Why aren't we measuring the effect that building the new athletics center or dorm complex has on educational outcomes? Does having a dishwasher and microwave in your dorm room really justify the uptick in tuition? Does a higher availability of elliptical machines help students learn better? Is a higher paid "student life" administration making a big difference in how students fare after graduation? Why aren't we studying these things instead? In other words, why does it always come down to cutting those professors' cushy salaries?

    I think anyone who's taught a big class vs. a small class understands painfully well that class size matters. With 20 students, I can get class discussions going and make real headway with my students' writing skills. At 40 students, the participation drops. At more than 50 students, forget it. I'm teaching to a select group of kids in the front two rows, and a good chunk are sliding by without doing the reading. Lots more stop coming to class and flunk the midterm. But maybe this study is only measuring the outcomes of the kids who actually complete and pass their classes--for whom, yeah, the outcomes are probably the same as those for private school students.

    But I'm not entirely convinced that size is so irrelevant ... though this conclusion is based entirely on my own personal experience. I attended both a city college and SLAC for my undergrad, and state schools for my grad degrees ... and hands down, the SLAC provided a better education. It just did. No comparison. As others have said, this might have to do with the nature of the SLAC student, whose values and study skills are already formed before he sets foot on campus. But ... I don't know. My small classes facilitated much more rigorous discussions and demanding writing assignments than I've seen at the big state school. I was required to read more--lots more--and small class sizes meant that I actually had to do it. And the fact that most of my profs were tenured cut down on grade inflation, so there wasn't really any "sliding by."

    Having said that, I don't think any education, no matter how personal and tailored, is ever worth $200 thousand. That's just ridiculous. If you can't get a big scholarship to attend an expensive school, then don't go.

    1. "But I'm not entirely convinced that size is so irrelevant ..." Indeed, la taille compte.

  6. Once again, a half- baked theory and an uncontrolled statistical analysis of inadequate observations are in perfect agreement. Unsurprisingly too, the only people who take it seriously are university administrators.

  7. Well. I agree with Cassandra and Gone Grad both. I think there are wonderful little SLACs out there that are not super-fancy; I think that R2s and community colleges often do a superb job with students. But wherever you get a big increase in size (and that includes packed lecture halls at places like Yale, with TAs doing the real work of teaching), I think the quality of education diminishes. And what you get at places with lots of tenure-track and tenured faculty goes beyond "education" (what precisely IS that?), influencing things like career choice, placement in graduate programs, connections, and mentorship. Those latter things may be worth paying more for. In fact, I am willing to bet that the price of the ticket to the really fancy places is relative to the power-base of the alumni. My brother went to an Ivy and knows people occupying positions of power that I didn't even know exist. Me, I went to a granola SLAC and know a lot of people in the non-profits, academe, and the arts.


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