Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Academic "GiGo" Principle

By Richard Vedder

More than two score years ago, when Bill Gates was scarcely out of diapers and Harry Potter's literary mother had not even been conceived, there was a favorite expression around newly created academic computer centers: Garbage In, Garbage Out, or GiGo for short. Even computers cannot do much with bad data.

The academic GiGo principle is that if universities take in marginally qualified students to begin with, they are likely to turn out something undesirable (perhaps not garbage, but not an educated human being).

I have been reminded of the academic GiGo principle recently by the visit to the outposts of the vast CCAP empire by Dr. Harry Stilles, a remarkable transplanted southerner (living in South Carolina) and good friend. Harry spent a career as a college professor, coach, inventor, and businessman until he lost his mind and became a politician, serving with distinction for a dozen years in the South Carolina legislature. Showing typical independence of mind, Harry served as both a Democrat and Republican.

In the legislature, Harry became increasingly alarmed at the waste and inefficiency of universities, but especially their tendency to take unqualified students -- kids without important college prep courses, or with terrible test scores. Unlike most politicians who just babbled about the problem, Harry went out and gathered evidence, not only for South Carolina but for the nation. He uses all sorts of data, but has some of the best evidence on institutional admission practices of anyone in America. CCAP will be working with Harry to publicize these findings, and, even more important, find out why they have happened and their consequences. Stayed tuned.

Already my young student colleagues, hereafter the Whiz Kids (Jonathan Leirer, James Woodward,and Matt Denhart, with an occasional assist from Kenyon College's Jacob Miller), have found some remarkable evidence regarding the determinants of college dropouts (or the reverse, graduation rates). The Whiz Kids are learning, for example, that private schools have a better graduation rate than public schools even after controlling for entering SAT or ACT scores, college selectivity, etc. Those who dig into their own pockets to pay for their education do better than those who get grants from others. And so on. Be patient, but soon you will learn more on this vitally important matter -- the fact that roughly half of the kids entering four year schools do not graduate within six years, arguably our largest academic scandal.

Speaking of staying tuned, remember Sunday night's Fox News Special at 10:00 p.m. on the collegiate financial crisis. My buddy and soul mate Bryan O'Keefe is driving from the Decadent East (D.C.) to join me in my Appalachian ivory tower (Ohio University) to watch it, and I hope you do to -- it will be provocative, I promise.


CatoRenasci said...

There is a fundamental conflict between our society's almost metaphysical assumption that "everyone" ought to be able to go to college and the fact that vast numbers of young people have not done the work necessary - questions of capacity aside - to be adequately prepared for the level of work required in serious subjects in a serious university.

It's not just the equality of result types that have the problem. Even for classical liberals and conservatives here, there is a strong meritocratic strain in our culture: our view that the talented person can rise from the humblest of circumstances to the highest is deeply ingrained by now, from Napoleon's famous comment that every French solidier had a marshall's baton in his knapsack to the Lincoln 'log cabin to White House' hagiography and Horatio Alger stories. And, much of our belief in social mobility (which I think has been more or less true) is centered around the importance of obtaining an education.

Whether because one believes a traditional liberal education is a good thing in itself, because one believes those who go to college make more money and are more successful in life, or some combination of the two notions, then the vast majority of Americans like the notion that everyone ought to have the opportunity to obtain a college education.

Whether or not it was the intention of the adoption of standardized testing, one of its primary effects was to make college admissions more meritocratic and less a matter of social class and connections (though they have contined to play a role). That combined with the return of mature and serious men from WWII with GI Bill ability to pay probably raised the general level of work at colleges and universities in the late 1940s into the early 1950s.

The other way the meritocratic model develped was in states like California, where a three tier system developed: junior (now 'community') colleges which admitted anyone to both academic and trade courses, state colleges with more rigorous standards that concentrated on teacher training, business, and similar more 'practical' courses of instruction, and the state university (i.e. the University of California system) which took only the best students (top 12-1/2% of high school graduates under the 1960 Master Plan fof Higher Education). The system gave everyone a chance, because those who were not prepared for state college or university work were directed to the junior colleges where thy could correct any actual deficiencies in preparation (get that algebra course) and demonstrate in lower division academic courses the ability to do university level work. After completeing the junior college course, successful students could transfer to a state college or the university as appropriate.

This system also kept costs down because the junior colleges were in every major community, and mostly non-residential, so students could live at home. Also, because only the successful ended up transferring to the colleges and universities, those institutions could have higher graduation rates: they had few students who lacked the necessary ability or preparation because they had already been weeded out.

Today, there is far more pressure on students to go directly to a four year college and something of a stigma to going to community colleges - which still provide low cost opportunities for those who lack preparation or money.

Ken D. said...

I think issues of acceptance tend to get confounded with issues of funding. One solution might be to decouple college admission from actual class enrollment. For example, a student could be "accepted" into prestigious State U. based on promise, with the understanding that certain proficiencies would have to be mastered before actual study on campus would begin. (I believe this is what Helen Keller did at Harvard.) Thus the student could have the emotional benefits of being accepted, and yet not become a fiscal burden on the U. system until she or he were ready to function at a certain academic level. This might also lessen the emotional stigma, (undeserved by the way), which catorenasci mentions re community college attendance, as community college would be a natural venue for these aspiring State U. students to prepare for the next level.

CatoRenasci said...

ken d:

I'm not quite sure why we should be so solicitous of the little darlings' egos that would should give conditional admits to Prestigous (Public or Private) U when there are far more fully qualified candidates for admission than dear old Presitgous can handle.

However, back in the early 1970s, I was involved in affirmative action debates in the academic senate at the University of California, and that is what some of proposed as a way to provide affirmative action without lowering acadmeic standards.

We lost out to what has become just the tip of the declining standards/grade inflation iceberg.

The idea, which I still think was sound as far as it goes, was to identify the disadvantaged (is that the currently politically correct term? we just said black and chicano in those days) students with talent who lacked preparation (and perhaps finances) to succeed at the University of California - where the early black affirmative action admittees were not doing very well, even with tutoring.

Talent was to be identified using standardized IQ testing (horrors!) - as opposed to achievement tests. Those identified with the talent but not the preparation would be subsidized (if necessary) at the better junior colleges while they made up their deficiences, got remedial help, and did at least a year's worth of UC level course work.

In those days in California, the better junior colleges had courses that were designated as "UC Transferable" or something similar, where the classes were taught using the same books and standards as the same courses at the nearest UC campus - a grade of B or better was guaranteed to be transferable to UC for full credit -- the same courses at a state college would usually not be taught to UC standards and might well not be transferable from the state college to the University of California. Thus, with UC transferable courses, you had a ready way of determining when someone was ready (if ever) to transfer to the University of California. And, once at the Big U, the person could be treated exactly the same as any other student because were ready to do the work.

I still think that would have been a better way if you want to do affirmative action. It would certainly have generated less resentment, because you would not be giving a place to a manifestly unqualified person. Seems to me the biggest resentments of affirmative action come from two sources: 1) those who did not get in when someone with lower qualification did; and 2) (and more importantly in my view) when students at Prestigous U sit in a class and see minority students who are just not as capable as the rest of their mainstream classmates, but are somehow carried along and not flunked out.

The larger problem is the class problem (which is where the stigma comes in): to be middle class today, one needs a college degree. Not necessarily the knowledge and polish that a "college education" once meant, but the degree. So, everyone want to go, or at least wants their children to go to college.

That was OK for a while, but soon it became clear that there are colleges and there are colleges. East Pottowatomie State Teachers Normal Community College does not have the same cachet as Princeton or Williams. The kids (and parents) who were happy enough to get into gold old Pottowatomie a generation ago now have their sights set on Prestigous Private U. So, you have vastly more students competing for roughly the same number of places at Prestigous and Almost-As-Prestigous beating on them to lower standards.

What to do, what to do.

superhiker said...

"The Whiz Kids are learning, for example, that private schools have a better graduation rate than public schools even after controlling for entering SAT or ACT scores, college selectivity, etc."

And what conclusion(s)to be drawn from that? That private schools are better? That they have lower standards? That they spend more on average per student than public schools? All of the above? None of the above?

superhiker said...

It occurs to me: the title of this piece says it all when it comes to why Vedder is going to have so much trouble selling his program.

"Garbage"! It may be garbage to you, buddy, but to someone else, it's their kid whom they've raised and loved and want to bring along into the big world with prospects better than pumping gas or flipping burgers. Their not so brilliant, pretty average, somewhat confused kid with uncertain prospects. Like the vast majority of kids, those whose chances of graduating may only be 50% (or less).

College may or may not be the best thing for that kid, but calling him or her "garbage" is not going to get anyone's sympathetic attention.