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.

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