26.4.05

PUTTING ALL THE PIECES TOGETHER. There's a spirited bull session going on at Joanne Jacobs's place parsing a lengthy New York Times article on developments at the University of Arizona. Long-time readers will recall that Arizona took some stick on these pages for letting Nobelist Vernon Smith get away to George Mason. Perhaps that should have been a harbinger ... economics departments elsewhere also get treated like the broom closet. A followup to that Nobel post noted some ideas being considered at Arizona that have not yet been put into practice. Herewith some excerpts from the Times, with observations.

First, some context.
Also like most of the country's colleges and universities, it is not particularly selective. Arizona admits 83 percent of its applicants, although most graduated in the top half of their high school class. They sit in numbing lecture halls with 500 classmates; the only instructor they may know is a teaching assistant, and they are, for all intents and purposes, anonymous.

This is not exactly the popular image of ivy-covered higher education, but it's the truth of it. Most students do not go to an Amherst or a Williams. They go to enormous public institutions like the Universities of Arizona, Iowa, Connecticut, Minnesota: more than five million undergraduates attend an institution with at least 15,000 students. The freshman class alone exceeds the population of a small town, and the course catalog is the size of a phone book. Mike Morefield, a junior at Arizona, remembers his first year: "It's like somebody comes along with a pin right after high school, pops your bubble, picks you up, throws you naked into some college, and you've got to figure it out."
That's not all bad. All the baggage somebody brings from high school, with its cliques and its pecking order, gone. Four to six years in college is insufficient time for the status structures that emerged in kindergarten to harden. But it is not the size of the university that is the problem, it is the attrition rate. Validation in The Newspaper Of Record, forsooth!
Arizona is typical. The State University of New York at Buffalo and the University of Kentucky lost 22 percent of their freshmen last year. Three of the four University of Massachusetts campuses lost at least 24 percent. Eastern Michigan University lost 28 percent. And six years after entering Arizona, only 55 percent of freshmen will have earned degrees - slightly better than the national average of 54 percent.

Those numbers have roiled state and federal officials from President Bush on down. In a recent survey, education policy makers in 27 states said that financial support for higher education should be tied in some way to a university's ability to keep and graduate its freshmen.
First the idealism.
Educators subscribe to the idea that students need a sense of belonging and commitment. To nurture it, campuses try to create pockets of intimacy - say, residences for students of similar interests, like women in science and engineering. Arizona also provides special orientation and counseling for Hispanic and American Indian students. And the university's new Integrated Learning Center, built underground at the heart of the campus, is promoted as a "home base" for freshmen and sophomores. Open 24 hours, it offers academic advising, access to tutors and computers and 14 classrooms, from auditoriums to seminar rooms, where faculty are supported with multimedia technology.

"WE put vastly more money into advising today," says Peter H. Likins, the university's president. "With the Integrated Learning Center, we've made a massive commitment in terms of physical facilities and the advising that goes with it." But, he adds, "it is a more Darwinian environment, a public university of this character." Of foundering students, he says: "We always have the feeling that if we had the resources to recognize them as they fall through, to pick them up, in the way that a liberal arts college does, we could keep them from falling. But we don't have those resources."
Next, the reality.
Even though a university opens the door, it can't make an adolescent walk through it. However lost they may be, college students may never seek out an adviser. Intimidated, shy or alienated, they don't drop in during faculty office hours. Parents out of sight, they struggle with their newfound independence, starting with the freedom not to wake up before midday or to eat pizza any hour of the night - and again for breakfast - or to put off reading assignments until cram time at finals.

The latest results from the National Survey of Student Engagement - of 160,000 freshmen and seniors from 470 institutions - show that one-fifth of undergraduates are "disengaged." To the survey's director, George D. Kuh, that means they do not take part in campus cultural events, do not sample the wide choice of available courses or put much energy into their studies. Nor, he says, do they have to.
Some time ago, the Northern Illinois University Office of Faculty Development (that title and their programming are material for another day's rant) brought in a speaker to address "Motivating the Unmotivated Student." One would think that the opportunity to land a much more remunerative and often much more rewarding job, not to mention the opportunity to play with ideas (including the ones some would denounce as political correctness run amok) without suffering irreversible consequences as motivation enough. What, then, to keep the unmotivated from poisoning the experience for everybody? Certainly not the Nash Equilibrium the Times reporter uncovers.
Richard H. Hersh, former president of Trinity College and Hobart and William Smith Colleges, refers to this situation as a "mutual nonaggression pact." Professors see teaching as a requirement they have to fulfill to do the research they prefer, he says, "so the professor goes into class and doesn't ask much of students, who in return don't ask much of the professor. The professor gives out reasonably high grades as a way of camouflaging that this bargain has been struck, his evaluations will be satisfactory, and students don't complain about grades or about whether they've learned much."
Advantage, Cold Spring Shops!
In the view of Dr. Hersh, a proponent of accountability in higher education, students have to be held responsible for their own initiative, but low standards allow them to coast through their college years with minimal involvement. "That's the real disgrace," he says.
Perhaps it is time to change the incentives. Hispanic Pundit points to a game-theoretic analysis, with some hypothesis testing (as .pdf) of tuition subsidies. Lower tuitions encourage more enrollment, by both high-ability and low-ability students.
This follows from the fact that a high-subsidy, low-tuition policy causes an increase in the percentage of less able and less highly motivated college graduates. Additionally—and potentially more important—all students, even the more highly motivated ones, respond to lower tuition levels by decreasing their effort levels. This study adds to the literature on the enrollment effects of low-tuition policies by demonstrating how high-subsidy, low-tuition policies have both disincentive effects on students’ study time and adverse effects on human capital accumulation.
That means tuition subsidies elicit less effort, from both low- and high-ability students. The paper does not offer an estimate of the welfare losses from the subsidies (the additional human capital acquired by low ability students might offset the shirking by high ability students, it's a non-trivial question) although it suggests that the access fiction has costs.

Back to the Times article, which follows five current or former students. Ms. Jacobs suggests that "Boozeday" will get the most attention. I suggest that readers first visit Villainous Company's tribute to the young men and women who earn the right to be called Marine. Then consider Boozeday Boy, who has since graduated.
About the purpose of college, he says: "You go so you can get a job and make money when you're older. But at the same time you get life experiences that are priceless, like networking." He expects that to pay off: "I've made so many connections I never would have been able to make without it, and these are all my friends and people that I know from the bars and from classes and, you know, people that I've hung out with that later in life I'm going to be able to call on and be like: 'I know you have a job with this company. Do you know if they're hiring, or can you get me an application? Can I use you as a reference?' "
Dude, like, is there a fry-cook job open? Life after college is the revenge of the nerds. Arizona officials offer only hand-wringing.
Is it really possible to get through a major university with so little effort? "As much as I would like to say, 'Absolutely not!,' yes, it is possible," says Melissa Vito, dean of students at Arizona. "We have a lot of students whose motivation for coming here is to get a good job. They think, 'How do I get the grades?' instead of trying to learn."
Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it. For years, youngsters have heard the message, "To get a good job, get a good education." Does it come as any surprise if that message registers with some people?

A junior college transfer gets mugged by reality.
Ms. Martinez had wanted to attend the university since she was in kindergarten. "It was instilled in me early, the U is prestigious; it's the place where I need to be," she says. But in her senior year of high school, with the distraction of the student council and cheerleading, she took "a less stressful schedule," she says, and wound up lacking some admission requirements. Students in the top half of their class are automatically admitted to the university if they have taken three years of math, three years of science and two years of a foreign language. To earn a high school diploma, they need only two years of math, two years of science and no foreign language. Her less stressful schedule had kept her out of the university, so she went to Pima Community College with her high school friends.
Arizona seems to be learning a lesson here.
Beginning next fall, the university will be more selective, limiting automatic acceptance to the top 25 percent of a high school class. The hope is to increase graduation rates by, Mr. Likins says, "admitting into our freshman class students who may have a better prospect of success."
Is that the first crack in the "access" myth? The student seems to be learning as well.
"I had to be my own drill sergeant, because nobody else was going to discipline me. No report card to Mom, and nobody to check on whether I went to class."
That, perversely, is true of the next case, an Arizona dropout with hopes of owning his own bar someday. He left Arizona for the junior college, displeased with the anonymity of freshman year.
Mr. Likins, the president, calls the large lecture class "an unfortunate economic necessity" at a time when the state Legislature has cut funds by more than $50 million over the past several years. The student-teacher ratio at Arizona is high - 19.4 to 1 - but not unusual. It's 18 to 1 at Penn State, 17.3 to 1 at the University of Kansas and 22 to 1 at Texas A&M. By contrast, Amherst has one professor for every nine students. Economic realities dictate that universities rely on T.A.'s to reduce instructional costs and to allow professors to concentrate on their research. Arizona requires T.A.'s to attend weekly training seminars in their first semester of teaching, and Mr. Likins says he encourages senior faculty to teach the general education lecture courses that undergraduates are required to take.
Oh, come. The current budget woes are simply the latest rationale for the lecturer-and-quiz-section approach to college, which was a source of discontent for World War II vets on the G.I. bill and Baby Boomers on draft deferments. I think the buzzwords in those days were "anomie" and "alienation." The implicit slighting of real research is annoying. Do we really want lecturers or section leaders or facilitators or what have you working off of somebody else's thinking, without adding anything to it? There are ways, dear readers, of bringing the latest developments from your legal pad, or your colleague's experiment, without distorting the course content into your research and your research alone.

The reporter spends some time with a basketball player on an excursion into unreality.
Among athletes' privileges is an academic adviser to see that they stay on track to graduate (and eligible to compete). An assistant head basketball coach, Jim Rosborough, drives around campus in a golf cart monitoring class attendance. One professor says he is asked twice a semester for updates on the academic performance and attendance of athletes in his class.
Deja vu. Mr Rosborough is a protege of Arizona's Lute Olson; he was dismissed as head men's basketball coach at Northern Illinois in the late 1980s. The five- and ten-week updates are a part of teaching general education courses here as well.
An assistant coach and the adviser helped Mr. Frye select classes. They told him which professors to avoid. "To be honest," he says, "I think it's better both for the athlete and for the professor, if the professor doesn't want to adjust the rules or, you know, be a little more lenient toward the athlete and his schedule." During the season, players may miss classes and tests two or three days a week because of road trips.
But this is all amateur athletics. It has nothing to do with money. Those Tuesday and Wednesday night football games in the mid-majors don't, either. On the other hand, this retention officer, who has clearly bought into the "access" fiction, descends from simple spinning into the sublimely ridiculous.
Lynne M. Tronsdal, the university's assistant vice president for student retention, wishes regular students could enjoy the hand-holding extended to athletes. "If we could do for the non student-athlete what we do for the student athlete, we would have a retention rate that is incredible," she says. Asked to describe the athlete's path, Ms. Tronsdal smiles. "They are wooed, from the time they can shoot a basket or play with a ball, whatever it is they do," she says. "They're told, 'You're valuable; we want you to come.' Once they're here, they have academic advisers who work with them on a one-to-one basis, looking at their schedules, arranging tutoring, making sure their classes don't conflict with practice. And if they have an athlete who can't write very well, they have a writing tutor come in to help. They work with professors on the athlete's grades, and if the grade isn't good enough, they'll help petition the grade. They help with deadlines, give career advice, even teach them how to speak with the media."
Let's start with the spin. I recall a rather grim John Hersey novel, The Child Buyer, about just such wooing of an academically talented boy. That book might bear re-reading, with the current channeling of ever-younger children into one and only one sport kept in mind. Then, let's look at that incredible retention rate.

Arizona's record with student athletes, despite the hand-holding, is not good. Since 1995, only two basketball players on scholarship have graduated; nine have left early to play in the N.B.A. The most recent is Andre Iguodala, who dropped out at season's end last year and signed for $9 million with the Philadelphia 76ers. The Arizona team's overall graduation rate is 25 percent; only 14 colleges in the 65-team N.C.A.A. basketball tournament this year had a worse record.

"I've often thought what we need to have are athletes who play for a municipality," Ms. Tronsdal says. "Call them the Tucson Wildcats and let them get paid. And then we can all just stop fooling ourselves."

Look in the mirror, ma'am. Evaluate your own recruitment initiatives in the same way.

The article ends on an encouraging note. One student discovers that distribution requirements are there for a reason.
She appreciates the university's general-education requirement, she says, although "everyone complains about it." It is important for two reasons: "Students who may have found what they want to do are forced to get a deeper understanding, so they get more context to explain things to others. And students who don't know what they want to do can experiment and study lots of subjects."
Precisely. Sometimes it's in the playing with ideas without adverse consequences that the real learning takes place. How many times have I subjected readers to another riff on miserable adults doing what others thought was the right thing, rather than discovering their own talents.

One lecturer discovers that "teaching" is not equivalent to "staying on schedule."

Tom Fleming, a senior lecturer in astronomy on a yearly appointment with the university, is another professor who sees value in trying to shake up the reluctant underclassmen in a required course. "I can't sit here and rant and rave and complain that, 'Oh, our standards are low and the students don't learn in high school what they used to.' The fact of the matter is I have 135 students here now, and I can't go back and change history as to what sort of high school education they received. If I publish a paper in the Astrophysical Journal and 12 people in the entire world read it from cover to cover, that's a high readership. On the other hand, every semester I can affect the lives of 100 to 150 people, and it's much more gratifying."

In Mr. Fleming's classes, there is no hiding in the back. He is just as likely to call on those in the last row as in the front as he moves about the auditorium. If students are reading The Daily Wildcat, sleeping or text-messaging on their cellphones, "I ask them to leave the room," he says. In his lectures, he poses problems that students answer with hand-held transponders supplied by the university: if students understand the concept, he moves on; if not, they discuss it in small groups and then revisit the problem. Understanding is the goal, he says, not "coverage" of a topic.

Where can I get some of those transponders? Or David Friedman's foot pedal? (That's his solution to the blank looks and the non-response to "any questions?" Anyone who is confused can depress the pedal and a light comes on in the back of the room, but nobody has to fear being singled out.) But it is not correct to suggest that involved teaching does not preclude publishing in Astrophysical Journal; Mr Fleming might consider investing the research time he does budget that way, so as to be able to do teaching and scholarship well. What he must resist, alas, is getting involved in the curriculum committee. That way lies madness.

Read the whole article. It covers, in microcosm, the themes that have structured much of the posting here over the past 2.5 years.

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