Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Heretical Thought about Education

Circulating in my brain is the notion that the astronomical graduation rates achieved by elite universities (99+%, even among NAMS) are only partly a function of their extraordinarily high admission standards and the supportiveness of their educational environment.  The balance of that achievement is brought about by grade inflation:  classes at elite universities aren’t as academically demanding as comparable classes at your local community college.  Arguing in favor of this is the empirically observed phenomenon that, controlling for academic portfolio, students who begin their academic careers at the community college are less likely to obtain a four-year degree than those who proceed directly to the elite institution.

However, this conclusion appears inconsistent with the observation – also empirically demonstrated – that affirmative action admits have lower academic performance, lower graduation rates, and worse post-graduation prospects than those that enroll in institutions with students whose academic portfolios more closely match their own.  If the first conclusion were true, then NAMs ought to benefit from the lower academic standards of the elite university, even if the Jewish students surrounding them are significantly brighter.  Alternatively, the extent to which they don’t benefit seems to argue that, in fact, the elite students really are working hard for their degrees.

How can we reconcile these seemingly contradictory conclusions?

Possibility #1:  The classroom standards are lowered for NAMs at elite institutions, just like the admission standards.  I would think this difficult to pull off university-wide.

Possibility #2:  NAMs only take courses of study (e.g. education) with lower standards.  This is almost certainly true, but it’s true everywhere as far as I know.

Possibility #3:  The data concerning lower outcomes for AA admits is drawn from a much deeper pool of universities than just the elite.  I imagine that if you are Harvard, you can lower your standards for NAMs and still enroll sufficiently bright students to excel in even rigorous classes.  Affirmative action only becomes problematic for NAMs at schools like Georgia Tech, who have to dig deep into the IQ distribution for their AA admits.  But then, the community college data is drawn deeply as well.

Possibility #4:  There are negative yet unmeasured background factors among students who self-select to attend community college even though they qualified for four-year colleges that  hinder their prospects for success.  In contrast, the NAMs who self-select to forego AA have neutral or positive yet unmeasured background factors that improve their prospects for success.  This seems to be the only model that actually explains the apparent inconsistency, yet it also is the least generalized.

Your thoughts?


Professor Hale said...

You have neglected the economic component.

Those who attend elite universities have the money (parents or student aid for NAMs) to complete the course of study. Many in community college are pay-as-you-go students who drop out when the cost of using their own money exceeds their ability to continue paying.

trumwill said...

Hale sort of beat me to the punch, though I was going to approach it from a different place. Community College is full of kids that are working and going to college at the same time. Howevermuch easier CC classes may be, going to school and working at the same time can be really hard to pull off. The first priority is that which pays the bills and it's easier to convince yourself to drop out when you're already making money. Those going to elite universities are far more likely to be able to devote their energies towards their studies.

Φ said...

Prof Hale: Your hypothesis that the differentials can be explained by SES and/or employment status is certainly plausible, but that's not the same thing as actually measuring its effect.

SES is a pretty standard thing to control for. While the original reporting didn't specifically say that SES was controlled, it didn't offer it as an explanation for the differentials either.

Dan Kurt said...

re: "Circulating in my brain is the notion that the astronomical graduation rates achieved by elite universities (99+%, even among NAMS) are only partly a function of their extraordinarily high admission standards and the supportiveness of their educational environment. "

You obviously have not been a student at an IVY ( this is not a put down ). I spent eight years at one and one year ( post Doc ) at a large state University.

Generally, once in an Ivy it was hard to fail out except in the hard sciences, medicine, dentistry, math and other difficult fields. On the undergraduate level the drop-outs I recall were related to dope use not lack of brains. Looking back I don't remember any dumb students as the relatively dull were still bright. The one black that I met there who I got to know as he was staying for the summer at a facility I also was living in was being primed by tutors to attend the Business school for a MBA the next school year. He was a nice guy with no obvious chip on his shoulder but clearly working hard to make his time there a success as he was studying most of the time unlike most of my fellow students. He was not paying his own way.

I met him on campus a year or two later and found out that he was doing all right in his MBA studies.

My one year at the State University showed me students who were only occasionally as bright as the usual Ivy student.

My guess is that the high graduation rate reflects that the High Ranking Universities have almost all really bright students and that they can get bright blacks ( adequately bright, that is ) to fill out their less rigorous fields so as to graduate such a high percentage. I can not address the difficulty of the soft courses except by rumor ( easy ) but the Ivys did not play games in the hard sciences, medicine, dentistry, math and other tough fields.

Dan Kurt