Sunday, January 21, 2018
How do you keep spirits up while cutting budgets?
I’d love to see a conference on that, but the people most affected by it couldn’t attend, because their travel budgets have already been cut. So I’ll resort to the interwebs instead.
Population decline is a common problem in the Northeast and Midwest. The Washington Post did a piece a few days ago detailing who’s moving where -- I had to smile at “white people love Colorado” -- that showed that other than New York City and maybe Boston, most of the Northeast is losing population. It’s tough to maintain enrollments when the population base is shrinking. Combine flat or declining enrollments with increasing costs for health insurance, among other things, and the math is tough.
Some four-year schools papered over the gap for a while with international students. But that isn’t terribly viable for us, between a lack of dorms and the political climate around immigration.
But against a tough economic background, it’s crucial not to eviscerate a sense of possibility on campus. The task at hand, culturally, is a difficult mix of acknowledging constraints and envisioning a sustainable future worth getting excited about.
That’s easy when you have an economic tailwind. “In which direction should we expand?” is a basically happy question. When the wind is against you, it’s tougher.
That said, plenty of colleges and other institutions have faced this over the years, and I’m guessing that some of them handled it better than others. So I’ll throw this open to my wise and worldly readers to see if they’ve seen austerity handled particularly well.
Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a college balance austerity and optimism well? If so, what made it work?
Thursday, January 18, 2018
The Boy’s girlfriend is a senior in high school, so she’s in the thick of college applications. She got some disappointing news from one school she really liked, and TB was upset on her behalf. He started muttering about “merit” and admissions, and the unfairness of it all.
I could see where this was going. It was time to intervene.
TB: It sucks that things count that shouldn’t count. They should just let you in if you deserve it.
Me: Well, it’s not entirely about deserving or not deserving. It’s kind of like casting a movie.
TB: What do you mean?
Me: If you’re casting a superhero movie, the second-best choice to be the hero probably isn’t the best choice to be the sidekick. You need one of each. The second-best choice to be the hero might be a better actor than the one who gets to be the sidekick, but that doesn’t really matter. If they’re casting for a sidekick, they’re looking for a sidekick type.
TB: I could see that for a movie. But colleges should be fair.
Me: Define “fair.”
TB: You know, rank the candidates by their qualifications and go down the list until it’s full.
Me: That doesn’t really work, though.
TB: Why not?
Me: I’ll give you an example. You’re in the IB program, which counts in your favor, right?
Me: And that’s great. But only 16 high schools in New Jersey offer the IB. If we lived in, say, Middletown instead of Freehold, you couldn’t have taken IB. Would that make you less deserving?
Me: Not everyone has the same opportunities, so they’re hard to compare.
TB: But I can’t control that!
Me: That’s true. You have to remember it’s not all about you. Qualifications matter, but they aren’t everything.
TB: They should be.
Me: Each college is trying to build a class. This year, one might have too few theater majors and too many business majors, and another might be the other way around, so your chances would vary based on that. You could never hope to control that.
TB: So what do I do?
Me: Apply to enough places that the random stuff cancels itself out. And don’t get too upset about other people. You’ve got a lot of advantages, and a lot of ways to build a great life. If one school or another doesn’t see how you fit into its plans, who cares? Go to another one and knock it out of the park.
TB: Yeah, I guess…
I don’t know how much of it sunk in, but I felt okay about it for a spur-of-the-moment conversation at the kitchen table. Spontaneous Sociology is part of parenting now.
Both TB and his girlfriend will be fine. They just don’t know it yet.
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
I’ve been impressively nearsighted since childhood, so I’ve spent more than my share of time in optometrists’ offices. They have a mechanism that fits poorly over the face, with which one eye’s view is blocked while the other goes through a series of different lenses, trying to read the chart. (“Which is better - one, or two? Three, or four?”) Somehow I never see quite as well with either eye as I do with both. When the two come together, the image gets clearer.
That was how these two stories struck me. Either on its own says one thing, but put together, a much clearer picture emerges. In this case, the picture is of a generational pattern.
The St. Louis Federal Reserve reported that all of the job growth in the United States since the year 2000 went to workers ages 55 and over. Which is to say, Boomers and earlier. All of it. The whole thing. Since the dawn of the millennium, my own generation, now in its prime working years, got zero.
The report drily notes: “Some economists fear that our aging workforce may be holding back economic growth.”
On the very same day, I saw this report that West Virginia is adopting a version of free community college that includes both drug testing and a post-graduation residency requirement in West Virginia. Public higher education for the young will come with strings that never applied to earlier generations, when it was cheap enough that they could pay for it themselves. That way, the state can use them to support the ever-growing ranks of retirees whose educations came without strings.
Those of us who work at colleges with declining enrollment have become familiar with “cutting by attrition,” which means closing off jobs to the next generation that were open to a previous one, in order not to offend remaining incumbents of the previous generation who have more generous pensions than their successors will ever see.
These are not signs of health. These are not signs of stewardship. This is a system eating its young, sacrificing the future to cushion the present.
As an educator, I have a problem with that. The premise of education is creating a better future. That’s the basis of the entire enterprise. It’s what we do. Education may draw on the best of the past, but at its core, it’s about the future.
I can’t help but wonder if that’s part of why public education is struggling. It’s a forward-looking enterprise in a culture that isn’t. Snowballing austerity compels us to adopt behaviors that undercut the logic of what we do. Graduate programs keep taking new students because they need cheap labor, even knowing that full-time jobs for new Ph.D.’s are the exception.
In a healthy society, intergenerational transfers of wealth move down, not up. We’re moving them up, and at an accelerating rate. That can’t go on forever.
Unsustainable trends, won’t be. At some point, they stop. I hope we can turn this trend around thoughtfully, before it fails catastrophically. As I get older, I realize that the future keeps coming, whether you’re prepared for it or not. We’re in the preparation business. It has never been more urgent. I may be nearsighted, but I can see this clearly.
Tuesday, January 16, 2018
I don’t know the merits of the Louisiana case of the professor who was fired for cursing. But the idea of it brings up a side of academic freedom that doesn’t get much discussion, although it’s actually much more real in my world than some of the higher-profile stuff.
“Academic freedom” and “free speech” are not the same thing, although they’re often confused. Academic freedom is about doing a job. The idea behind it is that the job of faculty is to get at the truth, even if the truth is unpopular, so they need the room to explore unpopular ideas. But the ideas they explore are supposed to be relevant to the subject they’re teaching or researching. That’s where academic freedom splits from free speech. Free speech allows for irrelevance; if I want to publish a blog devoted entirely to weighing the artistic merits of Britney Spears’ early work as compared to her more recent stuff, I can’t be arrested for it. But if I devote an entire semester’s worth of classes to Ms. Spears when I’m supposed to be teaching, say, Modern European History, I’m not doing my job. I could properly be sanctioned for that.
Relevance would be the lens I’d recommend for something like the profanity case. In a Civil Liberties class, for instance, there are times when profanity is at the heart of the dispute. You couldn’t really cover the issue without it. Similarly in history classes, some pretty horrifying stuff is at the heart of the subject. Some primary source material will include, say, racial slurs that would be unacceptable out of context, but unavoidable in context. If you study American history without covering racism, you have not studied American history. It strikes me as reasonable that biology classes would cover sexual reproduction, or that sociology classes would cover family arrangements that some might find shocking. Remove, say, adultery from art and literature, and you miss a lot. Relevance can cover some pretty bracing things. I’ve had that conversation with folks in dual enrollment programs, who may expect that we’ll sanitize content for high-school-aged students. We don’t. We don’t go out of our way to sensationalize, but yes, a history class that mentions feminism might very well mention abortion as part of the scope of the movement. It’s part of the subject. If that’s too shocking, don’t take the class.
The high-profile academic freedom cases tend to be around hot-button social issues. But on the ground, the more frequent issues are around relevance. This is the professor who devotes far too much class time to stories about his family, or about the strategies of his favorite football team.
In those cases, there’s no free speech issue, really. There’s no law against talking about football, nor should there be, even for Cowboys fans. But there is a job performance issue. Class time is scarce, and the deference that we expect students to show while in class is based on a bargain: show up and follow the rules, and you’ll be taught what the course description says you’ll be taught. Different faculty have different styles, but the goals of the course should be the same regardless of who teaches it. Those are the dreaded ‘student learning outcomes’ of a given class. If students in Prof. Smith’s section of algebra come away having learned what they were supposed to, but students in Prof. Jones’ section come away mostly having heard tales of her family, then we have a performance issue with Prof. Jones. She has abused her academic freedom, and in so doing, has left students without the class they signed up for.
In my own experience both as a student and as an administrator, this kind of abuse of academic freedom is far more common than the high-profile kind. It’s hard to measure, at least in the short term, because we give wide latitude on digressions and metaphors -- rightly so -- and in the absence of third-party grading, any given professor can write off poor student performance to high standards. In sequential courses, it can show up over time -- if Jones’ students crash and burn consistently in the next math class, when everyone else’s do fine, then you have a pretty good sign that something is wrong. But in standalone classes, this sort of thing can go on for years.
I land on the side that grants a pretty expansive view of relevance. Anecdotes can provide helpful metaphors, or they can provide the social glue that makes a class cohere. A few minutes spent on a seemingly irrelevant story can be a sort of icebreaker, or can lead the discussion in unanticipated, but productive, directions. The acid test, for me, is whether the students get what they need. If a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, I have no problem with it. But I’ve seen classes that were nothing but sugar, and that’s not the same thing.
Non-directed profanity strikes me as potentially useful or potentially distracting, depending on the dose. It’s a bit like garlic. A little bit at the right moment can add something, but pour it on and it drowns out everything else. Admittedly, that may reflect a regional taste; New Jersey isn’t known for politesse. I could imagine some regions being a bit more circumspect about it.
Getting habitual digressors to focus can be a real challenge. But it’s not a free speech issue. It’s a job performance issue, and should be treated accordingly.
Monday, January 15, 2018
I’m living this one personally.
Within the last week, I’ve been privy to two discussions about high schools, each conducted in complete isolation from the other.
- “What are the high schools doing? Why do so many students need remediation?”
- “What are the high schools doing? Why are they pressuring so many students to take AP and advanced classes?”
If I were, say, a high school principal, I might find that a little frustrating. Put next to each other, they suggest that the core issue is only peripherally related to high schools.
They’re both about the disappearing middle. And the disappearing middle goes far beyond anything high schools are, or aren’t, doing. The high schools are dealing with the symptoms, but they aren’t the cause.
Something similar is happening in higher education. Even as community colleges and relatively non-selective four-year schools are increasingly struggling for enrollment, elite and selective institutions grow ever harder to get into. The Boy is a junior, so I’m privy to a front-row seat to admissions anxiety. It was bad when I was his age, but it’s much worse now. Counselors at elite places worry about students burning out from academic overachievement, while the dialogue at community colleges is about getting students through basic algebra.
We use the phrase “getting into college” to describe both ends of the spectrum, but we’re using the same words to talk about two very different things.
There’s no shortage of contributing factors, but I think the biggest one is the narrowing of perceived avenues to economic success. And that perception is largely accurate. Yes, there are “middle skill” jobs that pay decent wages, and I’m glad that community colleges are paying more attention to those than they used to. But if you look at income distribution over the entire economy of the US, you see good middle-class jobs moving either up or down. My grandfather dropped out of the 9th grade to work as a tree trimmer, eventually getting a job as a lineman for Detroit Edison. That unionized job allowed him to raise a family, own a home, and send both of his kids to good public universities. If he were ever to take the Accuplacer, I’m sure he would have shown as needing remediation, but it didn’t matter. If he were growing up now, he wouldn’t have the same options.
On the relatively elite side, the Great Chain of Being of institutional prestige is thoroughly national. It wasn’t always. For a while, outside of the Ivies, it was largely regional. As it has gone national -- and international, given the appetite for full-pay international students -- and the elites haven’t added capacity, the competition has become tougher. But the perceived payoff from a second-tier school, relative to a first-tier school, has dropped. To many prospective students, rightly or wrongly, the penalty for a ‘safety school’ is much too high.
Public high schools, like community colleges, are built to serve everyone in the area. That model presumes a relatively robust middle, sociologically speaking. As the middle has been strained, the schools are struggling to compensate. The elite ones are up against a level of competitiveness that can become toxic; the rest are fighting to keep students on track at all.
The ‘solution’ to this dilemma isn’t so much conceptual as economic and political. If we had an economy in which the penalty for ‘safety schools’ wasn’t much more than diminished bragging rights, we could counsel students not to stress so much and actually mean it. But their angst is based on something. They don’t remember the economy we used to have. They see it as it is, and have a sense of where it’s going. In my darker moments, I wonder if they’re right.
Thursday, January 11, 2018
On Thursday, Brookdale had a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the KEYS recovery high school. It’s alternative high school for students in recovery from addiction, located on our campus. It’s a response to the alarming damage done by the opiate addiction epidemic.
It’s a wonderful program, and I’m proud to be associated with it. But the ceremony was hard to get through.
I was fine when the local political leaders and philanthropists spoke. I even managed to make it through the speech by the mother of a student who would soon enroll, as she talked about her heartbreak watching her kid struggle to stay sober. It was hard to hear, but I got through it without tears.
Then a student spoke. She had the same first name as my daughter. They even have the same hair. She opened with “I’ve been clean for four months.”
I’m not made of stone, people.
Community colleges weren’t built to deal with opiate addiction. But the community needs the help it needs. DIverting addicted kids from returning to the environments where they got into trouble means giving them a better chance to get back on track. Hell, it gives them a better chance to stay alive into adulthood.
It wasn’t what I had in mind when I went into this profession. But I’m glad we’re doing it.
Judith Scott-Clayton’s new report on student loan defaults is really impressive. I need a chance to digest the whole thing, but this part of the summary jumped off the screen for me:
“For-profit borrowers default at twice the rate of public two-year borrowers (52 versus 26 percent after 12 years), but because for-profit students are more likely to borrow, the rate of default among all for-profit entrants is nearly four times that of all two-year entrants (48 percent versus 13 percent).”
The Feds measure cohort default rates by looking only at the students who took out loans. But that presumes, incorrectly, that the percentage of students who take out loans is relatively even across colleges. It isn’t. If only ten percent of your students take out loans, a thirty percent default rate would encompass three percent of your total student body. Small numbers can cause big swings in percentages.
If cohort default rates referred to percentages of the overall student body instead, we’d get a much more accurate picture.
More expensive places will have lower default rates, because their pool of borrowers will include more affluent people. Someone whose family makes $75,000 a year probably won’t have to borrow for community college, but would for a private university that charges $50,000 per year. That student will have a much easier time repaying later than one from a family living on $20,000 per year, all else being equal, because she’ll have a family cushion. And, of course, all else is never entirely equal.
That’s part of why lower balances tend to correlate to higher default rates. (The other major reason is that lower balances also correlate to dropouts. Degree completion matters. Intriguingly, Scott-Clayon’s data suggests that certificate completion on its own really doesn’t.)
If you only look at default rates of borrowers, you’d think -- incorrectly -- that less expensive colleges are less affordable. Kudos to Scott-Clayton for digging deeper. And I’m nerdy enough to not mind admitting that now I know what I’ll be reading this weekend.
“Practice makes progress!” -- Colleague’s three-year-old daughter.
That’s so good, I want to put it on t-shirts. Practice makes progress. Yes, it does.
Wednesday, January 10, 2018
If I had my wish, I wouldn’t let anyone talk about community college policy or spending unless they got this quiz right.
One of these things is not like the others. Which one?
The correct answer, of course, is c. Math, Psychology, and Philosophy are profit centers. We take a major economic loss on Nursing.
Let’s try another one.
One of these things is not like the others. Which one?
- Automotive Tech
- Respiratory Therapy
- Radiological Technician
The correct answer is a. Biology is the only profit center in the group. We take losses on the other three.
I bring these up to make a point that’s often missed in discussions of community colleges and workforce development. Broadly speaking, traditional academic disciplines are profit centers, and vocational programs take economic losses.
In other words, if you want community colleges to focus less on general education and transfer, and more on vocational fields, you’ll need to pony up a lot more money.
A LOT more. And not just in the form of one-off grants, either. Recurring, baseline, operating funding.
Which makes sense, if you think about it. A history class -- history is a profit center -- can be taught in a classroom without any specialized equipment. It can run at 30 students per section. It doesn’t require clinical placements. We aren’t competing with private industry for historians.
Nursing, to take an easy case, requires plenty of specialized equipment. (Brookdale has multiple labs that simulate hospital settings. It doesn’t have any that, say, recreate Independence Hall, as cool as that would be.) Clinical sections have to be small. We’re competing with the largest industry in the country for employees. And as the technology keeps advancing, we have to keep up with it, even though it leads to no “productivity” gains for us. It’s pure cost.
Much of the political discourse around community colleges juxtaposes “elite ivory tower classes” with “practical job training,” with the none-too-subtle implication that we’d be better off focusing entirely on the latter. Leaving aside the basic fact that many well-paying jobs require bachelor’s degrees of the sort that transfer-oriented programs feed -- “transfer IS workforce” is my version of Kay McClenney’s “students don’t do optional” -- traditional academic programs are also much cheaper to run. If we minimize transfer-oriented programs to beef up the vocational ones, we’re going to need dramatic, sustained increases in funding.
Right now, many colleges handle that through a combination of cross-subsidies and program fees. That works as long as you have a critical mass of profit centers. But if you shift too heavily away from them, and don’t have a massive buffer of subsidy to pay for it, you’ll go under.
So, my modest proposal for anyone discussing higher education funding: be honest about it. If you want community colleges to become more focused on vocational training, are you willing to dedicate the funding to make it happen?
If not, well, we have some poli sci classes you might want to take first. They’re profitable.
Tuesday, January 09, 2018
It’s still early, but today I heard what will be the Idea of the Week. As with so many, I overheard it when two students were talking to each other in the hallway.
Student 1: I picked up a lot of hours over vacation. Feels good not to be broke!
Student 2: Yeah. We’re just lucky they don’t charge tuition in Bitcoin.
Eureka! “Blockchain Community College.” It’s only a matter of time...
Monday, January 08, 2018
I read IHE’s account of the recent meeting of the Council of Independent Colleges with a bit of jealousy. The CIC, which represents private colleges, has started sponsoring discussions of realistic ways to deal with persistent financial issues.
For community and state colleges, it would be much harder to have that conversation.
Some of the issues are the same: denial, blame-dodging, fear of damage to reputation. There’s also a bit of what lawyers call the “principal/agent” problem, in which the interests of managers and the interests of the institutions they manage can diverge. For example, it may be the right thing to do for a given college to close a location, but nobody wants to be the president who closed a location.
But we have constraints that the independent colleges mostly don’t.
Internally, for instance, many public colleges (including my own) are unionized. Collective bargaining agreements, and sometimes state laws, can greatly narrow the strike zone for any prospective downsizing. When you have to do layoffs by seniority, and your salaries are mostly determined by seniority, the most expensive employees are the most protected. That makes the math harder.
Externally, public colleges have to answer to governments that provide appropriations. That may be a county or counties, a state, or a district, but in any event it means answering to people who have other priorities. Private colleges have Boards that are responsible for only them. We have Boards, but we also have legislators and local politicians to answer to, and they have their own agendas. (They’re often acutely conscious of how a given decision might look if it were portrayed negatively in the press, for obvious reasons.) On campus, we might be focused on, say, twenty years of flat funding from the state, but the elected leaders aren’t focused on that; they’re focused on the next campaign.
In a political setting, it’s much easier to water down every bottle in the cabinet than to throw out a bottle or two. That’s because voters often have limited attention, so they’ll only notice if bottles get thrown out. Closing a location alarms voters in a way that, say, increasing the adjunct percentage yet again doesn’t.
In states with both local and state funding, the issues are compounded by rivalries and, sometimes, party splits. And America being America, geographic boundaries also often coincide with clustering by race and class, which can make conflict even stickier.
I’d love to see the AACC host some serious conversations about what colleges faced with declining demographics, strong unions, and flat funding can do. What has worked elsewhere? What are the seemingly low-hanging fruit that actually turn out to be traps? What looks harder than it actually is?
When we hear about “difficult campus conversations,” they’re usually about race, class, or gender. Those matter quite a bit -- good luck explaining contemporary American politics without looking at race, for instance -- but at least we’re starting to make headway on them. We haven’t started to make much headway on questions of institutional resilience. We should.
AACC, the gauntlet is thrown. Your move.
Sunday, January 07, 2018
“No matter how much faculty members cling to “the good old days,” there is no going back. We might as well embrace the possibility of creating a new kind of academic.” - Manya Whitaker, “The 21st-Century Academic”
When Ford suffered sales declines in the 70’s, it wasn’t because its workforce forgot how to make cars. It was because it was allocating resources according to the rules of the previous decade. The workers wound up paying for the mistake, but for the most part, they weren’t the ones who made the wrong call.
Substitute whichever company you want. Kodak didn’t go bankrupt because it forgot how to make film. The workers were as good as they ever were; the problem was that the world changed and the company failed to change along with it.
In the context of companies, most of us have no problem seeing that. But make a similar point about academia, or politics, and the same argument suddenly comes off as abstract.
Manya Whitaker makes some terrific points on her piece about the 21st century academic. She’s right about many of the changes in higher education over the last couple of decades, and I give extra points for self-awareness when she notes that her position makes her one of the lucky few. (Self-awareness is at a premium these days.) She notes the increasingly unapologetic vocationalism among current students, which I would attribute largely to increased income polarization. She also captures the increasing premium on courses of study outside of the traditional academic ones, and the effects of that shift on morale among faculty in traditional academic fields. All of that is spot-on.
But the piece ends with a call for a new kind of academic, independent of any sort of academy. In other words, it misses the company behind the workers.
Most of us - myself absolutely included - are not independently wealthy. We can’t afford to be free-range academics, teaching the occasional course and mostly just pursuing truth on our own. Just as with our vocation-minded students, most of us have to make a living. In other words, before talking about 21st century academics, we should talk about a 21st century academy.
We can’t lose sight of the institution.
Whitaker is writing from Colorado College, a four-year liberal arts institution. I’m writing from a community college, where the issues are somewhat different. We’ve always had vocational programs; the concept of a “comprehensive” community college refers to one that encompasses both vocational and transfer programs. The entire sector has moved in the direction of free-range faculty -- we call them “adjuncts” -- but the limits of that are becoming clear.
Whitaker is right that wishing for the good old days won’t bring them back. But I’d rather focus on the institution than the people in it. How should institutions change?
That would involve looking at funding mechanisms, cost structures, community alliances, policy changes, academic calendars, and various other structural issues. In my slightly more perfect world, faculty would be actively engaged in understanding all of those, the better to transform them. And faculty and administrators could present a united front in pressing for the rules and resources we’d need to make it work. In other words, we’d make the transformation of the institution -- and its business model -- our shared concern. That means folks coming out of silos a bit, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Faculty do their best work in an institutional context, even at the cost of a few meetings. Ignore the context, and we’re left arguing over who’s better at building Pintos.
Thursday, January 04, 2018
Calling my colleagues in financial aid offices: the AACC is putting together numbers on student withdrawal dates and the financial impact on colleges if a really regressive version of “risk-sharing” passes. The short version is, community colleges can’t deny anyone admission, and can’t deny them financial aid, but can be punished financially if students on aid don’t complete a semester.
In other words, it’s both ridiculous and toxic.
If you’re in financial aid, please check the link and get some numbers in. Thanks.
We got hit pretty hard by the “bomb cyclone,” though not as hard as Boston. It was the first snow day of the year, which brought with it the odd dynamics that snow days bring.
From an administrative perspective, there’s really no winning with snow days. Fail to call one when the weather is nasty, and you’ve endangered people. Call one when it’s a false alarm, and you lose instructional time unnecessarily. Call one when some areas are impassable, and people in drivable areas wonder what the hell you’re doing.
Delayed openings are even trickier. If the delay is enough to be meaningful, it will cut into the middle of something. Even if you time it to coincide with the start of a class period -- which I recommend -- there are other classes overlapping that time. Delayed openings can also be rough on parents when their kids’ schools are closed for the day.
Still, given how much harder this storm hit than it was supposed to, I was grateful to be able to hunker down. By late morning the governor declared a state of emergency, so that pretty much settled the question.
Text messaging has taken some of the sport out of the old “wait for your school’s name in the alphabet on the radio” game, but that’s okay. I’d rather know early.
I pay much less attention to football than I used to, and it was never much, but I have to admit that it did my heart good to see the Buffalo Bills make the playoffs.
Growing up in Western New York, hundreds of miles from New York City, the Bills were the only major team in the region. Back then, you had a choice: you were a Bills fan, or you weren’t from around here.
They had their tragicomic series of Super Bowl losses in the early 90’s, but until this year, the millennium has been a disaster for them. (Bills fans argue, rightly, that the correct way to interpret “they lost four Super Bowls in a row” is “they were in four Super Bowls in a row.” No other team has ever done that.) They’ve waited a long time. Besides, in the year of the bomb cyclone, we should have a cold-and-snow team in there, and the Packers didn’t have it in them.
Weird trivia: I’ve literally never seen a black placekicker in the NFL. There isn’t a single one in the league, and I don’t remember even hearing of one. Placekicking is about as pure a task as there is; either you made the kick or you didn’t. It’s strange. If anyone has an intelligent theory on this one, I’d love to hear it.
Wednesday, January 03, 2018
Part of the joy of the winter break is that it’s a chance to read something longer than twenty pages. I spent part of it reading Cathy O’Neil’s “Weapons of Math Destruction,” which is well worth reading if you haven’t already.
O’Neil was a quantitative analyst in the banking world for a while, until she grew disenchanted at the social uses to which her expertise was being put. She saw sophisticated math being used to make the rich richer at the expense of everyone else. This book is a form of penance, showing the rest of us cases in which Big Data gets used as a form of power.
(Readers of a certain age will hear echoes of Foucault in there, but don’t worry. O’Neil’s writing style is far more lucid.)
The book is a series of chapter-length examples, but if you stick with it, you start to pick up the pattern. O”Neil distinguishes directly-valid data from proxy data, warning us against the latter.
Baseball offers easy examples of directly-valid data. A runner reaches base, or does not. A given swing results in a home run, or it does not. Somebody wins each game. That sort of data can lead to valuable insights, because it’s about what it says it’s about. Sabermetrics, the sort of statistical analysis pioneered by Bill James and immortalized in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, tends to work because it’s (mostly) based on solid data. It’s far from perfect, but it can help. For example, if a team knows that a particular hitter on another team always hits the ball to the right side of the field, it can shift its fielders to the right when he’s up.
Baseball also offers an example of self-correcting experiments. If a given team misreads the numbers, or takes a flyer on something wacky and fails badly, the numbers adjust accordingly. For instance, Moneyball could be read two ways. A literal reading would tell you that on-base percentage is the key stat for batters. A fuller reading would tell you that at any given moment, some traits are overvalued in the market and some undervalued, and the first one to find an undervalued one is in a position to win. OBP was simply an example. When OBP became the new orthodoxy, it lost much of its competitive usefulness.
Proxy data is where things get squishy. Proxy data, as she uses the term, refers to data that correlates with the desired trait, but isn’t the trait itself. She gives the example of insurance companies basing rates on the zip codes where different customers live, on the theory that birds of a feather flock together. And it’s true that you can find geographic patterns in the data. But the patterns don’t tell you about any particular person’s risk, and they’re often reflections of other factors -- race and income, notably -- that have the effect of placing extra burdens on the people with the fewest resources. If living in a low-income neighborhood raises your insurance rates, well, who tends to live in low-income neighborhoods?
O’Neil points out the irony that relatively strict regulation of the factors that can go into calculating credit scores has had the effect of encouraging the wanton generation of unregulated, rogue scores that are often far more pernicious. What the market wants, the market finds a way to get.
At times, she falls into the trap of calling for transparency as a solution. I get the temptation, but it falls short of a solution in a couple of ways (both of which she actually identifies, in passing). The first is familiar to any customer of a credit card: if you bury something in twenty pages of two-point font legalese, you may have “disclosed” it for compliance purposes, but it’s effectively still hidden for all practical purposes. That has the effect of neutering much regulation. The second is familiar to folks who’ve navigated the admissions game to competitive universities. If you disclose the proxies, people can beef up the proxy scores at the expense of what the proxy is supposed to represent. This is the kid who joins six clubs and two teams without really getting beneath the surface of any of them. Alternately, in the context of performance-based funding for colleges, this is the college that tweaks its policies so that any students who place into remedial classes don’t count in their graduation rate.
Ultimately, there’s no neutral technical fix, because it’s basically a political problem. If Big Data is about power, and the incentives are there to abuse it, then we can expect the powerful to abuse it for their own gain. It would be surprising if they didn’t. And appeals to conscience only work among people who have consciences. We’ve seen that some very powerful people don’t.
Higher education certainly isn’t immune to what she calls WMD’s. Performance-based funding is an easy example: the states that have adopted it haven’t seen meaningful gains. Instead, they’ve seen a fair amount of system-gaming as institutions do what they have to do to survive.
The ideal solution would be to find the stat that comes closest to reflecting the point of higher education, in much the same way that on-base percentage did in baseball. But to do that, we’d have to define the point of higher education. A baseball game has a clear winner, but a higher education system may not. That’s where politics come roaring back. O’Neil flags some hazards nicely, but ultimately you don’t solve a political problem with better math. You solve it with politics. Get the politics right, and the math will follow.