But would you let your son major in the liberal arts?

Well, duh. I did. Kinda sorta, “health communications” is pretty much liberal arts with a healthy dose of health and fitness knowledge thrown in. Besides, it is not like it was my choice. It was his choice. In fact, attending Ferrum was his choice. Now, I did have a lot of influence and I did not have to pay for him to go there.

In fact, I am the one that encouraged him to consider Ferrum, to consider private colleges in general. As a freshling in high school, he was vocal about never attending a private college. Despite the fact I had worked in private colleges for 10 years before coming to Virginia.

Almost 20 years ago, I attended my first Higher Education Data Sharing (HEDS) Consortium meeting shortly after I joined Willamette University. One of the discussion sessions was on the future of private colleges. The presenters were bemoaning the growth of public universities since WWII and reversal of college enrollment from 75% private to 75% public. I spoke up, as I have had a tendency to do, and espoused my belief that state funding was going to continue to drop and within a few decades the “real” cost of college (net price wasn’t really a thing back then) was going to be about the same at both publics and privates.

So, this is why Ferrum won out over Longwood. There simply was not enough difference in net price for my son (and I) to feel that was really a deciding factor. Other factors were much stronger; perhaps the physical similarity of Ferrum to Willamette, and their Methodist histories.

It is a shame though that a small public college (and it really, truly is a college more than a university) like Longwood has a net price for the lowest income students that requires them to come up with $50,000 (usually through debt) to cover four years of enrollment.We can do better.

Back to the liberal arts. For some people the choice of major has about as much relevance as the choice of going to college. These people will be successful no matter what, on their own terms, whether through privilege or a drive to accomplish their own personal vision. For others, the choice of major really is a just an effective way to hold their interest through four-years of study and other activities. For still others, major is about a chosen profession.

The liberal arts can handle most of these students.

Now the uncomfortable reality is that most liberal arts graduates will not make a lot of money. (Yes, I know this. Yes, I have data; but that is for another venue and another day, very soon.)  They won’t be poor, in fact, most will be above average nationally – especially if they marry another liberal arts graduate. The problem is that this is not a problem.

The problem is one of expectations combined with an unwillingness to pay for what we value. If we truly value an educated populace we should be willing to fund that. We are fully able to do so, it is simply a matter of choice. Relatively lower earnings compared to high demand occupations should be used as justification for greater support in order to reduce the reliance on student and parent debt. Policymakers need to develop realistic expectations of what various degrees are worth in the marketplace and what are needed in what quantities. They also need to understand that meeting the needs of the marketplace is not the not the only justification for public support of college education. Education is a good thing. And as the famous college founder, Emile Faber once said, “Knowledge is good.”

Of course, I am biased. I have an art degree (painting and jewelry). My wife is a special ed teacher. My father was a professor of communications. My step-mother, a political scientist. My mother, a K-12 teacher. Two sisters – one, a degree in communications; one, a degree in English literature. A third-generation with four out of five eligible completers (the one non-completer could justifiably be dropped from the cohort) with three of the completers in liberal arts and fourth is pre-med/biology (now a medical resident).

No one is ever hurt by a good liberal education. They can be hurt by too much debt. And a lack of awareness that the credential by itself may not be enough to succeed  in the workplace.

So, yes, I would let my son, or daughter, major in the liberal arts.

What does it mean to be a “worst” college?

For one thing, it means low performance on a handful of federal measures.

Today, Washington Monthly released its college rankings and added four different takes on “America’s Worst Colleges.”  Five Virginia colleges were distributed across the four lists. One of these is Ferrum College, which is where my son attended and graduated. While I am not writing so much to defend  Ferrum, I am going to use it as an example as to the limits of metrics since I think I have enough information feel good about the quality of education there.

Washington Monthly does a separate article about Ferrum in “Held Accountable” to describe the type of school that should fear Obama’s college rankings. It is a fair article and it references the data we produce and publish at SCHEV.

But this explanation goes only so far. Nationally, there is a lack of data that can sharply distinguish between schools that are dropout factories and those that largely serve as feeder schools to more elite institutions. But in Virginia, making that distinction is far easier. That’s because it is one of a handful of states that keep track of whether college students who leave one in-state institution ever wind up graduating from another. And it also tracks what their earnings are if they go on to work in the state after graduating. What this information reveals about Ferrum is not pretty.

No, it is not particularly pretty. Washington Monthly used our data well, and used a pretty full spectrum of the data.

For example, only 22.8 percent of seventeen- to nineteen-year-olds who started their college careers at Ferrum in 2003-04 graduated within four years from Ferrum or from any other public or private nonprofit institution in Virginia. Yet 43.3 percent of their counterparts at all other private nonprofit four-year institutions in the state graduated within four years. Even ten years later, the 46 percent of students who started as seventeen- to nineteen-year-old freshmen at Ferrum had still not graduated from any college in Virginia, compared to a ten-year in-state graduation rate of 62.3 for students who previously attended Virginia’s other private four-year colleges.

Are there schools that do worse on this one metric than Ferrum? Yes, there are a handful. Historically black Norfolk State University, for example. But what makes Ferrum really stand out is the way that it scores consistently low across a broad range of performance measures. For example, Ferrum is a pricy place for what it offers. Even with grants and scholarships, the average net price to attend the college and live on campus still came to $19,324 in 2012. Largely as a result, fully 91 percent of Ferrum graduates take on student debt. This is far higher than the average borrowing rate for all private nonprofit four-year institutions in Virginia, which comes to 69 percent. Multiplying these borrowing rates by the amount of debt incurred by each graduate yields a weighted debt average of $26,169 at Ferrum, compared to an average $18,910 for all private nonprofit institutions in the state.

However, there is a bit more to the story.

First, any institution with less than a first-to-second year retention rate less than 60% is in trouble. As regular readers know, that is first of two warning measures for an at-risk institution. Second, Ferrum is an undergraduate-only institution with just over 1,500 students. That is well below my second threshold of 2,000 students. Ferrum has challenges, there is no doubt about that.

In 1992, fall enrollment was 1,231 students. In 1997 it hit 908, struggled to 951 the following year, and then stayed below a 1,000 through 2005.  The last eight years have been years of significant growth. Much of this growth has been in the first-year class, representing 585 of last fall’s 1,512 students. This is not an ideal mix.

I can prowl through the data and keep looking for bright spots. The fact is, relatively motivated students with family support can be successful at Ferrum, if they get through the first year. Of first-time, full-time students, 89%  who finish 60 credits with a “C” or better in the first two years graduate within five years. But this is only about 10% of the entering class. Similarly, 65.5% of transfer students who attempt 25 or more credits in their first year will graduate within five years. (I am using 2008 annual cohorts for these measures.)

When I look at graduation rates at Ferrum by income levels, I see that not even income is a good predictor of success, whether based on multiples of the poverty level (accounting for family size) or real dollar amounts. This is unusual, at least in Virginia. What this tells me is that my son’s biggest complaint about his time there, and the source of all his threats to transfer elsewhere, especially in the second year, was valid. There’s not enough to do.

This is a challenge for a small college in what is essentially the middle of nowhere.

Ferrum is a beautiful campus. The town, not so much. Little is really left of what it once was. The nearest community of any size, the nearest Walmart, is Rocky Mount, a full 12 miles away. Staff and faculty do what I think is an excellent job in providing activities and opportunities to keep students engaged. However, there are limits of funding and other resources. Students leave. Some transfer, many don’t. On my last visit to the area, the motel desk clerk recognized my last name and asked if the “big man Massa” that had been at Ferrum was my son. I said that was most likely the case and asked how he knew him.

He had been at Ferrum for a semester and did not go back. College was not for him. Based on other conversations in the area, I am pretty sure his is not an uncommon case. Ten percent (or more) of entering students don’t make it back for a second term. That’s a rather expensive proposition.

Ferrum leaders know they have a retention problem. It is not a secret. They have tried, and are trying, to address it. At least one non-academic attempt to fell flat a few years ago. In 20 years, the rate has never been good – barely over 60% just four times since 1992.

The accounts I heard from my son of the readings and work he did were not trivial. I don’t think there is an academic problem. I’m not even sure there is a support problem. I think there is simply not enough “there” there. One way or another, Ferrum has to solve this problem and build a community that students become invested in and don’t want to leave until they graduate.

Metrics can’t capture this, the best they can do is hint at something missing. At least, as long as the reader has additional information. I don’t think Ferrum has much to fear from the proposed ratings system as it does from its inability to retain more students. Of course, a rating system tied to aid eligibility without a chance for remediation would close Ferrum and dozens or hundreds of colleges across the country.

I wonder though what might happen to some of these campuses, out away from population centers should they close? I guess that is a post for another time.

 

 

 

Some of the inherent biases in conversations about data

This is something I think about a lot. I’ve been working with with student-level data for 23 years now. And talking about stuff for longer. There is something uniquely frustrating about conversations in which the person I am talking with does two things: using terms casually and presuming they convey specific meanings.

It drives me crazy because I tend towards the specific when I talk data. Or most other things. Especially if I am talking to someone who I think is supposed to be equally knowledgeable.

Frustrating, and representative of a larger problem. Meaning and bias.

Without going into too much detail, it is kind of difficult to explain well, so bear with me.

When we collect data at the state level, the data are much removed from reality. Institutions collect data for the purpose of running the enterprise. Some pieces they collect because we require it, but there really very few examples of that. Since most data are collected for their purposes, they define the manner of collection that fits their needs best – or as best fits the design of their administrative system.

At this level, we are talking already of two or three levels of abstraction from the original students the data represent. Further, the data are biased according to the definitions used by the institution. Some of these are based on local standards, some on national standards, some simply represent standards implemented by the software vendor.

Since we collect from public and private institutions, two-year and four-year, we impose additional standards and abstractions on the data. This is necessary in order for us to use the data and assure some cleanliness to it (we have thousands of edits in the collection system). However, this adds additional abstraction to the data.

Don’t mistake me, the data are still quite usable. They are simply usable only within realistic limits and are best used for descriptive and trend analyses.

Additional abstraction comes into play in other ways when external taxonomies are applied, such as the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP). Just because something has the same name, that does mean it is the same thing. Sometimes differences are minor, but not always. And of course, sometimes it is just a dead horse being beaten.

Strangeness occurs when taxonomies are linked to taxonomies to taxonomies.

In a completely different dataset I have been working with very recently, I find that a column represents both a desired outcome and qualifying characteristic. Neat trick, huh? The values for that column are based on a crosswalk between two taxonomies (one of which is based on a third). Simply speaking, if there is a one-to-one correspondence, this should not be a problem. However, what if the relationship is one-to-many or, worse yet, many-to-many? Or even worser what if the original value crosswalked for the individual in question is one of multiple options? This provides multiple many-to-many outcomes, yet somehow  the file is produced with only one outcome.

This may be fine and perfectly correct….but how do I know? At this point I can’t even guess how much of this result is based solely on computing algorithm or individual choice in the selection.

It’s kind of crazy.

A week or so ago, someone tweeted the point that algorithms are not unbiased. I’m sorry I don’t remember who it was, or the exact words. The fact is though, algorithms are not unbiased. Some human or three wrote the algorithm and there is every possibility that their biases are reflected in the algorithm – or in how it is used.

So, I guess what I am trying to say is this. The data I work with are as limited as they are powerful. The most important thing they tell us is where to start investigating with less abstract data.

 

 

 

 

 

If I were the type to rate colleges…

The question has arisen a few times now. “Tod, if you were at USED and absolutely had to build a ratings system college with current data, what would you do?’

It’s a tough question since I don’t believe the existing IPEDS data are up the task. So, I would attempt to to use the National Student Loan Data System and develop a result set about Title IV recipients. But that may not be possible just yet.

First, I would start with three categories, as I have written before. These would be Title IV Eligible, Title IV Eligible – Conditional, Title IV Ineligible. The federal government’s implicit authority to rate colleges based on Title IV participation and success I think is a given. Rating colleges outside of Title IV performance I think is not. However, given the lack of data specific to Title IV participants, some standard IPEDS measures will have to be used.

It seems to me that what is really at stake is Title IV eligibility. So let’s start be establishing minimum standards for participating in Title IV and assume that institutions have five years to meet these standards initially.It is neither fair nor appropriate to establish standards and apply them immediately.

Title IV Eligibility Minimum Standards – Four-year Institutions

  • First-year Retention Rate Greater than or Equal to 60%
  • Six-year Graduation Rate Greater than or Equal to 30% (All Students)
  • Six-year Graduation Rate Greater than or Equal to 35% (Students with Pell grants at Entry)
  • Six-year Graduation Rate Greater than or Equal to 35% (Students with Stafford Loans (Subsidized and Unsubsidized) at Entry) (Requires use of NSLDS or adding the required institutional disclosures to IPEDS)
  • Six-year Graduation Rate Greater than or Equal to 40% (Students with PLUS Loans at Entry) (Requires use of NSLDS)
  • Cohort Default Rate Less than 10%
  • 80% of Graduates with Federal Loans in active repayment (including Income-based options) and in-school deferments.
  • And as data become available through NSLDS, minimum 60% graduation rates for Title IV students in graduate and professional programs.

However, since the administration has made it clear that part of the desire is to increase the enrollment of Pell students at high-performing institutions, I might add a fourth category of Title IV Eligible – Unconditional for institutions that meet or exceed all the standards above and enroll a number of undergraduates receiving Pell grants at entry equaling or exceeding 25% of the traditional on-campus population. (In other words, lesser respected branch campuses or distance students that rarely, if ever, step on campus would not count.)

Title IV Eligibility Minimum Standards for Conditional Status  – Four-year Institutions

 

  • First-year Retention Rate Greater than or Equal to 50%
  • Six-year Graduation Rate Greater than or Equal to 20% (All Students)
  • Six-year Graduation Rate Greater than or Equal to 20% (Students with Pell grants at Entry)
  • Six-year Graduation Rate Greater than or Equal to 20% (Students with Stafford Loans (Subsidized and Unsubsidized) at Entry) (Requires use of NSLDS or adding the required institutional disclosures to IPEDS)
  • Six-year Graduation Rate Greater than or Equal to 20% (Students with PLUS Loans at Entry) (Requires use of NSLDS)
  • Cohort Default Rate Less than 15%
  • 60% of Graduates with Federal Loans in active repayment (including Income-based options) and in-school deferments.
  • And as data become available through NSLDS, minimum 60% graduation rates for Title IV students in graduate and professional programs.
  • Requires ten-year improvement plan. If unable to move into full-eligibility status after that point, loses 50% of available Title IV funds.

Title IV Ineligible – Four-year Institutions

  • Failure to meet any one of these standards constitutes an ineligible institution. Institutions failing no more than two standards would be able to appeal and be placed on a five-year remediation plan – after posting a bond equal to the Title IV funding at risk of loss for the numbers of students it would take to move into a passing score.

So, these standards are incredibly arbitrary. They would negatively affect a significant number of institutions. Further, with the addition of an “Unconditional” rating, some of the highest performing institutions in the nation (and Virginia) would not be in that highest status.

In one way though, they are not arbitrary. I have dealt with enough policymakers over the years to know how they react to graduation rates below 30% (shucks, many get outraged at rates below 50%). These are rates I feel that *I* could generally defend for about a decade. After that, I foresee necessary increases.

I have not suggested standards for community colleges. I’ll save for that another time, but they would be differently constructed.

Oh, I would also use the rating report to link each college to any state profile data and require that each college link to both federal and state reporting websites specific to that college.

 

 

In praise of the anomalies

“Hi, my name’s Tod, and I am an anomaly.”

I am not a Millennial, so I can’t really say that I am special, or that we are all special. I am from near the end of the Boomer generation and so I don’t think I ever got a trophy for just showing up. I did learn (in high school) that the easiest way to win awards, was to submit applications in categories no one else was interested in. That is the story of my multiple FFA awards.

Being an anomaly does not make me special. (My eyes do that.) I am an anomaly for a number of reasons. I want to focus on the aspect of being a failed physics/math double major, with an intervening education in military. I doubt that I am the only one with a background like this, but I suspect it is relatively rare. In any event, I think it provides a distinctive way in which to look at the world. You can get some idea of what other people are doing a studio art degree (at lease those on LinkedIn) here.

Part of the brilliance of American education is that it can create people like me for the possibility of useful, happy accidents. Yesterday, John Warner’s post at Just Visiting inspired an extensive Twitter conversation which I have Storified here. Some of the Tweets are missing, but as you will see, it was an extensive discussion about the intersection between institutional research and Big Data. It starts from Warner’s perspective of overuse of automated systems and Big Data to obscure the need to solve the tough problems of access, affordability, and human interaction to create learning (I’m seriously paraphrasing here) in the pursuit of efficiencies and education-widget results. Both John Hetts and Jeffery Alan Johnson make very thoughtful comments about what these can be, what they shouldn’t be, and how they reflect what has always been happening.

I tend to be torn on these issues. I live in a work life where I am surrounded by folks who want to spend less on education while making it better. Those folks surrounding me are themselves surrounded by folks arguing that we should spend more. I think data-based decision-making is hugely important and holds great promise for improving human outcomes. On the other hand, I think accidents and unforced pathways hold great promise for individuals and society. Certainly there is risk and cost associated with these accidents, but the rewards are potentially unlimited.

Educationally and career-wise, I am not sure I would have done anything different, save study more and take advantage of more opportunities. I hate the idea of a world where we can’t afford such accidental pathways to happen. I also hate the idea that so many students leave college with debt and no credential and no apparent lasting benefit.

So, how can we allow the one and improve the other?

 

 

Silliness

I am easily amused. Especially when observing silly games of oneupmanship.

“My discipline is better than yours. It does real stuff.”

“No, my discipline is better – we use math.”

And so on.

It reminds me of high school science classes and describing the various disciplines.

  • If it moves, its biology.
  • If it stinks, it chemistry.
  • If it doesn’t work, its physics.

It also reminds me of the discussions of astrology in both Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” and the fifth book of Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” trilogy. In both cases, the use of astrology is justified as being no more than a way to organize your thinking and perception of the world around you. I’m not sure this is all that much different from truly academic disciplines.

I guess it would be easy to ask, “Why can’t we all get along?” but then, I would have less to be amused about. I have spent enough years raising children, grandchildren, as well as 10 years as an active scout leader, to learn to enjoy observing childish behavior. You can’t really stop the behavior (other than yelling “shut up!” and separating the offenders) just work to help it dissipate over time, so you might as well learn to appreciate it at as an art form. Clearly, it is art from the naive school, but art nonetheless.

The sad thing is this. They are all wrong. The only truly meaningful discipline is art. After all, art is about learning to really see the world around you BEFORE you interpret it or describe it. Once the basics of the tools are covered (how to make a line) the lessons focus again and again on “What do you see?” “Are you sure you are what’s there and not what you think is there?” The tools (media) are then used to fill in the gaps of knowledge or interpretation….

Oops. I guess that is no different from making assumptions. “Assume a friction-free surface….” “Assume a ladder…”

Damn. I guess there are no real differences, just variations in tools and methods for grokking the universe.

 

What are you really paying for?

This morning I played chauffeur to the two crippled ladies in my life. My wife and my dog. My wife had foot and ankle surgery in May and today she got her cast replaced with a boot. Unfortunately, the healing process ahead is also preparation for several more surgeries so we have a long journey ahead with more pain and discomfort for her. My dog needed blood work because she is aging and needs pain relief for arthritis and bladder control help. Thus periodically we have test her kidney and liver functions.

Medical issues are big in my house.

So, when I was finally headed to the office and scanning satellite channels, I stopped on NPR for the last bit of a show from KQED about price-shopping for medical procedures, using MRIs as an example. This interests me. I have had a lot of MRIs – 14 or 15 since New Year’s Eve 2009. All but the first have been at VCU. My co-pays on these have typically run between five- and six-hundred dollars until we meet our maximum annual out-of-pocket expenses.

While I listened, I thought about procedure costs and my views on insurance. I believe in being a responsible consumer. I don’t really want the insurance company to pay for something I would not be willing to pay for out of my pocket. So, why don’t I shop around for the best MRI price?

Convenience. Quality control. Service. Peace of mind.

It is unlikely to find an MRI facility other than VCU that I can walk to and from in 10 minutes from my office. There is no place that close to home.

Most MRIs have limits of accuracy and precision within the range of one to two millimeters. Since we are now dealing with a tumor about the size and shape of a triple-thick Lima bean, the difference of a couple millimeters can be hugely important to the reader’s interpretation of the images. Whenever possible it makes a great deal of sense use the same machine.

VCU Neurosurgery is really good about scheduling everything a year in advance – on the same day. For example, I may be scheduled at 8:00 am for my 35 minute MRI and then at 9:30 upstairs to see my neurosurgeon for the results, and the next morning with my radiologist.

This last thing is really big. Many of the brain tumor survivors, or those in pretreatment status, often have to wait days or weeks to get their results. I’m done in a few hours and my doc will spend whatever time I need with me to answer my questions or discuss my case.

This is why I don’t shop around. Sometimes the lowest cost is not the best deal.

And I don’t think higher education is really any different. When a student or family makes a choice about college and how much to pay, they should really think about what they are getting for the money and how it fits within their value system. The same logic applies to legislators and institutional leaders. Think about what you are paying for and why it matters to you.

What really matters is whether the educational experience meets your needs. Of course, for it do so, because it is not a “laying on of hands,” the student must invest effort, must invest themselves, in the education experience.

And the institutions, those supporting them, must make it possible for each student to be successful.