Thursday, March 15, 2007

More Grade Inflation Whining

Some info on my own university I just bumped into:

In the past ten years here:

1. SAT scores of entering freshmen have declined somewhat.


2. Drinking has increased markedly.

Now, SAT scores are positively correlated with GPA, and drinking is negatively correlated. So one would predict, of course, that GPAs here would have gone down over the relevant period. But, in fact:

3. GPAs have gone up.



Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Per Plato's Symposium, alcohol and philosophy have always gone together. If only you could get 'em while they're still drinking, instead of just hung over.

11:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obviously only one conclusion can be drawn: Alcohol is making the student body smarter.

Tom raises a good point though. Plato did enjoy the wine whilst "pondering the good," as my Old wisened prof. used to say.

Ref: my comment yesterday, one of the biggest gripes my old professor had was how standards in Academia have dropped in response to the economical model of Universities existing as degree-awarding graduate factories. To put some perspective on the issue, my University awarded PhD degrees to over 80% of all people in the doctoral program.

12:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trying to use low drop out rate as an indication of falling standards is plainly wrong, since the persons admitted into the PhD program are not some random segment of the population but a group that is supposed to be both motivated and skilled in the area they study. The 80% award rate could just be a reflection that the admissions process is working effectively. And it's not as if a degree award rate of 10% shows that standards are high... This kind of reasoning is pernicious when it leads faculty to throw roadblocks up before students just create evidence of "rigor."

Grade inflation pressure will not cease as long as students/parents are the ones who primarily fund education. Their interests are in the most valuable credential for as little effort & money as possible. Of course, the value of the credential will largely depend on the amount of money and effort put into it, this this makes the credential rare. This makes it worth while for kids to work hard to get into Harvard if they can, and for their parents to pay for it if they can. But once you are *in* school, the value of the degree is already very high just based on the number of kids excluded from ever attending. Maybe the degree would be a little more valuable if half the kids got flunked out, but not enough to justify the risk of flunking. That is, a 50% chance of getting squat is not worth a 50% chance of having a degree that is awarded to .01% of the population instead of .02%. From the perspective of the student and family of the student, the best thing would be no standards at all, if this did not effect the value of the degree.

Of course, if it were known that there were no standards at all (Hampshire-style... no that's not fair) then employers would not be willing to offer premium wages to holders of the degree. So the really best thing from the student's perspective is a degree from a school that is very hard to get into, has fairly lax standards that, when met, issue in opaque but apparently superlative results: A's in everything, with your your future employer having little knowledge of what level of skill and effort that A took beyond the fact that you had to be clever even to get a whack at it.

The one who is getting hosed here is the employer who relies on degrees and transcripts to tell what people are worth. (And those kids who irationally insist on doing outstanding work for grades. Better to take one's virtuous impulses into extracurricular activity.) It would be in the employer's interest to have credentials that were genuinely informative, but since they are not the ones paying for college, their interests are not much reflected in the higher education process.

A good example of some of the few schools at are funded by the future employers are the military academies. Now these colleges have problems, but as far as I know grade inflation is not one of them.

3:43 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

This makes it worth while for kids to work hard to get into Harvard if they can, and for their parents to pay for it if they can. But once you are *in* school, the value of the degree is already very high just based on the number of kids excluded from ever attending.

Ace, anon.

When inviting a prospective business contact out for drinks in New York, you make it at the Harvard Club. ("Did I ever tell you I went to Harvard?"---Old joke. Of course they did.) And nobody asks for your transcripts.

So the really best thing from the student's perspective is a degree from a school that is very hard to get into, has fairly lax standards that, when met, issue in opaque but apparently superlative results...

May I add---since headhunting is my profession---that the University of Michigan law school, which was rated #2 behind Harvard at one point (and is Ann Coulter's alma mater, hehe), used to give honest grades. One look at some Bs and the occasional C, and the prospective employer would figure you're some mouth-breathing moron. In essence, UMich was grading their grads out of the marketplace.

Fortunately, clearer heads eventually prevailed, and they cut out that honesty crap.

(I would add that many top 5-10 schools like Penn, Harvard, and especially Berkeley make your transcripts quite mushy with pass/fail [as if!]/honors. A quick or uninformed glance reveals virtually nothing. Preserving the franchise.)

8:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

3:43 Anon is correct insofar as military schools are concerned. Reference Gen. Patton as an example of what military academies can do with a person. Yes he was a racist and cold blooded, but you cannot deny his very thorough education and his skill at using said training to evaluate circumstance.

However I am troubled by the notion that education is a marketable device. Although education (and "accomplishment") is a measure by which employers determine who is and is not of worth when looking to fill a position, said evaluation ignores the values that a candidate holds dear. Joe McConnel may have a masters in business from Harvard, but is he trustworthy?

Bottom line: You pull from education what you want from it--be it Harvard or Thomas Washington Community College. True, one may have resources that the other might not but the drive for knowledge levels the field as far as intellectual pursuits are concerned. Hell, Dubbya went to Harvard.

Education is a value, not a marketability.

12:29 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Hell, Al Gore flunked out of Yale.

Anonymous2, if you're the same Amonymous1 (there's no way of telling), you're going back on everything you wrote. What, do you think just any mook off the street is good enough to flunk out of Yale?

2:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My name is Mark and I am not anonymous 1.

And yes, any mook off the street is good enough to flunk out of Yale. Flunking out of Yale is just as easy as flunking out of Howard Washington Community College or ITT or Devry.

3:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, this is anonynous 1.

Anonymark is thinking about how easy it is to flunk out once you are in. That misses a large part of my point, which is that high standards in admissions create incentives for low standards on the other side of that hurdle. If a high school student were to form the perverse ambition of flunking out of Harvard, the chances of his realizing this goal would be almost - but not quite - as slim as the goal of graduating from the same place.

Anonymark is troubled by seeing education as marketable. Fair enough; this should be troubling. But a big part of the worry that Winston raises when he brings up grade inflation is the difference between getting a college degree and getting an education (in the broad happy/fuzzy sense). Education I suppose is for making us better people, but a college degree is a qualification for getting placed in jobs. Your job is what largely detirmines your class, and your level of access to really cool shit. Such as: Money, big city lofts, the direct line number to the HR director at Goldman Sachs or the senior poetry editor at FSG, or a grad school recomendation letter from Fred Dretske. These are all goods of limited availability that education (in the Emile/Abe Lincoln sense) will not get you. Graduating from college, esp. the right college, will.

Fluffy talk about the value of education serves to obscure the fact that college is an industry which plays a key role in producing and distrubuting limited and valuable goods. (A major product: The ruling class more or less the entire world.) We should be able to ask whether this industry is efficient and just without people thinking such talk impugns the moral value of learning generally.

2:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who your peers in college are also matters. Atleast in the hard sciences (I'm a senior phyaics and math double major) most of the learning goes on while doing problem sets which are for the most part colabrotive affairs.

There is also that whole networking thing. There is long term networking with your peers and short term networking from tapping in to the networks of your professors

12:49 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Re: Anonymous's claims about "fluffy talk about the value of education" obscuring the fact that "college is an industry":

Well, I think that's how many students and administrators view it...and perhaps the faculty, too, in e.g. business schools...but that's not the way a whole lot of faculty view it... And what the faculty does and thinks plays a significant role in determining what college is like.

Consequently, all that "fluffy" talk about the value of education expresses an idea that is absolutely central to what universities are (and should be) like.

Unfortunately, though, the evil forces of corporatism are currently on the march. In 20 or 100 years, real universities may be a thing of the past, replaced entirely by vast business schools with very fine health clubs and semi-professional sports teams.

3:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the real problem here is thus:

1) The job market requires that people who don't know you be able to evaluate you effectively to the point where these people may hire you to a position (potentially one of very high responsibility) and you will perform the job well and with integrity.

2) Any system in which one is required to evaluate another without knowing him obviously places the evaluator's ability in the hands of others who have had direct experience and relationships with the evaluatee.

3) Those others who have had the relationships and experiences may or may not be able to render effective analyses of the evaluatee's characteristics and abilities.

4) The "may not" factor seems to play a particularly high role in education since the professors would have to give an in-depth syllabus of the coursework with the addition of descriptions and qualifications of their grading procedures and specific reasoning for the student in question's grades received for an evaluator to be able to make a good conclusion regarding that student's ability, presuming the evaluator trusts the professor's judgment and the professor isn't one of the psychos that makes it into the profession.

The system seems like it's just too large to deliver the specific results necessary since every single component (professor/course) must be checked to make sure that it isn't a glitch (psycho) in the system, so to speak. Since employers don't have or want to spend the time doing that, and professors don't have or want to spend the time to do what they'd have to do to make it possible (that'd be an insane amount of work that couldn't possibly be done unless we severely lowered the student-professor ratio), it seems pretty hopeless to me.

Right now, at least we have some sort of approximation of a good system which does seem to permit those who honestly want to learn to do so. The real challenge is just finding a way to get employers to perform better hiring routines.

But, as they say, make a better system, and there'll come along a better moron, or a more diabolical mischief-maker.

4:35 PM  

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