Category Archives: School

Today one of my students Facebooked that “Every college student in the United States should be required to take a Race & Ethnicity course.” Several people immediately agreed, of course. But ever the contrarian, I asked some questions.

1. When have we intruded too far into people’s personal choices?

2. Who bears the cost?

3. How will this be enforced?

4. Would there be a required perspective? Could a college teach a course with the perspective that race is a myth with no scientific validity? Or a course that emphasizes the genetic inferiority of certain races?

5. What about the people who don’t go to college? Do they not need it as much, perhaps more, than people who have gone to college?

It’s easy to assert that there ought to be a law. It’s harder to provide good answers to the practical questions of implementation.

Category: School

I’m ambivalent about the value of a college education. I think some people are invited, persuaded, or seduced to expend valuable time and resources to pursue an education for which they are not well suited. In some of the discussions Over There, I sometimes err by digging into my heels without really acknowledging how complex the problem is and how difficult it is to formulate or implement a solution. The whole exercise becomes a cultural signaling thing where I get upset because others strike me as snobs and where others get upset because I strike them as a philistine.

Those discussions sometimes get tied up in discussions over what to study. On one side, not only should most people go to college or at least give college a try, they should study the liberal arts instead of, say, business or STEM fields. On another side, it’s wrong to encourage or support students in studying a discipline that has so little obvious or direct payoff. And there are other “sides” and positions between them. I usually come down on the side that liberal arts aren’t everything and we should be wary of the promises we make to students who consider studying them.

And yet I studied liberal arts as an undergrad and am grateful for having done so. I was introduced to ideas and books and people I would likely never have encountered had I not gone to college. I gained a lot of social and cultural literacy I would not otherwise have had. Whatever challenges my writing still has, it’s still a lot better thanks to the constant writing practice I got in college. And although my own career prospects post-BA were pretty weak–these amounted to service jobs for which a high school diploma was the only formal degree required–I still retained the ability to enjoy engaging ideas and books at a level I would not have before. It’s not true that “education is the one thing they can’t take away from you” (if anything because Alzheimer’s runs in my family), but as far as goods go, my liberal arts education is for me a very durable good indeed.

And I obtained all this without debt. That happy result was due in part to my willingness to work in high school and save up money and to work in college while studying (but I didn’t work during my freshman year). It was also due to my parents’ relative affluence. I didn’t have to pay them rent or contribute to the family finances while in high school or college, and in the back of my head I knew they would help me if my finances got bad. I also knew I could live with them after college until I got on my feet, so finding a gainful job right away wasn’t as pressing.

But my debt-free education was also due to state subsidies. Cibolia State University gave me scholarships (probably supplied by taxpayer money, but I don’t know). Those paid for most of my tuition, leaving me responsible only for room and board. And one reason those scholarships were sufficient to pay my tuition was because the state limited the rate the university could charge.

I sometimes fear my ambivalence about college and the liberal arts elides the fact that I have benefited immensely, at little financial cost to myself, from that which I criticize. Maybe that’s not relevant for what our country’s higher education policy should be. But I have gotten a certain benefit, and there’s something not entirely right about saying others shouldn’t, or saying it should be more expensive or riskier for them to do so. It’s not entirely wrong, but not entirely right.

Category: School

William Saletan tweeted the following image, commenting that his son lost five points on his health test for giving the “wrong” answer:


That is one mess of a question. First, Saletan’s son gave an incorrect (or at least incomplete) answer. However, the “correct” answer is wrong, too. In fact, those are the only ones that are demonstrably wrong. The others may be right or wrong depending on one’s perspective on the way that things should be. To mark those wrong is to expressly deduct points to someone for having the wrong opinion. The first two might be right or wrong also depending on perspective, but it’s not quite the same level of opinion involved as there are legal ramifications and such.

Kid Saletan’s answer is wrong because adoption is a thing, and the “correct” answer is wrong because that would describe my former roommate and myself, and we weren’t a family.

It’s not a really easy question to ask in any event. The only answer that I would be comfortable calling correct is something along the lines of “People who live together, care for one another, and consider themselves a family.” That leaves out the part about intended perpetuity (of the relationship, if not the living arrangements), though that has a degree of subjectivity to it. But then, so does any attempt to define “family.” Which makes the inclusion of the question all the more questionable.

Category: School


Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members presents English Professor Jason Fitger at “Payne University” and what I presume is only a sample of the numerous letters of recommendation his job requires him to write. It’s an epistolary novel, composed of these letters, letters to the department chair and various university administrators, and, occasionally, his attempts to fill out online forms.

I don’t like Fitger. He represents the to me all too believable caricature of the “oppressed” academics who, to quote NPR’s review, “feel that their genius has never gotten its due.” True to form, Fitger sometimes claims to feel a responsibility to the undergraduates who pay his salary but only rarely does he demonstrate that sense of responsibility by writing a letter of recommendation that actually is designed to help the student get the job or the scholarship or admission letter to grad school or law school or medical school. His letters of rec instead go off on personal tangents about his own and his department’s beleaguered position at the university or about unflattering traits of his recommendees. He’s the type of guy who says, “sure, I’ll write a letter,” but then writes something really bad.

In his letters to the department chair and to people higher up in administration, we hear the familiar complaint of “I know there are budget difficulties” with the added but unstated complaint that “but those difficulties should never have to affect me or my department in any way.” And again another complaint, his creative writing program and the English department itself is disfavored because–The Horror! The Horror!–disciplines like economics are getting more of the pie. A frequent complaint in his letters is about the renovations done for the economics department (in the same building as English, but a floor above), and dust and inconvenience such renovation causes him.

Not that he has nothing to complain of. If we trust him (see below), then it is probably a shame that his program and grad students are being continuously disfavored in favor of other programs.

Still, rare is his acknowledgment that maybe people shouldn’t go into debt to get degrees in creative writing (his bailiwick). And when he does acknowledge it, it’s only to say that creative writing students (if they’re graduate students, if not, he’ll just mis-write a letter of rec while they search for a job to pay their debts) need to be “funded.” And towards the end of the novel, we find the maudlin consequence of the paucity of funding:




His most promising grad student, working on a novel of a lifetime, loses funding and because Mr. Fitger cannot find a “residency” or more funding, this student commits suicide. There seems to be some recognition of Mr. Fitger’s own role in the case, but who can blame him? He’s in the trenches doing the best he can. Little consideration over whether he advocate restructuring the program so as to make it more appealing or at least better able meet his students extra-academic needs (like eating, mental health, a decent career).



Now, one of the first things you learn in Literature 101 is that you can’t trust the narrator, and exhibit A is the epistolary novel. We see the letter writer’s words–his rendition of events, his recollections, his biases–but we don’t see others’ perspective. In this sense, the maudlin moment [spoiled above] can be interpreted as the way the very self-centered Fitger sifts through and make sense of the sad event.

Perhaps Schumacher does not intend that we like the character. Perhaps Schumacher is exposing vicious academics for who they are. The blurb on the back of the novel tells me that Schumacher has a position at a university and has “written more letters of recommendation than she cares to remember” (quoted from memory, maybe I’ve got it a bit wrong, but that’s the gist). She’s seen what it’s like, so she can call it out. Or she’s seen what it’s like, and she wants to sound the alarm about the “crisis in the humanities.”

It is there I have to decide whether I trust the author, and not merely the narrator. Presumably as an author herself, Schumacher realizes the don’t trust the narrator rule, but does she observe it? Does she want us to take as granted that about which we should be skeptical, or is she opening up the whole things for grabs, as a good (in the Literature 101 don’t trust the narrator sense) author should?

I don’t know the answer. I’ve taken some lit courses, but don’t know all the permutations and explorations of the “problem of the narrator.” Neither have I ever read anything else by Schumacher, so I can’t judge. I also, deep down, would like to believe the author’s intentions are not important, or are of only minor importance. I would like to believe the work should stand or fall on its own. But I find myself going back to the author and distrusting her artfulness, at least in this case. That I do so probably has as much to do with my own “ambivalent about academics” bias as anything. But there you are.

[p.s. I’m out of town and may not be able to respond as quickly as I’d like to comments.]


Category: School

I agree almost entirely with Megan McArdle’s critique of Lee Siegel, in his article on why he chooses to default on his student loans (NY Times Link). And I don’t particularly wish to defend Mr. Seigel, who, as McArdle says, presents what is perhaps the least sympathetic account of why he has defaulted. Mr. Siegel comes across to McArdle–and to me–as an entitled, even snobbish, person who doesn’t wish to live up to his freely-incurred obligations mostly because it’s inconvenient for him to do so. I’d also add, though McArdle doesn’t say this, that if, as Mr. Siegel urges, all who hold student loans boycotted paying them, then one possible consequence would be a huge curtailment of the loan program, such that others would not have the same opportunities that loans have afforded him.

But there’s a little bit of something in the article that does give me some sympathy, if not for Mr. Siegel’s situation, then at least for what some people face when dealing with student loans. It’s an image his opening anecdote evokes for me:

ONE late summer afternoon when I was 17, I went with my mother to the local bank, a long-defunct institution whose name I cannot remember, to apply for my first student loan. My mother co-signed. When we finished, the banker, a balding man in his late 50s, congratulated us, as if I had just won some kind of award rather than signed away my young life. [link omitted by GC]

By the end of my sophomore year at a small private liberal arts college, my mother and I had taken out a second loan, my father had declared bankruptcy and my parents had divorced. My mother could no longer afford the tuition that the student loans weren’t covering. I transferred to a state college in New Jersey, closer to home.

Here’s the image that snippet evokes for me. It’s the image of an 17- or 18-year old and his parents, who seem to not have had much or any experience with college or with how to play the loan game. Perhaps they all assumed that college was a guarantee of success in life, or perhaps they had met people with college degrees who had money and authority and whom they perhaps had to answer to at their jobs

They, I imagine, had talked to a recruiter for the small liberal arts college at which he found himself. Or perhaps they read the glossy pamphlets that such institutions send out, perhaps with bucolic scenes of campus life, photographs of attractive young students and older but good-looking professors with charismatic faces, and quotations from famous alumni about the value of a small liberal arts college education. Perhaps the recruiter or pamphlet offered some impressive statistics that showed a large number of students obtaining a BA (instead of dropping out) and going on to high-paying jobs or to professional or graduate degrees.

There’s something not quite right with that image ( and I admit I’m reading much into this that Mr. Siegel doesn’t offer). There seems to be something exploitative about it, and I might at a later date write how I believe it is exploitative. But it’s not clear to me what the solution is.

To make matters more difficult, we don’t need to assume bad faith on the part of anybody when the loan was taken out and when Mr. Siegel first matriculated. He and his mother probably really intended to pay back the tuition. The loan officer and the bank he worked for probably really believed that going to college was a good thing and that the loan would help Mr. Siegel. The program of government guarantees for loans was designed to help people like Mr. Siegel to expand their opportunities. The impressive statistics the small liberal arts college offered probably were accurate. And for all I know, maybe that particular college was responsible–expensive, but mindful of costs and really making an effort to give its students real value for their tuition dollars.

Category: School

Sarah Kliff argues that college newspapers provide good training for modern journalism:

Becoming editor-in-chief of my college paper broadened my perspective. I had to think about all the important ways to draw readers into stories: things like headlines and layout and photographs and illustrations. I spent lots of late nights in our basement office with the paper’s copy chief and lead designer. These produced an absurd number of inside jokes, as well as a granular understanding of how words and design have to work together for any publication.

Today I work for a website that looks really different from the one I edited in 2006. But my day-to-day job is surprisingly similar: generate interesting story ideas. Write about them. Use layout and design to draw readers in. And always try to do better the next time.

I was a contributor to the Daily Packer for most of my tenure at Southern Tech, but I was an opinion writer which is not quite the same thing. Even so, this site wouldn’t exist without my experience there.

The Daily Packer had no relationship with the university’s journalism school. More than that, very few actual journalism majors worked at the paper. From what I understand, they almost all thought it was beneath them. Which, to me, says something about journalism majors (or at least the ones at our school). Experience is experience, and clips are clips. There were multiple writers at city news outlets who actually cut their teeth at the Packer, though. It was actually pretty cool to see people graduate from the Packer to Colosse Weekly or even the Colosse Herald. I do wonder how the actual journalism majors did…

As we know newspapers have fallen on tough times. It falls into the category of things I hadn’t really thought about, but that would apply to college newspapers, too. Before becoming an opinion writer, I was a regular reader of it. I did what everybody did, which was pick up a copy on my way to class and read it while waiting for class to start. What else was there to do? Well now, of course, there is the smartphone, which has access to just about everything.

As such, the Daily Packer is no more.

Well, they do publish weekly. And there is a website that’s updated daily. Given that anybody accessing that site also has access to everything else on the Internet, though, I doubt it gets the attention that it used to. I would regularly have people talk to me about my columns, including strangers who recognized me from my pic. I wonder if that happens anymore. I’m afraid it probably doesn’t. But maybe it does. When they did a revamp of the site my last year, I did check the DP’s website every morning.

That wasn’t the only paycheck I collected from the Packer, though. I was also the delivery guy. That involved waking up at 5:30 every morning, walking across campus (past the DP building, which was never open for me to collect the writing paychecks) and driving a little go-cart and dropping off lots and lots of papers. It wasn’t a bad gig, all be told. I’d usually be done by 7:30 or 8 but was paid for 3-4 hours a day. (I could theoretically start later, but it was way easier to do it before there were lots of people walking around the campus.) The downside was that if I had a morning class, I didn’t have time to take a nap. I actually enjoyed my 8:30 Business Law class, but had a lot of trouble staying awake for it.

But I will always remember the degree of disgusting I felt whenever I finished. There was newsprint all over my hands. It was often really hot even before the sun rose, so I would be incredibly sweaty. I used an open blade to cut the binds, which meant that I would often cut my fingers (and almost all of my jeans had tears as a result). I don’t think there has been a ritual in my entire life as wonderful as that cold morning shower wiping off the newsprint, sweat, and sometimes blood.

We made $6 or $8 a column. Which was so little, and the office so far away, I rarely picked it up. The result was that some years ago, I found out that the university owed me over $100 in pay that I had never collected. The delivery money actually came out of a separate account – facilities, instead of student activities – and so they would mail me that check. Which wasn’t much money, but it was pretty great money.

Category: Newsroom, School

Phil Plait is the Bad Astronomer. That is, he writes the column Bad Astronomy. I think he’s probably a pretty darn good astronomer. He is not, however, a good Constitutional Scholar. Back in 2008 (yes, I know, but I’m a slow reader, ok?), critiquing a silly claim by Vox Day (as if there were any other type of Vox Day claims), Plait wrote:

The US, despite claims by the far right, actually was and is built on a secular basis, and that is not only written in the Constitution, but in the very first right it lays out. Secular in this case doesn’t mean non-religious, it means not favoring any particular religion.

Plait is obviously referring to the religion clauses of the First Amendment, but he is, oh, so terribly, astronomically, wrong.

To begin, the First Amendment does not contain the first right laid out in the Constitution, as Alexander Hamilton made clear in Federalist 84.

The most considerable of these remaining objections is, that the plan of the convention contains no bill of rights. …

…I answer that the constitution proposed by the convention contains, as well as the constitution of this state, a number of such provisions.

Independent of those, which relate to the structure of the government, we find the following: Article I. section 3. clause 7. “Judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honour, trust or profit under the United States; but the party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment, according to law.” Section 9. of the same article, clause 2. “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” Clause 3. “No bill of attainder or ex post facto law shall be passed.” Clause [8]. “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the congress, accept of any present, emolument, office or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince or foreign state.” Article III. section 2. clause 3. “The trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury; and such trial shall be held in the state where the said crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any state, the trial shall be at such place or places as the congress may by law have directed.” Section 3, of the same article, “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.” And clause [2], of the same section. “The congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture, except during the life of the person attainted.”

Setting aside the limits on the effects of impeachment (which I would not count as a general right of citizens), and the prohibition on granting titles of nobility (not, properly speaking, a right at all), but adding in one he glossed over, the execrable right to import slaves (sadly, the very first true citizen right listed in the Constitution), I count about eight rights that textually precede the religion clauses.

But at least in the Bill of Rights, the amendment containing those important clauses was intentionally listed first, right? But, no, contrary to what seems to be popular opinion, there is no significance to the First Amendment being first. Madison’s original bill put the religion clauses in his fourth article of amendment. Further, he did not propose a discrete set of articles to be added on as a postscript to the body of the Constitution, but proposed to directly amend the text, in a way that would have embedded the religion clauses the third clause of Section 9 (the section that lists actions Congress is forbidden to take).

Fourthly. That in article 1st, section 9, between clauses 3 and 4, be inserted these clauses, to wit: The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.

But obviously that’s not how Congress sent out the amendments to the states for ratification, so perhaps they corrected Madison’s clumsiness, and put the religion clauses first to signal their importance? No, not even that, because the bill they passed and sent to the states included twelve amendments, among which the amendment protecting religious freedom, speech, etc., was the third. If we accept the “first because most important” logic, then Congress must have thought their first two proposed amendments concerning the apportionment of Representatives and the timing of their pay raises–neither of which was ratified at the time, although the latter finally was ratified 202 years later, to become, rather than the second, the Twenty-Seventh Amendment–were more important than religious freedom.

So to recap, the religion clauses are not the first rights written into the Constitution, nor did Congress propose them as the first rights in the Bill of Rights, nor were they even the first amendments listed in Madison’s original proposal. At no point prior to ratification did religion appear first in a list of rights. Their priority even within the additional set of rights added to the Constitution is entirely a fortuitous accident of history, not a symbolic statement of their importance.

I don’t want to come down harshly on Phil Plait, whom I quite admire. But it is ironic that in writing a column based on rebutting bad arguments about one field, the author makes equally bad arguments about another field.

Category: School

Libertarians are sometimes accused of a certain “glibness,” or a Fish You I’ve Got Mine mentality.  And that accusation is in evidence in some of the responses to Jason Brennan’s recent Bleeding Heart Libertarians thread.  In that thread, Brennan addresses an ad hominem he found on twitter.  That ad hominem calls him to task for an argument he has made in the past about the role today’s adjuncts have played in their own poor job fortunes.  Whatever one thinks of Brennan’s post–and I agree with it–it highlights a kind of argument that the unconverted sometimes interpret as glibness.

I’ll call that argument the “one momentous choice” argument.  Here it is, from the original argument that Brennan had made:

Adjuncts are people who played what they should have known, and in most cases did know, was a risky game, and lost…They are more like formerly rich people who understand statistics, but who decided to bet the house in Vegas anyways.

The “one momentous choice” argument refers to a mistake someone made and should have known better than to make.  That mistake should govern the rest of that person’s life circumstances.  No help, no sympathy, is merited or ought to be forthcoming.   The person made their bed, etc., etc.

No, that’s not really Brennan’s argument.  It’s only part of his argument.  The other part is that in the case of adjuncts, there is an opportunity for exit.  Another part is that the higher ed system is corrupt and needs some fixing, and as Brennan said in response to my comment, he pushes for reform “internally.”  Yet another part (not stated in that particular post) is the very reasonable question of why someone else’s mistakes should be a third person’s obligation to remedy?

My point is, though, that the argument seems glib. To the “glib” caller, the argument probably seems like a radical and unrealistic insistence on responsibility to which few of us are ever really held accountable in real life.  The “glib” caller probably believes that we’ve all made mistakes and few of us would want to live in a completely just world where we’re accountable for each and every one of the mistakes we’ve made.  Not to deny the importance of responsibility, that person believes themselves to be just trying to point out even the hardest working and most deserving among us have gotten breaks.  And as the ad hominem Brennan is responding to claims, Brennan is an “overprivileged libertarian faculty member who believes in his heart of hearts that he somehow beat the house.”  He’s already got his, so the ad hominem implies.

I’m not a big fan of ad hominem’s in general and don’t like that one in particular.  And again, I agree with what Brennan says in that OP and what he’s said in other OP’s about the “plight” of adjuncts.  But I do think this particular example highlights why some libertarian ideas have a hard time gaining much currency.  And although there’s perhaps no other way for Brennan to make the argument he does without coming off as “glib,” it’s hard not to acknowledge that there’s something understandable  (not particularly defensible, but understandable) about the “glibness” argument.

Category: School

I share James’s defense of the liberal arts in his post a couple weeks ago.  But I have mixed feelings about  the promises professors sometimes make on behalf of them.  One promise is that prospective employers “look at” your writing ability and ability to think critically.   Another promise is that a liberal arts degree will be “useful” in the business world.

My feelings are “mixed about” and not “completely opposed to” such promises.  My sense is that writing proficiency and critical thinking ability–along with work ethic, collegiality, and overall competence, however defined–helps one keep a job.  But getting the job in the first place depends more on internships, networking, or credential signalling (a proxy for liberal art’ish skills, but not the same thing) than on demonstrated writing or critical thinking ability. Perhaps a good liberal arts programs introduces its students to these things, but they’re separate from the actual study of liberal arts disciplines.  (Or mostly so….we could argue that everything is all related and part of a lifetime curriculum and that that represents the true spirit of the liberal arts.)

As James points out, the paths from degree to career for liberal arts majors tend to be “so contingent, so unique and unrepeatable, that they provide little clear guidance.” That isn’t an argument against the liberal arts.  In a sense, it can be an argument for the liberal arts inasmuch as it demonstrates the flexibility that comes with such a degree.  But it is an argument against giving prospective students the assurance that intellectual engagement at college or simply attaining a degree is the key to success.

How much do people actually make such promises?  Maybe not as much as I think or recall. Memory is always tricky, but my professors’ “promises” were at least sometimes qualified with a “or at least that’s what I’m told.”  They weren’t necessarily promises to begin with, just statements of why studying liberal arts might be instrumentally useful.

I also remember only half-believing those “promises.”  As an undergrad, I didn’t do all I could have or should have to develop my job skills (e.g., seeking internships), but I think I knew enough to know that a BA in history by itself didn’t really get one much of an entree into the work world.

And if I only half-believed those promises, I’m probably not the only one.  In my undergraduate years, my sense is that among my fellow students, there was a certain belief that the liberal arts were easy and what people took when someone couldn’t hack it in a “real” major like the hard sciences, or math, or engineering.  And let’s face it:  it’s probably usually easier for a non-specialist to get a B in an upper level history class than it is, say, for a non-specialist to get a B in an advanced science, math, or engineering class.  The prevalence of that belief suggests that it was hard to take uncritically the “promises” I mention above.

Therefore, however nefarious the promises might be in theory, they’re probably not as bad as those who might say their teachers lied to them.  At worst, they probably just reinforce what the student wants to believe.  Still, we shouldn’t make those promises without underscoring what James said in his post about paths to career.

Category: School

Mikhail Zinshteyn has a piece on 538 about the failures of the SAT to predict college success:

The College Board argues that college readiness can be measured by how well a student scores on the SAT, one of the many standardized tests it produces. A student who earns a 1550 on the SAT out of a possible 2400, the College Board says, has a 65 percent chance of achieving a B- average in her first year of college. Students who clear this threshold graduate from college after six years 69 percent of time, while those who score below 1550 graduate in six years just 45 percent of the time, according to the College Board. In 2014, more than half of SAT test-takers earned scores lower than 1550, a sign to the College Board that they’re unlikely to be college-ready. {…}

In the study, Hiss and his co-author broke down the high school transcripts and college performances of 123,000 students in 33 colleges and universities of various sizes and statures that did not require test scores as part of the admissions process. The authors compared students who did submit ACT or SAT scores to those who did not, granting the institutions anonymity in exchange for access to student admissions data.

Overall, students who didn’t submit their ACT or SAT scores posted high school GPAs that were similar to students who did. The report also found that among the accepted students, those with strong GPAs in high school performed reasonably well in college, while students with relatively strong ACT or SAT scores but lower high school GPAs finished with slightly lower college GPAs and graduated less frequently.

Interesting stuff. Using the SAT (or ACT or any standardized test) on its own does seem insufficient. It is nonetheless the standard we often use when comparing schools. But is it really used, to the exclusion of other factors like GPA, to determine collegiate readiness and admissions? I’d agree that where this happens it is a mistake. But I usually see some combination of test scores plus GPA plus class rank. The only question is how we’re allocating the percentages. Hiss wants to see us use the SAT mostly as a compliment, given that different schools have different GPA metrics.

That last part seems important to me, though. To the extent that we start using GPA more, the measure will taint itself. From Unfogged:

Admissions director: who do you want to send the letters out to?
Me: Everyone with at least a 3.5 GPA is eligible.
Him: That’s 90% of our applicants.
Me: What! How?!
Him: grade inflation. Some of the richest schools in Dallas and Houston will have their entire student body with GPAs upwards of 3.2.
Me: How are colleges supposed to make sense of that?
Him: First, we recalculate their GPAs and throw out all the non-academic courses. But probably 80% of our applicants are still going to be over a 3.5, recalculated. What we do is know the high schools individually, and you don’t compare individuals from different types of high schools. A 3.5 from [poor school in San Antonio] means something different than a 3.5 from [rich school in Dallas]. So you have to understand each school.

If this is already a problem in Texas, it seems likely to spread exponentially as teachers and schools realize they can get more kids into college with a more generous grading system. Which is far, far easier than a school teaching to or otherwise gaming a test. So the more you rely on it, the less reliable it becomes.

When I am comparing schools, the two metrics I look at are (a) Standardized tests scores (both the ACT and SAT) and (b) class ranking. I sort of assume that the grade inflation Heebie Geebie refers to is pretty universal (though if Hiss’s study is any indication, maybe I am overestimating it). Of course, class ranking is also fraught with danger. All schools aren’t created equal. I went to a particularly good school, so my class rank was relatively low (I missed the top quarter, barely making the top third, with a 3.6 GPA). The state schools back home rely heavily on class ranking, and this limited my options. (While schools in other states, aware of how competitive my school is, were talking scholarship.)

My wife’s high school, which was specifically geared towards the gifted and talented, refused to even provide a class ranking. Which was no matter, as she could have gotten into almost any school in the country and chose an out-of-state flagship school largely because it was a full ride scholarship.

Unlike GPA, you can’t fudge class ranking easily, but it has those holes.

The 69%/45% difference in the SAT doesn’t breed confidence, however. It suggests either that the false negatives are indeed high, or our universities (and/or support system) is dramatically failing almost a third of high-scorers (and perhaps some of the lower-scorers as well). Alternately, the high SAT score could be indicative of going into more competitive, higher-fail-rate schools? It’s really hard to say.

My own view (and I’m completely spitballing here) is that if push came to shove, you could probably get around 1/2 to 2/3 of young people to graduate, under ideal circumstances. The “ideal circumstances” does a lot of heavy lifting there, however. And I question the extent to which the added value matches or exceeds the cost of providing both the education and the ideal circumstances most conducive to graduation. This is one of the reasons why the cost of educating people in college (whether born by the student, the student’s family, or the state) is so important. The higher the cost, the more justification is required to send people to college.

Which always, always, always brings us back to the question that those of us who believe “Universal education isn’t the answer” have difficulty confronting. How do you decide? Every metric we have is flawed. Which brings us back to the cost of education, because with every increase, the consequences are that much greater.

Category: School


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