Saturday, August 30, 2008

Fight the Dragon. Or Housefly.

To stop men from peeing on the floor, authorities at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam have etched the image of a black housefly into each urinal. It seems that men usually do not pay much attention to where they aim, which can create a bit of a mess. But if you give them a target, they can’t help but try to hit it. Similar designs have been implemented in urinals around the world, including mini soccer goals, bulls-eyes, and urine video games (seriously). Do they work? Since the bugs were etched into the airport urinals, spillage has decreased by 80 percent.

(From the very gruntled GOOD magazine.)

Friday, August 29, 2008

On the Forbes College Rankings

This is my final back-to-school story.

Forbes magazine just published its first college rankings. Centre College did exceptionally well -- 13th among all colleges and universities in the United States -- so you can imagine that we have been pleased. Still, modesty compels us to be a little skeptical of such a result.

A closer look at the method they used, though, increases my confidence in the result. The great weakness of the U.S. News rankings, the standard in the field, is that they are based almost entirely on inputs to education, such as endowment per student or student-teacher ratios, and not on measures of the outcomes of education. Forbes, by contrast, uses outcome measures. Specifically, the Forbes rankings, compiled by The Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), used these five components:

1. Listing of Alumni in the 2008 Who's Who in America (25%)

2. Student Evaluations of Professors from (25%)

3. Four- Year Graduation Rates (16 2/3%)

4. Enrollment-adjusted numbers of students and faculty receiving nationally competitive awards (16 2/3%)

5. Average four year accumulated student debt of those borrowing money (16 2/3%)

Outcome measures are, in principle, better than inputs in figuring out what real effect a school has on students. And each of these outcome measures is not a bad one. Even the Rate My Professors score, which seems the sketchiest, is (as they show) well correlated with more commonly used measures of teaching effectiveness.

Forbes measured outcomes while controlling for the size of the school. This sensible procedure demonstrates that small liberals arts colleges really do stand out. Sure, every big U has some great student successes, but on a base of tens of thousands who pass through the ed factory. A small college with a good faculty, of which there are many, offers better teaching for most students than even the best universities. Sure, the University of Virginia (43) gets some really great students, but Centre College (13) does more with the fine students we get -- all of them, not just the stars.

I hope Forbes will push all the college rankers to focus more on outcomes, especially long-term outcomes.

Here, then, are the Forbes top 25:

1 Princeton University
2 California Institute of Technology
3 Harvard University
4 Swarthmore College
5 Williams College
6 United States Military Academy
7 Amherst College
8 Wellesley College
9 Yale University
10 Columbia University
11 Northwestern University
12 Wabash College
13 Centre College
14 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
15 Bowdoin College
16 United States Air Force Academy
17 Middlebury College
18 University of Chicago
19 Smith College
20 Pomona College
21 Wesleyan University
22 Haverford College
23 Stanford University
24 Hamilton College
25 Sarah Lawrence College

Thursday, August 28, 2008

High School Graduation Peaked Last Year

A third back-to-school story:

All the public and private high schools in the United States graduated about 3.34 million students last year. That is likely to be the peak number for the foreseeable future, projecting out to 2022. This is the finding reported in the most recent edition of the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education's series of high school and college projections.

The declining number of high school graduates will put further pressure on the massive expansion of college and college-like training to go deeper into the pool of warm bodies just to sustain the credentialing apparatus we now have.

Still, it is a very good thing that there are more high school graduates than ever before.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Murray is Right: Too Many Go to "College"

Here is another good back-to-school subject.

Charles Murray has written another provocative book, Real Education. A few months ago he gave a summary of his argument in the Wall Street Journal.

He argues that liberal arts education is for the intellectual elite. Our society is already good at seeing that the smartest kids get channeled toward the best colleges. We are not so good at channeling the vast middle of kids to vocational education. We do not give vocational education the same status. This inflates the value of college degrees socially and economically, and forces liberal arts colleges to try to provide job training for which they are ill equipped.

I am a sociology professor at a liberal arts college. Murray specifically slams a B.A. in sociology as telling you nothing about what the degree holder knows. I agree. In a liberal arts education, where you went to school matters more than which discipline you studied most.

And if you don't need a liberal arts education, or aren't ready for one now, by all means don't go to college just for social reasons. Vocational education, if it really teaches its craft, is honorable education, just as craft works of all kinds is honorable work.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Faculty Moderation

The New York Times reported in the dead of summer on the increasing moderation of professors. This seems like an excellent back-to-school story to me.

On a liberal-moderate-conservative scale, professors as a whole are more liberal than conservative, with a strong body of self-described moderates. Within disciplines, social scientists are the most liberal, with just over half reporting that position. Business professors have the most conservatives - about a quarter. The middle-most disciplines are computer science and engineering, which report nearly 90% moderation.

When we look by generation, the Baby Boomers, now aged 50 to shading off to retirement at 65, are the most liberal. Boomer humanities professors are the most liberal group of all, with nearly three quarters choosing that label and negligible percentages choosing "conservative."

The younger generations, though, are notably less liberal than the Boomers, and more moderate. Gen X humanities professors, for example, have only half the rate of liberals that their elders show.

There are significant variations by disciplinary area. The Boomer scientists are not nearly as liberal as their humanities counterparts are; Gen X scientists, though, show more liberals than their elders. My guess is that this reflects the massive increase in women in science after the Baby Boom generation.

The general trend across all disciplines, though, is that the professoriate will get less liberal and more moderate as the older generations retire. This is good news for centrism.