Tag: education

Did They Learn Correlation and Causation in College?

It looks like Peter Thiel won’t be unopposed advising kids to stay out of college

Thanks to a new report from Georgetown University economist Anthony Carnevale, and a David Leonhardt column based on Carnevale’s study, over the last few days the college-for-all crowd has been striking back. But they seem to have missed something in their own college training: correlation does not equal causation.

Carnevale, Leonhardt, and others’ argument is basically that there are big, positive returns on a college degree. It’s something, frankly, that’s not generally in dispute. I say “generally,” because while on average college grads make a lot more than people without a degree, there’s a lot more to the story than averages. Indeed, there are at least three major problems with making averages the basis for a universal-college offensive, problems that Andrew Gillen recently laid out in a terrific blog post. I won’t reinvent the wheel by going into them all (read Andrew’s post) but I’ll summarize them: (1) There are huge throngs of people who attempt college and never finish, a giant population ignored when you just look at completers; (2) at least part of the college wage premium is simply a function of a degree signaling something about the intelligence, work habits, etc. that graduates already possessed; and (3) there are some majors and degrees that confer no great wage premium and are in about as much demand as Betamax or gangrene.

What is most concerning about the Carnevale report, however, is how the report and its fans make the very basic mistake of conflating correlation with causation in implying that the roughly one-third of bachelor’s holders in jobs not requiring degrees are much better workers thanks to their BAs. They base that conclusion on degree-holders in non-degree jobs earning appreciably more than workers with only high-school diplomas. Heck, a graphic to go with Leanohardt’s column trumpets that dishwashers with college degrees make a lot more than dishwashers without them, a data point seized on by the Fordham Institute’s Peter Meyer to attack anyone who dares say college isn’t the best option for everyone.

Once the dishwasher example comes up, is there any way to escape the causation/correlation problem? Any way to not at least seriously contemplate that it isn’t what someone learned in college that makes him or her a better dishwasher, but that someone able to graduate college will tend to be more punctual and reliable? Heck, even if you believed that the proverbial underwater basket weaving major existed, it would be very hard to conclude that the skills one would need to make the finest submerged wickerwork would be useful for getting dinner plates spotless, even though that often occurs underwater.

And many of the public service jobs cited in the graphic, such as firefighters? At least from what we know about teachers, government employee pay scales often give salary bumps for degrees, but degrees don’t necessarily have any bearing on job effectiveness.

People like Carnevale and Leonhardt are right to guard against efforts, especially by public-school employees, to actively push kids away from college, in particular if that’s driven by students’ class or race. But shoving everyone into ivy walls? Based on what we know, that’s equally unjustifiable.

Oh, Where’d I Put Those Facts?

A few days ago the New York Times offered the following explanation for why public college and university students graduate with less debt than people attending for-profit schools:

[F]or-profit schools sometimes encourage students to borrow privately from the school, rather than from federal programs, which often have lower rates and loan forbearance for those who fall ill or become jobless.

Of course! Evil “subprime” education has teamed up with evil subprime lending to form the Dastardly Legion of Subprime Higher Ed!

Or maybe not. It could also be that the Old Grey Lady is losing her memory a bit and forgot about the, oh, $75 billion or so that public colleges get directly from state and local taxpayers to keep their prices down. 

Darn those meddling facts.

Truth Is, All of Higher Ed Is Broken

Over at the New America Foundation’s “Higher Ed Watch” blog, Stephen Burd purports to know “the truth behind Senate Republican’s boycott of the Harkin hearing.” And what is that truth? Republicans are trying to “discredit an investigation that has revealed just how much damage their efforts to deregulate the industry over the past decade have caused both students and taxpayers.”

Really?

Okay, it is possible that Republicans are trying to save themselves some sort of blame or embarrasment – I can’t read their minds – but if so they’ve done a terrible job. Every time Harkin holds one of his hearings the bulk of the media coverage treats it like it has revealed shocking abuse by the entire for-profit sector. And don’t forget the damage done by the now-discredited – at least for those wonks who have followed it – GAO “secret shopper” report that was baised against for-profits enough on its own, but Sen. Harkin abused even beyond what the GAO wrote was reasonable.  So Harkin has defintiely gotten his message across, and he certainly hasn’t hidden past Republican efforts to reduce regulatory burdens on for-profit schools.

The fact remains, however, that the whole Ivory Tower – every floor and staircase – is loaded down with luxurious but crushing waste, and the crumbling foundations are being propped up with huge amounts of taxpayer dough and student debt. Not addessing that, as the boycotting Senators have stated, is what has been blaringly wrong with Harkin’s crusade. (Not that I think either party is likely to do what needs to be done: phasing out federal student aid.)

So absolutely, let’s stop forcing taxpayers to prop up the for-profit part of the tower. But let’s also stop pretending that that part isn’t just one rotten level in a much bigger, buckling edifice.

Family Friendly DISCO Moves

I like the nightlife, and I’ve got to boogie, so I’m pleased to hear of a new organization called DISCO: Democrats Impatient for School Choice Organization.

There are many ways to shake, shake, shake that education policy booty, however, and if DISCO really wants to be family friendly, they would be better off skipping the voucher element of their choreography.

The organization’s goal is to extend real school choice to low income families. A crucial element in achieving that goal is to ensure that parents, not influential lobby groups or entrenched interests, get to decide the kinds of education they can choose.  Based on both my review of the historical evidence and my recent regression study of modern school choice programs, vouchers are prone to regulatory proliferation. They centralize authority over what a voucher can buy, so that parents who need financial assistance cannot escape whatever limits the politically powerful wish to impose on them.

Tax credits are different. Scholarship donation tax credit programs, such as the one that already exists in Pennsylvania (and which the state House has voted 190 to 7 to expand) create a proliferation of different sources of financial assistance for low-income families. So if one of those sources decides to impose a particular set of rules on how the money is used, it doesn’t affect any of the others. Parents can choose to seek financial assistance from whichever scholarship granting organization most closely matches their own values and preferences, thereby preventing them from being forced into a particular set of choices.

I made this argument in a little more detail in Cato’s amicus brief in the ACSTO v. Winn case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld Arizona’s scholarship donation tax credit program.

Does Scholar Self-Interest Corrupt Policy Research?

The New York Times recently ran a story portraying the Gates Foundation as the puppeteer of American education policy, bribing or bullying scholars and politicians into dancing as it desires. Rick Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, feels that the story misrepresented his position on the potentially corrupting influence of foundations, making it sound as though he were referring to the Gates Foundation in particular when in fact he was referring to the impact of foundations generally.

Hess told the Times, among other things, that

As researchers, we have a reasonable self-preservation instinct. There can be an exquisite carefulness about how we’re going to say anything that could reflect badly on a foundation. We’re all implicated.

Next Monday, the Cato Institute will publish a study titled: “The Other Lottery: Are Philanthropists Backing the Best Charter Schools?” In it, I empirically answer the titular question by comparing the academic performance of California’s charter school networks to the level of grant funding they have received from donors over the past decade. The results tell us how much we should rely on the pairing of philanthropy and charter schools to identify and replicate the best educational models. Considerable care went into the data collection and regression model. As for the description of the findings, it’s as simple and precise as I could make it. I doubt it will be hailed as exquisite.

More Fifth Column than Fourth Estate

Citing new Census figures, the New York Times claims that “public school districts spent an average of $10,499 per student on elementary and secondary education in the 2009 fiscal year.” But according to the most recent issue of the Digest of Education Statistics, expenditures haven’t been that low for over a decade. In the last year reported, 2007-08, total expenditures per pupil in average daily attendance were already $12,922 (in 2008-09 dollars). Adjusting for inflation, that’s about $13,500 in today’s dollars. (Looking at spending per student enrolled, rather than per student actually taught, lowers the total figure, but not by that much).

So what gives? How can the Times claim that public school “spending” is $3,000 lower than it actually is?

They simply exclude a huge swath of expenditures in the number that they call “spending,” without telling readers they have done so. Specifically, they ignore spending on things like… buildings. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think American public schools have returned to Plato’s practice of holding lessons in an olive grove. Until they do, they will use buildings. Buildings cost money. They aren’t erected, for free and fully furnished, from the mind of Zeus.

Not only does this arbitrary and unjustifiable exclusion of capital expenditures from the reported “spending” figures wildly mislead the public about what schools are really costing them, it also misleads the public about the trends in spending. As my colleague Adam Schaeffer reveals in the chart below, spending on physical facilities has increased at a far faster rate than other expenditures (remember those Taj Mahal schools?). So by channeling David Blaine and making capital spending disappear, the Times also misrepresents real spending growth. In so doing, they undermine the public’s and lawmakers’ ability to make sound policy decisions regarding education. If the Times prominently corrects this glaring error I will be utterly shocked.

Michelle Rhee Endorses Private School Choice…Sort of

Former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee declares in a new op-ed that she endorses private school choice for low-income families, but adds: “I’m not for school choice for its own sake. I am for choice because it can, directly and indirectly, provide better opportunities for low-income children—not simply more opportunities.”

I’m not sure I understand her. Is Rhee saying that given two alternatives: one in which parents have many different educational choices and one in which they don’t, she inherently prefers the option that gives parents no choice if test scores are not impacted either way? Why not prefer choice for its own sake, as well as for its academic benefits?

Rhee then goes on to say that private schools receiving government funding should be under government oversight, and be required to do such things as administer standardized tests in order to ensure “accountability.” But isn’t this precisely the sort of “accountability” to which state-run schools are already subjected in minute detail, and which has coincided with stagnation or decline in academic achievement for two generations (depending on the subject) and a catastrophic productivity collapse? It’s worth noting that it is the freest, least regulated, most market-like education systems that consistently produce the most effective, efficient schools.

It’s a short op-ed, providing little room for Rhee to explain how she came to hold the particular policy views she espouses regarding private school choice. It will be interesting to learn more.