The Admissions Scandal Will Improve Universities

I would have been annoyed, I would have felt frustrated if my alma matter, Stanford, had been left out of the university admissions scandal. After all, what does it say about your school if it’s not worth bribing anyone to get your child admitted to it? Fortunately, it’s right in the mix.

I spent ten years in American universities as a student, and thirty as a professor. You might say that they are my milieu, that I am close to being an expert on them, or perhaps, just a native informant. Accordingly, reactions to the March 2019 admissions scandal seem a bit overwrought to me. That’s except for the delight of encountering the names among the line cutters of famous and successful people one usually associates with a good deal of sanctimoniousness. The main concern seems to be that the cheating is a violation of the meritocratic character of universities.

In fact, American universities have never been frankly or unambiguously meritocratic. They have always fulfilled simultaneously several social functions and served different and only partially overlapping constituencies. Sure enough, there is some transmission of knowledge taking place in almost all of them. I don’t mean to belittle this. I am even persuaded that there is a palpable difference between intelligent people who have attended college and those who have not. In addition, it should be obvious that some of the knowledge transmitted in higher education organizations is directly instrumental to obtaining a job (most engineering courses of study, accounting). That, although, in general, it was never expressly the primary role of undergraduate education in the US to procure employment.

The best of universities also contribute to the production of new knowledge to a considerable extent. University research is probably the bulk of the considerable body of American research in all fields. (Incidentally, I believe that the dual function of American faculty members as both researchers and teachers largely accounts for the superior international reputation of American higher education. More on this on demand.) The remainder of schools of higher education imitate the big guys and pretend to be engaged in research or in other scholarly pursuits. Many succeed some of the time. Some fail completely in that area. In fact most university professors are well aware of the degree to which each individual college or university offers conditions propitious to the conduct of research and such, and demands them. But teaching and research are not the whole story of American academia by a long shot. Those in the general public who think otherwise are deluded or, largely misinformed.

Most American universities are obviously superb sports venues; a few are world-grade in that area. In some schools, football financially supports learning rather than being an adjunct activity. Some, such as Indiana University where I taught, make do with basketball which can also be quite lucrative. It’s obvious too that residential universities- which include almost all the top names – are reasonably good adolescent-sitting services: Yes, they get drunk there but there is a fair chance they will do it on campus and not drive afterwards. If they do too much of anything else that’s objectionable – at least this was true until quite recently – there is a fair chance the story will get squashed on campus and remain there forever.

And, of course, of course, the big universities, especially the residential version but not only it, are incomparable devices to channel lust. They take young people at approximately mating age and maximize the chance that they will come out four, or more likely, five years later, either suitably matched, or appropriately unmatched. It’s a big relief for the parents that their darling daughter may become pregnant out of wedlock but it will be through the deeds of a young person from their own social class. For some parents, universities would be well worth the cost, if they limited themselves to staving off what the French call: “mésalliances.” (Go ahead, don’t be shy; you know more French than you think.)

Naturally, universities could not have been better designed to promote networking, offering at once numerous opportunities to meet new people (but not too new), and plenty of leisure time to take advantage of them, all in a conveniently limited space. As is well known the results of this networking often last a lifetime. For some, campus networking constitutes an investment that keeps paying dividends forever.

And, I kept the most important university function for last. I think that from the earliest times in America, universities served the purpose of certifying upper-class, then, middle-class status. This credentialing function is usually in two parts. The young person gets social points for being accepted in whatever college or university the parents consider prestigious enough, nationally, internationally, or even locally. The student gets more points for actually graduating from the same school or one equivalent to it.

This idea that higher education organizations publicly certify social status is so attractive that it has spread downward in my lifetime, from the best known schools, Ivy League and better (such as Stanford), down to all state universities, and then, to all lower admission-standards state colleges, and even down to two-year community colleges. In my neighborhood of California, possessors of a community college Associate of Arts degree are considered sort of upper lower-class. This small degree influences marriage choices, for example. I used to know a man of a sort of hillbilly extraction who was very intelligent and extremely eager to learn and who attended community college pretty much for twenty years. He kept faithful to his origins by never even earning an AA degree. (True story. Some other time, of course.)

Merit recruitment of faculty and students

I, and the academics I know are not very troubled by the cheating news, only by the crudeness involved, especially in the raw exchange of cash for illicit help. I suppose most of us realized, even if in a sort of subliminal way, that admission was never thoroughly or even mainly based on merit as measured, for example by high school achievement and by test results. My own undergraduate experience is limited but varied. I spent two years in a good community college where pretty much everyone who could read was accepted. Then, I transferred to Stanford with a full tuition scholarship. Academic merit did not loom very large in either school, and perhaps a bit more in the community college than it did at Stanford.

In order to preserve a reputation for intellectual excellence that contributes to their ability to credentialize without subsuming it at all, universities and colleges must actively recruit. They have first to attract faculty with a sufficient supply of their own (academic) credentials in relation to the status the universities seek to achieve, or to keep. Often, regularly for many, they also reach down to recruit as students promising young people outside of their regular socioeconomic catchment area. Their own motives are not always clear to those who make the corresponding decisions. One is do-gooding, of course completely in line with the great charitable American tradition (that this immigrant personally admires).

At the same time, colleges and universities don’t select scholarship recipients for their moral merit but for their grades, and for other desirable features. The latter include, of course, high athletic performance. Additionally, in my observation, many, or at least, some, also recruit poor undergraduates the way a good hostess composes a menu. When Stanford plucked me out of my young single immigrant poverty, it was not only for my good community college GPA, I was also an interesting case, an interesting story. (There were no French undergrads at all on campus at the time. Being French does not have cachet only for foolish young women.) Another transfer student they recruited at the same time, was a Turkish Jew whose mother tongue was 16th century Spanish (Ladino). How is this for being interesting? I am speaking about diversity, before this excellent word was kidnapped by an unlovable crowd.

Attendance, grades and merit

At Stanford, I realized after a couple of quarters that many undergraduates did not care to go to class and did not care much about grades either. I discovered a little later (I never claimed to be the sharpest knife in the drawer!) that few were preoccupied with receiving good grades. That was because it was quite difficult to get a really bad grade so long as you went through the motions.

I was puzzled that several professors took an instant liking to me. I realized later, when I was teaching myself, that it was largely because I was afraid of bad grades, greedy for good grades, and I displayed corresponding diligence. I thought later that many of the relaxed students were legacy admissions (I did not know the term then) who had good things coming to them pretty much irrespective of their GPA. Soon, I perceived my own poor boy conventional academic striving as possibly a tad vulgar in context. I did not resent my relaxed fellow students however. I kind of knew they paid the freight, including mine. Incidentally, I am reporting here, not complaining. I received a great education at Stanford, which changed my life. I was taught by professors – including a Nobel Prize winner – that I richly did not deserve. The experience transformed and improved my brain architecture.

About ten years after graduating, I became a university teacher myself, in several interesting places. One was a denominational university that was also pricey. I remember that there were always there well dressed young women around, smiley, with good manners, and vacant eyes. (I don’t recall any males of the same breed; I don’t know why.) They would do little of the modest work required. Come pop-quiz time, they would just write their name neatly on a piece of blank paper. I gave them the lowest grade locally possible, a C, of course. Same grade I gave without comment to a bright-faced, likable black athlete who turned in the best written essay I had ever seen in my life. There were no protests, from any party. We had a tacit understanding. I speculate the young women and the star athletes had the same understanding with all other faculty members. I don’t know this for fact but I don’t see how else they could have remained enrolled.

And then, there always were always cohorts of students bearing a big sticker on their forehead that said, “I am not here because of my grades but in spite of my grades.” OK, it was not on their forehead but on their skin. That was damned unfair to those minority students who had gained admission under their own power if you ask me. Nobody asked me. And then, especially in California, there has been for a long time the tiny issue of many students whose parents come from countries where they eat rice with chopsticks. Many of those couldn’t gain admission to the school of their choice if they had invented a universal cure for cancer before age eighteen. As I write, this issue is still being litigated. I doubt there is anyone in academia who believes the plaintiffs don’t have a case.

Meritocracy!

Virtue out of evil

The mid-March 2019 admissions scandal might paradoxically make universities better, from a meritocratic standpoint. By throwing a crude light on their admission process and turning part of the public cynical about it, the scandal may undermines seriously their credentialing function. It will be transformed, or at least, it may well be watered down. I mean that if you can’t trust anymore that the fact that Johnny was admitted to UnivX is proof of Johnny’s worth, then, you might develop a greater interest in what Johnny actually accomplished while he was attending UnivX. You might become curious about John’s course of study, his choice of classes, even his grades, for example. That wouldn’t be all bad.

Some schools, possibly many schools because universities are like sheep, may well respond by strengthening their transmission of knowledge function, advertising the fact loudly and, with luck, becoming trapped in their own virtuous snare. Some universities, possibly those that are now second-tiers rather than the famous ones (those could well prove immune to any scandal, indestructible) may actually become more of the learning centers they have long pretended to be.

I can envision a scenario where the US has a first kind of good universities, good for intellectual reasons, to an extent, but mostly good for continued social credentialing. And next to the first kind, would be higher education establishments mainly dedicated to studying and learning. The latter, if they were successful, would unavoidably and eventually grow a credentialing function of sorts. That would be fine. The two categories might compete for students. That would be fine too. It would be good for recruiters to have a clear choice of qualities. I think that university professors, or some of them, many of them, would easily move between the two categories of schools. There would be a single labor market but different vocations, perhaps serialized in time. Above all, students would have more choice and more sharply defined choices. Everyone could stop pretending. Actual intellectual merit and grit would find a bigger place in the higher education enterprise.

This is all wool-gathering of course. It depends on one of my big predictions being false. I mean none of the above matters if American universities are committing suicide before our eyes. I refer to unjustified and unjustifiable tuition raises over thirty years, to their collaborating in the moral horror that student loans have become; I am thinking of their capture by a monolithic tribe of ideologues clinging to an old, defeated utopianism. I refer even more to their current inability or unwillingness to protect free speech and the spirit of inquiry.

The Incomplete Counterfactual Fallacy

Mariana Mazzucato has some interesting ideas, but her basic thesis (which I’m guessing based only on her recent Freakonomics interview) forgets a simple fact: had the government not made GPS, not only would we not have GPS, resources would have been allocated somewhere else.

In other words, she’s right that without government involvement we’d miss all sorts of valuable things like the basic research it turns out government has financed, physical infrastructure (no matter how neglected), GPS, the specific form the Internet we got, etc., etc.

But that’s only half the story. What happens if DARPA closes shop just before starting on GPS? Those engineers end up somewhere else, the money for the project goes somewhere else, the steel and titanium for the satellites they would have built end up in some other shop.

If we could know that nothing else would have happened at that point, then GPS is a free lunch–some bold committee scooped up a handful of clay, handed it to brilliant engineers, and created something from nothing.

More likely some of those engineers would have made dozens of other projects a little bit better, and one or two of them might even have, through some series of unpredictable events, ended up creating some totally different innovation that would have put us on to an entirely different path.

Which is the better path? There’s no way to know. The people on that other path exist in a completely different paradigm from our own. It’s comparing meta-apples with meta-oranges. We are where we are and we ought to appreciate all the costs and benefits of the system we’ve inherited. I think Mazzucato is right that many of us have underrated the government. (Certainly 23-year-old-Rick was guilty of the over-complete counterfactual fallacy.)

She makes a compelling argument that Solyndra doesn’t look like such a boondoggle when you take the wider view we would expect of the smallest venture capital investor. But if it’s true that pointing at government failures is invalid, then so is pointing at government success.

What’s important is improving the future performance of our current institutional mess. To do that, I think we’re better off backing away from her broad claims and focusing on her more sensible (and jarring) arguments about how the current system encourages destructive rent seeking through intellectual property protection of basic research that might be better left in the public domain.

On the point of quantifying in general and quantifying for policy purposes

Recently, I stumbled on this piece in Chronicle by Jerry Muller. It made my blood boil. In the piece, the author basically argues that, in the world of education, we are fixated with quantitative indicators of performance. This fixation has led to miss (or forget) some important truths about education and the transmission of knowledge. I wholeheartedly disagree because the author of the piece is confounding two things.

We need to measure things! Measurements are crucial to our understandings of causal relations and outcomes.  Like Diane Coyle, I am a big fan of the “dashboard” of indicators to get an idea of what is broadly happening.  However, I agree with the authors that very often the statistics lose their entire meaning. And that’s when we start targeting them!

Once we know that this variable becomes the object of target, we act in ways that increase this variable. As soon as it is selected, we modify our behavior to achieve fixed targets and the variable loses some of its meaning. This is also known as Goodhart’s law whereby “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” (note: it also looks a lot like the Lucas critique).

Although Goodhart made this point in the context of monetary policy, it applies to any sphere of policy – including education. When an education department decides that this is the metric they care about (e.g. completion rates, minority admission, average grade point, completion times, balanced curriculum, ratio of professors to pupils, etc.), they are inducing a change in behavior which alters the significance carried by this variable.  This is not an original point. Just go to google scholar and type “Goodhart’s law and education” and you end up with papers such as these two (here and here) that make exactly the point I am making here.

In his Chronicle piece, Muller actually makes note of this without realizing how important it is. He notes that “what the advocates of greater accountability metrics overlook is how the increasing cost of college is due in part to the expanding cadres of administrators, many of whom are required to comply with government mandates(emphasis mine).

The problem he is complaining about is not metrics per se, but rather the effects of having policy-makers decide a metric of relevance. This is a problem about selection bias, not measurement. If statistics are collected without an intent to be a benchmark for the attribution of funds or special privileges (i.e. that there are no incentives to change behavior that affects the reporting of a particular statistics), then there is no problem.

I understand that complaining about a “tyranny of metrics” is fashionable, but in that case the fashion looks like crocs (and I really hate crocs) with white socks.

Research Readings

I’m trying to get through the rest of Eugene Rogan’s The Arabs: A History and Steven Gregory’s Devil Behind the Mirror for classes, but I’ve also stumbled across what looks to be a pretty fascinating research paper on neoliberalism by a political scientist at a university in Canada. The abstract:

This article examines and theorizes neoliberal ideas related to the scale as pects of multilevel governance. It argues that neoliberalism contains a self conscious normative project for multilevel governance which is consistent across the federal, regional and global levels. It further argues that the underlying logic of this project can be usefully theorized through various critical understandings of the separation of the economic and the political in neoliberalism and, in particular, through Stephen Gill’s concept of new constitutionalism. To demonstrate these points, the article draws on the normative work of neoliberal organic intellectuals – including Hayek, Friedman, Buchanan and various neoliberal think tanks – on ‘market-preserving federalism’ and the more recent extrapolation of these ideas to the regional and global levels.

The full article is here, but it is probably gated. *sigh* It’ll be interesting to see what the author comes up with. I’ll keep y’all posted.