Thursday, February 26, 2015

Illegal immigration, de facto and de jure

Here is something about illegal immigration that struck me as curious. This was a while back--during one of the previous episodes when it was an especially hot topic politically. When a politician claims that it would be a good idea to take stronger measures against illegal immigration (like, say, building a wall along the US/Mexico border), but some object to such a measure, I have to ask: if we're serious about this law, then why would one object to whatever measures are taken to enforce it? There's actually a whole subset of the law and economics literature dealing with the question of why it is not generally optimal to use the maximum penalties available; e.g. why not punish speeding with ten-year prison sentences. There are a few issues that arise in that literature. In the case of immigration, I think the answer is that not everyone is on board with the law itself: many would argue that the standard for legal immigration should be different. Someone who opposes the law will naturally oppose any measures taken to enforce the law (plus something like a border wall is just so unseemly). So we end up with a de facto standard for immigration: getting into the country without going through official channels, and staying indefinitely, is feasible. Not assured, and not easy, but if you're willing to expend some effort and take some risks, you can do it.

That would be okay--to have an unofficial immigration standard that results from the push and pull between opposing views about the enforcement of the official standard--if not for the fact that illegal immigrants are shut out from so much of American society. Severely limited employment opportunity is the worst part, I imagine, but there is so much more than that. Fear of deportation excludes illegal immigrants from all sorts of rights and privileges to which the rest of us have access. For example, if I have cause to sue someone, I wouldn't generally fear any repercussions from filing a lawsuit. But I would not want to enter into any kind of legal proceeding if I faced a risk of my immigration status being discovered. Even if we disregard explicit threats ("If you don't do ____, I'll call the INS"), there are countless situations in which an illegal immigrant would have to accept something that would be unacceptable to a citizen.

Amnesty is not just about letting them stay. It's also about letting them exist like everyone else.

BTW, what image springs to mind when you hear the phrase "illegal immigrant"? For me it's someone working hard to eke out a decent existence for himself and his family. Not someone we should turn away or turn into a second-class citizen.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Meeting students where they are

This sums up much of what I have posted recently (hereherehere, and here).

It is often said that educators should "meet students where they are." I take that to mean understanding students' perspectives and patterns of thought, which understanding becomes the starting point for the educational process. But there is not much benefit in achieving such an understanding without also acknowledging what students want and what they are willing to do to get it. Recognizing where students are should inform what we try to do for them, not just how we do it. As I have discussed in previous posts, many students do not want the liberal-arts-oriented undergraduate education that we try so hard to press upon them. This is not an insult, or even a criticism. I think that we would do well to respect what students actually want from their education and to work with that, not with an ideal that educators have in mind.

Educators are not just content-delivery systems: there is much we can do to encourage and guide students, as long as they are at some level receptive to our goals. It is, however, a mistake to try to develop innovative approaches to teaching in order to reach all of our students when some students are fundamentally opposed to what we're trying to do.

It doesn't much matter where I meet my friend Archibald, if Archibald is a vegetarian and my purpose in meeting him is to get him to accept a sackful of cheeseburgers.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

An alternative to undergraduate business education

In a recent post, I described how a college education can act as a signal (not an idea that I came up with, BTW): that a student's completion of an undergraduate degree demonstrates that the student is above some standard of intelligence and responsibility. Obviously higher education serves other functions as well, not the least of which is the actual education, we hope. However, I claim that the signaling function is sufficiently important for some students that they would not attend college otherwise, i.e. that there is a significant fraction of college students that would not obtain an undergraduate degree if there were some other way to communicate their intelligence and responsibility to potential employers. I suggest apprenticeships as an alternate means of communicating this information as well as a vehicle for some of our educational goals.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

What's the point of a college education?

In previous posts, I pointed out that many undergraduates don't want and aren't getting the education that we are trying to provide, and I suggested that everyone would be better off if viable alternatives to a traditional education were available. Before getting into possible alternatives, it is useful to consider the reasons why one might go to college. This article lists five reasons, which I would condense into three:
  1. To obtain the education itself, with all of the concomitant joys and sorrows.
  2. To be able to get a better job, or more generally, to get whatever external benefits the degree provides (which may or may not be correlated with number 1).
  3. To socialize, or more generally, to get any of the things from the college experience that are desirable to students but are not part of number 1 or number 2.
Probably most undergraduates would cite the ability to get a good job as one of the reasons they are in college. For most business students, in my experience, that is the primary or even the sole consideration. Whereas liberal arts students are likely to have some genuine interest in the field they are studying, business students are likely to view the degree as a means to an end. They may be amenable to the education itself to varying degrees, or they may embrace the education itself as the thing that is going to help them get a job or be successful in that job; but I have never encountered a student that was studying business because he or she enjoyed studying business for its own sake or perceived any value of this study that was not entirely career-related. (There may be such students out there, but I feel confident in claiming that they are not the norm.) It is common for business undergraduates to want to get through the degree with the minimum amount of fuss.

Monday, February 9, 2015

A radical general education curriculum

Here is an idea for the general education portion of an undergraduate curriculum. There are three requirements. Each student must:
  • Design and conduct an experiment
  • Design and defend a public policy
  • Write a novel
There are detailed criteria for passing each requirement. Students have considerable flexibility regarding their approach to and the subject matter of each project, but all students are held to rigorous standards for the depth of each project and the thoroughness with which each is completed. Students receive a lengthy evaluation of each project including both quantitative and qualitative feedback. These evaluations are written by a committee of faculty members.

Students are given resources to enable them to complete these projects, including extensive advising and various courses. Many of these courses resemble typical general education courses, while others are more modular. Students are required only to complete the three major projects satisfactorily, and they may choose the courses that they feel will enable them to do that. Courses may include whatever activities that the instructor deems to be appropriate. Any evaluation of a student's coursework is for the student's information only and does not appear on a transcript. Under-subscribed courses are eliminated from the catalog and new courses may be introduced periodically based on faculty interest and availability and student demand.

Incoming students' orientation includes a discussion of what students can expect to gain from their completion of the three projects. They are urged to heed advice in order to stay on track to finish the requirements in a timely fashion but are given autonomy in selecting the instructional activities in which they will participate.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Hypothesis testing and arguments

Lately ideas related to hypothesis testing have been showing up a lot on the blogs I read, both in general--what exactly is it, what is the right way to do it, how do we teach it, how should we frame the conclusions, etc.--and in specific contexts. A common caveat is that failing to reject a null hypothesis is not the same as demonstrating that the null is true. Can't argue with that, but when facing this kind of question--what conclusion can we or should we draw if we do or do not reject the null--I think that it is essential to recognize that the statistical test is being employed as a rhetorical device and that it should not be viewed as independent of other elements of the argument. Hypothesis testing, like any bit of statistical inference (or any bit of science, for that matter), can in principle be executed and presented in a value-free manner, but in practice it virtually never is. Once you start talking about what we would like to know, you're imposing values on the process. Any argument about what we should do based on the statistical results will necessarily be value-laden. If there is some decision to be made based on the results of a hypothesis test in which the null was not rejected, one has to decide how failing to reject the null bears upon that decision, and there isn't going to be a single, objective answer to that.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

More misspent university funds

A large state university with which I am familiar used to have a student organization called the State University Economics Association (not literally, but you get the idea). At some point they changed the name to the State Economics Association. The reason was that they could not have "University" in the name without following the university's requirements for student associations, and these requirements were sufficiently burdensome that the students did not want to deal with them. Paperwork was one thing, I remember, and there may have been other restrictions.

Recently, while walking through the campus of State University, I saw a number of notices for student organizations, many of which did not have "University" in the name. That tells me two things: students value the organizations themselves, but the resources that the university devotes to student organizations are largely wasted.

One response to the increasing cost of higher education is that universities should unbundle their services. Much as living in a university-owned dormitory is billed separately from tuition, other services, such as athletics or student organizations, could be available for a separate fee. Tuition would then be meant to cover only expenses directly related to the education itself (including some but not all of the overhead). Arnold Kling predicts that participation in social activities "would plummet. Students would find less costly ways to socialize." (He says some other interesting things about unbundling here.) I think that the goings on at State University support this point. Of course it is valuable for students to get together around various themes for fun, networking, or whatever else, but that does not mean that it is a good idea for the university to devote costly resources to such things. This is the kind of redefining of the university's role to which I referred in a previous post.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Not so great ideas in higher education

In the six years I have been in my current academic job, my university has created several administrative positions at the level of director or above. I'm not talking about filling existing openings, but creating new job titles that didn't previously exist. When there is a new vice president for this-or-that, I would guess that there is also support staff in this new department of this-or-that. My first reaction is usually skepticism about whether the benefit of such a position is really worth the resources being devoted to it. For some of the administrative positions that have been around for years, I have to wonder the same thing. Would we be much worse off if we didn't have that VP for XYZ?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

To each his own

I remember a history class I took as an undergraduate. As I composed an essay in response to a question on the final exam, I felt that I was getting a glimmer of how historians think about the world (as well as developing the ability to put together a decent essay). It was very much like going to the gym and exercising muscles that I hadn't known I had. That exam was the culmination of a semester's work, but it was only one class in one field, which was one small part of my undergraduate education. The whole thing was, for me, tremendously gratifying. The difference between who I was when I graduated from college and who I had been when I started four years earlier is just staggering. Not all of that difference is attributable to my educational experience itself, but I have never doubted for a second that my undergraduate education is worth many times its cost in terms of all of the various resources used. I would have said that when I was a recent graduate, and it has become more obvious to me over time. The undergraduate degree was, for me, not so much an end in itself as a start on a path that I have followed ever since then. I don't want to claim that I am one of the great thinkers of our time, but intellectual growth has been a lifelong process.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The real crisis in higher education

A much-discussed concern about undergraduate education in the U.S. is the expense, which in real terms has increased dramatically over the past several decades. There may be a number of reasons for this, each of which deserves attention. Undoubtedly one of those reasons is that the percentage of Americans obtaining a college education has risen significantly. In the most basic economic terms, increased demand for a good or service tends to increase the price, since more resources must be drawn away from other uses that are of value. Rather than focusing on how to pay for an undergraduate education for all that desire it, I suggest reconsidering why students are going to college, what they are actually getting from it, and what potential alternatives might exist. A problem with higher education, perhaps the most pressing problem, is that there are too many students in college.