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.