We Don't Need No . . .

Matt Yglesias asks a very good question: how do we measure value in education?

Well, usually we measure “value” with reference to an objective. You can, for example, measure value-added in classroom instruction by measuring what students’ level of mastery is before the class and what it is afterwards. That should eliminate the selection effect. But it’s meaningless if you don’t agree on what you’re supposed to be teaching in the classroom – or, for that matter, whether what is being taught in the classroom is the main driver of “value” for consumers of education.

Yglesias’ post is a comment on a Lamar Alexander piece calling for colleges to provide a 3-year BA (something that is already generally available – a budget-conscious friend of mine graduated Swarthmore in 3 years, by taking an extra-heavy course load and getting as much credit as possible for work done in high school). But why 3 years? Why not provide a college version of the GED, a battery of exams that you can study for and, if you pass, get the equivalent of a college diploma. Why shouldn’t such a thing exist?

Well, if anyone wanted it, it would exist. “Anyone” means employers. If you’re looking to hire for a position that requires a BA in a relevant field, why would you care whether an applicant had a “real” BA with a B average from XYZ State or a certificate stating that he or she had scored the equivalent of a B on the Baccalaureate Equivalency Exam (BEE)? Indeed, I would think there were certain ways in which you’d prefer a BEE holder to a BA holder: the former might be more of a striving self-starter, able to learn independently; he or she might be more eager to get out into the working world without wasting time and money; and, most important, you wouldn’t have to wonder wether the BEE holder had “really” earned that B average, or whether he or she went to a “gut” program or school, because the exam would be the same for all BEE holders, and would be readily audited by the public.

But we don’t have such a thing. Which suggests that employers and professional schools aren’t that interested in how well you may have mastered a bunch of material you were supposed to have been taught in college. So what are they interested in?

I once worked for a hedge fund that fancied itself as a kind of Microsoft of the investment world. They were extremely open to weirdos of various kinds working for them – guys with whole-body tattoos, guys who spoke almost no English, guys who’d run away to join the circus when they were 16, guys who liked to wear colanders on their heads to keep away the bad voices; they even hired the occasional female. But every job applicant had to submit their SAT scores as part of their resume. And, at least when I was there, every entry-level generalist applicant was put to work delivering the mail.

What was the logic behind this? Well, they were using SAT scores as a proxy for an IQ test, because you’re not allowed to administer IQ tests (any exams administered as part of a job application have to be narrowly tailored to the specific requirements of the job or have to have near-perfectly equal outcomes for all racial groups, and since the latter is very unlikely the former is really the requirement). And they were using the mail-room time as an extended period for observation of the applicants: to observe if they play well with others; if they are self-starters who finagle their ways into more substantive projects than delivering mail; if they are hyper-attentive to detail (the obsessive weirdness of the mail-room routines was something to behold) – and if they are too proud to do boring scut work if that’s what the higher-ups tell them to do. So that’s basically what they wanted to know: your IQ; any relevant experience; and your personality and character.

Obviously, different employers are going to have different needs. IQ matters for just about every job, but not to the same degree, and there are plenty of jobs out there where you don’t want people who are too smart either (because they’ll get bored). But I’m hard-pressed to think of any employer who’s going to care that much about the substance of an applicant’s college education outside of the narrow area of expertise in question. If you’re a recently-graduated psychology major applying for an entry-level job at a local television station, what about your psychology degree could your interviewer possibly care about? And if you don’t really care about the substance of the degree, then the substance of the BEE isn’t going to be terribly relevant either, right? Which makes it clearer why there’s no real impetus (from employers, anyhow) to conjure such a thing into existence?

The folks who should care about “value” in education are parents and students. And they do! It’s just that, if you’re thinking about economic value, then most of what a college degree confers is precisely the sorting function that happens before you even show up. The Harvard degree mostly says that you got into Harvard, and secondarily that now you know lots of other people who got into Harvard.

Once upon a time, City College provided the kind of “value” degree that Yglesias is looking for: tuition was free and the school was tough. But (a) those were the days when you could sit in an intro lecture class and your professor could say “look at the person on your left; look at the person on your right; one of the three of you will not be here by the end of the semester” and mean it. We’re still sorting in this model – we’re just sorting after admissions. And (b) those were the days when hordes of Brooklyn Jews could not descend on Harvard en masse because of a variety of quotas. If Harvard renewed its commitment to having a student body that “looks like America” – and therefore a lot less like Westchester County (or Davos, Switzerland) – then the “value” of degrees from schools lower down on the list would start to go up, because the sorting mechanism would be broken. But education consumers don’t want the sorting mechanism to be broken. They want it to work.

I’m more familiar with the question of evaluation from the perspective of primary and secondary education, since I’m involved in the charter school world. But charter schools have two huge ways of passing the buck that colleges don’t have. First of all, there are state-mandated standards of various kinds that we have to conform to. We don’t need to figure out if we agree with those standards; we just have to teach to them. And we can measure how well we do that. Second of all, we’re trying to get our kids into – and through – college. That takes longer to measure; our school hasn’t graduated its first class yet, and it’ll be 4 or 5 years after that before we know how well we’ve prepared our kids for college. But that’s data we’ll eventually get. And in the meantime, we can do all kinds of absolute and relative assessments of how our students are mastering the material we’re trying to teach them. Because there is such a radical disconnect between what is taught in general degree programs and what employers want to know about recent graduates, colleges can’t pass the buck in the same way (or, I should say, 4-year colleges can’t; 2-year programs, which are basically training for specific jobs, do pass the buck, training students to do precisely what specific types of employers want).

And we don’t want them to! We want college to be able something other than adding economic value. We just don’t really agree on what that “something” is – and therefore we don’t have any good way of measuring it.

And we shouldn’t agree! Ultimately, I come at this whole question from another end. The last thing we need is one number that measures “value added” across various academic institutions. All that would do is improve the sorting mechanism; if people really cared about the number, the schools with high value-added scores would get more applicants, become more selective, and become the “new Harvards.” To a considerable extent this is exactly what happens already; second-tier schools invest in new infrastructure, poach academic stars to beef up particular departments, etc., and wind up with better students and move up into the first tier.

What we need, rather, is greater diversity in mission between institutions so that something other than the status/prestige/sorting mechanism is driving competition between institutions. We need more schools that say, “we follow a Great Books approach”, more schools that say, “we have a strict labor component to our educational program”, more schools that say, “we expect our student body – and our faculty – to lead an upright, Christian life”, more schools that say, “we take student democracy very seriously – the student body and their reps basically run this place, including choosing the faculty” – you name it. Some of these ideas are going to strike any given student as absolutely ludicrous, and so they’ll self-select out of the pool. But others will be right up that student’s alley – will be places he or she would turn down Harvard (ok, maybe not Harvard – Columbia) to go to.

The more mission-driven an institution is, the more secure it is going to be in answer the question “why are we doing this?” The more self-selecting the student body is, the less institutions will obsess about their selectivity. And if there were less of a focus on selectivity, there would be less of an arms race driving ever-greater expenditures on things not terribly closely related to an actual educational mission (whatever that may be).

How do you get more mission-driven institutions? The answer to that is shockingly simple: you need institutions to be led, and frequently created, by lunatics with a mission. And since institutions of higher education are incredibly expensive, that means we need crazier rich people.

This is something I harped on almost 2 years ago, in response to another Yglesias post. Our super-wealthy show an incredible poverty of imagination – and when they do something crazy, it’s really embarrassing. This country is badly in need of a totally new breed of culture warrior – not somebody who rants on Fox News, but somebody who can preach to the obscenely wealthy and explain to them that they are obliged to devote themselves to some eccentric ambition that will fire the imaginations of generations yet to come. And that they are competing with other obscenely wealthy people in this.

I mean, I’m all for the Robin Hood model of getting rich jerks to give money to supremely competent and data-driven “philanthropic portfolio managers”. But I’d trade a considerable amount of “value” for a bit more sheer awesomeness, and a bit less conformity.