Data Visualization on College Costs

The Times published an interesting visualization today on the cost of colleges. I invite you to take a look at it here.

The bottom line is that the cost of college is a serious issue in this country, but not quite in the way that many people think. Colleges with intimidating list prices aren’t the biggest problem, because they often offer substantial financial aid and have very high graduation rates. Low-income students at these colleges certainly don’t have it easy. Many initially struggle to fit in on elite campuses. Yet the bulk of them go on to graduate, emerge with manageable amounts of debt and get good jobs.


The real problem is elsewhere: among for-profit colleges and public colleges with lower list prices but much lower graduation rates. They often produce students with debt and no degree, which is a miserable combination.

Maybe that’s the key there. It might seem like a better play to pay less uprfont for schooling, but you pay a lot more in the long-term, either in debt or in reduced income from not graduating. To use an imprecise analogy, in a way it’s like buying a cheaper mattress. You’ll walk out with more in your wallet but your back will tell the story over time. And it will hurt.

You know how I see for-profit schools, which are not just a problem ethically but also because they simply rarely work. But the true tragedy here is public colleges. Not all of them, of course, but those with fewer resources and less ability to support their low-income students on the path to graduation. Those students thought they were getting a deal, but not all colleges are cut from the same cloth, and price should only be one part of the puzzle. Not to pretend it’s easy to pay for such schools – the entire system is broken – but it’s not as cut-and-dried as it seems at first glance.

Yet Another Diversity Challenge


From (international) University World News:

What we found is that for every US$1,000 increase in tuition fees at four-year non-selective public universities, diversity among full-time students decreased by 4.5%. In other words, as tuition fees go up, diversity goes down.

The end result is the nation’s colleges and universities become less reflective of the ethnic diversity of the United States as a whole.

How long does it take for tuition fees to rise by US$1,000 at a given university? A US$1,000 hike could happen over the course of only one or two years in some cases. Over the past decade tuition and (other) fees rose by US$2,690 at public four-year institutions.

The fact that diversity drops when tuition fees rise at certain colleges and universities is a big deal. For starters, it means that more minorities might choose not to enrol in college and, therefore, forego the economic and social benefits of higher education.

But less diversity doesn’t just affect those who are priced out of higher education. It also affects students who are able to afford college.


Tuition fees should be offset by investments in grants (not loans) and active, conscious diversity work on campus. Otherwise we’ll just have expensive schools with self-similar students, even moreso than we already do.


More Options for More People

Times article today focuses on what I really want to study.

Take a look.

None of this is to suggest that higher education is not desirable: I’ve encouraged my own children to take that path. But while we celebrate the most recent crop of college graduates, we should also acknowledge the many more Americans who will never don a cap and gown. They, too, deserve the chance to prove themselves worthy of good work, and a good life.

Now, every commentator out there will say, “well, they should just learn a trade and become an electrician!” I have no qualms with trades, though I’m a bit wary of their continued prominence as technology advances.

However, the advice for adults without degrees basically boils down to:

  1. Get a degree
  2. Trades!
  3. Struggle and suffer

There must be another choice. The article mentions that, of course, many jobs that can reasonably be completed by those without degrees still require them for all applicants, which is an issue as well, but not one I feel qualified to fight against as I’ve got little experience hiring line staff. But that still leaves the same issue.

Some will say, “This is why we need union jobs to return.” I don’t disagree (but I also don’t find it likely). These jobs were a major source of support for relatively disadvantaged groups, including many relatives of mine, and they are also the workers I currently teach. But what, in my opinion, is needed, is a way for people without degrees to have a chance to access professional careers in some fashion. I don’t find it likely they will suddenly become doctors or lawyers without those sort of professional licenses, but if one proves they can handle the material, why can’t someone code? (Just an example.)

I have no solutions, only thoughts, and my main thought, one I want to explore in depth over the next several years, is how to get this majority of American adults – an even larger share of disadvantaged groups, as well – to have a shot at the same highway we degree-holders almost take for granted.

This Lady

There are people out there who think that paying your dues for decades is outdated and irrelevant. We should just look for innate talent and eschew specific experience to find the best people for the job, they say. Look outside of the normal channels.

And then there’s Betsy DeVos.

Here are some excerpts from the article linked above.

In places where there is a lot of choice that’s been introduced,” DeVos told CBS’s Lesley Stahl, “Florida, for example, studies show that when there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually, the results get better as well.”

This is DeVos’s core case. Introducing charter schools forces public schools into the sort of competition you see in the free market, forcing the public institutions to improve. It’s a market-based proposal for solving the endemic problem of low-performing schools. Florida, DeVos argues, is an example of where it works.

This idea that we can just turn education into an engine of capitalism would be fraught with challenges just on principle, but then there’s the fact that it just doesn’t work…

“Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?” Stahl asked. Michigan is a key litmus test because it’s the place where DeVos’s pre-government advocacy was centered. DeVos stumbled over a response.

“Your argument that if you take funds away that the schools will get better is not working in Michigan,” Stahl said. “Where you had a huge impact and influence over the direction of the school system here.” She later added, “The public schools here are doing worse than they did.”

For-profit and free-market policies are not something I personally agree with, but if they actually had positive results in education, there wouldn’t be much I could say. The only positive results, however, end up in the pockets of the people promoting said policies, and not with the students who need the support they are being denied.

One more thing.

A 2016 analysis of New York City schools found positive effects in public schools near charter programs, but that effect was linked to increased spending at those public schools, not necessarily increased competition.


I get why people think we should go out of the box. It’s a shame that people have soured on expertise, but I can at least understand why it might occur. But there’s a big giant gap between doing the same things as before and trying something new without actually considering its possible validity.


So here is a report on a study that shows something that will surprise none of you, that women still earn less than men for comparable work.

To the text.

Released on Tuesday, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce’s report — “Women Can’t Win: Despite Making Educational Gains and Pursuing High-Wage Majors, Women Still Earn Less than Men” – indicates that women must hold one more degree than men to achieve pay parity. Combining factors leading to pay inequity include gender discrimination and women’s historical concentration in lower-paying majors and occupations.
Researchers at the Georgetown Center noted in the report that when comparing women and men with equal education and the same college majors working in the same occupation, women still made only 92 cents for every dollar earned by men.“Women’s earnings still lag their exceptional educational progress,” said Dr. Anthony P. Carnevale, the lead author of the report and director of the Georgetown Center. “At the heart of the gender wage gap is discrimination in pay for the same sets of qualifications and experience.”

Further, women need “ideally at least a bachelor’s degree” to make family-sustaining wages while a “small share of men” can make it with just a high school diploma, according to the report.

The number, as you see above, is better and closer to equal for those with more overall education, but it still lags.

I bring this up because of a key point here. “Women are highly concentrated in the lowest-earning majors – 76 percent of all education majors and 72 percent of psychology majors, for example.” Putting aside the latter for a second, my interest here is the former. Not just because it’s holding women back, but because it holds educators back overall.

I don’t think I have the ability to do this, but education should not be, nor should it be seen as, underpaid drudgery, and I wish I could figure out the way to change both the perception and the reality (since it is, largely, underpaid). And of course, it’s cyclical, in that not only do these majors mostly feature women, but that these careers are often underpaid and less respected because they are popular with women.

I don’t know if anyone can snap their fingers and solve the impact of sexism. But maybe there’s a way to make this career more lucrative and still popular with women. I am not going to hold my breath, though.


Here’s a surprisingly short article from The Guardian about the awful current situation in Oklahoma education.

This quote sums things up pretty well.

“Most of our teachers work second jobs,” says Darlene Adair, Wagoner’s principal. “A lot of them work at Walmart on nights and weekends, or in local restaurants.” Ms Adair hopes that Walmart does not offer her teachers a full-time job, which would be a pay rise for many.

This is nuts.

And unfortunately, there is little in the offing that could possibly solve the crisis.

What worries me isn’t just the difficult lives that the educators have, but what might happen twenty or thirty years from now when those students are responsible for jobs and families that they may not have the skills and knowledge to manage effectively. It’s a crisis now, but it could easily become a catastrophe later.

Clearly they should pay the teachers more – if any decide to stay at all – but ultimately, it’s all, in my opinion tied to the fact that teaching isn’t seen as a career to aspire to, or one that is prestigious at all, especially for those who are coming out of school with debt to manage. According to a recent poll, despite how vital education is, it’s not even in the top ten most admired professions in this country.

Unfortunately, with the way educators are spoken of and/or dismissed, I don’t know how to change this.



On The “Gifted Gap” and Lost Geniuses

Read this report here, as it will tell the sad state of affairs for gifted children in high-poverty schools.

Here is the summary:

  • More than two-thirds of elementary and middle schools have gifted programs.

  • Overall, high-poverty schools are just as likely as low-poverty schools to have them.
  • Yet students in low-poverty schools are more than twice as likely to participate in such programs.
  • Even when black and Hispanic students have gifted programs in their elementary and middle schools, they participate at much lower rates than their peers.
  • In schools with gifted programs, only Maryland, Kentucky, and New Hampshire enroll more than 10 percent of the state’s black and Hispanic students in those programs; in twenty-two states it’s less than 5 percent.

And one of the states that does the worst at this is New York.

You should read the entire report, but the key, to me, is another line of theirs: ” This failure harms the economy, widens income gaps, arrests upward mobility, and exacerbates civic decay and political division.” It’s not just unfair and unkind. It is genuinely harming society. And I don’t think it’s malice, or educators deliberately trying to hold back their students. It’s a stereotype, where a child in a high-poverty school who performs well won’t have their ability trusted or believed in because, it’s assumed, it must be a fluke or a coincidence, whereas we’ve all known people from wealthy neighborhoods who weren’t exactly sharp.

The report recommends screening all children for possible exceptional talent, and not leaving it up to subjective and – apparently – deeply flawed and prejudicial judgment of even the most well-meaning educators. It’s sad that this is necessary, but I think it’s the only way to ensure more talented children aren’t being forgotten. How many have been assumed inferior over these many decades and what amazing things could they have accomplished if given the opportunity? Hopefully we can actually find out in the future.

Evidence on Sector-Focused Job Training

(No, that’s not a pun on the name of this blog, but it is a little funny.)

MDRC is a nonprofit that does research on the implementation of behavioral design in various disciplines. My colleagues and I were lucky enough to attend a seminar of theirs over the summer, and I consider their work to be among the best and most accessible in the behavioral science world. Today I’m writing about a podcast of theirs, in which they describe positive results from tailored and sector-focused job training. You can, and should, listen to the podcast (which is only seven minutes long) at this link.

To summarize the findings, MDRC has been analyzing a program called WorkAdvance, which is “a sector-based, skill-building model, launched in 2011 as a national Social Innovation Fund project sponsored by the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and the Center for Economic Opportunity. WorkAdvance providers work closely with employers in New York, Tulsa, and northeastern Ohio to help job seekers prepare for and enter quality jobs as well as succeed and advance in the labor market.”

It should come as little surprise to you that actually focusing the training on what the specific populations have needed has improved their results significantly. WorkAdvance prepares its clients for work in burgeoning industries, including IT, medical billing, and long-haul trucking (I’m, uh, not so sure about the long-term prospects of that one, but they know more than I do). The key, though, is that the training is designed alongside the employers, to provide the clients with the very specific skills they are lacking from most applicants.

The results were clear. To paraphrase the podcast, participants were much likelier to attain credentials and employment in their desired field, and two years out were earning 14% more than they otherwise would have. That may not seem like much, but is a considerable difference, especially for clients with less experience or expertise. To wit, the program even increased earnings for long-term unemployed, who are always a particular challenge in training and development.

Let me take a step back here and broaden the potential impact of this study. It seems obvious to posit that workforce development and other sorts of adult education need to be closely tied to employers or other goals that students might have, but a great deal of behavioral science is about common sense best practices that aren’t being done, after all. Job training programs are a dime a dozen, mostly because it’s easier to create a one-size-fits-all model. But without close working relationships with employers or schools (depending on what type of goals that students have), training runs the risk of becoming obsolete or irrelevant very quickly.

You can absolutely learn medical billing, or coding, or English just about anywhere and for not that much money (or even for free). But an employer who knows for sure that you’ve learned exactly the skills they require is much more keen to hire someone, all else being equal.

In my own field, plenty of my colleagues have taught “Business English” to interested parties. And there is absolutely a market for it. But most of the courses advertised are generic and outdated. I’m not sure how many textbooks I’ve seen that really want to make sure students know about fax machines, but it’s more than it should be. Imagine if more employers with international employees were involved in developing their own curricula with trainers and instructors, so that they knew exactly what their new workers had learned? Imagine how many fewer communication issues there might be.

Anyway, I encourage you to check out the podcast and look for other such evidence. The fact is, one-size-fits-all is really only good for baseball caps.

Social-Psychological Interventions

Yesterday, by chance, I found a printed-out copy of a report on “Social-Psychological Interventions in Education.” You can find the abstract here, though you’ll have to pay for the entire study, so I’m glad I was able to access it.

The title says “Social-Psychological” but once I got to reading it, it was clear they were speaking about what I (and others) might prefer to call behavioral design. The gist of the report is as follows:

Recent randomized experiments have found that seemingly “small” social-psychological interventions in education—that is, brief exercises that target students’ thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in and about school—can lead to large gains in student achievement and sharply reduce achievement gaps even months and years later. These interventions do not teach students academic content but instead target students’ psychology, such as their beliefs that they have the potential to improve their intelligence or that they belong and are valued in school. When social-psychological interventions have lasting effects, it can seem surprising and even “magical,” leading people either to think of them as quick fixes to complicated problems or to consider them unworthy of serious consideration. The present article discourages both responses.

Yeah, that’s behavioral science in a nutshell.

A few years ago, when I first became interested in out-of-the-box solutions to entrenched problems, I gave a presentation on what I was referring to at the time as “noncognitive skills.” A colleague from my graduate program saw it and was compelled to suggest we collaborate the following year, which we did, and by then it had developed into “conation,” which we took to the TESOL conference in Seattle this past March. But as 2017 rolled along, it became clear that, for me, behavior science was most likely going to be my interest and my focus, as I wrote about last week.

I say all this to say that this report validates my curiosity and my optimism for the potential impact of behavioral design. If you read the report, you will see that each group of students was given just a short exercise – fewer than thirty minutes – at the outset of a semester, and that this these students improved greatly when compared to the control. The results were so dramatic – and long-lasting – that, as the excerpt above suggests, people tend to dismiss it as “magic” or, at the least, unrealistic. But it’s real.

A few things are clear from the research:

  1. It can’t be top-down. Telling students why an intervention or an assignment is important does not convince skeptical boys and girls to buy in.
  2. Contextual experise – “an understanding of the psychological experiences and backgrounds of students in the local context” – is vital. Which is to say, even the best educator can’t walk into a culture with which they have had no previous contact and expect their intervention to succeed.

From here, I’d like to see how this might work quite specifically on adult learners, as these experiments were performed mostly on middle- and high-school students. I’d also like to see if the same dramatic improvement on students of color would remain the same regardless of age. And ultimately, I want to see if this can work even if students and instructors don’t speak the same language – can these exercises, short as they are, be translated for the first day of class? Would this have the same impact on student outcomes? And, as I’ll always return to, would this lead to greater long-term success, be it in terms of employment, income, or other relevant metrics?

There is a lot to look for, but this report and others like it are encouraging. Someday I will do my own such research and hopefully share it with all of you, and with others in my field.

Data on Relative Growth in Public School Districts

A couple days ago, the Times published this article. In it, they explain that the bog-standard way of comparing public school systems is potentially outdated – instead of merely comparing reading levels, we should compare how much reading levels change over several years. Wealthier areas are still by and large better off, but relative to where students in poorer areas begin, the wealthier students don’t improve as much.

You can go into that link and play around with different cities and districts, all studied by researchers from Stanford. The article uses Chicago as an example, showing that, despite how far behind they are in 3rd grade (below a second-grade reading level), by 8th grade they are only barely off the national average, having received the equivalent of six years of (reading) education in five years of school. Here are a few thoughts on what the data shows (and doesn’t show):

  1. As stated above, wealthier areas are still generally speaking better off, but it’s not 1-to-1. You can’t simply assume that median income will lead to a greatly improved reading level. In Westchester, for example, the majority of the most-improved districts have median incomes north of $150k, but nestled in between Rye City School District ($218k) and Bronxville Union School District ($212k) is White Plains, at $62k. What’s happening there that is helping students improve by so much, and why is the growth between 3rd and 8th grade specifically?
  2. The obvious caveat is that, of course, the best school districts don’t need to grow as much. But since we’re talking about a five year period, then growth significantly lower than five-years’ worth is an issue. And on that same list in Westchester (which I used because it’s nearby and mostly wealthy), you have Valhalla ($110k) way down at 4.3 years of growth, along with a couple other towns of similar median income. What’s happening there? Is it just that the best students in those towns don’t actually attend the public schools at all, leaving them bereft of strong performers? Or is it something else? What makes a place like White Plains able to sit among its much wealthier neighbors, and in some cases best them?
  3. The advantage of socioeconomics is plain. But studies like this show that, even if students are behind at the outset, depending on their environment, they can catch up. Hope is not lost at age eight or nine.
  4. I want to see this study for the difference in growth from 8th to 12th grade, though.
  5. Will colleges see these studies? Will they discount the grades from a low-income area because of assumed difficulty level when students are actually surging?
  6. And ultimately, I want to pull it apart a bit more. Yes, poverty has a massive impact on education (and funding, of course). But what about race, gender, sexuality, and other ways in which students can be outside of the majority? Does a low-income area with white students show the same growth and a similar-income area with students of color?
  7. There is, as ever, a huge push for universal pre-k and libraries full of data on the impact of early childhood education on student outcomes and success. But this study shows that it’s not enough to set them up well to start, because there is a massive difference between nine and fourteen. We know, as a country, we have to pay attention to students as they approach either college or working (or both), and we know we can’t let toddlers stay home. But maybe there is potential impact being missed in between the two. Maybe more students can have access to top-flight secondary and post-secondary education – or be better prepared for its rigors – if districts can work on helping them learn and grow during this period. It’s all, of course, a maybe.