Low-Income Students Aim Low in College Applications

You’ve probably seen recent reports that low-income, high-achieving high school students set their college sights much lower than their high-income counterparts. That’s the chief finding of recent research by Stanford’s Caroline M. Hoxby and Harvard’s Christopher Avery presented last week at Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.

That finding is nicely illustrated in an infographic accompanying the paper (click for a higher-resolution version):


Here’s their summary of findings:

We show that the vast majority of very high-achieving students who are low-income do not apply to any selective college or university. This is despite the fact that selective institutions would often cost them less, owing to generous financial aid, than the resource-poor two-year and non-selective four-year institutions to which they actually apply. Moreover, high-achieving, low-income students who do apply to selective institutions are admitted and graduate at high rates. We demonstrate that these low-income students’ application behavior differs greatly from that of their high-income counterparts who have similar achievement. The latter group generally follows the advice to apply to a few “par” colleges, a few “reach” colleges, and a couple of “safety” schools. We separate the low-income, high-achieving students into those whose application behavior is similar to that of their high-income counterparts (“achievement-typical” behavior) and those whose apply to no selective institutions (“income-typical” behavior). We show that income-typical students do not come from families or neighborhoods that are more disadvantaged than those of achievement-typical students. However, in contrast to the achievement-typical students, the income-typical students come from districts too small to support selective public high schools, are not in a critical mass of fellow high achievers, and are unlikely to encounter a teacher or schoolmate from an older cohort who attended a selective college. We demonstrate that widely-used policies–college admissions staff recruiting, college campus visits, college access programs–are likely to be ineffective with income-typical students, and we suggest policies that will be effective must depend less on geographic concentration of high achievers.

Online Education and Self-Driving Cars

Last week, I noted that former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun enrolled 160,000 students in an online computer science class. That inspired him to set up a new company, Udacity, to pursue online education. A new article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek adds some additional color to the story.

Barrett Sheridan and Brendan Greeley answer a question many folks asked about the students: how many actually finished? Answer: 23,000 finished all the assignments.

Second, they note that professor Thrun is also at the forefront of another potentially transformative technology: self-driving cars:

Last fall, Stanford took the idea further and conducted two CS courses entirely online. These included not just instructional videos but also opportunities to ask questions of the professors, get homework graded, and take midterms—all for free and available to the public.

Sebastian Thrun, a computer science professor and a Google fellow overseeing the search company’s project to build driverless cars, co-taught one of the courses, on artificial intelligence. It wasn’t meant for everyone; students were expected to get up to speed with topics like probability theory and linear algebra. Thrun’s co-teacher, Peter Norvig, estimated that 1,000 people would sign up. “I’m known as a crazy optimist, so I said 10,000 students,” says Thrun. “We had 160,000 sign up, and then we got frightened and closed enrollment. It would have been 250,000 if we had kept it open.” Many dropped out, but 23,000 students finished all 11 weeks’ worth of assignments. Stanford is continuing the project with an expanded list of classes this year. Thrun, however, has given up his tenured position to focus on his work at Google and to build Udacity, a startup that, like Codecademy, will offer free computer science courses on the Web.

I wish Thrun success in both endeavors. Perhaps one day soon, commuters will settle in for an hour of online learning while their car drives them to work.

P.S. In case you missed it, Tom Vanderbilt has a fun article on self-driving cars in the latest Wired.

Can One Professor Teach 500,000 Students At Once?

That’s what former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun aims to do.

Sound impossible? Well, he’s already taught a class of 160,000 students. As Felix Salmon recounts:

Thrun told the story of his Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class, which ran from October to December last year. It started as a way of putting his Stanford course online — he was going to teach the whole thing, for free, to anybody in the world who wanted it. With quizzes and grades and a final certificate, in parallel with the in-person course he was giving his Stanford undergrad students. He sent out one email to announce the class, and from that one email there was ultimately an enrollment of 160,000 students. Thrun scrambled to put together a website which could scale and support that enrollment, and succeeded spectacularly well.

Just a couple of datapoints from Thrun’s talk: there were more students in his course from Lithuania alone than there are students at Stanford altogether. There were students in Afghanistan, exfiltrating war zones to grab an hour of connectivity to finish the homework assignments. There were single mothers keeping the faith and staying with the course even as their families were being hit by tragedy. And when it finished, thousands of students around the world were educated and inspired. Some 248 of them, in total, got a perfect score: they never got a single question wrong, over the entire course of the class. All 248 took the course online; not one was enrolled at Stanford.

And I loved as well his story of the physical class at Stanford, which dwindled from 200 students to 30 students because the online course was more intimate and better at teaching than the real-world course on which it was based.

 Inspired by that experience, Thrun has now founded Udacity, a private online university. As Nick DeSantis of the Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

One of Udacity’s first offerings will be a seven-week course called “Building a Search Engine.” It will be taught by David Evans, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Virginia and a Udacity partner. Mr. Thrun said it is designed to teach students with no prior programming experience how to build a search engine like Google. He hopes 500,000 students will enroll.

Teaching the course at Stanford, Mr. Thrun said, showed him the potential of digital education, which turned out to be a drug that he could not ignore.

“I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill,” he said. “And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”

That Wonderland will be a serious challenge to traditional chalk-and-talk universities — and a wonderful opportunity to democratize knowledge around the globe.

(ht: Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution)

How Will Colleges Innovate?

That’s the question that Jeffrey Selingo poses over the The Chronicle of Higher Education (ht: Jack B.):

[I]f current economic trends continue, much of traditional academe is going to be forced to change. Families can no longer use their house as an ATM. States are making tough choices about the size of government, and public colleges are often left at the end of the line. And now the federal government is likely to cut back on many of its fiscal promises to deal with an out-of-control deficit.

The bottom line is that we’re likely to face a future where students and their families pay a lot more of the cost of a college education out of pocket. Without grants and loans as a safety net, students are probably going to make different choices than they do now (read: less expensive choices). We’re likely headed toward a future where smaller, struggling colleges need to move to new models of doing business, while elite, wealthy colleges continue to support the current model.

Selingo then summarizes several ideas that were bandied about in a meeting of academic “disruptors” and disruptive innovation guru Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School. They include:

  • Disaggregated universities, in which colleges would purchase courses from other colleges (or, I suppose, sources like Khan Academy) rather than produce them themselves, and
  • Modular universities, in which colleges would provide much more focused degree offerings.

Also on the agenda: rethinking the often-anachronistic academic year and the scholastic currency known as the credit hour.

To be sure, none of these ideas are particularly earth-shattering. But that may well be the larger point. America’s higher education “industry” might well reap substantial benefits from adopting organizational ideas that are already old hat elsewhere in the economy.

The Rubber Room

Over in the New Yorker, Steven Brill discusses “the battle over New York City’s worst teachers“:

These fifteen teachers, along with about six hundred others in six larger Rubber Rooms in the city’s five boroughs, have been accused of misconduct, such as hitting or molesting a student, or, in some cases, of incompetence, in a system that rarely calls anyone incompetent.

The teachers have been in the Rubber Room for an average of about three years, doing the same thing every day—which is pretty much nothing at all. Watched over by two private security guards and two city Department of Education supervisors, they punch a time clock for the same hours that they would have kept at school—typically, eight-fifteen to three-fifteen. Like all teachers, they have the summer off. The city’s contract with their union, the United Federation of Teachers, requires that charges against them be heard by an arbitrator, and until the charges are resolved—the process is often endless—they will continue to draw their salaries and accrue pensions and other benefits.

“You can never appreciate how irrational the system is until you’ve lived with it,” says Joel Klein, the city’s schools chancellor, who was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg seven years ago.

Neither the Mayor nor the chancellor is popular in the Rubber Room. “Before Bloomberg and Klein took over, there was no such thing as incompetence,” Brandi Scheiner, standing just under the Manhattan Rubber Room’s “Handle with Care” poster, said recently. Scheiner, who is fifty-six, talks with a raspy Queens accent. Suspended with pay from her job as an elementary-school teacher, she earns more than a hundred thousand dollars a year, and she is, she said, “entitled to every penny of it.” She has been in the Rubber Room for two years.

Brill paints a picture of a stunningly costly and, frankly, stupid system for handling teachers who are accused of misconduct or incompetence.

Continue reading “The Rubber Room”