Is this a maths story?

Alex Tabarrok points to a Duke University working paper that tracks the performance of students through the university and attempts to measure the educational impact of affirmative action programs. As you can imagine the paper is controversial.

So the basic story is that a cohort of students is accepted to university with varying entry scores. These students get to nominate a major and then their progress is recorded over time until graduation. You’d think universities would routinely evaluate this sort of information. Alas, no. Anyway, what happened in this instance? The grade differential between black and white students declines over time. So far so good. But that is explained by black students choosing easier majors – in particular by switching majors from harder to easier subjects. (Read from majors that involve maths to those that don’t).

In fact, black/white gpa convergence is symptomatic of dramatic shifts by blacks from initial interest in the natural sciences, engineering, and economics to majors in the humanities and social sciences. We show that natural science, engineering, and economics courses are more difficult, associated with higher study times, and have harsher grading standards; all of which translate into students with weaker academic backgrounds being less likely to choose these majors.

But Tabarrok tells us …

An important finding is that the shift in major appear to be driven almost entirely by incoming SAT scores and the strength of the student’s high school curriculum. In other words, blacks and whites with similar academic backgrounds shift away from science, engineering and economics and towards the easier courses at similar rates.

So all students with lower incoming scores are more likely to change from harder to easier majors but black students are more likely to have lower initial scores. This does suggest that universities (or at least Duke) are not very good at catch-up programs for educationally disadvantaged students (now we can argue over why that is the case – there is enough blame to go around). The other point, however, is that most students (included in the study) graduate. So if it turns out that you’re no good at designing bridges you can become a sociologist. Graduation is not a trivial event in any discipline. So the US model has the benefit that students can drop out of majors, but that doesn’t necessarily mean dropping out of university.

The ideal follow up study would be to compare students with low initial scores that go to university (even if they change majors) with those who do not. I suspect we’d find that the university experience added value irrespective of whether the student majored in a hard or easy subject. The early evidence is in; graduates tend to earn more than non-graduates who earn more than high-school leavers who earn more than high-school drop-outs. So the Duke affirmative action program might not produce black engineers but it is producing black graduates.

Back to the study; I suspect this is a story about maths education. Maths is important especially in the early years. Unfortunately doing maths is boring – for example, times tables must be learned by rote and repetition – and few kids want to do it and qualified teachers are scarce.

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41 Responses to Is this a maths story?

  1. Rococo Liberal

    Typo

    Its “maths” not ‘math”

  2. Sinclair Davidson

    Not sure of the Australian lingo.

  3. spot

    If you’re an American talking about subjects at an American university, I think the American “math” will do.
    NB I’ve been an Aussie citizen for most of my adult life and still say “Math,” leaving the extra s for “Sports”.

  4. Rococo Liberal

    Spot

    We should not encourage the Americans in their murder of the English language.

    One of their real sins is to to talk about ‘math’ when they mean arithemetic.

  5. spot

    i.e. “What are you doing watching sports on TV…? Have you finished your math homework yet?”

  6. .

    So if you send your kids to a Montessori school, they will be beaten up as adults, if you dumb down your kids in early years they will succeed as civil servants.

    There is no justice in the world.

  7. jtfsoon

    We should not encourage the Americans in their murder of the English language.

    Hear! Hear!

  8. ar

    Is this a maths story?

    Why not a maths debate?

  9. Rabz

    So the Duke affirmative action program might not produce black engineers but it is producing black graduates.

    Yep, just what the ‘brokest nation in history’™ needs, more ‘community organisers’ and african american history and ‘culture’ scholars

  10. spot

    Just for Aussies’ comparison: A typical 4-year undergrad degree from Duke (which is still –just barely– in the US Top 10) will set you back nearly $168,000.

    If you were neither smart enough to score an academic scholarship, nor naturally skilled enough to get a sports scholarship, you’d really want to be earning more than the kid next door who only graduated high school… Gotta pay back those student loans somehow!

  11. Sinclair Davidson

    Rabz – is that a problem? As long as they are paid their marginal product and that is more than they otherwise would have earned I see no problem.

  12. Sinclair Davidson

    spot – yes. That is a private cost not a social cost.

  13. spot

    Just a nearly on-topic link – especially for anyone concerned with “credentialism” and the “higher education bubble”, from today’s WSJ:

    “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Law Schools.”

    (If you’re not a subscriber, google the title and you should be let through the gate that way)

  14. .

    What if you really want to practice law and not be a sex discrimination or APS schmoe?

  15. spot

    Then you somehow manage to learn yourself enough to pass the bar exam.

  16. .

    Ah I missed the point. They have massive barriers to entry.

    Back in the day here, a Dip Law from the Barristers Board was the same as doing the LLB and bar exam.

  17. Rabz

    Sinc,

    I think it’s a problem given they produce and contribute nothing worthwhile and end up in massively over subsidised taxpayer funded boondoggles.

    The Universities are churning these ‘graduates’ out and they are invariably unemployable in the private sector. So where do they end up? In gubment.

    Brokest nation in history™, Squire.

  18. Judith Sloan

    Of course, Sinc, those higher rates of return experienced by graduates is an average statement; it may be the case that graduates of the easier majors are much lower than the graduates of the harder majors.

    I’m pretty sure that will be the case, although the restrictive practices of some of the professions probably has something to do with the high rates of return to some professional degrees. (Public certification of many professions can be endorsed on economic grounds, however.)

    We are also not quite sure re average versus marginal returns, however. And look at the low rate of return to graduates in European countries now.

    We should not think that choosing the easier option does not go on here, particularly in Year 12. Certainly, my second daughter chose Biology and General Maths rather than two Maths because Biology is soooo easy compared with the two Maths. The incentives were very strong in that direction, even though she had always excelled at maths.

  19. boy on a bike

    This is how I remember engineers from my uni days:

    – they drank a lot of beer
    – they were fond of beards
    – they wore very short footy shorts (ala Warwick Capper) in all weather
    – they wore stupid T-shirts with sayings such as “Heisenberg was right”
    – they had a stupid amount of contact hours, meaning they always missed the Friday lunchtime specials at the Uni Tavern (such as a jug of Tequila Sunrise for $5)

  20. dakingisdead

    “graduates tend to earn more than non-graduates who earn more than high-school leavers who earn more than high-school drop-outs.”

    (unless they are Bill Gates etc)

    I love it when I see these sorts of comments. What about if they leave high school and take up a trade such as plumber, electrician etc, or go to work on or in a mine or even work as a waiter now with Julias new “modern” awards.

    Beats the hell out of sweating away for yaers to graduate as another architect or sociologist and then end up burger flipping ofr driving taxi cabs.

    Oh wait all the taxi driving jobs have now been snaffled by “refugees”. Well at least KFC and Maccas are still options….

    When are we going to wake up and realise that the only way to increase the skills shortages we have is to get more kids into apprenticeships, not to have more sociologists and other pseudo scientists graduating from our universities.

    But I suspect that as policy is formed more by university qualified intellectuals who have little or no exposure to the real world of trades and the opportunities there this is not likely to change significantly any time soon.

  21. Sinclair Davidson

    Here is Peter Klein responding to the dakingisdead reply.

    I once heard a lecture by the sociologist Steven Goldberg about his work on male social dominance, expressed in his books The Inevitability of Patriarchy (1974) and Why Men Rule (1993). I remember him saying that whenever he presents his dominance thesis, someone invariably raises the objection, with a smug and self-satisfied expression, “What about Indira Gandhi?” or “What about Margaret Thatcher?” He went on (I’m paraphrasing): “Right. . . . Like I’m going to devote three years of my life to researching and writing a book called The Inevitability of Patriarchy, and someone’s going to say ‘What about Indira Gandhi,’ and I’m going to slap my forehead and say, ‘Oh, crap, why I didn’t think of that!’”

  22. .

    The education feminazis in the VET have ruined it, even for academics who want to slum.

    Say the AFP – they’ll take grads and army vets as agents.

    So -there are some jobs where life experience and education is preferred and different kinds of knowledge are recognised (hallelujah).

    Some people want more than a fat salary. Nevertheless, doing pure maths and being an options trader is probably the highest paying road to wealth. If not, get to TAFE and do a shotfirer’s course, and study economics, finance and investment markets whilst your mates are pissing their pay at the brothel in Perth.

  23. conrad

    “When are we going to wake up and realise that the only way to increase the skills shortages we have is to get more kids into apprenticeships, not to have more sociologists and other pseudo scientists graduating from our universities.”

    People constantly repeat this, but if you actually look at where job growth in Australia has occurred in the last decade or so then you’ll find that most has been for people with degrees. This is especially true in VIC and NSW (i.e., where most people live) which haven’t had the big increases in mining. The reason is also obvious — there just isn’t a need for huge numbers of tradesmen. I can’t find the Australian stats, but the SA, which should be biased towards low-skilled occupations vs NSW and VIC are here: http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/[email protected]/Lookup/1345.4Feature%20Article1Dec%202010

  24. dakingisdead

    No doubt Sinclair you may have thought of that but you did not express it.

    And Conrad there may be more “growth” in places for people with degrees. However if you are prepared to move to states where there are major construction or mining projects progressing that is where the “big money” is made for trades and also semi skilled workers.

    Your average crane driver, rigger, trades assistant etc or even cleaners on major construction sites would all be in the top percentile of incomes and there would be limited numbers of people with degrees who even come close to what they earn.

    I would be interested to know how many of those stats also include the 457 workers? And if there is no such thing as a skills shortage how come we have so many of them?

    In any case I think it is all a pretty moot point being made. Personally I think that the majority of people rise to their potential level of earnings over the long term.

    Some people just do not have the intelligence to get a degree or any form of training. And others are just too damn lazy to make anything of themselves.

    And yes I have considered that some people claim disadvantage. In the majority of cases they would fall into the above paragraph.

  25. Rafe

    Graduates tend to earn more than others, down to high school dropouts etc but but what value does the uni experience add for the mass of students apart from people qualifying for serious professions and people who have a genuine vocation for learning? School teachers are a marginal case, I suppose you want them to know more than the kids, and surely all nurses don’t need uni degrees.

    I suspect a lot of the financial value comes because of the obsession with credentials (there is a term for it which has slipped my mind): many jobs that could be done by competent people without degrees need a degree anyway.

    The stats on earnings dont take account of the people who do the really silly courses and come out of uni more stupid than when they started.

    As other people have pointed out the thing is to have alternative strands of education and training for people with either very general requirements (like Adult Ed for people who just want to catch up with some history etc) and trade courses for apprentices.

  26. conrad

    “And Conrad there may be more “growth” in places for people with degrees. However if you are prepared to move to states where there are major construction or mining projects progressing that is where the “big money” is made for trades and also semi skilled workers.”

    I agree with this, and if I had only done Year 12 and had a crappy job, I would seriously consider it (one of my friends in this position is). As it happens, when I was 16, I tried to get an apprenticeship (not especially hard, should the truth be told), but couldn’t, and I still think they’re definitely worthwhile having for many people as they give you other advantages over many degrees (e.g., some make it very easy to have your own small business). I’m just pointing out the reality of the job market — and presumably the reality for the future given the aging population, where a lot of money is locked up. This means that things like medical services etc., which are very labor intensive (unlike mining) and often require a degree to do, are sure to grow.

  27. Rococo Liberal

    Spot
    Except for Melbourne Uni, all Australian Law courses are exactly what the writer in the WSJ wants to occur in the US; ie law is an undergraduate course with a practical post graduate course or placement before gaining a practising certificate.

  28. JC

    RL

    I get the impression that law at uni, although it could be hard, isn’t exactly a tough course to do. You’re not going to be sweating a lot. My kid did it and from what I saw it was a no-sweat cruising speed type of trip with the roof down enjoying the sun wearing shades.

  29. jtfsoon

    Funny this topic came up while I’be been researching a possible career change in the near future.

    I have a law degree but have never practiced it or even done my practicising cert yet. I’ve been pondering the possibility of moving from economist to barrister without the soliciting in between, Yes I know, rather risky but I’ve been told (by barristers I know) it is not unprecedented. Anyway, such a move would involve the following steps since I have to qualify as a legal practitioner first before sitting bar exams
    1) Finally do my college of law practising cert (I could continue to be employed while point this part time at night)
    2) Quitting current job and fulfilling the work experience component
    3) Studying for and sitting bar exams.
    4) Finally, doing bar practice course/readership (I know an experienced barrister who is willing to be a tutor)
    All in all this could still take more than a year altogether.

  30. Driftforge

    for example, times tables must be learned by rote and repetition

    We still haven’t found a better way?

  31. dakingisdead

    “So the Duke affirmative action program might not produce black engineers but it is producing black graduates.”

    I have always thought that a degree is not the main thing. It is the learning and honing of the skills of enquiry, research, debate etc needed to get the degree that are the greatest value from university study.

    I have met over time a number of people who completed very esoteric degrees and have ended up in totally different fields and were achieving amazing results.

    However I am not conviced that a degree in surfing or other amusements would achieve the same result.

    So perhaps by simply achieving the result that they are turning out more black graduates is a great success. Unless you actually need more engineers of any color.

  32. Thanks, RL – I wasn’t aware of that. Law School in the States is such a big business (“In 2010, 85 percent of law graduates from ABA-accredited schools boasted an average debt load of $98,500, according to data collected from law schools by U.S. News & World Report. At 29 schools, that amount exceeded $120,000.”), I can see a lot of opposition to a system like that.

    Just for anyone who might be interested, see blogger (and law professor) Glenn Reynolds’ snippets on what he calls “the higher education bubble”:
    http://pjmedia.com/instapundit/?s=law+school+bubble

  33. Sean

    I have always thought that a degree is not the main thing. It is the learning and honing of the skills of enquiry, research, debate etc needed to get the degree that are the greatest value from university study.

    Depends I’d say, probalby arts degrees often leads to an extra year to specialise a bit or provides skills that are quite transferable.

  34. papachango

    Depends I’d say, probalby arts degrees often leads to an extra year to specialise a bit or provides skills that are quite transferable.

    Pfft… an arts degree is something you should do as a hobby, to round yourself out as a person. Read up on French literature, or the history of ancient Egypt or something.

    It doesn’t really deserve the status of a ‘degree’, and at bachelor level, doesn’t lead to anything. Maybe if you do a Masters/PhD in some specialised topic, but even then, it’s not really a profession, just something you;re very interested in.

  35. Tator

    Just a side issue, I wonder how many of these black students in academic lite courses are actually students on athletic scholarships playing sport for the university whilst allegedly receiving an education. From the Duke website, only 300 full academic scholarships are offered to athletic scholarships but not sure if this is a rolling total or 300 per intake year at freshman level so if it is 300 4 year scholarships a year, that means there would be 1200 student athletes that they have to provide an education to.

  36. Peter Patton

    RL

    We should not encourage the Americans in their murder of the English language.

    Actually on this point the Yanks are usually right. What you call “the English language” is actually the Franco-English that infected the bourgeoisie after the English settlement of the American east coast.

    I mean, like, colour?

    Quelle horreur!

  37. Peter Patton

    RL

    Except for Melbourne Uni, all Australian Law courses are exactly what the writer in the WSJ wants to occur in the US; ie law is an undergraduate course with a practical post graduate course or placement before gaining a practising certificate.

    This isn’t the case anymore. I don’t know of any Australian university, which still offers an undergrad Law degree. It’s either a combined degree – such as BA/LLB – with the Law completed only after the undergrad degree is finished, with universities increasingly dropping even that, in favor of JD degrees open only to graduates.

  38. wreckage

    DO trades show up as providing better wages when anyone with a trade and any nous at all is in business as a sole trader?

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