Reflections on the NYT article on education in China

The New York Times recently published a very nice article on the challenges that a rural family in China faced as it sought an education for its daughter:

I liked the article, and commend it to everyone’s attention.  That said, reading the article inspired me to think about the importance of assessing the situation in a comparative context.

In particular, the article would benefit from some comparative context, and perhaps some reflection on inequities in access to education here in the United States. Not to say that the situation in China is great, but we should keep in mind that we have serious problems in terms of access here as well. In other words, I don’t have any specific critiques or complaints about the content of the article, but want to put it into some perspective.

Specifically, the article correctly identifies many of the challenges that poor families in China face as they pursue an education for their children, but fails to note that in some form or another, there are similar or even more serious problems here.

As difficult as it is for someone from a poor family to attend a top university in China, given the enormous inequities in the quality of primary and secondary education in the United States, opportunities for tertiary education are probably even more uneven.

The educational system in China has many problems, which almost anyone in China will be happy to tell you about, but one thing it does remarkably well at the primary and secondary level is providing a solid foundation in math, reading, and writing that at least makes it possible for a family like the one described here to entertain a realistic hope for a college education for their child. And as problematic as the examination system is, it is much more transparent than the peculiar and opaque practices of private universities here. While it is true that wealthy parents can buy tutoring that will yield some improvement their children’s scores on the exams, if the child is a dud, it is probably easier for the parents to buy a place for them at an Ivy League or other elite private university (and believe me, that is possible) than somehow turn them into successful exam takers. Indeed, in China, wealthy families with debauched, lazy or dim offspring generally send them abroad to obscure private schools with flexible admissions criteria rather than waste their time and money trying to prepare them for the exams.

How many families in the United States of modest means and background like the ones described in the article would even dare to hope for a college education for their child? In my experience traveling in China for the last twenty years and meeting people from all walks of life, even middle school graduates generally have levels of numeracy and literacy comparable to high school and frankly even many college graduates here. When I taught undergraduates last summer at Shanghai Jiaotong University, one of China’s top universities, I was pleasantly surprised by how many of them were from poor, rural families in interior provinces. At the end of the class, several of them described their plans for their trips home for summer break, and many of them involved long train rides (in one case, three days to Xinjiang) and then long bus rides back to their villages.

While the article notes that students at elite institutions in China are more likely to come from relatively well-off families, according to research that I have participated in, and my own experience, the share of students at elite institutions in China who are first-generation college students and/or from poor families is much, much higher than at the elite privates in the United States, and perhaps even at some elite public institutions. As an aside, I am proud that relative to other elite research universities in the US, the UC system does have an excellent record with respect to the proportions of students from low-income families, or who are first-generation college students. Last time I checked, my alma mater, Caltech, also had the highest proportion of undergraduate students who were Pell Grant recipients (generally a marker of low-income) of any of the elite privates.

In research by James Lee, Liang Chen, and other members of our research group that I helped out with that was published last year in one of China’s top journals and generated considerable discussion, it was clear that well into the 1990s, the share of students at Peking University and Suzhou University who were from working-class or farming origin families was much higher than the share of students at elite privates in the United States who were from low-income families.

As for the expenses that the article notes, what about the private and especially for-profit educational institutions here in the U.S. that leave their students saddled with loan debt, and hand them a diploma that doesn’t do anything for their job prospects? And what of the seemingly unlimited amounts of time and money that middle- and high-income families in the United States are willing to spend on tutoring, enrichment, and other activities that will increase their offspring’s chances of getting in to the ‘right’ college?

My main point is to not to suggest that things in China aren’t as problematic as the article suggests – the problems are real – but to suggest we keep some perspective and keep in mind that there are similarly serious problems here in the United States with regard to quality of education, and socioeconomic differences in access to higher education.

Online education and higher education

I recently attended a meeting at which the subject of online education came up.  Indeed, over the past few months, the possible impact of online education on higher education has come up a number of times in conversation.  There seems to be a widespread feeling that as the technology for online education improves, it will have an enormous impact.  As is usually the case with disruptive technologies, no one knows what form that impact will take.

I seem to remember reading predictions in the last few weeks that online education augured the end of the university as we know it.  Somehow, the availability of free online courses available from a small number of elite universities like Stanford and MIT would lead to a collapse in demand for attendance at brick-and-mortar universities.  To some, this is a wonderful prospect.  To others, it is horrifying.

To me, the wild speculation over the implications of online education sounds like the same schizophrenic combination of undue optimism and pessimism that greeted television.  To optimists, television would be a civilizing influence because it would universalize access to lectures, concerts, and plays.  People would no longer need to be well-off residents of a large city to see lectures given by distinguished scholars and statesmen, plays performed by the greatest actors and actresses, and concerts performed by the best musicians.  All of this would be piped into living rooms across the country, drowning the population in endless flood of high culture and elevating the tone of civic discourse.

Of course, we just have to turn on the television to know how misplaced this optimism was.  To put it mildly, television content is diverse in terms of its high-mindedness.  For every educational and uplifting nature show or documentary, there are ten Jersey Shores.  And television has done an especially poor job of presenting reasoned debate on key issues.

To pessimists, especially in the movie studios, television was a threat.  Given the opportunity to stay home and watch in the comfort of their living room, why would families visit the cinema?  Of course, this pessimism turned out to be misplaced.  Cinema not only survived the television, but the video recorder, as well as most other advances in recording formats.

To me, the example of television, and other disruptive advances in technology for interaction and delivery of content, suggests that online education is unlikely to obliterate brick-and-mortar universities.  So I’m not ready to bail out on my teaching career yet.  In general, I don’t think we should be throwing up our hands in panic and running for the exits.

Some might go so far as to claim that universities offer a special and unique experience that can’t be replicated online, and might even argue that no one should even try.   The most absurd claim would be that whatever we do is so mysterious and special that it it can’t be bottled and sold by anyone except our own wonderful selves:  its effects can’t be measured objectively, and there is no way of distilling the process into something that can be replicated by someone else.  Such claims resemble the ones made by long line of disreputable professions that includes alchemists, faith healers, psychics, temple priests, charlatans, quacks, and management consultants.  The common element is an objection to competition, evaluation or external scrutiny on the grounds that they have some kind of special knowledge deriving from their unique personal experience that cannot be quantified or described, replicated, or even understood by others.  I don’t know that anyone has made such extreme claims about the special role of universities and the skills of professors, but I’m sure someone will.

A more plausible claim is that higher education will be hard to move online because it is about branding, and is that what parents and students really seek and are willing to pay for is the diploma from a famous university that allows students to access to jobs at prestigious employers, and allows parents to brag to the members of their social circle.  This may hold for elite institutions.  For certain families, and certain employers, the name of the institution on the diploma is more important than the content of the education provided by the university.  If Harvard or the other Ivies gave diplomas to monkeys, management consulting firms and investment banks would still hire them because they don’t really care what they know or what they can do.  They are more interested in being able to tell a new client that the team of new hires they are dealing with are all Ivy League graduates.

I doubt that branding or credentialing will insulate non-elite institutions from the effects of .  Employers that are more reality-based than management consultancies and investment banks might very well come to the conclusion that someone who performed well in a series of well-designed online courses that taught specific skills needed by the employer is just as qualified as someone who has a diploma from a second- or third-tier school.

Overall, I don’t think complacency on our part would be wise.  Online education may not destroy universities, but it will have powerful effects that universities need to address.  If we stick our heads in the sand and claim that the university experience is so unique and special that nothing could possibly augment or replace it, we’re doomed.  And if we stand in the way and actively seek to block inevitable change through clumsy, ham-handed efforts to take advantage of our current status and limit competition, we’ll be run over, much like the music labels have been run over as the result of their bungled response to the rise of the internet as a medium for distributing content, and studios and cable companies are about to be run over.

Assuming that online education will have powerful, perhaps transformative effects on higher education, but will probably still leave universities standing, what is to be done?

The response of musicians to changes in the music business may be instructive.  As I understand it, revenues from traditional sources such as royalties are declining or disappearing.  The old model in which a band or musician struggled in obscurity until they landed a contract with a label and then made money off of royalties seems to be dead.  Instead, musicians are generating much of their income from other sources where they have a comparative advantage and which involve direct human interaction.  Such activities are by definition almost impossible to replicate online.  The most important of these are ticket and merchandise sales at their live performances.  Obviously this has been a struggle, but it does seem like a new model is evolving.

Higher education needs to evolve in a similar fashion.  We need to transform the higher education experience so that faculty spend most of their time engaged in activities in which they have a comparative advantage, and less of their time in activities where online education is more effective, or at least more efficient.

Faculty have a clear comparative advantage in activities that require substantial and substantive interaction with students: responding to student questions, engaging small groups of well-prepared students in discussion, providing conceptual feedback on written work, and mentoring individual students or groups of students on projects.  The common thread here is that the teaching is high-level, and focused more on training students to think independently and carry out research and less on the transmission of basic facts and concepts.  Conversely, I believe online approaches may eventually turn out to have a comparative advantage in tasks currently served by large lecture courses: communication of basic theories and facts, and explication of basic methods.  It wouldn’t surprise me that almost anything in which mastery can be assessed via a multiple choice or short answer test could be taught online.

I propose we replace adapt a new model that recognizes the potential contributions of online education and the comparative advantage of faculty.  We should replace the current model of teaching introductory material in giant lower division courses and advanced material in smaller upper division classes and seminars with a model in which  basic facts, concepts, theories, and methods currently taught in large lecture courses are taught in modular fashion in online courses common to many or all universities, faculty and teaching assistants focus on seminars and small classes that emphasized projects, open-ended discussion, and other activities that make best use of the opportunity for interaction.  The college experience would change fundamentally from the current one in which students enroll in large and probably alienating lecture courses for two years, then take smaller lecture courses in their last years, to one in which students in all four years combined online learning of the basic concepts now taught in large lecture courses and enrollment in small seminars, labs and courses.   What is probably the least rewarding feature of the college experience for everyone involved, the large lecture course, could become a thing of the past, and students and faculty could spend more of their time interacting directly in a more rewarding and productive fashion.

Introductory science and math classes that focus on method and basic theory would be especially good candidates to be outsourced to online courses shared by multiple universities.  Certain introductory courses in the social sciences, especially economics, might also be good candidates for outsourcing.  The fact that these introductory courses are already taught as enormous lecture courses and look very similar across different universities suggests that they should be amenable to automation and outsourcing.  At some point, for the entire country we might end up with a fairly small number of online introductory science and math courses that vary mainly in terms of intensity and rigor and to which universities could ‘outsource’ at least some of the lower division teaching that is now done in large lectures.

Remaining introductory courses in the social sciences and humanities will likely require a hybrid approach.  Lower division social sciences and humanities courses differ more from one campus to another, and even from one instructor to another.  The major exception, of course, is economics.  It might be that we could never settle on the content of a small number of introductory sociology courses that every university in the county would refer its freshmen to.  While basic exposition of key facts, ideas and concepts might be moved from the lecture hall to the internet, introductory courses might still remain university specific, and taught as hybrids, in which students still gathered in small groups with faculty or teaching assistants to engage in open-ended discussion of readings, or work together on projects.

Colleges could also increase access to experiences that are available now but not yet widespread, and for which an online substitute is inherently unfeasible.  These could include time more spent abroad, either in travel study courses taught by their own faculty, or as an exchange student.  Hopefully this could be integrated with online coursework.  For example, a boring lecture course about Chinese society like the one I teach could be replaced with an experience that begins with an online course that teaches basic facts and introduces important scholarly research, and then concludes with a visit to China and perhaps a short seminar or project there.

More speculatively, perhaps we should revisit the whole notion of the standard academic calendar, in which the year is divided into semesters or quarters, and courses have fixed lengths, and in which the same material is taught in roughly the same week of the course every time it is taught.  Perhaps we will transition to a more flexible system in which basic material that is now taught in well-defined lecture courses of fixed length are instead taught as a series of online modules that students complete at their own pace, and in which students enroll in a series of short seminars or labs organized around very specific topics, or work over long periods of time on individual or collaborative projects mentored by faculty or teaching assistants.

Going even further out on a limb, I wonder if online education could alter the relationship between secondary and tertiary education by increasing the preparation and qualification of applicants.  In an ideal world, more of the material that is now being taught in freshmen year at college would be taught in secondary school.  This is especially the case for basic math and science, which seem to require a great deal of what amounts to remedial teaching in these subjects.  If online education makes it possible to offer more rigorous and advanced teaching to students at high schools that are not currently capable of delivering it, that would certainly be a good thing.  This could be especially important for talented students who are not fortunate enough to attend a school that can offer honors or Advanced Placement courses, or even rigorous instruction in basic subjects.

Overall, I am pretty sure universities will survive online education, but may end up looking very different.  Hopefully they will take advantage of the opportunities offered by online education to offer a much better and more rewarding experience to students.

A modest proposal for facilitating data-driven choices of college and majorent choice of colleges and majors to be data-driven

I recently came across this article about a study at Georgetown looking at the employment prospects and average incomes associated with various majors.  Here is the page at Georgetown devoted to the study itself.

My own specialty isn’t higher education, but I’ve been thinking about it much more recently for a variety of reasons.  One is my involvement in a study of long term trends in the social class origins of students at elite Chinese universities led by my longtime collaborator James Lee, and which includes a large number of outstanding collaborators, of whom I am but one.  For that study, we have been looking for comparison points internationally.  I have been struck by the fact that with the remarkable exception of the University of California, which offers student data in aggregate form at its Statfinder website, there is very little in the way of systematic and comparable aggregated data on student characteristics and outcomes from institutions of higher education, reflecting what I increasingly see as a troubling and probably deliberate lack of transparency.  More importantly, we have been talking about how to follow up this initial study by looking at outcomes for graduates, inspired by the Harvard and Beyond study.  I should add that my outrageous proposal below for a nationwide data collection system on student characteristics and outcomes is but a pipe dream, and has little to do with anything we are hoping to do in our own studies.  Another reason for my interest is simply a recent uptick in the numbers of conversations with colleagues here and elsewhere about what we can do to improve undergraduate education to make it more engaging and rewarding for students.

The conclusions summarized in the Georgetown study article about the differences between the various majors are pretty much as I would expect.  I haven’t looked at the study in enough detail to comment on its methodology or its data, but I applaud the general idea of collecting and analyzing the data on the socioeconomic outcomes of different majors, and for that matter, different types of colleges.  In this day and age, there is really little excuse for the choice of college and major not to be more data driven.

Right now, too many students fly blind when they choose a college and a major.  They make choices about college based on somewhat relevant criteria like the overall academic reputation of the school, as well as largely irrelevant criteria like the physical appearance of the campus, its geographic location, the success of its sports teams, what they’ve heard from friends, or reviews at various websites.  While the choice of major may be very personal, it may also be based on very limited information that students may have acquired in high school or in their first year in college, and may also reflect undue optimism about the prospects after graduation.

Choosing a college and major based on such limited and sometimes uninformative information reflects the general lack of easily accessible data on the outcomes of students from different colleges and majors.  Studies like the one done at Georgetown are relatively uncommon, and typically have limitations that limit their usefulness for planning.  For example, as comprehensive as the Georgetown study is, its reliance on the American Community Survey precludes comparisons of salaries and employment according to the types of institutions that students attended, or their own academic qualifications.

Other published studies by economists have sought to quantify the rewards associated with different majors after accounting for the prestige of the institution and the qualifications of the students, these are also limited in terms of their usefulness for student planning because they typically don’t identify specific institutions, or specific majors.  Such studies typically rely on data from panel surveys that don’t have enough respondents to drill down to specific combinations of institution and major.  Even if such detail were available, the surveys haven’t been in place long enough to look at earnings and employment over the entire career.  Usually they will only have information on outcomes a few years out of college.

In an ideal world, high school seniors deciding which schools to apply to, or which school to attend, would be able to visit a website that would let them see what employment and earning outcomes were like for students with academic qualifications like theirs who graduated of a specified institution and major.  They would be able to enter their SAT or other standardized test scores, their GPA, perhaps some information about their high school, and the name of prospective institution and major, and see how students who resembled them were doing 1, 5, 10, and 20 years after graduation.

At least in principle, this should be possible by linkage of various administrative databases and creation of a student tracking system similar to the ones that many states or school districts are already putting in place for K-12 education.  The federal government to make use of the power it has as the key source of funds for student grants and loans, and faculty research, to demand that academic institutions that receive federal funds comply with participation in a national tracking system that would follow students from senior year in high school through college and into the labor market.  Compliance would involve providing detailed data on applicants, acceptances, and matriculating students, including their academic qualifications as applicants and their subsequent performance in college.  These data would be collected and held in a secure site such as already exist for various forms of administrative data, and could be linked to administrative data on subsequent earnings of graduates from Social Security or various state agencies.

The resulting linked database would allow for a student contemplating a particular combination of college and major to see what prospects were like for someone like themselves.  In many cases, it would help clarify the potential consequences of different choices.  By providing an empirical basis for making important choices, it would probably decrease the influence of less relevant and useful information such as the overall reputation of institutions and majors.  In many cases, I suspect it would help level the playing field between public and private schools and between elite and non-elite schools by confirming in a very convincing way that students who seek to maximize income are generally better off pursuing engineering at a state school than pursuing a liberal arts major at a private university.  There are already academic studies that suggest this, but students need to see results for specific institutions and majors.

What I have in mind is something like the Consumer Reports Used Car Guide where different makes of car from different model years are rated on a variety of criteria based on surveys of owners.  Except in this case, a student could type in their SAT score, their high school GPA, and some other information, and a list of institutions and majors, and get back out some kind of assessment of the average incomes and employment rates of students like themselves at different points in time after graduation.

The suggestion that students should explicitly consider employment prospects and income when choosing institutions and majors may sound cold-blooded and crass, but I would argue that the information should at least be available, and considered alongside whatever information students have available to them.  While many very admirable students have the combination of passion and financial wherewithal to pursue an esoteric major at an expensive private university without worrying about going into debt, the reality is that right now too many students go deeply into debt pursuing degrees that will do nothing for them after they graduate, at expensive institutions of dubious quality.  If they had made their choice based on complete information about the likely prospects of someone with their qualifications who attended that institution and pursued that major, it would be their fault. But too often students choose institutions and majors that do nothing for them because they don’t really have enough useful information available to them, and they have to rely on fundamentally uninformative or irrelevant factors like the reputation of the institution, or some very limited exposure to a particular field in high school or early in their college career.

To go even further out on a limb, I would to see such information about institutions and majors used in making decisions about student grants and loans.  Perhaps it is already, but I don’t know enough about how the system works.  A student who wants to study engineering at a state school should receive more support in the form of grants and loans than a student who wants to study something less practical at an expensive private institution.  If they do receive loans, the limits should be much higher and the interest rates much lower.  Essentially, public investments in individual education in the form of grants or loans should be made according to the same principles as loans in general are made, in the sense that the loan amount and interest rate should be based on the likelihood of it being paid back.  The recent efforts to reign in student loans at for-profit colleges seem like a step in the right direction, in terms of making the allocations data driven, but there is no reason that this principle shouldn’t be extended.

I suspect that making the choice of college and major more data-driven and focused on results for graduates would pressure colleges to redirect their attention away from investments in fancy buildings, star faculty, and sports facilities and emphasize investments that increase the ‘value-added’ of undergraduate majors.  In an ideal world, it would lead to a reorganization of the undergraduate experience where there was more emphasis on the overall design of a major and thought given to the intended ‘product’ and less of the unsavory horse trading that seeks to ensure that the courses that faculty enjoyed teaching were listed as requirements.

Personally, I would like to see a much smaller number of majors, each focused on a recognized discipline, and each with its own distinct theoretical framework, evidentiary basis, and set of methods.  I’m not arguing for turning college into vocational training, rather that majors have more internal consistency and coherence in terms of theory, substance, and method so that graduates are ‘branded’.  This already is the case in engineering and the natural and life sciences, where the content of a physics, chemistry, engineering or biology major is broadly similar across different institutions, but not at all the case in the behavioral or social sciences, or the humanities.  I’ll get into this issue with specific reference to the social sciences in another blog post, but the point remains that as far as I can tell, many humanities and social sciences do not reflect much evidence of a guiding intellect in their design, and at any given institution seem to reflect a path dependent process of addition or deletion of requirements and electives according to the configuration of faculty interests.

Of course, I realize this proposal for large scale collection of longitudinal data on all college bound students from senior year in high school into middle adulthood is wildly unrealistic, most importantly because colleges would object to it.  One thing I have noticed is that colleges don’t seem to like transparency with respect to the characteristics or outcomes of their students that would facilitate comparison shopping based on overall outcomes.  They prefer to control information and report on positive outcomes like successful alumni, and then compete with other institutions on intangibles like reputation.  To the extent that they provide information, it is for the increasingly common and silly college ranking exercises, and that information is generally provided in aggregate form that is easy to manipulate.

With regard to transparency, I would like to give a shout out to my employer, the University of California, which at least provides detailed tabular data on the characteristics of students at their remarkable website:  This is where we should be headed in terms of provision of information to support decision-making.  Visitors at this amazing site can tabulate students according to the socioeconomic profile of their families, ethnicity, geographic origin, and any number of other variables.  They can also look up persistence rates, GPA, and graduation rates by class.  Basically, what we need is something like the University of California Statfinder for ALL institutions of higher education combined, and with additional information about student outcomes after graduation.