Arnold Kling  

College Customers vs. Suppliers

Caught In My Own Trap?... The Quotable Kling...

Following a link from Alex Tabarrok, I see that Angry Professor writes,

The marginal departments, the ones with the lowest possible academic standards, are pulling in vast numbers of warm bodies and the tuition dollars associated with them.

I recall seeing a quote somewhere else to the effect that higher education is the only product where the consumer tries to get as little out of it as possible.

This conflict between what the consumers want--easy A's--and what the suppliers would like to offer--meaningful learning--ought to be examined further. What is the reason for the disconnect? Some possibilities:

1. The consumers are basically right. Most courses are not really worth taking for most students, so the easy A is the best choice.

2. The course that offers the easy A still gives the student the option to learn something, but the course that requires learning does not give the student the option to earn an easy A. So the option value is always with the coures that offers the easy A.

3. Consumers are myopic, and their preference for an easy A is irrational. (This is the view that many professors hold implicitly.)

4. Grades are measurable, and real learning is not. Consumers think grades are more important than they really are, because what is measured and reported is more salient than what is unmeasured.

I should note that one potential solution to a competitive race-to-the-bottom in terms of rigor would be to have external examinations. When I was a student at Swarthmore in the Honors program, our exams were written and graded by professors from outside the college.

If students are motivated by grades, then separating the examining function from the teaching function changes the consumers' incentive. With the exam exogenous, my grade-motivated students would want my course to be rigorous rather than easy.

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The author at In the Agora in a related article titled School of Parties and Easy A's writes:
    I would suppose that many public universities face budgetary constraints that force departments (and schools) to compete with each other for the tuition dollars attached to the students that enroll in their classes. See, for example, the dis-satisfacto... [Tracked on August 16, 2006 11:43 AM]
The author at discarded lies - hyperlinkopotamus in a related article titled Quotable writes:
    Quotable [Tracked on August 16, 2006 4:28 PM]
The author at The One-Handed Economist in a related article titled More on Student Selection writes:
    Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution points to a post by The Angry Professor about a new budgetary system at LSU. In essence the professor seems to be angry that departments are forced into competition with each other for students and therefore funding... [Tracked on August 17, 2006 11:55 PM]
COMMENTS (14 to date)
Rob writes:

Perhaps consumers don't want learning per se, rather they want a diploma with a corresponding high GPA. The Prisoner's Dilemma might be a good model.

Now, if I happen to get through college on all easy classes, but everyone else has to take rigorous course work, I win out. I have a high GPA and employers see the degree as meaningful.

However, every other student also tries to get through on easy classes. This then lowers the employers' perception of everyone's diploma. The optimal situation is if everyone works hard, which is what the school wants. Each individual student, however, wants to defect and get away with something. Thus the equilibrium situation is everyone tries for easy coursework.

ben writes:

#5 Consumers are in school for other reasons (find a mate, have fun for a couple of years, participate in sports or other activities) easy classes allow more time for this.

To me this is a little different from #1 which I take to mean, that knowledge gained from the course is not helpful in performing a future job.

Timothy writes:

I mentioned this in comments over at Alex's post, but I think the real problem is the structure of general education requirements.

The first two years of college are basically a repeat of high school, except most schools don't require specific courses; they require some number of courses from different menus like Social Science, Science, Literature, etc. This leaves departments competing for the students out to meet those menu requirements while maintaining their GPAs because of #4. I say we eliminate the menu requirements by undoing general ed. Have colleges require some number of hours, some number taken for a grade, and let the individual departments determine their own degree requirements beyond that.

Barkley Rosser writes:

I think the suggestion of outside graders is an interesting one and does appear to resolve some of the problems. There are, however, two issues. One is the degree to which the graders really know what was being taught in the course. Must the teacher conform to the graders? (Were there ever any perceived problems along these lines at Swarthmore?). The other is of course the budget constraint problem, to get decent outside graders, not just underpaid and semi-ignorant grad students, costs money.

Lord writes:

#4 it is, but external grading won't really solve the problem because higher quality institutions with higher quality students will dominate leading to students being graded largely according to the institution they attend. This will undermine the ability of lower quality institutions to attract students and undermine the ability of higher quality institutions to distinguish between students. It would address the problem of external users that don't really know the quality of institutions though.

Lord writes:

The entire premise is mistaken though. Grading and learning really have nothing in common. Grading can be and frequently is as demotivating as motivating. Learning is driven by interest and usefulness.

Matt writes:

The option value argument is probably the strongest. I had/have to guard against that temptation for myself- while I love learning, I hate being studious. A class that can sell itself as high in learning, low on effort has a very strong pull on me.

The myopia argument has some explanatory power, but you don't have to argue irrationality to get it. Learning which classes give cheap A's is comparatively easy. Learning which classes provide valuable knowledge is much trickier- given that you don't know the material covered in a course, a course description can often be pretty useless. What do you do when 2/3 of a course description refers to topics or concepts you've never heard of? You have to go and bug your advisor about the knowledge value of the course, or dig around the internet to find out what the heck the course description is referring to. But then you're already doing a significant part of the course anyway. It's easy for a professor to forget about that.

Long story short- in order to get a good handle on the knowledge value of a class, you have to go a good distance towards learning the material on your own. The effort involved in doing that is pretty substantial. Classic case of assymetrical information destroying the optimal outcome.

Students (consumers) are looking for certification (investment) as well as learning (consumption as well investment). Best way would be to have an specialized external agency (not in the business of giving education) to conduct exams (and even oral interviews) and provide certification. That way, when somebody looks to hire fresh students they can be sure that certification is not compromised by conflict of interests. For those seeking higher education, something on the lines of GRE already exists.

RogerM writes:

I have two kids at Okla State University and they tell me that a lot of students are taking a fifth year of college with nothing but easy classes in order to pump their GPA. They call it their victory lap. I don't blame them, either. A lot of businesses, internships and graduate programs require a minimum GPA of 3.5 to get in. So students play the game by taking easy classes to make up for the C's they got in harder classes. Maybe they learned a lot in the harder classes, but the game requires a higher GPA, not learning. If you want to stop the sandbagging, get rid of the GPA requirement and have a test of knowledge, like the CPA exam.

Jason Shafrin writes:

In most economics programs, grades are relatively unimportant; writing a good dissertation is all that matters. In order to certify that an individual is of high quality, each student must pass a qualifying exam which covers a wide variety of the topics covered in the first year or two of graduate school.

Expanding this concept to the undergraduate setting, universities could implement two sets of exams. The first would be for all students and would cover the core classes which were required by the school. A second exam would be administered by each department to the students who wish to major in that field. In this way, students would certify that they have received the necessary knowledge, yet would be motivated only by learning in the classroom.

quadrupole writes:


Having suffered through (and passed) quals as a physics grad student I would have to disagree with you. Quals generally don't measure much that is meaningful. What you tend to wind up with is a battle among various factions about defining what is important. As a result I had to learn a lot of 'modern physics' that frankly no one has given a shit about in 50 years, because we had some dinosaurs around who still worked in those fields, or because this or that obscure area of experimentation still found the model useful in a back of the envelope sort of way.

Likewise with the GRE physics, something like 40% of the questions where on things that an up to date curriculum simply doesn't cover, because they have been edged out by more relavent material (uncovered by the GRE).

So sure, you measure my ability to absorb and demonstrate the meaningless, but I really never needed to memorize the values of those twenty physical constants anyway, they can be very easily looked up.

Oh, and as to oral quals, as far as I (or my fellow grad students) could assertain they primarily measure who your commitee members are. I remember one incident in particular where a commitee person who was on the commitees of two of my friends asked the same stat mech question to both. Person A gave the pat answer the commitee person was looking for. The problem actually had pretty sophisticated roots though. Person B reached into those roots and found that there was a lot of work to do to establish that you could even answer this question. Person A recited the formula, person B demonstrated pretty deep understanding of stat mech. Person B was failed based on his failure to answer the question in the desired way, person A was passed. Go figure.

Jane Galt writes:

I think you got that quote from me--one of my professors told me, as I was graduating, that he couldn't understand why students at Penn strove to get as little as possible for their $100K. I repeat it all the time.

meep writes:

I happen to be in a profession with "external tests" -- actuarial work. They have added a course credit aspect recently, but it's a very small part of the exam process. I've gone through 7 exams already and have 2 more to go (well, if I passed the last one I just took.)

What's interesting is there are actuarial science programs in colleges, but they don't seem to give the students that much of an advantage over math majors and other quantitative majors in terms of getting jobs or passing exams. You do most of your learning for the job and the exams while on the job. The other finance-related professional exams would be comparable (CPA, CFA, etc.) Various companies give seminars andstudy manuals for these exams - I've been to one such seminar so far, and people really grill the instructors so that they make sure they understand the concepts that will be tested.

I would guess that this wasting time on easy courses is directly related to the students essentially being children still, and not actually spending their own money... at least, not feeling like it's their money. Perhaps if people weren't allowed to go to college until they were 25 or 30, their class and field preferences might be very different.

As well, most know that the major they pick is going to be totally unrelated to the job they eventually get into - most college courses and majors have little direct applicability in "real life" and most of what they'll need to know they'll learn on the job. For most people, college degree, major, and GPA are simply signals.

Tracy W writes:

I have heard the argument that engineering, medicine and law have retained hardness because the courses are accredited by industry organisations made up of practictioners of the industry who want two things:
1) graduates who can do the work straight out and don't need a fortune spent on training, and
2) less competition for their own jobs.
To which extent which motivation dominates for each person in the industry doesn't really matter, as both favour harsher courses and tougher marking.

There could be some interesting work in checking this hypothesis empirically.

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