Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A View from the Right in a Left-Leaning Tower

What follows is a GUEST POST by University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student Robert Kelchen. I have had the privilege of working with Robert since 2008; we have co-authored two articles, including this one on the effects of financial aid. Upon reading John Tierney's take on the dominance of liberals in academe, I asked Robert for his thoughts-- and here they are. SGR


My name is Robert Kelchen, but many students and faculty who know me at the University of Wisconsin-Madison often introduce me as "the conservative guy" or "my Republican friend." I am used to this sort of introduction after being in Madison for four years; after all, I can count the number of conservative or libertarian doctoral students who I know on two hands. I have been told several times in the past by fellow students that I am the first right-leaning person with whom they have ever interacted on a regular basis. Prior to the passage of Act 10 (the law that restricted collective bargaining), I was one of the few students at the university to request a refund of the portion of the Teaching Assistants' Association dues that went toward political or ideological activities. This also meant that I had to give up my right to vote on issues germane to collective bargaining (the primary purpose of the union), but it was a sacrifice that I was willing to make. During the protests at the Capitol throughout the spring semester, I did my best to stay out of the fray and keep very quiet about my personal opinions.

Sara asked me for my thoughts on the recent New York Times article about why there are so few conservative students in graduate school. I had to consider the offer for a while, as making this post would make my political leanings more publicly known and could potentially affect my chances of getting a job in two years. However, I just could not pass up the opportunity to comment on this article in the newspaper of record for American liberals--and the same paper that ran a front-page article about Sara being one of a new generation of less politically-oriented professors.

My initial reaction to the article was to try to think of a conservative or libertarian professor in the School of Education at UW-Madison. To the best of my knowledge, there are no professors in the entire school, let alone my home department (Educational Policy Studies) who publicly identify as being right of center. However, this does not mean that there are no conservative faculty. A likely explanation is that faculty (and students) who do not identify with the liberal majority stay quiet about their political beliefs. The reaction of the majority of the faculty and graduate students during recent political events makes speaking out as a conservative a lonely proposition. It also means that there must exist other "elite" institutions that have a higher proportion of conservative faculty.

I do not put any stock in the Gross et al experiment mentioned in the article, which sent out letters asking for information about top graduate schools and included whether a fictional student worked for the Obama or McCain campaigns. Working on a presidential campaign does tell something about a student's political beliefs, but a student's GRE score and college performance (in addition to ability to pay) matter much more than that information. Additionally, the study only used male "prospective" applicants, a potentially serious limitation. (Not to mention that John McCain is a fairly liberal Republican who partnered with ex-Senator--and Madison hero--Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform. He is much more palatable to the left than someone like Michelle Bachmann.)

This leaves several possible explanations for why conservative students are less likely to go to graduate school and stay in academia later in life than liberals. A potential explanation mentioned in the article (and is echoed by several of the comments on the article) is that conservatives do not have the mental abilities to go to graduate school. That is entirely bogus, as noted in the article. I do not put much stock into the hypothesis that conservatives are less likely to be in academia due to discrimination on the acceptance (graduate students) or hiring (faculty) side, although this very well may be true in isolated institutions and departments.

The argument of self-selection, in which conservatives choose not to pursue a career in higher education, is the likely culprit for why I know only one other conservative graduate student in the entire School of Education. Much self-selection occurs because of how attending graduate school delays one's ability to make a reasonable salary. In "red" states, adults are more likely to get married at a younger age than those in "blue" states; the need to support a family can detract both women and men from spending an additional six or more years in school. The claim made by Peter Wood from the conservative National Association of Scholars, that conservatives choose not to pursue a graduate degree because of the perception of liberal bias, is likely responsible for part of the attendance gap. I would say that, holding all other factors constant, it is easier to be a majority liberal than a minority conservative. However, the common perception that conservatives know all other Republicans in the area or that we're always expected to engage in political discussions at the drop of a hat (or that we agree with everything that Sarah Palin says) probably do not cause many students to shun away from graduate school. The perception of liberal bias likely drives away many more students than the actual amount of liberal bias.

In closing, I would like to thank Sara again for the opportunity to post my thoughts. Next time you talk with a conservative, please realize that we are not bad people because we have different political viewpoints. Most of us, regardless of ideology or partisan affiliation, believe in the importance of public education even though we disagree on the best ways to improve the current system.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Caring for the Me Generation

During the past semester, a time where I constantly felt split between my academic life and my civic life, I became acutely aware of an attitude among undergraduates that perplexed me. I tried writing about it , describing what readers pointed out (in a far more articulate manner than I'd managed) was a notable lack of empathy among some students.

Since I've spent the last 10 years trying to make convince higher education institutions to prioritize their students' needs and desires, these realizations about who some of the students seemed to be and especially what they seemed to believe, made me pretty depressed. Don't get me wrong: it's not that I expect students to speak and act in one voice--far from it, given how much I value the democratic process. I don't want them to share my opinions or perspectives, but rather simply want them to formulate opinions and perspectives after asking good questions and gathering and evaluating information. But what I hope for, most of all, is their recognition that they are part of a worldwide community of students, and their strength lies in that community. I hope that such a larger sense of the world will guide them to think of more than themselves, and to act for the greater good.

Of course, what I learned from social media engagement this spring is what the Me Generation is really all about. "Me."

As it turns out, this is not at all a Wisconsin phenomenon. There's rigorous research from the University of Michigan demonstrating a sharp decline in empathy among undergraduates, based on data from 14,000 students over 30 years. Compared to students who attended college 20-30 years ago, undergraduates in the first decade of the new millenium scored 40% lower in empathy. Said one of the study's authors, this group is among the "most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history."

The authors speculate as to the root causes, citing among other things the influence of media and social media in particular. But those are worldwide phenomena, and this is a U.S. study (I strongly suspect such trends aren't felt in many other countries). Instead, I'm betting that we have Ronald Reagan to thank. The undergraduates of the 1970s and 1980s were raised by parents who came of age under the New Deal, during times when social justice and civil rights for all were demanded and (to some degree) received. They were more often raised to appreciate the luck and good fortune that gave opportunities to them, and worked to share those opportunities with others. Not so for the undergraduates of the 2000s, whose parents came into adulthood under the Gipper, a period in which inequality blossomed, and consumption was conspicuous. They've never known a time when college wasn't insanely expensive, always assumed that the American Dream was only about individual effort, and they were listening as even the Democrats placed all of the blame for poverty at the feet of the poor (yes, I'm looking at you Bill Clinton).

Reversing this trend is absolutely necessary for ensuring the well-being of people everywhere. As the Michigan researchers noted, what accompanies an exclusive emphasis on oneself is a "corresponding devaluation of others." Such a condition tears at the web of our social life and creates conditions of anomie that increase the spread of poverty and perpetuate hatred and fear like that evidenced in recent events in Norway.

So, start now. Take this quiz created by the Michigan researchers and see how YOU compare to those undergrads they surveyed. Then decide what to do with your results.

ps. In case you are curious, I scored a 59/70, meaning more empathetic than 80% of the study's participants. Thanks Poppa.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A short conversation with a teacher in Florida

I was playing softball in the old guys league again. The last few days there has been a very good player in his 40s playing as well. He is a teacher, so I guess he has the summer off.

Sitting wait for my turn at bat, I heard the following conversation:

Teacher: my students never heard of the great ones, like Dick Groat or Roberto Clement. (These are old famous baseball players.)

Teacher: Things are different nowadays. When I was a kid I knew the names of the old guys like Phil Rizzuto and Mickey Mantle. (These are even older baseball players.)

Other Player: Are you kidding? These days kids don’t know who George Washington was.

Teacher: I gave a test last year to my social studies class. I asked them “Who discovered the Dominican Republic?” There were four choices, one was Christopher Columbus, and another was Sammy Sosa. Would you believe that many of them thought it was Sammy Sosa! (A famous baseball player who is from the Dominican Republic, at least I think he is.)

I walked over to the teacher and quietly mentioned that no one discovered the Dominican Republic since it is a country and countries are founded, not discovered, and I doubted that any of his choices has founded that country.

What I didn’t say was that Sammy Sosa was a better answer since at least he had been in the Dominican Republic.

This is not a column blaming teachers. I am simply concerned that our multiple choice test-driven society has reduced our conception of knowledge to random facts about nothing. It is so bad that even teachers have no clue what they are asking any more because they too were taught in this way.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Anger Management

I am appalled by this malicious attack on teachers and teachers' unions by Jay Greene. He claims that teachers are engaging in mob-like behavior, are seething anger and are intimidating politicians. The irony is that I've met few teachers who are nearly as angry as Jay himself comes across.
But when the public face of the teacher unions is the Army of Angry Teachers, they no longer seem like Mary Poppins and begin to look a lot more like longshoremen beating their opponents with metal pipes.
Giant mobs of yelling protesters and blogs filled with tirades may increase the intimidation politicians feel, but it seriously undermines the image of teachers as an extension of our family.
Jay's "mob" is my "democratic gathering". Here in Wisconsin (the featured photo on Jay's blog post) there was an organic outpouring of disgust and determination as a result of Governor Scott Walker's attacks on collective bargaining and public employee and teachers unions -- and his decisions to balance the state budget on the backs of public workers and by gutting public education while steering tax breaks to corporations and providing massive funding increases to voucher schools.

Jay is mad that teachers are mad, but they have every right to be, especially in a state like Wisconsin. Have you visited Wisconsin in the past six months, Mr. Greene? Have you actually talked to teachers here? Have you seen and heard the thousands and thousands of protesters that have no vested or financial interest that nonetheless turned out en masse to speak out on behalf of others? (Clearly, these are rhetorical questions.)

This *is* what democracy looks like. The allowance of such an outpouring of opposition is why our nation was founded. Apparently, Jay's preferred answer to the Palin-esque question of "How's that redress of grievances thing workin' out for ya?" would be "It should not be allowed."

Wisconsin teachers have not and should not lie down and take the beating they've received here. Their right to bargain has been stripped. They've seen massive cuts to their pay and benefits. They're now working in public school systems that have had resources sucked out of them. They're standing up for their rights and for a far different state of Wisconsin than has emerged under the leadership of Governor Walker and his legislative Rubber Stamps.

Have teachers and their unions always advocated for and prioritized the best educational policies? Sure they haven't. Has any one education group or interest? (Greene's free market approach to education certainly doesn't represent sound policy.) Reforms can only succeed when teachers are full partners in their creation and implementation. And I will fight for the right of their voices to be heard in policy debates, in schools, and, yes, at the bargaining table.

It seems that Mr. Greene would prefer that teachers simply shut up.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The New Normal

Too many Americans appear willing to accept the hand they're dealt. Most shockingly, many of our political, educational and civic leaders seem to have fallen into the same trap. "The New Normal," they call it. Like Death and Taxes. Etched in stone. Undefined, yet not re-definable. Inevitable.

Fortunately, there are those among us willing to demand a new deck of cards -- and a new dealer!

We've seen the rise of the Forces For Fairness in states like Wisconsin where there is no disguising the unsubtle, in-your-face, anti-democratic, vitriolic, bought-and-paid-for policies of Governor Scott Walker, the Brothers Fitzgerald, ALEC, the Koch Brothers and their yes men and women (even the few remaining Republican moderates - if they still can be called such - who should know better). In the Badger State, tens of thousands took to the streets of Madison and are now actively participating in recall efforts to change the equation and prevent Wisconsin from being turned into a place totally unrecognizable.

Nationally, I see a rising consciousness and an emerging consensus that congressional Republicans have one-upped their Gingrichian colleagues from the 1990s in overreaching on fiscal matters. Voters do not like the draconian cuts being pushed through by House Republicans, the intransigence and obstructionism practiced as a religion by Senate Republicans, the GOP's willingness to hold America's bond rating and our economic recovery hostage by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, and an adherence to a baseless and extremist anti-tax philosophy. In a recent CBS News poll, 71 percent of Americans are opposed to the way the Republicans are approaching the debt limit debate. As well they should be.

Americans are NOT opposed to raising taxes on the wealthy to address our national debt. A recent Reuters poll found that 52 percent of Americans believed that "a combination of spending cuts and tax increases was the best strategy to reduce deficits." Republicans are so constrained by anti-tax pledges that they even believe a repeal of ANY tax cut or the closing of ANY tax loophole (even those for corporate jet owners!) would result in Grover Norquist gagging them with a mouthful of tea bags and ordering them to a permanent political purgatory.

If more Democrats had shown the courage to stand up sooner and establish the terms of the debate, this emerging consensus could have been precipitated. The likes of Vermont's Bernie Sanders have had it right for some time in the call for "shared sacrifice." Others, including President Obama, appear to be catching up to the reality that was evident to Sanders and other Progressives: Congressional Republicans are economic extremists willing to drive the American economy into the ground in order to assuage the Anti-Tax God (don't let it go to your head, Mr. Norquist).

"The Rock and the Hard Place on the Deficit", an op-ed in last Sunday's New York Times, written by Christina Romer, is one of the best articles I've read that puts the substance of this issue into context. For the benefit of you non-Times subscribers, here are some key highlights:
The economic evidence doesn’t support the anti-tax view. Both tax increases and spending cuts will tend to slow the recovery in the near term, but spending cuts will likely slow it more. Over the longer term, sensible tax increases will probably do less damage to economic growth and productivity than cuts in government investment.

There is a basic reason why government spending changes probably have a larger short-term impact than tax changes. When a household’s tax bill rises by, say, $100, that household typically pays for part of that increase by reducing its savings. Its spending tends to fall by less than $100. But when the government cuts spending by $100, overall demand goes down by that full amount.

Wealthier households typically pay for more of a tax increase out of savings, and so they reduce their spending less than ordinary households. This implies that tax increases on wealthy households probably have less effect on the economy than those on the poor or the middle class.

All of this argues against any form of fiscal austerity just now. Even some deficit hawks warn that immediate tax increases or spending cuts could push the economy back into recession. Far better to pass a plan that phases in spending cuts or tax increases over time.

But if federal policy makers do decide to reduce the deficit immediately, reducing spending alone would probably be the most damaging to the recovery. Raising taxes for the wealthy would be least likely to reduce overall demand and raise unemployment.

The politics behind this issue is another matter. But it has huge implications for issues like education. Too many educational advocates, policy types, and yes, even elected leaders seem all too willing to accept "The New Normal" -- and even pontificate about it -- as opposed to fight for a new deal and attempt to redefine the debate. President Obama too often appears to allow congressional Republicans to define the terms of the conversation, such as tying long-term deficit reduction to the debt ceiling, as Robert Reich noted over Twitter yesterday.

There's a time and a place for acknowledging political realities and accepting half a loaf. The problem is we've entered the second coming of the Robber Barons where the rich are hoarding their loaves of bread and too many Americans aren't getting a chance to get their hands in the dough at all. Until we address the historic economic inequality in this country and put spending power back in the pockets of working families, there is a tremendous likelihood that the economy will never fully recover. Never. That requires us -- and our elected leaders -- to speak out and act.

The time is now. Reality is what we make it. More of us have got to be willing to step up and say, "Enough!" I've witnessed Democrats and independents get energized in Wisconsin. We need a similar dynamic to take hold nationally. My guess is that it will build in time. But will it be enough to change the equation?

The forces of fiscal lunacy had better listen to the American people now or my guess is that they'll be hearing from the silent majority of sensible Americans at the ballot boxes in 2012 -- and even sooner in states like Wisconsin. If the "Republican Revolution" in the 1990s is any signal, past is prologue.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Affordability and Attainment in Wisconsin Public Higher Education

As I noted in a prior post, last week the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study (which I co-direct) hosted a statewide conference on the issues of affordability and attainment in Wisconsin Public Higher Education.

The research released became part of this morning's UW Regents discussion (start around 1:03).

In case you missed the event, which was attended by more than 150 leaders from all over Wisconsin, you can watch most of it on Wisconsin Eye. The main presentation of findings is here (see part1).

We will also be posting conference materials on the WSLS website soon.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Playing Politics with Financial Aid

She just won't quit. With only a few days left in her tenure as chancellor of UW Madison, Biddy Martin issued a press release this afternoon "asking" that the UW System Board of Regents allow Madison to spend $2.3 million of its new tuition hike on need-based financial aid.

She's a "champion" of need-based aid says the press release, and this must be music to the ears of all of us concerned about affordability--right?

Wrong. Sadly, Martin is playing politics yet again and thinking of what's best for her, rather than what's best for all students from Wisconsin's low-income families.

(1) Biddy Martin lobbied hard for new "flexibilities" for Madison this year and she got them. The money from the state arrives in a block grant, which means Madison now makes its own decisions about use of the differential tuition. She doesn't need to "ask" UW System for this-- and she knows it. (And boy, if she doesn't know that ....)

(2) So why didn't she simply just say "this is what the tuition should be used for," instead of issuing a press release directly to the Board of Regents and System President Kevin Reilly? Because then her actions would be exposed for what they are: a demand on the incoming interim chancellor David Ward. Yes, while she runs off into the distance from the mess she's created, Martin has already begun to boss Ward around. I suppose we can't be surprised.

(3) This is her chance to reiterate her claim that she's all about affordability. As noted in an earlier post, Martin says this is her big thing, reflects her values, etc-- and it's why she wants to go to Amherst. Except for this-- Amherst serves about as many students from low-income families as Madison could cram into a single lecture hall. Puhleese.

(4) This proposal-- hike tuition but give away a bunch of it to financial aid--raises eyebrows among thoughtful people about whether we "needed" the hike in the first place. Why not avoid hiking tuition and instead hold tuition flat for everyone? Martin draws on the arguments of some economists here who argue it's most efficient and equitable to charge everyone what they can afford, redistributing funds from wealthier families to needier ones. Again, sounds good in theory. Unfortunately it's just a mess in practice. In the real world, it pits students against students. It also sends an unintended message to state governments that institutions can take care of themselves. Just look at Martin-- has she said even one word about the importance of the Wisconsin Higher Education Grant? Did she provide input to UW System as to how those limited resources could best be spent? I served on the Legislature's Special Committee on the Reform of Financial Aid Programs last summer and the answer is "nope." We heard not one word from Madison's chancellor about her support for the need-based financial aid program that serves ALL students in Wisconsin public higher education. All we hear about is aid for Madison students. Doesn't smell like team spirit to me.

(5) Finally, there's an irony here. Last week economist Doug Harris and I issued a new study on the effectiveness of financial aid in Wisconsin. It demonstrates the need to target funds in order to make sure they are effective. Martin didn't attend the conference (on Madison's campus) where the paper was discussed, she didn't send a note of support for the event, and she hasn't asked to see the paper that was issued and that has been widely covered in the media. Funny decisions, for someone supposedly so supportive of need-based aid.

No, this is pure politics. Worse yet it's playing politics with the hearts and minds of students from low-income families. And those who truly strive to serve them-- all of them.

What I Do With My Time

The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a story about faculty productivity, questioning the idea that professors aren't earning their salaries by contributing substantially to their students' education. It's accompanied by the schedules of a few faculty at UTexas. I've looked over those schedules, and was struck: none of them even begin to resemble mine. Most don't start til 8 am, and often end by 4 or 5. Most are on two or three committees at most. And most have few grants and few research assistants.

So I figured, why not lay it all out there? Here are my statistics-- you go right ahead and calculate my "value-added."

What the university's numbers show ('10-11 academic year):

Total course sections taught: 2 (the other 2 were 'bought out' with a William T Grant Scholars award)

Total class enrollment: 12 graduate students

Research grants: $1.6 million

Annual salary: $72,000 (9 months)

What the numbers don't show:

(1) Independent studies -- During this past year I did independent studies with 6 graduate students. These don't show up as formal teaching.

(2) Teaching -- I used grant money to facilitate additional resources for my class, including paying for guest speakers from other universities and the cost of licensing software they needed

(3) Advising -- I chaired 4 doctoral committees and 4 master's committees, and served on 4 other committees. I also served as a McNair mentor for an undergraduate student.

(4) Committee work -- I chaired a university-wide committee, served on the steering committee of PROFS, and served on 2 school-wide and 1 department committee.

(5) Research -- I ran a project that funded two full-time staff and 3 postdoctoral fellows and involved at least 10 graduate students and 5 undergraduates at any one time. I met frequently with most of them and monthly with all. In addition, during this past year I published 3 peer-reviewed articles, 2 book chapters, and 2 reports, and initiated 9 new working papers (nearly all co-authored with graduate students).

(6) State service-- During my "summer vacation" in 2010 I served on the Wisconsin Legislature's Special Committee on the Reform of Higher Education Programs and at year's end I hosted a statewide conference for 150 participants on "Affordability and Attainment in Wisconsin Public Higher Education."

(7) National service- I gave more than a dozen talks around the country (ranging from LA to Seattle to NY), served on two standing panels for the U.S. Department of Education and on 3 editorial boards of journals as well as a granting board of a foundation, and participated in higher education policy working groups at several DC think tanks. Thus far in 2011 alone, I have logged 48,000 miles on Delta.

(8) Public engagement -- In addition to this blog, I maintain an active Twitter presence where I comment regularly on issues related to higher education policy at the campus, state, and national levels.

Here's what my schedule looks like:

Monday-Friday: Up by 7 am, checking email for 15-20 minutes before starting commute at 745 am. Usually on a call or two en route to work. In the office in non-stop meetings and teaching from 830 am til 430 pm, rarely taking a break for lunch (ask my students- I hardly ever get to eat). Commute home, spend time with kids and have dinner. Back to work by 8 pm, working until 11 pm.

Saturday/Sunday: An hour of email each morning, 3-5 hours each afternoon, plus 2-3 hours each evening.

In the last year I estimate I worked 67-80 hours/week, and this represented a decline of about 5 hours/week from the prior year. I took no more than a total of a week's vacation.

Did I mention my wonderful husband and children (ages 1 and 4)? Wouldn't be possible without them.

Yes, I earned tenure this spring. And no, I don't expect my workload to decline much if at all.

So, whatever you think of me personally or politically-- am I productive?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Executive Compensation at UW Madison

Last week UW Madison employees got the details on their pending benefits cuts, which will take a substantial hack at their earnings during the coming years.

At the same time, we also got word that at least two folks at UW Madison wouldn't be feeling the pain--quite the contrary actually. Barry Alvarez has a new deal amounting to $1 million in total compensation (a 20% raise), and Francois Ortalo-Magne was named dean of the biz school with a salary of $410,000. While former dean Mike Knetter's salary was completely paid for by the Albert O. Nicholas endowment, apparently some of the new dean's salary (how much? we aren't told) is covered by UW Madison central administration. This apparently amounts to a 109% increase in 43-year-old Ortalo-Magne's salary. Outgoing chancellor Biddy Martin approved both deals as she left UW Madison.

According to the posted agenda for the upcoming UW System Regents meeting, these two aren't alone...
"Move into closed session to consider personal histories related to the naming of a facility at UW-Madison, as permitted by s. 19.85(1)(f), Wis. Stats.; to consider a compensation adjustment for the UW-Madison athletic director, as permitted by s. 19.85(1)(c), Wis. Stats.; to consider a compensation adjustment for the UW-Madison men’s basketball head coach, as permitted by s. 19.85(1)(c), Wis. Stats.; to consider a compensation adjustment for the UW-Madison women’s hockey head coach, as permitted by s. 19.85(1)(c), Wis. Stats.; to consider salary approval for an interim chancellor for UW-Madison, as permitted by s. 19.85(1)(c), Wis. Stats; to confer with legal counsel regarding pending or potential litigation, as permitted by s. 19.85(1)(g), Wis. Stats.; and to consider annual personnel evaluations, as permitted by Wis. Stats. §19.85(1)(c)."

Raises for not one but three athletics folks, eh? Don't forget, Bret Bielema's salary was increased 47% and Paul Chryst's was jacked 33% back in February while most of us were freezing our butts off protesting at the Capital. And of course tuition is going up yet again-- passing the costs for these luxuries onto all students and their families (hey, do they get a vote?). You can claim "private donors funded this" but (a) it's not entirely true (some comes from Administration) and (b) if donors didn't have to pay for this stuff, don't you think they might CONSIDER funding our educational mission? In other words, a dollar is a dollar-- and a dollar spent here is a dollar that could've been spent there.

I guess the UW Madison administration isn't acquainted with the phrase "shared sacrifice."

Thursday, July 7, 2011


The following is a press release issued by UW-Madison this morning

Results from an ongoing random assignment study of a private grant program in Wisconsin indicate that low-income students who receive Pell Grants and are unlikely to finish college get a sizeable boost in college persistence from additional financial aid. The findings suggest that directing aid to serve the neediest students may be the most equitable and cost-effective approach.

Researchers with the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study (WSLS) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison have been examining the impact of the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars (FFWS) need-based grant program on the educational attainment of its recipients since 2008. FFWS provides $3,500 per year to full-time, federal Pell Grant recipients enrolled at University of Wisconsin System institutions. WSLS researchers have collected survey and interview data on 1,500 students, including 600 grant recipients and a random sample of 900 eligible non-recipients who serve as a control group.

“Our findings suggest that making college more affordable for students who were initially unlikely to succeed in college increased their college persistence rates over the first three years of college by about 17 percentage points,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, WSLS co-director and associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology.

However, since financial aid programs usually do not explicitly target this particular group of students, prior research has found that the average effects of need-based grants are often modest. “It’s common to focus only on the average effects of financial aid programs, but it’s clear that often policies work better for some people than others,” says Goldrick-Rab. “In this case, the Wisconsin grant really helped some students, didn’t help others, and may even have had adverse consequences for another group.”

While policy discussions about targeting financial aid often focus on financial need, the WSLS researchers also considered challenges faced by first-generation students and those with inadequate academic preparation. According to the study, students without college-educated parents and those with lower test scores were initially much less likely to persist in college, while students with high test scores and whose parents held bachelor’s degrees began with a high probability of finishing. The effects of the additional financial aid provided by the Wisconsin grant were very different for those two groups.

Initial findings indicate the program has a moderate positive impact, on average, on the educational attainment of grant recipients. “Enrollment rates didn’t improve much over three years. But the good news is that some students who were awarded the grant were 28 percent more likely to finish 60 credits over two years, increasing the chances that they will earn a bachelor’s degree on time,” says Doug Harris, WSLS co-director and associate professor of educational policy studies and public affairs.

Given the WSLS is the first random assignment study of a program with a similar structure to the federal Pell Grant, it may have important implications for that program, one of the nation’s largest in the education sector. According to Michael McPherson, President of the Spencer Foundation and noted scholar of higher education policy, “This study is the result of an extraordinary opportunity to bring high-quality experimental research to a vitally important question: the effect of changes in need-based grant aid on outcomes for students already enrolled in college."

Goldrick-Rab, Harris, and co-authors James Benson and Robert Kelchen present and discuss additional findings in a working paper issued by the Institute for Research on Poverty entitled “Conditional Cash Transfers and College Persistence: Evidence from a Randomized Need-Based Grant Program.” It can be downloaded, along with an executive summary, here.

The authors will discuss their results at 8 a.m. on Friday, July 8 in room 159 of the Education Building of the University of Wisconsin-Madison as part of a WSLS-sponsored conference entitled “Affordability and College Attainment in Wisconsin Public Higher Education.” More information is available here.

The WSLS is a collaborative effort among the University of Wisconsin System, the Wisconsin Technical College System, and the Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board. The study is also supported by UW-Madison's Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, and Institute for Research on Poverty. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William T. Grant Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation provided funding for the research.

For more on this story please see coverage in Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as the Wisconsin State Journal

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

This You Gotta See

Outgoing UW Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin appeared on Here and Now last night. This is a must-watch. (Boy, she doesn't look happy, eh?)

Watch the full episode. See more Here and Now.

Listening to Chancellor Martin left me with several questions. Among them:

(1) Why is it that she feels she cannot answer hypothetical questions? They are a widely accepted rhetorical strategy for ascertaining one's values-- something many are still struggling to do with Biddy Martin.

(2) What exactly did she mean when she said she wished for a more “flexible, differentiated” discussion of the NBP? In fact, the discussion was quite differentiated, given that it occurred among different groups of people given widely disparate access to data and relevant information.

(3) She suggests that the public authority model made the provision of flexibilities seem like a compromise position. Is she trying to insinuate that public authority was offered as a distraction-- as a way to get the job done?

(4) She speaks of Amherst as being more aligned with her "values" and notes that that college serves a higher percentage of Pell-eligible students than does UW Madison. Is she also aware that the total number of low-income students she will be serving at Amherst is less than 400 (given undergraduate enrollment of about 1,700) compared to just under 7,000 at UW-Madison?

(5) She said she added 80 new faculty lines after 10 years of cuts in the number of faculty members in response to student needs. How are we to juxtapose this with the evidence that the number of faculty at UW-Madison was basically steady from the mid-90s through the first decade of the new century? The decline occurred in the early 1990s and was the reversal of a spike in faculty hiring in the late 1980s. There's little evidence that the most cost-effective solution to the problem of undergraduate course access was to hire more professors.

(6) She says that the research infrastructure has begun to be re-organized, that is "not complete, but we got it started." Does she recall the faculty uprising over the Grad School restructuring, and does she think it still ought to move forward as planned?

(7) The need for boards to oversee individual campuses in the UW System, she says, is "to help them generate revenue.” What, I wonder, is the reason why people (alumni) are only willing to support their institutions if they have leadership positions on boards? What is it they feel they need to control?

Yes, I too wish I could have a week without thinking about Biddy Martin and the issues she's raising. Unfortunately, she may be on her way out, but we are stuck with Scott Walker and "his" big ideas.

Monday, July 4, 2011

What the Future Holds

Sociologists of education love longitudinal studies since they allow us to get a sense of how people's lives unfold over time as they engage with schools and society. But man, they take forever to produce data! We have to wait, and wait, and wait for kids to age, then for data to be assembled, made available, etc.

So I get kinda psyched when NCES issues a newsflash with the latest report from one of its longitudinal studies. The most recent is not even longitudinal--yet. It's about fall 2009 9th graders, who form the basis for the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009. The results are based on a nationally representative sample of 20,000 9th graders attending 944 high schools.

In a sense, this is decent way to examine what's coming down the pike towards the nation's colleges and universities. Prior research clearly demonstrates that the road to college entrance requires a surefooted start in 9th grade. So how do things look now?

No doubt about it, these 9th graders are ambitious. Fully 73% expect to attain more than a high school degree (another 22% aren't sure what they will do). This isn't surprising, as John Reynolds, Barbara Schneider and others have been describing an upward trajectory in college ambitions for quite some time. Consistent with national trends, girls expect to go further than boys -- 44% of 9th grade girls said they would earn a graduate degree, compared to 35% of 9th grade boys. Sadly, 27% of students in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic distribution didn't expect to attend any college, compared to just 3% of those in the top 5th. A similar proportion of those in the bottom 5th planned to attend graduate school, compared to 56% of those in the top 5th.

Some kids are also pretty realistic. NCES administered a test of algebra achievement, and 39% of those scoring in the bottom quintile don't expect to go beyond high school. Nearly one in four said they "don't know" what their educational expectations are. In comparison, just 14% of students in the top quintile on that test weren't sure of what would happen after high school, and 95% expected to go on to college. But oddly enough, almost 25% of students who expect to finish college and/or go to graduate school hadn't even made it as far as Algebra I by 9th grade, and 29% weren't taking any science.

And this time NCES asked a pretty cool question about the probability that students will be able to finish college: "Whatever your plans, do you think you have the ability to complete a Bachelor’s degree?" What amazes me is that the percent of students who responded that they would "definitely" complete college didn't exceed 75% for any of the subgroups analyzed-- at best, 75% of 9th graders who expected to complete graduate school were definitely certain of their ability to complete college. That may indicate that they've internalized a fair bit of the world's uncertainty. Especially the boys--heck, 34% of these 9th grade boys couldn't identify what occupation they'd like to be working in at age 30.

These kids have a long road ahead of them- I only hope that when they reach higher education, our colleges are ready to meet their needs.

**The next HLS wave is 2012-- when most of the students will be 11th graders. We'll see what happens!