Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What A Private College Buys

Last week an article I wrote with Chris Healy for the Teachers College Record on the topic of college grading got picked up by the NY Times in the Economix blog.  The blog post covered the salient points of the article very well, generated about 20,000 new visitors to the very first day, and focused on one aspect of the article that other journalists decided to sidestep: the private college premium.  Private colleges, on average, grade higher for a given caliber of student.

This grading premium is small, about 0.1 to 0.2 on a 4.0 GPA scale, but it's definitely measurable and runs across the spectrum of private schools from the 1200 SAT type places for problem students on up to the Ivy League.  There are certainly exceptions to this rule; that's how averages work.  But it's a good assumption that if you attend a private school you'll get a slightly higher GPA.

There were a slew of comments, mostly from outraged parents and students who attend private schools,  about this observation in our article.  The editor of the blog received a bunch of separate emails from people who felt maligned by the post.  Apparently, she and I hit a nerve.

The fact is that there is no convincing evidence that those that attend private colleges and universities  learn more than those who attend public schools.  It's simply not there in the education literature.  People have been trying to find this measurable advantage for decades.  They can't.  Students do not work harder at private schools according to student reported data.  They are not smarter with the exception of a small number of private schools that house mostly 2300 SAT types of students.  They are not more mature.  They simply can afford to attend a private school; family incomes of students who attend private schools are significantly higher than those that attend public schools.

Given these observations, it is likely that the reason grades are slightly higher in private colleges is that professors in those schools choose to grade a little easier for a given level of student performance.  They give out several percent more A's and B's and the equivalent less C's, D's and F's (I'm working on a paper on the specifics of the difference in grading patterns this week).  Why do they choose to do this?  I don't know why.  I know I graded easier at Duke than I would have at UNC down the road.  It was just part of the culture to do so.

Now why are people so upset about this observation?  I have no idea, really.  We do not live in a anything close to a strict meritocracy.  Wealthy children have many advantages in life.  In their pursuit of getting into the "right school" they spend four figures taking SAT prep courses in the hope that they'll earn a slightly higher SAT score.  They are essentially paying for a higher SAT score than they "deserve".  If someone wrote a research paper that stated that those that took SAT prep courses had, controlling for student talent, slightly higher SAT scores, there wouldn't be any outrage from people with big houses and bank accounts.  They'd instead be happy; that's why they are paying those dollars.

But somehow, when a similar advantage in grading is pointed out about private colleges and universities, the country club set gets upset.  They also get upset when people point out that private colleges and universities are for the most part for those that earn 150K or more (median incomes tend to be in excess of 200K at elite private colleges and universities).  I don't understand this insistence to ignore data when it comes to who goes to private colleges either.

There are benefits to attending private colleges.  I am not trying to bash them.  But facts are facts.  The facts are that those advantages do not include any educational benefit that you can measure with a GRE or LSAT or MCAT.  The students are not on average more motivated.  They do not work harder.  When you attend a private college or university you do so for reasons aside from getting a better teacher or more in depth look at organic chemistry.  Yes you do get, on average, a 0.1 to 0.2 bump in a GPA.  Is that worth an extra 30K in cost?  I don't think so.  There should be better reasons to attend private colleges.  I happen to think that there are for certain types of students.  I might talk about that in another post.


John said...

Great response Mr Rojstaczer. I'm sure that many readers will comment that an important advantage of private over public is smaller class sizes/fewer TA's.

While the may be no measurable benefit to a private college, it seems to me (in the course of researching colleges with my high-school junior son) that many colleges (both private and public) are not that good either and that attention should be paid to their performance as is being now done for schools.

fortyquestions said...

There are advantages to smaller class sizes, no doubt. If someone can afford the dollars to attend a serious private school (as you note there are quite a few pretenders both public and private) or manages to get a very, very attractive financial aid package with zero or small loans, why not go? But taking out house loans to send your kid to a certain school so you can put a decal on your car and show off, which some people do, is just plain dumb.

Mme. Ruhland said...

Having attended both UCB and 3 California State Universities, I can tell you that the education provided at UCB is far more demanding than at the State Schools. Assuming that UCB is like a typical private school and that the others are like typical public schools, it makes sense to me that grades would be higher at UCB. They should be. The work is in another class, so to speak.


fortyquestions said...

Grade are higher at UCB than at CSU schools and they should be. They get, on average a higher caliber of student.

Grades should be higher at Stanford than at CSU schools as well. But how much higher? Should the average Stanford student graduate with a 3.65 GPA? There is no basis for this high level of grading. There are many private four year schools today where over 60 percent of all letter grades are A. That's fantasy grading, not a realistic assessment of performance.

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