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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Did these college basketball stars only attend classes in their first semester?

"In the latest example of his longstanding distaste for Kentucky basketball, Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight said last weekend that UK's five starters in the 2010 NCAA Tournament did not attend class that spring semester."

This whole notion of the "student athlete" is claptrap.  It does nothing for the ultimate goal of providing a better education at a lower cost. Why not separate education from the business of minor-league sports?  

These future NBA players are not interested in their non-basketball education at the University of Kentucky.  It is a required rite of passage since the NCAA conspired with the NBA to force these basketball players to "invest" at least a year in college basketball before being eligible for the NBA draft.  Actually they don’t have to play college basketball; they can sit out a year or play beach volleyball but obviously that won’t help them land a lucrative contract when they are eligible. 

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How do we measure how well our colleges are doing?

Business as usual. This writer misses a critical point.  The education factories (aka colleges and universities) take in a student and then produce a graduate (with the exception of those that drop out).  So measuring only the average SAT scores of the incoming freshman tells you nothing about how an institution of higher learning has done at the job of education.  Likewise, measuring only the GMAT test scores of the graduating seniors tells one only how the graduating senior s did-not how much the student learned.  And yet both of these factors are heavily weighted in the formulas that rank our colleges and universities.   

How do we measure a typical factory?  The measure of economic value created is output divided by input.  One takes something of less value and efficiently creates a product of greater value.  If one takes something worth a dollar and adds a dollar of time and materials then you have $2 invested.  If someone then buys that product for $4 you have produced $4 of value for $2 of input–well done.  On the other hand if you spend $10 producing something and can only sell the finished product for $5 then you have destroyed $5 of economic value. You will be out of business soon (unless you are the government or have big government subsidies).

Back to how we measure college. My theory is that if I have a college or university that is lucky enough to accept only the brightest 2% of graduating American high school students (say Harvard) that four years later this same college should produce graduates that are in the top 2% of IQs (even if their "education" has been absolute BS).

But what if a college accepted students that had average incoming SAT scores in the 50th percentile and yet it produced graduates with GMAT scores in the 70th percentile.  Now we’re talking. I would have to say that this college has made a real difference. Unfortunately I have yet to find this mythical institution. 

Measuring how bright the incoming freshmen are is a horrible way to measure how good a college is.  Likewise tracking how well the graduates do from the U without regard to the IQ of the incoming freshmen also tells me little.

What matters is how much improvement in thinking, questioning, writing, and preparedness for the job market that an institution of higher learning produces for the time and dollar spent.

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Definition of College According to the Urban Dictionary

The Urban Dictionary is one of my favorite "research" tools these days.  If you want the real meaning of a word or the story behind the story, this is a great place to start.

Here are a few of my favorite definitions from this institution of higher learning:

"A magical place where it is rumored that learning takes place, although to those who enter it is often described differently afterward, as a beatiful land in which beer flows in amber currents next to a golden pasture, where virgins lie naked with gentle smiles upon their calm, inviting faces; but more precisely, a Shangri-La rite of passage into adulthood which involves rampant consumption of alcoholic beverages, flagrant and promiscuous sexual behavior, and a general and fundamental disregard for any form of responsibility by its habitants.

Thank you sir, may I have another?"

by Phlagellum September 23, 2003

"The place where you enter inexorbitant amounts of debt to "learn" things you will never apply once to your actual occupation. Basically, an expensive 4-year waiting period for a paper called 'degree'.

I will owe Wells Fargo my first born so I can pay off my college."

by Drenam February 02, 2003

"An alternative to buying a Ferrari (they cost about the same).
Damn, that Ferrari costs almost as much as college."

by Duesey December 01, 2003

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Sunday, May 25, 2014

When it comes to college, why don’t we separate granting credentials from learning?

Today college serves at least four different purposes:

      Purpose #1) It provides some information to a prospective employer about the minimum IQ of a possible hire (it tells you little about their actual IQ);  
      #2) General learning and experience;
d    #3) Preparation for the job market; 
      #4) Demonstrate credentials to the job market that allows a potential employer to determine if the graduate has learned certain material. 


Demonstrating Your Smarts

One does not get accepted into Harvard with an IQ of 90. Therefore if I hire a Harvard grad, I have some information about the IQ of the candidate. But some graduates from Florida State have higher IQs than some Stanford grads. This function (demonstrating smarts) could be met more simply and accurately by allowing and encouraging prospects to include their test scores (SAT, ACT or GMAT) on their resumes and job applications. This is not done today because: 1) it is considered bad form and 2) it might be viewed as discriminatory because the employer cannot demonstrate that this measure is required to meet the minimal requirements of the job (in the crazy world of Equal Opportunity Law).  Seems nuts to me, but if a large corporation started asking for SAT scores they would quickly have the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission breathing down their necks and threatening major fines.

Here is an alternative (although limited) method to demonstrate your smarts. We could allow and encourage job applicants to list the colleges to which they were accepted but chose not to attend. Unfortunately with today’s norms this would be viewed as egotistical as the bumper sticker that brags: “My other car is a Porsche”. There is a time and a method where the student sells herself in a time-honored fashion (trying to get into a college and trying to get a job or into graduate school upon graduation) but this is currently not one of them. One could establish that she was accepted at Harvard but chose San Jose State instead (perhaps with a bumper sticker). The hardest part about graduating from Harvard is getting accepted in the first place. Very few students that start at Harvard (provided they show up, do not drop out like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg did, and do not get hooked on drugs) end up not graduating. 

Learning and Experience

The learning is what you should be paying for (time, money and effort) - learning how to learn, how to think, how to persuade, how to question, how to analyze as well as mastering a few basics like logic, statistics, writing, and the discipline to meet deadlines and complete projects.  And of course it might also help one determine what the individual might be interested in pursuing as a career starter.
But today there are plenty of alternatives to achieve the learning without the traditional college experience. The Khan Academy, free online MBA classes from Wharton,  and TED conferences are just a few of the wonderful free online resources available.  There are also a growing number of for-pay sites that provide education at a reasonable price like ($25/month), ($9.95/month) and ($15.95/month).  On this dimension, shouldn't we care about the education achieved for the dollar spent? 

Two potential college experiences are living away from home for the first time or sharing a dorm room with someone from a different background. And of course there is the chance to participate in campus clubs, games, debates, and politics. My favorite of course is getting a job or internship while in college.

There is plenty of discussion of life-long friendships that are made and the experience of attending the Saturday morning football games. But much of this is possible without spending an additional $200,000. For example, if one chose not to attend college, you could join a local entrepreneurs group, attend local seminars, watch online pitches, volunteer at a non-profit or an angel investing group, or volunteer to assist a college professor on her research.  Please consider that smart volunteers are almost always in demand.  College is not the only way to gain experience.

Preparation for the Job Market

If you hope to be accepted to Medical or Veterinarian school you probably have to find a way to get through Organic Chemistry. If you want to work for a consulting engineering company then you better take a broad range of math, science and engineering classes. If you intend to get a finance job then college is the chance to learn the basics of accounting, finance and project finance.

If all your classes in the general curriculum make you a better critical thinker (a stated goal of virtually every university) and more knowledgeable about world history these are interesting but generally do less in increasing your odds of getting several great job offers upon graduation.


There are different types of credentials that one can earn via college.  The typical one is a "degree."  But in the IT field, the myriad of certifications (from Microsoft, Oracle and Cisco) frequently count for more than a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science.

The degree from an Ivy League college frequently just signals that you were smart enough to get accepted in the first place. If you get accepted to Harvard and stick it out, you will earn a degree. The hard part is being smart enough to get accepted and sometimes brash enough to borrow boatloads of money to finance the gig.

The second element of the degree that matters is the major in which you graduated. Did you graduate in a discipline that is perceived as difficult and in demand (electrical engineering or chemical engineering) or did you take a course load that is perceived as easier (Gender Studies, Sociology, Physical Education). Many more students can get accepted to San Jose State or Stanford than can complete the Electrical Engineering programs at these schools. Being smart enough and disciplined enough to complete one of these degrees provides more bragging rights (and probably more job offers) than an easier program at the same school. The general media hypes the value of a generic college education far more frequently that the value of a degree in Electrical Engineering compared to Sociology.  

The credential process has some value.  Do you want a brain surgeon operating on you for his first ever surgery? When you are on trial for murder do you want an attorney that has not graduated from law school, or never tried a capital case?  Back as to demonstrating your smarts, in these latter two cases wouldn't you want someone that you knew is very smart as well? Although a college degree can demonstrate smarts, shouldn't there be a more direct and cheaper vehicle for determining this?  

The Challenge

Here is my thesis: when we combine these four distinct functions, we muddle the objectives of each of them and waste a lot of time and money trying to achieve some nebulous combination. When a college is failing in one dimension they say: “but we are doing so well on this other one.”  On the learning element, shouldn't we track the amount of learning achieved in some quantifiable way? For example, a simple measure would be to require GMAT scores for every college graduate. Then compare the test scores of the entering classes with the ranking of the graduating classes (on a percentile basis).  My guess is that we might not see much difference. 

When we combine the credential process with the learning process, there is a clear conflict of interest.  Should it matter which professor is the most demanding and generates the most learning or one that is the kindest, gentlest and easiest grader?  Professors and colleges frequently get evaluated based on how many pass the class or graduate from the college – a sure conflict of interest.  Rarely does the instructor or college get greater kudos for being extremely demanding. If one institution delivers the education and another does the testing and grading, the conflict of interest is removed. The current system has resulted in such grade inflation that today about 42% of all college grades are A’s. 

I doubt if many colleges will be inclined to set goals and measure results based on my four purposes – this might actually force them to reevaluate how they are organized, and how they compete. And I also doubt that they will remove themselves from the credentialing process (Purpose #4). Once these institutions lose their ability to grade themselves (by grading their own students), we might see radical change (and improvement).

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Being lucky enough to be born smart might be more important than if you attend college

This is about the 1000th article I have seen that mixes up correlation with cause and effect as it relates to the value of college.

They never try to compare comparable subsets (with IQs that are similar) when they make the fallacious argument that college grads make more money than high school dropouts and therefore it is a good investment.

They always forget to account for the average difference in IQs for college grads compared to non college grads.  I can tell you that one factor that always seems to pay off is to be lucky enough to be born smart.  A degree in Sociology is not going to cure this challenge if you weren't so lucky.

But alas, if this writer did attend the local U, he must have been sleeping during his Logic class.

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Which Class Do I Take?

How about this for a college decision process?  Study the harder subject. 

You can take a class in Gender Studies where the prof awards 90% A’s or a class in Advanced Engineering Mathematics where only 20% of the students earn an A. In which class should you enroll?

You can take a class in Organic Chemistry where few students receive an A and many do not even complete the class. Or you can take a late afternoon class in Volleyball.  Nobody flunks Volleyball.  So in which class do you enroll? 

I will say it now; always take the harder class. Set aside the grade and focus on what you are going to learn.

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