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This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Everyone wants some magical solution for their problem and everyone refuses to believe in magic

A new study from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University (a college that Hofstadter spent some time mocking in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life) gives us a magic fix to community college retention and graduation rates:  Students should take 15 units in their first semester, instead of the 12 units that some people recommend as a gentler start.  Their study shows that taking 15 units in the first semester predicts student success.

There's just one problem:  We don't know if the students who take 15 units do better because their more rigorous first semester provides them with a good foundation for success, or because being able to take 15 units means that they don't have a lot of family responsibilities and don't have to work long hours.  If the former case is true then people should absolutely advise students to take 15 units in their first semester.  If the later case applies then taking 15 units is just spitting in the wind.  In reality it is almost certainly some of each, but we don't know to what extent each effect applies, or if one is much stronger than the other.  We can hazard informed guesses, but this study does not actually offer any evidence in favor of one guess or another.  This is conceded in footnote 6 (page 10 of the .pdf) and confirmed in Table 2 (page 20 of the .pdf) where they show which variables they control for.  None of the variables are direct measures of a student's outside work hours or family responsibilities.  Yes, they control for gender, and gender can be a proxy for greater outside responsibilities, but it's a very crude proxy.  They also control for high school GPA, and certainly a higher GPA may be a sign of a favorable family environment, but many families expect more from a person once they finish high school, and high school is a much more structured environment than college, so high school GPA is a poor proxy for family and work responsibilities.

Nonetheless, this study is getting a lot of attention, because everyone wants to believe that there are easy fixes.  Even worse, they want to believe that these easy fixes are rational, so that they can get magical solutions without magic.  Alas, there are no secret tricks, no correct politics, just liars and lunatics.

It is worth noting that this is pretty much part for the course when it comes to elite discourse about the lower classes.  The world wants to believe that there's a cheap and easy way to help the disadvantaged.  Having them take one extra course isn't all that hard in the grand scheme of things, or at least it isn't that hard for the people telling them to do it.  Whether or not the fix works is less important than the fact that it has been identified and they've been told that they better go do it.

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