by Greg Mayer
The title of this second post in what I hope will be a continuing series comes from the title of a new article in The Atlantic by Joe Pinsker. In the article he discusses an unpublished paper by Jeffrey Denning and colleagues at Brigham Young University. It highlights one of the chief ills of American higher education: that the goal of the system is not education. As noted in my first post in this series, the neoliberal consensus in higher education holds that the goal of higher education is maximization of monetary value. For businesses and legislators, this means colleges should train workers that industry needs in order to maximize profits; for labor advocates, it means training workers for jobs that pay well.
Though it might seem that achievement of this goal can be measured in dollars earned (by businesses or workers), such economic data can be difficult to gather, and suffer from the fact that it can take many years for the payoff of an investment to be evident. In lieu of this, some measure of success in reaching this goal must be agreed upon, and businessmen, legislators, bureaucrats, and educational think tanks, with the ready assent of college administrators, have settled upon graduation rate as the metric by which to measure the results of higher education.
It is to these rates, and how and why they are changing, that Denning et al. address themselves. Noting that graduation rates have gone up recently, but that there are no demographic or academic reasons to readily explain this, they consider that maybe it’s just easier to graduate. Money quote from Pinsker:
If grades are improving but there’s no reason to think that students have become better students, an interesting possibility is raised: The unassuming, academic way Denning puts it in a recent paper (co-authored with his BYU colleague Eric Eide and Merrill Warnick, an incoming Stanford doctoral student) is that “standards for degree receipt” may have changed. A less measured way of saying what that implies: College may have gotten easier… altering what’s necessary to get a degree is “the lowest cost way to increase graduation rates.”
Now, on the face of it, a high graduation rate would seem to be a good thing, and it is; but when you make a metric the goal, then the metric can be gamed, which is what Denning et al. suggest is being done by colleges. This is a well known phenomenon, nicely summarized by Abhishek Chakraborty:
It has been established that when you measure effectiveness solely based on quantitative indicators, people involved have a high incentive to demonstrate less ethical behaviour, and most likely less effective results as well. This is called Campbell’s Law. [emphasis added]
The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor. [paywalled]
Frederick Hess gives a nice example:
The first time I heard of Campbell’s Law was in a college class in public policy. The professor asked, “Can data ever cause problems? Can it ever hurt?” It seemed like a trick question. Pretty much in unison, the class uncertainly mumbled a version of, “I don’t think so.”
The professor then asked, “What if a police department decides to evaluate officers based on the number of traffic tickets they write? Could anything go wrong?” Someone observed that cops would try to write lots of tickets—including for people who might not deserve them.
The professor asked, “Okay, so what if they flip it? What if they reward cops who issue fewer tickets?” Well, duh. Police might turn a blind eye to real problems.
The instructor smiled and said, “See, you can think of lots of ways where data might hurt.”
Another term for essentially the same phenomenon is Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
It seems to me that much of what passes for “reform” in higher education is an instantiation of Campbell’s and Goodhart’s Laws. Under pressure to show results responsive to the neoliberal consensus, measures, which might even have merit, are turned into the purpose of the system, and almost any method may be resorted to to achieve it. It is ironic that use of this measure may pervert even the neoliberal goal: if graduates are required to learn less and have fewer skills, will they really be able to maximize business’s profits, or their own salaries?