Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Choosing a College

A commenter on one of my recent posts raises the general question of how to choose a college and does not seem to have much in the way of serious answers. So I thought it might be worth discussing our approach:

1. My daughter, having been home unschooled (and perhaps for innate reasons as well), does not want to take courses that someone else has selected for her because that someone else thinks they would be good for her. One of our collections of information, put out by the Intercollegiate Studies institute (an organization I have not yet forgiven for the base cowardice of changing its name from the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists), is very useful in this regard. Its authors are in favor of a "core curriculum," so their approving comments provide a convenient way of warning my daughter away from schools with lots of requirements.

She was particularly put off by one school that has mandatory physical education. Her view was that although she could satisfy the requirement with dance, which she likes, its existence signaled a paternalistic attitude she disapproves of and will tend to attract students who like sports and/or paternalism, a negative signal for her.

2. My daughter is likely to find smarter students more interesting, so high average SAT scores are a positive signal, and the information is readily available.

3. My daughter shares my political attitudes but not my taste for arguing about them. Given that at almost any school she is interested in the orthodoxy will be far from her views, she wants someplace where she won't feel obliged to either conceal her views or spend a lot of her time defending them.

The comment by the tour guide at one school that he thinks capitalism is a good system but, so far as he could tell, he was the only member of his class with that opinion was a mild negative signal, as was the comment by another tour guide that, although she was herself politically liberal, she wished her classes were not so consistently on that side of the political spectrum. On the other hand, the comment by an econ professor at one school that he deliberately makes politically incorrect economic points in his environmental economics class (if you want there to be more trees, don't recycle paper) and that the reaction he gets is curiosity, not hostility, was a mild positive signal.

More generally, I found it informative to wander into the economics department and get into a conversation with one of the professors, both because being a fellow economist provides a link and because economists are likely to find themselves at odds with some of the political orthodoxy almost anywhere, hence to be sensitive to such issues.

4. Still more generally, I try to find links not provided by the school--independent views. We have long been active in the SCA, a group that does historical recreation and has local chapters at many schools. So, where possible, we arranged to talk with someone from the local chapter to get his or her view of the school. In one case, that led to adding a school to our list--the student running the local chapter in Northfield, which we visited to see Carleton, was a student at nearby St. Olaf's, and visiting with her gave our daughter a very attractive view of that school ("there's music everywhere"). It's now on her list.

5. Probably the most valuable information comes from casual contact with students. Most of a student's interaction is with other students, so the feel of the student environment is critical. Pretty clearly, a lot of the reason my older son enjoyed Harvey Mudd was that it was a society he fit into, where characteristics that had made him an outsider in high school made him a valued insider in college.

The main source of that information was sleepovers arranged by the colleges; our daughter met with a student--in every case a freshman--and spent the night in her dorm. That provided a chance to socialize with her hostess and her friends.

It's a good system, but a very noisy signal, since student society within a single college is likely to vary a good deal. She got a strongly positive impression of one school, where her hostess was very much her sort of person--she and her friends spent their spare time playing guitar, singing and talking. She got a negative impression at another where her hostess, although obviously a nice person trying to do her best, considered watching television the natural way of spending free time. How much of that reflected differences in the schools is hard to know.

I made some attempt to get a picture of student society myself by eating in the dining hall and listening to conversations, but it would take a lot more of that than I had an opportunity for to produce much useful information.

6. Our daughter attended classes at all the schools she visited. At most of them her impression was positive. There was one economics class where she had to refrain, out of considerations of courtesy, from contradicting the professor, which left a very mildly negative impression. He had asked for examples of goods with inelastic demand, a student has offered water, and he had agreed--presumably because it did not occur to him that drinking water, for which one would expect a very inelastic demand, represents a trivial fraction of total water consumption.

None of it adds up to a spreadsheet formula that we can use to calculate a first, second and third choice. But I think it all helps.

16 Comments:

At 2:15 PM, November 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...she wants someplace where she won't feel obliged to either conceal her views or spend a lot of her time defending them."

I think she'll spend most of her time defending them. That's the fun part of college. That's what lunchtime conversations are--polite (at good shcools), witty (at better colleges), arguments about why you're right.

 
At 5:38 PM, November 13, 2007, Blogger Elizabeth said...

"There was one economics class where she had to refrain, out of considerations of courtesy, from contradicting the professor..."

Tell her to stop doing that.

How particular professors (and professors in general) react to contradiction from students is very important information. Do they discuss the disagreement? Do they quash the student? Putting her hand up and explaining how that particular point was wrong could have gotten her valuable information, and potentially transformed her mild negative into either positive or negative certainty.

I appreciate that she has not your taste for arguing, but no one acquires a good liberal arts education by sitting and listening quietly in the presence of other students who all do the same. One cannot rely on one's fellow students to carry the entire burden of Socratic discourse.

 
At 7:23 PM, November 13, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

Elizabeth says that my daughter should stop refraining from contradicting the professor.

I expect that if she had been a student in the class, she would have raised the issue. But she was a guest--a visitor observing the class. In that situation even I would not have raised the issue in class, although I would probably have raised it with the professor afterwards.

 
At 8:45 PM, November 13, 2007, Anonymous Tom Crispin said...

Our daughter was home-unschooled through her GED. Her initial plans involved majoring in Biology; we spoke with one of the professors at the university and his recommendation was to take the first year (or two if the courses are available) at the local community college which feeds the university system. She did her first two years in the community college system.

Pro: (1) The top of line courses will be fully equivalent to what you will get at the university, and not just in math and science - her history professor changed the direction her studies. (2) It is cheaper, which makes graduate school more affordable. (3) Classes are much smaller. (4) Faculty at a community college will likely be more favorably disposed to her political preferences than at an elite university - and particularly more so than the TA's. (5) You won't be distracted by the football team.

Con: The student body may not be quite as sharp on the whole, but the actual diversity among your fellow students will be greater.

Result: she has a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Texas at Austin with a double major in History and Psychology, and is currently studying for a Master of Arts in Military History.

 
At 8:43 AM, November 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"She was particularly put off by one school that has mandatory physical education. Her view was that ... its existence signaled a paternalistic attitude she disapproves of "

A paternalistic attitude seems fundamental to the idea of a college approving or disapproving of what you have learned. If you try to graduate from a college, you are fundamentally going to have to do what the college, in its paternalistic wisdom, thinks is good for you, correct?

Alternatively, of course, she could go and flunk out, concentrating on her education instead of her certification. Fight the man! How does that sound?

"2. My daughter is likely to find smarter students more interesting, so high average SAT scores are a positive signal, and the information is readily available."

There are smart students at every college. I wouldn't worry about this.


"3. My daughter shares my political attitudes but not my taste for arguing about them. Given that at almost any school she is interested in the orthodoxy will be far from her views, she wants someplace where she won't feel obliged to either conceal her views or spend a lot of her time defending them."

She'll only end up in arguments if she feels like it. Why would it be otherwise?




To try and make positive suggestions:

1. Your #5 is a big one. Try and hang out with other students, or at least other potential students. See if you like them. Likewise for the professors, ideally.

2. Aim for a big college. Since you and she seem to be floundering a little, a big college will mean there are lots of sub-cultures to explore.

3. Think about the more obvious things other than education per se. Where is the college located and how much does it cost?


Looking at this list, the nearest large public university might be just the ticket. The real challenge will be finding the right subgroups within the college, but she will have plenty of time to do that.


-Daublin

 
At 11:30 AM, November 14, 2007, Anonymous Gary Roewe said...

David, you say your criteria and impressions don't lnd themselves to a spreadsheet analysis but a multicriteria analysis using weightings for your criteria and a score of 1 to 10 to score your subjective impressions of how each schools scores on each criterion can provide a useful way to compare schools using even subjective criteria. I presume you have come across this kind of analysis but thought it worth mentioning.

Gary Roewe
Des Moines, IA

 
At 12:55 PM, November 14, 2007, Blogger ninjadroid said...

Don't forget the money angle. I've been following this saga for a while, and all the options discussed would require dropping in the area of a quarter million, total. I can't, personally, even come close to reconciling that. My bachelor's cost about $40k, and even that strikes me as grossly inflated. I can't even begin to fathom the idea of fathoming a six figure education.

 
At 3:52 PM, November 14, 2007, Blogger John Lott said...

Aren't there substitutes for drinking water? At some point, even if there was only water to drink, the demand could be very inelastic for drinking water, but there might be a significant range for the market demand curve that is not inelastic.

 
At 6:41 PM, November 14, 2007, Blogger Synova said...

The person with the unserious answers may have been me. I know you from r.a.sf.c, David, and because of that I may have been a bit glib.

I didn't mean to say that it doesn't matter at all which college a person goes to, but that after a gross sorting into groups of "no-way," "eh", "maybe," and "this might work", additional evaluation doesn't help much.

You can analyze the ever-living daylights out of it but unless a visit to a campus makes a fifth category labled "YES!" necessary, choosing the college with the best male/female ratio (or any similar silly and subjective metric) will do.

Because we see the future dimly.

Not that the choosing process isn't highly entertaining (to us) and no doubt is loads of fun. But is the question *really* that weighty?

 
At 6:42 PM, November 14, 2007, Blogger Synova said...

Oops, I was going to sign that.

-J.Pascal

 
At 1:34 AM, November 16, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

Julie asks if the question is really that weighty.

I think it is. I suspect that the experience a student will have can depend, to a considerable degree, on what school he goes to.

The hard problem is predicting which school will produce the more desirable experience.

Anonymous writes:

"If you try to graduate from a college, you are fundamentally going to have to do what the college, in its paternalistic wisdom, thinks is good for you, correct?"

One gets to decide, at the entry stage, among different colleges, and one relevant criterion is to what degree the college tries to impose its opinion of how you should get educated on you.

He also writes:

"She'll only end up in arguments if she feels like it. Why would it be otherwise?"

Because in some social environments someone who doesn't agree with the accepted wisdom will be looked down on, as stupid or wicked, unless he can defend his position. In other environments he will get that reaction even if he does defend it.

In still others, people will take it for granted that it is possible for reasonable people to hold views different from theirs, or simply won't care much about political positions.

He argues for a big college. My daughter has already decided that she wants a small one.

 
At 1:37 AM, November 16, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

John Lott asks about substitutes for drinking water.

I think it depends on whether you count water you drink that is mixed with other things--the water in milk, for instance, or soda. In the broadest sense, one has to have a certain amount of water or one dies of thirst, and although when water is readily available one consumes more than that, one doesn't consume all that much more.

Actually, I do--in the form of diet coke--but I'm odd that way.

I suspect the student who thought the demand was inelastic was thinking in those terms, although he probably just assumed that water was all there was to drink.

 
At 9:53 AM, November 16, 2007, Blogger happyjuggler0 said...

As I understand it, some people are misunderstanding D. Friedman's point on water. Drinking water is indeed highly inelastic. It is the other uses of water that are much more elastic, and with drinking water being a really small percentage of water usage, the notion of water being inelastic is false.

For example, imagine if communities all over Texas decided to sell water at or near the price that it would cost them if they had to pipe it in from a desalination plant. At the same time, they created a "Permanent Dividend Fund" and put all the "profits" from the government monopoly into that fund, distributing the dividends equally to each man, woman and child in the relevant water district, regardless of that individual's wealth or income.

Under that scenario, does any serious student/professor of economics think that water usage wouldn't drop dramatically, assuming that the previous price was well below the new price?

Some examples of voluntary (i.e. without government or peer suasion, excepting the suasion of the new higher price) water reduction would be new purchases in the home of water efficient washing machines, shower heads, quicker shower usage, more baths instead of showers, fewer people running tap water continuously while brushing their teeth, more people filling the kitchen sink with water instead of keeping water running while washing dishes, less usage of dishwashers, less recycling of cans and bottles (noting that one is "supposed" to wash these out, a step that can be saved by merely throwing this trash out instead), more efficient watering of lawns, with perhaps an abandonment of lawns altogether for some people (e.g. here in LA, an apartment across the street from me just replaced its silly grass strip between the sidewalk and the street with cool looking, sidewalk elevation, concrete that was imbedded with an attractive looking stone arrangement), etc.

Additionally, lots of farms in Texas would go out of business, or at least switch to crops with less water needs, noting that farming is the most "egregious" (i.e. heavy) user of scarce water in any location that has farms.

Similarly, other businesses would rethink their water usage, with perhaps a much smaller percentage of hotels and motels with swimming pools, whirlpools etc., apartment building owners putting in individual apartment water meters and charging each apartment for its water usage, no "free" water in restaurants, etc.

Some of those water reductions could be considered to have a high degree of inelasticity, such as new washing machines, but with a large enough price increase one might see an awful lot of quality used washing machines on Ebay.

Overall water usage isn't the best example of inelasticity out there. Perhaps a better answer is that under current usage, marginal water inelasticity is low, with a substantially increasing level of inelasticity as one moves along the demand curve.

 
At 1:20 PM, November 16, 2007, Blogger happyjuggler0 said...

By the way, the beauty of pricing water at or near the desalination plant replacement level is that if water stocks start to dwindle down eventually again thanks to increased population density, or due to a genuine drought (as opposed to prevalent artifical shortages due to underpricing), or due to increased wealth (decreasing the water price to income ratio, making water use less unattractive), then one merely has to build a water desalination plant at little or no net new cost to water users, albeit at high cost to Permanent Dividend Fund recipients.

There is no such thing as a water shortage when our planet is 3/4 covered in water. There is only a shortage at a price.

 
At 7:47 AM, November 18, 2007, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

I didn't mean to say that it doesn't matter at all which college a person goes to, but that after a gross sorting into groups of "no-way," "eh", "maybe," and "this might work", additional evaluation doesn't help much.

This is somewhere between "sort of tangential" and "really tangential"—but when I am deciding what roleplaying campaigns to run, I distribute a prospectus among all my players. It lists and describes N options. Each player get 2N points to bid on those options. Any non-negative integer is allowed as a bid, so long as the points sum up to 2N.

(Then I look for sets of two campaigns such that distributing the players between them maximizes or near-maximizes the total bids. In practice, I narrow down to three or four possible sets and make a judgment call among them.)

Anyway, this seems to produce only slightly more than your four categories: Not If You Paid Me, Better than Nothing, As Good as Any, Sounds Interesting, Definite Yes, and Please Please Please Please! (I seldom see a bid of more than five, and really it just conveys the same message, but louder.) That's probably about the right number of levels of difference so that subjective factors will just barely fall short of the difference between two levels. Of course, it's also compatible with "the magical number seven, plus or minus two."

 
At 5:52 AM, November 25, 2007, Anonymous Steve B. said...

synova wrote:
You can analyze the ever-living daylights out of it but ... choosing the college with the best male/female ratio (or any similar silly and subjective metric) will do.

Because we see the future dimly.

Not that the choosing process isn't highly entertaining (to us) and no doubt is loads of fun. But is the question *really* that weighty?


There's actually scientific research on this: see the book Stumbling on Happiness, which came out a few months ago. In a nutshell, it demonstrates that people have a shaky grasp of how happy they are right now, a shakier grasp of how happy they were in the past (only weakly correlated with their own reports at the time), and an incredibly poor ability to predict how happy they will be in various future scenarios.

One example: people tend to be happy with expensive or irrevocable decisions they've already made (houses, cars, spouses, children, colleges) because the alternative is admitting that they've made an expensive mistake. Another: people tend to overestimate their emotional reactions (positive or negative) to hypothetical situations; when the situation actually arises, they deal with it and move on.

In short, the choice of college will affect her life enormously in a lot of ways, almost none of which can be predicted now, so don't waste too much energy on the decision.

 

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