Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Race Goes On: Who wins?

If you know much about higher education, you know that about 80% of college students enrolled in not-for-profit institutions the US attend public universities and colleges.  Nine percent of all college enrollments, for instance, are in California Community Colleges.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe public universities--whether they are the state's flagship or a university with two directions in its name--have an obligation at some level to the citizens of the state who support it. And by "citizens of the state" I mean all citizens.

People at the university, of course, are often focused on making the university more prestigious; look at almost any strategic plan, for instance, and you're likely to find something about "improving academic quality as measured by standardized test scores," or something very similar.

One problem: The two goals tend to be in conflict with each other.

So for this visualization, I made it very simple: I took public institutions with a Carnegie Classification of "Research Universities: Very High Research Activity."  They're more often than not considered to be the state flagship institution, or, in some states, one of the flagships.

The charts are identical, except for the x-axis.  On the top chart, it's mean SAT CR+M of the entering freshman class; in the bottom, it's the mean ACT-Composite.  (Because IPEDS reports only 25th and 75th percentiles, I averaged the two, which is not perfect, but close enough for this analysis.)

The y-axis shows percentage of freshmen who receive a Pell Grant.  Of course, to be fair, it's not the percentage of admitted freshmen who are eligible for a Pell Grant, so there are several possible explanations for this number that is a residual of a complicated process.

Right away, of course, you notice the trend: As test scores go up, low-income students go down.  Add to it diversity, as indicated by the color of the point, and you see another pattern: The bluer dots are more heavily Asian and Caucasian; note also that they're below the line (presumably under-performing on enrolling kids with Pell), and more likely to be on the right side (high test scores) of the chart.

It's a fair criticism, of course, to point out that not every state has similar levels of wealth and poverty.  But I doubt that many of these places would be unable to find more poor students in their state, were they to simply understand that the thing they think is propelling them--test scores--may be the very thing that is holding them back.