A Response to Flowing Data

This morning, after being out of the office for a long weekend because of NATO in Chicago, I checked traffic on this blog.  It was far higher than usual, most of it coming from this post by Kim Rees at Flowing Data, who was very condescending about my post on visualizing ACT Scores.

I like good debate about data visualization.  About almost anything, really.  But this seemed a bit off, for several reasons:

  • It appears Ms. Rees didn’t read the blog post that accompanied the chart.  Had she understood the intent of the graphic–to tell a story rather than to provide precise comparisons among groups–she might have not had anything to write about. Fortunately, most of the comments on the site pointed this out, even though not everyone thought the graphic was perfect.  I actually join them in acknowledging this.
  • She didn’t give me a chance to respond prior to “picking on” me, something she says she does not like to do right before doing it.
  • Her suggestions for alternatives (a violin chart and a bean chart) would not even come close to doing what this graphic does. In fact, I’ve been interested in visualizing data for several years, and I can’t even begin to tell you how to interpret these charts.  In addition, they’re ugly, as are most of the charts on the site she points to.

But in the interest of doing better, I took another stab at it.  I used Tableau, of course.  Here’s one take on it:

I’ve broken the data into four large groups by ethnicity and then into smaller groups by self-reported income.  The length of the bar shows the number of records; the color of the bar shows the average ACT of the students in that group (dark gold is low, dark purple is high), as does the label.  Better?


This, of course, fails to show the distribution; you get a sense of it, but it does give you some greater detail.  What about distributions?  Try this, and see if it makes the point, even though it’s impossible to compare the number of records in each group, even if you were to label them.  These are grouped into a smaller number of income bands for clarity, and show stacked, 100% bars colored by groups of ACT Scores.  Labels show individual scores, which are grouped by color for visual impression.

And you know what?  I still like the feathers.





Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehen!

If you grew up in the 60’s you know that headline is from the end of the Lawrence Welk Show, something I hated as a child but now think is pretty cool.

But that’s not what this is about.  After years of trying to effect some change in our profession via gentle nudging, I’ve decided I’m signing off the NACAC Forum and Community Discussions email list, as well as the new Facebook page that was created as a response to the limitations of the NACAC-supported.  I know when I’m beat.

It’s very sad to me that no one seems to care much about the issues–the really big issues–facing our profession.  Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that no one wants to talk about them.  Typically, when I send a link to the e-lists, I’ll get 600–700 people clicking through, but no responses, other than from a handful from people I already know.  This is in stark contrast to what frequently happens:

  • Need to know the best college for the snow-hating, left-handed, vegetarian, red-haired piano virtuoso with dyslexia in your junior class?  Just ask, and you’ll get lots of opinions.
  • Want to rant about the thing that colleges do that really annoys you?  Spout off on the list, and you’ll get lots of company.
  • Too lazy or too incompetent to Google?  Just ask 700 of your closest friends.  Why learn to fish when people will throw you a mackerel? 
  • Talk about growing inequality among rich and poor? Or selective colleges’ perpetuation of social class?  <crickets>

There’s a Twitter Hash Tag called First World Problems. It seems our profession is loaded with them.  And I understand, at some level.  If you have, and the amount of the thing to have is fixed, making sure others get means you’ll have less.  Who wants less?  This is hardly unique to our profession.

And I do understand that perhaps everyone just has different expectations from the list or the Facebook Group.  But if people in admissions and college guidance want to know why they’re so frequently not taken seriously in the Academy or in their school, they really need look no further than their own lack of interest in the fundamental issues of the day, and the ostensible lack of interest from anyone in the profession.

We could do better.  We just don’t.

Rankings: Something old, nothing new

There are more revelations about test score manipulation, this time in New Jersey.  And all the old arguments are re-surfacing: Colleges cannot be trusted, rankings are to blame for all the evils in college admissions, there oughta be a law….

I’ve often said I’m no fan of rankings because they measure inputs more than outputs, but absent any meaningful articulation of the value of college from the colleges themselves, someone saw an opportunity, swooped in and made some money.  That’s the way our world works.  And super-selective places get a lot of undeserved credit for making a silk purse out of silk.  No small feat, of course, if you’ve ever actually tried to make a purse, I suppose.  But still easier than the other option the old saying presents us.

Lest you think this is new, let’s roll back the clock to 1957.  May 26, 1957, to be exact: Chesly Manly writes his own rankings, based on informal surveys “of scholars and scientists” in the Chicago Daily Tribune, and names Oberlin as the best Co-ed Liberal-Arts College. (I’d like to thank my colleague, Jon McGee for sharing these with me.)

Here is a screenshot.  If you’d like to see the whole article, I put it at this link, and claim fair use for educational, non-profit purposes:

Similarly, Mr. Manly wrote about the best college for men on June 2.  Whole article at this link:

And Bryn Mawr for women. Whole article at this link:


Any thoughts?  Does this change anything?

College Admissions: A Modest Proposal

Today, it seems, is the day.  You know the one I’m talking about.

The day our national obsession with selective college admissions comes to a head.  The day we check to see if any of the Ivy League Institutions (ILIs) has cracked the zero percent admit rate to which they all seem to aspire.  I’m not going to put any links to the articles celebrating the results; if you’re even tangentially attached to academia, you’ve already seen them.  If you haven’t, run away.  Run very, very far away.

It’s clear to those of us who know admissions that the vast majority of these now-rejected kids should not have applied.  Absent a “hook” as high school counselors call it, your garden-variety kid stands probably about a 1% chance of admission to many of these places.  In some sense, it may point out the dearth of good college counseling.  It may also point out a lack of understanding of statistics. (I should talk.  I know the odds of winning tonight’s MegaMillions Jackpot of over half a billion dollars, and I still bought a ticket.)

Even if they do get admitted, it’s unlikely to have the effect they think it will.  Read Malcolm Gladwell’s article about “Getting In,” and pay special attention to Section 3 where he differentiates between selection effects and treatment effects.  Ivy League admission is all about selection effects.  Or maybe, they enroll wealthy, connected students by accident.  You decide.

Next week, you can expect to read about all the kids who got no admissions but a few perfunctory wait list offers, despite a perfect GPA, perfect test scores, and perfect teeth.  Their parents will be outraged that “they” did everything right, and for what?  For this?

Here’s how we fix it:

First, all unsuccessful students are told one little thing: Before those seven colleges rejected you, you rejected hundreds of others, many of whom would have been thrilled to enroll a student like you, despite your obvious limitations that kept you out of Princeton.  It won’t do the students any good, of course, but perhaps they can post this sage wisdom on Facebook so their younger friends can benefit.  It may eventually sink in, like a viral video.  Do you know any kid who doesn’t know that the Honey Badger don’t care?

But second, and perhaps even better: A federal law that says any university that admits fewer than 20% of its students is prohibited from having an “Office of Admissions.”  It must change its campus signage and letterhead and publications to read, “The Office of Rejections.”  I’m guessing a lot of strategic plans get revised overnight to shoot for a 21% admit rate.

Who’s with me on this?


Why University Strategic Planning is So Damn Hard

Warning: If your MBTI type includes the letter F, you’re likely to not like this post.

If you’ve been around a University long enough, you’ve heard about strategic planning.  And at some point, you’ve heard people like me complain about strategic planning.  Some typical observations:

  • Too many people approach strategic planning like a five-year old approaches Christmas: An opportunity to get what they want, without any understanding of trade-offs. 
  • The meetings get bogged down in minutiae, where a person from department x or division y gets on a soap box about the futility of the process, or the importance of her area to the success of the University.
  • A camel is a horse designed by committee. (variously attributed)
  • What emerges from the process is seldom strategic, and never a plan.

There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is the collaborative nature and shared governance structure of the University.  Don Randall, the former president of the University of Chicago once observed that as president of a billion dollar corporation, he couldn’t give anyone a direct order.

I used to blame the central limit theorem of mathematics: That is, the large sample of people pretty much ensures that the outcome is going to be average.  (Suppose you had a jar filled with 100 marbles with the numbers 1 to 100 printed on them.  If you wanted to ensure that the average of the numbers drawn is closer to 50.5, in general, you’d want a larger sample.)  My own personal preference involves more risk tolerance: Find a couple leaders with visionary ideas, and take a gamble.  Your results are less likely to be average, but more widely variant.  That is, the ideas could be great, but they could also be total flops.

However, it’s recently occurred to me that the more likely reason is that strategic thinking is a specific skill, maybe even innate.  This article suggests it is simply habitual, and while I like the points, I’m not so sure I agree that it is simply a matter of different activities. You can’t learn how to be Wayne Gretzky by watching how he anticipated movement; you can’t become Larry Bird by seeing how he made perfect passes without seeing his teammates. And I don’t think you can make someone strategic any more than you could make me comfortable at a cocktail party of complete strangers.  Coaching me about walking up to that group and joining in is not going to help.  Trust me on this one.

To draw widely from a group of people at the university (or any group) and expect them all to be adept at the core skill required to do strategy seems naive at best, self-destructive at worst.  Wishing won’t make it so.

What do you think?  Is strategy innate? Is it a series of learned activities? Is it something anyone can do if they set their mind to it?  I’d love to hear your reactions.

In Praise of Logic

This is dedicated to Father Anthony Lang, the professor who taught me logic and aesthetics in college.  The two classes combined to show the beauty of clear thinking.

Mount Holyoke College has received a lot of press in the past week or so for announcing that it will freeze tuition next year.  Here’s just one article on the topic.

On the surface, this would appear to be a good thing for students, who have been subjected to rapidly rising tuition rates since the early 1980’s.  And, when something appears to be good on the surface, it’s typical that praise follows for the person (or the institution) doing the good.

So, while the idea is, in fact, good, all other things being equal, the praise is in some ways seriously flawed.  Having loved my logic class and my management decision classes in graduate school (the textbook for which was written by this guy, from whom you should never ever accept an offer to buy a $20 bill for a dollar in a contest), the problem seemed obvious.  It’s this: The problem of anchoring.

The assumption is that Mount Holyoke was appropriately priced in the first place.  If they were, then my argument falls to dust.  But if they were dramatically overpriced, then the praise should turn to scorn for just freezing, and not cutting it.

An example for you: A trustee once made the comment to me that “The administration has grown faster since 2005 than the faculty.  That’s clearly not right.”  Well, maybe.  But there are two problems with that statement: The first is that there is no reason to start with 2005; it just happened to be the first number in the report he looked at.  The second problem is that your implicit assumption is that in 2005 the levels of faculty and staff were appropriate.  If we were 30% under-staffed or 10% over-facultyed (not a word, I know) in that year, then what appears to be an inappropriate increase may in fact be just right.  Or even not enough.

To be honest, I don’t know whether Mount Holyoke was over-priced or under-priced this year; we in higher education really have no way of determining such things.  My data analysis might lend a clue, but I’m not sure it’s rigorous enough to publish. That’s not really the point.

But I am guessing most of the people praising them for freezing tuition don’t know either, and doing so might be like praising Al Capone for not shooting more people.

In a world where tuition is often set by the things we think we need (climbing walls, or lazy rivers), or the tuition our competitors get away with charging, this may in fact be the first, important step. So good for Holyoke; even a cynic like me can admit that not raising it is probably better than raising it.  For now.

It would be great if someone could take it a step farther and set college tuition in a more rational and fair way.  We have a lot of history to overcome, and a lot of dramatic increases to turn back to get any where near that.