Confronting uncertainty

“The line that separates my mind from the Internet is getting blurry,” wrote psychologist Daniel Wegner in an article for the New York Times.  “This has been happening ever since I realized how often it feels as though I know something just because I can find it with Google.”

Indeed, with Google-enabled “knowing” and computer-enabled advances in “Big Data” collection and analysis, we now possess an unprecedented ability to access knowledge and to predict outcomes in many spheres.

And yet, as H.L. Mencken noted in Minority Report (1956): “Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.”

One of the places in which the unknowable resolutely sits is the college admissions process. The whole process is rife with the unknowable, with uncertainty. Who will be admitted where? What’s the right college for me? How many students will choose to enroll in my institution’s incoming class? And this year’s big mystery: will the Common Application ever achieve full, error-free functionality?

Uncertainty is unsettling, to state the obvious.

Uncertainty is also the engine that drives much of the industry around college rankings, ratings and surveys of the undergraduate experience. The choice of a college (or to go to college at all) is significant, and laden with consequences both personal and financial. The quest for more information about colleges and about the admissions process (in general, and at specific schools) is at heart a quest for greater prediction and control of options and outcomes. Students (and their parents) want to make the right choices. When making an investment in a college education, they want some assurance about the return. As Jeffrey Selingo put it in his book College Unbound (2013):

 “Students need to know what they will get in terms of skills, knowledge, and employment prospects if they pick College A over College B.” (p. 141)

Unfortunately, all the information in the world won’t resolve the uncertainty involved when a student chooses College A over College B. No matter how much research you do beforehand, you won’t be able to predict, much less guarantee, the exact outcome.

I was reminded of this recently when talking to a parent with two children attending the same college. When Child #2 made the decision to enroll there, the family had as much information about the college as one could hope for – all the rankings, ratings, and surveys of undergraduate experience they had reviewed before Child #1 enrolled, (and updated during Child #2’s search) plus the insider’s view” of the academic and social life they garnered through the first child’s very positive experience. Child #2 had visited the campus many times, stayed overnight, and attended classes with Child #1. And yet, Child #2’s experience of the college has turned out to be nothing like Child #1’s. Child #2 is hoping to transfer.

Students and parents involved in the college admissions process today have access to more (and more complete) information about individual colleges than ever before. Numerous websites offer volumes of subjective information about student experiences at individual colleges. Toward the more objective end of the college information spectrum, there is no shortage of resources, either. Selingo’s book takes a balanced look at a variety of college assessment tools, from the US News rankings to the Collegiate Learning Assessment and National Survey of Student Engagement as well as recent studies of graduates’ earnings by college and by major. An article in the New York Times this summer also surveys online tools that have been created to help students “make informed decisions about whether it’s worth paying a premium for a certain college or degree.” And of course, the federal government’s “College Scorecard”  and the “College Navigator” website run by the National Center for Education Statistics provide a wealth of data, too. The determined student (or parent) can spend hours combing through this information in an attempt to discover “what they will get” if they pick a certain college.

I am not arguing against careful research and data collection as one explores colleges. And I don’t dispute that this information can assuage some of the uncertainty involved in the process of applying to and choosing a college to attend. But too many students focus on data collection at the expense of data contextualization. Collecting the data – assembling the picture of a college – is the easy part. Contextualizing that information – locating yourself within that picture – is the hard part.

Much of the discussion around the topic of assessing colleges and outcomes upon graduation tends to take the individual out of the picture. In some accounts, it seems that the key to success lies simply in gaining admission to a top-ranked college that posts top results on surveys of student learning. Once enrolled, you choose a major that posts the best starting salaries for graduates (or best lifetime return on investment, if you prefer) and you’re set for life. The path to success is already well-marked. All a student has to do is follow it.

It strikes me that attempts to predict the college experience and its outcomes through surveys, rankings, and ratings of colleges may undermine an individual student’s sense of responsibility and agency in the admissions process. Some students I’ve talked to seem to feel that decisions about which colleges are “best” have already been made, independent of their input, and that their task is simply to apply to the schools topping the various rankings and surveys. They feel as though their options are limited, and that choices contravening the status quo aren’t well received by parents and peers.

I also wonder if, by so actively trying to diminish uncertainty in the college admissions process, we are unintentionally encouraging students to “cease to believe in the unknowable,” and in its partners, chance and serendipity? That would be a great shame.

So many un-quantifiable and often serendipitous events influence a student’s experience on a campus: Do you get along with your roommate? Did you discover a topic or project that really fascinates you? Did a staff or faculty member become a mentor to you? Being open to the “known unknowns,” and being willing to take the “road less traveled” can make all the difference to a student while enrolled, and in the years after graduation.

I’m all for due diligence, and all in favor of using available data to guide the college selection process. It’s important, though to acknowledge the limits of the data one collects, to carve out space for oneself in the picture, and to allow for the “unknowable.” The college admissions process provides a unique opportunity to teach students how to use the information they collect, and to help them learn if, when, and how that data applies – or does not apply – to their specific situations. It offers a great opportunity to learn that data can mask the uncertainty inherent in this process, and that ultimately, (with apologies to Shakespeare) the outcome, dear Brutus, lies not in the data, but in ourselves.

“Juking the stats”

It’s happened again.  Another well-known educational institution has owned up to errors in the data it supplied to the US News & World Report for the purposes of computing college rankings.  This time, it’s George Washington University, which, for more than a decade, according to an article in the Washington Post, inflated a “key measure of the academic credentials of its incoming freshmen.”

As a fan of the TV series “The Wire,” this latest incident of erroneous data reporting put me in mind of the episode in Season 4 (“Know Your Place”) where Pryzbylewski (a police officer turned middle-school teacher) has a memorable exchange about “juking the stats.”

The news about GW also caused me to reflect on a recent article in Slate by Seth Stevenson, who wrote about experimenting with the purchase of “zombie” followers for his Twitter account.

Whether it’s for the purpose of improving an institution’s position in the USNWR rankings, posting a positive change in test results for middle-schoolers, or increasing one’s visibility among the “Twitterati,” we’re talking about the same thing: the misuse and misapplication of data to enhance recognition and popularity, or to give the appearance of success — substituting dubious short-cuts for bona fide progress toward a goal.

Seth Stevenson explained why Tweeters might be moved to purchase zombie followers.  “So why do people do this?  I assume it’s in part to create an illusion of success that people hope will be self-perpetuating.  It’s like showing up to a date in a rented Mercedes drop-top when in real life you drive a dinged-up Kia.  To the casual observer, your numerous fake Twitter followers suggest you’re a social media powerhouse — a person of influence not to be ignored.  It also seems like fake followers might beget more real followers.  I noticed that after I’d bought my zombie followers, the rate at which new, nonzombie people followed me seemed to rapidly accelerate.”

I think this explanation, though specific to life in the Twitter-verse, has equal resonance for colleges and universities that manipulate data to increase visibility in the rankings sweepstakes.  And so does Stevenson’s warning:  “you might be embarrassingly busted.”

I don’t want to get into the issues of who, how, when, and which erroneous data has been reported to the USNWR — really, this is nothing new.

There are two points I want to make, though.  First, a sad aspect of data manipulation for the USNWR isn’t just that it happens at all.  The bigger loss is that colleges and universities consistently fail to use their “bully pulpits” to educate prospective students about how to evaluate the glut of objective and subjective information available about the institutions they are considering.  Admissions officers are missing teachable moments, when guidance about how to assess the sources, reliability, validity and personal relevance of information could be offered to prospects and their parents.  One might respond that this task is the province of, or better left to, teachers and college counselors on the high school side of the admissions desk.  In my experience, though, guidance of this type, were it to be offered by college admissions officers, would be a valuable and well-received supplement to the guidance provided in high schools. (For now, we’ll leave aside the issue that fewer and fewer high schools have the resources and staff to provide this guidance in the first place.)   We all know that information provided by those holding the prizes (in this case, offers of admission) will be taken more seriously than those on the “supplicant’s” side of the admissions process.

Second, as a culture, we have arrived at a point where indicators of popularity and visibility are widely interpreted as hallmarks of quality.  Just as the Tweeter with more followers is seen as someone whose opinion is worth noting, a university with high name recognition, more applicants, and more applicants turned away, is seen as outstanding and desirable.  Popularity and quality are not mutually exclusive, by any means — but neither are they completely synonymous.

I understand the circumstances that give rise to this confusion.  I’ve written before about the difficulty that too much information (TMI) and too many choices (TMC) create for students.  Faced with TMI and TMC, it’s not surprising that students (and their parents) look for shortcuts as they research college options.  It’s much easier to find and use the opinions of others (via the number of Twitter followers, “likes” on a Facebook page, or a spot in a college ranking) than to do the research and self-examination necessary to develop one’s own opinion.  It’s a harder and more time-consuming process to evaluate a specific institution’s appropriateness for a specific individual than to assess an institution’s visibility and popularity.

Still, we have to acknowledge that we reap what we sow.  Institutions that decry the rankings on one hand but then turn around and promote the heck out of a top-ten appearance in one ranking or another teach prospective students that this measure has value.  Prospective students and parents who focus on measures of visibility and popularity when assessing colleges encourage institutions to seek and promote those measures to an extent which is undesirable.  What we’re left with is the college admissions twist on Newton’s third law of motion.  In the interactions between colleges and prospective students, we don’t find an action in one camp causing an equal and opposite reaction in the other camp.  Instead, we find that every action causes an equal and amplified reaction from the opposite cohort.