Tag Archives: higher education

University paternalism and the outwardly-focused student movement

I’m not going to join  the criticism of the students at Yale, because I don’t know all that they’re going through. From a distance the symbolic things (like emails about Halloween costumes) that spark massive reactions often appear out of scale. Straws that break camels’ backs appear weightless.

So just two thoughts to share inspired by recent events.

Universities shouldn’t be in this business

A lot of people were taken aback by the casual way that Black students refer to Nicholas Christakis as the “master” of Silliman College. That archaic paternalism is not just linguistic.

I’ve previous argued that, although they do have legal and ethical obligations to respond to sexual assault on campus, colleges shouldn’t be in the business of investigating and punishing those crimes. They are terrible at it, their intervention downgrades sexual assault from crime to (student) women’s issue, and the campus system separates sexual assault (and its activists) on campus from the problem in the wider society. It’s a paternalistic system.

I’m equally skeptical about their role in protecting people from racism. One of the Yale students arguing with Nicholas Christakis, the “master” of one of the university’s residential colleges, in a widely shared video, said:

As your position as master it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students that live in Silliman. … It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!

In fact, when Christakis took the job, he was quoted as saying:

The residential college system is one of the most distinctive features of Yale. Its virtue lies in the way it provides an intellectual, social, and moral home for students, and Yale is remarkable for its commitment to this kind of education.

Colleges have ethical and legal obligations to prevent and respond to racist discrimination and harassment on their institutional terrain. But everyone deserves a safe space where they can develop their social and moral foundations, in which to build communities and from which to launch their interventions into the wider society. Should universities be the ones to provide it — do only those admitted to Ivy League schools need this? Aren’t students adults, capable of waging the struggles to create their own social spaces? Some people offer a similar argument about the college athletes that make billions of dollars for their universities and the entertainment industry. The university is providing them with moral uplift and team spirit (so paying them would only undermine the pure motives of that effort). But left to their own devices, couldn’t student athletes negotiate a better deal for themselves?

Living in dorms and university-sanctioned fraternities and sororities is bad enough. (When I showed up to the University of Michigan — three years out of high school — it was my great fortune to have a dog, my excuse for never living in a dorm.) A system of houses staffed by faculty moral overseers is a structural mechanism for the prolonging of adolescence. This retards students’ development as adults and sets them further apart from the wider community, people who don’t have paternalistic institutions devoted to the construction of their moral selves in safe spaces — people who build civic institutions, and rely on the law and politics to safeguard their interests. Students rely on the cloistered campus system at their own risk, and its a shame that this social isolation (for better and worse) is concentrated among elite students.

Turning outward

It’s possible this system also encourages students to turn their activism inward, toward themselves, rather than outward to the wider social world. Here I am speaking generally, and explicitly not talking about the Yale students currently in the news, the most visible of whom (as in the video I linked) may or may not be involved in organized politics, I don’t know.

I’m old enough to remember documentaries about the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. That was a protest movement that grew out of student civil rights activists who wanted to promote political causes on campus. In the most famous incident, Jack Weinberg – fresh off a summer trip to support the civil rights movement in the South – was arrested as he staffed a table on campus for the Congress of Racial Equality, and students blocked the police car he was in for 32 hours.

That student movement was inspiring partly because it seemed to represent the selfless attempt by college students to use their privileges – and the education they were receiving – to intervene progressively in the wider society, on issues like civil rights, war, labor, feminism, and the environment. They were fighting for their right to carry that outside work onto the campus. (In my day at Michigan, leftists opposed the deputization of campus police, and the implementation of a non-academic code of conduct, for fear they would be used to squelch student activism.)

One way to think about that distinction in today’s terms is adult versus adolescent. It was students’ engagement in those adult politics that germinated the alliances that were so threatening to the powers that were.

One of my favorite speeches is Mario Savio’s from that movement, in 1964 (he starts at 0:22):

Savio was a Freedom Summer veteran who wanted to organize for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on the Berkeley campus. In that speech, he’s objecting to the production by the university of students as commodities for future employers — objecting, in one sense, to the success of the university’s mission if it means severing the ties between student activists and their work in the wider world. That’s one movement at one moment, but it’s an important one.

Of course students need to advocate for themselves. The Free Speech Movement advocated their right to political activism. In contemporary activism, Black Lives Matter unites the struggles of college students with the plight of the Blacks facing police everywhere.

USA Today

USA Today

The argument for outward facing connects to the paternalism question, because the more students are integrated with the real world off campus for their social and moral community-building needs, the more their politics might be drawn outward as well — and the public might be more supportive of them in return.


Filed under Politics

Some politicians lie (Maryland edition)

That’s just my opinion.

Meanwhile, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is responding to the tax shortfall in his (our) state with a plan to cut taxes. And his justification, repeated during the campaign, and now during his State of the State message, includes these two claims:

“We’ve had the largest mass exodus of taxpayers fleeing our state – of any state in our region, and one of the worst in the nation.”

“Businesses, jobs and taxpayers have been fleeing our state at an alarming rate.”

As a dedicated public servant — who just got furloughed, lost a cost of living pay increase, and lost a merit pay increase, while our students are getting a tuition increase because of the state’s disastrous tax shortfall — I remain doggedly committed to pursuing truth.

So, the “mass exodus of taxpayers” fleeing our state:


Yes, population growth was a little slower than the regional and national averages for a couple years there. But the 25+ population has grown every year but one since 2001. Checking my definition of “exodus” now…

And the “jobs … fleeing our state at an alarming rate”:

Book1Job growth faster than the national average, no (net) “fleeing.”

The source for both figures is my calculations from the American Community Survey via IPUMS.org.

Addendum: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports Maryland employment trends here. Here is the employment trend from 2004:



Filed under In the news

Campus sexual assault op-ed


I have an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled, “College Sex-Assault Trials Belong in Court, Not on Campus,” and there’s already a lively discussion in the comments. I would welcome your thoughts, on this site or that one.


Filed under Me @ work

Policy, politics, and promoting education versus marriage

Here are three ideas I disagree with:

1. Most people aren’t smart enough to make going to college worth it.

Maybe the best-known purveyor of this idea is Charles Murray, who argued in his 2008 book Real Education (offshore bootlegged copy here) that the “consensus intellectual benchmark” for understanding real college-level material is an IQ of 115, which by definition is only 16% of the population — but probably only 10% are really, truly smart enough (and efforts to improve education at lower levels to prepare more people for college are futile, so don’t even think about spending more on education, because so many people are “born lazy“).

2. We’ve done so much for poor people, it’s time for them to do something for themselves.

This is clearly related to idea #1, insofar as the government spends billions of dollars educating people for college — and subsidizing the colleges they attend — who could instead just work hard and enjoy life in a job requiring less education. But it extends to all kinds of social welfare and anti-poverty programs, as illustrated by the exasperated people in the policy establishment from Brookings to Heritage.

3. Poor women should get married before they have children.

This idea is pervasive, as I’ve discussed many times under the single mothers tag, in response to people blaming single mothers for rising inequality, poverty, low upward mobility, and crime.

One response

Here I offer one response to these three ideas combined. It is possible to increase access to college education, which would increase stability and opportunity for poor people and their children.

In demography, there is a long-running debate over whether there is a biological limit to human longevity, and whether and how fast we may be approaching it. Regardless of the ultimate answer, so far it’s clear that projections based on an inevitable tapering off of increases in life expectancy have repeatedly proved wrong (here’s a review and a recent paper). The same might be said of college education. Here is the trend in 25-34 year-old U.S. civilians with at least a BA degree, from Census numbers:

college completion trends.xlsx

There was more talk about hitting the limits of college access 10 years ago, but even then it was increasing rapidly among women. Yes, we can and should improve college education. But I see nothing here to suggest a ceiling approaching. Still, people keep assuming that expanding education isn’t feasible.

For example, while Murray holds forth on the intelligence limitations among the poor, his colleague Brad Wilcox argues for a cultural press on those with less than a college degree:

They can go down the road of not having marriage as the keystone to their family formation, family life, or we can hold the line, if you will, and try to figure out creative strategies for strengthening marriage in this particular middle demographic in the United States.

In addition to upscaling their deficient values, however, couldn’t we also move them out of the less-than-college category altogether? Not so fast, says Wilcox in a recent interview:

On the education front, the U.S. spends a ton of money and devotes unparalleled attention to college. But the reality is that only one-third of adults, even today, will get a college degree, a B.A. or B.S. We can do a lot better in both funding and focusing on vocational education and apprenticeship training.

Really, America, be reasonable: Our “ton of money” is “unparalleled.” Don’t set your sights too high. Who do you think you are, anyway, Poland (college graduation rate: 53%), Ireland (46%), or Portugal (41%)? From OECD numbers:

college graduation rates OECD.xls

I know expanding college access (the real kind, not the for-profit kind) suggests expanding a broken financial aid system, and the economic returns aren’t guaranteed, but for my purposes it’s not just about getting a better job. People who go to college — and those who know they are going to go to college before they do — usually delay having children, not because some moralizing think tank tells them it’s wrong, but because they’re trying to rationally sequence their lives. Of course, married couples have relatively low poverty rates, but even for parents who aren’t married, higher education sure helps. From the American Community Survey via IPUMS.org:


Trying to get more poor people to get married is both offensive and useless. But increasing access to higher education is both uplifting and useful. The choice between early birth with low education and later birth with higher education is not hard to make, but unless it’s feasible — with a readily apparent, practical, path toward completion — there is no choice to make.

The increase in college education has already helped keep child poverty levels from rising as marriage rates have fallen. Among women old enough to have finished college (ages 22-44) the percentage of babies born to mothers with college degrees (married or not) has increased from 23% in 1990 to 35% in 2010. From the Current Population Survey via IPUMS.org:


Promoting marriage among the poor is a moralizing salve for the self-esteem — and anti-tax self-interest — of pious elites, with zero proven success in helping anybody poor. Promoting access to higher education is good policy and good politics.


Filed under In the news

The sky is falling because of feminist biology, Factual Feminist edition

The other day I explained why, despite her mocking tone,  the “Factual Feminist” (Christina Sommers) doesn’t have the factual basis to undermine commonly-used statistics on rape. Now she has a video out on “feminist science.” No, it’s not a joke from The Simpsons, she says:

A new feminist biology program at the University of Wisconsin is all too real… Is feminist biology likely to contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the world? The Factual Feminist is skeptical.

The program in question is really just a post-doctoral fellowship. It looks like a privately-endowed fund to hire one postdoc. This is not a major curriculum intervention. The first postdoc in the program is Caroline VanSickle, a biological anthropologist from the University of Michigan who does work on ancient female pelvic bones and their implications for birth stuff. She was quoted by the right-wing Campus Reform (a project of the Leadership Institute) this way:

“We aren’t doing science well if we ignore the ideas and research of people who aren’t male, white, straight, or rich,” VanSickle said in an email to Campus Reform. “Feminist science seeks to improve our understanding of the world by including people with different viewpoints. A more inclusive science means an opportunity to make new discoveries.”

I don’t know the evidence on whether the ideas of biologists who aren’t male, White straight, or rich are ignored in science today, but this sentiment seems unobjectionable to me – we aren’t doing science well if we ignore anyone’s (good) ideas. Who could object to “including people with different viewpoints”? But Sommers, for some reason misquoting her only source for the story, says,

She explained to Campus Reform that, quote, in order to do science well, she said, we can’t ignore the ideas and research of people who just don’t happen to be male. But wait a minute. Women are hardly ignored in biology. In fact, they have far surpassed men in earning biology degrees. What is more, women are flourishing, and winning Nobel Prizes in that field.

On the screen flashes a table showing women getting 61% of BA degrees in biology, 59% of MAs, and 54% of PhDs. If we’re talking about whether women are ignored in biology, I think it’s the PhDs that matter, so 54% is not quite “far surpassed.” More to the point, although women first surpassed men in receiving biology BA degrees in 1988 — a quarter of a century ago — they are currently only 23% of full professors in biology. I’m not arguing about whether this reflects job discrimination against female biologists. The point is that if only a small minority of the most influential biologists are women, and if there are common differences in how men and women do biology, then the views of the latter are going to be less well represented.

To show overblown this worry is, Sommers then flashes this image of all those women winning Nobel Prizes in “that field” (actually the prizes are for “Physiology and Medicine,” since there is no Nobel for biology):


Those women sure seem to be flourishing. And that’s every woman who ever won a Nobel in Physiology and Medicine — all 10 of them. Since the 1940s, when the first of these women flourished, men have been awarded 162 Nobels in that field — the other 94% of the prizes. The peak decade was in the 2000s, when women won 15% of the prizes (the most recent in 2009).

At Wisconsin, the single “feminist biology” postdoc will also develop an undergraduate course in gender and biology. This seems like a fine idea. Maybe it will encourage even more women to overrun the biological sciences. Call me naive, but we’re still not exactly drowning in female biologists.

After going on to pick on a few individual feminists, Sommers concludes that:

…feminist theory [has] been built on a foundation of paranoia about the patriarchy, half-truths, untruths, oversimplifications, and it’s immune to correction.

Raising the question: If feminism is rubber, and the Factual Feminist is glue, does what she say bounce of feminism and stick to her?

Full disclosure: My mother is a biologist. And a feminist. So you know I’m right. And objective.


Filed under In the news

Book review: The Rise of Women, by DiPrete and Buchmann

Originally published on TheAtlantic.com.

banner_pcohen rise of women AP.jpg

(Charles Dharapak/AP Images)

The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools is both ambitious and modest in its goals: Sociologists Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann provide an ambitious analysis of why and how girls are outperforming boys in high school and going on to get a disproportionate share of college degrees. However, the authors modestly remain within their subject matter and avoid the unsupported claims about women’s looming social dominance that have inflated much of the conversation about gender dynamics today.

This allows us to have a reasonable, valuable conversation about an important problem: the failure of the education system to help a majority of students to reach their academic potential. We clearly do not have a problem of over-education among women. Even among Whites alone, women as well as men are graduating college at rates lower than those in the most educationally advanced societies (which used to include the United States). Rather, we have a dysfunctional system that underperforms for men more than for women.

Rather than focusing on the full range of educational failures, DiPrete and Buchmann focus on a low-hanging fruit policy question: How can we improve college degree attainment for the approximately one-third of students who are ready to graduate college but do not, because they do not have the resources, they change their minds for some reason, or they are not adequately supported in the endeavor?

Women up

Since the 1980s, women have gotten the majority of bachelor’s degrees. That’s mostly because they also perform better in high school, getting better grades and taking more advanced courses. DiPrete and Buchmann set aside the issue of the potential cognitive advantages of girls, which may or may not be “innate.” Such differences are too small and stable to account for the rapid change and large advantage in educational attainment women now hold. The reasons we do not have more people completing college—and gaining more skills and knowledge to enrich their lives—are not genetic or biological, but rather social and economic. We can do better, for both men and women.

While women have continued their upward historical educational trajectory since World War II, men’s achievement of college degrees stagnated—coinciding historically with the growing necessity of having higher education for economic security. If you ever needed proof that majorities of people do not respond in predictably self-interested ways to economic incentives, it is the stagnation of male college graduation rates even as the returns to a college degree spiked upward.

DiPrete and Buchmann’s sensible policy suggestions draw from this key insight: The difference between men and women, and how it has changed, can best be understood by studying differencesamong men and women—within genders. That means we don’t just study what family, school, and environmental effects matter, but who is most strongly affected by such differences in the social context.

One important lesson: Schools with high overall performance have a smaller female advantage. That leads to the straightforward conclusion that we can address the gender gap partly by increasing the quality of schools across the board. Easier said than done, but no less important—or less true—for it.

Men up

It is important to connect women’s educational rise with the other trends that have upended gender relations in the U.S., and the authors do an admirable job of tying these in. In particular, the rise in women’s employment opportunities, the decline or delay in marriage, and falling fertility rates have all increased the incentives for (and ability of) women to complete college. And, of course, the rise in education has in turn fueled these other developments as well. For example, college graduate women as well as men are more likely to get (and stay) married than those who completed high school only. Maybe by getting a college degree they improve their marriage-market options—and reduce the odds that they will divorce by increasing the educational parity in their marriages.

While the title of DiPrete and Buchmann’s book is overly dramatic, the subtitle is appropriately limited: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools. Because although women are more likely to graduate college and get some advanced degrees than men are today, there is nothing in this trend that implies women will surpass men in overall earnings or economic (much less political) power in the foreseeable future.

Education, especially measured at the bachelor’s degree level, is merely one indicator in a whole suite of gender dynamics in which men overwhelmingly dominate. Further, women’s educational advantage is not so great that they will overcome the labor-market advantages that men have at all educational levels, the imbalances within families that persist today, or the tendency of women to end up in less lucrative fields of study and thus occupations.

The biggest problem for gender inequality among the college-educated remains the lack of gender integration across fields of study, which stalled in the 1980s. Men and women still largely educate themselves in different fields, with dramatic implications for their career trajectories and earnings throughout their lives. Segregation in fields of study is closely related to the issue of occupational segregation in the labor market. Both reflect a complex combination of choices and constraints made in varying social contexts—with decisions made early in life producing irreversible effects. In the latest reports, women are just 26 percent of workers in computer and math-related professional occupations and 14 percent of those in architectural and engineering professions.

And DiPrete and Buchmann’s analysis helps understand this stubborn problem. They report that high school is the key location to understand major-field segregation. Among high school boys and girls with strong interest in science and technology fields, there is no gender gap in the likelihood of completing such a major. The difference is in the rates of intention to major in those areas. Between 8th and 12th grade, girls lose interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM fields, for short) much more than boys do.

Women’s desire for people-oriented work, for work that is intrinsically interesting, and for occupations that permit work-family balance cannot fully explain their lower rates of majoring in STEM-related fields. Rather, the major source of the difference is that women do not express interest in STEM-related careers while in high school—and that is not because high school girls are not as good at math and science. Instead, the difference may be that boys believe they are better at math and science, especially math. The key policy insight in this area is that science-intensive high school environments greatly increase girls’ interests in physical science and engineering-related careers.

This is an important book, and although somewhat technical in its analysis sections it deserves a wide readership.

I have two minor complaints about The Rise of Women. The first is over its insistent focus on the four-year college degree and the economic benefits it brings. The fact that women receive more bachelor’s degrees than men but continue to earn less money confirms that a bachelor’s degree is not a first-class ticket to labor-market success. Although this helps to focus the book, it also distracts from the more universal problems we have, including an obsession with the material benefits of education.

DiPrete and Buchman conclude that we need to find ways to motivate students in middle and high school to devote more energy to their studies, by improving the quality of education as well as the quality of information students have to make the connection between what they learn in school and their future career ambitions. Too many boys don’t cognitively grasp that the difference between merely making it versus excelling through high school is measured in higher education success and potential career satisfaction. Finding ways to get this across might really help their motivation to work harder, the authors argue. But truly high-quality education takes students beyond such material calculations into the realm of the intrinsic beauty of discovery, the power of wonder, and the search for knowledge as a key to life, the universe and everything.

My second knock is that the authors seem not to notice the broad trend of slowing advances for women. For example, even though their charts show it, they don’t mention that the share of law and medical degrees earned by women slowed and then peaked in the early 2000s—and has declined since. Naturally, that is not the central concern of a study devoted to understanding women’s advantages. But in the context of the general gender stall, it’s important to realize that women’s progress across many areas is highly interrelated.


Filed under Research reports

More Women Are Doctors and Lawyers Than Ever—but Progress Is Stalling

Originally posted on The Atlantic.

In the Wall Street Journal last week, Josh Mitchell reported that “Women account for a third of the nation’s lawyers and doctors, a major shift from a generation ago.” The report was triggered by anew analysis of occupations from the Census Bureau, which showed women increased their share of doctor and lawyer by four percent and six percent, respectively, from a decade earlier.

These professional advances mark “very significant progress,” according to feminist economist Heidi Hartmann, and I don’t disagree. Still, when I spoke to Mitchell I suggested he consider a glass-half-empty perspective, which somehow ended up on the cutting-room floor.

My question is, will progress continue? It doesn’t look good. I happen to be a demographer, but you don’t need to be one to see that progress for women in these fields is stalling.

First, look at the degrees earned. This figure uses statistics from the Department of Education and breaks the gender trend in law and medical degrees up by decades. Both trends show slowing progress—a smaller increase in women’s representation each decade—and both peaked (for now) at just under 50 percent female.


If half of new doctors and lawyers are women, eventually it should be possible to have professions that are gender-balanced. But don’t hold your breath.

I looked at today’s doctors and lawyers using the 2008-2010 American Community Survey (you can get the data here). Here is the representation of women among full-time and year-round working doctors and lawyers by age. Half of the youngest doctors and lawyers are women, while only one in eight of the oldest are. So as they all age, equal representation should be on the way.


But women are much more likely to drop out of these professions (and others). Among early-career professionals—people ages 25 to 44—who list their most recent jobs as doctor or lawyer, you can see that women are much more likely to be out of the labor force:


With the kind of dropout rates that produce these disparities, we would need much more than 50 percent female in the graduating classes to reach equal representation in these professions.

In Mitchell’s report, the economist Claudia Goldin, who has recently investigated women’s success as pharmacists, argues that the corporatization of medicine has helped women by introducing the concept of work-family balance, and reducing the gender earnings gap—all changes that helped women in pharmacies as well. But I don’t see the evidence that such practices have yet changed the medical industry enough to reduce the gender differences in drop-out rates. And the research evidence shows that explicit diversity policies—with teeth—often are necessary to break the logjam.

And Mitchell’s story did not mention any efforts to reduce the segregation of men and women—especially in medicine—into different specialties. That segregation is a big part of what drives the earnings gap among doctors and lawyers. Here are the median earnings by age for doctors and lawyers, from the same source:


At the peak of that curve—ages 45 to 50—female doctors are earning just 62 percent of men’s median earnings. As they make their decisions about whether to enter the field, and how to specialize, and how to handle their family demands and opportunities, these disparities in representation and rewards come into play. The decisions men and women in these professions make should never be seen as free choices unconstrained or unaffected by the institutional environment.


Filed under In the news, Me @ work