Monday, February 11, 2013

America's top colleges and their "massive" distortion

The Atlantic offers up and mis-interprets some descriptive statistics comparing the racial/ethnic composition of the US population with the racial/ethnic composition of the undergraduates at several top US universities, including Michigan.

First off, there is some very basic sloppiness here in that it is never made explicit what age range is covered in the US population numbers nor is it made explicit whether or not the student numbers include graduate students. I will assume that the US numbers include all ages and that the student numbers are only undergraduates.

Second, and more deeply, why does this comparison make any sense at all? Most of those who attend university do so in their late teens and early twenties. A more sensible comparison would thus focus not on the entire US population, but on the US population in the relevant age range. But of course not everyone in the relevant age range meets the admissions criteria for a top undergraduate institution. That is not the fault of the top undergraduate institutions, but rather of the K-12 school system and of parents. Thus, a still more sensible comparison would focus only on those in the US pouplation in the relevant age range with scores on standardized tests that would put them at risk of admission to top colleges. Delving deeper into the details, state schools like Michigan differentially admist in-state students. Thus, for Michigan, the relevant comparison group is a weighted average of the relevant comparison group, with a weight of about 2/3 assigned to Michigan residents and a weight of 1/3 assigned to the remainder of the US (which could itself be reweighted to reflect the fact that Michgian does not draw at random from other states). There is a footnote abuot this issue but the Atlantic is too lazy to incorporate the information into the figures. Finally, Michigan, and most likely some of the other schools as well, sell university educations to foreigners, many of them from China. A comparison that made the point that the Atlantic claims to want to make but does not would take out the foreign students.

I suspect that the Atlantic columnist had a deadline to meet and emitted this disaster to meet it. I give it an F.

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