Tuesday, February 18, 2014

While the nation cries out for more STEM graduates, grade inflation in non-STEM fields undermines this effort

Two articles in conjunction create an interesting speculation. First is Want More STEM Grads? Stop Grade Inflation by Thomas K. Lindsay and the second is The economics of sex: Has the price gotten too cheap? by Naomi Schaefer Riley. You don't have to accept the entirety of the predicates of either article to see the value of the essentially empirical and economic analysis.

Lindsay, in summary, is saying that STEM courses are highly quantifiable and therefore the grades have been less subject to inflation than liberal arts courses. You can either work the equation or your can't and there is not much room for negotiation. In liberal arts the latitude for negotiation based on opinion is much greater. The consequence is that the STEM courses are much more rigorously graded and the grades are on average lower because they are more rigorous. In contrast, in the liberal arts field, high grades are a dime a dozen. If, as a student, you view grade point average as a paramount attainment (as opposed to knowledge), then high grade inflation in liberal arts and low inflation in STEM means that the logical choice is always going to be to choose liberal arts courses. As long as employers value grade averages over actual knowledge and ability, that strategy will work. However, the unintended consequence is that, despite all the caterwauling that we need more STEM, we are creating a system that rewards students to take liberal arts courses.
Johnson's work at Duke found students "twice as likely to choose [elective] courses graded at an A- average as they were courses graded at a B average." He writes that this "likely results in a 50% decrease in the number of elective courses taken by undergraduates in the natural sciences and mathematics."

Because students seek easier-grading elective courses, they are less likely to take the chance to explore courses in the tougher-grading STEM fields. This lessened exposure reduces students' opportunities to discover that a given STEM course so interests them that they decide to go on to major or minor in it. Were grading practices made more equitable between STEM and non-STEM fields, this obstacle to intellectual exploration would be removed.

Simply stated, while the nation cries out for more STEM graduates, grade inflation in non-STEM fields undermines this effort. This is but one more price -- a substantial price -- that society pays for a dysfunctional academy in which "knowing the grading practices of the instructor from whom students took courses is as important as knowing the grades they got."
Obviously the predicate assumptions have to be tested and validated, but taking them at face value, what's to be done? The article mentions the Honest Transcript approach where your grade is reported as well as the average class grade. Great that you have an A but somewhat meaningless if the rest of the class has an A. But as Lindsay reports, such an honest transcript approach has not been shown to change behaviors where it has been trialed such as at Dartmouth. I suspect that the honest transcript approach cannot work unless you have critical mass or, as in Riley's article, you are able to exercise collusive control.

Perhaps a better approach might be to take the average grade curve from STEM and require that in liberal arts courses. An obvious objection is that such an approach would fail to distinguish whether the students had actually acquired the knowledge of the course. That argument is somewhat militated by the reality that the current grades don't meaningfully reflect knowledge acquisition either.

If everyone is facing effectively the same grade curve, whatever the course, and the curve is set based on those courses which are empirical and objective in their grading, then you remove the disincentive of taking STEM courses. Knowing that a liberal arts grade will need to be earned rather than negotiated will have the additional value of increasing effort in liberal arts courses and restoring some of their former reputation. It will also, likely, reduce the demand for gut courses, not entirely but probably materially. Even if the course standards are very low, you will still have to work for your position on the curve.

But all that train of thought arises from looking at grades using fundamental economic insights such as marginal utility, supply and demand, pricing signals, revealed preference. In the article by Riley, she profiles a similar exercise from University of Austin with a video which examines sex and marriage using the same economic principles of marginal utility, revealed preference, supply and demand, pricing mechanism as signals, etc.
“On average, men have a higher sex drive than women. Blame it on testosterone, call it whatever you want — but on average, men initiate sex more than women, they’re more sexually permissive than women, and they connect sex to romance less often than women.

“Nobody’s saying this is the way it ought to be. It’s just the way it is.”

“Women, on the other hand, are likely to have sex for reasons beyond just simple pleasure. Her motivations for sex often include expressing and receiving love, strengthening commitment, affirming desirability, and relationship security.”


And this is where the economics matters. Because many more women than men are in the market for a serious relationship, the video explains, “men can be picky and can insist on extensive sexual experience before committing.” Women’s competition for those men has increased, and so the “price” of sex — what the man has to “deliver,” emotionally and commitment-wise — has gone down.

If girls did actually come to realize that they’re “in the driver’s seat” when it comes to sex (and if sisterhood really were powerful), they could change the market entirely, having sex only when they were ready and only when they saw a serious commitment on the part of their partner.

As the voiceover in the video explains, “Collusion — women working together — would be the most rational way to elevate the ‘market value’ of sex.”
But economics only goes so far. The suggested solution is collusion and that is well and good but it requires a strong cultural consensus. The article refers to an OPEC of sex and that is revealing. OPEC is only as strong as the willingness and ability to police the group price, because everyone has a very high incentive to game the system. In a multicultural society, the capacity to establish a strong and effective cultural consensus is limited. Economics provides a lot of insight but it doesn't necessarily provide easy answers.

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