➔ Phenomenal World

October 15th, 2019

➔ Phenomenal World

Machine

WEAK OUTCOMES

On the returns to for-profit colleges

As student debt grows and the labor market stagnates, a growing body of research seeks to answer questions about the worthiness of college. What characterizes the schools and populations for whom college is worth it? What does worthiness mean—financial, intellectual, for individuals, for society as a whole? A key way to examine these questions is to find evidence on the financial returns to college. Douglas Webber examines the question along lines of ability, major, and debt, and explores the question for marginal students; JFI’s Sidhya Balakrishnan and Barry Cynamon looked at the way that returns vary based on the type of financing (loans, IDR, ISAs).

A new paper from STEPHANIE CELLINI and NICHOLAS TURNER uses administrative data to examine the returns to public college vs. for-profit college certificate programs. The key finding is that “for-profit certificate students experience lower earnings and employment post-college than their public sector counterparts,” but the richness of the data allows for many more surprising conclusions as well: one is that for-profit college may actually have worse returns than no college whatsoever; another is that for-profits may have worse effects for women than for men. From the paper:

“Across the board, our results show that despite the much higher costs of attending a for-profit institution, the average for-profit certificate student experiences lower earnings effects relative to public sector students. For-profit colleges outperform public institutions in only one of the top ten for-profit fields—cosmetology. Further, students in online and chain for-profit institutions appear to fare worse than students in more traditional campus-based and independent institutions. Our institution-level regressions reveal that the weak performance of the for-profit sector is not limited to a few poor performing institutions, rather the majority of schools appear to have negligible average earnings effects.”

The full paper is available in the Journal of Human Resources here.

  • Scott Cunningham wrote a substantial tweet-thread summary, available here. “I’d include this paper when sorting through the human capital vs signaling debate. This is arguably pure credentialing… So why are the returns so bad if it’s also a credential? I’d be curious how proponents of the ‘education is only signaling’ hypothesis reacted to this study.” For more on that debate, see our previous JFI letter.
  • How can for-profit colleges be held accountable for poor returns to the educations that they provide? A 2016 report from Davids J Deming and Figlio explains the successes and failures of Obama’s Gainful Employment Act, and suggests the importance of financial “skin in the game” for all kinds of institutions. Link.
  • A new data explorer from the Urban Institute brings together an array of education data sets. Link.
  • Cellini and Turner’s piece examines certificate programs at for-profits. For more on certificate programs, see our March letter on the work of Di Xu and Madeline Trimble, and our May letter on the many non-Title-IV certificates, certifications, and credentials about which there is almost no data.
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February 17th, 2018

Two Flags

BASIC OPPORTUNITY

Considerations on funding UBI in Britain

The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) published a discussion paper on UBI. ANTHONY PAINTER outlines some key points here, including some thoughts on funding:

“To fund the ‘Universal Basic Opportunity Fund’ (UBOF), the Government would finance an endowment to cover the fund for 14 years from a public debt issue (at current low interest rates). This endowment would be invested to both fund asset growth and public benefit. The fund could be invested in housing, transport, energy and digital infrastructure and invested for high growth in global assets such as equity and real estate. This seems radical but actually, similar mechanisms have been established in Norway, Singapore and Alaska. In the latter case, Basic Income style dividends are paid to all Alaskans. Essentially, the UBOF is a low-interest mortgage to invest in infrastructure and human growth that brings forward the benefits of a sovereign wealth fund to the present rather than waiting for it to accumulate over time.”

Full paper is available here. And here is the longer section on “The technicalities of a Universal Basic Opportunity Fund,” including building and administering the fund. ht Lauren

  • A new working paper on the Alaska Permanent Fund: "Overall, our results suggest that a universal and permanent cash transfer does not significantly decrease aggregate employment." Link.
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February 10th, 2018

No Noise is Good Noise

AUTOMATIC PRECISION

Translating randomized controlled trials into policy action

"A randomized experiment is performed,a statistically significant comparison is found, and then story time begins, and continues and continues—as if the rigor from the randomized experiment somehow suffuses through the entire analysis."

From a short paper by ANDREW GELMAN, who adds his analysis to the debate on the use of RCTs in policy development. Link.

The paper that Gelman is commenting on, by ANGUS DEATON and NANCY CARTWRIGHT, tackles misunderstandings and misuses of the form across disciplines:

"RCTs are both under- and over-sold. Oversold because extrapolating or generalizing RCT results requires a great deal of additional information that cannot come from RCTs; under-sold, because RCTs can serve many more purposes than predicting that results obtained in a trial population will hold elsewhere…

The gold standard or 'truth' view does harm when it undermines the obligation of science to reconcile RCTs results with other evidence in a process of cumulative understanding."

Link to the paper.

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February 3rd, 2018

The Greatest Strategies

MASS PRIVACY

The inadequacy of individual informed consent

This week, an Australian college student noticed how data from Strava, a fitness-tracking app, can be used to discover the locations of military bases. Many outlets covered the news and its implications, including Wired and the Guardian. In the New York Times, Zeynep Tufekci’s editorial was characteristically insightful:

“Data privacy is not like a consumer good, where you click ‘I accept’ and all is well. Data privacy is more like air quality or safe drinking water, a public good that cannot be effectively regulated by trusting in the wisdom of millions of individual choices. A more collective response is needed.”

Link to the editorial.

Samson Esayas considers the collective nature of data privacy from a legal perspective:

"This article applies lessons from the concept of ‘emergent properties’ in systems thinking to data privacy law. This concept, rooted in the Aristotelian dictum ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts’, where the ‘whole’ represents the ‘emergent property’, allows systems engineers to look beyond the properties of individual components of a system and understand the system as a single complex... Informed by the discussion about emergent property, the article calls for a holistic approach with enhanced responsibility for certain actors based on the totality of the processing activities and data aggregation practices."

Link to the paper. ht Jay

  • A Twitter note on Strava from Sean Brooks: “So who at Strava was supposed to foresee this? Whose job was it to prevent this? Answer is almost certainly no one…I’ve always hated the ‘data is the new oil’ metaphor, but here it seems disturbingly accurate. And ironically, organizations with something to hide (military, IC, corporate R&D) have the resource curse. They want to benefit from the extraction, but they also have the most to lose.” Link.
  • We mentioned Glen Weyl last week as a noteworthy economist engaging with ethical issues (see Beatrice Cherrier’s Twitter thread). A speculative paper he co-wrote on "data as labor" imagines a world in which companies paid users for their data. (We find the framing "data as labor" slightly misleading—Weyl's larger point seems to be about data as assets—the product of labor.) Link. ht Chris Kanich for bringing the two threads together on Twitter.
  • This Economist article also covers Weyl's paper: “Still, the paper contains essential insights which should frame discussion of data’s role in the economy. One concerns the imbalance of power in the market for data. That stems partly from concentration among big internet firms. But it is also because, though data may be extremely valuable in aggregate, an individual’s personal data typically are not.” Link.
  • A potentially exciting aspect of the GDPR is the right to data portability: "A free portability of personal data from one controller to another can be a strong tool for data subjects in order to foster competition of digital services and interoperability of platforms and in order to enhance controllership of individuals on their own data." Link.
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January 27th, 2018

A Ha?

DISCONTINUOUS ADVANCE

A flurry of articles in December and January assess the state of artificial intelligence

From Erik Brynjolfsson et al, optimism about productivity growth:

“Economic value lags technological advances.

“To be clear, we are optimistic about the ultimate productivity growth fueled by AI and complementary technologies. The real issue is that it takes time to implement changes in processes, skills and organizational structure to fully harness AI’s potential as a general-purpose technology (GPT). Previous GPTs include the steam engine, electricity, the internal combustion engine and computers.

“In other words, as important as specific applications of AI may be, the broader economic effects of AI, machine learning and associated new technologies stem from their characteristics as GPTs: They are pervasive, improved over time and able to spawn complementary innovations.”

Full post at The Hill here.

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January 20th, 2018

Potato House

PERVERSE CONSEQUENCES

Does banning the box increase hiring discrimination?

“Our results support the concern that BTB [Ban the Box] policies encourage racial discrimination: the black-white gap in callbacks grew dramatically at companies that removed the box after the policy went into effect. Before BTB, white applicants to employers with the box received 7% more callbacks than similar black applicants, but BTB increased this gap to 43%. We believe that the best interpretation of these results is that employers are relying on exaggerated impressions of real-world racial differences in felony conviction rates.”

Newly published by AMANDA AGAN and SONJA STARR, in line with their previous work on the same topic, available here.

  • These results bolster longstanding concerns about perverse consequences arising from ban the box legislation. (Similar studies include this one from 2006, and this one from 2016.) A 2008 paper provides a theoretical accompaniment to these worries, arguing that a privacy tradeoff is required to ensure race is not being used as a proxy for criminal history: “By increasing the availability of information about individuals, we can reduce decisionmakers’ reliance on information about groups.… reducing privacy protections will reduce the prevalence of statistical discrimination.” Link.
  • In a three part series from 2016, Noah Zatz at On Labor took on the perverse consequences argument and its policy implications, levelling three broad criticisms: “it places blame in the wrong place, it relies upon the wrong definition of racial equality, and it ignores cumulative effects.” Link.
  • A 2017 study of ban the box that focussed on the public sector—where anti-discrimination enforcement is more robust—found an increase in the probability of hiring for individuals with convictions and “no evidence of statistical discrimination against young low-skilled minority males.” Link.
  • California’s Fair Chance Act went into effect January 1, 2018, joining a growing list of fair hiring regulations in many other states and counties by extending ban the box reforms to the private sector. The law provides that employers can only conduct criminal background checks after a conditional offer of employment has been made. More on the bill can be found here.
  • Two posts on the California case, again by Zatz at On Labor, discuss several rich policy design questions raised by the “bright line” standards included in this legislation, and how they may interact with the prima facie standard of disparate impact discrimination: “Advocates fear, however, that bright lines would validate the exclusion of people on the wrong side of the line, despite individualized circumstances that vindicate them. But of course, the opposite could also be the case.” Link.
  • Tangentially related, Ben Casselman reports in the New York Times that a tightening labor market may be encouraging some employers to hire beyond the box—without legislative guidance. Link.
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January 13th, 2018

Landing Place

THE WAGE EFFECT

Higher minimum wages and the EITC may reduce recidivism

“Using administrative prison release records from nearly six million offenders released between 2000 and 2014, we use a difference-in-differences strategy to identify the effect of over two hundred state and federal minimum wage increases, as well as 21 state EITC programs, on recidivism. We find that the average minimum wage increase of 8% reduces the probability that men and women return to prison within 1 year by 2%. This implies that on average the wage effect, drawing at least some ex-offenders into the legal labor market, dominates any reduced employment in this population due to the minimum wage.”

Full paper by AMANDA Y. AGAN and MICHAEL D. MAKOWSKY here.

  • Jennifer Doleac responds, “The results in this new paper…definitely surprised me—my prior was that raising the min wage would increase recidivism.” She explains: “Those coming out of prison are very likely to be on the margin of employment (last hired, first fired). Given some disemployment effects, marginal workers are the ones who are going to be hurt. Amanda and Mike find that the positive effects of pulling some (higher-skilled?) offenders into the legal labor market outweigh those negative effects.” Link to Doleac’s Twitter thread.
  • One of the co-authors, Makowsky, adds, “The EITC, dollar for household dollar, generates larger effects [than minimum wage increases], but is hampered by its contingency on dependent children. This is one more reason to remove the contingency, extending it to everyone.” Link to Makowsky’s Twitter thread.
  • Another piece sourced from Makowsky’s thread: “The Impact of Living-Wage Ordinances on Urban Crime.” “Using data on annual crime rates for large cities in the United States, we find that living-wage ordinances are associated with notable reductions in property-related crime and no discernable impact on nonproperty crimes.” Link.
  • Noah Smith rounds up recent studies on increasing the minimum wage, many of which come to contradictory conclusions. "At this point, anyone following the research debate will be tempted to throw up their hands. What can we learn from a bunch of contradictory studies, each with its own potential weaknesses and flaws?" Link.
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January 6th, 2018

Anonymous Power Game

THE YEAR IN ECONOMICS

Nominations from top economists, including selections by Raj Chetty, Sendhil Mullainathan, and Angus Deaton

One favorite from this excellent round-up is by Hulten and Nakamura on metrics, selected by Diane Coyle (we previously sent her Indigo Prize paper):

Accounting for Growth in the Age of the Internet: The Importance of Output-Saving Technical Change by Charles Hulten and Leonard Nakamura

Main finding: Living standards may be growing faster than GDP growth.
Nominating economist: Diane Coyle, University of Manchester
Specialization: Economic statistics and the digital economy
Why?: “This paper tries to formalize the intuition that there is a growing gap between the standard measure of GDP, capturing economic activity, and true economic welfare and to draw out some of the implications.”

Robert Allen's "Absolute Poverty: When Necessity Displaces Desire" is another metrics-related piece on the list.

Also noteworthy, on the future of work:

Valuing Alternative Work Arrangements by Alexandre Mas and Amanda Pallais

Main finding: The average worker does not value an Uber-like ability to set their own schedule.
Nominating economist: Emily Oster, Brown University
Specialization: Health economics and research methodology
Why? “This paper looks at a question increasingly important in the current labor market: How do people value flexible work arrangements? The authors have an incredibly neat approach, using actual worker hiring to generate causal estimates of how workers value various employment setups.”

Full piece by DAN KOPF here.

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December 23rd, 2017

The Year in Review

## INCOME SHARE AGREEMENTS Purdue, BFF, the national conversation “Long discussed in college policy and financing circles, income share agreements, or ISAs, are poised to become more mainstream.” That's from a September Wall Street Journal article . 201 …
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December 16th, 2017

Bruised Grid

HOW TO HANDLE BAD CONTENT

Two articles illustrate the state of thought on moderating user-generated content

Ben Thompson of Stratechery rounds up recent news on content moderation on Twitter/Facebook/Youtube and makes a recommendation:

“Taking political sides always sounds good to those who presume the platforms will adopt positions consistent with their own views; it turns out, though, that while most of us may agree that child exploitation is wrong, a great many other questions are unsettled.

“That is why I think the line is clearer than it might otherwise appear: these platform companies should actively seek out and remove content that is widely considered objectionable, and they should take a strict hands-off policy to everything that isn’t (while — and I’m looking at you, Twitter — making it much easier to avoid unwanted abuse from people you don’t want to hear from). Moreover, this approach should be accompanied by far more transparency than currently exists: YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter should make explicitly clear what sort of content they are actively policing, and what they are not; I know this is complicated, and policies will change, but that is fine — those changes can be transparent too.”

Full blog post here.

The Social Capital newsletter responds:

“… If we want to really make progress towards solving these issues we need to recognize there’s not one single type of bad behavior that the internet has empowered, but rather a few dimensions of them.”

The piece goes on to describe four types of bad content. Link.

Michael comments: The discussion of content moderation--and digital curation more broadly--conspicuously ignores the possibility of algorithmic methods for analyzing and disseminating (ethically or evidentiarily) valid information. Thompson and Social Capital default to traditional and cumbersome forms of outright censorship, rather than methods to “push” better content.

We'll be sharing more thoughts on this research area in future letters.

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