June 2nd, 2020

Clouds, Sun, Sea


This week has seen policymakers, scholars, and the public debate the meaning of collective violence. While political and media discourse often fails to examine the long-term effects of social unrest, a vast literature grapples with the mechanisms that link protests and uprisings with institutional change.

A 1978 book by JAMES W. BUTTON integrates a vast amount of interviews, archival sources, and statistical data to analyze the public response to the US urban uprisings of the 1960s. Focusing the analysis on three federal agencies—the (now-dismantled) Office of Economic Opportunity, HUD, and the DOJ—the book suggests that the 1960s riots were understood by policymakers as political demands.

From the introduction:

"Although domestic collective violence has played a prominent role in American history, few other episodes of urban violence in this country's history have been as dramatic as the black riots of the 1960s. As a result, the causes, precipitating events, and participants of the outbursts have been thoroughly studied over the past several years. Yet what is remarkable about this extensive analysis is the almost complete neglect of the political effects or consequences of these pervasive disorders. By concentrating instead on the factors that may have caused the riots, most investigators have implicitly reflected a normative bias concerning the disutility of domestic violence for affecting social and political change.

The fundamental purpose of this study is to evaluate some of the political consequences of the urban black riots of the 1960s and early 1970s, focusing on responses of the executive branch of the federal government. In fulfilling such a task, it asks: did the riots affect executive officials' decisions and ultimately federal public policy? Did the federal executive branch respond differently to the initial, less intense riots (1963-1966) than it did to the later, more severe disorders (1967-1968) and, if so, why? how have national executive responses to urban rioting been affected by the local political and environmental context and by local reactions to such violence? And how do public officials tend to view the role of violence in American society?"

Link to the book page.

  • A new article by Omar Wasow examines the relationship between violent and nonviolent protests, media, public opinion, and policy alignment from the Civil Rights Era, and in particular on Nixon's election in 1968. Link. And a 2018 paper by Shom Mazumder looks at the persistent effects of Civil Rights protects on political attitudes. Link.
  • A 1978 paper by sociologist Charles Tilly on collective violence: "Historically, collective violence has flowed regularly out of the central political processes of western countries. People seeking to seize, hold, or realign the levers of power have continually engaged in collective violence as part of their struggles." Link.
  • In a 2007 article, historian Michael Kazin asks: "Many of the conditions thought to have precipitated the eruption of civil violence in the 1960s either persist or have grown worse. What accounts for the absence of civil violence on American streets?" Link. And a new book by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener looks at the 1960s in Los Angeles. Link.
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December 9th, 2019

Red Wave


Financialization in American higher ed

Like many systems of social provision—from housing to pensions—American education has become increasingly financialized. In a recent paper, Charlie Eaton, Jacob Habinek, Adam Goldstein, Cyrus Dioun, Daniela García Santibáñez Godoy, and Robert Osley-Thomas consider the scope and consequences of financialization in the market for higher education.

From the paper:

"Increasing dependence on financial markets may bias resources towards revenue-generating commercial projects and increased student loan origination. We document the growing role of finance across the heterogeneous subsectors of US higher education: traditional public and non-profit educational providers have come to rely more heavily on financially mediated flows of investment revenue and debt-funded capital. Meanwhile, equity capital fueled the growth of an explicitly financialized sub-sector of for-profit providers. Finally, educational consumers have been saddled with growing interest payments as debt balances grew. Interestingly, the state has been one of the main participants in the transformation we describe.

How does financialization affect educational outcomes and educational stratification? We show that students’ average student loan borrowing increased fastest and to the highest levels at for-profits. Yet for-profits and the poorest public institutions disproportionately enroll minorities and students from lower social class backgrounds. Together, these facts suggest that the financialization of higher education may play a significant direct role in exacerbating educational and economic stratification. We can also expect significant effects among public and non-profit institutions. Borrowed capital has disproportionately funded investments in non-instructional commercial activities, including amenities. In this way, bond markets promote organizational behaviors that may be at odds with the goals of cost-efficient social provision in areas like higher education."

Link to the full article.

  • Another Eaton paper, co-authored with Sabrina Howell and Constantine Yannelis, uses "novel data on 88 private equity deals involving 994 schools" to study the impact of private equity buyouts on higher education: "After buyouts, we observe lower education inputs, graduation rates, loan repayment rates, and earnings among graduates." Link. See also this detailed report on financialization and higher education from the Roosevelt Institute. Link.
  • "When public higher education cannot keep pace with growing public demand for access and programs, governments often allow for-profits to rush in and help fill the gap. The future tertiary market will not be the result of a well thought out policy at the national or state levels, but a quasi-free market result that will foster lower quality providers and fail to meet national goals for increasing the educational attainment level of Americans." A 2012 article by John Douglass analyzes the rise of for-profits in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Link.
  • "One generation of Americans owed $86 billion in student loan debt at last count. Its members are all 60 years old or more." At the WSJ, AnnaMaria Andriotis writes on the emergence of senior held student debt. Link.
 Full Article

October 15th, 2019



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.
 Full Article

August 5th, 2019

Where is the Artist?


The state of a new pedagogical field

Technology companies are coming under increased scrutiny for the ethical consequences of their work, and some have formed advisory boards or hired ethicists on staff. (Google's AI ethics board quickly disintegrated.) Another approach is to train computer scientists in ethics before they enter the labor market. But how should that training—which must combine practice and theory across disciplines—be structured, who should teach the courses, and what should they teach?

This month’s cover story of the Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery describes the Embedded EthiCS program at Harvard. (David Gray Grant, a JFI fellow since 2018, and Lily Hu, a new JFI fellow, are co-authors, along with Barbara J. Grosz, Kate Vredenburgh, Jeff Behrends, Alison Simmons, and Jim Waldo.) The article explains the advantages of their approach, wherein philosophy PhD students and postdocs teach modules in computer science classes:

"In contrast to stand-alone computer ethics or computer-and-society courses, Embedded EthiCS employs a distributed pedagogy that makes ethical reasoning an integral component of courses throughout the standard computer science curriculum. It modifies existing courses rather than requiring wholly new courses. Students learn ways to identify ethical implications of technology and to reason clearly about them while they are learning ways to develop and implement algorithms, design interactive systems, and code. Embedded EthiCS thus addresses shortcomings of stand-alone courses. Furthermore, it compensates for the reluctance of STEM faculty to teach ethics on their own by embedding philosophy graduate students and postdoctoral fellows into the teaching of computer science courses."

A future research direction is to examine "the approach's impact over the course of years, for instance, as students complete their degrees and even later in their careers."

Link to the full article.

  • Shannon Vallor and Arvind Narayanan have a free ethics module anyone can use in a CS course. View it here. A Stephanie Wykstra piece in the Nation on the state of DE pedagogy notes that the module has been used at 100+ universities. Link.
  • In February 2018, we wrote about Casey Fiesler’s spreadsheet of tech ethics curricula, which has gotten even more comprehensive, including sample codes of ethics and other resources. Jay Hodges’s comment is still relevant for many of the curricula: "Virtually every discipline that deals with the social world – including, among others, sociology, social work, history, women’s studies, Africana studies, Latino/a studies, urban studies, political science, economics, epidemiology, public policy, and law – addresses questions of fairness and justice in some way. Yet the knowledge accumulated by these fields gets very little attention in these syllabi." Link to that 2018 letter.
  • At MIT, JFI fellow Abby Everett Jacques teaches "Ethics of Technology." An NPR piece gives a sense of the students' experiences. Link.
 Full Article

July 8th, 2019

Model of a Cabin


Examining the college premium

Higher education is widely understood to be a major driver of intergenerational mobility in the United States. Despite the clear (and growing) inequalities between and within colleges, it remains the case that higher education reduces the impact that parental class position has on a graduate's life outcomes.

In an intriguing paper, associate professor of economics at Harvard XIANG ZHOU scrutinizes the implied causal relationship between college completion and intergenerational mobility. Specifically, Zhou uses a novel weighting method "to directly examine whether and to what extent a college degree moderates the influence of parental income" outside of selection effects, seeking to distinguish between the "equalization" and "selection" hypotheses of higher ed's impact on intergenerational mobility.

From the paper:

"Three decades have passed since Hout’s (1988) discovery that intergenerational mobility is higher among college graduates than among people with lower levels of education. In light of this finding, many researchers have portrayed a college degree as 'the great equalizer' that levels the playing field, and hypothesized that an expansion in postsecondary education could promote mobility because more people would benefit from the high mobility experienced by college graduates. Yet this line of reasoning rests on the implicit assumption that the 'college premium' in intergenerational mobility reflects a genuine 'meritocratic' effect of postsecondary education, an assumption that has rarely, if ever, been rigorously tested.

In fact, to the extent that college graduates from low and moderate-income families are more selected on such individual attributes as ability and motivation than those from high-income families, the high mobility observed among bachelor’s degree holders may simply reflect varying degrees of selectivity of college graduates from different family backgrounds."

In sum, Zhou finds that the "selection" hypothesis carries more weight than the "equalization" hypothesis. One implication of this finding is that "simply expanding the pool of college graduates is unlikely to boost intergenerational income mobility in the US." Link to the paper.

  • A 2011 paper by Michael Bastedo and Ozan Jaquette looks at the stratification dynamics affecting low-income students within higher ed. Link. A paper from the same year by Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski surveys the state of inequality in postsecondary education. Link.
  • An op-ed by E. Tammy Kim in the Times argues for higher-education as a public good. Link.
  • Marshall Steinbaum and Julie Margetta Morgan's 2018 paper examines the student debt crisis in the broader context of labor market trends: "Reliance on the college earnings premium [as a measure of success] is that it focuses primarily on the individual benefit of educational attainment, implying that college is worthwhile as long as individuals are making more than they would have otherwise. But in the context of public investment in higher education, we need to know not only how individuals are faring but also how investments in higher education are affecting our workforce and the economy as a whole." Link.
 Full Article

May 20th, 2019

Flower Meadow in the North


First steps to mapping the non-Title-IV education landscape

Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 permits certain postsecondary institutions to be eligible for federal financial aid funds. A wide variety of programs are Title IV eligible: public, private, for-profit, vocational. Yet there are also a vast number of non-Title-IV (NT4) programs, offering credentials, certifications, and various forms of training—and neither the Department of Education, nor any other body, collects unified data on all these programs. How many students attend them? What subjects are they learning? What are their outcomes?

There's only been one recent paper that's made a serious attempt to understand the scale of NT4 programs. In a 2012 working paper, Stephanie Cellini and Claudia Goldin calculated that NT4 institutions educate 27% of students enrolled in for-profit institutions each year (670,000 enrollments).

A 2017 paper by Jessie Brown and Martin Kurzweil for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences attempts to map the alternative postsecondary landscape, including "certificate programs; work-based training; skills-based short courses; MOOCs; and competency-based education programs." That paper finds that these programs are growing:

“While each of these alternatives has roots that reach back decades if not longer, for a number of reasons, alternatives have increased in size, diversity, and importance in recent years, and are likely to continue to grow. Though the length and cost of alternative programs vary, most last for less than two years and cost significantly less than a four-year degree, the cost of which continues to rise rapidly… A characteristic feature of all the programs discussed is their flexibility to align directly with specific employer needs and competencies in skill-based fields. Despite these reasons for their appeal and likely growth, evidence of the efficacy and value of these alternatives—for students and taxpayers—is still thin.”

As the debate over the skills gap continues and the cost of college soars, the obscurity in which these programs operate becomes increasingly untenable. Link to that paper.

  • Brown and Kurzweil work includes three recommendations for policymakers, including recommendations to create a robust data system and quality assurance scheme. George Washington University has just launched the Non-Degree Credential Network project to begin building out research and data. Link.
  • Andrew Reamer's 2018 list of credential info aggregators brings into relief the diversity of the programs as well as the chaotic state of the information about them. Link.
  • In a March letter, we featured work by Xu and Trimble on a closely related topic: what are the outcomes of students who participate in certificate programs? Link to that letter, link to their paper.
  • A 2016 paper by Santa Falcone examines US certificate programs at Title IV schools from 1980-2013, and includes some relevant education history: "This growth period [1870-1910] also brought into existence private, external, independent university ratings agencies. These agencies successfully used coercion and incentives on higher education institutions to develop more standardized admissions, instruction, and accreditation criteria to counter the lack of any existing academic standards." Link.
  • A 2013 paper by Rosenbaum and Rosenbaum covers occupational colleges and certificate programs (with, again, a focus on Title IV institutions). Link.
 Full Article

March 2nd, 2019

Weak Local Lineament


Charting the significance of credit and debt throughout society

Household debt has proliferated in the past decade. In the final quarter of 2018, it reached $13.54 trillion—an $869 billion increase since the previous peak in 2008 and a 21.4% increase since the post-crisis trough. While it is now widely recognized that the financialization of household consumption set the groundwork for the Recession (see for example this chapter by Manuel Aalbers), credit markets seem immune to structural reform.

On the one hand, access to credit enables purchases and investments crucial to long term financial mobility; on the other, it incorporates those who lack resources into a cycle of obligations to lenders. In her most recent publication in the Annual Review of Sociology, RACHEL E. DWYER questions how debt has shaped the American social landscape. She develops a two dimensional model of formal debt relationships which categorizes contracts according to the source of credit (state vs. market) and the nature of the obligation (prospective vs. retrospective). The model integrates the logic of debt and credit relationships with an analysis of distributional politics:

"The top row of prospective credit offers are more likely made to affluent or middle-class and disproportionately white populations, and the bottom row of retrospective financial obligations are more likely to fall on lower-income or poor and disproportionately racial/ethnic minority populations. The experience of debt and financial fragility is thus different across these social groups defined by class, race/ethnicity, and other social status, though also tied together by similar logics of financialization and individualized accountability for life conditions."

Dwyer's research shows how credit and debt relations vary geographically and temporally, encouraging a comparative analysis of debt relationships in countries with different political economies. Link to the article.

  • On the unique role that credit markets play in the American economy, see Monica Prasad on the credit-welfare state tradeoff, and Colin Crouch on privatized-mortgage Keynesianism. Link to the first; link to the second.
  • For a pre-crisis examination of credit and inequality, see Patrick Bolton and Howard Rosenthal's Credit Markets for the Poor. Link.
  • Vicki Been, Ingrid Ellen, and Josiah Madar explore the relationship between urban segregation and subprime mortgage lending. Link.

    New Researchers: VISIBILITY PREMIUM

Political effects of celebrity exposure

In a novel paper, HEYU XIONG—a Phd candidate at NORTHWESTERN and newly appointed professor at CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY—studied the political consequences of television celebrity. He used the career of Ronald Reagan as a case study and exploited quasi-experimental variation in television reception to estimate the effects of celebrity media exposure on political outcomes, finding that
support for Reagan based on non-political factors extended nearly two decades after his television career—an effect more pronounced in areas in which Reagan was not a known political entity. The findings suggest that elections hinge considerably more on non-political media exposure and personal characteristics than previously assumed.

From the abstract:

"My results contribute to our knowledge of the vote decision process. Understanding what candidate information is pertinent and how that information is processed is key to understanding the selection of elected officials and, subsequently, the policies those elected officials enact. The economic theory of electoral competition is traditionally situated in the framework of the policy oriented voter. Even without the assertion of rationality, voters are, at the very least, presumed to be voting in order to advance a policy position or to express a political preference. While this preoccupation is not misplaced, the results suggest that candidates' personal characteristics constitute a significant, if substandard, criterion for vote choice."

Link to the paper.

 Full Article

February 23rd, 2019

Grievous Plans


New evidence on the relationship between skills and labor supply

More than a decade after the financial crisis of 2008, median household incomes have stagnated at their pre-2008 levels, and global economic growth is expected to decline further from what is already a historic low. While the unemployment rate has rebounded, part time, service, and temporary work remain the principal drivers behind labor market growth. Weak recovery from the crisis has been widely attributed to the “skills gap”; commentators and policymakers alike hold that quality jobs are there, but Americans are simply not qualified to perform them.

At the American Economic Association’s most recent conference, ALICIA SASSER MODESTINO, DANIEL SHOAG, and JOSHUA BALLANCE provide evidence against this view. Using a proprietary database of more than 36 million online job postings, they show that employers increased skill requirements in states and occupations which experienced larger increases in the unemployment rate. Their findings suggest that it wasn’t a shortage of skills which weakened labor markets, but rather the ubiquity of qualified applicants which drove employers to raise hiring standards. By testing employer responses to an influx of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, the authors are able to confirm this mechanism:

"As a source of exogenous variation in the availability of skilled workers, we make use of a natural experiment resulting from the large increase in the post-9/11 veteran labor force following troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan... Panel A of Table 5 demonstrates that there is a strong, significant, and positive relationship between the sharp increase in the supply of returning veterans and the rise in employer skill requirements for both education and experience."

This is among the first pieces of empirical evidence which suggests that employer skill requirements are driven, in part, by labor supply. Link to the conference webpage, where a full version of the paper is available for download.

  • As early as 2011, Lawrence Mishel argued against analysts who asserted that the unemployment crisis was structural, proposing instead that the economy was experiencing a crisis of demand. Link.
  • In his most recent book, LSE anthropologist David Graeber examines the relationship between skill and value, questioning why jobs which produce the most social value tend to be categorized as unskilled, consequently earning lower wages. Link to Graeber's widely acclaimed essay from 2013 that first outlined his argument, and link to the Google preview of his new book.
  • In a report for the Roosevelt Institute, Marshall Steinbaum and Julie Margetta Morgan argue that the 'skills gap' narrative is inconsistent with student debt crisis: "Although the country’s populace is becoming more educated, each educational group is becoming less well paid." Link.
  • Paul Osterman wrote an accessible overview of the debate for The Atlantic in 2014: “The claim that a shortage of skilled workers has exacerbated inequality has gained traction but it is not supported by the data… For instance, while 38 percent of manufacturing firms require math beyond simple addition, subtraction, and multiplication, the type of math employees need to be able to handle are standard features of a good high school education and part of the curriculum for most community-college students…Nearly 65 percent of businesses report they have no vacancies whatsoever, and another 76.3 percent report they have no long-term vacancies…” Link.
 Full Article

October 2nd, 2018

The "Next Big Thing" is a Room

If you don’t look up, Dynamicland seems like a normal room on the second floor of an ordinary building in downtown Oakland. There are tables and chairs, couches and carpets, scattered office supplies, and pictures taped up on the walls. It’s a homey space that feels more like a lower school classroom than a coworking environment. But Dynamicland is not a normal room. Dynamicland was designed to be anything but normal.

Led by the famous interface designer Bret Victor, Dynamicland is the offshoot of HARC (Human Advancement Research Community), most recently part of YCombinator Research. Dynamicland seems like the unlikeliest vision for the future of computers anyone could have expected.

Let’s take a look. Grab one of the scattered pieces of paper in the space. Any will do as long as it has those big colorful dots in the corners. Don’t pay too much attention to those dots. You may recognize the writing on the paper as computer code. It’s a strange juxtaposition: virtual computer code on physical paper. But there it is, in your hands. Go ahead and put the paper down on one of the tables. Any surface will do.

 Full Article

November 18th, 2017

Duchamp Wanted


How to build justice into algorithmic actuarial tools

Key notions of fairness contradict each other—something of an Arrow’s Theorem for criminal justice applications of machine learning.

"Recent discussion in the public sphere about algorithmic classification has involved tension between competing notions of what it means for a probabilistic classification to be fair to different groups. We formalize three fairness conditions that lie at the heart of these debates, and we prove that except in highly constrained special cases, there is no method that can satisfy these three conditions simultaneously. Moreover, even satisfying all three conditions approximately requires that the data lie in an approximate version of one of the constrained special cases identified by our theorem. These results suggest some of the ways in which key notions of fairness are incompatible with each other, and hence provide a framework for thinking about the trade-offs between them."

Full paper from JON KLEINBERG, SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN and MANISH RAGHAVAN here. h/t research fellow Sara, who recently presented on bias in humans, courts, and machine learning algorithms, and who was the source for all the papers in this section.

In a Twitter thread, ARVIND NARAYANAN describes the issue in more casual terms.

"Today in Fairness in Machine Learning class: a comparison of 21 (!) definitions of bias and fairness [...] In CS we're used to the idea that to make progress on a research problem as a community, we should first all agree on a definition. So 21 definitions feels like a sign of failure. Perhaps most of them are trivial variants? Surely there/s one that's 'better' than the rest? The answer is no! Each defn (stat. parity, FPR balance, contextual fairness in RL...) captures something about our fairness intuitions."

Link to Narayanan’s thread.

Jay comments: Kleinberg et al. describe their result as choosing between conceptions of fairness. It’s not obvious, though, that this is the correct description. The criteria (calibration and balance) discussed aren’t really conceptions of fairness; rather, they’re (putative) tests of fairness. Particular questions about these tests aside, we might have a broader worry: if fairness is not an extensional property that depends upon, and only upon, the eventual judgments rendered by a predictive process, exclusive of the procedures that led to those judgments, then no extensional test will capture fairness, even if this notion is entirely unambiguous and determinate. It’s worth consideringNozick’s objection to “pattern theories” of justice for comparison, and (procedural) due process requirements in US law.

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