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If you’ve seen “Moneyball,” the new baseball film about the unlikely success of the Oakland A’s and their out-of-the-box-thinking general manager, Billy Beane, you may have already drawn parallels to the current state of higher education. If not, we’re pleased to do it for you.
Early in "Moneyball" there’s a funny scene of Billy sitting around a table with his scouts, wise old men of America’s pastime. The scouts jaw on about players’ arms, legs and bodies and their potential. One scout insists that an ugly girlfriend means that a player doesn’t have confidence. The scouts are entranced by the obvious. And when it comes to metrics, the scouts focus on what’s easy to measure. The scouts love high school pitchers: “High school pitchers had brand-new arms, and brand-new arms were able to generate the one asset scouts could measure: a fastball’s velocity,” Michael Lewis writes in the book on which the movie was based.
But Billy isn’t fooled. He decides to bring data to the table in the form of Peter Brand, a Yalie with an economics degree and a statistics-spewing laptop ready at hand.
It turns out that high school pitchers are much less likely to go on to successful major league careers than are comparable pitchers who have attended college. And when you try to correlate a range of statistics to runs scored, batting average is a poor indicator, whereas on-base percentage (OBP) is highly correlated. So Billy and the A’s eschew high school pitchers and focus on OBP; the A’s begin to value and acquire players with a knack for getting on base any way they can, especially by taking walks.
The result, chronicled in the entertaining film based on Lewis's book, is an unlikely group of major leaguers who, during the 2002 season, win 20 games in a row -- still a record -- and make the playoffs.
“My only question is if he’s that good a hitter, why doesn’t he hit better?”
-- Billy Beane
Like baseball 10 years ago, higher education is focused on what’s easy to measure. For baseball it may have been body parts, batting averages and the numbers on the radar gun. For higher education, it’s the 3Rs: research, rankings and real estate. Each of these areas is easily quantified or judged: research citations or number of publications in Nature and Science; U.S. News ranking (or colleges choose from a plethora of new entrants to the ranking game, including the international ranking by Shanghai Jiao Tong University); and in terms of real estate, how much has been spent on a new building and how stately, innovative and generally impressive it appears.
Unfortunately, the 3Rs correlate about as closely to student learning and student outcomes as batting average or fastball velocity, which is to say, not at all. Buildings are the “ugly girlfriend” of higher education.
Universities that continue to focus on the 3Rs in the wake of the seismic shifts currently roiling higher education (state budget cuts, increased sticker shock, technology-based learning) are either not serious about improving student learning and student outcomes, or they’re like the baseball fan who has lost her car keys in the stadium parking lot at night. Where does she look for them? Not where she lost them, but under the light because that’s where she can see.
“A young player is not what he looks like, or what he might become, but what he has done.”
-- Billy Beane
Similarly, a university is not what its buildings look like, or what its reputation or rankings say, but what it has done. And by done, we don’t mean research. The link between research and instructional efficacy is unproven at best. We define instruction of students to mean producing measurable outcomes in terms of student learning and employment.
The first step will be to get the data; before we find the Billy Beane of higher education, we first need to find Bill James. With his famous Baseball Abstract, Bill James revolutionized how data was tracked, and which metrics were most important to the success of teams and individual players. James jump-started a movement, called sabermetrics, that collected data that had never before been systematically collected: the pitch count at the end of at-bats, pitch types and locations, the direction and distance of batted balls.
A report issued last month by Complete College America, an organization funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation for Education, demonstrates just how ripe higher education is for sabermetrics. While the report was sobering in the data it did present (e.g., of every 100 students who enroll in a public college in Texas, 79 enroll in a community college -- of these 79, only seven have completed a program in four years’ time), more fundamental are the huge holes in the data – larger than the holes in the Houston Astros infield! According to Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, the data are incomplete because students who enroll part-time or who transfer are not tracked: “We know they enroll, but we don’t know what happens to them,” he said. “We shouldn’t make policy based on the image of students going straight from high school to college, living on campus, and graduating four years later, when the majority of college students don’t do that.”
“The great thing about college players: they had meaningful stats. They played a lot more games, against stiffer competition, than high school players. The sample size of their relevant statistics was larger, and therefore a more accurate reflection of some underlying reality. You could project college players with greater certainty than you could project high school players.”
-- Michael Lewis, Moneyball
How ironic that we may be doing a better job gathering baseball statistics at colleges than we are at gathering education statistics. It is essential that we begin to track persistence data on part-time and transfer students on a systematic basis. The Department of Education should lead this initiative. Failing that, Gates, Lumina and others undoubtedly will pick up the slack.
Just as the Moneyball approach has narrowed the gap between teams with $40 million payrolls and teams with payrolls three times higher (see, e.g., Tampa Bay Rays storming back in the month of September and taking the American League wild card berth away from Boston with a payroll of $41 million, 25 percent of the Red Sox payroll), finding and tracking the OBP of higher education will do the same for data-driven institutions of all stripes, including those that do not receive state subsidies, and those that pay taxes.
With the right data, dozens of would-be Billy Beanes will spring up across the country arguing what the on-base percentage equivalent for higher education is, coalescing on persistence and completion metrics that are meaningful for all students (i.e., traditional/adult, full-time/part-time, on-ground/online) and helping their institutions reform and restructure to increase “wins.”
Ryan Craig is a partner at University Ventures Fund.