Economists on Higher Ed

Papers at annual meeting explore assessment, student aid, course sequence and the role of community colleges.
January 7, 2008

Many economists these days apply the tools of their field to questions of higher education, exploring questions of policy, teaching and learning. At this weekend's annual meeting of the American Economic Association, in New Orleans, papers explored how professors are measuring what goes on in their classrooms and issues ranging from student aid to teacher recruitment.

Here are some highlights:

Multiple choice and more: A survey of undergraduate economics instructors in 1995, 2000 and 2005 found that all levels of courses were relying increasingly on multiple choice as the testing approach. While this is most evident in introductory courses (where class size tends to be larger), it is true in all kinds of courses. Long essays and problems are becoming less popular, and are frequently being replaced by short essays, the study found.

At the same time, however, the paper does not suggest that economics instruction has become impersonal. The authors -- Georg Schauer of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Michael Watts of Purdue University, and William Becker of Indiana University -- find increases over time in the percentage of economics professors who say that they grade in part based on class participation (more than half by 2005) and a growing popularity of oral presentations in upper division courses. "Despite the increasing use of multiple choice questions ... we do not conclude that economists have been cutting back on the time and care they devote to assessment," the authors write. "Instead the general picture we see here is economists making greater use of assessment practices that have been popular for some time in other academic fields."

What chairs want students to know: With pressure growing for departments to have assessment systems in place, three professors at the University of Akron wanted to know, among other things, what chairs would want to see undergraduates learn in their field. The professors -- Steven C. Myers, Michael A. Nelson and Richard W. Stratton -- found consistency in departments with formal assessment systems and those without.

Top priorities for chairs are: critical thinking on economics issues, analysis and research, communication skills, data analysis and economic knowledge and concepts. Less important, according to the chairs, are computer proficiencies for economic analysis, ethics and professionalism.

The impact of HOPE: Georgia's HOPE Scholarships, which pay for most college costs at public colleges for state residents who earned good grades in high school, are incredibly popular in the state and the idea has been copied by many other states. Two University of Georgia scholars -- Christopher Cornwell and David Mustard -- decided to look at how the scholarships affect talent stratification within universities and state systems.

Using a variety of measures of educational quality, they show how HOPE has increased all measures of student quality at competitive institutions in Georgia but has had hardly any impact at the least competitive institutions. At the more competitive institutions, homogeneity of academic qualifications is also up substantially -- as is the gap between the more competitive and least competitive institutions in the state system.

The impact of calculus: A key question for many departments is to determine which courses help students succeed in subsequent courses. But barring true control groups, such determinations are difficult. Are students who take calculus and then succeed in subsequent courses, for example, better off because they took calculus or do stronger students take calculus? William Bosshardt and Neela Manage of Florida Atlantic University found a way to get around that problem. They examined thousands of student records from business majors at a university that requires students to take calculus, microeconomics and macroeconomics -- but that does not dictate the order students take the course.

They were thus able to focus on students with the academic background to take all three courses, but who didn't take them in the same order. The results: Calculus first improves student performance in microeconomics and macroeconomics.

Community colleges and teacher preparation: Michelle Reininger of Northwestern University wanted to examine the relationship between attending a two-year college and becoming an elementary or secondary school teacher -- and the results may disappoint both community colleges and those who want to produce more teachers.

Reininger speculated that community colleges could play a positive role because many teachers prefer jobs and education near their homes. She analyzed the experiences and education of teachers, looking for patterns related to attending a community college. What she found was that attending a community college appears to create a negative correlation for becoming a teacher, in large part because of the low transfer rates or ineffectiveness of articulation programs with four-year institutions. As a result, she said that policy makers need to either focus more on transfer issues or rethink policies that may encourage some would-be teachers to start their higher educations at two-year colleges.


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