Rage Against the Machine Learning

I have several things on my radar this week that I want to share.

The Campaign released a brief on Expanding Federal Work-Study Opportunities for California Community College Students. A few highlights:

  1. Of the 2.1 or so million community colleges students in California, only around 10,500 are receiving Federal Work-Study (FWS) dollars.
  2. 70 percent of FWS recipients are under the age of 30.
  3. Two-thirds of FWS recipients are women.

The Federal Work-Study program is not well-suited to community colleges. There are matching fund requirements, and the distribution formula prioritizes institutions with records of past participation (a bias towards older institutions and Northeastern US colleges and universities), and high-cost schools as judged by FAFSA’s unmet need calculation. Low FAFSA completion rates limit the number of students who might receive an award, and the formula itself has a bias that hurts community colleges. The brief also has some best practices and strategies from Pasadena City College and Long Beach City College, as well as recommendations for policymakers and practitioners. Check it out!

The National Student Clearinghouse Monthly COVID update caught my eye this week. The data has some things that surprise me and some things that do not. Associate’s enrollment was down in the summer, as was enrollment in sub-bac certificates. Black student enrollment took the biggest hit, but Latinx student enrollment was up slightly. The link here is to the NSC’s Tableau dashboard. It’s pretty easy to fiddle around with to see comparisons by race, gender, age, enrollment intensity, and a few other things. I do not think it filters to state levels.

Anthony Carnevale has a piece in Medium that I would highly recommend. He takes a long lens on discriminatory public policy in the United States and discusses the ways in which educational opportunities are part of a larger patchwork of racist public policy. The essay traces issues from slavery, to Jim Crow, to New Deal legislation that excluded Black workers from participating in the welfare state, to redlining, discriminatory mortgage practices, and underinvestment in urban schools. It all culminates in a system that is outrageously unequal. This is a heftier piece, but I urge you to find the time to read it.

One way we might expand access to the baccalaureate degree is through community college programs. In areas that are a little too remote from a public four-year, these have a pretty cool potential upside of allowing access to higher education. Traditional opposition has focused on the potential impact on four-year institutions. A recent study in the American Educational Research Journal looked at community college baccalaureate (CCB) programs to address exactly these questions. These authors found that “local CCB degree programs have a negative effect on overall bachelor’s degree enrollment and bachelor’s degree production at 4-year institutions, but this effect is concentrated primarily within for-profit 4-year institutions.” Pretty cool, right?

Also on the access to four-year degrees front, the folks at PPIC have a report out that highlights the need for additional capacity at the CSU system. They make a number of important points. Among them: the number of eligible applicants who are being denied admission has quadrupled since the great recession; all but two campuses face space constraints under normal operating circumstances; expanding student enrollment requires expanding the faculty ranks; and, even with the additional focus placed on distance education with the pandemic, significant investments in course design and delivery are still required to make sure online course delivery is as effective as it needs to be.

Moving on from four-year degrees, this working paper examines the costs and burdens of FAFSA verification on public institutions. Not surprisingly, these costs are disproportionately born by community colleges and the diverse population they serve – Pell-eligible students are much more likely to undergo verification than their wealthier peers. Verification costs total roughly a half-billion dollars per year. At community colleges, financial aid offices are spending as much as 22% of their budgets on this. At public four-years, it is more like 15%, which is still too high. Furthermore, the verification process results in very few changes to financial aid. I tend to put FAFSA fraud in the same category as voter fraud: it’s a straw man created to keep minorities out. Just think of the ways we could be better purposing those resources…

Financial aid and the cost of college are among several challenges faced by students. A new report from Unidos examines the challenges and opportunities faced by Latinx students pursuing higher education. The authors discuss the influence of first-generation status and financial and basic-needs insecurity, as well as students’ genuine drive to succeed and the importance of robust supports. The authors also include policy recommendations that will help ensure more Latinx students are able to not just enroll, but to succeed in their studies.

I really liked this study, both for the fact that it is a randomized control trial, and for the actual content. The authors test out a fairly low-budget intervention that is designed to help increase students’ sense of belonging at a broad-access four-year institution. Students in the treatment group read stories written by upperclassmen about times they felt they didn’t belong, then responded to a writing exercise to help them understand that it is completely normal to question your sense of belonging. Control-group students did a similar reading/writing exercise, but they did not focus on themes of belonging. According to the authors, “The intervention increased the likelihood that racial-ethnic minority and first-generation students maintained continuous enrollment over the next two academic years relative to multiple control groups. This two-year gain in persistence was mediated by greater feelings of social and academic fit one-year post-intervention.”

This last one is a little different, but it is really important to think about in our work. The study looks at the algorithms used by big job-search websites to identify candidates for interviews. I flag this because it is very closely connected to the concept of university admissions and the algorithms used by admissions departments. I will circle back to this below after a brief set up. Stick with me because I think you will enjoy the payoff. (Also, I will acknowledge that I first started learning about algorithms like the ones in this study when I was working at the Community College Research Center with Peter Bergman – a coauthor of this paper. Also, the paper uses the term “upper confidence bound contextual bandit approach”…gotta love the jargon!)

The authors talk about algorithms that employ “supervised machine learning” approaches. These algorithms use data from prior hiring to learn which candidates have a high likelihood of a successful interview. Essentially, everybody gets an estimated score based on the inputs that are chosen for the model, and the highest scores get selected to be interviewed. These estimates, however, also have a confidence range – the model knows there is uncertainty. The confidence ranges will tend to be larger for under-represented groups – there is less data for these groups, so the algorithm is less certain and gives a bigger range. If we just let this thing run, it will produce results that look a lot like prior results, baking in any prior inequities (Still with me? Good. This is where it gets interesting!)

I promised I would bring this back to admissions. Too many capable URM students are excluded from top-tier institutions because we have a system built to reproduce yesterday’s inequities. There are ways to build algorithms that will yield student bodies that are highly likely to succeed and that reflect the diversity of the state’s population. More broadly, I would like to see universities exploring and looking for students who would benefit from the education they provide, not students who will be fine regardless. That’s a conversation for another time.

Stay cool!

Vikash Reddy



Vikash Reddy, Senior Director of Policy Research

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Your Back to School Reading Guide

Back to school is in full swing, so it seems like a pretty good time to burnish your knowledge of California’s higher education landscape!

The Campaign’s Guide to Higher Education was the first thing I read to familiarize myself with this state’s higher education architecture when I first arrived in California, so working on the refresh was actually a lot of fun! This was a collaborative effort, though, and Sara Arce (our Vice President of Policy and Advocacy) deserves the lioness’s share of the credit. Here is our guide to California’s three systems, 149 public colleges/universities, Student Aid Commission, success efforts, and so much more!

Zach Bleemer, who is on the Campaign’s Policy Research Advisory Board, wrote a paper about the impact of Proposition 209. There is also a summary of the paper, a tweet thread from Zach explaining it, an OpEd by Kevin Carey about it in the NY Times, and a tweet thread by Kevin about it… I will let you decide which of those you want to consume and in what order, but I will say a few things. First, the dataset that Zach has is outrageously cool. I could not be more jealous.

More importantly, he finds that Proposition 209 was disastrous for California’s under-represented (URM) populations, and it was not as great for White or Asian Californians as people think. The policy caused dramatic declines in the number of Black and Latinx even applying to the University of California (UC), and enrollments for students who did attend college shifted towards less prestigious public universities or towards private institutions. We see impacts in STEM attainment, and we see impacts on subsequent income and wealth.

This study is kind of a big deal. Also…GIDDY UP FOR THE YES ON PROPOSITION 16 CAMPAIGN.

There has been a ton of great stuff fleeting across my screens of late. Here are some highlights. First, a few briefs I highly recommend. The lengthier reports and articles below are at your discretion, but they are interesting and worth a look.

The briefs:

  • Friends at Excelencia in Education have a new resource out. They have a Latinx degree attainment goal of 6.2 million degrees by 2030. You can bet a solid chunk of those are coming from California. This tool lets you filter by state, then see a handful of indicators relevant to Latinx degree attainment in the given state. Check it out!

On the slightly heftier front:

  • Our partners at Just Equations have a new report on math placement at the CSU and CCCs. Specifically, they look at college websites and find a number of ways that colleges and universities could improve on their messaging. In particular, information is often hard to find, difficult to follow, outdated, and deficit-oriented. They provide a number of suggestions for improvement.
  • The Annenburg Institute released a working paper with a study on performance funding (PF) systems in Tennessee and Ohio. They use a “synthetic control” method to compare outcomes before and after the institution of outcomes-based funding models in those two states. I know less about how to construct these, but the interpretation is pretty straightforward. Basically, we can get an estimate for what we would expect for URM students without the policy, and we can get an estimate for what we would expect of non-URM students absent the policy. Then we can compare those synthetic estimates with the real thing.
    The news isn’t great. In Tennessee, the policy did result in fairly large increases in certificate attainment over what we would have expected without the policy. This is consistent with other research. What the authors find is that this bump was way bigger for non-URM students than for URM students. As such, URM students have lost ground as a share of certificate-holders. In Ohio, the results are not statistically significant, but they do suggest that PF decreased URM certificate attainment and increased non-URM certificate attainment. They find this same trend for associates degrees in both Tennessee and Ohio – decreases for URM, increases for non-URM – though, here too, the results are not statistically significant.

  • And two from the National Bureau of Economic Research that have been sitting on the proverbial stack for a while: First, some really interesting work on the availability of student loans. The authors find that increasing loan limits leads to greater re-enrollment and completion, higher earnings, and, perhaps counter-intuitively, lower default rates. They also indicate that student loan debt doesn’t predict home ownership or other types of debts. The consensus these days is that debt is bad and that student loan debt is out of control. I wouldn’t interpret this as necessarily flying in the face of that. I think we would all agree that student loan debt is better than credit card debt. Also, it’s important to think about the share of debt that is held by high-earners like doctors and lawyers. To me, an important idea is that educational debt isn’t that bad if you finish your degree and enjoy the earnings premium.

    Finally, this one is FASCINATING to me…I have to finish reading it, but I wanted to share it anyways. The authors look at Ohio around the time of the Great Recession. They find that around 10 percent of displaced workers enroll in higher education after losing their jobs. BUT…they also find that much of this enrollment may have happened anyways. When they compare the displaced workers to non-displaced workers who are similar, they find that the job-loss was the causal factor for only about 1% of those who lost their job. We’ve seen millions lose their jobs this year…so even 1% is a lot, but this one definitely challenges my prior assumptions.


Stay safe everyone!

Vikash Reddy



Vikash Reddy, Senior Director of Policy Research

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Michele Siqueiros on “The Years That Matter Most”

August 5, 2020
reposted from the Campaign for Free College Tuition blog

In 2019, when the college admissions scandal, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, came to light, like most Americans I was sick to my stomach. Abuse of privilege, wealth and power is not new. My anger wasn’t just directed at the families and the campus leaders that were engaged in the scandal, it was fueled by a frustration at how the least privileged, wealthy and famous among us, have to overcome a million hurdles in order to get to college, and when we do, we are made to feel as if we don’t belong. In response to that anger, I wrote this earlier post as a tribute to first generation students, me included.

Reading Paul Tough’s The Years That Matter Most reignited some of that same anger and frustration.

For me, college definitely mattered. As a first-generation college graduate, the daughter of an immigrant who only had 6th grade education, earning a BA and MA was my path out of poverty, and just as importantly, my opportunity into a career I love. College mattered so much, that for the past 16 years as the President of the Campaign for College Opportunity, I have fought to expand college access, protect financial aid, and champion the types of reforms that can improve outcomes and close racial/ethnic equity gaps in our community colleges and universities.

My mother worked as a seamstress earning just above minimum wage. She never had health benefits, or paid time off, or any kind of job security. We lived paycheck to paycheck, in a small one-bedroom apartment, where my bed was a pull-out mattress that came out every night and was put away in the morning. We had no safety net to catch us if we fell. I knew I wanted and needed more security than that. I was poor, but I grew up with everything I needed, food on the table, a roof overhead, and a strong powerful role model who loved me and nurtured my love for learning and devouring every book the public library allowed me to check out. Because of my experience I am guilty of embracing the idea that college is an effective panacea for a lot of our social ills and for the kind of social mobility that took me out of that one bedroom apartment and finds me today with a home and a mortgage I can easily afford. The research confirms the benefits of a college education, especially for low-income students.

But Tough’s book also finds that the following truths about college are also playing out in America and they are tougher to bear:

  • College perpetuates the existing inequality in our society by disproportionately serving the most well off;
  • Talented and brilliant low-income students are much less likely to enroll in college or graduate from college compared to mediocre low-performing high-income students;
  • Few low-income students are served by the wealthiest and selective colleges across America; In fact, more than two-thirds of undergraduates at Ivy League and other highly selective colleges are very rich, and fewer than 4 percent of students are poor;
  • The multi-billion dollar test prep industry (SAT/ACT in particular) help rig the system even further in favor of the rich; In Trough’s words, “certifying privilege rather than merit” and providing false signals for who is truly able to succeed or not;
  • Talented first generation and low-income high performing students struggle in college environments that are not welcoming;
  • Black students remain ridiculously underrepresented in higher education, especially Black students who are NOT wealthy, biracial or immigrants; And there appears to be a cap on just how many Black students are accepted into Ivy League colleges (8%);
  • Low-income students who do make it into the Ivy League, mostly come from high performing boarding or private schools; In other words, the Ivy League is hardly taking a chance on students attending regular public schools in America.
  • The business of running colleges makes wealthy tuition paying students a big draw for admissions offices; Imagine the perverse incentives of opening campuses during a global health pandemic. And the flawed U.S. News and World Report’s famous college rankings values the least important things about a college and creates perverse incentives for campuses who want to improve their ranking;

If that list is not depressing enough, recently Americans have been engaging in a discussion around the value of college that has grown more political and polarizing. Tough aptly points out how these discussions serve as a political distraction from better funding higher education, financial aid, and dealing with student debt and that those who attack the value of college the loudest, ironically all have a college degree.

Reading this book could leave you feeling pretty down, especially if like me you are busy championing college opportunity and the social mobility we know can come with it. But I found it as a clarion call to the urgent work that we must continue to fight for: Affirming our efforts to ensure colleges and universities drop the SAT/ACT from college admissions. Affirming our work to ensure more inclusive and diverse faculty, college leadership and academic senate bodies that make critical decisions on admissions, curriculum and create a sense of belonging on our campuses. And reaffirming in our successes to ensure a stronger focus on student centered pathways in and through college that eliminate problematic placement tests, ineffective remedial courses and instead recognize the talent and assets brought to campus by diverse students, and the necessary supports that must be prioritized to ensure they can succeed.

Tough ends the book reflecting on the GI Bill – the first big American investment in college and social mobility post World War II. It is exactly the kind of investment we need today. He reminds us that what we value is at the core of how we support (or do not) higher education, how much we force students to pay and how much debt we tolerate them to absorb. Through higher education we can proclaim that every talented American truly can live the American dream and go to college and exercise their full potential. Or we can continue to exacerbate inequality and leave millions of talented Americans behind simply because they are not White or too poor – and that is the continued Varsity Blues scandal in America.

Michele Siqueiros
Michele Siqueiros, President

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Back to Our [Regularly?] Scheduled Programming…

July 22, 2020

Per usual, a fire hose of content, but there has been some really good stuff that I’ve managed to get through in between my adventures with Lucky (who came home with me three months ago on Sunday!!!).

Vikash and his dog, Lucky

On the COVID-specific front, I would highly recommend these recent pieces:

Rob Kelchen writes about the upcoming fall for higher education in the Chronicle of Higher Education. This one will hit all four of the major sources of higher education revenue – tuition, state funding, auxiliary sources like housing, and endowment returns and gifts. The fall will be rough. We will see layoffs, declarations of fiscal emergencies, and colleges that are not well-positioned to weather this storm may close.

Kevin Carey also looks at the campuses in the middle of the financial pack. Harvard, MIT? They’ll be fine. Carey notes that only about 14% of Cal State students live on campus, while other colleges/systems can derive as much as 30 percent of annual revenue from auxiliary services (see Kelchen’s op-ed above). Both types of institution are in for a tough time, but likely for somewhat different reasons.

This is less about COVID and more about never letting a crisis go to waste. Also in the Chronicle, Anthony Carnevale, Peter Schmidt, and Jeff Strohl take aim at merit aid. The piece discusses ways we fund elitism and the elites at the expense of students and campuses that need resources. They see an opportunity to end “affirmative action for rich white people.” I have heard a lot of folks discuss the ways in which societies dramatically shift in the wake of events like this pandemic. Will we seize the opportunities these authors discuss? I hope so.

On the less COVID-centric front:

Two pieces related to less traditional forms of community college enrollment caught my eye. We think a lot about students who start at community colleges, but what about those who start at four-years and take CC courses along the way? My friends Vivian Liu and Maggie Fay have some cool research out looking at students who enroll in a four-year institution, but who also supplement that enrollment with course-taking at a community college. The find that around 8 percent of students who began at a four-year institution in their data also took community college courses during their educational journey. These “supplementally enrolled” students had higher STEM and total credits earned, higher bachelor’s attainment, and better employment outcomes. Community colleges are pretty awesome.

Elizabeth Meza and Debra Bragg investigated community college baccalaureate (CCB) degree students in Washington. CCB students have slightly higher employment outcomes and initial earnings, but it looks like the traditional BA/BS students catch up and overtake their peers within about three years (given the relative recency of these programs, longer-term effects are tricky to study). They also find gaps by race and gender. If I’m reading their table 5 correctly, the earnings gaps between CCB men and CCB women are FAR larger than the earnings gap among traditional degree-earners. Small sample sizes render analysis by race somewhat difficult, but the authors do document racial differences as well. I’m not sure what’s going on with the healthcare earnings by race – those rows are surprising to me.

On the financial aid/financial well-being front, Kasey Klepfer, Allyson Cornett, Carla Fletcher, and Jeff Webster write up results from a student survey regarding student financial wellness. I don’t know that anybody here will be surprised by any of their findings. Perhaps the magnitude will be larger than we expect, but we see a majority of students worry about how they’ll pay for college and living expenses at the same time. Many students are not sure how they will fund their next semester, and students (particularly at community colleges) need to work to support families. There is a lot in here. It’s worth at least reviewing the executive summary.

The Student Borrower Protection Center released a report about race and student debt. Here too, you already know the upshot: areas with high minority residents are seeing faster growth in student debt, delinquency, and default.

The final piece for today is from the American Enterprise Institute. Jorge Klor de Alva and Cody Christensen examine economic mobility, looking at graduates from four-year institutions who are now in their 20s and 30s (side note, I love it when I’m part of a dataset…). In their executive summary, they note there are a number of schools that “beat the odds,” in that their grads climb the economic ladder more quickly than we would expect given the demographics of their graduates. I’ll admit that I have not had the chance to properly read it, but my questions are largely around how well it compares to other studies of intergenerational mobility (like Chetty et al.). Also, they provide their dataset…I do hope to find some time to look at the California subset, but I don’t know when that’s going to happen.

Stay home and stay safe!

Vikash Reddy



Vikash Reddy, Senior Director of Policy Research

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After a Brief Hiatus…

June 18, 2020

It’s been a minute…not gonna lie, I’ve struggled to make progress on my reading list these last few weeks. I am grateful for you all, and for those seventeen subscription TV services that have provided me with endless content to binge when I haven’t felt like nerding out.

Last week, the Campaign released an update to our signature report Left Out: California’s Higher Education Governing Boards Do Not Reflect the Racial and Gender Diversity of California and its Student Body. I would encourage folks to take a look at the breakdowns within the full report, but here are some highlights.

Governor Newsom:

  • Governor Newsom made 11 appointments since assuming office in January 2019. Of his appointments, six were women and five were men. Of the six women appointed, three are Latinx, two are White, and one is Black. Of the five men appointed by the governor, all were White. The governor has not yet appointed any American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) or AANHPI to any of these higher education governing boards.

Bright Spots of Inclusion:

  • Women are well-represented in three of our four higher education governing bodies. A majority of the gubernatorial appointees on the CCC Board of Governors and the CSAC are women; almost half of the gubernatorial appointees on the CSU Board of Trustees are women;
  • CSAC appointees are 70 percent racially diverse—in part because of the representation from legislative appointees, who constitute a majority of the Black and Latinx Commissioners (four of seven);
  • The UC Board of Regents has become significantly more reflective of California’s diversity in the past few years. Of the 18 gubernatorial appointees, 44 percent are Latinx, Asian, or Black Californians.

Challenges to Inclusivity:

  • The CCC Board of Governors does not have a single Black male representative despite community colleges serving the vast majority of Black males in higher education in California. Less than a third of Board of Governors are Latinx, while nearly half the community college student body is Latinx;
  • Latinx make up 47 percent of the CSU student body but represent only 20 percent of the current gubernatorial appointed Trustees;
  • There is only one gubernatorial appointee that is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander (AANHPI) on the CSU Board of Trustees and on the UC Board of Regents, even though AANHPI students make up 17 percent at the CSU and 38 percent at the UC;
  • Even though 19 percent of undergraduates in California are AANHPI and one in seven Californians identifies as AANHPI, there is only one AANHPI member on CSAC—a student representative—and no gubernatorial appointees serving as public representatives are AANHPI.

Clearly we have a lot of work to do. But our state’s students deserve leaders who reflect California’s remarkable population. This isn’t solely about the implications for policymaking. Our students should be able to look at the governing boards of their colleges and systems and find role models among their leaders.

There has been no shortage of education research content, as well, so here are a few highlights from the past few weeks.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has published a few studies that are worth highlighting. We’ve long talked about the importance of the teacher in the classroom, but this paper looks to measure the impacts of certain types of instructor-outreach to students. The authors look at a strategy of sending strategically timed emails to students with advice on how to succeed in the course, their current standing, and reminders of the professor’s availability. They find that the strategy improved perceptions of the instructor among students, but did not, on average, have much impact on outcomes. When they look beyond the averages, though, they do find evidence that this strategy actually did improve outcomes among first-year students who were under-represented minorities. In terms of cost, this one is relatively low. Faculty and instructor time is valuable, though, so an approach that targets the intervention towards this set of students seems like a sound one to me!

A study published this week looked at students enrolling in college-level courses in Florida after the state’s policy change allowed students with high school diplomas to bypass developmental coursework. The upshot? Following the reforms, students were more likely to take and pass college-level courses in their first year of studies. And the gains were bigger for Black and Latinx students. More evidence that supports giving students a chance to succeed.

An interesting working paper/white paper/paper I came across a few weeks ago finds a link between noise and cognitive function. I’m tempted to let the lawnmowers and leaf blowers of the amazing grounds crew here take the blame for the aforementioned decline in my reading volume, but I think the more important things to consider are what we do for students who are in schools near a major freeway or airport. Just some food for thought.

This study about the Economic Impact of Access to Four-Years is also from NBER. I like this piece for two reasons. First, the University of Georgia has a minimum SAT score for admissions. I do NOT like that policy, but this allows the researchers to use a “regression discontinuity design” (see previous blog posts about quasi-experimental methods for more, but the gist is that there really isn’t much difference between students just above and students just below the cut-score – this being particularly true for a blunt instrument like the SAT. As such, they can compare students who were admitted to those who didn’t qualify). They find that, by age 30, students who had access to the university out-earned their peers by 20 percent. The gains were higher for students from low-income families.

The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice put out this report on basic needs insecurity among students who themselves are parents. The report details that around 20% of college students today are responsible for the care of a child. Among this set, more than half reported food insecurity within the prior month, and almost one in five reported being homeless in the prior year. Aside from the basic humanity of supporting students with children, there is the reality that mothers with degrees contribute more tax dollars to the state and use less in public assistance over their lifetimes than mothers without college degrees. The report is worth a look.

Stay strong!

Vikash Reddy



Vikash Reddy, Senior Director of Policy Research

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