Category Archives: College

Villanova Wins Basketball Championship

Villanova just beat North Carolina to win the NCAA men’s basketball championship. Both teams had three pointers right at the end, but Villanova hit one at the buzzer to win.

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Is the GRE Useful?

The Atlantic has an article criticizing the GRE, which is the main graduate school entrance exam for most fields (professional schools like law, medicine, and business have their own exams). As with the SAT, also an ETS test, there is a general GRE (with verbal, math, and written parts) and a bunch of subject tests for various individual fields. Prospective physics grad students typically need both the general test and the physics subject test.

The main criticism in the piece is that the GRE too often acts as a gatekeeper that prevents many talented students from being accepted to grad school. In physics, I would say that the opposite is most likely true for the general exam. The general exam has little relevance to physics grad school (as the piece argues), but it is in many ways far too easy. The math section covers math only up to early to mid high school level, so physics majors would be expected to get perfect or near perfect scores. Having lots of students pile up around the maximum scores means that it becomes basically impossible to use the test to compare students. The verbal and written parts are largely irrelevant, although it might be nice if schools spent more effort on improving technical writing. I would guess that the physics test is much better, but it’s still very different than the kind of problems that students will see in either college or grad school. Like the SAT, the subject GREs are mostly about solving many fairly simple problems quickly. Most of the time, students will actually be confronted with long, open ended questions that require a lot of work.

Debate Over Math Curriculum Resurfaces

The debate over primary & secondary school math curricula that was sparked in part by a New York Times editorial a couple years ago has come up again in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The main argument now, as before, is that subjects beyond basic arithmetic are too hard for many students and should not be required for graduation nor seen as necessary for gaining entrance into colleges. This includes subjects like geometry and algebra.

The original article was met with widespread scorn, and this one, which includes an interview with the author of the old article, should too. Basically, there are a huge number of problems with eliminating a requirement that high school students take algebra or even discouraging students from taking classes like algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. For subjects involving math, these courses represent something more like grammar and composition than an advanced course in literary analysis. They are fundamental subjects that must be mastered before a student is capable of succeeding and not arbitrary barriers to success. Entering college without any knowledge of calculus puts students in many fields at a serious disadvantage compared to most of their peers. Without algebra, even introductory classes in many fields are inaccessible, and the corresponding majors become impossible to complete in less than five or even six years.

What Hacker, the author of the original article, suggests doing will effectively lock many students out fields like engineering, physics, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, statistics, and even many (most?) social sciences. All that will be left will be humanities and the arts (and even then some classes may be impossible to complete). He makes the claim that “coding is not based on mathematics,” yet the opposite is true. In many ways, computer science is a subfield of mathematics. There is more to computer science than just programming, but a programmer that knows no serious math will quickly find that their options are limited.

Furthermore, at many colleges, lower-level math classes (basically, anything below calculus) aren’t even considered college material. This is true of the schools that I attended. If students matriculate without being able to take at least calculus, they’ll be forced to waste a lot of time and money taking non-credit remedial courses to catch up.

Hacker’s arguments seem to be based on the assumption that mathematics beyond arithmetic is uniquely expendable out of all the basic primary and secondary school subjects. Somehow other fields like statistics (which is really just a form of applied math) can be taught independently of mathematics. Anyone who has actually studied a field that requires a decent amount of math knows how important a strong background in as many math topics as possible can be. Physics uses topics like group theory, complex analysis, ordinary and partial differential equations, differential geometry, linear algebra, and many others quite regularly. Students don’t typically see any of these until after several semesters of calculus.

I can’t help but think that Hacker sees math as nothing more than rote memorization of basic formulae (which maybe isn’t surprising for someone who has so much disdain for any math harder than arithmetic). Even if literary analysis is just as rigorous as mathematics, that doesn’t mean that we should get rid of mathematics. We should demand that all subjects be as rigorous as possible. Being able to solve complex mathematical problems can be just as important as being able to read complicated works of literature and write coherently about them.

US News College Rankings Out

US News and World Report has released its annual ranking of American college and university undergraduate programs. As usual, no big surprises. Of course, it’s always important to tell people to take these rankings with a grain of salt. The ranking criteria are set by US News, so we can be sure that things will be set to maximize sales and also to confirm what people already think so that the rankings look legitimate. The ranking quite clearly underrates public flagship universities compared to private schools and also doesn’t cover many of the most important aspects of academic life (course offerings, research opportunities, curriculum requirements, width and breadth of major offerings, etc).

Regardless, these kinds of rankings help feed a college admissions frenzy in which prospective students get into vitriolic arguments about whether or not, for example, Cornell is sufficiently prestigious compared to Brown. An exact ranking is rather pointless since at that point the rank can be easily manipulated by tweaking the methodology. Furthermore, this largely doesn’t matter anyway. I know plenty of people who went to schools that the rankings suggest are mediocre that were admitted and excelled at elite graduate programs. Some of those supposedly mediocre schools even host elite graduate programs in many subjects.

UNC Put on Probation

In the wake of the massive academic fraud scandal involving athletics, the University of North Carolina’s main campus at Chapel Hill has been put on probation for one year by its accreditor. While this punishment sounds pretty light, there probably isn’t much else that the accreditor can do short of outright revoking accreditation. Regardless, this is hugely embarrassing for a major university like UNC and seems entirely deserved. Still no word yet on what the NCAA is going to do. Some people in the comments are also pointing out that there could be further consequences if the Department of Education finds that federal funds were misused.

USC MFA Students Withdraw En Masse

The LA Times reported a couple days ago that an entire class of USC MFA students has withdrawn from the university. While the whole class was only a handful of students, I find this to be a very interesting case. The students claim that after they matriculated, a great deal of things about the program changed and that they all decided that the changes were too great to continue and finish the program. Apparently, there were a number of changes to the curriculum and the faculty. Additionally, the students felt that TA opportunities that had been promised were not actually being offered.

Without knowing all the finer details of the story, it sounds like both sides may have some valid points. USC is correct when they say that curriculum changes and arrivals and departures of faculty members are things that happen everywhere. This is obviously true, and while it is perfectly valid for a student to withdraw if, for example, the faculty member that they were to work with leaves the institution, it also isn’t in any way newsworthy.

What the students are alleging is much more serious than that. They seem to be alleging that the entire program has been revamped so that the program that they joined effectively no longer exists. If true, this is much more troubling. If USC wants to remake the program, it ought to have an obligation to either wait until the current students graduate to make the changes or to help them transfer to equivalent programs. The fact that the new director of the program has no background in fine arts suggests that the students’ version of the events may in fact be the truth. Again, none of this would be a problem if USC openly stated what they were doing. They do have the right to decide what programs they want to offer. However, they need to make their plans clear to prospective students.

Once again assuming that the students’ claims are true, this also highlights some problems with how some sectors of higher education are changing. Focusing on things like “interdisciplinary” cooperation between different academic programs can easily end up damaging rather than enhancing the original programs in order to garner some press coverage about a new “innovative” academic program.  I would guess that the joint USC/Conde Nast master’s program (though it’s institutionally separate from the MFA) will fall into the damaging category. It looks good to the press and generates a lot of buzz but probably doesn’t actually serve the students very well. Furthermore, I wasn’t really aware that Conde Nast and wired.com were respected enough to be partners for a reasonably prestigious university like USC, and I would fear that such a program would really be a long and expensive job interview for a single company that will only take the top one or two students. I think there are so many possible issues with direct corporate influence on an academic program that no university that’s really serious about its academics should even consider this kind of deal. There are reasons why universities typically have policies that donors’ money is welcome but their influence is not.

Being Poor in the Ivy League

The Boston Globe has an interesting article on poor students in the Ivy League. In short, poorer students at elite schools are often better off than their peers in in less selective institutions (financial aid can solve a lot of issues people have trying to attend school), but still face a number of potential problems. Poor students can have trouble with their social lives due to lack of money for things like going on vacation with friends during breaks or even eating dinner outside the subsidized dining hall. Even middle income students are a minority on elite campuses and can face these kinds of problems. There are academic problems too, as students who didn’t go to the kinds of high schools that feed into elite colleges often start at a disadvantage due to both having a somewhat less rigorous education upon entering college and also due to not having connections or knowing how to work the system to their advantage. At the same time, graduation rates and outcomes in general seem to be much better at the elite schools. The majority of poor students (possibly 90+%) do end up graduating, which is a vastly larger percentage than the rate for poor students in general. I would note that while I (middle income but not poor) didn’t end up facing any serious problems going from a decidedly average public high school to an elite college, I do think that many of the things described in the article could have easily happened to me.