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2014 May 2

Holding colleges accountable

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:21
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Earlier this week I signed the petition: “Hold predatory career colleges accountable for abusing students and ripping off taxpayers“.

The purpose of the petition is to get the Federal Department of Education to hold colleges, particularly for-profit colleges, responsible for providing the education that they promise to students who take out massive loans. Although I worry a bit about over-regulation of colleges (politicians and regulators can too easily do serious damage by imposing ideology), the particular measures that are being proposed in this petition seem reasonable:

  • Providing financial relief for students in programs that lose eligibility. Schools with ineffective programs that lose eligibility for federal aid should be required to make whole the students who enrolled in the program. Providing full relief to all such students is not only fair, it also creates a greater incentive for schools to quickly improve their programs.
  • Limiting enrollment in poorly performing programs until they improve. Under the proposed regulation, poorly performing programs can increase the number of students they enroll, without limit, right up until the day the programs lose eligibility. Instead, the rule should impose enrollment caps until a program improves.
  • Closing loopholes and raising standards. The proposed regulation is too easy to game, and its standards are too low. For example, programs can pass the standards even when 99% of their students drop out with heavy debts that they cannot pay down. Unscrupulous schools can easily manipulate job placement rates or evade accountability by limiting program size. They can exclude the debt of graduates who enroll in a program for just one day, and can enroll students in online programs that lack the accreditation needed to be hired in the states where the students live. These types of loopholes need to be closed and the standards raised.
  • Protecting low-cost programs where most graduates don’t borrow. Low-cost programs where most graduates do not borrow at all – such as community colleges—should automatically meet the standards because, by definition, these programs do not consistently leave students with unaffordable debts. Burdening these programs with a complicated appeals process could prompt more schools to leave the federal student loan program and lead to the closure of effective, low-cost programs.

The “financial relief” part only makes sense if the failing colleges are paying back the money that they scammed out of the students, not if the Federal government is providing a backstop for them.

Keeping the low-cost community colleges free from the bureaucratic burdens imposed on the predatory colleges seems also like common sense (and so is unlikely to Federal bureaucrats).

2014 April 26

SIR!

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:33
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Some readers of my blog and e-mail posts have been asking where my son will be going to college.

He filed his “Statement of Intent to Register” (SIR in UC jargon) and paid the deposit for University of California, Santa Barbara.

This post is a partial explanation of why he chose UCSB. I’m somewhat constrained, as I’ve been asked not to detail precisely where he did and did not get accepted. Suffice it to say that the number of acceptances was not different enough from the expected number to reject the null hypothesis that acceptances are random based on the probabilities inferred from the Common Data Set.  (Of course, with a sample size of one, that is not a very strong statement.)

As a family, we’re all pretty happy with UCSB as a choice, despite its reputation as a party school, the conservative community, and the difficulty of reaching it by air from northern California. What sold him on UCSB was the College of Creative Studies (CCS), which seems to be the best honors program in the UC system.

His major will be computer science, but it will be computer science in CCS, rather than computer science in engineering. What this means is that he basically crafts his own degree together with a faculty adviser. In his first quarter, he’ll take a special CCS freshman seminar with the other 10 or so CCS computer science freshmen, during which the instructor will try to assess the current level of expertise of each student and fill any holes they have in their prior learning, to place them in the right CS courses in future quarters.  The class is tiny (usually around 10 students) so the instructor doesn’t have to do one-size-fits-all teaching or advising. Because my son has already had UC-level applied discrete math (through concurrent enrollment at UCSC), he’ll be able to take upper-division courses like formal languages and automata theory right away. In fact, I suspect that he’ll end up skipping almost all the lower-division courses in CS.  He may end up opting to take some of them for review, or so that he’ll have an easy course on his schedule so that he has more time for research or acting, but he won’t be forced into huge lecture classes that have nothing new for him in them.

I looked over the lower-division (first two years) of CS at UCSB and it looks like my son has covered almost all of it already. He’s had several different programming languages (Scratch, C, Scheme, Python, Java, with bits of C++, JavaScript, Logo, assembly language), though he is most proficient now with object-oriented code in Python. One course (CMPSC 56) may have a little new material on exception handling and threading, and he might choose to take something like that to formalize his knowledge—when one learns a subject by reading reference manuals to do particular programming tasks there are sometimes unexpected holes in what you learn.  He’s done a fair amount with threading in Python, but not a lot with exception handling. CMPSC 64, on computer architecture and digital logic also has some new material for him.  The computer architecture will seem fairly simple to him after how deeply he’s been diving into the KL25 ARM Cortex M0+ architecture for programming both PteroDAQ and the light gloves, but some of the combinational and sequential hardware design will new.

One strong plus is that he’ll be able to join a research team his first year—CCS makes a concerted effort to get their students into research groups (in fact, one faculty member he met with when visiting UCSB has already tried to recruit him to a project). The UCSB computer science department is pretty good (their website claims top 10 for grad programs, but even allowing for hype they are probably in the top 20), and the department is fairly large with 32 tenure-track faculty, so there are a lot of different research projects he could join.  Computer engineering is lumped with EE in Electrical and Computer Engineering at UCSB, so there are more faculty and more research projects he could join there.

Another plus of the CCS program is a relaxing of the often bureaucratic nit-picking of general-education requirements. The CCS general-ed requirements are

  1. two courses in fields related to the student’s major, as determined in consultation with a CCS advisor;
  2. eight courses broadly distributed in fields unrelated to the student’s major, as determined in consultation with the advisor. These may be selected from courses offered by the College of Creative Studies, the College of Letters and Science, and the College of Engineering.

One of these courses must fulfill the Ethnicity Requirement: a course that concentrates on the intellectual, social and cultural experience, and history of one of the following groups: Native-Americans, African-Americans, Chicanos/Latinos, Asian-Americans. This course may be selected from a list of courses that fulfill the Ethnicity Requirement offered through the College of Letters and Science, or it may be a College of Creative Studies course that is classified as such.

Students also have to satisfy UC-wide requirements:

The reduction in bureaucratic bean counting means that he can probably satisfy all his general-ed requirements with fun courses in theater, linguistics, physics, math, and so forth.  The only rather arbitrary course is the Ethnicity Requirement, and he can satisfy that with any of several courses, including some theater ones.

One minor problem (shared by almost every college he applied to) is that he gets little relevant credit for his Advanced Placement exams. He’ll probably get 18 credits toward graduation (out of the 180 needed to graduate), but not all the units count towards his major requirements. He gets full credit for the calculus BC, but physics gives only useless non-STEM physics credit for the Physics C exams, the AP CS exam credit is pretty useless, and I’m not sure about chemistry (the page says “Natural Science 1B”, but there does not seem to be such a course—if they mean “CHEM 1B”, then it is useful credit towards his science requirements, assuming he does well enough on the exam in 2 weeks).  Because he is interested in taking some modern physics (quantum mechanics), he’ll probably end up either retaking calculus-based physics or talking his way into the more advanced courses and bypassing the huge lecture courses.

He should also get transfer credit for the community college Spanish courses and the UCSC math courses he has, which could mean another 16–18 credits.  These extra credits will not significantly speed his graduation, but they may give him the flexibility to avoid taking a heavy load some quarter, or to take an internship or study-abroad opportunity without falling behind. One normal benefit to having more credits is getting registration priority, but he already gets that as a CCS student, so that is less of a benefit for him than for others.

One little bonus for us as parents—UCSB is substantially cheaper than the private schools he also applied to, and we have saved enough in his 529 plan that we won’t need to take out any loans and he won’t have to work a meaningless job—he can spend his spare time doing research projects at the University or working on engineering projects for the startup company he and his friends are forming.

2014 January 3

Not applying for administrative role in honors program

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 17:04
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In Undergraduate Honor Programs and What is the point of honors programs? I talked about the part-time faculty administrative position opening up for building up the honors program at UCSC and what the point of the honors program is.  I’ve decided that I won’t apply for the administrative position, because the largest and most important task is one that I’m not good at.  In the What is the point of honors programs? post I ended with

… what are the short-term goals?

  • Recruiting top students (say students with 2 SAT scores ≥ 700, or one ≥ 740).
  • Retaining top students past the first year (we still lose a lot who transfer to schools with a higher reputation).
  • Creating a community of peers for top students—it is too easy for top students to compare themselves with the average students around them and end up not challenging themselves.  Having a peer group who are just as bright can push them to achieve far more than they would have in an environment where they are always the “best”.
  • Finding a way to fund the honors program that does not rely on start-up funds that expire nor build up jealousy from faculty not teaching honors courses.

In a subsequent post, I’ll muse about ways that we can achieve these goals.

It is that last goal, finding funding either within the campus or from an outside source, that I see as being the biggest hurdle to creating a meaningful, lasting honors program. Fundraising (internal or external) is something I’m not very good at and hate to do, and so I don’t see myself as being the administrator needed for the honors program now.

If they were looking for a faculty adviser for honors students, I’d volunteer. If they were looking for someone to design an honors program with already identified funds (even if limited ones), I’d probably apply. But with no resources already allocated, the program will need a much more entrepreneurial person than me to have any hope of lasting.

If whoever does get hired for the post wants help, I’d be glad to give suggestions on what the honors program should try to do and discuss approaches for getting there within the campus culture.  Things I’d like to see include the following:

  • Dedicate a dorm (or two) to honors-college students, so that they are surrounded by other top students, not spread out thinly all over campus.  This should not just be a freshman dorm, but ideally a 4-year dorm.  This shouldn’t cost anything, since it is just a reallocation of housing assignments.  I would locate the dorm at Crown or at Cowell, since those two colleges seem the most conducive to instituting an honors program.
  • Set realistic size and admissions standards for honors college membership.  For example, Michigan State had 503 new honors-college members out of 7924 new full-time students (6.3% of entering class).  This got them an average SAT score of 1390 (CR+M) and average GPA of 4.09 for the entering honors college members.  Of course, they’ve been running their honors college for a long time—we’d probably have to start much smaller, with maybe 2% of the entering class (about 75 students/year).  I have no idea what the top 2% of our applicant pool looks like, nor what the yield is at the high end of the pool.  Part of the point of creating a robust honors program is to improve the yield there.
  • Waive all prerequisites at course registration for honors-college students.  These students are bright enough to figure out whether or not they really need a prereq, and could be encouraged to talk to instructors before exercising their waivers.
  • Provide priority registration for honors students (open their registration a day or two earlier than for other students).
  • Require honors college students to meet quarterly with a faculty adviser to discuss how they are shaping their education.  This would require some faculty time, but not an enormous amount (if we assume a steady-state of 300 honors college students and half-hour meetings, we get 450 faculty hours.  That’s a lot for one faculty member, but not a lot for 10 faculty.  It may be necessary to provide some prestige award (Fellow of the Honors College) to reward faculty for the advising load, but probably does not require monetary compensation.
  • Waive all general education requirements for honors-college students.  (This is the Brown University approach to general education, for all their students.) The advising meetings should, of course, include warnings that losing honors college status would result in the general education requirements being reimposed, so students might want to follow enough of the general ed that losing honors college status would not be a disaster.  Note that discipline-specific requirements for a major would not be waived.
  • Create honors versions of any course that has over 200 students a year in it (except for remedial courses, of course).  This would cost real money, and I can’t see the current department chairs supporting this out of their own budgets.  Finding the funds for a 10–30 classes a year taught by ladder-rank faculty is expensive (3–15 FTE positions).  Although this is an important part of a good honors college program, I don’t see it is likely to happen at UCSC.
  • Funding a number of National Merit Scholarships on campus. None of the UCs or CSUs participate in the National Merit Scholarship program, but other public universities in other states do. For example, University of Oklahoma offers five-year tuition waiver, $5,500/year for expenses, $5,000 National Merit award, $4,200 housing scholarship, $2,000 textbook/technology stipend, $2000 research and study-abroad stipend—that’s not a full-ride scholarship, but it is big enough that OU has over 700 National Merit Scholars. According to the National Merit Annual Report, OU gave out 160 new National Merit Scholarships for the 2012 competition (starting college in 2013)—and that isn’t the largest number from a state school (University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa gave out 208).  Over half the 2012 National Merit Scholarships are funded by colleges and universities (4554 out of 8064).
    Of course, most of the National Merit Scholarships are not as generous as the OU one, but even a few scholarships at the average value ($4,800) would be a strong inducement for top students to attend.  This is moderately priced, but would probably require finding new money from donors, and UCSC has always taken the approach of having rather secret scholarships that no one has ever heard of, plus UC-specific ones like the Regents scholarships.

I think that UCSC has the potential for creating a very strong honors college, but that the resources needed to create and maintain such a program are unlikely to be forthcoming in the next couple of years (unless some donor pushes for an honors college), because the administration is just dipping a toe in the water and not committing to creating a robust honors program.  I’m not the right person to try shaking the money tree, so I’ll have to pass this opportunity by.  Maybe if the administration commits some real funds to the honors program, I would be interested in the position.

2014 January 1

CMU submission done

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:34
Tags: , , , ,

My son finished the Carnegie Mellon computer science application today (and I do mean today—it was just after midnight when we got the payment information entered).  This is the last of his major college applications—he decided not to try to do the Caltech and Olin application essays.  If he doesn’t get into Harvey Mudd, Stanford, Brown, MIT, CMU, or UCB, then he’ll go to one of his safety schools (UCSD or UCSB).  I think that his expected number of acceptances in his top six choices is two, so he’ll probably have some choosing to do once the acceptances come in.

In the meantime, he still has one more essay to write—the letter of intent for the College of Creative Studies at UCSB, due by 2014 Jan 13:

Write a letter to the attention of the faculty in the CCS major to which you are applying, stating your academic interests, your reasons for wanting to study at CCS, and your background in your intended major.

He’ll also need letters of recommendation and transcripts (which UC admissions does not normally require, but which everyone else expects, so they are relatively easy to provide).

It will be very good to be done with the essay writing season—we can get back to him doing intellectually stimulating things, like group theory or updating the data logger software to work with the KL25Z board.

2013 December 31

MIT submission (almost) done

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:38
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My son finished the MIT application today—I’ll have to send out the transcript, the school profile, and the counselor’s report tomorrow. Recommendation letters and school reports can’t be provided online (except through Naviance, which home schools have no access to), but only via fax or hard copy mail.  I’ll probably have to go to the Post Office tomorrow, as I don’t think we have enough stamps in the house to mail the transcript.

I’m a little surprised that an tech school like MIT would be willing to have such a clunky piece of old technology as the main view that 18,000 prospective students see of MIT each year.  It isn’t as buggy as the Common App, but it has a distinct early 1990s feel to it. The MIT application is obviously an old piece of legacy code (unless it is deliberately retro)—it doesn’t understand unicode characters (like smart quotes or em-dashes), can’t handle italic, and the PDF preview is rendered in the ugliest monospace font that is available (probably Courier).

Update 2013 Dec 31: School documents taken to Post Office this morning, so MIT application now done.

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