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Taylor Thesis III: Experiments

On page 28, Taylor writes:

Meanwhile, Williams has decided to experiment with recruiting low-income students through specifically targeted letters. In the past, Williams has used its list of low-income students from the College Board to simply send out information about the college. Now the college is using two recruiting letters: one that specifically targets low-income students and one that does not. This recruiting year, the college randomly sent out one of the two letters to all low-income students. The number of students who respond to these letters and ask for more information about Williams will be recorded, and the college will use the results of this experiment to determine whether the targeted recruiting letter is effective.

Cool stuff. There are many interesting papers to be written with this data. One of the great advantages in hiring economists (Morty, Cappy Hill) to run Williams is that they are much more likely to appreciate the power of randomized experiments in generating knowledge. There is much more that the College should be doing (and, perhaps, is doing behind the scenes) along these lines.

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Taylor Thesis II: Progressive Tuition

Continuing our review of some of the highlights on Lindsey Taylor’s thesis, we come to page 17.

Prior to this study of COFHE institutions, Hill and Winston wrote a paper focusing exclusively on Williams College that also addressed net prices relative to family incomes. They found that the percentage of quintile median family income paid at each quintile during the 2000-2001 school year at Williams, starting with the lowest, was as follows: 41 percent, 24 percent, 23 percent, 21 percent, and 21 percent. This regressive pricing changed dramatically the next academic year, when the percentage of quintile median family income paid, starting with the lowest quintile, was: 11 percent, 16 percent, 14 percent, 18 percent, and 20 percent.

By increasing grant aid, and thus reducing net price, Williams was able to change their pricing to be gently progressive. Over this two-year period, the students in the 95th income went from 21 percent to 20 percent, while the average overall student payment fell from 29 percent to 26 percent.

Comments:

1) The paper cited by Taylor is here. She also discusses a related work. Both papers look interesting, but I haven’t had a chance to go through them.

2) The abstract to the Hill and Winston paper notes “One usefully concrete number: the average student in the bottom twenty percent of the income distribution pays $1,683 while the full tuition is $32,470.” I think that “pays” here includes any loans taken out. In other words, the average student from the bottom quintile graduates with no more than $6,500 in total loans. I think that this is a fairly radical change from the 1980’s. As far as I can recall, there were plenty of Williams students in that era from poorer families who graduated with much more debt. Is that right?

3) I think that Morty played a major part in the decision to change Williams pricing. Now, to some extent, Williams had no choice but to do this since all its major competitors are actively recruiting less wealthy students. If Williams does not offer these students more grants and fewer loans, they will just go elsewhere.

4) In other words, although Taylor and Hill/Winston seem to talk about these changes in terms of redistribution (making tuition bills more “progressive”), I think that the real issue is not one of justice so much as competition. The people who ran Williams 20 years ago had similar political beliefs to those who run it today. But they didn’t worry too much about loading up some young Eph with a bunch of debt because they knew that that young Eph would, after graduation, have the opportunity to earn a bunch of money. (The fact that colleges colluded also removed any worry that the young Eph would find a better deal and go elsewhere.) Now Williams, if it wants to have any students from families with bottom 20% income, has no choice but to offer huge grants, even to a student who has every intention of becoming a rich investment banker.

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Taylor Thesis I: Abstract

This week’s project is to highlight the most interesting aspects of Lindsey Taylor’s 05 thesis “Low-income students and college admissions : a case study of Williams College,” advised by President Schapiro. Thanks again to College Librarian David Pilachowski for making this work electronically available to all. Although the readership of EphBlog is not large, it is in the hundreds. Disseminating the best writing/research of Williams students is one of our goals. The five posts this week are an example.

Each day, I’ll be quoting portions of the thesis and providing brief commentary. Let’s start with the abstract.

Low-income students are severely underrepresented at elite institutions of higher education like Williams College, and any demand that their population be increased must consider the value of having low-income students at such an institution. This study examines low-income students that were admitted and matriculated to Williams based on data from their college applications, comparing their qualities and characteristics to their more affluent peers to determine where these students fall in both the academic and nonacademic spectra of Williams students. The performance of low income students once they arrive at Williams is analyzed in relation to the rest of the student body. An explanation of the College’s policies toward and history of admissions and financial aid as well as of new initiatives undertaken by the College to actively recruit talented, low-income students provides a context for this study. It appears that having socio-economically disadvantaged students at Williams is in no way lowering the standards set by the more advantaged students. Most low-income students are a valuable addition to the campus, possessing a respectable array of academic and non academic characteristics that place them solidly in the upper middle range of students in most respects.

Comments:

1) This is a great topic. More economics theses should be written about Williams. The smaller your focus, the better the result. The fewer your predecessors, the more valuable your contribution.

2) It is nice to see an abstract. Not all economics theses at Williams seem to have abstracts. (At least Jen Doleac’s ’03 did not.) They all should.

3) Spectra? I need to brush up on my Latin, obviously.

4) Taylor somewhat buries the lead when she notes that “It appears that having socio-economically disadvantaged students at Williams is in no way lowering the standards set by the more advantaged students.” This is true, as she demonstrates, but it suggests that the lack of more representation from low income students at Williams is appropriate. In other words, if Williams were unfairly discriminating against low income students, then we would expect these students to do better then their peers. Since they do about the same, Williams is not discriminating. This means that the current proportion is about “right.”

5) Taylor claims that low income students are “solidly in the upper middle range of students” at Williams. I know that she wants this to be true, but I don’t see where she demonstrates this.

6) Annoyingly, the pdf version of the thesis that the College provides is 77 (!) meg. Of course, I should not complain since I have pushed so hard for any access. Also, given that the College had no option other than to scan in the pages and the turn those scans into pdf’s, it isn’t clear that it could make the file smaller. But the CEP ought to change the thesis requirements so that students need to hand in an electronic and hard copy of their theses (whether public access is provided is a different question).

Although you should of course all read the Taylor’s thesis for yourselves, I hope to highlight some of the more interesting bits over the course of the week.

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Theses On-line!

EphBlog gets results! Some senior theses for 2004/2005 are now available on-line. (Thanks to Ronit Bhattacharyya ’07 and College Librarian David Pilachowski for the pointer. I also know that Morty was a fan of this effort.)

Again, no one believes that there are thousands of readers about to dive into these. But there are more than a few worth reading (although I have only had time to finish Lindsey Taylor’s so far) and several which will have portions more widely read then the vast majority of work produced by members of the Williams faculty this year.

Most importantly, the more public and open the College makes the process and product of academic work at Williams, the better that work will be done. Want to increase the quality of intellectual life among current undergraduates? Let the rest of us listen in.

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Doleac ’03 Thesis on Academic Achievement

One of EphBlog’s continuing missions is to bring the excellent work done by Williams undergraduates to a broader audience. For now, the focus continues to be on senior theses. Although I hope to convince the College to post all those prior theses related to specifically to Williams, we will do what we can in the meantime. Consider:

Admission criteria as predictors of achievement : a case study of Williams College, by Jennifer Doleac ’03.

Special thanks to Jennifer for providing me with a copy of her thesis. There is a lot of great stuff here, which I hope to be able to comment on at some point. Her thesis lacks a abstract, which is too bad for those looking to get a quick overview. (The Economics Department ought to require all theses to have abstracts, a handy tool for readers and a useful method for forcing students to focus on the specific point that they are trying to make.)

Below are selections from Doleac’s conclusion (pages 96 to 99):

Read more

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Bradburd on Theses

Professor Ralph Bradburd was kind enough to allow me to post some comments that he made on senior theses in economics, a topic we touched on here.

We will post, or post a link to, all those theses whose student authors agree to have them posted.

Again, kudos to Bradburd, Sheppard and the entire Economics Department. Note that other departments do not do nearly as good a job of advertising the work of their students. The only information that I can find about Political Science theses is here. Pretty pathetic. Why is it that Economics does so much better at this than other departments?

The college archives does this automatically. (There may be very good reasons for students to choose not to post their theses immediately. For example, some of our students have assembled original datasets through field interviews or archival research; we encourage such students to try to publish articles based on their theses, and making their data available via the web immediately might permit someone else to exploit the fruits of their efforts before they can do so.)

This is highly implausible, at least in economics. First, just because the thesis itself is on the web, the student does not have to supply the actual data. Second, even if a student did supply the data, the odds someone using this to “exploit” her work are vanishingly low. I’d wager that Bradburd can not provide a single example of such exploitation occuring in all of economics, much less in the context of an undergraduate thesis. I have never heard of one.

Third, this is exactly the opposite of what the vast majority of the economics profession believe. Check out the pages of the professors in the economics department (e.g., Lucie Schmidt, Jon Bakija, Robert Gazzale, and others.) Why do these professors put their unpublished working papers on the web, vulnerable to exploitation by evil economists around the world, if there is any real danger in doing so?

The answer, of course, is that there is no danger. In fact, the central difficulty in academia is getting noticed, getting other people to read what you write and take it seriously. For any economics student considering going further in the profession, the more widely read her undergraduate thesis, the better off she is.

I would oppose any suggestion that faculty comments be posted. This is so for several reasons. First, we often make our comments orally or in comments written on the drafts of papers. It is not reasonable to ask faculty to spend what would be by necessity a very significant amount of time typing up comments so that a very small number of alumni might read them.

This is a reasonable concern. Typing up the comments would take more time. But the real issue is not the actual typing time, it is the fact that, if the comments were to be placed on the web forever professors would feel compelled to take much more time in preparing them. And, to my mind, that would be a good thing. The intellectual environment at Williams should be made more serious. One small way of doing so is to have professor comments be published.

Second, sometimes our comments have to be quite critical; I don’t think that it would be appropriate for such comments to be disseminated for all to see.

Really? What was the most critical thing said last week? I found it hard to believe that it was very harsh. I find it almost impossible to believe that it wasn’t professional. At worst, it might have been something like, “You have interpreted the regression results incorrectlty; they actually demonstrate that your thesis is false.” As long as the comments are consistent with what professors would say at any professional forum — say if they were commenting on a panel at a meeting — then I don’t see a problem.

Indeed, the very fact that such comments might be disseminated would almost certainly alter the candor with which criticism was offered.

Why? Is this because economics professors think that thesis students — 22 years old and about to step out into the world — are thin-skinned little babies who can’t take accurate criticism? I don’t think that this is true. And, even if it is, refraining from criticism is the worst thing that you can do for such students. The real world will not be so kind. To the extent that Williams students haven’t learned how to deal with constructive, if trenchant, criticism, the College has failed them.

Third, all of our honors presentations are advertised in the college calendar and we welcome attendance at our presentations. (We even provide free coffee, tea, water, and cookies!) The best way to see what our students are accomplishing is to attend those presentations.

Again, I have always thought that the economics department did a fine job of this. Alas, many of the people who would be interested in knowing what, for example, Gordon Winston had to say about Lindsey Taylor’s thesis are unable to make it to Williamstown in person.

The more “public” that intellectual discourse is at Williams, the more seriously it will be taken by all concerned.

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Special Interest Theses

Although I hope to see the College posting all theses eventually, there are several from the last few decades that I think are of general enough interest and importance that they should be posted sooner rather than latter. Among the ones I would like to read are:

Indeed, a lot of the listings here seem worth taking a look at. Reader suggestions are, as always, welcome. Thanks to College Librarian David Pilachowski for showing me how to use FRANCIS, the College’s on-line catalogue.

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Theses Update

College Librarian Dave Pilachowski was kind enough to send in this update on senior theses.

1) The theses are coming in fast and furious now, with over 40 received on Friday. Most of the remaining theses should arrive on Monday. Processing then includes cataloging, scanning (unless we have an original copy in Word), and binding the hard copy version.

2) Besides Economics, it is likely that some other departments are likely to restrict access to certain theses since some of the work is part of larger faculty research projects.  We will find out the details after we receive all theses.

3) I will be in touch with you or post directly to the blog, if that is something that I can do, when we are able to provide access to the 2005 theses once they become available.

Thanks to Pilachowski for taking the time to update us on this topic. I am deeply suspicious of the claim that any sort of on-going faculty research would preclude the posting of a senior’s thesis, but this is not Pilachowski’s call to make, obviously. As long as the theses that I care about — mostly those having to do with Williams — are posted, I won’t complain too loudly.

But we should remember that a senior thesis is special because it has (or should have) made a contribution to human knowledge. That contribution is lessoned when access to the work is restricted. Now, it is possible to imagine scenarios under which such a restriction makes sense, but they would be few and far between in the context of Williams. If the thesis is done, it should be public.

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Senior Economic Theses

We’re in the middle of senior economics theses presentations. Congrats to all those who presented yesterday and good luck to those today. I recall like it was yesterday pacing the hill by East, running through my schpiel before marching over to Griffin 17 years ago. Looking at the schedule, it looks like Kate Ambler ’05 has my time slot. I wish her well.

Comments:

1) Where is the page of actual theses like the one from 2004? Professor Stephen Sheppard did a great job of this last year. Is he not in charge this year? Who is? As always, the more that the work of Williams students is made available to a wider audience, the better off all concerned.

2) Will this set of senior theses eventually be posted on-line? This is an annual EphBlog hobby-horse. College Librarian David Pilachowski has been working on this topic. With luck, we will soon see many of these theses available far and wide.

3) Note that there are 15 thesis students. This is definately more than there were in the 1980’s. Kudos to the economics department for attracting and motivating so many fine students.

4) The thesis most of interest to the readers of EphBlog is clearly “Low-Income Students and College Admissions: A Case Study of Williams College,” by Lindsey Taylor ’05. Not only would we like to read this, but we would love to read the comments made by Morty Schapiro and Gordon Winston. Indeed, in an ideal world, those comments would also be made public and attached as part of the permanent record of Taylor’s thesis. In fact, there will probably come a day when a podcast or even video of the actual presentation is included.

UPDATE: Corrected Ambler’s class year.

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Science Honors Theses

Thanks to Professor Heather Williams, chair of the Biology department, for responding to my query about honors work by the class of 2004. She writes:

Biology doesn’t do as much as some of these departments. In part, this is because we have, relatively, many more honors students than some of the other departments, and keeping everything up to date can be difficult. However, I think you’ll find that the annual “Report of Science”, which includes the abstracts of all honors theses, provides a reasonable amount of information; it is published each year, both in paper and online, and past issues can be found at:

http://www.williams.edu/resources/sciencecenter/center/sciwmspub.html

This is tucked away under “Science Center” on the college web page, and can be hard to find. I’m not sure I’d be able to find it unless I knew it was there…

Comments:

1) This is good stuff and special thanks to Professor Williams for taking the time to bring it to our attention. I am still waiting on replies from the three other department chairs that I contacted.

2) Still, I find it somewhat pathetic that, for all practical purposes, it is impossible for someone outside the College to discover what sort of honors work students are doing in biology this year. Again, I am pleased to see the latest news of Williams athletics. (Congratulations to Liz Gluck ’05 for being named an All-American in softball!) But doesn’t anyone else find it sad that, should Gluck decide to do honors work in biology — or any seemingly any other field except economics — next year, her efforts will be invisible to the outside world?

3) Here are the abstracts for biology theses in 2003. Alas, I am even less qualified to offer opinions on these then I am on work in economics.

Thanks again to Professor Williams for taking the time to point out this interesting resource.

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Economic Honors Theses

Lest it get lost in our sometimes frothy comment section, I wanted to highlight Steve Sheppard’s update on honors theses. Kudos to Steve, and the entire Economics department, for taking the time and trouble to organize a webpage devoted to the work of this year’s honors students in economics.

There is a lot of interesting stuff here. It is especially nice to see the use of pdf as the common format. One minor suggestion would be to post an abstract separately — so that I could get an idea about the thesis without having to download the whole thing. Of course, this would require that the students prepare abstracts, but that would be expected among academic work in economics. It is also a very useful exercise for the students to try to summarize their work in a few well-chosen sentences. Evan Gee’s abstract is quite nice and, even better, he uses LaTeX. [Stop! — ed Don’t you think that a little more geek and a little less politics would be good for ephblog?]

One fun thought experiment is to come up with snappier titles. Perhaps “Cost-Utility Analysis of Three Approaches to the Diagnosis of Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome” by Peter Deutsch becomes “Help! My Husband Snores”.

The authors of ephblog will be doing a careful, line-by-line reading of each thesis over the coming days. Stand by for commentary.

Now, where is the equivalent page for the departments of Political Science, History, Biology, English . . .

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Post Senior Theses On-line

Why doesn’t the College post all senior theses on-line? It should. All seniors writing a thesis should be required to both turn in a hard copy to the library (as they are now) and to submit an electronic version in a suitable format (preferably pdf, but html would also work). The College, or even WSO, could then store these for posterity and make them available to all comers.

I hesitate to highlight the advantages of such a scheme because they are so obvious and uncontroversial. Most importantly, it would be another small step in making Williams an even more intellectually serious place than it already is.

As an example, here is the senior thesis for John Morrison ’01. Professor Joe Cruz deserves credit for maintaining this himself, but the immortalization of a student’s academic career at Williams should not rely on the efforts of one’s advisor. Another example is Nate Foster’s ’01 thesis for computer science. Williams would encourage current seniors to take their work more seriously if it mandated that their work would live on, publically, for years to come.

It is especially nice to note that Morrison’s thesis builds on the work of Jon Burstein ’98. Professor Kim Bruce deserves great credit for creating a research agenda that enages year after year of Williams students. Alas, an interested reader [Who else besides you?–ed One should be enough.] can’t easily see how Morrison’s work relates to that of Burstein because, as best I could discover, Burstein’s work is not easily browsable on-line.[Here?–ed Gzipped postscript is not easy to browse! For you–ed And the link doesn’t even work!]

Because resources are invariably constrained, it is tough to know if a given proposed improvement to Williams is worth the cost of doing so. But there are some items that cost (almost) nothing and which everyone should agree will be an improvement. Posting theses is one of these.

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