12 April 2012

Future of SUNY-Fredonia: Debate over Academic Standards

Stephen Kershnar
A Debate over Admissions Data
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 11, 2012

Recently President Dennis Hefner and I have gotten into a debate over whether over the last two decades, SUNY-Fredonia has lost ground in attracting better students relative to its competitors. This debate might be of interest to the campus and community. Here is the original article and the response.

http://www.observertoday.com/page/content.detail/id/570222/Raising-standards-at-SUNY-is-job-one.html

http://www.observertoday.com/page/content.detail/id/570356/College-president-presents-the-facts.html

My argument was that in the last two decades, SUNY-Fredonia has lost ground in attracting better students relative to its competitors. Specifically, I argued that in 1990, Fredonia was 3rd among SUNY colleges, behind only Geneseo and Oswego, in student ability (this ranking is based on SAT scores). In 2011, it was tied for 6th with Cortland. Three schools passed it (New Paltz, Purchase, and Oneonta), one school tied it (Cortland), and two schools remain ahead (Geneseo and Oswego). My measure for the more recent ranking is whether a school is higher than another in two or more of the following three categories: SAT scores for the middle 50%, ACT scores for the middle 50%, and high school grade point average.

I do not take a position on whether the lost ground is anyone’s fault or due to factors outside of anyone’s control. Such factors might include demographic or economic changes in Western New York.

Hefner rejects this argument. He provides two arguments to the contrary. First, from 1996 to 2012, Fredonia’s incoming class improved. Second, were comparable data to be used, Fredonia would be ranked higher than the schools that passed or tied it and the distance between it and the schools that are ranked ahead of it would have narrowed (or some weighted combination of these claims). Comparable data include scores from all of the students.

Hefner argued that the SUNY-wide data is non-comparable in part because of “SAT inflation” tactics that are sometimes present in the industry. This is also in part because Fredonia has the lowest “exceptional admit” percentage. “Exceptional admit” students are students who have lower SAT scores and are excluded from the calculation. Because not counting “exceptional admit” students moves us away from comparable data, Hefner is claiming that Fredonia provides non-comparable statistics, but to a lesser degree than its competitors.

The first argument is irrelevant. Even if from 1996 to 2012 Fredonia’s incoming class improved, this does not show that over the last two decades, SUNY-Fredonia did not lose ground in attracting better students relative to its competitors. We would need to know whether our competitors improved even more.

The second argument depends on the following implicit claims based on comparable data: (1) the schools that were ahead of Fredonia (Geneseo and Oswego) are now less ahead and (2) the schools that were behind Fredonia (New Paltz, Purchase, Oneonta, and Cortland) have not tied or passed it but are farther behind it. Hefner does not explicitly state these claims. I do not know why.

Hefner does not cite a source or make it clear on what comparable data he rests his claim. I was unable to locate any source, study, or publicly available data in support of these implicit claims. Perhaps my search was flawed. It is unclear if he wants us to accept these claims based on his word or on evidence that is not publicly available. In any case, for these implicit claims to be convincing, he needs to provide some evidence.

In the column, I pointed out that I do not know whether the lost ground is due to differences in loans, aid, and income. I cited data from a 2011 Kiplinger article that found that among the eleven schools (Binghamton, Geneseo, Stony Brook, New Paltz, Buffalo, Oneonta, Brockport, Plattsburgh, Cortland, and Albany) that Kiplinger ranks, Fredonia graduates have the third highest average debt at graduation and its students receive the third lowest amount of both need-based aid and non-need-based aid. Fredonia’s graduates have almost $8,000 more debt than New Paltz students, $8,000 more than SUNY-Buffalo students, and $4,000 more than Geneseo students.

Hefner claims that Kiplinger’s data is inaccurate because it is based on false and incomplete information. First, he claims that it is false because the difference between Fredonia and the other ten schools is much smaller than Kiplinger reports. Second, he claims that the data is incomplete because it excludes the parent loan category and excludes students who graduated with zero debt.

Consider Hefner’s claim that Kiplinger’s data are false. Hefner fails to provide evidence, such as a source or study, so his claim cannot be evaluated. In addition, for his argument to work, were parent-loan and zero-debt data to be taken into account and properly weighted, the ranking would vary significantly from that found in Kiplinger. I am not sure how the weighted ranking should be done. For example, should parental loans be given the same weight as student loans? Even if the weighted ranking can be done, we again need evidence that once corrected, the current ranking would vary significantly.

On a side note, the rejection of Kiplinger’s data is odd. Here is the title of an article in Fredonia’s Campus Report dated January 3, 2012, “SUNY Fredonia named a Kiplinger's "Best Value" once again.” Apparently, their data used to be reliable.

Hefner asserts that Fredonia’s admissions approach works very well as evidenced by Fredonia’s consistently strong graduation rates, even though it does not maximize the reported SAT scores. This claim does not conflict with my argument. Perhaps it was not meant as a criticism.

Consider recent data from the New York State Education Department (2010). It indicates that the following is a list of some of the SUNY universities and colleges with a higher six-year graduation rate (a standard measure): Albany, Alfred (College of Ceramics), Binghamton, Buffalo, Brockport, Environmental Science & Forestry, Geneseo, New Paltz, and Oneonta. Fredonia’s graduation rate is not in the top ten of SUNY colleges. In a 2009 study by the American Enterprise Institute (based on 2007 data), the six-year graduation rate at Fredonia (62.3%) was worse than 35 colleges and universities in New York (out of 105 whose graduation rates are reported) and barely better than the state average (59.6%). On this study, the top ten competitive schools nationwide (I’m guessing this is Fredonia’s comparison class), all have graduation rates that are at least ten percentage points higher, although to be fair, these include private colleges and universities. I do not see how we can be confident that Fredonia’s admissions approach, which does not maximize reported SAT scores, works very well.

Hefner also claimed that my argument contained false and misleading information, contained glaring errors, was appalling to him, and was written by “one of our own.” He did not present evidence in support of these claims. Also, I am unsure how to interpret the scare quotes.

This debate is part of government transparency. In general, it is important that state institutions be transparent. Part of transparency involves allowing current and potential students and taxpayers to have access to the data concerning state colleges and universities. Also, on some accounts, the faculty should have access to the data in order to help govern their institutions. Perhaps Fredonia should be public about double-booking admissions data and should publicize its true admissions data, including “exceptional admit” students, along with its sanitized data.

Hefner and I agree on the most important claim: SUNY-Fredonia is a strong college with a lot to be proud of and its academic standards should reflect this.

3 comments:

The Objectivist said...

Consider whether Kiplinger got its data from Fredonia. If so, Hefner's claim that it is false is bizarre.

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