Welcome to the Profit of Education website. Continuing the conversation begun in the book Profit of Education, we discuss the latest economic evidence on education reform.

Sealing the border redux: American universities are losing international students

My most recent post on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution.

One year ago, I wrote on these pages: “If new border controls prevent the entry of foreign students, or simply makes them feel unwelcome so they go elsewhere, American jobs and American students pay the price.” I regret to report that we have now started down that path.

First, the fact: College enrollment of international students is down for the first time in a long time. The drop is large, but not overwhelming—at least not yet. We’ve seen a one-year decrease of about 30,000 students, which isn’t massive. However, Department of Education data suggests that foreign-student enrollment had risen consistently for the last 35 years. Here’s a picture based on NSF data. (A nice article in Inside Higher Edgives more details.)

International students in American colleges and universities


In the short run, losing international students is bad for what some might think of as a pretty crass reason: International students subsidize American kids because nonresidents pay higher tuition and receive less financial aid. This is especially true at public universities. For example, at the University of California—which is the world’s largest research university system—Californians pay about $14,000 in tuition and fees. International students pay more like $41,000—that’s roughly triple. And about a third of tuition is turned around and spent on financial aid, but almost none of that goes to international students. So the effective price difference is even bigger than list price would indicate.

The immediate effect of losing foreign students falls very unevenly across institutions. Unsurprisingly, international enrollments continue to climb at some universities (typically elite or flagship public universities), while international enrollments plummet at others (typically smaller, less prestigious institutions). The resulting budget cuts at the latter often hit in the areas that are already under the most financial stress, not necessarily the areas which attract the most international students. The New York Times writes, “At Wright State University in Ohio, the French horn and tuba professors are out. … At Kansas State, Italian classes are going the way of the Roman Empire.”

The immediate budget impact is bad, but I worry also about a longer-run, more serious problem. Bringing international students to the United States has two valuable way-down-the-road outcomes. One easy-to-see benefit is that we get to cream skim, keeping some of the best students in the United States. Just as an example, many tech-entrepreneurs came to the U.S. this way. Losing international students will harm the domestic economy in the long run.

A harder-to-see benefit is that many international students who return home do so with an appreciation for what America is really like. I believe that to know us is to love us. And it’s not just a matter of affection; surprisingly large numbers of foreign government officials have American degrees. Just as an economics example, the governors of the central banks of Europe, England, Israel, Argentina, India, and Mexico all have American degrees. Though the governors of the central banks of China and Russia don’t have American degrees, each did spend a year studying at an American university. Though the benefits from these educational exports are difficult to quantify, presumably some diplomatic goodwill in foreign governments across the globe is a result.

International college students bring us economic benefits today and political benefits in the future. I really hope that, a year from now, I’m not sharing with you that things have gotten worse.

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Why is minority representation lagging among STEM faculty? It could be the money.

My most recent post on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution.

Recent events in the national press have prompted new discussions of race and privilege in the institutions around us. One of these places is in universities, where minority representation among faculty lags far behind student minority representation. Today, I examine the underrepresentation of minorities among STEM faculty, with an eye toward a partial explanation based on straightforward economics: It’s the money. I’m sure money is not the only issue in play, but money differences look to be large enough to matter.

The first thing an economist looks for in this kind of situation is earnings differences. I’ll concentrate on black and Hispanic faculty while leaving gender for another day. The simple point: When compared to nonminority faculty, STEM-trained minority Ph.D.s have a greater financial incentive to seek employment in industry rather than in the academy than do non-STEM minority faculty.First, have you read Cory Koedel’s Chalkboard piece, “Examining faculty diversity at America’s top public universities”? If not, you should. Koedel carefully documents that, in top public universities, “the underrepresentation of disadvantaged minority and female professors among faculty overall is driven predominantly by a lack of diversity in STEM fields.”

I’ve taken data from the American Community Survey from 2009 through 2015 and have pulled out the observations for the 130,000 Ph.D. recipients who are observed to be working, and who are over 25 and under 66 years old. Ph.D. recipients are defined as having a STEM background if their bachelor’s degree was in STEM—that being what the data reports.[1] Finally, I’ve defined “minority” as black or Hispanic. That’s not quite right, but should be pretty close in the context of looking at underrepresented minorities in higher education.

Tracking all three pieces of the puzzle takes a bit of work, as we care about whether someone with a Ph.D. is working in higher education or not; whether they are working in a STEM field or not; and whether they are black or Hispanic, or not. Underlying the “income penalty” calculation is a regression, controlling for age, gender, and state, as well as the variables of interest. But rather than leap to a bottom-line answer, I’ll deconstruct the regression used to calculate the relative financial disincentive for minority Ph.D. recipients in STEM areas to work in universities. (For those who can’t wait, the answer is minority Ph.D. recipients would be penalized about $13,000 a year for taking a career in the academy.[2])

We want to compare how different factors affect income for minority Ph.D. recipients versus everyone else. I’ll begin with a “base” which gives an average salary (rounded to the thousands) for a male, 30 year-old Ph.D. recipient working in California with neither a STEM background nor working in higher education. (Note in passing that California is a high-income state.) You will be unsurprised to learn that minority Ph.D. recipients earn less. I was surprised at how large the difference is; after all these are all people with doctorates.

  Black or Hispanic Neither Black nor Hispanic Difference
“Base” income $91,000 $120,000 -$29,000

How does this change for Ph.D. recipients with STEM backgrounds? As expected, STEM pays noticeably better than non-STEM. The difference is large, and the difference is somewhat larger for black and Hispanic Ph.D. recipients than it is for Ph.D. recipients from other groups—although only a fraction of the “base” minority/nonminority gap is offset.

  Black or Hispanic Neither Black nor Hispanic Difference
Additional effect of STEM $41,000 $36,000 $5,000

What’s the effect of working in higher education rather than industry, ignoring whether one is in a STEM area or not? Higher education pays worse, just as you expected. However, the income differential between higher education and industry is less if you are black or Hispanic, closing a good part of the “base” pay gap.

  Black or Hispanic Neither Black nor Hispanic Difference
Additional effect of being in higher ed -$7,000 -$28,000 $21,000

Koedel’s research, which prompted this Chalkboard post, showed that there is greater underrepresentation of minority faculty in STEM fields than in non-STEM fields. Going into higher education cuts your salary whether you are a minority Ph.D. recipient or not. Being in STEM raises your income either way. To see why the difference in the financial disincentive to go into academia between STEM and non-STEM majors is greater for minorities than nonminorities, look at this final table, which combines STEM majors with a career in higher education separately by minority status.

  Black or Hispanic Neither Black nor Hispanic Difference
Additional effect of being in higher ed, STEM -$48,000 -$56,000 $8,000
Additional effect of being in higher ed, non-STEM -$7,000 -$28,000 $21,000
Relative higher ed advantage, STEM vs non-STEM -$41,000 -$28,000 -$13,000

That -$13,000 in the bottom right corner—that’s the difference in the STEM income penalty for a minority Ph.D. recipient to move in to the university relative to a nonminority Ph.D. recipient. (The $13,000 estimate is significant at the 1-percent level, for those—like me—who are into that sort of thing.) Let me be clear that this is not suggesting that universities are discriminating against minority STEM Ph.D. recipients. Rather, university pay penalizes everyone, but penalizes minority non-STEM Ph.D. recipients less. Basically, universities come closer to matching outside pay in non-STEM areas than it does in STEM areas and does so especially for minority Ph.D. recipients.

While being in a university costs everyone money, there are compensating nonpecuniary differentials. (That’s econ-speak for being around students is fun.) But for black and Hispanic Ph.D. recipients in STEM fields, the dollar cost is relatively great—and the number of black and Hispanic STEM faculty (as Koedel showed us) is relatively low.

Are pecuniary considerations the only thing holding down the number of minority college faculty in STEM?[3] Almost certainly not. But is $13,000 enough to be an important piece of the explanation? Almost certainly.

UCSB undergraduate and Gretler Fellow Isabel Steffens provided research assistance for this post. Data is from IPUMS-USA, University of Minnesota


[1] We only know whether each Ph.D. recipient did a STEM major as an undergraduate, but that should be a pretty good indicator of whether they did a STEM doctorate as relatively few students make massive switches in field. (One can argue about what should count as a STEM field. I’ve included majors in environment and natural resources, computer science, engineering, biology and life sciences, math and statistics, physical sciences, and nuclear, industrial radiology and biological technologies.) We also know whether a given Ph.D. recipient is working in higher education, a definition which includes both faculty and nonfaculty positions.

[2] I am using a measure of income rather than salaries alone, as STEM workers in industry may receive substantial compensation in the form of stock rather than directly in the form of a paycheck. Using salary data alone gives slightly smaller results, 5.2 percent of compensation rather than 8.7 percent, and the results show a less tight statistical estimate.

[3] None of this tells us exactly why there’s a financial difference. One possibility is that a STEM Ph.D. recipient’s career is such a tough haul for minorities that the group who perseveres is different in many ways from minorities Ph.D. recipients in non-STEM fields. This is something we just don’t have quantitative evidence about.

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The education melting pot?

My most recent post on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution.

While education is largely oriented toward teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic—and other academic subjects—we also hope that schools warm our melting pot by bringing together members of different racial and ethnic groups. Though having students of differing backgrounds attend school together does not guarantee an increase in inter-group harmony, having schools segregated by student background pretty much guarantees no increase in harmony. I’ve taken a look at who goes to school with whom at both the K-12 level and in four-year colleges. The results were not really what I was expecting—nor were they very encouraging.

I thought I would find that colleges are pretty well integrated, while finding this to be much less true for K-12. We know that many elementary and secondary schools are not terribly diverse. Some of this is an accident of geography, and some of this is an “on-purpose” of geography. (You will likely remember recent stories about race-based school district secessions. For research on the subject check out “Brown fades: The end of court-ordered school desegregation and the resegregation of American public schools.”) The bottom line from my investigation into segregation is that colleges are not so diverse either. That surprised me—and, as a college professor, disappointed me.

To measure “getting together,” I’ll use a tool called the dissimilarity index. Given a list of schools and the number of students from each of two groups in each school, the dissimilarity index can be interpreted as the minimum percentage of students in one group that would have to move from one school to another to make all the schools exactly representative of the overall population. For example: If we had two schools, the first with 10 black students and the second with 90 white students, what is the share of students in the smaller group (the black students in this illustration) that would need to switch to the other school to achieve perfect integration while moving the fewest students? In this extreme example, the math calls for shuttering the first school and moving all the black students to the second, which would then be perfectly integrated. In this case, the dissimilarity index for the initial distribution of students would be calculated to have a value of 100 percent, since all 10 black students had to move in order to achieve an integrated school. (Remember this just an interpretation of the math. No one is suggesting that minimizing the number of students moved is the only criterion or even that a perfect balance is necessity.) What really matters is that situations with high dissimilarity indices are much less diverse than situations with lower dissimilarity indices.

Let’s begin with an oversimplified view of segregation in higher education, grouping students into “minority” (black and Hispanic) and “majority” (white and Asian). In the chart below, the dissimilarity index is shown separately for K-12 public school students (data is from the Common Core of Data) and for four-year college students, including all public, private, and for-profit institutions (data is from IPEDS). The chart illustrates three stylized facts:

  1. Mixing of students within schools is nowhere near proportions of the underlying student population. If the racial distribution of students within K-12 schools were to look like the distribution in the entire K-12 population, the number of students who would have to be shuffled to different schools is equivalent to more than 60 percent of all black and Hispanic students.
  2. The dissimilarity index for four-year colleges is better than for K-12, but still isn’t very good. A 40 percent dissimilarity index brings us closer to a true melting pot than does the K-12 60 percent, but closer isn’t close. And do keep in mind that the dissimilarity index only measures diversity among the subset of students who do go to college. Four-year colleges are also somewhat more white and Asian than is the population of high school graduates and, the fraction of white and Asian high school graduates is somewhat higher still than is the fraction of white and Asian secondary school students.
  3. Both lines are shockingly flat. Essentially, nothing has changed in the last 25 years.
Black-Hispanic versus Asian-white dissimilarity index
Source: Common Core of Data, IPEDS, and author’s analysis.

In this overview graph, I’ve grouped black and Hispanic students together and Asian and white students together—not because this necessarily makes a lot of sense but rather because that’s what’s so often done. The next set of graphs shows dissimilarity indices across four groups: Asian, black, Hispanic, and white. None of these groups is monolithic either, but it’s as far as the data will take us.

This first graph shows dissimilarity indices for K-12. The first lesson is that there’s not much mixing of any of the four groups. The second lesson is that, though a slight declining trend is evident, little has changed over more than two decades. The most mixing occurs between Asian and white students (probably no surprise). Note that the second-to-the-most mixing, the second line from the bottom, is between Asian and Hispanic students. The least mixing is between Asian and black students. But fundamentally, none of the groups mixes much with any other group.

Dissimilarity index between groups, K-12
Source: Common Core of Data and author’s analysis.

One thing the graph illustrates is that thinking of “minorities” as a group, or putting Asians and whites together as a group, isn’t really supported by the data—at least not if we’re interested in which students go to school together. Note that Hispanic and black students are essentially no more mixed than are Hispanic and white students.

Turn now to the breakdown for four-year colleges. The college dissimilarity indices are lower than the indices for K-12—but not all that much lower. And again, there’s been not much change over 35 years. The lowest dissimilarity is for Asians and Hispanics; the highest is Asian and black. Once again though, the dissimilarity indices just are not that different among the various combinations of groups.

Source: IPEDS and author's calculations.
Source: IPEDS and author’s calculations.

I have to be honest, I was expecting that colleges would be much more melting-pot like than K-12. That’s because K-12 is so geographically constrained, whereas colleges draw from larger catchment areas. Colleges do a little better, but not that much. I was also expecting to see a real downward trend at the college level over recent decades given the emphasis all colleges I know put on diversity. The downward trend is not there.

Getting students of different ethnic and racial backgrounds together on each campus does not guarantee an improvement in inter-group understanding. And apparently it’s not easy to arrange. Still, I was hoping to see different numbers for colleges in the 21st century. Colleges generate our next generation of leaders. We’d be better off if our future leaders experienced more diversity instead of just reading about it in class.

UCSB undergraduate and Gretler Fellow Isabel Steffens provided research assistance for this post.

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What Should We Pay Teachers?

 The chart below, taken from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) just released “Education at a Glance 2017,” has been receiving considerable attention. Take a look at the big red arrow I added to see why. On the horizontal dimension: The U.S. is far to the right, way down on the list of relative teacher pay. Vertical: The U.S. bars are short, indicating that American teachers are poorly paid relative to other American workers with comparable education.
Lower secondary teachers' salaries relative to earnings for tertiary-educated workers
Source: OECD, “Education at a Glance 2017.”

The good thing about how the chart is constructed is that looking at teacher pay relative to the pay of comparable workers is exactly the right comparison. Why? Because a key element in the decision of the best and the brightest as to whether to become a teacher or to remain a teacher is how well teacher pay looks like compared to alternative careers. It’s not the only consideration, but it’s a big one.

Fundamentally, the big red arrow tells the right story. But the story isn’t perfect, and it’s informative to talk about which shortcomings matter and why.

Horizontal first. Why do we even care about international comparisons? We care because the U.S. might learn something from how other countries conduct business. And to make a particular point, notice that the exemplar of educational excellence, Finland, is most of the way to the left on the chart, while America is most of the way to the right.

The advantage of the comparisons made by the OECD is the OECD does the best it can to make the measures comparable across countries. So even if you don’t like the particular measure the OECD has chosen, the relativestandings are still valuable. Having said that, there is a reason that the comparisons are a little unfair to the United States. Teachers generally receive more of their compensation in the form of fringe benefits than do other American workers, while this is less true in other countries. A measure of total compensation would move the red arrow to the left at least a bit.

In most other industrialized countries, everyone has roughly equally expensive health insurance. In the U.S., in contrast, teachers generally get more expensive health insurance than other workers. In addition, teacher pension systems appear to be more generous than most private-sector arrangements; although, so many teachers end up without a pension and so many state pension systems are near bankruptcy that it isn’t clear how much accounting for differential pensions would matter.

Vertical now. Is the height of the U.S. bar, teacher salaries as a fraction of the earnings of all college-educated workers, the right measure? I’ll give you a couple of reasons why you might want an alternative. Warning though, down below I’m going to tell you why the exact way we measure doesn’t matter.

The OECD is measuring teacher salaries against the earnings of full-time, full-year workers. That seems to make sense in that most teachers do have a full-time job. On the other hand, one characteristic that makes teaching an attractive career is precisely that you’re unlikely to be unemployed or unable to find part-time work; its job security tends to be far higher than other occupations. The height of the bar would be higher if the comparison were made to all workers, not just full-time workers.

Also, the OECD numbers are done using means, not medians. That measures the typical pay gap, but not the gap of the typical person. The difference is that the mean includes individuals with very high pay, whereas the median really doesn’t. Since teacher salaries are much more compressed than earnings in general, the difference is substantial. Here’s a quick picture of teacher income versus non-teacher income in the United States over several decades, calculated separately by mean and median.

Note: To be specific, the chart shows the ratio of mean (and median) income for teachers to non-teachers with a bachelor’s degree or more, between ages 22 and 66, who report being in the labor force, and who report at least $1 of earnings.

Source: The Current Population Survey as provided by IPUMS-CPS, University of Minnesota, www.ipums.org.

The most recent ratio is 62 percent if measured by means and 80 percent if measured by medians. The former is pretty much in line with the OECD numbers; the latter is a lot higher.

As an aside, you probably noticed that the median measure has been flat for four decades while the mean gap has opened enormously. This is because a bigger and bigger share of income in the U.S. now goes to the upper brackets, and teachers don’t get into the upper brackets.

Which is right, mean or median? I don’t know, and I’m quite sure no one else knows either. Do people thinking about a teaching career care only about typical salaries (look at medians), or do they also care about a potential significant economic upside (look at the mean)? I doubt there is any research on the question, despite the fact that the two measures differ by nearly 20 percentage points.

To an economist, that won’t fly, no matter how you look at it. Teaching has enormous nonpecuniary rewards—thus, teacher salaries can be lower than other professions. Teaching is an incredibly difficult job—ergo, teacher salaries need to be higher than other professions. Teachers have great job security (after a couple of years on the job)—teacher salaries can be lower. Teaching requires EQ as much as IQ—teacher salaries need to be higher.Of greater importance, do we know what the right target is? The implicit notion behind the OECD figure seems to be that teacher salaries should be somewhat on par with workers with a similar educational background.

To an economist, looking at qualifications and at job characteristics can be a helpful starting point in figuring the right salary. But there’s only one acid test: Are we attracting and retaining enough great teachers? My view is that we’re getting lots of great teachers, but we’re not getting nearly as many as we need. If you agree, then you should want higher teacher salaries no matter how the averages are calculated. If you disagree, you should be okay with the status quo.

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Gender hostilities, disparities among economics professors keep women from ascending ranks

My most recent post on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution.

Women receive 57 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in the United States, but only 52 percent of the doctorates. In looking at recent datafrom the National Center for Education Statistics, we find: Women receive only 23 percent of Ph.D.s in computer science; in mathematics and statistics, the share is 28 percent; in engineering, 23 percent. STEM fields are often a path to high-paying careers, and the presence of women in the professoriate can serve as a role model for both undergraduates and graduate students.

One might hope that the gender disparities in STEM fields are legacies of a bygone era, and that there is little active opposition to women in the professoriate today. Sadly, harassment of and hostility toward female academics continues—at least in economics, the area we know best. All this is illustrated by a major contretemps in economics set off by, of all things, an undergraduate senior thesis from Berkeley.

The story begins with Alice Wu’s senior thesis, “Gender Stereotyping in Academia: Evidence from Economics Job Market Rumors Forum.” Economics Job Market Rumors (EJMR) is a web forum notionally focused on discussing the job market for economics Ph.D.s, but more often a site for gossip and discussion by self-described internet trolls. Wu web-scraped text from a million-plus posts and then used machine-learning techniques to look for correlations. She found two main results: First, nine of the top 10 words predictive of a post about a woman are explicitly sexual references (The Washington Post even bowdlerized some of these terms); second, posts about women contain 43 percent fewer academic or professional terms and 192 percent more terms related to personal information or physical attributes. Observation of the EJMR site shows that these terms tend to be used in the context of a hostile or sexual comment about a female economist.

Discussions of economists and economics as an academic profession aren’t usually the stuff of headlines. The explosion came when Justin Wolfers wrote about Wu’s paper in the Upshot column of The New York Times, followed by a piece by Elisabeth Winkler in The Washington Post’s Wonkblog. Wolfers was blunt, writing that Wu’s paper “quantifies a workplace culture that appears to amount to outright hostility toward women in parts of the economics profession.” Winkler wrote, “Women economists are hardly surprised. …. Wu has now managed to quantify that misogyny using men’s own words.”

It should be understood that EJMR is, using the words of one prominent male economist, “a cesspool.” To be clear, there’s nothing subtle about EJMR: Postings go so far as to suggest sexual assault of named female economists. Anonymity on the internet permits the kind of behavior that would get one arrested if done in person. Despite this, some economists dismiss the problem as so-called locker room talk. As another prominent male economist has written, “I personally find the forum refreshing. There’s still hope for mankind when many of the posts written by a bunch of over-educated young social scientists illustrate a throwing off of the shackles of political correctness.”

Compared to other academic fields, economists have little sympathy for political correctness. What is surprising is how many economists still don’t think that gender-based hostility has any effect on the underrepresentation of women in the profession. This might be less concerning if the professoriate in economics were making significant progress toward gender balance, but this is not the case. Even though women slightly outnumber men in getting bachelor’s, men overwhelmingly outnumber women as economics concentrators. The figure below shows that about a third of first-year graduate students and new Ph.D.s in economics are women. These numbers have been essentially unchanged for two decades. So the input end of the pipeline to the professoriate is narrow, and not approaching gender parity.

Unfortunately, the pipeline is also leaky, and female Ph.D.s do not become assistant professors nor advance to tenured positions at the same rate as men, per the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession’s 2016 Annual Report. Women full professors still comprise less than 15 percent of full professors at Ph.D.-granting institutions (the green line in the chart below), implying a very small cohort of senior women who can act as role models and mentors for female grads and undergrads. This fraction has risen very slowly, increasing by about five points in 20 years. If the female proportion of full professors were to continue at this growth rate, it will reach the graduate-school level (30 percent) in about 2080. Approaching gender parity would probably require tackling the pedagogic and information barriers that appear to dissuade women from majoring in economics at the undergraduate level.

Pipeline for departments with doctoral programs: Percent of doctoral students and faculty who are women

Source: CSWEP 2016 Annual Report | Note: (T) and (U) indicate tenured and untenured, respectively.

The recent explosion following a memo widely viewed as hostile toward women in tech written by a Google engineer suggests that problems are not at all limited to the discipline of economics. We would all like to think that having the STEM professoriate reflect something like the gender balance in society will happen naturally, or that it will happen if only K-12 would somehow make math equally attractive to girls and boys, or that at least it will happen when STEM majors learn to attract more women. Unfortunately, female academics still have to deal with open hostility from some of their peers, and with a see-no-evil attitude from many more.

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Education programs and (un)selective colleges

My most recent post on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution.

The pipeline for training America’s teachers has been the subject of much discussion, with questions and disagreements about both quantity and quality. A largely overlooked aspect of the pipeline question asks which colleges train teachers. Today’s part of that question asks: Are education majors trained at relatively less selective colleges, or is the distribution of education majors pretty much the same as the distribution of other majors? The answer turns out to be the former. Graduates with education majors are disproportionately found at schools where students have lower SAT scores. The difference in SAT scores is large enough to be thought-provoking, at the least. (For a recent look at SAT scores for teachers see Goldhaber and Walch in EducationNext.)

Let me explain how we went about measuring this. Every university reports to the federal government the number of degrees granted in different disciplines. (Some universities leave blanks in their reporting forms, but in general the coverage is quite good.) Universities also report the 25th percentile and 75th percentile of SAT scores of their student body. We averaged the two SAT numbers, by subject, and then added together the scores for math and reading. That gives us our measure for selectivity of each college. Note we’re not looking at SAT scores of education or non-education majors separately; we’re looking at how competitive the college is.

Next we take the average of each college’s combined SAT score, weighted according to the number of education majors it graduates. This gives us what you might think of as an “education selectivity” score, or the average SAT score of admits at colleges that generate the most education majors. The education selectivity score penciled out at 1060 out of 1600. We did the same for non-education majors, producing a “non-education selectivity” score, giving a result of 1116.Let me explain how we went about measuring this. Every university reports to the federal government the number of degrees granted in different disciplines. (Some universities leave blanks in their reporting forms, but in general the coverage is quite good.) Universities also report the 25th percentile and 75th percentile of SAT scores of their student body. We averaged the two SAT numbers, by subject, and then added together the scores for math and reading. That gives us our measure for selectivity of each college. Note we’re not looking at SAT scores of education or non-education majors separately; we’re looking at how competitive the college is.

Education majors are trained at less selective colleges. In other words, relatively few come from flagship universities while more come from regional colleges with lower bars for entry. But is the difference large enough to be meaningful? The education selectivity score corresponds to about the 60th percentile of college-bound seniors in reading and the 55th percentile in math. The numbers for non-education majors are the 70th and 64th percentiles respectively. The combined difference is nine or 10 percentiles. Thus the difference is not gigantic, but it’s certainly large enough to be meaningful.

While there is a noticeable difference, there is also a great deal of overlap between the colleges that train education majors and colleges that train other disciplines. That’s not very surprising. After all, even colleges with big teacher training programs train students in many other majors as well. The picture here, using bell curves as approximations, shows the selectivity distribution for education versus non-education. While the selectivity difference is noticeable, so is the overlap.

Selectivity distribution for education versus non-education

The data presented so far is for the most recent year for which data is available, 2015. Technically, the selectivity gap between education and non-education graduates appears to have risen over the last decade, but just by a couple of SAT points. For all practical purposes, as shown in the next figure, the selectivity difference is quite constant.

Difference in SAT score for education and non-education majors, by year

In the data, the “education” category presented here encompasses a number of different majors within the field. There is some difference in college selectivity across such majors, but not really all that much. The selectivity numbers for “general” education training and “specific subject areas” are about 25 SAT points higher than for “specific levels and methods” and “special education.” I will admit I was a little surprised to find the slightly low numbers for special education, given how much a teacher needs to know in this area. One should remember, though, that these are selectivity numbers for colleges—not for the individual students who select specific sub-majors.

Having documented that the college pipeline for training teachers runs through less selective colleges, how concerned should we be? We certainly don’t need all teachers to major in education at Harvard. (This happens to be a good thing, since Harvard doesn’t have an education major—although students can earn a Massachusetts middle/secondary school teaching certificate on top of their regular major.)

More-selective colleges do generally provide more academic opportunities than their less-selective brethren. They also often provide better networking opportunities. Both these elements contribute to developing future education leaders in education. (Do remember that alternative certification programs and master’s degrees are not included in any of these numbers.)

What’s more, the difference in selectivity is higher at the upper end of the selectivity distribution than it might appear based on the average numbers. The 90th percentile numbers for college selectivity are 1195 for education majors and 1380 for non-education disciplines. Those numbers correspond to SAT percentiles of 80th and 75th (education majors) versus 94th and 92nd (non-education majors), respectively. That’s starting to be a much larger difference.

So while the lower selectivity of colleges that train teachers is not so large as to be a cause of panic, it is large enough to think about whether this is the best way our system should run.

Isabel Steffens provided research assistance for this post.

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Immigrant teachers play a critical role in American schools

My most recent post on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution.

America is engaged in an active discussion about reducing the flow of immigration. Perhaps surprisingly, immigration matters a lot for the supply of K-12 teachers. About 8 percent of American teachers were born abroad. If the supply of teachers were to be reduced by 8 percent, schools would be in deep trouble.

Some care is needed in this discussion. There are two different discussions ongoing with regard to immigration: undocumented people and people here legally. There are some teachers who are undocumented, but I suspect there are not many. In comparison, there are presumably many more teachers who immigrated to this country legally. There are also teachers here on temporary work visas, but again, I suspect not many. We are likely talking about a long-run issue, in which the supply of immigrant teachers and immigrants who might become teachers in the future teachers would be cut off, reducing the (already stretched) K-12 teacher pool.

What are the facts? The figure below gives the fraction of primary and secondary school teachers born outside the United States using data taken from IPUMS USA, composed of various years of the U.S. Census and the American Community Survey by the University of Minnesota. In 1950, shortly after the end of World War II, about 4 percent of teachers were foreign born. The fraction dropped to 2 percent by 1960. Since then, the foreign-born fraction has increased steadily, having just topped 8 percent in the most recent data. The fraction of foreign-born teachers is lower than the fraction of immigrants in the general population. However, the teacher fraction is only a little lower than the fraction of legal immigrants in the general population. In this sense, the number of foreign-born teachers is in rough proportion to the foreign-born population.

Immigrant teachers are not spread evenly across the United States. If we didn’t have teachers from abroad, Alabama and Vermont would be not much affected. On the other hand, California and Florida would have teacher supply disasters if there were no foreign-born teachers. The next picture shows the distribution of foreign-born teachers across the U.S.

A U.S. map indicating each state's percentage of immigrant teachers. (Source: Dick Startz/IPUMS)
A U.S. map indicating each state’s percentage of immigrant teachers. (Source: Dick Startz/IPUMS USA, University of Minnesota)

To a considerable extent, there are high numbers of foreign-born teachers in states that have high numbers of foreign-born residents. (Interestingly, Alaska has an unusually high number of foreign-born teachers relative to its overall immigrant population.)

If you were to guess where foreign-born teachers migrated from, you would probably guess right. The largest single “donor country” is Mexico, followed by China. The next figure shows the major homelands of teacher immigrants to the U.S.

It isn’t surprising that many teachers are from China, since it has the world’s largest population. It might be surprising that so many teachers are from the lightly populated West Indies, although of course many of the islands have strong historical ties to the U.S.

The quick summary is that teachers who have migrated to the U.S. are a vital source of teachers. That’s especially true in the parts of the country that have a large immigrant population. None of the proposed changes to immigration policy is likely to cause any short-run crises because few of the changes would affect legal immigrants who are already teachers. (The future for undocumented teachers is much less clear.) But if we were to severely restrict immigration as some have proposed, we might be facing a critical teacher shortage a few years down the road.

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Sealing the border could block one of America’s crucial exports: Education

My most recent post on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution.

The last election made clear that Americans want to improve our balance of trade in order to protect jobs. Something not often realized is that education—particularly higher education—is a major American export. If new border controls prevent the entry of foreign students, or simply makes them feel unwelcome so they go elsewhere, American jobs and American students pay the price.

If you are not an economist, the idea that America’s education of foreign students is an export may seem strange. What makes a service like education an export is that foreigners pay U.S. institutions, so money flows into the U.S. from abroad. Education of a French student in the United States is an export in exactly the same way that the visit of a Chinese tourist to Disneyland is an export, or the provision of stock brokering services on the New York Stock Exchange to a German financial company is an export. When we provide a service that leads to foreigners sending money into the U.S., that’s an export with exactly the same economic effects as when we sell soybeans or coal abroad.

The value of education exports is not a small number. According to the government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, education accounts for 5 percent of the entire national export sector. (Most of the education spending is presumably in higher ed.) I will explain in a moment why this is an underestimate. First, here’s a picture of the official value of exports and imports in education.

Exports and imports of education

Source: BEA.gov; GDP deflator/Dick Startz

Exports in education topped $35 billion in 2015. Not only is the blue (export) line much higher than the green (import) line, the gap in our favor is growing rapidly. By the way, this is one of the few sectors where the trade gap is in America’s favor.

As I wrote above, there is good reason to believe that the official numbers understate the importance of education exports. The numbers reported measure direct spending on education—tuition and the like. They do not include spending on room and board, used cars, pizza shops, or anything else college students spend their money on. Research by John Douglass, Richard Edelstein and Cecile Hoareau from 2011, “US Higher Education as an Export,” reports that the estimated economic impact of higher education, taking out financial aid and adding in cost-of-living expenses, raises the direct economic impact by 43 percent. (The extra 43 percent measures direct spending only, excluding indirect effects of job creation and the like.) Unless that ratio of extract spending has changed, the total value of education exports today tops $50 billion.

There is a good argument to be made that higher education is one of our most successful export sectors. We’re good at higher education, and the rest of the world flocks to our shores and pays for the chance to study in America. Just under 5 percent of college students in the United States are visiting from abroad. As argued above, this is critical for exports. It’s economically critical for something else: Foreigners subsidize American students. Foreign students are generally eligible for very little foreign aid. They pay full freight. Especially in public universities, such as the one at which I teach, those dollars are critical in replacing the money that used to be allocated by state legislatures.

Blockading our borders risks driving away students and their dollars in two ways. The first is straightforward: Effectively excluding students from Muslim countries would mean we lose a lot of customers. The United States had 60,000 Saudi Arabian students in 2014-15. While well below the number from China and Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia was the fourth-largest source of foreign students, just edged out for third by South Korea. Other predominantly Muslim countries also send us a considerable number of students. Taken together, Indonesia, Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, and Pakistan send roughly another 45,000 students.

The second way that building barriers hurts us is by making students from all countries feel unwelcome. Ignoring the issue of building goodwill toward the United States, the fact is that universities around the world would love to out-market us. Universities in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia teach in English and already have a higher ratio of foreign to domestic students than does the United States. (New Zealand and Ireland also have higher ratios than we do, but as exporting countries are too small to be major competitors.) In addition, many universities in Europe have switched part or all of their instruction to English to be more customer-friendly to foreign students.

Right now, the United States is the leading supplier of slots for international students, with about a fourth of the world market. You can see in the following chart that the U.K. and Australia combined trail us only by a little bit. This is a market we lead, but it is also a market we could lose.

Major competitors for international college students
Source: OECD data; author’s calculations/Dick Startz

Education as an economic export is likely not the first concern about how we operate at the border. Still, blocking American exports and moving the associated jobs overseas doesn’t seem in step with our national goals.

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Teacher prep ratings: 2016 edition

My most recent post on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution.

Today, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released its latest rating of elementary school teacher preparation programs. NCTQ’s review of 875 traditional undergraduate programs will make some folks at some schools happy (those who got high ratings) and some unhappy (programs with low grades). Many schools don’t like NCTQ’s review; some schools disagree with NCTQ’s process and some may disagree with the criteria used. And then there are those schools who just don’t want to be held to any external standard at all. However, there are some findings in the NCTQ report that inform us about the overall state of teacher education in our nation. Regardless of whether you agree with the rating of a particular school, these overall findings are important. Maybe they’re even shocking. (Full disclosure: my daughter worked for NCTQ one summer as an intern.)

Everyone understands that a key element in learning to be a teacher is actually getting in the classroom and teaching. Book learning does matter (more on that below), but every teacher I know talks about the importance of learning-by-doing. A critical question, then, is whether that learning begins on the first day of the first job or whether the teacher gets a head start through a quality student teaching experience.

Shockingly, most teacher ed programs don’t do a very good job of arranging high-quality student teaching experiences. The criteria that NCTQ uses to rate schools in this area are very hard to disagree with. NCTQ emphasizes two criteria: the extent to which student teaching mentors observe their mentees and provide written feedback, and the extent of control that the teacher training program has on picking good mentors. Despite the fact that NCTQ sets a pretty low bar for getting a good grade on arrangements for student teaching, very few schools come anywhere close to what we would hope for. To quote NCTQ:

Just 3 percent earn an A (and 2 percent a B) by making an effort to match student teachers with strong cooperating teachers and requiring program supervisors to provide student teachers with at least four observations incorporating documented feedback (five is the minimum shown by research to be effective).

Does that sound bad? NCTQ also finds:

Only about seven percent of programs collect any meaningful information on each cooperating teachers’ skills, and only about one percent screen cooperating teachers for both their mentorship and effectiveness as a teacher.

These findings make me wonder just how many student teaching experiences consist of little more than throwing student teachers in front of a class with little or no useful guidance. While I’m sure most student teachers do receive informal feedback, I share NCTQ’s position that more formal feedback is also important.

Let’s turn to the book learning question. Here, NCTQ has findings that are quite clear…but that are also controversial. Education schools are notorious for their low academic standards. Of course some education schools do have perfectly high academic standards, but even these schools often find their reputations tarred by unfair association with weaker peers. NCTQ rates schools based on the selection of undergraduates into teacher prep programs, using a criterion that entrants should have measures of academic ability that come from the top half of college applicants. This does not mean every entering student should be from the top half, but at least on average entering students should be from the top half.

Selectivity criteria are debatable for two reasons. Some people don’t think that pure academic ability is all that important for elementary school teachers. Others are concerned with the effect that selectivity standards have on diversity. I have little sympathy for the former argument. Surely academic ability is not the only ability that an elementary teacher should have. A high Emotional-Quotient is also necessary. Just as surely, though, academic ability matters.

The arguments about diversity are a little different. One argument is that standard measures of academic ability, especially standardized tests, are biased against members of some minority groups. To the extent that the tests measure ability inaccurately, the concern is legitimate. A different argument is that schools need a diverse set of teachers, and in admitting prospective teachers or hiring teacher applicants, preparation programs and schools should prioritize workforce diversity, even if it comes at the expense of compromising performance or admissions standards for some minorities who are in short supply.

Whichever side of the debate you favor, NCTQ’s findings are very, very interesting. A bit over half of the 875 programs studied do pretty well on NCTQ’s selectivity standard. While only 6 percent of teacher training programs get an A or B rating based on admitting students with high GPAs or test scores, another 50 percent of programs get a high grade because they draw students who are above average based on their own institution’s admission standards—even though their own institution’s admissions are not high by national standards. This is good, and NCTQ points out that progress has been made over the last couple of years. However, to the extent that teacher prep programs are concentrated in low selectivity colleges, the fact that the ed schools are selective within their institution’s not-too-selective pool isn’t all that reassuring. In other words, those ed schools are doing a good job on the aspects of selectivity that they can control, but we might still worry about whether nationally too few teachers come from more selective schools.

Here’s the very good news: Many programs are both selective and diverse! 113 of the 875 programs earned an A+ for this accomplishment. NCTQ writes:

Programs can earn this A+ by being more diverse than the program’s institution as a whole or more diverse than their state’s teacher workforce. These 113 programs prove that teacher prep programs can be both selective and diverse.

So, a suggestion for ed school deans: If you’re worried about how to become more selective without losing diversity, get some advice from one of the 113 peer institutions who’ve demonstrated that you can pull this off.

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An Education Thanksgiving

My most recent post on the BROWN CENTER CHALKBOARD at the Brookings Institution.

This time of year we ought to reflect on the things that are so right in American education. News stories—and, yes, blog posts—tend to focus on the negative: what’s gone wrong and what needs to be fixed. While working for the better is the American way, it’s also important to recognize that which is going well. It is the month for Thanksgiving.

So today’s post offers solely data on good news: not perfect news, not the-job-is-all-done news—but good news.


Over the last fifteen years, high school graduation rates have risen. The vast majority of adults have a high school diploma. White, Black, and Hispanic graduation rates have all moved up (and notably, the increases have been larger among minorities, which has slightly narrowed gaps).

High school completion rates, age 25 and over


Source: Digest of Education Statistics 2015 Table 104.10


Over the last fifteen years, a noticeably increased portion of the adult population has earned a college degree. This is true among adults of all races, though it’s not clear gaps have made any progress during this time.

Bachelor’s degree completion rates, age 25 and over


Source: Digest of Education Statistics 2015 Table 104.10


There’s a tendency to focus on degree completion at the high school and college level. Community colleges and associate degrees matter too, and they are also up. Here are the numbers by sex. If you’re wondering, the numbers have also risen for all racial and ethnic groups.

Associate degree completion rates, ages 25-29


Source: Digest of Education Statistics 2015 Table 104.65


Violence against students is way, way down from the 1990s and seems to be continuing to slowly decline. Keeping our kids safe at school is surely something to be thankful for.

Rate of violent incidents in school per 1,000 students age 12-18

capture4Source: Digest of Education Statistics 2015 Table 228.20

School is also a less scary place than it once was—reductions of more than 50 percent for both males and females.

Percentage of students age 12-18 who reported being afraid of attack at school


Source: Digest of Education Statistics 2015 Table 230.70


Alcohol use among high school students is declining. I think this is a good thing, although I do wonder what the French would think of the notion that most high school students had not had a glass of wine in the last month.

Percentage of students in grades 9-12 who report using alcohol at least 1 day during the previous 30

capture6Source: Digest of Education Statistics 2015 Table 232.10


Perhaps the most telling good news comes from the upward trend in the EdNext/PEPG poll in which the public is asked to grade schools. For their own local schools, presumably the ones the public knows best, a majority now assign a grade of A or B. We can’t pin down what exactly is making the public more satisfied, but things appear to be moving in the right direction.

Fraction of public giving schools grades of A or B: Local schools and nation as a whole

capture7Source: EducationNext polls

In this month for Thanksgiving we do have much to be thankful for in our kids’ schools. But you will see that I have left out something, something I don’t have a picture for, something which is the most important thing to be thankful for.

Our schools are filled with a great many very good teachers and very many great teachers (and principals and staff and so many parent volunteers too). Thanks gals and guys.

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