Saturday, April 4, 2015

Why You Need to Understand Statistics

While this is "honest" in the sense of not being fraud, it is not honest in the sense of giving you the truth. If your skill in logic and statistics is weak, you will certainly walk away believing a falsehood. I'm not sure that is accidental.
More likely, it's a battle: an epic struggle between universities and student. You, to get their education and degree. They to get your money. Their side seems more sophisticated.
 Once upon a time, we marketed law schools with a printed brochure or two. That changed with the advent of the new century and the internet. Now marketing is pervasive: web pages, emails, blog posts, and forums.

With increased marketing, some educators began to worry about how we presented ourselves to students. As a sometime social scientist, I was particularly concerned about the way in which some law schools reported median salaries without disclosing the number of graduates supplying that information. A school could report that it had employment information from 99% of its graduates, that 60% were in private practice, and that the median salary for those private practitioners was $120,000. Nowhere did the reader learn that only 45% of the graduates reported salary information.
[This is a hypothetical example; it does not represent any particular law school.]

I also noticed that, although law schools know only the average “amount borrowed” by their students, schools and the media began to represent that figure as the average “debt owed.” Interest, unfortunately, accumulates while a student is in law school, so the “amount borrowed” significantly understates the “debt owed” when loans fall due.
Other educators worried about a lack of candor when schools offered scholarships to students. A school might offer an attractive three-year scholarship to an applicant, with the seemingly easy condition that the student maintain a B average. The school knew that it tightly controlled curves in first-year courses, so that a predictable number of awardees would fail that condition, but the applicants didn’t understand that. This isn’t just a matter of optimism bias; undergraduates literally do not understand law school curves. A few years ago, one law school hopeful said to me: “What’s the big deal about grade competition in law school? It’s not like there’s a limit on the number of A’s or anything.” When I explained the facts of law school life, she went off to pursue a Ph.D. in botany.

And then there was the matter of nested statistics. Schools would report the number of employed graduates, then identify percentages of those graduates working in particular job categories. Categories spawned sub-categories, and readers began to lose sight of the denominator.

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