Sunday, February 15, 2009

To Have and Have Not

It would be a gross misrepresentation to say that anyone at Oxford is “poor”. Nonetheless, there is clearly a gap between those who are fairly well-off and those who are filthy rich. Looking down the list of colleges of Oxford, one notices that the endowment of the different colleges differ by an order of magnitude. Do the colleges with huge endowments provide higher quality education? This is a good question that many people here keep asking.

One datum that is easy to point to is the famous Norrington table which basically ranks how well each college does on the final exams. My college, Somerville, was down near the bottom last year, although in previous years we have been more or less in the middle. There are plenty of reasons to distrust this table – there are all sorts of systematic biases that make this particular data in some sense unfair. But ignoring these problems for a moment, one notes immediately a high correlation between endowment and scoring well on the Norrington table.

(Disclaimer: I’m not saying that any oxford college is providing a bad education. If you look into the details of the Norrington table you realize that the differences in actual performance between the colleges is pretty small. Nonetheless, each college wants to be able to claim it is better than the others).

Here is an article (a few years old) studying the discrepancy in how the varying level of resources effect the college experience. Yes, it is true. The rich colleges have more resources, and can buy more personal attention for their students, can buy better libraries, more computers, and so forth. It is even plausible that the rich colleges are able to do more to keep their best faculty (although looking around the university it seems that at least to some extent the superstars are well distributed). But around here people think that these things are not the major factor on the Norrington table. The major factor (most people seem to think) is that the rich colleges simply are able to attract the best students – and these best students naturally score higher four years later.

Why would the best students choose to go to the rich colleges? There are a few obvious reasons: better resources, better academic reputation on that Norrington table, better food at High table, nicer rooms, manicured lawns, and so forth. But no one really seems to think that these things are too important. The one thing that people do think is important is simply the pocketbook. The rich colleges can cost less.

Apparently, a few years ago, St. John’s college thought it might be a good idea to start spending some of its money instead of swimming around in it like Scrooge McDuck (no offense intended). So they announced that they intended to stop charging tuition for a while. Now THAT is a really good reason to try to get into St. John’s. As it turned out, this announcement caused an uproar across the university and people screamed that the university could not have a two-tiered system where the elite go for free. In the end St John’s tabled this plan – but they do have some really hefty scholarships available to their students, and they guarantee housing for all of their students – which many colleges cannot.

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