College admissions, and admissions yields

Now that the college acceptances are arriving, it's time for another post in my occasional series about the numbers in the college application process. Previous posts, about the college admissions landscape generally and the early application process, are available here and here.

The college application process, grueling as it is for students and their parents, is a two-step process. (Economists call it a two-player game, where neither side has complete information. Here's a link to an academic paper, "Student Portfolios and the College Admissions Problem" if you want to know more.) Students have to choose which colleges to apply to, whether to apply early, and then, once the applications are done, they have to wait. But once the colleges have notified applicants of their admissions decisions, they in turn have to wait and see which accepted students will accept them. (The number of accepted students enrolling is the 'yield' element in the college rankings.) The switch from seller’s market to buyer’s market is unsettling for parents and students. It’s even harder for the colleges: if they have guessed wrong - and the students they have admitted decide to go somewhere else - their yield numbers will decline, as might their selectivity numbers. (I will take up the issue of college rankings, again, in a later post.)

Consider Macalester College. It's a small liberal-arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota. From 2007 through 2010, the number of applications stayed fairly steady, floating around an average of about 4750 applications. In 2011, the number increased by over 40%, to more than 6100 applications. This increase generated a fair amount of commentary, eg, in the New York Times and the Huffington Post, but nobody was quite sure what had happened. But colleges have to pick the right students from among their applicants. Over the four years from 2007 to 2010, Macalester had done just that, and the number of admitted students who enrolled increased steadily. As a concomitant, Macalester admitted no students from its waitlist in 2009 and 2010. But something happened last spring. Macalester admitted more students who decided not to attend than usual, and the number of accepted students who enrolled declined sharply. Of the 196 students who accepted a place on the waitlist, 196 were admitted. (Source: Macalester Common Data set, 2007-2010)

Is this really a surprise? It probably shouldn't have been. Academic work suggests that joining the common application will increase applications and decreases yield. (You can get the relevant paper as a pdf from the National Bureau of Economic Research here.) Is there a lesson? I would draw two: context matters. I've said this before - but the short version is, don't get too excited about year to year changes. And, for parents of kids getting ready to apply for college, take a step back. Think hard about what's happened over the last couple of years at the school. Don't depend too much on a college's yield to tell you much, if anything, about the quality of the school. Whether the school is a good match for the student is much more important than the yield.

I will be away for the next week, but check back next week for more posts, including more about strategic planning from guest blogger Marta Siberio.


Gas Prices

Since the issue seems to be back in the news again, here's a link to the White House Infographic on Gas Prices. And here's a screenshot of the main point: the gasoline prices are linked to the price of oil, and demand for oil is increasing world wide:
This is true - but what's wrong with this picture? It neglects a baseline - that the US has already had its huge runup in oil consumption. This fact does come in later down in the infographic - the US uses 20% of the world's oil consumption. The White House uses this latter fact to justify an "we need an all-of-the-above approach" argument. Personally, I think we need to cut consumption. Any thoughts, about the substance or the representation? Send a comment!


Visualizing Health Care Spending, from The

Here's a link to a series of charts The has put together titled "10 Ways to Visualize How Americans Spend Money on Health Care." It's a pretty compelling series of charts, showing how we spend more money than most other developed nations in the world, and get less, and possibly worse, care for it. (I'm talking overall, not individually.)

I would have done a couple of things differently. First, I would have included this chart showing the growth in the cost of health insurance premiums, by state, between 2003 and 2010:

I would also have included this one, because it shows how much we are spending for end-of-life care, and raises questions about how effectively we are providing that care.

Both are from the National Institute for Health Care Management, a not-for-profit that researches health issues and releases research and promotes access to and effectiveness of health care, and the source of most of the charts on The

And finally, I would have tried to find out whether the big spenders illustrated in the slide titled "Personal Health Care Spending is Highly Concentrated" were people with high medical costs or medical tourists, people who paid directly for their medical care. My guess, from looking at the slide in context, is that it's the former, but it would be useful to know.

But altogether, it's a very interesting, if disturbing, set of charts.


Guest Blogger Marta Siberio on Strategic Planning: Are you ready for it?

Not every organization is ready for strategic planning. Before you decide to undertake a strategic planning process, consider these factors: 

§ Crisis-free: the organization’s fundamentals should be stable. If there are financial or significant personnel problems, handle them first. If your Board is in turmoil, invest in board member development before you start the strategic planning process.

§ Leadership stability and alignment: it is best to do this work when the CEO and Board leadership are committed to being involved with the organization for most of the period of the plan being developed. If the Board is not interested in planning, invest the time so members learn the value of the process and are ready for it before you start.

§ Openness to possibilities and learning: assess how open the organization is to new ideas and possibilities; if you already think you know all the answers, and just want to get buy-in, you are not likely to reap the benefits of the process.

§ Organizational bandwidth: strategic planning means more work for staff and Board during the planning process, so have a clear-eyed view of how leaders will re-focus their time to be able to engage in thoughtful conversations.

One of the most important ingredients to a successful strategic planning process is time: keeping up momentum while not rushing people through challenging thinking requires careful attention. A strategic plan can be completed in four months, although most take between 6-9 months. I no longer recommend full day retreats; a series of 3-hour meetings with sufficient time in between for additional research and reflection results in more considered strategies. Finally, it is important to take the time throughout the process to talk with key participants about their experience, and make any necessary modifications to ensure full engagement.

Other resources you will need:

§ Organizational data: developing an accurate picture of where your organization has come from and where you are today requires grappling with your data. No matter what state it’s in, sorting and making sense of your historical performance is an important step in a successful planning process.

§ Stakeholder engagement: you need to be ready to identify and access those individuals best positioned to comment on your organization's work, its value and any shortcomings. They should be knowledgeable about the fields in which you work so they can identify possible opportunities and challenges.

Guest blogger Marta Siberio is the principal in Marta Siberio Consulting, which has provided organizational development and strategic planning services since 1993. Her previous post, "Strategic Planning: Is it for you?" is here.

Consider the complications

One of the many things I like about Nate Silver's approach to interpreting numbers is that he takes the time to explain his methodology clearly, supports his decisions, and sets out the advantages and disadvantages of his choices. One example is last week's column titled "Why is Santorum Overperforming his Poll Numbers?"

As Silver puts it:
The FiveThirtyEight forecast model is based on statewide polls and statewide polls alone in presidential primaries and caucuses. It doesn’t do anything especially fancy. This approach has advantages and disadvantages.
The disadvantage is that if the polls are wrong, the model will be wrong too. . . 
The advantage is that the model gives us a relatively clean and objective benchmark to evaluate the candidates’ actual performance against the polls.
He then compares his model against Santorum's performance in the states with robust polling, and in states with limited polling, and concludes that Santorum has outperformed the polls by a small amount - 2.3 percentage points in the smaller set, and 2.1 percentage points in the larger set, enough to be statistically significant. Silver offers fours hypothesis (higher Santorum turnout, neglect of cellphone-only voters, unwillingness to reveal choices to poll takers, and tactical voting) that might explain the difference, and considers each of them in turn.

It's a good piece, clearly written. It enlarges our understanding of what's happening.  (And in case you're wondering, Silver thinks Santorum is unlikely to get the nomination.) Because it continues the conversation as events develop, this kind of iterative approach is a good model to follow for anyone who has to explain numbers for a living.


Global warming in a flash

Climate Central has posted a video based on NASA surface temperature data since 1880, showing how temperatures over the years have wandered from the average. The baseline period is 1951-1980. That's a screenshot above, but you'll have to click on the link to play the video. You've probably figured it out, but blue is cooler, red is warmer, than the baseline average. The video is only 26 seconds long. Watch the US for the drought and dustbowl of the 1930s, and look for the recent changes in the arctic zones.


Statistics, Predictions, and Celebrity Marriages

In today's Science Times, the New York Times' weekly science section, John Tierney writes of updating the formula he and statistician Garth Sundem developed to predict the likely lifespan of celebrity marriages. They have now crunched five years of data, and refined the measure to take account of mentions in the New York Times relative to mentions in The National Enquirer. They also include months of dating before marriage, relative ages of the couple, and something they call the image (how many images of the woman scantily clad appear on the web).

This article is perhaps not as sublime as Marta Siberio's guest post yesterday about strategic planning, but it is far from preposterous. The descriptions are clear, the results defensible. Whether finding the answer is worth taking the trouble is another question - one that's addressed in the NY Times comments.


Guest blogger Marta Siberio on Strategic Planning: Is it for you?

My 20+ years of helping organizations through strategic planning have shown me that undertaking a strategic planning process can be very helpful if an organization is clear about what it expects from the process. The strategic planning process itself is fairly straightforward.

Every planning process has five stages. Briefly, they are:
1.     Assessment: ask major stakeholders inside and outside the organization about its unique strengths and impact, and identify any major challenges and future opportunities. Speak to experts in the fields that the organization works in and explore new possibilities. Review data about the organization’s operations and services. Synthesize all of this and present the common themes and suggested strategic issues.
2.     Dialogue and Discernment: hold discussions among the decision-makers about the assessment.  Explore and challenge assumptions.  Consider what-if scenarios.
3.     Mission, Vision, Values Refresh: ground the new strategy in a clear mission and values statement and a new vision about the change that is sought.
4.     Select Strategic Priorities: develop shared criteria to select priorities that will shape the strategy, and choose the top 3 to 5. Articulate a clear rationale for pursing each priority.
5.     Develop Goals and Objectives: figure out your destination for each priority area; make sure it is aspirational and within reach. Now define the specific actions needed to get there.

What’s in it for you?
Strategic planning offers organizations some very significant potential benefits:
§  organizational focus: the collective vision crafted in the strategic planning process gives everyone a shared focus; the alignment of resources to achieve that vision also leads to greater effectiveness.
§  staff motivation: a planning process that engages staff in identifying opportunities and contributing to the selection of priorities increases staff motivation – which only improves as staff see the plan carried out.
§  enhanced positioning: organizations that complete thoughtful strategic planning processes increase their stature in the minds of funders and supporters.
§  board engagement: strategic planning is an excellent opportunity to motivate Board members and offers the chance to promote emerging leaders on your Board and cultivate potential members by including them in the Strategic Planning Committee.

Guest blogger Marta Siberio is the president of Marta Siberio Consulting, which has provided organizational development and strategic planning services since 1993. Not every organization is ready for strategic planning. Marta’s next post will identify certain criteria to consider as you decide.


Thinking big about transportation in New York City

As many people have pointed out, transportation in New York City is, well, dreadful, with huge traffic jams, crumbling infrastructure, trucks blocking lanes, and declining service in public transportation. Here's a film from Streetfilms that makes a very strong case for congestion pricing:

(Note the London bike lanes separated by a physical barrier from the flow of motor traffic.)

And in case you missed it, you can read Bill Keller's terrific article about Sam Schwartz, creative traffic engineer, here. "The Fair Pricing: A More Equitable Transportation Formula" presentation Keller refers to, which is well worth a look, is available here.


Super Tuesday results update

In case you're looking at the print edition of the paper, as I am, here's an updated Super Tuesday results map from the NY Times. It shows Romney as having won five states, and leading in two others, including Ohio, as of 8:38 AM. Screenshot below:
Source: NY Times

As an information source, it's a little confusing, as it includes all the primaries completed so far, not just yesterday's. A better label would solve that problem.


How to be a better listener

Here's a useful article from the McKinsey Quarterly (free once you've registered), on an important skill many of us could do better: listening. The full column is worth reading, as it is illustrated with several helpful examples, but here's the gist:
  1. Show respect. Easy to say, right? But harder to do. One way is to show everyone around you that you value their perspective by waiting for them to come out with what they're thinking, rather than helping them to solve a problem. 
  2. Keep quiet. Really. Let the other person talk.
  3. Challenge assumptions - but be subtle about it. One suggestion the author makes is to alter a single fact or assumption to see if that will alter a team's approach to a problem. It might help bring out facts that contradict what everyone "knows," helping you get to a better solution.
The author doesn't add this, but it's evident that maintaining a sense of humor is useful too. As I said, there are many useful anecdotes in the article, so it's worth reading. I'll quote one:
I was amused when John McLaughlin, the former deputy director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, told me that when he had to make tough decisions he often ended his conversations with colleagues by asking, “Is there anything left that you haven’t told me . . . because I don’t want you to leave this room and go down the hall to your buddy’s office and tell him that I just didn’t get it.” With that question, McLaughlin communicated the expectation that his colleagues should be prepared; he demanded that everything come out on the table; and he signaled genuine respect for what his colleagues had to say.

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