Sunday, March 08, 2009

Either Old Main is Corrupt or Incompetent

The New York Times has an article about college admissions this year in the face of the worst economic downturn in thirty years. These three paragraphs sum things up rather well.
Just as nervously, colleges — facing a financial landscape they have never seen before — are trying to figure out how many students to accept, and how many students will accept them.

Typically, they rely on statistical models to predict which students will take them up on their offers to attend. But this year, with the economy turning parents and students into bargain hunters, demographics changing and unexpected jolts in the price of gas and the number of applications, they have little faith on those models.

“Trying to hit those numbers is like trying to hit a hot tub when you’re skydiving from 30,000 feet,” said Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College in Ohio. “I’m going to go to church every day in April.”
Now consider the justification for the purchase of a new campus for Penn State Lehigh Valley which I wrote about in the previous post.
"Penn State Lehigh Valley has continued to see growth in enrollment since 2000 and, looking at the population projections for our service area, we expect that to continue," said Ann Williams, chancellor of Penn State Lehigh Valley. "However, our current facility is at capacity and presents a number of limitations in its ability to meet the current and future needs of students. Purchasing the property in Center Valley is a viable solution."

The Lehigh Valley is the third largest population area in Pennsylvania and, according to the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, the second fastest growth area in the Northeast with a projected population increase of 22 percent by 2030. In addition, the number of high school graduates in the area served by Penn State Lehigh Valley is expected to increase 16.5 percent between 2004 and 2016.

The current Penn State Lehigh Valley campus in Fogelsville is at capacity. Despite the uncertain economic landscape, the purchase of the Center Valley facility would prove to be the most efficient use of resources to resolve some of the immediate concerns at the Lehigh Valley campus.
Why does Old Main have confidence in these demographic predictions when others are white knuckling it?

Digging a little deeper reveals that they shouldn't.

The projection of a 22% growth in population by 2030 made in the summer of 2007 by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission is an upward correction to an 2002 projection which underestimated the forecast growth in 2005. The reason that the 2002 projection missed its mark is very likely that it did not anticipate the housing bubble in the Lehigh Valley which was driven by migration from nearby higher cost of living areas. That bubble has now burst. Hence there is no reason to place any faith in this prediction.

There is no mention of where the high school graduation rate prediction comes, but presumably the prediction is from these made by Penn State itself. This assumption is reasonable, because Penn State predictions, like the one in the quote, use 2004 as the base year and go out to 2016.

There is just one little problem here, the Web page where these projections are housed carries the following warning.
At this time, updated High School Graduation Projection information is not available. This is because some core data, that our system required, was no longer available. Penn State is initiating a project to re-engineer these systems and reports since separate sources for some of this missing critical information has been located. Due to data limitations not all current reports will be available in the future but every effort is being made to create as many of the reports as possible. Thank you for your patience with this process.
This problen is longstanding. A quick trip in the Way Back Machine reveals that a similar warning first appeared on this page in February of 2007 and has been present every since.

It would appear that Old Main is willing to make the decision to buy a new campus for Penn State Lehigh Valley based on their own projections which they they know to be faulty and other projections which a few minutes of research would have revealed as faulty.

Or quite possibly the decision was made based on some unspoken considerations-political perhaps- and the data was offered up post hoc to sell the dubious deal to the public.

Anyway you slice it, corrupt or incompetent, this is a bad decision. Unless, of course, the new campus is a gift.

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2 comments:

EEISElmo said...

Your color scheme makes reading what you have to say very difficult. White on black is bad but red on black is just heinous. www.colorbrewer.org has a tool designed for maps but it's an excellent choice for web pages too.

Veblen said...

Thanks for the tip. I'll take a look at it. Perhaps a redesign will be in order over the summer if I find both inspiration and time.

By the way, while I occasionally do use red for editorial notes, this time both the color and the italics were in the original.