Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Do students learn anything in college?

Recent WSJ headline: "Exclusive Test Data: Many Colleges Fail to Improve Critical-Thinking Skills."  Higher education is already being criticized for being overly expensive, stifling free speech with political correctness, and having all too many graduates without jobs.  Now we have a new claim: that many students do not really learn much as they accumulate credit hours.

The study cited by WSJ compares scores on a critical thinking test taken by freshmen and seniors at a wide range of schools.  At some prestigious schools (e.g., UT-Austin), the scores of seniors are about the same as those of freshmen.  The schools with the largest "improvement" in scores include Plymouth State and Western Carolina.  

On the surface this would imply that higher education is not delivering on its promise to develop higher level critical thinking skills.  Here is another interpretation: schools like UT-Austin admit students with very strong skills in this dimension to begin with, so the change in scores is negligible three years later.  Also, the composition of the test-taking class changes considerably in some schools.  Almost half of the freshmen at Plymouth State and Western Carolina never graduate, so most of the score increase at those schools could be explained by weeding out the weakest students.

Finally, critical thinking skills are important but they are not the sole measure of academic accomplishment.  Compare the scores of freshmen and seniors on subjects such as biochemistry, electrical engineering, and finance to get a better overall picture.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A sweet NAFTA deal for sugar producers

The US and Mexico just concluded a deal on sugar trade.  A bit of background is in order.  The US is globally competitive for many agricultural products; sugar is not one of them.  Under NAFTA the US started importing significant amounts of Mexican sugar.  US sugar refiners protested and, to make a long story short, the result is a new set of NAFTA terms on sugar.  Net result: import restrictions and higher prices.  A win for US producers but a loss for US sugar consumers, US producers of products that use sugar and Mexican sugar producers.  A classic win-lose-lose-lose deal.  Perhaps a preview of what will happen when the gang that brought us "The Art of the Deal" gets their hands on the rest of NAFTA?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Ticket pricing on Broadway

Want to see a big hit such as "Hamilton" or "Hello Dolly" with Bette Midler on Broadway? Be prepared to pay $750 at the box office and well over $1000 in the secondary market.  These prices generate headlines and claims that Broadway is unaffordable for the average NYC visitor.

This NYT piece sheds a light on the economics behind live theatre pricing.  As it turns out, there are many theaters on the Great White Way and bargains can be had.  The average ticket price is just over $100 and, on most nights, you can stand in line at TKTS and score a (not great) seat for under $40.

What has changed in recent years is the adoption of dynamic pricing.  The same tools that airlines pioneered have come to the arts and entertainment world.   Ticket prices ratchet up for the most popular shows to ration demand.   By doing so there also is a clear match between the public's willingness to pay and the reward structure for those producing the shows:
From an economics perspective, “this is simply a rationing problem” ... If you keep prices low, people will buy tickets and resell them on the secondary market. Someone is going to pay a market-clearing price, no matter how high. The only question is who should get the money: the investors and performers and creators, or a speculator who managed to snap up the tickets the moment the box office opened?”
The Times article provides some helpful hints for those seeking the best deals: look for weekday shows and visit at an off-peak time such as January or September.  

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Like health care, international trade is complex

President Trump has lauded Harley-Davidson as a (according to NYT) "a pillar of U.S. manufacturing."

But wait, H-D has opened up a new plant.  And it is not in Wisconsin.  It is in Thailand.  H-D claims that production at the Thai plant is aimed at the Asian market and that none of the motorcycles built in Thailand will be shipped to the US.

So why isn't H-D expanding US capacity to serve the Asian market?  Two challenges: (1) savings in labor costs and (2) Thailand imposes a 60% tariff on imported motorcycles.

But what might have happened to that 60% tariff if the US had completed negotiations on the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement?  The labor cost difference would not have gone away, but the tariff barrier likely would have become negligible.

Of course union leaders called the Thai plant "a slap in the face to U.S. workers."   And they opposed TPPA.  And they were delighted when the President cancelled TPPA.  But how can they now complain that new production facilities have been opened in Asia?  Sounds like advisors to the unions and the President did not remember much from their economics classes.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Economists link sound management to firm success

Economists have done very little research linking how different management practices correlate with indicators of firm performance such as productivity and growth.  The reason is quite simple: economic research relies all too often on data collected by the government and the government does not collect data on management.

Two professors at MIT Sloan and a colleague at Stanford decided to collect data on management practices and, with the help of the Census Bureau, linked it to data on individual manufacturing plants.  The focus was on 16 measures of monitoring, targets and incentives which were combined into a management index.

The results, summarized in this HBR piece, were quite striking: every 10% increase in the management index was associated with a 14% increase in productivity.  Well-managed firms also were most likely to grow and less likely to close.  Management practices have a bigger effect on  productivity than IT investments, R&D intensity, and worker skills.

Interesting question raised by the study: we know that investments in IT, R&D and worker skills are quite expensive compared to the cost of changing management practices.  So why don't the poorly managed firms make adjustments?  Maybe it has something to do with who the managers of those firms are!

Saturday, May 6, 2017

All you need to know about trade ... in 70 words

Courtesy of former Secretary of State George Schultz and Harvard professor Marty Feldstein in today's WP:
If a country consumes more than it produces, it must import more than it exports. That’s not a rip-off; that’s arithmetic. 
If we manage to negotiate a reduction in the Chinese trade surplus with the United States, we will have an increased trade deficit with some other country. 
Federal deficit spending, a massive and continuing act of dissaving, is the culprit. Control that spending and you will control trade deficits.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

NC State MBAs shine in Lulu eGames

Kudos to NC State MBAs London White and Ben Bradley for their success in NC State's premiere entrepreneurship competition.  White was part of the VieMetrics team that won first place in the New Ventures division, taking home $10k.  VieMetrics has developed a device that can help asthma and COPA patients predict when an attack might be coming.  The idea for the device was developed in the product innovation class MBA 555.

Bradley received 2nd place in the Arts Ventures division and was awarded $3k for his Thrive Collective concept, which can enhance efficiency in the nonprofit sector through enhanced collaboration.  Learn more about his concept in this YouTube video.

You can learn more about the eGames and the other winners here and for more details about Poole College of Management winners go here.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

How useful are job interviews?

Not very, according to this NYT piece by Yale School of Management professor Jason Dana.  Dana's research used student experiments to test whether face-to-face interviews aided in decision making.  In one exercise, students were asked to predict GPA of other students based on what courses they were taking, past GPA and an interview.  In a control group another set of students were asked to make GPA predictions based on course schedule and past GPA alone.  Guess which set of predictions was more accurate?  The group that did not conduct interviews and relied solely on numbers and lists.

All too often job interviews are unstructured, free flowing discussions that might be good predictors of interpersonal compatibility between interviewer and interviewee but are poor predictors of job performance.  What should companies do?  Dana suggests the following:
What can be done? One option is to structure interviews so that all candidates receive the same questions, a procedure that has been shown to make interviews more reliable and modestly more predictive of job success. Alternatively, you can use interviews to test job-related skills, rather than idly chatting or asking personal questions.

Friday, April 21, 2017

United Airlines incident: price controls strike again

Airlines make a choice regarding how many tickets they sell on a flight.   Because airline seats are perishable commodities and the cost of servicing an extra passenger is zero, airlines want each plane to fly with a full passenger load.  Theaters face the same challenge.  Yet when you buy theatre tickets, how often do you find someone else in your seat?  

One reason airlines rely on overbooking is that US Department of Transportation regulations encourage it, as pointed out in this HBR online piece.  The regs allow bumped passengers to be paid 200-400% of the price of their ticket (one-way, I might add) with an overall cap of $1350.  So a passenger who bought a heavily discounted ticket might only receive $400-500 in compensation for being bumped, well below what a true volunteer might demand.  

Airlines could manage passenger loads in different ways, such as penalizing no-shows who do not contact the airline in advance and are not on a connecting flight.  If airlines insist on overbooking, then the most efficient (in the economics sense of the word) compensation mechanism would be an auction where passengers bid for the right to be bumped.  In the case of the infamous Chicago to Louisville flight two weeks ago, the bid price for being bumped would rise until there were four true volunteers.  That would no doubt be quite a bit more than United actually spent, but I bet they sure wished in retrospect that they had paid those four passengers enough to get them to exit the plane without assistance.  

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Do you really need a college degree to be a hotel manager?

Over the last five years, more and more companies have been insisting on college degrees for entry level jobs.  At the aggregate level this might make sense if jobs are demanding more scientific knowledge or more analytical or critical thinking skills.  However, a recent study by the Rockefeller Foundation and Edelman Intelligence (WSJ story here) finds educational demands by employers are rising across the spectrum.  For instance in 2011, 29% of the job listings for hotel managers called for a college degree; this figure rose to 47% five years later.

Apparently the weak job market has created a surplus of college grads for positions that actually require advanced education, forcing many grads to lower their ambitions.  Employers react to the new applicant pool by raising their educational standards.  The Rockefeller-Edelman study raises questions as to whether this decision is really meeting employer needs.  A college degree could serve as a signal for otherwise hard-to-measure communications skills.  Yet companies are now complaining that they are unable to retain these overqualified workers.

Today's college graduates face a much stronger market than their counterparts five to ten years ago.  If this continues, I would expect companies to start using games or psychometric evaluations to evaluate communications skills directly and stop using degree possession as a screen.