I wrote a brief response on Wednesday to the article “Self-Entitled College Students: Contributions of Personality, Parenting, and Motivational Factors” by Ellen Greenberger et al, promising more soon. Then the NYU occupation hit, and I didn’t get back to it as quickly as I’d hoped. But the article, which appeared in the November 2008 issue of The Journal of Youth and Adolescence, is riding a wave of media attention, and there’s a lot more that needs saying about it.

The crucial problem with the article is in its methodology. It’s not at all clear that it measures what it claims to be measuring, and it presents its findings in such a way as to seriously mislead the casual reader as to what the students it surveyed actually said. I’ll dig into those issues in an upcoming post.

For now, though, I’d like to point out one narrow fact: Greenberger’s findings are based on an extremely unrepresentative sample of American college students.

As many academics do, Greenberger and her colleagues found their research subjects by advertising among students on their home campus — they put up flyers asking students to participate in a study, and gave a questionnaire to the students who responded. In this case, the home campus was University of California at Irvine, a highly-competitive university whose entering students have an average high school GPA of 3.95.

For this particular study, the researchers posted flyers in the UC Irvine Social Sciences Human Subjects Laboratory, and posted a notice at the lab’s website.

As they report in their article, these postings brought in 466 student participants. Of those students, 364, or 78.1%, were women, and 269, or 57.7%, were of Asian or Pacific Islander descent. Nearly all were social science majors.

The sample, then, was unrepresentative of the nation as a whole, and unrepresentative in ways that the authors acknowledge may have influenced the study’s results — they note, for instance, that students of Asian descent returned higher scores on measures of what they call “Academic Entitlement” than non-Asians, and that students who were not born in the US returned higher scores than those who were.

So this was a study of social science majors at an extremely selective, extremely competitive research university. It was a sample that was demographically unrepresentative of the nation as a whole. And yet its findings have been eagerly reported as evidence of what American students, as a group, believe.

All of this is significant to our interpretation of the study, but it’s just a lead-up to my favorite tidbit about the way the sample was assembled. More on that in my next post.

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