The science behind “The School Counselor”
May 14, 2011 1 Comment
The science fiction idea at the heart of my short story “The School Counselor” was predicting students’ futures in a quantitative manner. This is more feasible in the near future than you may think, if we adapt two tools from other fields: market research and microsimulation models, and invent a third: quantitative career planning.
School counselors build their own market segmentation naturally by seeing hundreds of students over a number of years. However, the market research industry has turned segmentation into a science (granted, it’s proprietary and lucrative, so is not much in public view). Our data-rich society already segments students into marketing niches because they are two-legged spending machines – why not sell/supply that data to counselors so students could better plan their futures? (If someone had showed me the PRIZM segments back in high school, it would have made my planning a lot clearer.)
Actually, the Department of Education surveys high school students beyond graduation, but those quantitative findings are mainly used for academic studies and not to inform student choices. (Disclosure: I used DoE’s longitudinal NELS88 for a grad school project.)
Microsimulation model methodology suggests treating the future consequences of a student’s decision as missing data and imputing it from the experiences of former students in the same segment. This could be done by building an equation based on the experiences of everyone in the segment, or by finding only the ‘nearest-neighbor’ and assume that their exact experience would occur to the student if they chose that path. To do the predictions in the story, especially predicting a student’s future social life, either approach would require a lot more research on personality types, social networks, and socioeconomic indicators. So someone ought to get on that.
Quantitative Career Planning
School counselors offer career planning now, of course, but they can only dream of saying that a student’s chance of career success would be X% with a given approach, Y% with that approach and better grades, and Z percentage points higher if the student had better grades and did a related internship before college. To do this, one would need in-depth industry profiles that tied success to various explanatory factors the student has control over. This is doable, it seems, and could be a profit center for the market research folks or the college prep folks if they could convince wealthy parents that this would be a leg up for their kids. (Hint, hint, big corporations.)
Consider a rebellious student who dies her hair blue to piss off her middle-class parents: the market research data show that 68% of girls generally similar to her eventually become suburban middle-class moms, 25% are childless artists in a big city, and 7% are in jail (they like bad boys). But the microsimulation projections based on her segment show that 95% of girls just like her tend to follow in the footsteps of older relatives with careers in art, film, design, or fashion. Maybe she’ll see that projection and tack towards the suburban mom track if she wants children, or maybe she’ll want to know how to nudge that 95% to 99%, or maybe try to bridge the two outcomes.
If I have any of the science wrong, or am missing a key research finding, please comment and let me know. Microsimulation modeling of my segment suggests I’m only perfectly correct 22.3% of the time.