# Preferences in college applications a nonparametric Bayesian analysis of top-10 rankings

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1 Preferences in college applications a nonparametric Bayesian analysis of top-0 rankings Alnur Ali Microsoft Redmond, WA Marina Meilă Dept of Statistics, University of Washington Seattle, WA Thomas Brendan Murphy School of Mathematical Sciences, UCD Dublin, Ireland. Harr Chen Computer Science and AI Laboratory, MIT Cambridge, MA Abstract Applicants to degree courses in Irish colleges and universities rank up to ten degree courses from a list of over five hundred. These data provide a wealth of information concerning applicant degree choices. A Dirichlet process mixture of generalized Mallows models are used to explore data from a cohort of applicants. We find strong and diverse s, which in turn gains us important insights into the workings of the system. No previously tried models or analysis technique are able to model the data with comparable accuracy. Introduction Applications to degree courses in Irish colleges and universities are processed by the centralized College Applications Office (CAO). When applying for college degrees, students select up to ten courses in order of preference. Courses are subsequently allocated to applicants using these preferences and the applicant s points score in an exam. Each course has a points requirement (PR) for admission; this depends heavily on the number of spaces in the course and the points scores for those who wish to do the course. The CAO data is an example of rank data and such data arises in a number of other contexts including voting [, 8], food marketing [] and economic choice modeling [7]. So, the ing of rank data is a topic of considerable interest beyond the application outlined herein, especially where the number of alternatives is large but expressed preferences are incomplete. We study data from N = 5577 applications to the CAO system in the year 000. Since every person has their own goals, utilities, and abilities, there is no complete consensus on the ranking of programs. However, we expect to find groups of applicants with similar preferences. Some s will be large (engineering, medicine) partly because large degree programs exist, and because of prestige and other benefits associated with certain careers. Other groups will be small because of the diversity in the population and the existence of niche careers, small programs and the geographical location of the third level institutions. Model We choose to implement a non-parametric Bayesian ing via a Dirichlet Process Mixture (DPM) []. Because the data are top-t rankings, we need an appropriate statistical model for the s. For this we choose the Generalized Mallows (GM) model [5], that we briefly describe in this section. For a detailed presentation of the GM, the reader should consult [5, ]. Equivalently, majors, in the United States education system.

2 Denote by π = (i, i,... i t ) a top-t ranking of length t over a set of n items (or alternatives). In our data, n = 5 courses, and t 0. Under the GM model, the probability of π is GMM θ,σ (π) = e t j= θ js j (π σ) /ψ( θ) () In the above, θ = (θ,... θ t ) are (non-negative) concentration parameters, one for each rank, while σ is the central permutation of the distribution, representing its mode. Note that unlike π, σ is a complete permutation of the n items. The features (or codes) {s j (π σ), j = : t} of π w.r.t σ are defined as s j (π σ) = l π i j [l σ i j ]. Thus, s j is the number indicating one less than the rank of i j in σ\{i :j }. Finally, ψ( θ) is a tractable normalization constant that does not depend on σ [5]. The GM models are well studied and have received growing interest recently, for their interpretability and good computational properties. In particular, they have sufficient statistics [], a conjugate prior [6], and a recently introduced algorithm for estimating DPM models via a partially collapsed Gibbs sampler []. We use this sampler, in conjunction with a prior which is uninformative w.r.t to the central permutation. The prior for the θ j parameters is informative, and is described by hyperparameters r = [r r... r t ], r j > 0. We set these values to, which centers our θ j priors around 0.6, a value that represents strong consensus in the s. Experiment and statistical findings First, we ran the DPM Gibbs sampler of [], obtaining an ensemble of ings, each associated with a set of parameters for each. Secondly, we use the estimated model, the original data, and additional information (about the courses, institutions, points requirements and applicant gender) to characterize the s and to probe their structure. DPM ing Because we expected many small s, we tuned the parameter of the DPM responsible for the prior granularity of the sampled ings, to a large value α = 00. The Gibbs sampling was initialized with N singleton s. The number of s, K, after burn-in, varied between 50 and 50 s. Many of the s persisted for hundreds of Gibbs iterations; hence, for simplicity, the results presented here are obtained using the final ing only. Significance of ranks Each c has a parameter vector θ c of length 0, and a central permutation σ c of length n = 5. But most of these 5 ranks are noise. We designed a method to determine, for each, the cutoff rank t σ past which σ c is noise. This cannot be determined from the candidate input lengths alone, but it can be inferred by a statistical method based on the estimated θ c and the size, and briefly described here. We set a tail probability ϵ = 0., and we determine τ j, the number of items that gives ϵ coverage for the exponential distribution of rank j; this is given by τ j = (/θ c,j ) ln /ϵ. For θ j > 0.6, τ j =, i.e. a single item will occupy rank j w.p. ϵ, and for θ j = 0.5, τ j. The number t σ = max j j + τ j for all j that have sufficient data and θ j 0. = θ min is our truncation value. It represents the tail of σ c which falls outside the ϵ coverage. We obtain a range of t σ [, ] for the largest s. For these s, we also examined the σ c s and θ c one by one, and found a remarkable agreement between our automatically determined t σ with the courses topics and intuitive coherence of the s. Results We found s containing at least nine observations in each. The cutoff point is not arbitrary: every applicant in the smallest of these s applied for either two or three of the home economics teaching degree courses available; this would not have been found using the finite mixture models proposed in [7] or the exploratory analyses of [0, 8]. The 0 largest s have sizes 500,..., 850 and contain 9% of the data. This agrees remarkably well with the previous work of [7] which also found around 0 s. These s are strikingly very coherent, with all θ j s for the first 5 ranks above 0.6 and 9% of them above. This again validates our model. The remaining s have typically even stronger consensus (which compensates for their smaller size) in spite of the parameter prior. Another phenomenon observed in these s is the short length of the significant part of σ c, with t σ values around 5. By contrast, for many large s, the consensus reaches all the way to θ 0. The remaining s were sizes,,,,,,,...

3 sizes θ c 0.5 clust size 0 rank j points 50 points 00 rank j rank Figure : Right, top: heatmap for θ j values (high values in red, low values in black) for the largest s. Right, bottom: points requirements (PR s) for the same s. The colorbar on the right distinguishes the median and the minimum of the PR s. For 9 courses out of 5 the PR s are missing and shown as 0 (black). Left, top: size for each of the same s. Left, bottom: quantiles (0% in blue, 0%, 50%, 70%, 90% in purple) of the PR s at each rank of the (entire) applicant data. Table : Summary of the structure of the s found using the DPM. Cluster Size Description Male (%) Points Average (SD) 56 CS & Engineering () 0 Applied Business (0) 077 Arts & Social Science. 8 () 898 Engineering (Ex-Dublin) (9) 5 8 Business (Ex-Dublin).8 9 () 6 06 Cork Based () Teaching (Home Economics) () Thus from the statistical point of view, our method was successful in finding detailed structure in the data: very salient and strongly ed groups, some large and some small. While other algorithms in the literature [7, ] have been or could have been applied to these data, none was able to find so sharp a signal. This is a rather unexpected feature of this population. We have also fitted a GM model with 0 s by the EM algorithm, and an EBMS model []; the s we obtained, although somewhat meaningful, had very weak consensus, with most θ j s around The GM model accommodates the changing strength of preferences as the applicant completes their application, whereas a previous analysis [7] used a Plackett-Luce model [5] which does not accommodate this appropriately [, 6]. Finally, examining the PR s along each σ c (Figure, right, bottom), we note that these are not monotonic with the rank in any of the s. This is not visible in the uned data (Figure, left, bottom), where the PR very clearly decreases with j. Thus, ing the data helps unravel a Simpson s paradox, whose significance we discuss in the next section.

4 What we learn about course applicants and the system The CAO system is a subject of much debate in the Irish media and it makes the front page of most newspapers annually. A much touted concern is that applicants may not be selecting courses based on the subjects that they want to study, rather on the basis of PR (where higher PR courses may be more prestigious than lower PR ones) or other factors. Since we already found that the data contain s, we can examine the truncated central rankings σ c as smoothed expressions of each subpopulations preferences (Table summarizes some of the findings). The degree subject is the most strongly defining characteristic in the s. For example, science, business, arts, engineering and health sciences all characterize large s. Another strong determinant of course choice is gender. The engineering s have a majority of male members, whereas course in the social sciences have a majority of females, and business courses tend to be gender balanced. A further determinant of course choice is the geographical location. Three of the seven universities in Ireland are located in Dublin, one is just outside Dublin and three are distant from Dublin. The fourteen Institutes of Technology are geographically spread over the country and the smaller private colleges tend to be Dublin-based. A number of s are defined by subject area and location. The sixth largest is characterized by courses in the two Cork-based institutions and other s are characterized by courses in Dublin, Galway, Waterford and Athlone. In all of these cases, there is considerable variation in the subject areas that characterize the s, indicating the geography is an important factor in courses selection We do also find evidence of prestige as a factor, as some s contain a mix of high PR courses from different subject areas. Additionally, the aggregated data shows PR clearly decreasing with the rank j, as it would if the candidates were maximizing the PR. However, this hypothesis is in general completely deconstructed by the ed data (Figure, right, bottom), which shows that various groups rank the courses non-monotonically, and strongly so, w.r.t PR. In fact, there is hardly any group where the PR is monotonic. The θ c parameters for each facilitate the study of the strength of preferences for applicants within each and coherence. In most s we observed that the θ c values are decreasing with choice levels and for the large s the decrease is quite slow. However, in some of the smaller s the θ c values can drop dramatically after a small number of preferences. An examination of the choices made by members of each reveals a strong connection between number of choices and θ c. The rapid decrease in θ c in small s indicates that the pool of courses of interest is less than the maximum number of preferences allowed. One with 9 members is strongly characterized by students who want to study for the Evening Arts degree in UCD, which would suit people who want to study while remaining working; this is one of the only degrees that fits the needs of these applicants. This is additional evidence that factors other than simple prestige or PR have preponderent influence on the course choices. 5 Discussion While we consider this analysis preliminary, the features we uncover are remarkably strong, and unlikely to be wiped by a full posterior inference (which we are currently doing, using a large subsample of our Gibbs iterations). Thus, from the social perspective, we are satisfied to have discovered evidence that the Irish college applications system is reasonably healthy, contrary to some voiced opinions, and to have uncovered some possible factors that influence the applicants choices. These important insights were possible using the model outlined in this paper. The flexibility of the DPM to accommodate small s shows that structures that are missed by other approaches can be revealed using the DPM. The s are easily interpretable by virtue of the fact that the We note that these preferences can be assumed to be truthful, due to the stable marriage algorithm used to make the offers. Detailed information for the main s found by the DPM is at CAO dpmm s.pdf; information on the CAO system and PR s in 000 is at

5 parameter σ c for the GM which models each is a ranking. The θ c s provide a tool to estimate the strength of lower ranked preferences. Finally, the careful Gibbs sampler implementation allows one to put to use this model s qualities in practice. References [] Antoniak, C.E. (97) Mixtures of Dirichlet processes with applications to Bayesian nonparametric problems. Annals of Statistics, (6), 5-7. [] Busse, L.M., Orbanz, P. and Buhmann, J.M. (007) Cluster analysis of heterogeneous rank data. Proceedings of the th International Conference on Machine Learning. -0. [] Critchlow, D.E. (985) Metric methods for analyzing partially ranked data. Lecture Notes in Statistics,, Springer. [] Diaconis, P. (99) Foreword. Probability Models and Statistical Analyses for Ranking Data, Fligner, M.A. and Verducci, J.S. (Eds), Lecture Notes in Statistics, 80, Springer. [5] Fligner, M.A. and Verducci, J.S. (986). Distance based ranking models. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series B, 8, [6] Fligner, M.A. and Verducci, J.S. (988) Multistage ranking models. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 8 (0): [7] Gormley, I.C. and Murphy, T.B. (006) Analysis of Irish Third-Level College Applications Data. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A, 69 ():6-80. [8] Gormley, I.C. and Murphy, T.B. (008) Exploring Voting Blocs within the Irish Electorate: A Mixture Modelling Approach. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 0 (8):0-07. [9] Huang, J. and Guestrin, C. (00) Learning hierarchical riffle independent groupings from rankings. Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Machine Learning. [0] McNicholas, P.D. (006/7) Association rule analysis of CAO data Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, XXXVI, -8. [] Marden, J.I. (995) Analyzing and modeling rank data. Chapman & Hall. [] Meilă, M.P. and Bao, L. (008) Estimation and ing with infinite rankings. Proceedings of the th Conference in Uncertainty in Artificial Intelligence [] Meilă, M.P. and Chen, H. (00) Dirichlet Process Mixtures of Generalized Mallows Models. Proceedings of the 6th Conference in Uncertainty in Artificial Intelligence. [] Neal, R.M. (000). Markov Chain Sampling Methods for Dirichlet Process Mixture Models. Journal of Computational and Graphical Statistics, 9, [5] Plackett, R. (975) The analysis of permutations. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series C, (), 9-0. [6] Rosen, B. (97) Asymptotic theory for successive sampling with varying probabilities without replacement, I. Annals of Statistics, (), [7] Train, K. (00) Discrete choice methods with simulation. Cambridge University Press. [8] Tuohy, D. (998) Demand for third-level places. Interests, fields of study and the effect of the points for 997 Commission on the Points System Research Paper No., The Stationary Office, Dublin. 5

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