April 2013

Diaper Dandies

By Len Asimow

“Diaper dandies,” in the expression coined by the inimitable basketball commentator Dick Vitale, refers to freshmen basketball players who are instant college stars. Our freshman actuarial science majors can’t slam dunk or deliver flashy behind the back passes, but they are capable of starring in their modest ways. For us, at Robert Morris University, a freshman star is someone who passes an actuarial exam before the start of her or his sophomore year.

In recent years we are seeing many more freshmen coming to us with college credit for at least one semester of calculus. They either have passed the AP Calculus A-B test with a 4 or 5, or they were the beneficiaries of a dual college-high school calculus class granting college credits.

In the past we would “red-shirt” all our freshmen, meaning we would have them wait until at least the sophomore year before taking the Prob/Stats course to prepare for the P/1 actuarial exam. However now we encourage all the freshmen actuarial science majors entering with one semester of calculus college credit to begin immediately in Prob/Stats, and attempt P/1 at the end of the freshman year.

As recently as fall 2008 I had only two freshmen out of 29 students in my Prob/Stats class. During fall 2012 the number of freshmen was 10 out of 23 students. (We have a second section of the course, but I don’t have statistics for that.) By and large, the freshmen cohort constitutes the best block of students in the class. This stands to reason since freshmen with college calculus credit tend to have better all-around qualifications in terms of high-school GPA and standardized test scores.

So how do the Prob/Stat students do on the P/1 exam? Grade A performance in the class correlates almost perfectly with success on the actuarial exam. From spring 2010 through spring 2012, 25 students received a grade of A (about 40 percent of the class) and all 25 passed P/1 either over the summer or early in the sophomore year. Most of those were freshmen.

Robert Morris University is a small school (less than 5000 students overall), and as the numbers above suggest, we are not dealing with great hordes of students. Therefore, it is easier for us to acculturate our freshmen to the demands of the exam system and the benefits of passing an exam early. Clearly, freshmen who pass P/1 have a big advantage in terms of internship opportunities and subsequent exam success in college. Almost all the successful freshmen receive internships by the end of the sophomore year. This means that can have additional internship experiences prior to graduation. Plus, of course, they have almost three more full years to pass additional exams before their first full-time job.

Based on my past experience at large universities, I suspect this approach would be difficult to implement at big schools. Typically, the material on P/1 is covered in a single semester of a junior/senior two-semester sequence in Mathematical Probability and Statistics. I don’t think our freshmen would fare well in such a course. We take it slower, and tailor the material to make it accessible to students who are still taking their calculus courses.

At the risk of shameless self-promotion, a significant aid in this regard is the textbook we use, Probability and Statistics with Applications: A Problem Solving Text, by Asimow and Maxwell. The book is designed with freshmen in mind (although some have characterized it as sophomoric), and integrates old actuarial exam questions throughout.

Another strategy for getting freshmen students through an actuarial exam would be to start with FM, and offer an Interest Theory course that freshmen could take. The advantage here is that FM uses less calculus than P. But this is an approach best discussed more fully in a separate article.

Len Asimow, PhD, ASA is a professor of actuarial science and mathematics at Robert Morris University.