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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Is Graduate School for Me?

Jason Brennan has a nice talk on this question over at BHL. My crankier piece, “Don’t Go to Grad School,” is here.

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The Problem of Education

The OECD has released the latest results from PISA (Program for International Student Assessment).  The key findings regarding US educational performance are not encouraging. Of the 34 OECD countries, the US ranks 26th in mathematics, 17th in reading, and 21st in science. The results in mathematics are of particular concern. As the OECD notes:

Just over one-quarter (26%) of 15-year-olds in the United States do not reach the PISA baseline Level 2 of mathematics proficiency, at which level students begin to demonstrate the skills that will enable them to participate effectively and productively in life. This percentage is higher than the OECD average of 23% and has remained unchanged since 2003. By contrast, in Hong Kong- China, Korea, Shanghai-China and Singapore, 10% of students or fewer are poor performers in mathematics.

At the other end of the performance scale, the United States also has a below-average share of top performers in mathematics. These students can develop and work with models for complex situations, and work strategically using broad, well-developed thinking and reasoning skills. Only 2% of students in the United States reach the highest level (Level 6) of performance in mathematics, compared with an OECD average of 3% and 31% of students in Shanghai-China. The proportions of top performers in reading and science in the United States are both around the OECD average.

The results are interesting given that the US is wealthy (ranked third in per capita GDP) and has more educated parents than most countries (ranked sixth in percentage of 35-44 year olds with tertiary education). While many might claim that the US fails to invest sufficiently in education, it spends more per student than most (ranked fifth). On this point, the OECD notes that the Slovak Republic performs at the same level as the US, but spends less than one half the amount per student.

It is clear we have a significant problem here (and a problem that dates back decades and has become more significant in a global economy). Motoko Rich (New York Times) has a piece on the PISA results and some of the competing reactions (they range from dismissing the results to calling for an expansion of the welfare state). While advocates will continue to promote their solutions, I am always reminded of As John Kingdon’s  classic Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. As Kingdon observes “In contrast to a problem-solving model…solutions float around in and near government, searching for problems to which to become attached.”  Events like the release of new data on educational performance can open a window of opportunity that facilitates the coupling of solutions and problems. Unfortunately, there is little to suggest that the solutions are genuinely solutions.

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Jordan Weissmann at The Atlantic has a story on the revelations that George Washington University rejected applicants on the grounds that they would have required financial aid. Apparently the university had advertised itself as “need-blind” in its admissions policies, but in fact the admissions office ended up rejecting marginal needy applicants in favor of marginal tuition-paying applicants in order to balance the books.

I have a couple of problems with the way Weissmann editorializes on this story. First, he tries to put GWU’s practices in a better light:

Some schools have openly defended this approach by arguing that it allows them to offer fuller financial-aid packages to the lower-income students they do admit. That’s the line GW is adopting now, and it may or may not be true. At the very least, their approach is less ethically disturbing than the widespread practice of “gapping,” where schools admit students on a need blind basis, but frequently award them a financial aid package that’s too small, sometimes with the express purpose of discouraging them from attending. Kids who fail to take the hint just sink deeper into debt.

And just why is GWU’s lying about its admissions policy less “ethically disturbing” than otherGWU schools’ practices of letting needy students themselves decide whether to come or not? One practice is a fraud or very near a fraud; the other practice “discriminates against” non-paying customers in the same way that a Jaguar dealer is likely to “discriminate against” me. In Weissmann’s view, policies that refrain from engaging in paternalism toward needy applicants (“you really shouldn’t take on this much debt, and so we won’t give the choice to”) are ethically more “disturbing” than fraudulent policies.

Then there’s this:

Finally, this incident is also symptomatic of a wider sickness in higher education: the mania for prestige. Even while it’s freezing out poorer qualified applicants, the university continues using “merit aid” to recruit desirable students who might be able to pay their own way. GW isn’t alone in that practice. It just got caught covering it up.

Wait, what’s wrong with merit aid again? I’ve seen proggy types crusading against it here and there, but I haven’t seen anyone even bother to make a real case against it — to them anything that doesn’t overtly maximize the well-being of the poor is wrong, I suppose. Let’s remember that we live in a world of resource constraints. Universities operate in a competitive environment and have to at least break even in order to finance facilities, faculty, and staff. It’s wishful thinking to suppose that they will be completely blind to the ability and willingness of their customers to pay. There’s every reason to think that if a university did operate on a completely need-blind basis, unless a generous benefactor insisted on such a policy, it would enjoy fewer resources, fewer faculty, smaller facilities, and be able to admit fewer students. How do poor students benefit from that outcome?

In my own case, I was from a poor family and qualified for full financial aid: a 100% free ride, work-study, Pell grants, and all the rest. However, for the last three years of my undergraduate education, I actually got a merit scholarship that covered everything. If you’re a student from a poor – or perhaps, especially, a middle-income – family, and you want to go to a private college, you need to count on going to a college that is a little bit below your ability level. You’ll be one of the big fish in the little pond helping to drive up the college’s scores and attracting the applicants. That’s what you’re giving them in exchange for their ignoring your inability to pay. You can still get a great education and have plenty of opportunities ahead of you, if you have the right attitude about it.

If you think the poor in America don’t get a fair shake, (more…)

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An article on the plight of adjunct professors in higher education, “Labor of Love or Cheap Labor? The Plight of Adjunct Professors,” was brought to my attention by its author, Celine James. Ms. James kindly asked me for my thoughts about her article. I thought Pileus readers might be interested in what I sent her. Here it is in full:

Dear Celine,

I have had a chance to read your article. I empathize with the plight of adjunct instructors that you describe. It is, or can be, a terribly difficult life. I am afraid, however, that I cannot endorse the solution you suggest, namely unionization.

Higher education is operated like a medieval guild, with special protections for the lucky few who make it in and special benefits to them that come at the expense of all those who were not lucky enough to get in. The problem is the rigidity in the labor market that this creates: once a person is in, he or she cannot be fired, regardless of performance, for life.That is a great deal for those who get in, and it explains why so many try so desperately hard to get in, but it is a model for maintaining an unjust, and slowly dying, status quo rather than responding to changing economic realities we actually face.

The solution would be not to extend the guild system to a slightly larger cohort, but, rather, to abandon it altogether. In other words, we should abolish the tenure system. In a world with thousands of institutions of higher education, along with now an almost unlimited upper bound of educational opportunities online, there can be no justification for the economically stifling and restricting system of guild benefits for a privileged elite.

In earlier times, the guild system was so detrimental to those not lucky enough to enter one that it often prevented people from finding gainful employment of any kind. That led to obvious and predictable disastrous results for the unlucky, even while it enriched and protected the lucky. Exactly that same dynamic is being played out now with the lucky few members of the restrictive guild (i.e., tenure-stream professors) and the unlucky many who are locked out (i.e., the adjuncts).

The one saving grace for today’s unlucky adjuncts is that we now live in an economy that is, compared with earlier eras, extraordinarily dynamic, diverse, and productive. So they have other options if they don’t land a winning lottery ticket admitting them into the guild. But until the core of the problem—restrictive guild membership rules—is recognized and addressed, the other suggestions you make in your article will, unfortunately, have only marginal effect at best. And recommending unionizing would merely contribute to the problem—especially when we are probably on the cusp of a bursting educational bubble.

With best wishes,

Jim

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Roger Koppl argues this week at ThinkMarkets that “Income inequality matters.” He thinks it matters so much that he says it twice. He believes “Austrian,” pro-market, economic liberals should be speaking up more on this “central issue.” I think Koppl could not be more wrong. The issue deserves all the inattention we can muster for it.

The problem I think is not Koppl’s motives. He rightly says that we should “watch out for ways the state can be used to create unjust privileges for some at the expense of others.” He is certainly right about that. He argues that unjust state policies may be skewing market results in such a way as to increase inequality. He may be right about that. But he is wrong in suggesting that we ought therefore to be paying attention to income inequality. We ought therefore to be paying attention to those policies. Whether they produce greater inequality is neither here nor there.

Koppl gives four examples: (i) policies that privatize profits and socialize losses, (ii) bad regulation, (iii) collapse of the rule of law, and (iv) public schools. I can certainly join Koppl in a hearty wish that we not only attend to these unwarranted policies, programs, and tendencies, but that we do so with a degree of urgency prompted, in part, by their effects on the poorest and most vulnerable among us. But talking about inequality is precisely a distraction from doing so.

In a great paper of a few years ago, Harry Frankfurt argued that “Egalitarianism is harmful because it tends to distract those who are beguiled by it from their real interests.”* Frankfurt thought that focusing on equality was actually pernicious because it distracted us from attention to real harms, of which inequality is at most an indicator. And he was right. It may well be that, for example, the evisceration of the rule of law results in greater income inequality. But it also might not. Whether or not it does so, however, it is unjust, and it deserves our attention. Similarly for the increase in moral hazard and regulation, to say nothing of the deplorable system of public education. All of these need attention, and one prime reason they do so is because of their effects on those least capable of circumventing their evils. If we care about the poor, what we ought to care about is bad policy, not indicators that may or may not have anything to do with policies that are making people worse off. As long as we are worrying about income inequality, we are worrying about the wrong thing.

* In “The Moral Irrelevance of Equality,” Public Affairs Quarterly, April 2000.

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Yesterday the Senate approved a continuing resolution. One of the casualties was NSF funding for political science, at least political science that cannot be certified “as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” The amendment was proposed by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) who questioned whether public financing of political science research was truly a good use of taxpayer money. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

Mr. Coburn sent a letter last week to the NSF’s director, Subra Suresh, listing a series of agency-financed projects he considered a waste of taxpayer money. His list included several involving political science, including studies of voter attitudes toward the Senate filibuster and of the cooperation between the president and Congress.

Such subjects “may be interesting questions to ponder or explore” but aren’t necessarily the best use of taxpayer money, Mr. Coburn told Mr. Suresh. “Studies of presidential executive power and Americans’ attitudes toward the Senate filibuster hold little promise to save an American’s life from a threatening condition or to advance America’s competitiveness in the world,” he wrote.

As one might expect, the American Political Science Association is not pleased. As Insider Higher Education reports, APSA “called the ban a ‘devastating blow,’ ‘an exceptionally dangerous slippery slope’ and a ‘remarkable embarrassment for the world’s exemplary democracy.’”

I am skeptical. When rank ordering “remarkable embarrassments for the world’s exemplary democracy,” I would place restrictions on NSF funding somewhere near the bottom, particularly when compared with genuine embarrassments like GITMO (which is being considered for a $150 million upgrade despite the President’s promises of its immediate closure) and the use of drones to execute US citizens abroad.

Much (not all) of the research that goes on in political science is quite important and I have enjoyed some relatively modest NSF support in the past (and I appreciated it greatly). But given the constraints on federal research funds and the need to put our fiscal house in order, this seems to be a prudent decision. Many of the decisions that will inevitably come will be devastating blows to citizens who are forced to pay a larger percentage of their income in taxes, extend their working years, and face some form of rationing in health care. In this context, NSF funding seems like relatively small change.

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Reason has a symposium on the future of higher education in its latest issue. For my money, the best contribution comes from Reason.com editor Nick Gillespie, who sounds remarkably Oakeshottian in this passage:

The real existential threat to higher ed comes from folks who conceive of college as a sort of high-end vocational-tech program. Right-leaning critics such as Naomi Schaefer Riley, Richard Vedder, and Charles Murray complain about feel-good majors that don’t help fill the nation’s need for STEM-related graduates. Left-leaning commentators such as Richard Arum, Josipa Roska, and Christopher Newfield fear that college is becoming more expensive for students even as it teaches them little or nothing of value.

These sorts of critiques are wrong for two reasons. First, they assume that education, especially college, should somehow be related to employment. While that has always been an expectation—most of America’s colonial colleges started as seminaries—it long ago stopped being the rule. In a 2011 Pew Research survey, 74 percent of college graduates called the experience “very useful” for their “knowledge and intellectual growth” and 69 percent said it facilitated their “personal growth and maturity.” A relatively puny 55 percent said college was very useful as “preparation for a job or career.”

As the proud possessor of no fewer than four English degrees (a B.A., two M.A.s, and a Ph.D.) who paid my own way through every stage, I think these graduates have it exactly right.

What troglodytes like Florida governor Rick Scott, who wants to subsidize STEM majors, fail to understand is that STEM degrees are private goods if any majors are: they are their own reward. Humanities and social sciences courses, if taught rigorously and well, provide public benefit beyond that to the individual; if anything should be subsidized, it is those courses. (Here I go beyond Nick’s argument, who expressly rejects the view that humanities education creates a better citizen.)

To be sure, liberal arts and social sciences are not necessarily taught well at many universities. But the places that do the best at teaching students how to think and write are the highly selective, challenging liberal arts colleges — places that tend to come in for lots of scorn from conservatives.

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The University RIP? Continued

There have been a few posting of late on the future of higher education. Jason has provided a series of interesting posts on whether it still makes sense to get a PhD (see here and here).  I provided a few posts on the challenges posed by online courses, particularly MOOCs (massive open online courses) that are available for free (see here and here).

Tamar Lewin has a piece in today’s NYT on the University of California system. The proposal is to require state public colleges and universities to give credit for online courses if students cannot gain access to oversubscribed courses.

In part because of budget cuts, hundreds of thousands of students in California’s three public higher-education systems are shut out of the gateway courses they must pass to fulfill their general education requirements or proceed with their major. Many are forced to spend extra semesters, or years, to get degrees.

Under the legislation, some of the eligible courses would likely be free “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, like those offered by providers like Coursera, Udacity and edX; others might come from companies like Straighterline, which offers low-price online courses, or Pearson, the educational publishing and testing company.

One might argue that the University of California has a great deal of fiscal problems that leave it with few other options. California is unique. But one might argue that it is more a harbinger of things to come than a unique case in a class of its own. Due to growing health care costs and unfunded pension liabilities, many states will soon find themselves where California is today, and higher education budgets will be constrained.

All of this will likely have a significant impact on the future of the academy and should be considered by those who are contemplating graduate school. As state budgets face greater strain and new generations of students become more accustom to online learning (or are given no other option), The demand for new PhDs will likely decline significantly. The NYT piece quotes Mark Yudof, the president of the University of California, as saying that faculty “might want to add recitation, or assessment or discussions groups” to online offerings. But my guess is that much of this work will be assigned to graduate students or adjuncts rather than tenured or tenure-track faculty.

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Apropos my “Don’t Go to Grad School” post from a couple of weeks ago, here are some hard data on the employment difficulties of new PhD’s in the hard sciences and humanities.

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The University System, RIP?

There were a few posts earlier in the week on graduate school, started by Jason Sorens sage advice. I continued the conversation by noting the challenge posed by free online courses.The new issue of The American Interest includes a fascinating piece by Nathan Harden entitled “The End of the University as We Know It.” Harden begins with a fine paragraph that should be enough to draw your attention: (if you find it gated, you might try the link off of NR).

In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

I agree with most of what Harden has to say, although I think he may be wrong in the timeline.  I believe we are looking at changes of this magnitude in twenty to twenty-five years, so buckle up.

For other takes on the article, go to Ricochet.

Overall, the news is good for society. It is quite bad for anyone who would like a life comparable to that enjoyed by tenured academics today. This week, I spent 5 hours and 20 minutes teaching, 2 hours in meetings, and the remainder of the time reading and writing about things I find intrinsically fascinating. Great work if you can get it. Unfortunately for those who dream of a job in the academy, fewer and fewer may be able to get it.

Bottom Line: Listen to Jason Sorens.

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I appreciate Jason’s post. I have been giving the same advice to my students for some time (although few listen, alas). I can usually draw on whatever search we are conducting and give them a sense of the numbers. This year, for example, we had a tenure track search.

  • Number of applicants: 188
  • Number of applicants invited to interview on campus: 4

Off this pool, my guess is that the same 20-30 PhDs will compete for all the decent tenure track jobs. A few applicants will get multiple interviews and offers. But most will never get anything but a form letter thanking them for their interest.  The odds are the worst if you are coming from anything but a top 20 program and are not a member of an historically underrepresented group (and no, this category does not include Christians, Mormons, libertarians, natural law theorists, etc., etc.).

But the issues go well beyond the abysmal market that current exists. There have been down markets before and “lost generations” of academics. But there have been good markets as well (even though, under the best of circumstances, I would guess that most PhDs will never get placed).

The other day, one of my colleagues asked: “How long do you think tenure will exist?  Do you think we are the last generation?” Interesting questions. The current model may not be sustainable in the long-run, and there are so many incentives to hire adjuncts instead of tenure track faculty. I am quite dubious of the merits of tenure, by the way, even if I am quite happy to have tenure and an endowed chair that supplies me with a decent research budget.

But the real disruption is on the way. As I noted to my colleague, so many universities are now providing courses free on the internet (In the past year, I’ve watched a course on game theory from Yale, a course on political theory from Oxford, and a number of assorted lectures from a variety of universities. All were excellent. All were free and available on my iPad). As soon as some enterprising organization decides to allow students to take whatever courses they want online, administer exams, and credential students, the prevailing model of higher education will find itself under a significant assault. Certainly, there will always be wealthy parents who want their children to attend a “name brand” university or elite liberal arts college largely as a means of signaling their social status to their peers (those university stickers really dress up that old Volvo). But I am dubious that these institutions will still see the merit of tenure, and even if they do, there will be far fewer positions available to the stunning number of PhDs who are on the market.

A few days after my conversation, I followed a link from Marginal Revolution and discovered that the new model is being rolled out. Under the University of Wisconsin’s “Flexible Option,” students will be able to “complete their education independently through online courses, which have grown in popularity through efforts by companies such as Coursera, edX and Udacity.” You can read the full story here (WSJ).

Bottom Line: follow Jason’s advice.

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Don’t Go to Grad School

It’s that time of year again: sending in the last of the grad-school reference letters. Over time, my answers to students who request grad school reference letters, particularly for PhD programs, have become more and more emphatic: don’t do it. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how good your grades have been.

The job market for political science PhD’s is abysmal. It has long been pretty poor, though nowhere near as bad as that for historians and philosophers. But following the 2008 recession, the market has simply collapsed. At this point, there is such a backlog of underplaced and unemployed political science PhD’s that even a strong economic recovery, with its concomitant benefits for state budgets, can never clear it. Speaking from personal experience, you now need to have a better record (in an “annual average productivity” sense) to get an entry-level assistant professor job in political science at a directional state college than to get tenure at a Carnegie Very High Research institution.

If you get a political science PhD, you should be aware that you are buying a lottery ticket. If your number manages to come up — but it probably won’t — you can get a tenure-track job — eventually. Otherwise, you should see your five, six, or seven years of postgraduate education as a consumption good, and prepare your resume for entry-level private industry jobs. Then, if you’re one of the few lucky ones to get a tenure-track job, you might not get tenure. That used to mean that you dropped down to a lower-ranked institution and started over. Now it means that you have to change careers.

It’s not just PhD programs that aren’t worth it any more. Law school applications have plummeted. Full-time MBA’s in the United States are of doubtful value at best, especially when opportunity cost is considered. Even medical degrees are now a huge financial risk.

Instead of going to graduate school, students would be better advised to do more with their undergraduate degrees. The value of studying (more…)

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The NYT has an interesting article on Romney’s embrace of school choice, a move that counters the federalization of education and the kinds of accountability that were reinforced by the Bush administration.

As the Times notes:

 Specifically, Mr. Romney proposed to change federal payments made to schools with large numbers of poor and disabled students into an individual entitlement. Students would take a share of the $25 billion in two federal programs to the school of their choice.

He would also extract the federal government from intervening to turn around the lowest performing schools, which has been a chief focus of the Obama administration. Instead, to drive improvement, Mr. Romney would have schools compete for students in a more market-based approach to quality.

“This is the best motive to reform there will ever be — if you give parents the ability to vote with their feet,” said Tom Luna, Idaho’s superintendent of schools, who is an adviser to Mr. Romney.

School choice makes great sense from the perspective of theory and there is some evidence that it has positive (if small) impacts on student performance and on schools that are subjected to competition.

A number of factors have been responsible for the limited impact of school choice (some of which have been purposefully inserted into state-level legislation precisely for this purpose). They include:

  • Insufficient funding for vouchers (both in aggregate and in the value of an individual voucher), often combined with a prohibition of parents supplementing the voucher with their own money
  • Restrictions on the use of vouchers in parochial schools;
  • Failure to fund efforts to provide potential participants with necessary information;
  • Failure of districts to provide additional services (e.g., transportation) thereby creating massive transaction costs, and
  • An unwillingness of public schools to accept students from outside their districts.

Romney appears to be interested in addressing this final problem. According to the Times: “One of Mr. Romney’s ideas for increasing students’ choices seems to contradict an anti-Washington emphasis: giving poor students the freedom to choose a public school outside their district.” This can’t sit well with advocates of local control.

A key problem with school choice is that it relies on market mechanisms but the key factors necessary to allow a market to function are usually absent, often by design. When you place great restrictions on the use of vouchers, impose both supply and demand constraints, do little to address information scarcity, and create massive transaction costs, you come as close as possible to guaranteeing market failure. Given that most of these factors are beyond the reach of Washington, I doubt if Romney’s embrace of school choice will amount to much.

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The New Hampshire House and Senate have overwhelmingly approved a bill that would give businesses tax credits for contributing to scholarship funds, which could make payments on behalf of students attending private schools. Even if the governor vetoes, the bill should pass into law. According to the Ruger-Sorens database of state policies, New Hampshire will join Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania in offering tax credit or deduction programs for private education.

(Nota bene: The New Hampshire Supreme Court has previously ruled that giving tax relief to parents for sending children to religious schools would violate the establishment clause of the state constitution. Thus, this sort of program is the only way that full school choice that includes religious schools can be enacted in New Hampshire.)

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Tyler Cowen makes the case that a large, inefficient public sector can be a good thing:

we should not be trying to squeeze the entire economy into the shoebox of the dynamic but risky “Economy I.” For public choice reasons, as well understood by Karl Polanyi (an underrated public choice theorist if there ever was one), the polity requires some respite from Economy I, whether we like that or not… Furthermore the more “sluggish” Economy II, by operating under different principles, often serves as a useful R&D lab for Economy I. Think MIT and Stanford, or note that Adam Smith ended up as a customs commissioner, as his father had been. Goethe and Bach worked for governments for much of their lives. It’s about balance and synergy, though it is perfectly fair to see contemporary Western Europe, especially in the periphery, as a region which has far too much Economy II and too little Economy I.

The first point in particular reminds me of Dani Rodrik’s argument for the welfare state under conditions of globalization: the government sector is relatively “safe” and can buffer dislocations due to global markets. Cowen isn’t referring exclusively to the public sector as “Economy II,” since the latter also includes labor-intensive, service-sector occupations, but he does imply here that the university system is a desirable public subsidy in part because it is inefficient and gives researchers respite from the private market.

I never really grasped that argument from Rodrik, and I still don’t. It seems to me that if you want inefficiency as a risk hedge, you could just bury some boxes of money and set fire to some of it in good times, then dig up what’s left in bad times. Less facetious: why not invest in a global equities index? Even better: why not push for globalization as a solution to its own problems? After all, there’s nothing about the economies we live and work in that’s inherently national. I live and work in the Erie County, New York economy. It’s a highly open economy. Why doesn’t Erie County, New York have an even bigger welfare state than the U.S.? Because we can buffer risk by investing in or, in the limit, moving to other parts of the country. So labor mobility and capital mobility are themselves solutions to the very risks posed by globalization of the merchandise trade combined with volatility in the terms of trade.

And you don’t have to set fire to any money.

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The Costs of Higher Education

The President has decided that now is the time to confront the growing cost of higher education.  As the NYT notes:

President Obama is proposing a financial aid overhaul that for the first time would tie colleges’ eligibility for campus-based aid programs — Perkins loans, work-study jobs and supplemental grants for low-income students — to the institutions’ success in improving affordability and value for students, administration officials said.

As he proclaimed in the SOTU:

“Let me put colleges and universities on notice:  If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.”

As the NYT story correctly notes, for public institutions, rising tuition is partially a product of state budgetary decisions in hard times. If the states reduce levels of support, tuition must increase.

Certainly, private institutions are facing a different set of issues. The financial crisis racked a lot of endowments and the impact is still being felt because of spending rules (e.g., many institutions have rules that limit the draw on the endowment to 5 percent of the twelve quarter moving average). Moreover, most private institutions cannot control financial aid (if admissions are partially or wholly need blind) and health care costs. All of this places pressure on tuitions.

But I wonder: How much stock one can place on the story of the increasing costs of higher education given the massive changes that have occurred in the underlying services? Let me illustrate with a brief comparison.

I fondly remember my days as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison some three decades ago. During my time at Madison, I never saw an advisor. The course catalog would be delivered in bulk to Memorial Union (and other locations) and the university assumed that their adult students could make their own decisions about courses, the coherence of their schedules, and the number of courses they wanted to take in any given semester (if it took you longer to graduate than the standard four years, it was your problem). The one year I lived in university housing (a cooperative), I slept in a bunk bed in a cement block room with one window.  The food was rather bland—lots of starch, little in the way of protein—and you had your choice of milk or water (things were a little better in the dorms, but not much). Since no one owned televisions, if you wanted to watch TV you went to a commons area or hit a bar. If you wanted to exercise, you went to a gym that was equipped with an assortment of old steel benches, iron weights, punching bags, and stationary bikes.

The total cost of one year’s education (combining tuition, books, room and board): $5500 in 2011 dollars.

As an academic and a parent who has put two sons through college, I find the contrast between my college experience and the experience of today’s students to be rather striking.

Today, the culture of helicopter parenting has infested the academy. Students are required to meet with their advisors several times a year to receive approval for every course (I love putting that PhD to good work when I need to approve a decision to add or drop a half-credit strength training class).  There appear to be deans, offices, and programs covering every conceivable aspect of a student’s life. We have simply discarded the assumption that students are adults and thus capable of self-governance.  Even in public universities (both of my sons attended them), the quality of the housing has improved dramatically. Everyone seems to have a television and a personal computer, and thus cable and wireless are required amenities. Students dine in what appear to be food courts, making daily decisions about whether to have sushi, vegan, or some quasi-ethnic food, washed down with bottled water, a designer tea, or a latte (to my knowledge, these are among the few decisions that do not require a meeting with an advisor). The fitness centers are nothing short of lavish, with rows of shining weights, ellipticals, stationary bikes, rowing machines, and ceiling mounted television sets tuned to everything from VH-1 to ESPN.  When students select a college, the tour guides devote the lion’s share of their time to exploring the co-curriculum and amenities for a simple reason: This is what attracts students and their parents.

In short, the college experience today is far different than in was a generation ago. Whether it is a net improvement depends on your perspective, I suppose (I am skeptical, and tend to embrace the more Spartan days of the past when students were treated like adults instead of infantilized and resources were lavished on the library instead of the co-curriculum).

It is difficult, in this context, to make sense of the arguments regarding the escalating costs of a higher education. The services that constitute higher education today have little in common with what constituted higher education a generation ago (not to mention several generations ago, when things were even more monastic).

I would write more, but this is the second day of add-drop, and there are undoubtedly some schedule adjustments that demand my immediate attention.

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It looks as though the Yuri Wright affair may finally now, mercifully, be over. Yuri Wright is a senior in high school; but not just any student at not just any high school: he was a nationally recruited cornerback at football powerhouse Don Bosco in New Jersey—or at least he was until recently, when Bosco expelled him.

What a life he was having. Colleges from around the country, including Michigan, Notre Dame, Colorado, Wisconsin, and many others, all wanted him. Then, suddenly, Michgan pulled its offer. Why? It turned out that he, like most other high school students, had a Twitter account. And for lo these last many months, he had been tweeting regularly, even during time he was ostensibly in school. What was he tweeting? Well, I will not recount or reproduce the tweets for you; though he closed his original account, screenshots were retained by many media outlets and are widely available on the internet. Be forewarned, however: They are vile. They discuss sexual acts graphically, they use disgusting language to describe women, they are obscene, profane, pornographic, they use derogatory racial epithets, and on and on. And it is not just one objectional tweet: there are lots of them, over a period of months.

When they were “discovered”—although he had some 1,600 followers, so it was not as if they were exactly private, and, quite frankly, I find the claim by Don Bosco to have been unaware of their content hard to believe—Michigan pulled its offer; other schools, like my alma mater Notre Dame, were apparently considering pulling their offer as well. Don Bosco then decided to expell him. Again, I am not particularly impressed with Bosco’s assumption of moral high ground. It cost them almost nothing: the football season is already over, and Yuri was probably on scholarship to Bosco anyway; so there was no downside to them to expelling him in January. Since Yuri has now opted to attend Colorado, the affair seems to be over, at least for the time being.

There are many lessons one might learn from this episode. One is that nothing on the internet is private. Nothing. Ever. Another lesson: whatever is once on the internet is there forever. So anything you write you should imagine that literally every person on the planet will read: Do you still want to write it?

But this was a high school student, not an adult. So some argued that he should be forgiven, given a second chance. I read many people saying things like, “hey, that’s how all high school students talk these days—especially boys in New Jersey!” I also read claims that his words were offensive only to older-generation white people who were unfamiliar with hip-hop culture or the language in some rap music. Some Notre Dame fans who had wanted him to commit there argued that Notre Dame’s Catholic mission requires it not only to forgive a mistake but also to teach virtue, so perhaps Notre Dame had a moral obligation to keep recruiting him, in the hopes that it could turn him into a virtuous person.

Right. Let’s not kid ourselves. Notre Dame would not even sniff an applicant who had displayed that kind of spectacularly questionable character and judgment—unless he was a spectacular football player. And it was not “a” mistake: it was months of display of very low character. It is moreover simply not true that all high schoolers talk like that. Not all high school boys view women like that; not all teenagers see the world and the races like that. To claim otherwise is an affront and slander to the vast majority of good kids out there—yes, even in New Jersey! And it is all still repellent and wrong regardless. Accepting it as inevitable or expected merely increases its occurrence, which is the opposite of what we should want.

That suggests the lesson I think this affair indicates. We are all about tolerance and freedom, as we should be, because it is required by the respect we should show to the decisions that free people make. But respecting the decisions that free people make requires not one thing but two: It requires not only giving people the liberty to act on the basis of their decisions, but it also requires holding them responsible for the consequences of their decisions. We often forget that second part—understandably so, since it is often unpleasant. But it is precisely as much entailed by respect for individual agency as respecting liberty to act is. Punishing people who act wrongly just is respecting their individual agency.

Shielding people from the unpleasant consequences of their decisions does them no favors. Not only does it inferfere with the process of developing good judgment, for that can happen only on the basis of feedback; but it disrespects their agency as not, in fact, up to the demands of liberty.

Now in Yuri Wright’s case, he is in that nether-realm between boyhood and manhood, so he is still developing his character and his judgment. And by the outward signs, things have not been going well. The fact that he has now already returned to tweeting with a brand new account, without taking even a short-term moratorium to reflect on his his life, is also not an encouraging sign. What better time, then, to hold him accountable for his actions, to make clear to him that those aspects of his character are unacceptable, and that bad judgment suffers bad consequences. Otherwise the feedback he gets will be all the wrong kind, and we might find that his judgment leads him to even worse places in the future.

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It is easy, all too easy, to make sport at the expense of the Wall Street “occupiers.” They are overeducated, whiney, and spoiled, they have no coherent plans, objections, or complaints, and on top of everything they are coarse, ill-mannered, and uncouth. Welcome to many college campuses across the country.

But two recent articles make me think there might yet be a silver lining here. Jenna Ashley Robinson argues that a large part of the anger and frustration the occupiers feel is a result of their having been sold a bill of goods: everyone from the President to their high school guidance counselor has insisted that a college education is an absolute necessity not only to leading a morally acceptable life but also to a well-paying job. Naively believing this fairytale, thousands and thousands of students have incurred debts and spent a lot of time getting a college degree—and now here they are, without having mastered any real or marketable skills, with few and limited job prospects, and with a lot of attitude.

Rutgers sociologist Jackson Toby argues that a similar pattern might help explain why so many young people—including many college graduates—have been willing to risk their lives in the recent Arab uprisings. They too were told how important it was to get a college degree, at almost any cost and no matter what else they wanted to do in life. Now here they are as well: educated, many years older, and without jobs or prospects.

Return now to the Wall Street protesters. Perhaps one thing they might help precipitate is the looming bursting of the “education bubble,” which so many have discussed and predicted (see particularly this article in The Economist). This is much to be hoped for. Higher education has been overpromising and underdelivering, and at increasingly absurd prices, for some time now.

And students have indeed been sold a bill of goods. Consider:

It is false and offensive to suggest that one cannot lead a good, noble, and honorable life without a college degree. It is moreover false and foolish to believe that a college degree is an absolute good, worth having at almost any price. It is unfortunately true that for most colleges and universities and for most students no real educational value is obtained, in skills or knowledge; indeed, in many cases, the training in bad moral and intellectual habits, combined with the unrealistic belief in having achieved skill or knowledge, might actually constitute a value substracted. Finally, it is lamentably true that for a great number of students who attend college, the cost in money, time, and opportunity forsaken, is simply not worth it.

I have had several conversations recently with recent graduates of top universities in the New York area who have no job, no concrete idea what their education prepared them to do, and, in most cases, debt. For some of them, their parents paid the entire bill, so the student, thankfully, has no debt, but the parents’ sacrifice was enormous. Was it worth it? Perhaps. But there are a lot of people for whom it is obvious—painfully obvious—that it is not worth it, and they are figuring that out.

It might be too late for the Wall Street protesters to do anything about it in their own cases, since many of them have apparently already gone to college and gone into debt. But perhaps their frustrations, however incoherent and unfocused they might otherwise be, will help convey the message to younger people and to their parents that the time might finally have come to do a cost/benefit analysis before going, or sending one’s children, to college. That realization is a long time coming. I suspect many colleges and universities will not like the results of such calculations, but everyone else will be better for it.

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The Daily Caller reported recently that a high school in Medina, Ohio has begun charging parents fairly hefty fees for various of the activities and extras that it offers, even for seemingly basic courses like Spanish I and Earth Science. Parents are upset, of course, believing that since they are already paying taxes they shouldn’t also have to pay these additional fees.

They have a point. Why should they have to pay twice? On the other hand, by that logic, why should people who do not send their children to public schools be required to pay the taxes to support them anyway? (The response “because public schools are a public good from which everyone benefits” fails, I believe, on both moral grounds and on empirical grounds, but that is a discussion for another day.)

In Medina, Ohio’s case, I would like to offer a qualified “Good!” The introduction of these fees will expose parents to more of the costs associated with running their school. Although those costs are almost certainly inflated, still as individual parents are asked to pay them for their own children, that will tend to level, ever so marginally, the playing field for other educational alternatives.

Right now all private schools face a significant competitive disadvantage because parents who choose to send their children to their schools must nevertheless still continue paying for the public schools. They have to pay twice. (Imagine someone arguing that because the United States Postal Service was so important to this nation’s [whatever], anyone who sends a package via UPS, FedEx, or any other private service must still pay a fee to the USPS—and the USPS will itself largely determine what that fee will be!) Because everyone in the district must pay the taxes, however, the costs are distributed among a much larger group of households than the actual number that have children in the system. Thus the costs to households using the service are subsidized by households not using them.

The introduction of user fees at the public schools will seem to affected parents much more personal. They will feel it directly, because they will have to write a check for it. This is a good thing. Not only will it help remind people that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but it may also help those parents who are considering a private option be able to do so. They might think, “If I have to pay $4,446.50 extra for my daughter to take Spanish I, Earth Science, and band, maybe I should just send her to the Catholic school we’d thought about anyway, whose annual tuition is only about $2000 more than that anyway.”

That might lead to competition, which would benefit everyone—public and private alike.

So while the fees in the Medina, Ohio case might well be buoying bloated budgets, benefits, retirement packages, etc., still a little competition spurred by a little personal responsibility can go a long way.

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Many of you recognize the term “bootlegger-Baptist coalition,” first introduced by Bruce Yandle in Regulation (1983). The bootleggers essentially secure transfers under the moral legitimacy provided by the Baptists (the metaphor refers to the common interest of Baptists and bootleggers in securing regulation of alcohol sales). For those of you who have not encountered this term before, there is a fine piece by Randy Simmons, Ryan York, and Dianna Thomas in the Winter 2011 edition of the Independent Review entitled “Bootleggers, Baptists, and Political Entrepreneurs.”

As used by Yandle and others, the term refers to the rather counter-intuitive coalitions that often emerge around regulatory policies. Yet, one wonders whether there has been something of a bootlegger-Baptist coalition in the Badger state. I know a number of public school teachers and I am persuaded that they (and many of their representatives) are convinced that the National Education Association and its state affiliates are interested in educational quality. For them, it may be “about the children.” They may be the Baptists, to use Yandle’s metaphor. Who then are the bootleggers? There are many candidates, of course, but one may be the union’s health insurance company.

According to an article in today’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, two-thirds of the state’s teachers are insured by the WEA Trust, the health insurance corporation created by the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the state affiliate of the NEA. Because WEA Trust secures its business via collective bargaining agreements, it has not been subject to the same competitive environment as other insurers.

Brown Deer school district (1800 students) decided to break with WEA Trust at the beginning of the fiscal year. As a result “the district saved $170,000 in just one year – the equivalent of at least two teachers.” Of course, the decision to change insurance carriers (but not reducing the level of benefits) generated an interesting result:

Earlier this year, the Brown Deer district’s teachers union filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission over the district’s decision to switch from WEA Trust. Koczela [director of finance for the Brown Deer School District] suspects the move was aimed at protecting the insurance company rather than the employees’ benefits, which she said remained the same with the lower-cost carrier.

Now that the districts have been freed from collective bargaining over benefits, they are free to drop WEA Trust. Governor Scott Walker claimed that simply providing teachers with the same health care program enjoyed by state employees would save taxpayers $68 million a year (a claim that WEA Trust rejects) and others would place at the low end of the range. Whether they avail themselves of these savings—and whether the savings are as advertised—remains to be seen.

How much is collective bargaining worth to WEA Trust? An analysis released last year by the Education Action Group and the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, reported that school districts that cover 100 percent of the premiums paid WEA Trust $1,724 per month (family coverage); those who went with non-WEA coverage paid $1,466 per month. This was based on data on 364 school districts provided by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. As a result of these premiums and the barriers to entry created via collective bargaining agreements, WEA Trust has amassed over $316 million in net assets (2009). Although WEAC and the WEA Trust share a common address, they are separate entities. It would be illegal for WEA Trust to simply transfer resources to the union (although the above mentioned report suggests that it may contract for services with the union).

For those interested in more on this topic, here is a link to a brief analysis conducted by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (the original source of Walker’s claims).

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Jim beat me to blogging this, but I have a slightly different take from the one he had. The Chronicle of Higher Education characterizes the new book Academically Adrift as a “damning indictment of the American higher-education system.” The headline finding? “[M]ore than a third of American college seniors are no better at crucial types of writing and reasoning tasks than they were in their first semester of college.” The finding is based on a survey of a sample of college students who were tested on entering college and again in their second and fourth years.

That finding, shocking as it ought to be, does not actually surprise me very much. In my classes, despite my best efforts, I have always observed that a nontrivial fraction of students seems to be interested only in doing the minimum necessary to pass the class and get the degree. However, what I thought was more interesting about the study was what they found to correlate with learning.

The largest observed learning is found in students who say that their professors had “high academic standards.” Also, students at more selective colleges and who did more writing and reading in their classes did better. Finally, students in traditional arts and sciences majors improved more than students in nontraditional majors. The authors note that academic rigor is declining at American universities. One of the authors told NPR his explanation, with which I strongly agree: “There’s a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high,” Arum says.

Overall, the results vindicate the liberal arts model of college education. My own experience as an undergraduate at a highly selective liberal arts college and a graduate student and lecturer at an Ivy League university leads me to believe that the quality of education that undergraduates receive is higher at one of the top liberal arts colleges than at the Ivies – although the extracurricular and service opportunities at the Ivies are unparalleled. (Let alone most state universities, of course.)

To restore academic rigor at American universities, step one has to be the abolition of all the gimmicky, substandard majors: “communication,” “business,” “hotel management,” etc. I would even argue against teaching subjects like accounting and engineering as majors at the undergraduate level. If you want to be an accountant or engineer, you should do an internship or an apprenticeship or take classes at a technical school, possibly after having done a B.A. in a related discipline like economics or physics.

Step two is to restore teaching as the primary role of the professor at undergraduate universities. This would be a total revolution, one that faculty at most places will strongly resist. But if we want to have government subsidize basic research, then we need to separate that research from undergraduate education, freeing the best researchers from undergraduate teaching responsibilities altogether. Right now we have the top researchers doing indifferent lecturing and outsourcing the interaction with their students to teaching assistants – even in the Ivy League schools. There are plenty of academics who are extremely smart and follow the latest research, who would happily see teaching as their primary responsibility if our tenure standards were different.

These changes are not going to happen until voters demand them. The faculty won’t demand them – their prestige, for many of them, requires contempt for undergraduate teaching. The students won’t demand them – most of them don’t know what’s good for them, as the evaluations problem indicates. The only solution, it seems to me, is for businesses, who have to hire substandard workers who can’t reason or write, to undertake a massive policy campaign for radical reform of American university education.

American universities remain the cream of the global crop, unlike our K-12 system. But as Academically Adrift discovers, the continuation of that supremacy is increasingly uncertain.

UPDATE: My U at Buffalo colleague Phil Arena asks a good question about AA‘s findings: are colleges increasingly failing to teach, or have they simply lowered admissions standards substantially? No one disagrees that college admissions standards have fallen quite a bit since the 1970s. Now, are these new students in college less capable of learning? One might think the opposite: that students who learn less in high school and would not have gotten into college in earlier days might be more susceptible to the intervention effects of college – sort of like how poor countries grow faster than rich ones, all else equal. But all else isn’t equal, and it seems to me that students who learn less in high school are also likely to learn less in college, because the amount of learning one achieves at both levels has more to do with effort than native intelligence. Of course, falling admissions standards probably have a lot to do with the introduction of “easy-A” nontraditional majors as well.

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As one plank in his “winning the future” program, President Obama called recently for more Americans to get college degrees. People with college degrees, the President reminded us, make more money over their lifetimes than people who do not. That is true, but of course by itself it does not mean that the college degree is what made the difference. Perhaps these people would have made more money anyway. Perhaps indeed they would have made yet more money had they not gone to college.  Without more information about what value college adds, we just don’t know.

The new book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses raises serious worries about the value added from a college degree. The authors of the book tracked performance on standardized tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skill of 2,300 college students when they entered college and as they progressed through their college years. The students attended 24 schools, which, though not named as a condition of their participation in the study, are claimed to represent a wide swath of institutions of higher learning in America.

The results? There are many summaries available; see here, for example. But here are a couple of the more arresting numbers. Forty-five percent of students “show no significant improvement” in the measured skills after two years of college education. After four years, “36 percent of students did not demonstrate significant improvement.” That means that about half and about two-thirds, respectively, did show significant improvement, which is the good news; but it would still mean that hundreds of thousands of college students in America today are not receiving measurable benefits in reading, writing, and thinking.

The study has other interesting findings. For example, students who study alone, rather than in groups, show more improvement; students who majored in “traditional arts and science majors,” instead of some of the recently created specialty majors, showed more improvement; and participation in extra-curricular activities had, depending on the nature of the activity, either no effect or a negative one.

This article about the study quotes Phil Hampton, “a UCLA spokesman,” as claiming that his “university offers a rigorous and well-rounded curriculum led by faculty committed to student learning, and pointed to a study that showed high student satisfaction with their experience.” Not very convincing, I’m afraid. It smacks of teachers’ unions’ annual pledge, usually around budget negotiation time, that this year they will really crack down on teachers who are incompetent, pedophiles, etc.

There are lots of ways one might address the problem of so many young men and women wiling away prime productive years engaged in activities of at best only marginal benefit. But creating more federal aid to make it even less costly to the individuals themselves, as the President recommends, is not one of them. In fact, I think we should do precisely the opposite: expose more and more of the actual cost of their college experience (I will not say “education”) to the persons engaging in it themselves. If it is true that a college education confers benefits on its recipients, then they should pay for it. When, as the study cited above suggests, in fact many people who do not benefit from it engage in it anyway, a likely explanation is that they do so because they are induced into it by an artificially lowered cost to them.

If, by contrast, they had to pay for it all themselves—out of their own pockets (minus any scholarships), or with the help of loans received without government subsidy—then, at least, they could make a fair accounting of the potential benefits and costs. Is it really worth it to go to University A for $x per year, when I could go to University B for $x-y per year? Should I spend a fifth (or sixth, etc.) year, when it will cost this much and likely gain me this much?

Because of massive government interposition, from all levels of government and from many directions, it is today almost impossible to take a real reckoning of the costs and benefits involved in going to college. It must also be noted that government distortions like this create special interests who benefit from them. As with various “stimulus” packages and other government “investments,” thousands and thousands of college and university employees benefit from the mere presence of live bodies on their campuses—whether they learn anything or not.

This is not a healthy way to proceed, especially when the federal government and most state governments are facing massive deficits and debt.

Let us instead remind ourselves that a college education is a privilege, not a right, and that shielding recipients from its costs does not eliminate those costs but only forces others to pay them. Eliminating government subsidy of higher education would at a stroke trigger a healthy, and I would also argue proper, investigation into whether what college students are learning is really worth the cost and, by the same token, whether what colleges are teaching is really worth their price.

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In my Introduction to Political Philosophy class semester, I gave an essay final examination in which students had the option to answer this question: “Using one of the moral or political philosophies we have studied, defend a moral position on one of the following contemporary political issues: school vouchers, immigration restrictions, interrogational torture, or affirmative action.” As it turns out, 12 students chose to write an essay on school vouchers. All 12 of them came out in support of school vouchers. I thought this was striking, as even interrogational torture did not achieve perfect unanimity in students’ views of the topic.

Are we witnessing a generational shift in opinion on school choice, much as we have seen on same-sex marriage and to a lesser extent marijuana legalization? Much has been made of Millennials as a “progressive” or even “statist generation.” Certainly, today’s under-30′s are far more likely to identify as Democrats, to support “socialism” and oppose “capitalism,” and to come out in favor of government activism on a wide range of issues than any other age group, even those just a couple of years older. (My pet theory is that this has something to do with their coming of age after the fall of Communism.) However, on same-sex partnerships and marijuana policy, under-30′s are relatively libertarian, and school choice may be another such issue. After all, like marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage, school choice is an issue that may have been debated by academics decades ago but only entered the policy conversation in the 1990′s. As Millennials age and start voting more, while today’s elderly die and leave the electorate, we should expect the political spectrum to shift somewhat toward their views, assuming that these opinion trends are true birth cohort effects and not life cycle effects.

So what do the data say about school vouchers? (more…)

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Chart of the Day

From Cato@Liberty.

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Dan Ariely describes an experiment in which he and colleague solicited essays from four websites dedicated to helping students cheat, paying between $150 and $216 for each. The essays were for a hypothetical social psychology class. All four essays were terrible — real F-quality material even if the student weren’t caught. Richly, two of the essays themselves were plagiarized from other sources, but the websites would not refund their money.

He concludes, “I think that the technological revolution has not yet solved students’ problems.  They still have no other option but to actually work on their papers (or maybe get help in the old fashioned way and copy from friends).  But I do worry about the existence of essay mills and the signal that they send to our students.”

It strikes me that this particular technology will probably never come. The reason is that the students most interested in buying their essays online are going to be the worst students. They’re probably not going to know the difference between a good essay and a poor one, and they probably aren’t even conscientious enough to review thoroughly the essay they receive. This is one market in which we professors can be thankful for the problem of asymmetric information.

HT: Steve Saideman

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