Archive for the 'academentia' Category


Higher-ed bubble watch, north-of-the-border edition

One of these days I’d like to use the very same title for a blog post about postsecondary inflation in Alaska, just to fuck with people.

Anyway, the Globe and Mail is running a pretentiously-titled feature on postsecondary education in Canada called “Our Time To Lead”.  It features this rather exhaustive discussion of our higher-ed bubble:

As per the standard template for these stories, it leads off with a Special Snowflake who shuns the sciences for an Arts degree, claims to find that “it’s more important to be happy than financially secure”, and “always thought of [an undergraduate education] as knowledge for the sake of knowledge.”  Cue juxtaposition with a multicredentialed graduate whose Master’s degrees in History and Education can’t get him a job as a schoolteacher in Toronto, so he’s folding towels at a gym alongside teenagers he’d like to be teaching.  And, of course:

And to think, he says, he once looked down on high-school friends for heading west after Grade 12 to land jobs in the oil industry.

“I thought they didn’t understand the importance of university. Now, I see them beginning a phase of life I wanted to have right now,” he says.

You know what they say, guys: Syncrude’s always hiring.

You will find the list of complaints that follows to be tediously familiar:

  • Students saddened when they don’t feel “challenged” or “engaged” by two hundred-seat first-year lectures taught (variously) by distant, distracted, research-focused professors or harried, harassed, and underpaid adjuncts and TAs;
  • Faculty frustrated with undergraduates who arrive ill-prepared, who can neither construct a sentence nor factor a quadratic, and who “prefer to amble leisurely through a four-year degree like consumers ordering an education to go”; and
  • Employers exasperated with graduates who present themselves without critical communication and problem-solving skills.

We’ll charitably look past the juxtaposition of undergrads who see university as a temple of Higher Learning, rather than a crass skill-factory churning out employees for consumption by the Great Corporate Maw, and those that complain that they’re not being taught relevant job skills.  Perhaps those two sets of students are independent.  (Perhaps, if you were in the second set, you even know what it means for two sets to be independent — although if you’re anything like the comp-sci undergrads alongside whom I suffered you probably don’t consider set algebra to be a relevant job skill.  If that’s the case, then God willing, your DBA will drag you out into the parking lot and beat you with a rubber hose like your Intro Databases prof should have.  Look: Now even I’m complaining about Universities These Days.)

The verbiage that follows contains an eloquent anecdote in support of the signaling theory of education:

The head of a trucking company told Dr. Weingarten that he hired only university grads as truckers. The cab of a truck is complicated, he said, as are the logistics of warehousing. In any case, “if I have two students come to me, both prepared to be a truck driver and work for x amount of money, and one of them has a degree, why shouldn’t I hire the university grad?”

Why indeed?

It also points to a rather compelling story about the inflation of the higher-ed bubble, at least on this side of the 49th (opening caveat obviously excluded), which begins with this delightful piece of omphaloskepsis:

“Whom does the university serve – the students, their families, the faculty?” asks Ken Coates, the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan and co-author of Campus Confidential, which explores how the system’s failure to manage a growing student population has eroded the quality and value of a degree. “As long as they are publicly funded institutions, shouldn’t we be focused on how we serve society as a whole?”

Are universities — and/or university educations — designed or expected to serve “society as a whole”?  We surely shovel enough public funds at them.  (Sorry, homeless people, Ken Coates needs a Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation!  Maybe we’ll build you a shelter next fiscal year.)  Indeed they are, as Canada’s fourth most-beloved Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson, would tell you:

[T]he loftier ambition of liberal education has always been to create citizens who are well-read, critical thinkers, strong communicators and civically engaged – the qualities Mr. Pearson lauded when he told the students that a degree called on them “to serve their country” and not themselves.

(It is perhaps too lofty an ambition of journalism programmes to create writers who can use the Oxford Comma properly.  We’ll let that pass.)

This is a bit of a creepy ambition to rabid individualists like me — it reads like a tepid Canadian mandate to transform malleable, putty-like young adults into a rather diffident set of New Socialist Men.  But have a read at another Pearson sound bite:

“Will the emphasis on wise and unhurried teaching and research be replaced by the demand and the dimensions of a knowledge economy?”

Maybe the best way to serve your country rather than yourself would be to forego that taxpayer-subsidized four-year vacation in the Land of the Liberal Arts and pick up a B.Sc. and a good job in that knowledge economy, eh hippy?  It brings to mind this admonition from P. J. O’Rourke’s commencement address:

Don’t chain yourself to a redwood tree. Instead, be a corporate lawyer and make $500,000 a year. No matter how much you cheat the IRS, you’ll still end up paying $100,000 in property, sales and excise taxes. That’s $100,000 to schools, sewers, roads, firefighters and police. You’ll be doing good for society.

How many people are willing to chain themselves to a seventy-hour work week in order to “do good for society” by bumping themselves into the highest tax bracket?  Some sacrifices, especially the chronic and banal, are too great to make for an abstract ideal.  Fuck civic virtue.  But don’t let’s pretend that you’re serving your country by studying Keats and Kant rather than Kronecker and Kepler.

There’s a less theoretical and more immediate benefit to shovelling people into post-secondary institutions, too: It keeps them out of the unemployment numbers.

As James Côté, co-author of Lowering Higher Education, points out, the government’s postsecondary cheerleading solved the supply problem of youth labour by parking them on campus. But it failed to plan for how graduates would find work related to their field of study. Canada has one of the highest graduate underemployment rates among Western countries, swelling the ranks of Keats-quoting baristas.

The classical education so beloved by fictional terrorist Hans Grüber, and which is the inspiration for if not the fact of many modern Bachelor’s of Arts curricula, is an aristocratic relic.  It’s a nostalgic throwback to a class and age when gainful employment was considered vulgar rather than laudable.  It, along with with the marked diaeresis, should perhaps be reëxamined.


A pair of tidbits on public transit

Because fuck my commute right in its furry little ear.


Rush-hour public transit is a special hell for introverts because it puts us unavoidably in close contact with other Hated Fellow Bipeds.  Some of those fellow travellers place a quite unreasonable emphasis upon “being sociable” or “friendliness”, which brings with it the need for those of us who don’t want to help you talk about your day to post the nonverbal equivalent of “please die in a crotch fire” without being so offensive as to draw even more attention.  Yale University sociologist Esther Kim actually managed to get published for documenting said FOAD signals:

Kim systematized the unspoken rules into a list of strategies commonly used to keep a free seat:

  • Avoid eye contact.
  • Lean against the window and stretch out your legs.
  • Sit on the aisle seat and listen to music to pretend not to hear people asking for the window seat.
  • Place a large bag or multiple items in the empty seat to make it time-consuming to move.
  • Look out the window with a blank stare to appear crazy.
  • Pretend to be asleep.
  • Put your coat on the seat to make it appear already taken.
  • If all else fails, lie: Say the seat has been taken by someone else.

Good thing someone published that list in a high-impact factor journal or I would never have guessed that those tactics weren’t utterly sincere.

But “keep a free seat” isn’t the only motivation driving transit asshattery, and if you’ve ever actually commuted by bus you can probably guess what comes next:

The game changed, however, when drivers announced a bus would be full. Riders just wanted to avoid the “crazy” person and sit next to a “normal” person.

Kim found that race, class and gender weren’t key concerns when commuters realized someone had to sit next them. They were primarily concerned with maintaining their own safety.

Shockingly, people really don’t want to get assaulted.  Yeah, I’m surprised too.  This is my surprised face.

“Ultimately this nonsocial behavior is due to the many frustrations of sharing a small public space together for a lengthy amount of time,” Kim said in the release. “Yet this deliberate disengagement is a calculated social action, which is part of a wider culture of social isolation in public spaces.”

Surprised.  Face.


We go from explaining asshattery on behalf of bus riders to explaining asshattery on behalf of bus-system-running freeriders.  Careful readers will recall Frances Woolley’s excellent piece on the conflicting goals of public transit systems: Getting poor people to work cheaply; getting rich people to work with a (we hope) reduced carbon footprint; and providing good jobs for unionized employees.  I submit that many — most? — public transit decisions are being made for a fourth reason: Accruing status to the system’s directors.

For example, greater Vancouver’s transit administration is running dangerously low on funds, to the point where it’s dipping into its cash reserves (bloated by some admirably canny real-estate deals during the recent boom) to cover operating expenses.  It has consequently cancelled a number of planned improvements and expansions to its commuter bus routes.  The decades-old Evergreen Line project, however, is pressing forward regardless — a stunning piece of triumphalism which just happens to parallel a major bus route in subsuburban Vancouver.  Were this about moving more people from Point A to Point B, it would surely suffice to (say) double the number of buses on that route, at lower cost and with greater flexibility.  This isn’t about making people’s commutes easier, though: it’s about self-satisfied triumphalism rising on brutalist concrete columns above the stuck-in-traffic masses.  Who cares if it bankrupts Translink?  They can just blame the provincial and municipal governments for not wanting to raise taxes in an election year.



“What is the purpose of college?” is too broad a question

By way of Tyler Cowen we find this rather good piece by Noah Smith:

As Tyler says, RTWT.  It’s interesting, and probably insightful.  But I part company with Smith right about here:

Economists (including at least one in my PhD graduating class) have dedicated untold numbers of papers to showing that college doesn’t produce useful skills. But I think that this is missing the point; useful skills, which you mostly learn on the job, are not the only valuable form of human capital. There are three extremely important forms of human capital that you can’t acquire on the job:

1) Motivation,

2) Perspective, and

3) Human networks.

These, I believe, are the types of capital that college is designed to build, both in Japan and in the United States.

(Emphasis added.)

For most people, “college” means a four-year bachelor’s degree, so that’s what I’ll focus on.  In my case, I gained the vast majority of my motivation and perspective in a single 16-month internship.  Everyone else I spoke with in my cohort of the internship programme reported the same thing.  As for human networks, I’ve remained in touch with a whole three people I met in undergrad (and if we’re keeping score, none from the internship), but I treat human networking much the same way as I treat getting up before ten or owning a phone — an irritating and distasteful thing I have to do in order to make interacting with the rest of you meatbags a less painful process on the whole — so I’m probably not all that representative.

On the other hand, my undergrad education did a fucking amazing job of teaching me useful skills.  On my very first day at that internship, I sent my 300-level algorithms prof a gushing thank-you email for beating graph algorithms so thoroughly into my head.  I learned Perl and XML on the job, among other specific skills, but if I’d had to learn (say) software engineering and graph theory on an as-needed basis I’d have produced some truly awful and inefficient code.  (Incidentally, that’s how I learned differential geometry in grad school — “on the job”, “as-needed” — and I’d have been much better off simply auditing a course in the math department.)

So is Noah Smith simply wrong?  Not really; his post is credible and insightful.  But I think it highlights a difference between STEM fields — which require a broad and deep background of specialized training before job-specific “useful skills” can be applied — and traditional liberal-arts fields.  Let’s chuck law and medical school in with STEM, there; I think it’s clear that freshly-minted doctors aren’t expected to learn anatomy on the job.  (Either that or I’m staying the fuck away from hospitals.)  I get the feeling that this scratches the surface of the perennial “how to fix higher ed” question.


Links to greatness

If you’re as excited about the Scion FR-S as I am, you need to click through to this MotoIQ article right now.

By way of David Henderson we find this Matt Mitchell article on the UK’s new double-dip recession and its so-called austerity measures.

Here’s Will Wilkinson pointing out that transfers to college kids are insanely regressive, probably almost as bad as sports subsidies.  Money quote:

Extending the programme just one year would cost $6 billion. The measure is promoted as a way of making college more affordable, but it will mainly benefit those well out of school, many of whom are relatively well-to-do, mid-career professionals, such as your indebted correspondent. There is a movement afoot to get the government to forgive student-loan debt entirely, and when compared to this, the cost of the scheme to keep student-loan interest rates low looks quite small. Stilll, it’s bad policy for many of the same reasons it would be bad policy to forgive student loans.


If we’re going to hand out this $6 billion next year, it would be better all ’round to hand it to the people who need it most. If we think it more important to spend this dough on education, then we should hand out the $6 billion in the form of scholarships to deserving prospective collegians of modest means, to help them earn their degrees without having to take out any loans at all.

Finally, Arnold Kling has a long essay on tribalism and blogging.


Higher ed bubble watch, has-its-own-Fark-tag edition

We note with horrified interest that the University of Florida is eviscerating its computing science department.  This will — in theory — allow UF to save $1.7 million, which almost covers the increase in the Gators’ athletics budget.

So what’s going on here?  From that second article:

  • It is projected that Gator Boosters will contribute $36 million to the UAA this school year.
  • Southeastern Conference revenue, TV contracts and bowl games are projected to bring Florida $17 million in the 2011-12 school year.
  • Equipment contracts will pay the UAA, the athletic operating arm of the program, $1.6 million. Florida expects football to generate $19.7 million in revenue from ticket sales this coming season and basketball, $2 million, while licensing and multi-media agreements are forecast to contribute another combined $12.7 million.


The budget also includes the $6 million donation that the Athletic Association recently pledged to the University. It is also a safe bet that, since the Athletic Association is in business to make a profit, when the final revenue numbers are released, one can fully expect to see Florida’s 2011-12 athletic revenues easily top $100 million. Without looking at the numbers, I’m going to guess that Texas and maybe Ohio State will make slightly more than the Gators, as usual.

That’s big money.  Is UF more of a crypto-pro sports franchise than an Institute of Higher Learning these days?

This looks to me like another manifestation of the principal-agent-agent problem (state-funded universities are supposed to provide accessible education to residents, but the incentives under which they operate point towards “amateur” NCAA sports and mooching off of alumni instead), but then again the principal-agent problem is my new favourite hammer so of course everything looks like a nail.


“Learning” is useless

Here’s David Brooks being his usual adorable self, missing the point by the narrowest of margins.

Colleges are supposed to produce learning. But, in their landmark study, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that.


It’s not enough to just measure inputs, the way the U.S. News-style rankings mostly do. Colleges and universities have to be able to provide prospective parents with data that will give them some sense of how much their students learn.

There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t.


This is the beginning of college reform. If you’ve got a student at or applying to college, ask the administrators these questions: “How much do students here learn? How do you know?”

I propose that “learning” is to education as “weight loss” is to body recomposition.  Just as you can starve yourself half to death, lose a bunch of lean body mass along with a bunch of fat, and end up thirty pounds lighter with the exact same body-fat percentage, you can go to college, learn a bunch of stuff, and end up no more educated than you were when you came in.

By way of a for instance, one of the things I learned in undergrad was how to play a mean game of Quake III Arena (CPMA, of course).  I got reasonably good at reflex skills like flick rails, bunny hops, and rocket juggling, as well as the more intellectual pursuits of item timing and control, level control, and so on.  After sinking hundreds of hours into diligent practice I got good enough to get my ass kicked repeatedly by a bunch of eastern Europeans who were way better than I was — but I could learn from them.

Then Counter-Strike happened and the competitive FPS scene got boring.  Every once in a while I’ll fire up Q3A and murder some bots, but for the most part the time I sunk into CPMA was largely wasted if you think of “learning” as “acquiring useful skills and knowledge”.

“Not fair!” you cry.  “Q3A wasn’t part of your formal curriculum!”  Fair enough, but at least it was worthwhile (fun, satisfying) as an experience while I was doing it.  That compares rather favourably to the first-year programming classes that taught me Turbo Pascal (particularly the one that taught pointers absolutely bass-ackwards and insisted that I regurgitate the wrong definition for the midterm), or the “advanced software engineering” course that was all about building simple-minded user interfaces in Java, none of which was useful as anything more than a shared experience to bitch about at the pub.

Learning, in the sense that Brooks — and most everyone else — uses it, is a means to an end, not an end in itself.  I learned some pretty decent tournament-FPS skills, but it no longer matters how well I learned them, or how well I retain them.  Similarly, I learned how to cope with Pascal’s idiosyncrasies, but it no longer matters that I did so (and I’ve put some effort into ensuring that it will not matter in the future, either!).  On the other hand, I did a damn fine job of learning how to design and build solid, useful programs, and that skillset (to which I’m still adding) matters a great deal — it’s how I earn a living and the foundation of my PhD.  And if I’d done a better job of learning and retaining multivariate calculus way back in second year, I’d have had a much easier time in grad school.  I want to learn CGAL because it’ll make my professional life easier and some personal projects less of a hassle.  I want to learn to drive a shifter kart fast because it’ll be fucking fun.  These are two different kinds of learning.

On the other hand, from a policy perspective, I think Brooks’s focus on retention rather than utility is the better way to go.  As LabRat recently pointed out, once you get to college you’re on your own — your decisions, and the consequences thereof, are your own.  (Perhaps you’d better take a course in existentialism!)  If I think you ought to get a Mechanical Engineering degree, you’re perfectly within your rights to tell me to fuck off and enter the Antediluvian Poststructuralist Sculpture programme instead.  In either case, you’re probably more concerned with how well the curriculum is taught than with how useful people find their coursework after graduation, even if we could come close to measuring the latter.


Higher ed subsidies?

Tyler Cowen likes them:

Postwar higher education has proven one of America’s most effective subsidies, and it has paid for itself many times over.  It is also one of the more significant successes of federalism.

Sort of:

It’s not about blaming the critics or defunders of state universities, or the critics of public subsidies to private universities.  The real problems are a few.  First, successful state programs tend to stultify and decline over time, and if nothing else the danger is that health care costs will eat up state budgets.  Second, the absolute returns to higher education (as opposed to the wage for not going) are not currently high enough to maintain the current fiscal structure of those institutions, furthermore those fiscal structures do not have so much “give,” due to tenure and various self-imposed cost inflexibilities.  Third, although most state universities have relatively little explicit debt, they are implicitly massively leveraged through reliance on ongoing tuition boosts, ongoing enrollment boosts, and timely retirements, none of which can be counted on in the future.

David Henderson isn’t so sure:

Consider the phrase “many times over.” To have paid for itself, it would have had to generate a present value of returns equal to the present value of costs. “Many” must mean at least three. So that would be a present value of returns equal to at least three times the present value of costs.

Is that plausible? I think not. Ignore, for a minute, which Tyler appears to do, the strong case made by Bryan Caplan [the links for Bryan’s posts are too numerous: just do a search, within Econlog, on “signaling”] that much of higher education is signaling. Even if that were completely false and none of it is signaling, a huge part of the gain from education is a private good captured by the person who is educated. To make Tyler’s case, one would have to make a case that a large part of the return from education is a public good. But he doesn’t make that case or even link to a case.

For myself, I find arguments from “post-war <policy>” in North America difficult to disentangle from the fact that, immediately post-war, nearly all of the rest of the world’s industrial base had been bombed to shit and most of its labour force was dead and/or starving.  (I’m shamefully neglecting South America and Australia/NZ here, but I don’t know shit about their 1950s history.)

Let’s assume for a minute that Tyler’s right.  Think about transaction costs.  In 1960, if you wanted to learn how to build a bridge or synthesize organic compounds or otherwise acquire specialized knowledge and skills, you more or less had to go to a campus and sit in a lecture hall to do it.  Transaction costs were high, and state-subsidized colleges reduced those costs dramatically.

Now we have the internet.  I think you see where I’m going with this.

Even if public subsidies to higher ed were all that and a bag of chips, it’s instructive to ask why.  I’m not convinced that a model developed in circumstances of  (a) high transaction costs and (b) a massive and artificial trade advantage remains applicable in the absence of both.

anarchocapitalist agitprop

Be advised

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