My education debate with Noah Smith

Done through Bloomberg Opinion, here is one excerpt from me:

In a tier-one American research university, I envision something like 20% of the curriculum being on line. No more Monday-Wednesday-Friday 8 a.m. classes, fewer boring classes and some people will be able to graduate in three years. Professors will have more time to meet with students, and I am happy to demand more from the faculty in this regard. Virtually every class will be on tap, once cross-university registration and credit exchange is allowed.

The product will be much better, more convenient, and face-to-face meet-ups will be more alive than ever, at least once Covid-19 recedes.

Noah of course has plenty to say too, here is the full discussion.


"The product?"

Whatever product Tyler is talking about, it will never come from GMU, including its Econ Department. Like all universities, GMU will have to deal with the cancel culture movement and its enforcement of "a Stalin level of conformity" (as Robin Hanson warned us). Apparently, Tyler prefers to ignore it.

Do you want a safe space? Do you want to cry?

A safe space from safe spacers? Is that a double negative?

No. I want to eliminate all safe spaces everywhere --as I attempted for in universities and other organizations where I worked before retirement. I have never cried for cowards who were getting the cancelation they preferred to ignore, and I am not going to start doing it today.

J., please read

It concludes with this line
"Any definition of “unsafe” that aims for a Tom Cotton will hit a David Shor or a Lee Fang."

If you read it, you will know why I don't cry for David Shor and Lee Fang.

I unironically think I do, given how many Liberals there are out there bent on destroying people's lives and careers for expressing wrong-think. Can you help me out? Preferably a safe space with a well stocked beer fridge.

When people exercise their freedom of speech, you run to the nearest safe space? Seems nobody likes the first amendment and its consequences. A safe space with a pacifier might be more relevant to your maturity level.

we suspect anon1 is using the word "unironically" ironically

j fubared the definition of "safe space"
standing up to woke mob arsonists is not a safe space

the option of 20% online classes doesn't seem like that big of a deal.

People don't go to school for classes only, the social part of it is a big driver. I wonder if students wouldn't rather keep it the way it was.

Right, there should have been that point made, that education is signaling but for the social aspects. And the 'debate' was more like a soundbite, a few paragraphs long.

Oh gosh, if only kids knew some way to be social outside school ..

The point is that Yale screens people you are likely to meet so you do not need a full time Social Secretary. In fact you can pretend you are not a snob at all. It just so happens everyone you meet comes from the Upper Middle Class or better.

The purpose of going to college, especially to do an Arts degree, is to meet the right people and hopefully marry one. There is no other sensible reason for people to send their daughters.

That second paragraph is stupid, but the first one is right on the money (except that 10% will be below Upper Middle Class, so you can pretend you are inclusive and democratic).

"(except that 10% will be below Upper Middle Class"

But the very brightest from the lower classes, of course.

All these answers show her remarkable lack of creativity.

You're like guys arguing that Facebook could never happen because that's what campus social clubs are for.

Since when is Noah an expert on anything? A mediocre pundit with mediocre ideas...

Yeah, Noah is honestly the worst. Smug, stupid, and argues in bad faith. Not sure how he has the platform/reach he does.

He may be all those things but he's still smarter than you. That's why.

So Noah Smith (or a close relative) comments here as "Tab"?

Saved from the lecture hall!

Saved from the bell!

I think perhaps you guys approach this too much as economists, and not enough as citizens. It is too much about tuition money for traditional universities. About preserving the model.

Here is my prediction: If state universities do not innovate, they will be cut off by new state initiatives without legacy obligations.

We could almost work in the "repeal and replace" joke, but I don't think it would work that way.

I think some states will implement small programs which function as stalking horses. They will appear to be harmless options, but end up being replacements.

One driver of these programs has to be that it will be incredibly cheap for the state to offer "a campus" for everyone. A purely online education has very low costs. I mean what's the going price now, $5,000 for a Masters? $2,000 for a certificate?

In that scenario the traditional college is not "forced to change," but they might end up wondering where all the students went.

Or at least the bulk, the lower to middle class, who can't drop 20 (or 60) grand a year for the kid's experience.


On research, just pay for public research with public money, and of course release the results to the public domain.

I like the plan, but it sounds a lot like the community colleges. I don't see that they are making any headway here.

Yes, the massive fail in logic here is to not realize this already exists. anonymous says he is from California, where community college is already free.

So you knuckleheads have just convinced yourselves that community college is the same as a massive online courses on any subject, therefore massive online courses on any subject are not required.


Rather than taking the groundbreaking course on machine learning taught by a leading researcher online, why didn't all those kids just go to their local community college!!!


100% online is fine too, but just seems like the community colleges seem to offer what you want to offer with online courses - strip away the excesses and offer cheap education. I'm only offering that CC might provide you an insight to what you want and its results.

Like saying the corner store has everything Amazon does.

And of course it entirely misses the scaling factor for great teachers and exceptional lesson plans.

True, there are advantages. I don't think a lot of 18 yr olds will have the motivation of sticking to a computer screen 100% of the time, too many distractions. Maybe a mix of the two. I kind of like the flipped plan, lectures for homework and classrooms for do the work. You could have exceptional lesson plans (though there's nothing stopping that now), and great lecturers where students can even pause and rewind parts they need to.

Western Governors University sounds very close to the state initiative that anonymous is proposing. Online university with 19 member states that was founded in 1997.

I mentioned states, because they would be the most innovative in this moment.

But we could think about the possibility of a National University. It would be scary in some senses, but it would be the most efficient thing on offer.

The Department of Education just funds Coursera, done. I won't look up the numbers, but I'm sure Coursera is operating budget is utterly trivial compared to Department of Education line items.

"a National University ... would be the most efficient thing": oh what a tease.

You know, Sears and Roebuck had the chance to be Amazon, but they just couldn't wrap their head around it.

Maybe traditional colleges can have be happy being Sears, for as long as it lasts.

Sears was Amazon, but then decided mail order was just too costly and unprofitable.

Just as home shopping TV was taking off and retail was waiting for cable boxes to allow direct input to TV, bypassing the phone call to order takers, Sears stopped promoting its mail order by sending out catalogs and offering consolidated order pickup at thousands of local brick and mortar locations decades before Amazon started offering those options.

Peter Thiel is light years ahead of this. The major universities are primarily classist influence brokers. There is no reason for this to exist in 2020 unless you're an heir to a fortune.

100% of the learning material you need is online, and the university SHOULD be focused on providing value-add to students. Which economists should understand.

Great professors should be hungry to tutor small classes, and really develop people individually. The days of the lecture hall are dead - put the lecture recording online for everyone instead of making kids pay tens of thousands of dollars to inflate your ego.

State universities are often beauracracy monsters too. Many universities spend tens of millions of dollars on "diversity" faculty. Not I'm not saying minority scholarships, or programs for underprivileged students. I meant only administrators for overseeing and enforcing "diversity".

My home state's largest university recently killed over half its housing, because the rooms were economical units with group toilets. These were replaced with thousand-dollar-a-month individual apartments that cost millions to design. Parking? You're joking. They built the apartments on top of old parking lots. Student tuition was jacked through the roof to pay for the construction, now students are put over a barrel for housing, and they can't even park in a city that's 80% commuters. What's the value-add here? Versus how much does this look like a giant money scam to benefit executives.

LOL most the important value-add of university comes from making social connections with other students. Can't really happen online. The rich know this, that's why they will never embrace online education for their kids which is why online-base degrees will never ever have the status in the market that in-person based degrees have.

"100% of the learning material you need is online"

So, why haven't I been able to find any of the courses I wanted online over the past two decades when I looked?

MIT has put lots of courses online, but not the ones I was looking for.

The economists believe experience is never hands on, the US no longer leads in production in any area but bullshit.

Ie, economists equate capital with cash with debt. Thus to economists like you, car, rocket, meat factories can be created by the Fed buying debt.

No need for workers, much less workers with experience experimenting with with their hands.

Thanks to economists, most of the work on stopping COVID-19 is done outside the US. After all, economists have no clue how to protect people from getting sick or dying because it requires experienced workers building production capital and operating production capital, which is completely unavailable from the Fed, Wall Street, hedge funds, etc.

Thanks to economists, US PPE production is now a home industry like it was two hundred years ago, production only upgraded by LED lighting instead of candles. Using antique production capital that schools taught my peer females to use in home economics.

Just thing, in the 50s, economists taught public school students how to sew, knit, cook, deliver health, plan, design, manage, etc, all home production, which could expand into the community.

Economists have erased production from economic theory.

There are multiple N95 mask plants in the U.S., including a big 3M plant in Aberdeen, SD -

I teach some of the most motivated and smart students on the planet. Their performance and happiness in online classes was drastically worse. They hate taped lectures and zoom is only a bit better. I also hate it, online is way worse, but since measuring learning performance is hard maybe impossible, if you are the guy who only looks for his keys in the lamplight then you are going to miss it. Writing is thinking and you need to work directly with students to teach it.

An education is more than the information delivered in lectures, it's a habit of thought that can only be developed by the interaction of teacher and student. No, not in a face-to-face meetup between teacher and student, but a head-to-head argumentative dialogue between teacher and students that stimulates critical thinking. The lecture hall, whether attended in person or virtually over the internet, is where students go to pass the exam and get the degree not to get an education. Learning to think is hard, teaching one to think is even harder.

The most important habit it using your hands while others are watching and suggesting better ways to do something by using their hands.

For example, like what Elon Musk is paying workers to do in Boca Chica, Texas.

Anyone care to point to an online course to produced experienced welders?

Wow. If Rayward argues for the benefits of actually engaging with arguments and being open to changing your mind, and mulp argues for doing something practical, well, can the singularity be that far off? I mean isn't this like the fourth sign of the Apocalypse or something?

I expect a giant fissure to open up in the universe any second. Just as soon as they recognize the irony.

Universities have long since given up trying to teach how to think. They are indoctrination factories and the graduates of colleges are working hard to make sure they can ban any idea they do not like so they never even have to hear about an idea they might disagree with.


My godson just graduated from the University of Chicago. It has to be America's best university. Why? Because it teaches critical thinking skills. Sad, but few even know what critical thinking skills means, much less how they are taught. Americans are ignorant, and proud of it.

“ a head-to-head argumentative dialogue between teacher and students that stimulates critical thinking”

No, ray, most Americans are fine. But learning to think critically is hard, and almost all Homo sapiens prefer to avoid or put off what’s hard.

However you have to realize how old fashioned and conservative and reactionary what you are saying is, from the perspective of the far left wokesters who are in charge.

We will soon be having a customer satisfaction survey about online education--for high school as well as college. We'll see how motivated people are when they are by themselves.

That doesn't mean we can't use online education differently.

For example, my wife has been tutoring 7th and 8th graders in person, but now online. What we have learned is that kids at home do not study, much less do their homework. In some cases, parents are gone and the oldest child is in charge. Or, the kid was struggling before, and is struggling even more: why: because kids learn from each other: a friend in school would help explain the math problems. And, the parents can't: how many parents with just a high school education remember the point slope formula, or geometry.

Where online could help, and where it is not being use, is high school preparation or college preparation for a course: sort of refresher courses before school starts. Before you take the advanced chemistry course, here is a refresher of what you learned last year. Or, before you take the physics course, here is the math you need to know.

"sort of refresher courses before school starts": that used to be called Vacation Reading. Some universities might even set an exam for incoming students to see if they had done the work. Mind you, I'm thinking of fifteen years ago so it's ancient history really. Maybe it was never an American thing?

Still happening in the US

"once cross-university registration and credit exchange is allowed"

One might add - and widely accepted. Although I expect it will be easier to get Directional State to accept the credit from Stanford than the other way around, and acceptance even among state flagships may be a long time coming.

The best current example of acceptance for credit of "other institution" instruction that I know of is AP courses, as validated by exams, but this is by nature limited to lower level courses.

I think a key element that is required for this to work is reliable and credible third party testing. Recurrent reports of cheating, particularly on overseas SATs for example, suggest this is not a solved problem.

Some years ago, I took the Certified Financial Planner courses, for personal interest. All self study. There were, as I recall, 6 exams, administered by computer at third party testing sites. One had to show an ID to take the exam. The final cumulative exam was an in person 2 day proctored exam, again with ID. The cost for each of the exams was, as I recall, a couple of hundred dollars.

Its not an Oxford tutorial experience model, but its inexpensive, and offers a flexible schedule. You'd need something more to support labs - PChem, or Rockwell hardness testing, etc. But for a large fraction of courses for large fraction of students, it should be doable.

Agreed. Third party testing. You have to do it for law. You have to do it for medicine.

I think schools are not too keen for this as it may expose how soft some courses are, even in "name" institutions.

I remember hearing there is a prof at Stanford who teaches an online class and administers the same test to online students to keep his in person class feel the hot breath of competition.

"once cross-university registration and credit exchange is allowed"

That's how the Scottish universities did it from the year dot into the 19th century. Maybe even the early 20th - I don't know when the habit stopped.

Mind you it's presumably easier when you have only five universities (four once the two in Aberdeen merged) and some consensus on what merits study and to what standard.

But you could do it with more universities - didn't the Germans have a similar custom in the days when theirs was the finest university system in the world?

All very good points and if colleges were truly interested in teaching the masses, they'd be doing it already. But they aren't--their goals are to build a club and make it exclusive.

State universities often seem to be forgotten in these discussions. In-state students can almost always get admitted to a university or college in their state system. And if they can't, some states still make it easy to go to a community college and transfer after 1 or 2 years as long as you get good grades.

As for private colleges and universities, if you were to ask a Harvard administrator what they thought the mission of the college should be, the likely answer would be, "educating future leaders" and not "teaching the masses." That said, -- some of them are even free. If you've got the $$$, you can go for an open enrollment certificate program online or in person:

Tyler is missing some of the economics of online education. Recorded lectures are not something that you can charge for because:
1. Videos are easy to copy and, once released, will soon be available for free.
2. The material for most courses is available to anyone, and differs little from university to university. There are lots of good speakers. How much will I pay for a recorded Tyler Cowen economics lecture when the Joe Smith lecture on the same material is almost identical? Therefore recorded lectures will be given away for free and available on YouTube. They will serve as advertising for what people will actually pay for:

Tutoring, Testing, and Credentialing: Every course that you will be able to charge for must award a valuable credential (or be part of a small package of courses that leads to a credential). That need not be a bachelors degree (probably shouldn't be) but must have a perceived value.
Employers and other institutions must accept that credential as valuable. That means the testing must be sufficiently rigorous that it proves the student has learned something (not true with Bachelors degrees now). It means that education brands must develop credibility for their online offerings, or they will be worthless. As Kaplan has argued, most of the value of a current bachelors degree is the signalling from making it through a restrictive admissions process, and from enduring a 4 year program. Unrestricted online courses won't have that to sell: they'll have to actually deliver useful skills to be useful.

But most important, students will be willing to pay for the credible credential, the test that leads to that credential, and the tutoring that will teach them to pass the test. Simply putting out a lecture series will generate no value. Only those who can develop the infrastructure for testing and tutoring can succeed. So yes, Tyler Cowen lectures will be watched, but soon they'll be available for free (a smart brand will put them up on YouTube to attract customers). For education ventures to succeed broadly and make a profit, they'll need to set up the testing and tutoring to go with that set of lectures, and establish a credible credential system that awards a portable and valuable credential for each course.

I read the "debate" and found it unintentionally amusing. I did (finally, it's taken me a long time) realize that TC must himself have, or have a loved one who has, a (set of) co-morbidity wrt covid-19, since otherwise his fixation on it would indicate an unhealthy obsession. Sure TC, we're going to do a once-every-40-year restructuring of undergraduate (that isn't specified, but is implied) education to devote more resources to a disease/virus which may not even be around by the time the deed is done (and that is the goal of the research; to make further directed research unnecessary.) Laugh-out-loud-funny! Both writers, but TC even more than NS, fail miserably to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all for all the various majors/minors in baccalaureate education. (I wonder if TC even took a hard-science lab course, it clearly left no impression). How does one do a elemental analysis via digestion and precipitation lab "on-line"? Neither one, imho, even begin to grasp the difficulty in presenting most subjects in a lecture-only format. Neither one seems to have grasped that on-line education FAILED dramatically this Spring (in the USA) and that wasn't because that most teachers haven't been "taught" how to stand in front of a class and "teach", but because the difficulty of keeping their audience logged-on AND engaged is daunting. Take a look at the credits of the average grossing movie which only hopes for engagement for 90-120 minutes, total. Multiply that by the number lectures for each unique class being taught at each "tier-one" university then by the number of classes, and then add on the costs of developing a AI/tutor/tester to grade each question in every quiz, test, and final exam - along with a discipline specific national standard test on the subject. How close are we to having an AI which can grade my short essay on the difference between inner-shell and outer-shell kinetics? How about a 2 page essay on Faust's importance to Catholicism in mid-19th Century Germany? Or does TC volunteer to grade part of the 100,000 of those from some MOOC? It seems strange that both accept the logic "let someone else pay, I'm ok with that" since economics ought to be about the analysis of not only what that cost is, but how it will be paid for. Hand-waving claims from TC that "if you build it, they will come", ought to be prima facie evidence that economics is not in play.

Alex T. is right. 80 percent of undergraduate education is signaling. 10 percent learning. 10 percent socialization. Otherwise online education would have crushed traditional higher ed by now.

that could be true in sociology school but it
is not even remotely true for STEM fields

Any class that has a name-brand professor to fill the >30 student lecture hall, without face to face time, even in class with the name-brand, but rather grad students handling interactions with students is ripe for online. The value added by interacting with a noted expert in the field is not on offer. The classroom discussion is more like a protest rally.

Take the name-brand professor into a studio, record and the post. At least, there they can do multiple takes and you won't be stuck with an improv performance subject to the emotional state of the name-brand professor on that morning. In addition, errors can be corrected instead of promulgated requiring a lot of lost time and effort on the student's part to clear up with a harried grad student.

And it would do a lot to cut down on the false advertising universities/colleges are permitted to get away with. Market the name-brand professor interaction, but only provide struggling grad students just a few years more experienced than the student.

The issue I think is that higher education has inflated faster than any other good or service over the last 50 years. Since 1977, college tuition has increased 15x while median income only 4x. It is just that this is a service that has reached max pricing. It is not worth it any more. Companies like Google, Tesla, Apple and Netflix realize that a college degree is not essential and no longer require it - a good "side hustle" is better demonstration of ability.

There is limited innovation in colleges. What does the additional tuition get the student aside from additional debt? Do current college graduates know that much more than those that graduated in the 70's in comparison to the existing knowledge base?

Most colleges are quite fragile financially, many 2/3rd tier schools will have to fold especially if they cannot get the full fee paying foreign students in. If they have to resume remote learning in the fall, they will not be able to claim room and board and especially for housing their costs are almost 100% fixed. The median college has just an $8mm endowment.

Both TC and NS miss that a college degree is no longer a decent price/reward trade off.

Unless there are labs, there’s no real need for universities and their overpriced onsite instruction.

I keep reading about cheap online where students watch videos, take exams, and get degrees. I'm skeptical. First, as others have pointed out, there are significant signaling and socialization benefits to the traditional residential college experience. Hence, why universities have inflated room and board. Second, how are these online universities that new? My step dad took correspondence courses in the 1970s! He read the book, took tests and received credit. Lecture videos are just video textbooks; why not read the book and take the test. Students could certainly do this and while I have had some students do this in the past, most do not. They need the structure of coming to class. They also want to come into a F2F class to see their friends. It's just not the same online. Otherwise, correspondence courses and books would have put universities out of business a long time ago.

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