Category: Education

USA (Sweden) fact of the day

Middle-age mortality increases among non-Hispanic Whites from 1992 to 2018 are driven almost entirely by the bottom 10 percent of the education distribution.

Here is the newly published paper, by Paul Novosad, Charlie Rafkin and Sam Asher (AEA gate).  In another new paper, by Randi Hjalmarsson and Matthew J. Lindquist, being sentence to extra time in a Swedish prison is good for your health.

What should I ask Paul Salopek?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is Wikipedia:

Paul Salopek (born February 9, 1962 in Barstow, California) is a journalist and writer from the United States. He is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and was raised in central Mexico. Salopek has reported globally for the Chicago Tribune, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, National Geographic Magazine and many other publications. In January 2013, Salopek embarked on the “Out of Eden Walk”, originally projected to be a seven-year walk along one of the routes taken by early humans to migrate out of Africa, a transcontinental foot journey that was planned to cover more than 20,000 miles funded by the National Geographic Society, the Knight Foundation and the Abundance Foundation.

Salopek received a degree in environmental biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1984. Salopek has worked intermittently as a commercial fisherman, shrimp-fishing out of Carnarvon, and most recently with the scallop fleet out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1991. His career in journalism began in 1985 when his motorcycle broke in Roswell, New Mexico and he took a police-reporting job at the local newspaper to earn repair money.

As far as the walk goes, he has made it to China.  So what should I ask him?

My Conversation with Byron Auguste

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is my introduction:

TYLER COWEN:  Today I am here…with Byron Auguste, who is president and co-founder of [email protected], a civic enterprise which aims to improve the US labor market. Byron served for two years in the White House as deputy assistant to the president for economic policy and deputy director to the National Economic Council. Until 2013, he was senior partner at McKinsey and worked there for many years. He has also been an economist at LMC International, Oxford University, and the African Development Bank.

He is author of a 1995 book called The Economics of International Payments Unions and Clearing Houses. He has a doctorate of philosophy and economics from Oxford University, an undergraduate econ degree from Yale, and has been a Marshall Scholar. Welcome.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: As you know, more and more top universities are moving away from requiring standardized testing for people applying. Is this good or bad from your point of view?

AUGUSTE: I think it’s really too early to tell because the question is —

COWEN: But you want alternative markers, not just what kind of family you came from, what kind of prep you had. If you’re just smart, why shouldn’t we let you standardize test?

AUGUSTE: I think alternative markers are key. This is actually a pretty complicated issue, and I’ve talked to university administrators and admissions people, and it’s interesting, the variety of different ways they’re trying to work on this.

But I will say this. If you think about something like the SAT, when it first started — I’m talking about in the 1930s essentially — it was an alternative route into a college. It started with the Ivies. It was started with James Conant and Harvard and the Ivies and the Seven Sisters and the rest, and then it gradually moved out.

The problem they were trying to solve back in the ’30s was that up until that point, the way you got into, say, Dartmouth is the headmaster of Choate would write to Dartmouth and say, “Here’s our 15 candidates for Dartmouth.” Dartmouth would mostly take them because Choate knew what Dartmouth wanted. Then you had the high school movement in the US, where between 1909 and 1939, you went from 9 percent of American teenagers going to high school to 79 percent going to high school.

Now, suddenly, you had high school students applying to college. They were at Dubuque Normal School in Iowa. How does Dartmouth know whether this person was . . . The people from Choate didn’t start taking the SATs, but the SAT — even though it was a pretty terrible test at the time, it was better than nothing. It was a way that someone who was out there — not in the normal feeder schools — could distinguish themselves.

I think that is a very valuable role to play. As you know, Tyler, the SAT does, to some extent, still play that role. But also, because now that everybody has had to use it, it also is something that can be gamed more — test prep and all the rest of it.

COWEN: But it tracks IQ pretty closely. And a lot of Asian schools way overemphasize standard testing, I would say, and they’ve risen to very high levels of quality very quickly. It just seems like a good thing to do.

Most of all we cover jobs, training/retraining, and education.  Interesting throughout.

Taxing Mechanical Engineers and Subsidizing Drama Majors

In The Student Loan Giveaway is Much Bigger Than You Think I argued that the Biden student loan plan would incentivize students to take on more debt and incentivize schools to raise tuition with most of the increased costs being passed on to taxpayers through generous income based repayment plans. Adam Looney at Brookings takes a deep dive into the IDR plan and concludes that it’s even worse than I thought. Here are some of Looney’s key points:

  • As recently as 2017, CBO projected that student loan borrowers would, on average, repay close to $1.11 per dollar they borrowed (including interest). Borrowing was often perceived to be the least favorable way to pay for college. But under the administration’s IDR proposal (and other regulatory changes), undergraduate borrowers who enroll in the plan might be expected to pay approximately $0.50 for each $1 borrowed—and some can reliably expect to pay zero. As a result, borrowing will be the best way to pay for college. If there’s a chance you’ll not need to repay all of the loan—and it’s likely that a majority of undergraduate students will be in that boat—it will be a financial no-brainer to take out the maximum student loan.
  • The data shows that roughly half of Americans with some college experience but not a BA would qualify for zero payments under the proposal, as would about 25% of BA graduates. However, the vast majority of students (including more than 80% of BA recipients) would qualify for reduced payments.
  •  [A] lot of student debt represents borrowing for living expenses, and thus a sizable share of the value of loans forgiven under the IDR proposal will be for such expenses…A graduate student at Columbia University can borrow $30,827 each year for living expenses, personal expenses, and other costs above and beyond how much they borrow for tuition. A significant number of those graduates can expect those borrowed amounts to be forgiven. That means that the federal government will pay twice as much to subsidize the rent of a Columbia graduate student than it will for a low-income individual under the Section 8 housing voucher program…

Looney agrees that the incentive to increase tuition will apply to some graduate and professional programs but he thinks there is less room to increase tuition at undergraduate programs because borrowing is capped (currently! AT) at fairly low rates. But he offers an even more plausible but disheartening scenario that takes us in exactly the wrong direction.

Because the IDR subsidy is based primarily on post-college earnings, programs that leave students without a degree or that don’t lead to a good job will get a larger subsidy. Students at good schools and high-return programs will be asked to repay their loans nearly in full. Want a free ride to college? You can have one, but only if you study cosmetology, liberal arts, or drama, preferably at a for-profit school. Want to be a nurse, an engineer, or major in computer science or math? You’ll have to pay full price (especially at the best programs in each field). This is a problem because most student outcomes—both bad and good—are highly predictable based on the quality, value, completion rate, and post-graduation earnings of the program attended. IDR can work if designed well, but this IDR imposed on the current U.S. system of higher education means programs and institutions with the worst outcomes and highest debts will accrue the largest subsidies.

Looney does a back of the envelope calculation and estimates that typical graduates in Mechanical Engineering will on average get a 0% subsidy but graduates in Music will get a 96% subsidy, in Drama a 99% subsidy and Masseuses a 100% subsidy on average. This of course is exactly the wrong approach. If we are going to subsidize, we should subsidize degrees with plausible positive spillovers not masseues.

The problem is not just the subsidy but the encouragement this gives to create low-value programs:

  • …institutions will have an incentive to create valueless programs and aggressively recruit students into those programs with promises they will be free under an IDR plan….The fact that a student can take a loan for living expenses (or even enroll in a program for purposes of taking out such a loan) makes the loan program easy to abuse. Some borrowers will use the loan system as an ATM, taking out student loans knowing they’ll qualify for forgiveness, and receiving the proceeds in cash, expecting not to repay the loan….I suspect that such abuses will be facilitated by predatory institutions.

Overall, the student loan program, as currently written, is looking to be one of the most costly, inefficient and unwise government programs of the 21st century. As I said in my first post, “fixing” the program is likely to drive ever more increasing intervention into higher education much as has happened with health care. My guess is that no one really thought this albatross through.

John Stuart Mill was Woke and Based

I love that John Stuart Mill was woke and based:

Looking at democracy in the way in which it is commonly conceived, as the rule of the numerical majority, it is surely possible that the ruling power may be under the dominion of sectional or class interests, pointing to conduct different from that which would be dictated by impartial regard for the interest of all. Suppose the majority to be whites, the minority negroes, or vice versâ: is it likely that the majority would allow equal justice to the minority? Suppose the majority Catholics, the minority Protestants, or the reverse; will there not be the same danger? Or let the majority be English, the minority Irish, or the contrary: is there not a great probability of similar evil? In all countries there is a majority of poor, a minority who, in contradistinction, may be called rich. Between these two classes, on many questions, there is complete opposition of apparent interest.

From Considerations on Representative Government.

Richard Hanania interviews me

78 minutes.  With transcript.  It starts off as a normal “talent conversation,” but soon takes other paths.  We discuss feminization in some detail, libertarianism too.  Here is part of Richard’s summary:

Another one of Tyler’s traits that came out in this conversation is his detached skepticism regarding fashionable intellectual trends. For example, I’d taken it for granted that social media has made elite culture more pessimistic and angry, but his answer when I asked about the topic made me reconsider my view.

Interesting throughout, and here is one excerpt:

Tyler: It seems to me social media are probably bad for 12- to 14-year-old girls, and probably good for most of the rest of us. That would be my most intuitive answer, but very subject to revision.

Richard: I think it’s good. I mean, I think it’s good for me…

Tyler: But they’re bad for a lot of academics. I guess, they get classified in…

Richard: They might be at the…

Tyler: They get lumped in with the 12 to 14-year-old girls, right?

Richard: [laughs] There might be a similarity there.

Tyler: They have something in common.


Is “imposter syndrome” a good thing?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Impostor syndrome is a positively good thing. When searching for talent, I look for people who feel they suffer from impostor syndrome. If you think you are not qualified to do what you are doing, it is a sign you are setting your sights high and reaching for a new and perhaps unprecedented level of achievement…

Another advantage to feeling like an impostor is that it gives you better insight into your fellow humans. Estimates vary, but up to 82% of people may suffer from some form of impostor syndrome. Even if that is on the high side, impostor syndrome is very common. On a professional level, if you want to be in better touch with your colleagues, maybe it is a good idea for you to try out some new and unfamiliar tasks, and they can too. It will make everyone more understanding and more sympathetic — especially important qualities for being a successful boss.

Recommended.  And if you are not currently an impostor, perhaps you should try impersonating one!

AEA Hypocrisy

Here’s the AEA’s official statement on inclusion:

The AEA seeks to create a professional environment with equal opportunity and fair treatment for all economists, regardless of age, sex, gender identity and expression, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, health condition, marital status, parental status, genetic information, political affiliation, professional status, or personal connections.

Yet the AEA is requiring any attendees at the annual meeting to be vaccinated and boosted, a standard which excludes half of the US population! How is that equal opportunity and fair treatment? I suppose some people will want to say “health condition” doesn’t include vaccinated or not…dubious legerdemain…but there’s no question the AEA vaccination policy is a huge violation of the spirit of inclusion.

*The Rise and Fall of the EAST*

The author is Yasheng Huang of MIT and the subtitle is Examination, Autocracy, Stability, and Technology in Chinese History and Today.  Forthcoming from Yale University Press in 2023.  Excerpt:

For many years, I struggled to come up with a coherent explanation for the power, the reach, and the policy discretion of the Chinese state.  There is coercion, ideological indoctrination, and probably a fair amount of societal consent as well.

Keju [the civil service exam system] had a deep penetration both cross-sectionally in society and across time in history.  It was all encompassing, laying claims to time, efforts and cognitive investments of a significant swath of Chinese population.  It was incubatory of values, norms, and cognitions, therefore impacting ideology and epistemology of Chinese minds.  It was a state institution designed to augment the power and the capabilities of the state.  Directly, the state monopolized the very best human capital; indirectly, the state deprived society access to talent and preempted organized religion, commerce, and intelligentsia.  The Chinese state in history and today is an imprinted version of this Keju system.

Chinese state is strong because it reigns without a society.

Among the other interesting features of this book, including many, are:

There is a very useful discussion of Sui Wendi, the man who reunified China (and is barely known in the West).

Just how much the exam system expanded in the 17th century, to support a larger and growing Chinese state.

Why Chinese bureaucrats in the provinces tend to be generalists and the ministerial officials tend to be specialists.

Oliver Williamson is applied and cited throughout.

“A state without society is a vertically integrated organization…Keju’s powerful platform effect crowded and stymied alternative mobility channels…the Keju was an anti-mobility mobility channel.”

“In the 1890s, China’s population literacy was only 18 percent, way below 95 percent of England and the Netherlands.”

Exam competition takes up so much of individual mind space.  Furthermore the competition atomizes society and makes it harder to form the kinds of collective movements that might lead to democracy.

The author sees the 1980s as the truly revolutionary time in Chinese history.

“Throughout Chinese history very few emperors were toppled by their generals or senior functionaries, a sharp contrast with the Roman Empire.”

I could say much more.  This is by far the best book on Chinese bureaucracy I have read, and probably one of the best books on China period.  I am sure many of the claims will be contested, but the author tries in a very serious way to be explanatory and to actually answer the questions about China you care about.  So few books even attempt that!

Addendum: Note that the author also wrote Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics, another of my favorite books about China.

The Impact of Female Teachers on Female Students

It is widely believed that female students benefit from being taught by female teachers, particularly when those teachers serve as counter-stereotypical role models. We study education in rural areas of the US circa 1940–a setting in which there were few professional female exemplars other than teachers–and find that female students were more successful when their primary-school teachers were disproportionately female. Impacts are lifelong: female students taught by female teachers were more likely to move up the educational ladder by completing high school and attending college, and had higher lifetime family income and increased longevity.

That is from a new paper by David Card, Ciprian Domnisoru, Seth G. Sanders, Lowell Taylor, and Victoria Udalova.  As I have been saying now for some number of years, role model effects are more important than many people believe.

Do economists need a “Head Start”?

The Biden administration has taken credit for a relative return to normalcy in schools over the last year of the coronavirus pandemic. But in one of the few education programs the federal government directly oversees — Head Start preschools and child care centers for low-income families — mandatory masking rules are still on the books for teachers and children as young as 2-years-old.

That requirement is out of line with current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released last month, which recommend universal masking only if there is a high community transmission rate. The vast majority of schools and day care centers have made masks optional, even in the most virus-cautious regions on the country…

“Head Start programs have been short-circuited,” said Tommy Sheridan, deputy director of the National Head Start Association, a trade group. “This mandate on masking and vaccines has hurt a lot of programs. It is more of a crisis that is now feeling like a looming catastrophe.”

The NYT subheader reads: “Some of the nation’s poorest pre-K students are the last still under mask mandates, affecting enrollment.”

File under “Sentences to ponder”!

Shruti Rajagopalan talks talent with Daniel Gross and Tyler

A Conversation, a special bonus episode, taped in San Francisco in front of a live audience, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is one bit:

RAJAGOPALAN: …Daniel, if you’re looking for talent in investing or finance, how does that look different from the talent in the start-up world?

GROSS: In the start-up world? What makes a good investor is very different from what makes a good founder. If you were to make a scatterplot of it, some of the attributes are completely diametrically opposed. For example, I think very good investors are the right degree of optimistic but also realistic, whereas founders are too optimistic, which they should be.

At the end of the day, start-ups are a very funny activity when you think about it from a probability standpoint. Most companies fail. Almost all companies fail, and yet, people seem to be seemingly doing this activity over and over. They’re jumping off the cliff over and over again. You look over the cliff, and everyone who jumped off of the cliff is just on the ground dead, but people keep on jumping off the cliff. Founders are almost too optimistic.

When you’re evaluating a business, especially at later and later stages, I think optimism can be your enemy. Often, you see when a lot of founders later on in life — and I’m such a person — who started a business, sold it, and became an investor, you actually have to be able to wear very different kinds of psychometric hats. One of them is this continuum of realism and optimism. I’d probably say that’s the starkest difference between what makes a good start-up investor and a good founder. There are probably many others, but that’s the main thing that you look for.

I later have a monologue on chocolate ice cream, but overall Shruti steals the show.  Recommended.

The Returns to College Admission for Academically Marginal Students

I combine a regression discontinuity design with rich data on academic and labor market outcomes for a large sample of Florida students to estimate the returns to college admission for academically marginal students. Students with grades just above a threshold for admissions eligibility at a large public university in Florida are much more likely to attend any university than below-threshold students. The marginal admission yields earnings gains of 22% between 8 and 14 years after high school completion. These gains outstrip the costs of college attendance, and they are largest for male students and free-lunch recipients.

Here is the Journal of Labor Economics piece by Seth D. Zimmerman.  So is the non-statistically-summarized account of Susan Dynarski painting too negative a picture?

And do those people need debt forgiveness to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars?  Write down your social welfare function!

This piece by David J. Deming surveys the broader literature, and with broadly concordant results.

The temporary popularity of Caplanian views on higher education

Bryan Caplan as you know argues that even the private return to higher education isn’t what it usually is cracked up to be, especially since large numbers of individuals do not finish with a four-year degree.  Susan Dynarski (tenured at Harvard education, but an economist), writing in the NYT, seems to have started flirting with this view:

…a majority of people holding student debt have moderate incomes and low balances. Many have no degree, having dropped out of a public college or for-profit vocational school after a few semesters. They carry little debt, but they also do not get the benefit of a college degree to help them pay off that debt.

Defaults and financial distress are concentrated among the millions of students who drop out without a degree. The financial prospects for college dropouts are poor; they earn little more than do workers with no college education. Dropouts account for much of the increase in financial distress among student borrowers since the Great Recession.

And dropout is not at all rare. A bit less than half of college students don’t earn a bachelor’s degree. Some people earn a shorter, two-year associate degree. But more than a quarter of those who start college hoping to earn a degree drop out with no credential. A full 30 percent of first-generation freshmen drop out of four-year colleges within three years. That’s three times the dropout rate of students whose parents graduated from college.

I’ve seen modest variants on those numbers, but the general picture is broadly accepted.  Now here is Dynarski’s Congressional testimony from last summer:

College is a Great Investment

A college education is a great investment. Over a lifetime, a person with a bachelor’s degree will earn, on average, a million dollars more than a less-educated worker. Even with record-high tuition prices, a BA pays for itself several times over.

She is quite clear in the former NYT piece that she has changed her mind, so there is no “gotcha” here.  But clearly her views are evolving in Bryan’s direction.

In terms of policy, Dynarski notes that more than a quarter drop out of college with no credential.  Shouldn’t we restrict loan forgiveness to them?  Doesn’t that at least deserve discussion?  Or should we just go ahead and grant forgiveness to those with the “great” returns as well?  Her change of mind concerns the higher-than-expected problems of the non-finishers, not that she has seen new and inferior income numbers for the successes.  (In fact since the numbers for the average return haven’t changed, being more pessimistic about the losers has to mean being a bit more optimistic about the successes.  That should make us all the more interested in targeting the forgiveness.)

Why are we not allowed to know what percentage of the forgiveness beneficiaries fall into the “didn’t finish” category?  What should we infer from the reality that no one is reporting that statistic?  Is that good news or bad news for the policy?

What does Dynarski think is the marginal return from trying to finish college?  Are they really so positive for the marginal student?  What is the chance of the marginal student finishing?  The cited figures are averages, presumably for the marginal student the chance of finishing is much worse.  Presumably she is pessimistic about the nature of the college deal for the marginal student?

Now I know how these discussions run.  Suddenly there is plenty of talk about how we should make it easier for people to finish, perhaps by offering more aid.  As someone who teaches at a non-elite state university, I do understand what is going on with students who need to drop out to take care of family, and so on.  Still, in the meantime should we be encouraging more marginal students to try their hand at college? 

Yes or no?

That question runs against the prevailing mood affiliation and good luck trying to get a straight answer.  In the meantime, the world is taking an ever-so-temporary foray into the views of Bryan Caplan.  Let’s see how long it stays there.