Category: Education

Reforming economics graduate education

A loyal reader asked me how I would improve economics graduate education.  I suggest the following ideas, only some of which are obviously unworkable:

1. Make everyone take a real class in history of economic thought and also in economic history.  These are vanishing as prerequisites.

2. Make all U.S.-born students spend a month in a rural third world village, preferably one without a shower.

3. Make all third world-born students take two full classes of education in the Western tradition, most of all The Enlightenment.  Make them read Adam Smith, The Federalist Papers, and if possible convert them into Freemasons.

4. Make sure everyone could pass a Chicago school-style oral exam from Aaron Director or a Turing-equivalent.  It is amazing how many current Ph.d. candidates have not learned basic price theory.

My recipe for George Mason, my own school, is different.  Most of the graduate students simply need to work harder.

Interview with Milton Friedman

Here is a new interview with Milton Friedman.  I liked this from the introduction:

San Francisco seems an unlikely home for the man who in 1962 first proposed
the privatization of Social Security.

Asked why he dwells in liberalism’s den, Milton Friedman, 92, the Nobel
laureate economist and father of modern conservatism, didn’t skip a beat.

"Not much competition here," he quipped.

“Acting white” and its price

Mark Steckbeck directs our attention to a new paper by Roland Fryer and Paul Torelli.  Here is an excerpt:

Among whites, higher grades yield higher popularity. For
Blacks, higher achievement is associated with modestly higher
popularity until a grade point average of 3.5, when the slope turns
negative. A black student with a 4.0 has, on average, 1.5 fewer
same-race friends than a white student with a 4.0. Among Hispanics,
there is little change in popularity from a grade point average of 1
through 2.5. After 2.5, the gradient turns sharply negative. A Hispanic
student with a 4.0 grade point average is the least popular of all
Hispanic students, and has 3 fewer friends than a typical white student
with a 4.0 grade point average. Put differently, evaluated at the
sample mean, a one standard deviation increase in grades is associated
with roughly a .103 standard deviation decrease in social status for
Blacks and a .171 standard deviation decrease for Hispanics. For
students with a 3.5 grade point average or better, the effect triples.

…signals that beget labor market
success are signals that induce peer rejection…these differences will be exacerbated in arenas that foster more
interracial contact or increased mobility…
‘Acting white’ is more salient in public schools and schools in which
the percentage of black students is less than twenty, but non-existent
among blacks in predominantly black schools or those who attend private
schools. Schools with more interracial contact have an ‘acting white’
coefficient twice as large as more segregated schools (seven times as
large for Black males). Other models we consider, such as self-sabotage
among black youth or the presence of an oppositional culture identity,
all contradict the data in important ways.

Here is the paper itself.  There was also a good write-up in Richard Morin’s Unconventional Wisdom column, from today’s Washington Post, but this installment is not yet on-line.  Here are our earlier posts on Fryer.

Making textbooks shorter

I laughed at Alex’s recent post, which cited California legislation to limit textbooks to  200 pages.  But I now see the wisdom of our advanced cousins to the west.  Yana brought home her Advanced Placement textbooks the other day; the 1200-page plus Biology text weighs about four pounds; the others are only slightly less.  (Alex’s kids are younger, and need not cope with such monstrosities.)

The problem is carrying these books to and from school, not to mention the externalities imposed on parents who must give rides.  I am not sure I could manage to bring five texts to the school bus stop.  (NB: Carl Menger predicted these texts will not evolve into a common medium of exchange.)  The solution, of course, is to split the text into smaller parts, noting that the California legislation mandates greater use of web-based materials.

Note that a textbook supplier with some monopoly power can increase profits by bundling everything into one package.  So there is a motive for producers to make textbooks larger than is socially optimal.  Hoorah California, once again.

Academic rent-seeking and direct appropriations

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, there were 1,964 earmarks to 716 academic institutions costing a total of $2 billion in the 2003 fiscal year, or just over 10 percent of the federal money spent on academic research. From 1996 to 2003, the amount spent on academic earmarks grew at an astounding rate of 31 percent a year, after adjusting for inflation…

As academic earmarks have grown, so have universities’ lobbying expenditures. Spending on lobbying jumped to $62 million in 2003 from $23 million in 1998, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

A study by John M. de Figueiredo of the University of California, Los Angeles and Brian S. Silverman of the University of Toronto, which will soon be published in The Journal of Law and Economics, finds that universities receive a high return on their lobbying dollars. The researchers related the amount each university received in earmarks to its lobbying expenditures from 1997 to 1999, and other factors.

Professors de Figueiredo and Silverman found that a $1 increase in lobbying expenditures is associated with a $1.56 increase in earmarks for universities in districts that do not have a senator or congressman on the crucial Appropriations Committees, and more than a $4.50 gain in earmarks for universities with a representative on one of the Appropriations Committees.

Even among universities that do not lobby, those that have a congressman or senator on the Appropriations Committees tend to be awarded more earmarked funds.

A university’s fortunes also tend to rise or fall when senators from its state join or exit the Appropriations Committee. For example, the year after Senator Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, a member of the committee, was defeated by John Edwards, who did not become a member, earmarks to universities in North Carolina fell by half.

But alas, all this money does not seem to pay off in terms of quality:

…a university’s academic standing, as measured by the National Academy of Science’s ranking of departments, is not related to the amount of earmarked funds it receives.

A. Abigail Payne, an economist at McMaster University in Canada, has studied how earmarks affect the quantity and quality of academic research, inferring quality from the number of times research studies are cited by subsequent studies. She concludes that "earmarked funding may increase the quantity of publications but decrease the quality of the publications and the performance of earmarked funding is lower than that from using peer-reviewed funding."

Indications are that academic earmarks crowd out spending on competitive peer-reviewed grants, at least in the short run.

Alan Krueger offers more.  Here is a very early version of the first cited paper.

Arnold Kling on the returns to ability

Learning comes from taking on challenges. Entrepreneurship is a constant, in-your-face challenge. Relative to that, college is a stroll in the park.

As Graham points out, the cost of starting a business is plummeting. Given that college expenses are going the other way, [for the exceptional] the learning-to-cost ratio has shifted in favor of entrepreneurship over college.

Read more here.

Egalitarian grading

A system giving students extra marks if they have suffered personal trauma is being defended by an exams authority.

GCSE and A-level pupils in England are given 5% more if a parent dies close to exam day or 4% for a distant relative.

They get 2% more if a pet dies or 1% if they get a headache.

The source:? "The guidelines are set out by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which represents England’s three main exam authorities.."  Here is the story, and thanks to Jacqueline Passey for the pointer.  She titled her post "Sorry, Fluffy, but I really need an A."

Names and education

Which girls’ names are most closely correlated with high levels of parental education?

1. Lucienne

2. Marie-Claire

3. Glynnis

4. Adair

5. Meira

How about negatively correlated with education?

1. Angel

2. Heaven

3. Misty

4. Destiny

5. Brenda

That is from the June issue of Atlantic Monthly, derived from the work of Steve Levitt.  By the way, boys’ names ending in "y" sounds — such as Cody and Ricky — are not altogether positive signals about whether the parents have read Remembrance of Things Past

Outsourcing for everything

Why not grade exam papers in India?  Brad DeLong offers the link.  The obvious question is what we really need professors for anyway  — are we simply magnets of personality to keep students interested?

Speaking of Brad, he and Jacqueline Passey have unknowingly combined forces to make me mighty curious about Firefly.  The Amazon ratings are in the stratosphere.  My TV education continues.  But if I ever felt obliged to watch the medium, my already overbooked life would simply fall apart…