Category: Education

Self-doubt as a barrier

Nearly half of adults who responded to a national survey said self-doubt is one of the largest challenges they would face if they enrolled in a postsecondary education or training program.

Self-doubt was one of the top three challenges respondents cited, below time and above cost.

The new data are included in the findings from the latest “Public Viewpoints” report from Strada Education Network, which surveyed American adults on their motivations for pursuing more education, as well as the barriers they face.

The importance of mental barriers was one of the findings that stuck out the most, said Nichole Torpey-Saboe, director of research at Strada. It’s yet another layer colleges have to consider when trying to attract people without degrees for enrollment.

Here is the full story.  This is what I call a “trivial” blog post.  There is nothing startling in the content, and perhaps it is not so interesting to read.  The comments on it won’t be very good either.  Yet it represents a very important truth, and one that, while it is well-known, is probably not sufficiently emotionally internalized.  And the gains would be high if more people understood this.

Why not buy up a college campus?

Could you set higher education right?  Why don’t the super-wealthy pursue this route?  I consider those questions in my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Even if enough people wanted to move to Vermont [the site of the campus for sale], this new university would basically have to re-create the talent pool at other, more established institutions, thus replicating their basic character. If anything, the new school probably would have to hire the malcontents, as they are the most likely to leave their current jobs for a new and untested venture. If you think existing universities have too much infighting and rancor, wait till you see this new project.

You might think that the leaders of the new college could shape and improve the incentives of their faculty. But that isn’t easy. For many talented people, the key incentives are outward-facing — they will be looking to get published and win rewards, prizes and eventually job offers from the outside world. Creating a new institution does not change these basic incentives, for better or worse.

Alternatively, you might try to make their rewards more inward-looking — pay them a big bonus if they contribute to campus life in the right way. But that tends to be expensive and to reward people who are good at gaming the system, again increasing the risk of fractiousness. Nor would it attract academic superstars, who typically excel at marketing themselves to the wider and wealthier outside world.


The issue is how to attract a cluster of talent. Smart people wish to go to Harvard because other smart people go there, and that creates a self-reinforcing dynamic. This is in contrast to the corporate world, where top talent is (sometimes) willing to join risky new ventures because of the financial reward. If you were an early employee at Facebook, for example, you are probably much wealthier now than if you had gone to work for Yahoo or AOL.

In other words, I believe such an enterprise would be doomed to failure.  Do read the whole thing.

The Ivy League culture that is Major League Baseball

But the rise of analytics also has resulted in another massive shift: an influx of white, male graduates of Ivy League schools and other prestigious universities into teams’ front offices. In a data analysis conducted by ESPN, the percentage of Ivy League graduates holding an organization’s top baseball operations decision-making position — which, depending on the club, could be its president, vice president or general manager — has risen from just 3% in 2001 to 43% today; while the percentage of graduates from U.S. News & World Report’s list of the top 25 colleges — both universities and liberal arts schools — holding the same positions has risen from 24% to 67%.

Here is more from ESPN, via Adam Minter.  How do you think other economic sectors will be evolving?  And what would Malcolm Gladwell say?

Signaling vs. certification at Harvard

Harvard will be teaching solely on-line this fall (with some students in residence), yet charging full tuition rates.  Many commentators are thus suggesting this supplies evidence for the signaling theory of education.

But not exactly.  The signaling theory, taken quite literally, is that education is a very difficult set of hurdles to surmount, and if you can get through Harvard you must be really really smart and hard-working.  Caltech maybe, but Harvard like Stanford and many other top schools makes it pretty easy to get through with OK enough grades.

The hard part about Harvard is getting in.  By selecting you, Harvard certifies you (as long as you are not part of “the 43% percent,” legacy, athletes, etc…but wait that counts too!).

Why isn’t there a service that just certifies you directly?  Surely you could run a clone of the Harvard admissions department pretty cheaply.

Perhaps the logical conclusion is that both the “social connections/dating” services of Harvard and the certification services of Harvard are strong complements.  If you are certified by Harvard, but live on a desert island, or carry a contagious disease, that certification is worth much less.  So it is hard to unbundle the services and sell the certification on its own, without the associated social networks.  Nor is it so worthwhile to sell the social connections on their own.  Harvard grads are socially connected to their dry cleaning workers as it stands, but that does not do those workers much good.

It takes a good deal more work to get signaling to enter this story.  In the signaling story, you can’t tell who is high quality without actually running the tournament, and that is more or less the opposite of the certification story.

Keep also in mind that the restricted Harvard services are probably only for one year (or less), so most students will still get three years or more of “the real Harvard,” if that is what they value.  And they can use intertemporal substitution to do more networking in the remaining three years.  It’s like being told you don’t get to watch the first quarter of a really great NBA game.  That is a value diminution to be sure, but there will still be enough people willing to buy the fancy seats.  Most viewers in the arena don’t watch more than three quarters of the game to begin with.

Cornell understands the equilibrium

They are reopening campus for the coming semester and here is one reason why:

…the finding from Cornell researchers that holding the semester online potentially could result in more infections and more hospitalizations among students and staff members than holding the semester in person would.

study by Cornell researchers concluded that with nominal parameters, an in-person semester would result in 3.6 percent of the campus population (1,254 people) becoming infected, and 0.047 percent (16 people) requiring hospitalization. An online semester, they concluded, would result in about 7,200 infections and more than 60 hospitalizations.

Do note it is critical to the argument that the returning students actually are tested on a regular basis, which of course is very hard to enforce on-line.

How to identify interesting boats and sailors

I know nothing about this topic, so thought I should pass along this email from MR reader Edward Dixon:

Having benefited from your advice on restaurants, I thought I would pass on some simple tips for the identification of interesting boats & interesting sailors.

The method is actually a little like finding an interesting restaurant: most of the boats you see are more or less in the form in which they left the boatyard that built them.  You can think of them and their owners as being akin to chain restaurants.   These are the ones to ignore!

Watch instead for boats:
– Ignore anything suggested of a racing pedigree
– Equipped to sail. Two masts are better than one.  Gaff rigs and junk rigs are also interesting indicators.  The limited speed but unlimited range are attributes of sail that act as a sort of filder.
– extra hardware bolted on top, like a solar panel / wind-vane combination
– A complicated-looking wind-vane attachment bolted onto the stern indicates self-steering gear
– A cupola or dome, a little reminiscent of a turret on top of a WWII bomber somewhere on the coach-roof.
– Indications that the boat is a home-build – possible harder for you to assess

Boats with quirks tend to contain interesting people; often they have made Unconventional Life Choices, including of course long sea voyages, often solo.  They have often made extraordinary efforts to go to sea – I once met a man in late middle age who had crossed the Irish Sea in an easterly gale in a 17ft open boat he had constructed himself using (non-marine-grade) plywood, and who was engaged in a boat-based camping tour of Ireland.  This turned out to be entirely consistent with the rest of his history.

Interesting boat folk, like interesting restaurants, are out there to be found, once you learn a few heuristics.

New York algebra fact of the day

Take here in New York, where in 2016 the passing rate for the Regents Examination in Algebra I test was 72 percent. Unfortunately, this (relatively) higher rate of success does not indicate some sort of revolutionary pedagogy on the part of New York state educators. As the New York Post complained in 2017, passing rates were so high in large measure because the cutoff for passing was absurdly low — so low that students needed only to answer 31.4 percent of the questions correctly to pass the 2017 exam.

That is from Freddie deBoer, who has returned to writing, and who argues lower standards and higher graduation rates are a good thing, all matters considered.

And here is another education result of note: “We estimate a dynamic model of schooling on two cohorts of the NLSY and find that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the effects of real (as opposed to relative) family income on education have practically vanished between the early 1980’s and the early 2000’s.”

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 return to studying economics is fairly high

Selection bias may confound the identification of field-specific returns to higher education. This study investigates the wage return to studying economics by leveraging a policy that prevented students with low introductory grades from declaring the major. Regression discontinuity estimates show that policy-complying economics majors — who appear representative on observables — earned $22,000 (58%) higher annual early-career wages than they would have with their second-choice majors, despite otherwise-unchanged educational investment and attainment. Cross-industry wage variation explains half of the return, with economics majors channeled towards high-wage economics-related industries. Differences between institution-specific or nationally-representative average wages by major well-approximate the estimated causal return.

That is from a new paper by Zachary Bleemer and Aashish Mehta, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

What should I ask Rachel Harmon?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, and she is a professor of law at the University of Virginia with a specialty in policing.  From her home page:

Rachel Harmon’s scholarship focuses on policing and its legal regulation, and her work has appeared recently in the NYU, Michigan and Stanford law reviews, among others. She teaches in the areas of criminal law and procedure, policing and civil rights. Harmon often advises nonprofit organizations and police departments on legal issues involving the police. She is currently associate reporter for the American Law Institute’s project on policing, and in fall 2017, she served as a law enforcement expert for the Independent Review of the 2017 Protest Events in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Here is her profile.  So what should I ask her?

Why does Minneapolis have such extreme educational disparities?

A correspondent writes me:

I live in Minneapolis and have worked in education policy here for a few years. With all of the unrest going on here, I feel increasing urgency to learn more about a question that’s been puzzling me for many years, and which I can’t seem to find a satisfactory answer to: why is Minnesota one of the worst states in the nation for disparities between black and white students, both in education and other outcomes such as employment and income?

Of course, most of my liberal colleagues and friends will say something like, “structural racism”, which isn’t really an explanation. That doesn’t explain why we to do so poorly in disparities, when other somewhat similar states such as Michigan and Illinois do better than us in their educational disparities.

All of this makes me think – there must be a study of disparities among minority or historically marginalized groups that looks across countries and cultural contexts, to try and understand what specifically causes students from those communities to perform poorly in school. And surely there must be cases where poor minority groups perform better in school than would be expected.

Do you have any suggestions for reading that could start me on the path to figuring this out?

The comments section is open, please leave your thoughtful suggestions there.  And read this for general background on the economic side, and this.

Richard Davis requests

Here are some answers, I put his questions — from Request for Requests – in bold:

Melancholy among academics.

We’re a pretty sorry bunch, and many of us don’t have so much professionally to live for, at least not at the relevant margin — it is easy to lose forward momentum and never recover it, given the constraints and incentives in the profession and broader pressures toward conformity.  Rates of depression in academia, and especially in graduate school, are fairly high.  Many of the core processes are demoralizing rather than inspiring.  It is remarkable to me how much other people simply have accepted that is how things ought to be and perhaps they believe matters cannot be that different.  I view the high rates of depression in academic life as a “canary in the coal mine” that doesn’t get enough attention as an indicator of bigger, more systemic problems in the entire enterprise.  What are you doing with your lifetime sinecure?

Your favorite things Soviet.

Shostakovich.  And the Romantic pianists, most of all Richter and Gilels.  Constructivist art and ballet up through the late 1920s.  The early chess games of Tal.  Magnitogorsk.  War memorials, most of all in Leningrad.  Tarkovsky.  I admire the “great” Soviet novels, but I don’t love them, except for Solzhenitsyn, whom I would rather read then Dostoyevsky.  Probably the poetry is amazing, but my Russian is too limited to appreciate it.

The optimal number of math PhDs worldwide.

I would think fairly few.  I am happy having lots of mathematicians, with independent tests of quality.  But is the Ph.D such a great test or marker of quality?  Did Euclid have one?  Euler?  Does it show you will be a great teacher?  Maybe we should work toward abolishing the math PhD concept, but out of respect for the profession, not out of hostility toward math.

What historical works of art were anticipated to be great prior to creation, were immediately declared to be great at creation and have continued to be judged great ever since?

Overall it is striking how popular how many of the great revolutionaries have been.  Michelangelo was a major figure of renown.  Mozart was quite popular, though not fully appreciated.  Beethoven was a legend in his time, and every Wagner opera was an event.  Goethe ruled his time as a titan.  A significant percentage of the very best writers were well known and loved during their careers, though of course there was uncertainty how well they would stand up to the test of time.

The future of Northern New Jersey.

Much like the present, plus defaults on the pension obligations and over time the Indian food may get worse, due to acculturation.  The Sopranos will fade into distant memory, I am sorry to say, as will Bruce Springsteen.  So many young people already don’t know them or care.  I feel lucky to have grown up during the region’s cultural peak.

Who are the greats that still walk among us (other than McCartney)?

The major tech founders and CEOs, Stephan Wolfram, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella and Richard Serra and Gerhardt Richter and Robert Gober, a number of other classic rock stars (Dylan, Brian Wilson, Jagger, Eno, etc.), Philip Glass, Richard D. James, and note most of the greatest classical musicians who have ever lived are alive and playing today (Uchida anyone?), at least once Covid goes away.  Many of the major architects.  Ferrante and Knausgaard and Alice Munro.  Many of the figures who built up East Asia and Singapore.  Perelman.  Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.  Magnus Carlsen and all sorts of figures in sports.  A bunch of other people whom Eric Weinstein would list.


Why not?

A weird Lancastrian method for reopening higher education

I’m not sure this could work, but everyone else is doing weird ideas, so let’s consider another one.

Remember Lancastrian methods of education from 19th century England?  Part of the idea was to keep small group size, and economize on labor, by having the students teach each other, typically with the older students instructing the younger.

Here is my suggestion: have students use an app to arrange in-person meetings, in groups of five, for periods of a few weeks running.  Social distancing and masks can be applied as conditions at the time dictate.  The app will match students on the basis of stated interests, and sometimes by other methods too, such as levels of mathematical sophistication or if you wish cultural diversity.  The app also will tell them where to meet on campus, all classes being held outside.

Some classes would be led by professors, but there are not enough professors to go around so many others would be led by the more senior or otherwise better informed students.  Professors and TAs could rotate across various groups if so needed.

All students are given free iPads, connected to campus wireless, and sometimes those iPads would serve as collective blackboards for the small groups.

Central admin. or departments could impose curricular structure in advance, or within a topic area particular assignments might be generated by “Unconference” methods, for instance the students might agree to read a particular book or essay, or to all learn a particular skill.  To the extent overseeing faculty are scarce, you can try having the students themselves finding the relevant teaching materials.  Very good groups would have the option of continuing for further weeks.

Start in August, keep on going until its gets too cold, they did it at Valley Forge and people learn in the desert and tropics too.  Many of the meetings can be short — say 45 minutes — and you can privilege the more valuable majors with locations in the shade.  Put up as many tents as you can.

Every class has a supply of back-up YouTube material, and associated testing, for when the weather is bad, or for when the semester has to end.

For the final semester grade each student writes a 20-25 pp. paper about what he or she learned through these units.  Professors and sometimes TAs would grade those papers, and do note this is not an insuperable grading burden.  It rewards the “did you learn anything useful at all?” approach, rather than “did you manage to sit and suffer through through all of your boring classes?”.

I suspect it feels too much like chaos to a university administrator, but perhaps that is an argument in its favor?

You will note that this method, for all of its learning uncertainties, has two big advantages.  First, it really does prioritize the health of everyone involved.  Second, students still have lots of contact with each other and get to enjoy some version of the campus experience.  The interactive groups might even provide a more engaging campus experience than did the status quo ex ante, keeping in mind that some schools will combine this method with the abolition or radical paring down of dorms.

Addendum: Hand out free diapers, all other plans have that issue too.

Interview with Josh Angrist

From the Richmond Fed Bulletin:

EF: You’ve looked at the question of how much peers matter. Many parents obviously seek schools where they believe their children will have higher-quality peers, whatever they may mean by that term. You and your co-authors have looked at Boston and New York City selective public schools, and you concluded that peer effects don’t seem to matter much. Why is that?

Angrist: I’m always beating that drum. I think people are easily fooled by peer effects. Parag, Atila Abdulkadiroglu, and I call it “the elite illusion.” We made that the title of a paper. I think it’s a pervasive phenomenon. You look at the Boston Latin School, or if you live in Northern Virginia, there’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. And in New York, you have Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science and Stuyvesant.

And so people say, “Look at those awesome children, look how well they did.” Well, they wouldn’t get into the selective school if they weren’t awesome, but that’s distinct from the question of whether there’s a causal effect. When you actually drill down and do a credible comparison of students who are just above and just below the cutoff, you find out that elite performance is indeed illusory, an artifact of selection. The kids who go to those schools do well because they were already doing well when they got in, but there’s no peer effect from being exposed to higher-achieving peers.

We also have papers where we show that the elite illusion is not just a phenomenon relevant for marginal kids. This is in response to an objection that goes, “If you’re the last kid admitted to Stuyvesant, it’s not good for you because you’re not strong enough.” We can refute that with some of our research designs.

There are good stories and analyses throughout.

Are faculty myopic?

Facing devastating financial losses related to the coronavirus pandemic, colleges and universities are cutting costs just about everywhere they can. Increasingly, that includes faculty and staff retirement benefits.

Duke, Georgetown, Northwestern and Texas Christian Universities are some of the institutions to announce cuts to retirement contributions in recent days. Some of these decisions have been more severe and more controversial than others…

Georgetown president John J. DeGioia also announced that the university will suspend all contributions to its employee retirement plan for the coming year, starting next month.

Does this mean they think their faculty are myopic, and also liquidity-constrained low savers?  Are the faculty myopic?  Especially if faculty are myopic, isn’t this worse for faculty welfare than just cutting nominal wages a bit?  What would Cass Sunstein say?  How should we model this response in terms of an underlying dynamic for admin.-faculty relations?  If this “works,” what will the next move of admin. be, with or without coronavirus in the world?

What might this possible myopia imply about the associated defects of faculty research and teaching?

I thank Bryan for an underlying conversation relevant to this post.  Here is the full article.