Tag Archives: education

College is broken

I watched College, Inc. the other day, a documentary about the rise of for-profit colleges. Everyone with an internet connection has no doubt seen their advertisements all over the place: UoP, DeVry, etc. Even some medical schools that have opened recently are for-profit, and for-profit pharmacy schools have existed for a while.

Education as byproduct

Being for-profit doesn’t necessarily make a school “bad”. I was a little annoyed with the PBS interviewer who kept asking whether education should be a business. Education is and always will be a business. Just ask any student who’s taken money out in student loans to pay for school. Ironically, I suspect that for-profit institutions probably have incentives that are more closely aligned with the majority of students’ motivations than their non-profit counterparts. Broadly speaking, students seem to fall into two basic categories: those who are there to learn stuff, and those that are there for the “college experience” which may or may not include learning something. By and large, the students that for-profit institutions attract are those that fall into the “want to learn stuff” category, because they don’t have a lot of amenities that contribute to a traditional college experience.

As a result, colleges and universities engage in quite a bit of activity that has very little educational merit. Building $40MM gymnasiums adds little value to a student’s education, but it does add to an institution’s “sex appeal”. That means it’s fluff. It’s not just athletic complexes and fancy dorms, though. Look at the job postings at these institutions:

How many of these positions directly contribute to a student’s education the way that excellent classroom instruction and strong ties to the public and private sector would? Not many. Instead, most of these job postings piggyback on education itself, increasing overhead, and contributing very little to the success of its customers. In this respect, institutions are more interested in the furtherance of their own legacy and building their brand than they are in educating students. Now I’m not suggesting that these positions are worthless to students; there will always be some overhead in any organization, but the sheer vastness of this overhead in higher education is what’s staggering. Institutions that are directly funded through taxes* have less of this, just like high schools would never have this kind of overhead, simply because the budget doesn’t afford it.

This inefficiency supports a lot of salaries. Luckily for them, demand for education at these institutions is relatively inelastic, so there’s very little incentive to change organizational behavior.

Overbuilding and under-using

The traditional two-semester school year is broken, too. 3.5 months of school twice a year, for four years? That’s dumb. We don’t live in an agrarian society any longer. Change to a trimester or quarter system and go to school year-round. You could even build-in a mandatory co-op program so students can make money in their industry while still being students. One quarter or trimester would be co-op, and the rest of the year would be traditional didactic education. Even with co-op, students could finish in 3 or 3.5 years instead of 4, and be better rounded for it. Perhaps even less if some other changes are made. (Read on.)

Classrooms go unused for 5 months out of the year, limited summer class offerings notwithstanding. Schools’ capital isn’t being utilized efficiently. On top of this, there’s quite a lot of IT infrastructure on your traditional college campus that doesn’t need to exist anymore. General purpose computer labs aren’t necessary for most majors, because computing is now commoditized. Most students have laptops and/or desktops. (Engineering is probably the main exception here, as licensing for engineering software packages is prohibitively expensive for all but the richest students.)

For everyone else, academic discounts exist. Steeply discounted versions of Office Ultimate ($60) and Windows 7 ($65), are available so the argument that students can’t afford Office doesn’t really hold much water. Switch to an open-access wireless network, and you’ve suddenly eliminated quite a lot of physical overhead.

Wealth and ideas are created when smart, motivated people interact with one another. Universities are havens for this kind of interaction. In computer science, for example, getting rid of the computers doesn’t mean you get rid of the student interaction. A school could continue to foster it by making space available that only CS students have access to by taking the computers out of the computer lab but leaving the tables and chairs. Besides, when you break your own stuff, you have to fix it, which is itself a learning experience…

For everyone else, the same principle works, too: get rid of the computers but leave the tables and chairs.

Education vs instruction

Education isn’t the same as instruction. It’s dumb to think that making an engineering student take 10 liberal arts classes makes him “well-rounded”. This is the difference between education and instruction. Instruction is what happens when a student sits in a classroom. Education is the gradual process of acquiring and assimilating knowledge.

Conflating the two is dangerous and ignorant.

For this reason, I think that changing the US model of higher ed to be more like the British model makes a lot of sense. Let college students study what they want within their field. Don’t make them take a bunch of classes that they care nothing about. They’re not going to learn anything in them, and they waste time, money, and attention. Ensure that they can write — and if they can’t, fail them — and set them loose on their CS classes, EE classes, or History classes. The rest is unimportant.

Educated people will learn the other stuff just by being attentive, observant participants in life. And those that won’t learn this information on their own certainly won’t retain it as a result of sitting through some class they hated.

Oh, and let students test out of any class without needing to take an AP exam. If you think one test isn’t enough, then there’s something wrong with your testing methodology, not the student.

Teacher quality transparency

I don’t think a professor’s degree matters. Whether they have a Master’s or a PhD is irrelevant. The only things that matter are that they:

  1. Understand the material
  2. Can effectively communicate the material to students

In this respect, I think sites like Rate My Professors are absolutely brilliant. Throughout my time as an undergrad, whenever possible, I checked the site to scope out who I would try to take, and who I’d avoid. I used to build small dossiers on potential professors based on RMP comments and ratings, and build my curriculum from there, inasmuch as this was possible.

Unfortunately, a lot of professors (and institutions) dislike RMP. You see, RMP brings transparency to an otherwise opaque — and unimportant from the school’s perspective — part of the educational process: teacher quality. RMP isn’t perfect; there’s a lot of crap on there written by idiots for idiots (business opportunity!), but there’s also a lot of quality there if you look closely enough. If RMP built in a meta-review tool like Amazon has, it would suddenly become a lot more useful.

The last semester I was in school, one of my professors told students considering graduate school to check Rate My Professors first, and avoid any program where the professors got consistently bad ratings. I thought this was wonderfully enlightened of him, and of course he was one of the best profs I ever had.

Final thoughts

Y Combinator exists to mass produce successful startup companies. I don’t see why higher education can’t be rebuilt to mass produce effective people. I think the for-profit education sector has a lot to teach the non-profit sector with respect to leveraging the Internet and using capital efficiently. Most students don’t go to school with the goal of being an academic. They go to school because society expects it of them (degree inflation) and/or they want to learn something so they can have a cool job and make money.

In this respect, I’d like to put forward some modest reform proposals:

  1. Have classes year ’round
  2. Let students test out of any class in the curriculum
  3. Get rid of mandatory, off-topic courses
  4. Get rid of unnecessary computer labs
  5. Offer all courses that can be reasonably be offered online, online
  6. Make co-op mandatory, and based on ability as measured by progress through the program (see #2)
  7. Reward teaching excellence rather than research excellence

This might mean a talented CS student finishes his degree in a year. This might mean an English student never sets foot in a classroom. These things are okay. They should be embraced.


* All institutions are funded through taxes, even for-profit schools, albeit indirectly. Most student loan programs are government funded or subsidized, which means they’re paid for by taxes.

The gender gap in Thursday’s employment statistics

The Boston Globe didn’t put a fine tip on Thursday’s BLS report (PDF).

1,069,000 fewer men are working than a year ago. 12,000 more women are working.

Here’s their chart:

Boston Globe 2008 labor statistics


Many economists have picked up on the dismal news about unemployment, but the only one really talking about the gender disparity is Mark Perry, but he hasn’t really gone into depth about why this statistic is the way it is, besides the obvious: more men work in industries that were harder hit than women. This is obvious, and it can be clearly seen in the chart from the Globe above.

My mom had an interesting take on this employment news. Her first reaction was, “Well I’m not surprised. Men make more than women, so it makes more sense that they’d let men go before women.” There’s a substantial amount of data to back this up. The most recent numbers that I’ve seen have women earning 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, on average. Therefore laying a man off has more of an impact on the bottom line than laying a woman off.

The other thing to consider is the rates of attendance in college for men. While there are certainly holdouts in academia that are dominated by men, overall attendance in college has already tipped in favor of women, and it’s expected to reach 60/40 female/male ratio by 2009. This trend shows no signs of reversing, and frankly it’s got me worried.

I don’t think education is, or should be treated as, a zero-sum game. Women don’t have to “win” at the expense of men, and vice versa. There are no winners and losers in education — it’s one of those things where all of society benefits the more it has. (We call these positive externalities, which is why we subsidize institutions and projects that have them with public money.)

In 1960, what I’ll call “affirmative action” for women began, and there were 1.6 males for every female graduating from college. In 2003, that ratio was 1.35 females for every male. In 2006, women made up 58% of undergraduates, and this trend is increasing. Men simply don’t apply to college in the numbers that women do. A widely disseminated article in the NYTimes, written by an admissions officer illustrates the point nicely:

Few of us sitting around the table were as talented and as directed at age 17 as this young woman. Unfortunately, her test scores and grade point average placed her in the middle of our pool. We had to have a debate before we decided to swallow the middling scores and write “admit” next to her name.

Had she been a male applicant, there would have been little, if any, hesitation to admit. The reality is that because young men are rarer, they’re more valued applicants. Today, two-thirds of colleges and universities report that they get more female than male applicants, and more than 56 percent of undergraduates nationwide are women. Demographers predict that by 2009, only 42 percent of all baccalaureate degrees awarded in the United States will be given to men.

We have told today’s young women that the world is their oyster; the problem is, so many of them believed us that the standards for admission to today’s most selective colleges are stiffer for women than men. How’s that for an unintended consequence of the women’s liberation movement?

I don’t have an answer about what, if anything, should be done about this trend. I do believe that the educational system is failing the male sex in this country, and it’s going to be a while before this trend is reversed simply because of the lag effect. I think society has forgotten about the boys while placing most of the focus on improving girls’ performance in school.

Moreover, I think these employment numbers may be the first reflections of this trend. By and large, there aren’t many well-paying jobs for women that do not require a college education. Men can fairly easily make money doing physical labor — which tends to pay well — than can women. Consequently, a college education may be less desirable for a man contemplating post-high-school job options. I don’t know; it’s been quite a while since I was in high school, and not going to college was never an option.

Of course the downside to this is that recessions that hit construction and other similar industries disproportionally affect men. In this particular instance, I would expect that these numbers will not look so bad in another 12 months, if for no other reason that Obama is planning some serious stimulus to be spent by state governments on infrastructure projects which will likely put these laborers back to work. This was announced in his most recent weekly address, which I’ve embedded (now in HD!) below:

Even without the investment in infrastructure, I would expect the disparity to decrease somewhat as the recession settles in and unemployment and overall employee churn stabilize.

Thoughts on this citizen’s mind

The Obama transition team has a website up at change.gov, as many of you may know. Specifically, they have a section where you can share your thoughts with the transition team. I don’t know if they are actually reading these submissions, but I wrote one up anyway. I’m sharing it here…

I’m going to set aside my inner cynic that someone will actually read this, and talk about what has been worrying me as a concerned US citizen. I know that there is only so much an administration can do to solve the myriad problems we face, and that trying to tackle too much at once is a recipe for universal failure. Therefore prioritization is obviously key.

My primary overarching concern over this country has been any lack of a long-term strategy. I don’t mean for one specific area like the economy or healthcare, but I mean *any* kind of long-term strategy for *anything.* Thus far, it seems as though we’ve been shifting aimlessly from one priority to the next, dictated to us often by market prices of various commodities and shifting popular wants.

That’s no way to run a country.

This list is not in any kind of prioritized order because I think all are equally important at the end of the day:

1) Education: The US has been falling behind in the ability of our high school graduates to afford and go to college. This is happening even as the entry-level requirement for many jobs is having a college degree (even though the particular job may not actually warrant it).

Almost universally, my college professors have publicly lamented the fact that high school graduates are not prepared for the intensity of the material that they face as freshmen in college. As a smart, in-touch individual, I know for a fact that my math was not up to par, and I went to an excellent public high school and graduated in the top 10% of my class. Our state colleges and institutions do a spectacular job, and we should continue to invest in them, but if a student is incapable of succeeding there thanks to a poor secondary education, something is wrong. Accountability in secondary schools is very important. Maybe we need better ways to measure student performance, I do not know. Something must be done, however, because we are falling behind countries like India whose high school students are better prepared for college than ours.

The gap between boys and girls continues to widen. While we’ve done very well by our girls in the last 20 years, our boys have languished. Education should not be a zero-sum game wherein one sex succeeds at the expense of the other. We have neglected boys and focused all of our efforts on girls, and this is neither fair nor desirable. Both sexes can succeed together, and our educators need to remember this, and not just recommend a visit to a pediatrician or psychiatrist for our boys because stimulant ADHD medication isn’t the universal diagnosis and answer.

2) Healthcare: The US lacks any kind of long-term healthcare strategy or vision. While I believe that some form of universal healthcare coverage is both necessary and desirable, President-Elect Obama should stop saying that every person will be able to get health coverage like members of Congress have because this is not possible, nor is it desirable. When and if universal coverage happens, there will still be two tiers of healthcare. A basic, public tier, and a second private tier that citizens may opt to use if they desire to pay more. Please keep in mind that I say this with no malice toward the currently uninsured. My dad had a heart attack this past spring and waited 36 hours before going to the ER — because he knew that he would end up $50-80K in debt. (And he did.)

Secondly, politicians need to stop conflating the idea of universal health coverage with universal health access. The two are not the same. Just because you are covered doesn’t mean you can see a doctor. We don’t have enough doctors and physician extenders (Nurse Practitioners, Physician Assistants) in this country to see everyone, and going to the ER is not the answer either: they’re already overcrowded.

Massachusetts is experiencing this now. While we are often looked to as some kind of model for the rest of the country, the reality is that our system is far from perfect. It’s costing the taxpayers boatloads of money because healthy people that can afford to pay are NOT signing up at nearly the rates that the unhealthy poor are. After all, if you’re healthy, you don’t need preventative care, the colloquial thinking goes, and even if you do, it’s cheaper to pay out-of-pocket to see a doc than it is to pay a high monthly premium. In Massachusetts, the accounting math isn’t working out as expected because of this particular adverse selection catch-22. Complicating the financial problem, there are not enough primary care physicians in this state to see the massive influx of new patients which highlights the second point I made: coverage does not guarantee access. That means they go to the ER, which is inherently more expensive than an ambulatory office visit.

To reform healthcare meaningfully, you need to do it in a multi-phase manner:

  1. Attract the best and brightest back into medicine. That means making the idea of practice attractive which means real, honest-to-God tort reform, not lipservice. When a physician is paying more to medmal companies than s/he is taking home, there is a very serious problem. Talk about a disincentive to practice.
  2. Along those lines, we need more primary care physicians. That means paying them more. Right now, the RVRBS is stacked in favor of specialists, and members of the committee are appointed for life (stupid idea). PCPs do more patient visits than specialists on the order of 8:1, but they are not represented in anywhere near this ratio in the RVRBS committee. That means that procedures are over-valued and cognitive specialties (primary care, rheumatology, endocrinology, etc., etc.) are undervalued because it is difficult to measure the relative value of a cognitive visit. As a result, medical students are gravitating towards specialties which pay more, and the free market is not allowed to compensate for the relative lack of PCPs because the way reimbursement is calculated is fundamentally flawed. In the long-run, this means more expensive healthcare because patients will be seeing specialists instead of PCPs, simply due to lack of PCP supply.

Senator Obama has advocated investing in technology, which is very necessary, but electronic medical records and other efficiency concerns are not a panacea, either. The entire system is broken from top to bottom and improving efficiency in a superficial fashion will NOT solve the huge, underlying problems. A study recently published estimated that only 50 cents of every dollar spent in the name of healthcare is spent on patient care. That’s a bigger problem than mere technological inefficiency.

3) Energy independence: Senator Obama has promised energy independence, and his message has not changed since his 2004 DNC keynote speech. Right now, our government is listing from priority to priority. Gas prices go up, and all of a sudden the public is clamoring for the government to “do something.” Prices go down, and people stop caring, but we know that petroleum supplies are fixed and demand is effectively infinite. That means that eventually prices will go back up, and we need a long-term solution. Keeping the country’s eye on the ball is the government’s job, because it’s clear that most private citizens cannot or will not.

Command and control government regulation is sexy and it makes it look as though government is “doing something” about our dependence on foreign oil, but a more progressive Pigovian tax is probably a better way to accomplish the goal of getting our automakers on-board with the next generation of propulsion than is mandating fuel efficiency and carbon emissions standards. Even if the money is returned in the form of an income subsidy, modifying demand is more effective than trying to legislate supply.

We need government intervention because energy independence and a healthy environment cannot be achieved by individuals acting by themselves — bless their hearts. It needs to be broad and bold in scale and impact. Replacing the light bulbs in your house and planting a few trees might be part of A solution, but it’s obvious that it’s not the ENTIRE solution.

4) Iraq: Iraq is the only US priority that seems to have a strategy under the Bush administration. While I believe firmly that the Iraq war was “dumb,” like Senator Obama, we cannot simply leave and end up with a power vacuum in that nation. We messed it up, and now we should be on the hook to fix it. I am reminded of the lessons from the 70s in Afghanistan which allowed us to defeat the Soviets covertly, but ultimately paved the way for the Taliban because the US “wasn’t in the business of nation-building”. Money for war, but not for education and infrastructure-building. We can see the disastrous long-term consequences of these policy choices that we are dealing with even today.

5) Outsourcing and Globalization: O&G will continue under any administration, and we should not try to stop it. In the long run, it is good for our economy anyway. However we cannot forget the workers that have lost their jobs. Suggestions run the gamut for re-training builders and makers for the healthcare and technology sectors, but we cannot ignore the fact that people are not cattle to be herded in one direction or another. Many of these individuals don’t want these jobs because building and making things is part of who their identity. They don’t want to be nurses, phlebotomists and IT technicians. And they shouldn’t have to be.

Instead we should gently nudge them in the direction of infrastructure repair (which needs to be a priority in the new administration) and the new renewable energy economy. With a focus on renewables and infrastructure repair, President-Elect Obama can employ the tens of thousands who have been laid off in fields that are not dissimilar to where they came from, which will keep them happier and more productive.

(Of course, if these people want to change careers completely, they should have these educational opportunities available as well, which ties into my thoughts about education.)

6) Public Service: The best and the brightest need to see government as a worthwhile place to spend their energies. The politics of the last decade has been toxic for self-actualized smart people, and they haven’t wanted to go into public service. I know Senator Obama knows this, and simply by being open-minded and obviously intellectual, he has done a lot to change the stereotype of politicians and public service. For that, I am grateful, and I can honestly say that I am considering public service as a long-term career whereas under the Bush administration, such an idea would have been laughable. I know that there are many other smart people in my generation who feel the same way. For that, I am thankful.