Posts tagged ‘college’

College Tours Summarized in One Sentence

The WSJ has an editorial on college tours, wherein they talk about the sameness (and lameness) of most college tours.

Most colleges offer both an information session and a tour.  We always found the tour, given by students, more useful than information sessions given by the admission department.  I came to hate the information sessions in large part because the Q&A seems to be dominated by type A helicopter parents worried that Johnny won't get into Yale because he forgot to turn in an art project in 3rd grade.

My kids and I developed a joke a couple of years ago about information sessions, in which we summarize them in one sentence.  So here it is:

"We are unique in the exact same ways that every other college you visit says they are unique."

Examples:  We are unique because we have a sustainability program, because we have small class sizes, because our dining plans are flexible, because we don't just look at SAT scores in admissions, because our students participate in research, because our Juniors go abroad, etc. etc.

There you go.  You can now skip the information session and go right to the tour.  Actually, there is a (very) short checklist of real differences.  The ones I can remember off hand are:

  • Does the school have required courses / distribution requirements or not
  • Is admissions need blind or not
  • Is financial aid in the form of grants or loans
  • Do they require standardized tests or not, and which ones
  • If they do, do they superscore or not
  • Do they use the common app, and if so do they require a supplement
  • Do they require an interview or not

My advice for tour givers (and I can speak from some experience having gone on about 20 and having actually conducted them at my college) is to include a lot of anecdotes that give the school some character.   I particularly remember the Wesleyan story about Joss Whedon's old dorm looking out over a small cemetery and the role this may have played in the development of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The biggest fail on most tours is many don't show a typical dorm room, the #1 thing the vast majority of prospective admits want to see.

Unionizing NCAA Players: A Simple Question in a Free Society, But A Total Mess In Ours

This week, the NLRB agreed to allow the players on the Northwestern University football team to unionize.   This is one of those issues that is simple and straightforward in a free society and a total mess in our less-than-free society.  Here are a few thoughts:

  1. In a free society, this is a no-brainer.  The Northwestern players are welcome to create an association among themselves and call it anything they like, including "union".  That association is free to try to negotiate with the university for better terms  (they are also free to fail at this and make no progress).
  2. However, it is clear that we are not a free society because the players had to go to the government and ask permission to form this particular type of association.  The reason is that associations called "unions" have been granted special powers and privileges under the law not available to other associations.  There are also a large body of very particular rules for how such associations may conduct business and how other groups (in this case the University) can or cannot interact with it.  It is a very tricky legal and philosophical question whether this package of benefits and privileges should be accorded to a group of college football players
  3. In a free society, the fact that the players don't get paid cash and that their universities make millions off the football program would be irrelevant.  The players freely agreed to the deal (in most cases, playing in exchange for free tuition and perhaps a chance to land an NFL job) so there is nothing inherently unfair about it.
  4. However, in our society, we have all sorts of government interventions.  I consider many of these interventions to be counter-productive, even occasionally insane.  But if one is to navigate such a society (rather than, say, go off and live in Galt's Gulch), I think the principle of equal protection is critical.  Arbitrary government interventions in free exchange are FAR worse when applied unevenly.  From an equal protection standpoint, I think the players may have a good case.
    • The law generally does not allow profit-making businesses (and the NCAA and college footfall are certainly those) to accept unpaid labor.  Many folks who don't deal with the Fair Labor Standards Act every day will say: "players are paid, they get free tuition."  But this is not how the FLSA works.  It counts non-cash wages only in very specific circumstances that are enumerated in the law (e.g. lodging).  Think of it this way -- McDonald's could not legally just pay all its employees in french fries and claim to be compliant with the law.  Also, large numbers of Division 1 football and basketball players never graduate, which shows a fair amount of contempt by players for this supposedly valuable "free tuition" compensation.
    • On the other hand, most college athletics are not profit-making.  My son plays baseball at Amherst College -- it would be laughable to call this a profit center.  I am not sure there are but a handful of women's teams in any sport that generate profits for their school, and even on the men's side money-making is limited to a few score men's football and basketball teams.   But the few that do make money make a LOT.  University of Texas has its own TV network, as do most major conferences.
    • The law generally does not allow any group of enterprises to enter into agreements that restrict employment options.  Google et. al. are getting flamed right now, and likely face criminal anti-trust charges and lawsuits, for agreements to restrict hiring employees from each other's firms.  The NCAA cuts such deals all the time, both severely restricting moves between schools (transfer provisions in Division I are quite onerous) and preventing poaching at least of younger players by professional leagues like the NBA and NFL.   The notion that top players in the NCAA are playing for their education is a joke -- they are playing in college because that is what they have to do in order to eventually be allowed in a league where they can get paid for their skills.
    • Actually trying to pay players would be a real mess.  In a free society, one might just pay the ones who play the most profitable sports and contribute the most value.   But with Title IX, for example, that is impossible.  Paying only the most financially valuable players and teams would lead to 99% of the pay going to men, which would lead to Title IX gender discrimination suits before the first paycheck was even delivered.  And 99% of college athletes probably don't even want to be paid
    • Part of the pay problem is that the NCAA is so moronic in its rules.  Even if the university does not pay players, many outsider would if allowed.  Boosters love to pay football and basketball players under the table in cash and cars and such, and top athletes could easily get endorsement money or paid for autographs by third parties.  But NCAA rules are so strict that athletes can be in violation of the rules for accepting a free plane ticket from a friend to go to his mother's funeral.  When I interview students for Princeton admissions, I never buy them even a coffee in case they are a recruited athlete, because doing so would violate the rules.
    • Much of this is based on an outdated fetish for amateurism, that somehow money taints athletic achievement.  It is hilarious to see good progressive college presidents spout this kind of thing, because in fact this notion of amateurism was actually an aristocratic invention to keep the commoners out of sports (since commoners would not have the means to dedicate much of their life to training without a source of income).  The amateur ideal is actually an exclusionist aristocratic tool that has for some reason now been adopted as a progressive ideal.   Note that nowhere else in college do we require that students not earn money with their skills -- business majors can make money in business over the summer, artists can sell their art, musicians can be paid to perform.  When Brooke Shields was at Princeton, she appeared in the school amateur play despite making millions simultaneously as a professional actress.  Only athletes can't trade their skill for money in their free time.

I am not sure where this is all going, but as a minimum I think the NCAA is going to be forced to allow athletes to earn outside income and accept outside benefits without losing their eligibility.

Back in 2011 I wrote an article in Forbes on this topic

Obama's Demand for Wage Rules for Salaried Workers Will Have Far More Impact Than Proposed Minimum Wage Changes

The $10.10 minimum wage discussion has gotten a lot of attention.   But in 2011 only 3.8 million workers made at or below the minimum wage, and of these, at least half earn substantially more in reality through tips.

Obama's announcement yesterday that he wanted to substantially change the way salaried workers will likely have far more negative impacts on employment than his minimum wage proposals.

President Barack Obama is expected to order a rule change this week that would require employers to pay overtime to a larger number of salaried workers, two people familiar with the matter said.

Currently, many businesses aren't required to pay overtime to certain salaried workers if they earn more than $455 a week, a level that was set in 2004 and comes to roughly $24,000 a year. The White House is expected to direct the Labor Department to raise that salary threshold, though it is unclear by how much.

Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, and Jared Bernstein, a former White House economist, recently proposed the limit be increased to $984 a week, or roughly $50,000 a year.

"That would mean between five- and 10-million people could be affected, but they might choose a lower number," Mr. Eisenbrey said about the White House plans.

5-10 million is potentially 3x or more the people affected by a minimum wage change.  But in some sense, this still underestimates the impact.  Here is one example.  Last year the average starting salary of college graduates is about $45,000.  The median is likely lower.  This means that over half of all college graduates going into the work force will be taking hourly jobs that used to be salaried.   Teachers will be hourly.  Budget analysts will be hourly.  Etc.

So all these folks are saying - Yeah!  I get overtime!   Wrong.  They will be eligible for overtime.  But companies will quickly restructure their work processes to make sure no one works overtime.  And since their new hires are working just a straight 40 hours (with mandatory unpaid lunch break time in CA), they will likely pay less.   If I am paying $40,000 a year for someone who will work extra hours for me, I am not going to pay that amount to someone just punching a time clock.  And the whole psychological relationship is changed - a salaried person is someone on the management team.  A person punching a timeclock may not be treated the same way.

Further, when someone gets switched from salary to hourly, they lose a minimum pay guarantee.  When I get a $3,500 a month offer, I know that no matter how slow things are, until I am fired I get $3500 a month.  There is a floor on my earnings.  As an hourly worker, my hours can be adjusted up or down constantly.  There is no floor at all.

Oh, and by the way, remember Obamacare?  The PPACA penalizes companies who do not provide a health plan that meets certain (expensive) criteria.  But that penalty is not applied for workers who are "part-time" or work less than 30 hours a week.  Salaried workers are automatically full time.  But once you convert all those people to hourly and make sure they are working no more than 40 hours a week, is it really so large a step to getting them under 30 hours a week?

PS-  Well, for those who think schools assign too much homework, this could well be the end of homework.  The most dangerous possible thing with hourly workers is to give them the ability to assign themselves unlimited overtime.  Teachers could do this at home with grading papers.  If I were a school, I would ban teachers from doing any grading or schoolwork prep at home -- after all, it's hourly and probably overtime and they could work unlimited hours at home and how would you get it under control?  The only way to manage it would be to ban it entirely.

PPS- What about travel?  Would you ever let workers paid hourly travel?  You would have to pay all the travel time and maybe part of the hotel time and there would be huge potential for ending up with overtime bills so better to just ban travel all together.  I know this seems knee-jerk to ban something that might impose a lot of extra labor costs seems extreme, but just look at California.  In California, employees have the right to a half-hour lunch break without work.  They can work through lunch if they choose, but courts have imposed enough onerous reporting standards around this that most companies (like mine) have just banned working through lunch.  It is a firing offense in my company, and in many others in CA, to be caught working during lunch.  We are going to see the same thing working from home.  In fact, we already see this, as there are class actions right now against companies who provided employees with cell phones saying that giving them a cell phone put them "on call" and subject to overtime hours that had to paid at home.  Companies are now making it a firing offense to take one's company cell phone home.

Sorry this post is so disorganized, but this initiative caught be by surprise and I have not been thinking about it for very long.  I will try to work out a more rigorous article in the next few weeks.

Triggering and the Return to Victorian Perceptions of Women

When Mathew Vassar built the original main building at Vassar college, he made the hallways of this college for women extra wide.  While there is an apocryphal story that he did this so he could later convert the college to a brewery if the whole educating women thing did not work out, the actual explanation is a window on Victorian-era thinking about women.

People of the time were convinced that women were subject to hysteria, and that one way to potentially defuse such hysteria was through exercise.  The extra-wide hallways were so women in their hoop skirts could walk back and forth in bad weather.  (Interestingly, Vassar and other women's colleges also played a role in the early history of baseball, fielding teams for a number of years until men decided that the unseemlyness of women playing sports trumped the fight against hysteria).

Whenever this story is told, we laugh today at Victorians' condescending, even misogynist views of women as subject to hysteria or fainting or the vapors when encountering the slightest bit of stress.

Which is why I never would have believed that it would be 21st century feminists dredging up these old attitudes with fears of "triggering."  Women are once again being treated as if they will get the vapors if difficult topics are discussed in class.  I suppose we are now supposed to leave these to men in the smoking room after dinner?

In the future, historians will draw a line somewhere in the last decade to mark the point where feminism switched from empowering women to treating them like children.

Disclosure:  My wife attended Vassar College and is still convinced the brewery explanation is the correct one.

SAT Variation by Income: The Test Prep Fig Leaf

I was not at all surprised to see that average SAT scores varied strongly by income bracket.  What has surprised me is how quickly everyone has grabbed for the explanation that "its all due to test prep."  It strikes me that the test prep explanation is a sham, meant to try to hide the real problem.

First, Alex Tabarrok says that most of the research out there is that test prep explains at most 20% of the variation by income, and probably less.  This fits my experience with test prep.  I have always felt that 90% of the advantage of test prep was just taking a few practice tests so when the actual test days come, the kids are comfortable they understand how each section of the test works and are not thrown by the types of problems they will face.  My feeling is that most of what you can learn in fancy test prep courses is in those books they sell for about $40.  We sent our kids to a course that cost a lot more than $40, but frankly I did not do it because I thought they would get any special knowledge they could not get in the book, but because I was outsourcing the effort to get them to do the work.  Seriously, I think a parent with $40 and the willingness to make sure their kids actually goes through the book would get most of the benefit.

Which raises the question of whether test prep is correlated to income because of its cost, or whether it is correlated to income because high income folks are more likely to place value on their kids testing well and make them do the prep work.  We will come back to this in a minute.

So if its not test prep, what does drive the difference?  I don't know, because I have not studied the problem.  But I can speak for our family.  My kids do well on SAT-type tests because they go to a tough rigorous private school.  Let's take one example.  When my daughter was a sophomore in high school, she scored a perfect 80 (equivalent of the SAT 800) on the writing and grammar section of the PSAT.  Now, my daughter is smart but no Ivy-bound savant.  She took no prep course.  My daughter aced the PSAT grammar because her freshman teacher drove those kids hard on grammar.  I am talking about a pace and workload and set of expectations that kids in our junior high school start talking about and dreading two years before they even get to the class, and this at a school already known for a tough work load.

This teacher is legendarily fabulous, so obviously that is hard to replicate everywhere.  But she is fabulous because my kids actually came away excited about Homer and other classics.  This is what I pay private-school money for.  But what she did in grammar, what got my daughter her perfect score, could be emulated by about any competent teacher...theoretically.  But in fact it can't happen because such an approach could never survive in a public school.  The work expectations are way too high -- parents and students would revolt.  It only works for those who self-select.

Well, it only works today for those who self-select and can afford a private school.  Unfortunately, we have an education system where everyone is forced to pay tuition to what is at-best a teach-to-the-mean school.  If one wants more, they have to be wealthy enough to pay tuition to a second school.  Which is why school choice makes so much sense.  Why should only the wealthy  have the ability to self-select into more intensive programs?  BUt this is a conclusion most the education establishment is desperate for people not to reach.  Thus, the hand-waving over test prep.

Of course, there are a million other wealth, genetic, and parental effects that come into this equation.  For example, my kids read for fun, probably in large part because my wife and I read for fun.  How many kids read 10+ books outside of school each year?  They do this not because my kids are awesomer than other kids, but simply because that was the expectation they grew up with, that we spend free time reading books.   Other families might spend their free time, say, doing home improvement projects such that their kids all grow up great woodworkers.  I am not sure one set of activities is superior to another, but my kids end up testing well.  Of course, I am not sure they can use a screwdriver.  Seriously, over Christmas break I asked my 20-year-old son to pass me the Phillips head screwdriver and he had no idea which one that was.

I was thinking about the question above of how one separates out parental expectations from all the other effects (like parental DNA and income and quality of schools, etc.)  I interview high schoolers for Princeton admissions, so I have come to learn that some public high schools have advanced programs, to allow kids some self-selection into a more rigorous program within the context of public schools (this is usually either an AP program, an honors program, or an IB program).  By the way, the existence of these programs at public schools correlates pretty highly with the average income of that school's district.

Here would be an interesting study:  Take high schools with some sort of honors program option.  We want to look at the income demographics of the kids who chose the honors program vs. those who choose the standard program.  We would therefore want to look only at high schools that take all comers into the honors program -- if they have some sort of admissions requirement, then this would screw up our study because we want to test solely for how demographics affect the choice to pursue a more rigorous, college-oriented program.  I would love to see the results, but my hypothesis is that test-prep is a proxy for the same thing -- less about income per se and more about parental expectations.

 

Yet Another Absurd Obamacare-Related Requirement: Business Oaths

This is just sick, via Fox News and Bryan Preston

Consider what administration officials announcing the new exemption for medium-sized employers had to say about firms that might fire workers to get under the threshold and avoid hugely expensive new requirements of the law. Obama officials made clear in a press briefing that firms would not be allowed to lay off workers to get into the preferred class of those businesses with 50 to 99 employees. How will the feds know what employers were thinking when hiring and firing? Simple. Firms will be required to certify to the IRS – under penalty of perjury – that ObamaCare was not a motivating factor in their staffing decisions. To avoid ObamaCare costs you must swear that you are not trying to avoid ObamaCare costs. You can duck the law, but only if you promise not to say so.

As I have written about before, our company closed some California operations in December and laid off all the employees.  As with most business closures, we had multiple reasons for the closure.  The biggest problems were the local regulatory issues in Ventura County that made it impossible to make even simple improvements to the facilities.  But certainly looking ahead at costs soon to be imposed due to looming California minimum wage increases and the employer mandate contributed to the decision.

So, did I fire the workers over Obamacare?  If Obamacare were, say, 10% of the cause, would I be lying if I said I did not fire workers over Obamacare?  Or does it need to be 51% of the cause?  Or 1%?    Or 90%.  Business decisions are seldom based on single variables.  I am just exhausted with having my life run by people whose only experience with the real world was sitting in policy seminars at college.

Update:  The actual effect of this will not likely be to change business behavior, but change how they talk about it.  Worried that there will be too many stories next election about job losses due to Obamacare, the Administration is obviously cooking up ways not to limit the job losses, but to limit discussion of them.

Best Bridge Book Ever (IMHO) Back In Print

One thing I think I have never mentioned before on this site is that in college, I was a fanatical bridge player.  I developed this odd social life of bridge in the afternoon and beer pong at night.  When I got tired of playing other students, my friend and I would go into town and play the local residents, who were sharks.

Anyway, people new to bridge are always intimidated by bidding, and certainly there is a learning curve there (which I made worse by using the Precision rather than the Goren standard system).  But with some time, bidding becomes rote.  Only perhaps in one in ten or twenty hands is the last increment of bidding expertise really useful, and then usually only when playing duplicate where even a few extra points really matter.

Once your bidding is mostly up to snuff, the game is all about card play.   A good player will play out the entire hand, with guesses as to which cards are held by which players, before the first card is led.

The single best book I have ever read on card play is Card Play Technique by Mollo and Gardener.  Thirty years ago there was about one source for this often out-of-print book and I bought a dozen copies, slowly giving most of them away over time.  Now, however, it is back in print.  If you play bridge, you have probably read this book, but if not, buy yourself a copy for Christmas.

If I Were a Billionaire: Coyote College

My daughter and I did the whole college visit thing last week -- 8 colleges in five days.  In doing so, I was struck by the fact that all these great schools we visited, with one exception, were founded by rich people no more recently than the 19th century.  Seriously, can you name a college top students are trying to get into that was founded since 1900?  I think Rice University in Houston was founded in the 20th century but it is still over 100 years old.

The one exception, by the way, was SCAD, an art school in Savannah, Georgia.  SCAD is new enough that it is still being run by its founder.  I am not sure I am totally comfortable in the value proposition of an expensive art school, but I will say that this was -- by far -- the most dynamic school we visited.

So here is what I would do:  Create a new not-for-profit university aimed at competing at the top levels, e.g. with the Ivy League.  I would find a nice bit of land for it in a good climate, avoiding big cities.  The Big Island of Hawaii would be a nice spot, though that may be too remote.   Scottsdale would not be a bad choice since its bad weather is during the summer out of the normal school year and land is relatively cheap.

Then, I would take the top academic kids, period.  No special breaks for athletes or tuba players.  It would have some reasonable school non-academic programs just to remain competitive for students - maybe some intramurals or club sports, but certainly no focus on powerhouse athletics.  We could set a pool of money aside to help fund clubs and let students drive and run most of the extra-curriculars, from singing groups to debate clubs.  If students are passionate enough to form and lead these activities, they would happen.

And now I need a reader promise here - if you are going to read the next sentence, you have to read the whole rest of the article before flying into any tizzies.

And for the most part we would scrap affirmative action and diversity goals.  We are going to take the best students.  This does not mean its pure SAT's - one can certainly look at a transcript and SAT in the context of the school kids went to, so that smart kids are not punished for going to a crap public high school.

Realize I say this with the expectation that the largest group of students who will be getting affirmative action over the next 20 years are... white males.

What?  How can this be?  Well it is already nearly true.  Sure, historically everyone has focused on reverse discrimination against white males when colleges were dealing with having twice as many men than women and they had few qualified black or hispanic candidates.  But my sense is that few white males any more lose their spot in college due to competition from under-qualified minority candidates.

That is because there is an enormous demographic shift going on in college.  In fact there are three:

  1. Girls rule high school and higher education.  Yes, I know that women steeped in "Failing at Fairness" will find this hard to believe, but undergraduates are something like 56% women nowadays.  As we toured Ivy League schools, we were on tours with about 6 prospective female students for every one guy.  Back when my son played high school basketball, on the walls of various high schools he played at were pictures of their honor societies.  Time and again I saw pictures of 20 girls and one or two forlorn boys.  If top schools want to keep their gender numbers even, then they are going to have to start affirmative action for boys, if they have not done so already (I suspect they have).
  2. Asians are being actively discriminated against.  Schools will never ever admit it, because they are getting sued by Asian prospective students (I know Princeton has been sued) but reverse discrimination against Asian students is becoming more and more intense.  The bar for Asia females already is way higher than the bar for white males in top schools, and it likely will only get worse
  3. Foreign students bring in the cash.  Ivy League schools have a ton of international students, which makes sense as they strive to be international institutions.  But one thing they will not tell you is that there is another reason for bringing in foreign students:  For most schools, their need-blind admissions policies and increasingly generous financial aid packages do not apply to foreign students, or apply on a much more limited basis.  The average tuition paid by international students is thus much higher.  I suspect, but cannot prove, that under the cover of diversity these schools are lowering their standards to bring in students who bring the cash.

So we scrap all this.  If the school ends up 80% Asian women, fine.  Every forum in one's life does not have to have perfect diversity (whatever the hell that is), and besides there are plenty of other market choices for students who are seeking different racial and ethnic mixes in their college experience.   We just want the best.  And whatever money we can raise, we make sure  a lot of it goes to financial aid rather than prettier buildings (have you seen what they are building at colleges these days?) so we can make sure the best can afford to attend.  Getting good faculty might be the challenge at first, but tenure tracks have dried up so many places that my gut feel is that there are plenty of great folks out there who can't get tenure where they are and would jump at a chance to move.  You won't have Paul Krugman or Bill McKibben type names at first, but is that so bad?

We know the business community hires from Ivy League schools in part because they can essentially outsource their applicant screening to the University admissions office.  So we will go them one better and really sell this.   Hire any of our graduates and you know you are getting someone hard-working and focused and very smart.

I don't know if it would work, but hell, I am a billionaire, what's the risk in trying?

Me & Eliot

In a hard-hitting, incredibly researched piece of journalism entitled "Me & Ted", Josh Marshall polled his progressive friends at Princeton and found that they all thought Ted Cruz was an asshole.

Well, it turns out Ted and I went to college together. And not just we happened to be at the same place at the same time. We were both at a pretty small part of a relatively small university. We both went to Princeton. I was one year ahead of him. But we were both in the same residential college, which basically meant a small cluster of dorms of freshmen and sophomores numbering four or five hundred students who all ate in the same dining hall.

As it turned out, though, almost everyone I knew well in college remembered him really well. Vividly. And I knew a number of his friends. But for whatever reason I just didn't remember him. When I saw college pictures of him, I thought okay, yeah, I remember that guy but sort of in the way where you're not 100% sure you're not manufacturing the recollection.

I was curious. Was this just my wife who tends to be a get-along and go-along kind of person? So I started getting in touch with a lot of old friends and asking whether they remembered Ted. It was an experience really unlike I've ever had. Everybody I talked to - men and women, cool kids and nerds, conservative and liberal - started the conversation pretty much the same.

"Ted? Oh yeah, immense a*#hole." Sometimes "total raging a#%hole." Sometimes other variations on the theme. But you get the idea. Very common reaction.

Wow, so this is what famous journalists do?  Hey, I can do the same thing.

I went to Princeton with Eliot Spitzer.  He was a couple of years ahead of me but had a really high profile on campus, in part due to his running for various University Student Government offices.  So I checked with many of my friends back in college, and you know what?  They all thought Spitzer was an asshole.  I was reminded that we all disliked him so much that when one person (full disclosure, it was me) drunkenly asked who wanted to go moon Spitzer and the governing council meeting next door, we got 30 volunteers.  He was so irritating that he actually inspired a successful opposition party cum performance art troupe called the Antarctic Liberation Front (Virginia Postrel also wrote about it here).

Wow, am I a big time journalist now?  Will GQ be calling for me to do an article on Spitzer?

Look, this is going to be true for lots of politicians, because they share a number of qualities.  They tend to have huge egos, which eventually manifest as a desire to tell us what to do because they know better than we do.  They are willful, meaning they can work obsessively to get their own way even over trivial stuff.  And they are charismatic, meaning they generally have a group of people who adore them and whose sycophancy pisses everyone else off.  In other words, they are all assholes.

Other Views on Teach for America

Since I have posted positively about Teach for America, it is only fair I post this article from the Atlantic of a Teach for America alum who felt she was unprepared for what she faced in the classroom.

Over the years, I have met many TFA teachers and have been in their classrooms, and have never gotten this vibe from them, but perhaps one of our samples (mine or the author's) are flawed**.

I guess my reaction to the article is this:  TFA is the best program I have encountered to try to improve education within the framework of our deeply flawed public education system***.  However, understanding the flaws of public education, and being someone who would much rather see competition introduced into the k-12 education system, I suppose I am not surprised that putting really talented people in a bad system can only do so much.

The education establishment, which is implicitly backed by most of the media, really wants to kill TFA, which just goes to show, perhaps, the impossibility of making change happen within the system.  Think of it this way:  TFA is everything liberals have wanted in teaching reform.  It brings the brightest of the bright from America's colleges and diverts them from Wall Street and Harvard Law to teaching schoolkids.  It is modeled roughly on the Peace Corps.  It is the most establishment-friendly way I can think of to try to make public schools better and still the public school system immune system rejects it.  If TFA cannot work, then we should take that as proof that it is time for a radically new system that eliminates the government monopoly on education.

 

** I confess it may be my sample.  When we pay to sponsor a teacher, we specify that we will only sponsor one in a charter school.  Consistent with my comments in the rest of the article, I despair of throwing even really good people into typical public schools, and want to send them where they might have a chance.  The school where we have sponsored a teacher the last couple of years is doing great, with a population of kids nearly 100% eligible for the Federal school lunch program and most of whose parents do not speak English as a first language (or at all) significantly outperforming their peers.

*** I also think it is a great program for the young adults in it.  I have seen many of the not-for-profit and NGO jobs smart kids go into out of college, and they are awful.  They teach bad organizational lessons that will make these folks less employable in the future by productive enterprises and they at best do nothing (at worst spend their time lobbying to make my life harder and more expensive).  Against this backdrop, it is a much better experience for folks who want a service type of job out of college - the life skills taught are more relevant and the work has a higher impact.

Harvard Business School and Women

The New York Times has a long article on  Harvard Business School's effort to change its culture around women.  Given that both my wife and I attended, albeit 25 years ago, I have a few thoughts.

  • I thought the article was remarkably fair given that it came from the NYT.  Men who are skeptical of the program actually are allowed to voice intelligent objections, rather than just be painted as Neanderthals
  • I would have abhorred the forced gender indoctrination program, as much for being boring as for being tangential.  I am fortunate I grew up when I did, before such college group-think sessions were made a part of the process everywhere.  I would presume most of these young folks are now used to such sessions from their undergrad days.   I would not have a problem having an honest and nuanced discussion about these issues with smart people of different backgrounds, but I thought the young man they quoted in the article said it really well -- there is just no payoff to voicing a dissenting opinion in such sessions where it is clear there is a single right answer and huge social and even administrative penalties for saying the wrong thing.
  • I went to HBS specifically because I loved the confrontational free-for-all of the classes.   It was tailor-made to my personality and frankly I have never been as successful at anything before or since as I was at HBS.   I say this only to make it clear that I have a bias in favor of the HBS teaching process.   I do think there is an issue that this process does not fit well with certain groups.  These folks who do not thrive in the process are not all women (foreign students can really struggle as well) but they are probably disproportionately women.  So I was happy to see that rather than dumb down the process, they are working to help women be more successful and confident in it.
  • It is interesting to see that the school still struggles to get good women professors.  When I was there, the gap between the quality of men and women professors was staggering.  The men were often older guys who had been successful in the business and finance world and now were teaching.  The women were often young and just out of grad school.  The couple of women professors I had my first year were weak, probably the two weakest professors I had.  In one extreme case our female professor got so jumbled up in the numbers that the class demanded I go down and sort it out, which I finally did.  I thought it was fun at the time, but now I realize how humiliating it was.
  • To some extent, the school described in the article seems a different place than when I was there.  They describe a school awash in alcohol and dominated by social concerns.  This may be a false impression -- newspapers have a history of exaggerating college bacchanalia.   At the time I was there, Harvard did not admit many students who did not have at least 2 years of work experience, such that the youngest students were 24 and many were in their 30's and 40's.  A number were married and some even had children.   To be there, they not only were paying a lot of money but they were quitting paying jobs.  The school was full of professionals who were there for a purpose.  I had heard that HBS had started to admit more students right out of college -- perhaps that is a mistake.
  • The fear by the women running the school that women would show up on Halloween wearing "sexy pirate" costumes represents, in my mind, one of the more insidious aspects of this new feminist paternalism (maternalism?) aimed at fellow women.  Feminism used to be about empowering women to make whatever choices they want for their lives.   Now it is increasingly about requiring women to make only the feminist-approved choices.
  • I actually wrote a novel where the protagonist was a confident successful female at HBS.   So I guess I was years ahead of the curve.

Postscript:  Below the fold is an excerpt from my novel.  In it, the protagonist Susan describes how an HBS class works and shares my advice for being successful at HBS.

Continue reading ‘Harvard Business School and Women’ »

Previewing the President's College Rankings

Today, President Obama sort-of kind-of acknowledged a problem with Federal college student lending:  Federal loans are doing nothing to improve the affordability of colleges, as colleges are just raising tuition in lockstep with increased lending, thus leaving students massively in debt for the same old degree.

His proposed solution is to somehow tie the availability of Federal funds to some type of government scoring system for colleges.  The probability that this will do anything to reign in student debt is exactly zero.  But it will potentially give the Feds another vehicle for control (similar to what Title IX has given them) of even the most mundane university policies.  Why not, for example, give high scores to universities with the restrictive and politically correct speech codes this Administration favors, thus effectively denying money to students of universities that don't have Eric Holder-sanctioned speech policies?

If you think I am exaggerating, look at the recent Washington Monthly college rankings as a prototype for the Obama scoring system.  In their system, colleges are ranked higher if they have a higher percentage of Peace Corps*** graduates, if more of their Federal work-study grant money is used for jobs at non-profits rather than for-profits**, and if their school reports more community service hours.  This latter points to another issue -- a number of schools rank really low on community service hours, effectively all tied with zero.  This is obviously a reporting issue.  The Obama plan just about guarantees that universities will start to game all these metrics -- does no one pay attention to the fraud that has been found in the law school rankings?

They also have a ranking of the schools providing the best value.  The good news, I suppose, is the school my son attends is #1.  The bad news is that my alma mater Princeton is not even on the list.  I found this odd, because while the authors explicitly laud Amherst's generous program that helps fund students through grants rather than loans, Princeton actually was one of a few schools that did this first (update:  Princeton was the first school to eliminate loans from financial aid packages of low income students, and since has eliminated loans altogether from all financial aid packages.  If you can get in, you can graduate debt-free).

It says this of Amherst:

 It chose to tap its sizable $1.6 billion endowment to provide tuition discounts so generous that the annual net cost to students with family incomes below $75,000 is only $843, less than a third of the sticker price of a year at the average community college. Another elite liberal arts college, Williams, also makes our list. But instructively, none of the other prestigious, well-endowed private colleges and universities in America—not Harvard or Yale, Swarthmore or Smith, none of them—can make that claim.

Actually, we don't know if that last sentence is true because the authors left Harvard and Yale off the list entirely.   My impression is that Princeton makes is very inexpensive for families making less than $75,000 as well, so I could not understand the claim -- perhaps even without debt the tuition charges to low-income families are still unreasonably high.  But we will never know, because apparently Princeton is not even on the list -- not because it does not direct a lot of its endowment to need-based scholarships, but because it has only 10% students on Pell grants, and the authors decided that you could not be on the list unless that number was at least 20% "to make sure they aren’t just catering to the affluent."  This just points to how quickly such a system gets politicized.  What does "catering to the affluent" have anything to do with bang for the buck?  If they really trust their methodology, they would have included these schools and if they are really just over-priced rich kids' playgrounds, that should have come through in the ranking.  Instead, the author's have explicitly invented an unrelated criteria to weed Ivy League schools out, a criteria more related to admissions requirements than to financial aid requirements and affordability and value (the ostensible bases for the rankings).

By the way, if you want to get a really good laugh, this is supposed to be a value or "bang for the buck" ranking, but they only rank the costs.  There is absolutely no ranking of "bang".  Bizarre.  It is as if any degree of any type from any institution is equally valuable.  Which, by the way, is part of the problem in the student loan bubble -- just this assumption.

 

** This is EXACTLY the kind of incentive that will help pay off those future college loans -- lets make sure to encourage every student to work in non-profits rather than for-profits jobs.

*** Why the Peace Corps?  Why not a myriad of other useful and productive occupations?  If you want to have a service metric, why is Peace Corps there and, say, Teach for America not?

I Used to Respect Michael Crow. Never Mind. The NCAA Hypocrisy Never Ends

Arizona State University (ASU) has always had a certain niche in the college world, a niche best evidenced by their making both the top 10 party school and top 10 hottest women lists in the same year.  President Michael Crow has done a fair amount to, if not reverse this image, at least add some academic cred to the university.  ASU has been creeping up the USN&WR rankings, has a very serious and respected honors college (Barrett) and hosts the Origins conference each year, one of the most fun public education events I have attended.

But Michael Crow is now upset that another Phoenix area school has been given Division I status in sports, a for-profit college named Grand Canyon University.  This could really hurt both ASU's athletic recruiting in the area as well as dilute its revenues.  But in the supremely hypocritical world college athletics, he can't say that.  Instead, he says (Via Tyler Cowen)

The conference's 12 presidents signed and delivered a letter dated July 10 urging the NCAA's Executive Committee to "engage in further, careful consideration" about allowing for-profit universities to become Division I members at the committee's August meeting. In the meantime, Pac-12 presidents decided at a league meeting last month not to schedule future contests against Grand Canyon while the issue is under consideration.

"A university using intercollegiate athletics to drive up its stock value -- that's not what we're about," Arizona State president Michael Crow said in a phone interview over the weekend. "... If someone asked me, should we play the Pepsi-Cola Company in basketball? The answer is no. We shouldn't be playing for-profit corporations."...

"Our presidents have a pretty clear view that athletics works for the broader benefit of the university," said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. "There's a discomfort with the idea that the sole accountability around athletics would be to a company that might use athletics as a marketing tool to drive stock price. There's a sense that changes the dynamics and accountability around athletics."

It is freaking hilarious to get lectured on accountability around athletics by the NCAA.  This is an organization that has been making billions off unpaid workers for years, workers who think so much of the value of the compensation they do receive (a free education) that most of the best of them never complete it.  I wrote more about the NCAA and athletes here.  In short, though, all these schools use the athletic program to raise capital (in the form of donations), likely far more so than a private school's sports team would raise its stock value.  Unless you grew up near the school, what do you know about well-known schools like Penn State, Ohio State, University of Miami, LSU, Alabama and even Notre Dame other than their athletics program?

Michael Crow reveals himself as just another incumbent that does not want competition.

In regards to Grand Canyon specifically, though, it would certainly appear that Crow, who's been spearheading the effort, is driven in part by protecting his own turf. Arizona State has long been the only Division I university in the Phoenix market. And in the bigger picture, it seems a bit self-righteous that the same group of presidents that in 2011 signed a $3 billion contract with ESPN and FOX -- and which last year launched a profitable television network of their own -- would play the "non-profit" card in calling out someone else's motives.

"It's different in the following sense," Crow said of the comparison. "Whatever income we generate from a television network goes to support the swimming team, the rowing team at Cal. We support thousands of athletes and their scholarships, their room-and-board, as part of the intercollegiate spirit of athletics. ... In the case of a for-profit corporation, those profits go to the shareholders."

His last point is a distinction without a difference.  First, I am not sure it is true -- Grand Canyon also has other athletic programs that cost money but don't bring in revenue. They also have a women's swim team, for example.  But who cares anyway?  Why is a student interested in swimming more worthy of receiving football largess than an investor?  Maybe Crow is worried that the people of Arizona that fund so much of his operations (and bloated overpaid administrative staff) might suddenly start wondering why they don't get a return for their investment as do GCU shareholders.

Postscript:  Phil Knight at Oregon and Boone Pickens at Oklahoma State (to name just 2 examples) get an incredible amount of influence in the university due to the money they give to their football programs and the importance of the football programs to those schools.  Boone Pickens says he has given half a billion dollars to OSU, half of which went to the football program.  But it is clear he would not have given a dime if he had not been concerned with the football team's fortunes and the problem of his university's football team losing to other rich guy's teams.  Is this really somehow better and cleaner than being beholden to equity markets?

The link in the original article is broken, so here is a better link to an article and video of how "non-profits" are spending their athletic money, on things like this palatial locker room for the Alabama football team that would make Nero's gladiators blush.

Government-Enforced Pre-Paid Medical Plans

What she said

The banning of catastrophic-only plans infuriates me the most. Those are the only plans that are actually financially sensible for a healthy individual to purchase. Everything else on the market is a perverse by-product of the employer-based insurance system.

Worst case scenario with a catastrophic-only plan is you end up with $10,000 in debt. That’s a debt load many times smaller than what the Federal government thinks students should take out to get a college degree. We’ll let you borrow $100,000 to get a sociology degree but, we think that $10,000 is an unconscionable amount to pay for medical expenses? So unconscionable that we have to FORCE YOU to buy a plan with more extensive coverage?

Of course, we all know the real reason for this. it’s meant to force healthy young people to subsidize healthcare for older sicker people. Just force them to pay more for insurance than they ought to, and force them to buy more extensive coverage than is rational.

Congrats to Amherst Baseball

My son's team the Lord Jeffs (simultaneously the worst and most awesome team name in college sports) made the NCAA baseball playoffs this year.  Don't have a team to root for?  Why not choose the one named after an early advocate of biological warfare against Native Americans?

Six Years Later, My Question is Answered

You would have to be a Coyote Blog old-timer to remember back in January of 2007 when I asked

Is there any state where a college men's football or basketball coach is not the highest paid state official?

Robert Fischer-Baum, via Ilya Somin, has the answer.  In forty states, the highest paid state employee is a university football or basketball coach.  In all fifty states, the highest paid public employee works for a state university.   Which brings us back to my post earlier today.   Government student loans are to university payrolls as quantitative easing is to stock prices.

The Plan For Universities to Raise Tuition to Infinity

Via the WSJ, President Obama is proposing debt forgiveness for student borrowers

The White House proposes that the government forgive billions of dollars in student debt over the next decade, a plan that cheers student advocates, but critics say it would expand a program that already encourages students to borrow too much and stick taxpayers with the bill.

The proposal, included in President Barack Obama's budget for next year, would increase the number of borrowers eligible for a program known casually as income-based repayment, which aims to help low-income workers stay current on federal student debt.

Borrowers in the program make monthly payments equivalent to 10% of their income after taxes and basic living expenses, regardless of how much they owe. After 20 years of on-time payments—10 years for those who work in public or nonprofit jobs—the balance is forgiven.

Already, it's pretty clear that many students pay little attention to size of the debt they run up.  Easy loans for students have essentially made them less price sensitive, however irrational this may seem (did you make good short - long term trade-offs at the age of 18?)  As a result, tuition has soared, much like home prices did as a result of easy mortgage credit a decade ago.  The irony is that easier student debt is not increasing access to college for the average kid (since tuition is essentially staying abreast of increases in debt availability), but is shifting student's future dollars to university endowments and bloated administrations.  Take any industry that has in the past been accused of preying on the financially unsophisticated by driving them into debt for profit, and universities are fifty times worse.

So of course, the Progressives in the White House and Congress (unsurprisingly Elizabeth Warren has a debt subsidy plan as well) are set to further enable this predatory behavior by universities.  By effectively capping most students' future financial obligations from student debt, this plan would remove the last vestiges of price sensitivity from the college tuition market.  Colleges can now raise tuition to infinity, knowing that the bulk of it will get paid by the taxpayer some time in the future.  Just as the college price bubble looks ready to burst, this is the one thing that could re-inflate it.

Postscript:  By the way, let's look at the numbers.  Let's suppose Mary went to a top college and ran up $225,000 in debt.  She went to work for the government, averaging $50,000 a year (much of her compensation in government is in various benefits that don't count in this calculation).  She has to live in DC, so that's expensive, and pay taxes.  Let's say that she has numbers to prove she only has $20,000 left after essential living expenses.  10% of that for 10 years is $20,000 (or about $13,500 present value at 8%).  So Mary pays less than $20,000 for her education, and the taxpayer pays $205,000.  The university makes a handsome profit - in fact they might have given her financial aid or a lower tuition, but why bother?  Mary doesn't care what her tuition is any more, because she is capped at around $20,000.  The taxpayer is paying the rest and is not involved in the least in choosing the university or setting prices, so why not charge the taxpayer as much as they can?

Postscript #2:  It is hard to figure out exactly what Elizabeth Warren is proposing, as most of her proposal is worded so as to take a potshot at banks rather than actually lay out a student loan plan.  But it appears that she wants to reduce student loan interest rates for one year.  If so, how is this different from teaser rates on credit cards, where folks -- like Elizabeth Warren -- accuse credit card companies of tricking borrowers into debt with low initial, temporary rates.  I  find it  a simply astounding sign of the bizarre times we live in that a leading anti-bank progressive is working on legislative strategies to get 18-year-olds further into debt.

The Shifting Concept of "Dystopian"

Some professors are arguing about online education.  I will not comment on that particular topic right now, though it sounds a bit like two apatosauruses arguing about whether they should be worried about the comet they just saw.

I did, however, want to comment on this, from an SJSU professor to a Harvard professor, I assume pushing back on online course work designed by Harvard.  Emphasis added.

what kind of message are we sending our students if we tell them that they should best learn what justice is by listening to the reflections of the largely white student population from a privileged institution like Harvard? Our very diverse students gain far more when their own experience is central to the course and when they are learning from our own very diverse faculty, who bring their varied perspectives to the content of courses that bear on social justice…

having our students read a variety of texts, perhaps including your own, is far superior to having them listen to your lectures. This is especially important for a digital generation that reads far too little. If we can do something as educators we would like to increase literacy, not decrease it…the thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary — something out of a dystopian novel

I would have said that teaching social justice at all and requiring students to take it at many universities was something out of a dystopian novel.  In fact, the whole concept of social justice, wherein it is justified that certain groups can use the coercive force of government to get whatever they may fancy merely by declaring that there is a right to it (e.g. health care), actually underlies a number of dystopian novels.

Postscript #1:  If find it hilarious that the SJSU rejects Harvard-created course materials because they are the product of white privilege.  I cannot speak to Harvard undergrad, but my son is at Amherst which could certainly be lumped into the same category (any college named after an early proponent of biological warfare against Native Americans has to be up there in the white privilege category).  My son actually gave up his earlier plan to study history when he looked at the course catalog.  It was impossible to simply study, say, the political and economic history of Western Europe.  All the courses are such things as "the role of women in the development of Paraguayan aboriginal rights."

Postscript #2:  I don't have the larger context for this letter but it strikes me the professor is stuck in the typical leftist technocratic top-down and centralized single mandated approach to anything.  Why is it that online courses would end up with no viewpoint or content competition?  The Internet has increased the access of most people to a diversity of ideas that go beyond what they got in the morning fish-wrap and from Uncle Walter on TV.  Why would it have the opposite effect in education?  Or perhaps that is what the professor is worried about, a loss of control of the education message by the current academic elite, to be feared in the same way the Left hates Fox News.

Fighting Grade Inflation

Rick Perry has an interesting post on a Texas proposal to require that college transcripts show, along with the student's grade in each class, the average grade in the class.

I think this is an excellent idea -- simple and effective -- though I am not big on a state mandate on private institutions but this is totally reasonable for public institutions and would likely force private colleges to follow suit voluntarily.

To the extent that colleges squeal about this, it will be entirely hypocritical.  Why?  Because colleges will not seriously consider the grades on a high school transcript in their admission process without a guide from the school listing such things as average grades.   Colleges demand exactly this type of benchmark for grades, without which a transcript would be almost meaningless.  They should not balk at providing the same.

On The Looming Death of American Football

Death by tort lawyer in 3...2...1

A Colorado jury has awarded $11.5 million in a lawsuit originally brought against helmet maker Riddell and several high school administrators and football coaches over brain injuries suffered by a teenager in 2008.” While the jury rejected the plaintiff’s claim of design defect, it accepted the theory that the helmet maker should have done more to warn of concussions.

If the helmet makers are getting nailed, wait until every high school and college in the country is sued, not to mention the massive suit looming against the NFL.  Expect to see a debate soon, beginning in state legislatures, over tort protection for football.  Texas, for example, has several of the country's tort hellholes but if Friday night high school football is threatened, you can bet that the legislature will be moved to action.

SAT Scores Are Bad Education Evaluation Data

I am happy to see the public school system coming in for much-deserved criticism.  I don't have anything to add to this article that I have not already said about schools many times.  But I want to make one complaint about a chart used in the blog post:

sat-scores

 

SAT scores are a terrible metric for measuring academic performance over time.

First, I am not at all convinced that the test scoring does not shift over time (no WAY my son had a higher score than me, LOL).

But perhaps the most important problem is that all students don't take the SAT -- it is a choice.  Shifts in the mix of kids taking the test -- for example, if over time more kids get interested in college so that more marginal academic kids take the test -- then the scores are going to move solely based on mix shifts.  Making this more complicated, there is at least one competitive test (the ACT) which enjoys more popularity in some states than others, so the SAT will represent an incomplete and shifting geographic mix of the US.  Finally, as students have gotten smarter about this whole process**, they gravitate to the ACT or the SAT based on differing capabilities, since they test in different ways.

To me, all this makes SAT scores barely more scientific than an Internet poll.

** If you have not had a college-bound student recently, you will have to trust me on this, but parents can spend an astounding amount of time trying to out-think this stuff.  And that is here in flyover country.  Apparently private school parents on the East Coast can be absurd (up to and including hiring consultants for 6 figures).  A few years ago it was in vogue to try to find your kid a unique avocation.  Violin was passe -- I knew kids playing xylophone and the bagpipes.  A friend of mine at a high profile DC private school used to have fun with other parents telling them his son was a national champion at falconry, the craziest thing he could make up on the spur of the moment at a cocktail party.  Other parents would sigh enviously, wishing they had thought of that one for their kid.

+1 For Twilight Struggle

I have written before about how much I enjoy the physical board game Twilight Struggle.  This is not really going out on a limb, since it has occupied the #1 spot at BoardGameGeek for a while.  But over the last 3 months my son and I became totally addicted.  He is at college, but we played online via the terrific Twilight Struggle add-on in the VASSAL gaming engine  (all free).  Very highly recommended.

Why the Government is Bankrupt

I couldn't resist clicking through to this article supposedly laying out a "trend" that increasing numbers of women were finding "sugar daddies" to pay for college.  I was considering an article calling BS on the whole trend when my attention was diverted.  I found the best single-statement illustration of the attitude that is bankrupting this nation.   First, the basic story:

Nearly 300 NYU co-eds joined the site’s service last year seeking a “mutually beneficial” arrangement with rich older men — a 154 percent jump over 2011.

It was the second-highest number of new members for any college in the country.

Hundreds more young women from Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities also have recently signed up for the service, the site said.

“I’ll admit that I’ve thought about doing something like that,” said a Columbia junior who gave only her first name, Karen.

“It would be easier in some ways than working, taking classes and then spending years paying back loans.”

The writer is obviously trying to get me to be outraged, but all I can do is shrug.  There are a lot of worse things in the world to worry about than people entering into "mutually beneficial relationships."   But this is the line that stopped me short:

“Clearly, we need more financial aid if those are the lengths people are going to pay for school,” sniffed Ashley Thaxton, 20, an NYU theater major.

God, is there ever going to be  a non-problem that doesn't require more government spending.  How about lowering tuition?  Cutting back on bloated administrative staffs?  Eliminating useless academic departments?  Channeling less money to the football team?  Or how about we just accept that some people make personal choices that might be distasteful to us, but are really their own god damned business.

Claiming to Find One Variable That Explains Absolutely Everything in a Complex System

Of late I have been seeing a lot of examples of people trying to claim that complex, even chaotic multi-variable systems are in fact driven by a single variable.  Whether it be CO2 in climate or government spending in Keynesian views of the economy, this over-simplification seems to be a hubris that is increasingly popular.

The worst example I believe I have ever seen of this was in the editorial page today in the Arizona Republic.  Titled Arizona vs. Massachusetts,  this article purports to blame everything from Arizona's higher number of drunk driving accidents to its higher number of rapes on ... the fact that Arizona has lower taxes.  I kid you not:

In the absence of discernible benefits, higher taxes are indeed a negative. We would all like to keep more of what we earn. That is, if there are not other negative consequences. So, it is reasonable to ask: What do Massachusetts citizens get for these increased public expenditures? A wide range of measures from widely disparate sources provide insight into the hidden costs of a single-minded obsession with lower taxes at all costs.

The results of such an investigation are revealing: Overall, Massachusetts residents earn significantly higher salaries and are less likely to be unemployed than those who live in Arizona. Their homes are less likely to be foreclosed on. Their residents are healthier and are better educated, have a lower risk of being murdered, getting killed in a car accident or getting shot by a firearm than are Arizonans. Perhaps these factors explain the lower suicide rate in Massachusetts than in Arizona as well as the longer life spans.

None of this supposed causation is based on the smallest scrap of evidence, other than the spurious correlation that Arizona has lower taxes at the same time it has more of the bad things the authors don't like.  The authors do not even attempt to explain why, out of the thousands of variables that might have an impact on these disparities, that taxation levels are the key driver, or are even relevant.

Perhaps most importantly, the authors somehow fail to even mention the word demographics.  Now, readers know that I am not very happy with Arizona Conservatives that lament the loss here of the Anglo-Saxon mono-culture.   I think immigration is healthy, and find some of the unique cultures in the state, such as on the large tribal reservations, to make the state more interesting.

However, it is undeniable that these demographic differences create wildly different cultures between Arizona and Massachusetts, and that these differences have an enormous impact on the outcomes the authors describe.  For example, given the large number of new immigrants in this state, many of whom come here poor and unable to speak English, one would expect our state to lag in economic averages and education outcomes when compared to a state populated by daughters of the revolution and the kids of college professors (see immigration data at end of post).  This is made worse by the fact that idiotic US immigration law forces many of these immigrants underground, as it is far harder to earn a good income, get an education, or have access to health care when one does not have legal status.  (This is indeed one area AZ is demonstrably worse than MA, with our Joe-Arpaio-type fixation on harassing illegal immigrants).

By the way, it turns out Arizona actually does pretty well with Hispanic students vs. Massachusetts  -- our high school graduation rate for Hispanics is actually 10 points higher than in MA (our graduation rate for blacks is higher too).  But since both numbers are so far below white students, the heavy mix of Hispanic students brings down Arizona's total average vs. MA.   If you don't understand this issue of how one state can do better than another on many demographic categories but still do worse on average because of a more difficult demographic mix, then you shouldn't be writing on this topic.

Further, the large swaths of this state that are part of various Indian nations complicate the picture.  AZ has by far the largest area under the management of tribal nations in the country -- in fact, almost half the tribal land in the country is in this one state.  These tribal areas typically add a lot of poverty, poor education outcomes, and health issues to the Arizona numbers.  Further, they are plagued with a number of tragic social problems, including alcoholism (with resulting high levels of traffic fatalities) and suicide.  But its unclear how much these are a result of Arizona state policy.   These tribal governments are their own nations with their own laws and social welfare systems, and in general fall under the purview of Federal rather than state authority.  The very real issues faced by their populations have a lot of historical causes that have exactly nothing to do with current AZ state tax policy.

The article engages in a popular sort of pseudo-science.  It drops in a lot of numbers, leaving the impression that the authors have done careful research.  In fact, I count over 50 numbers in the short piece.  The point is to dazzle the typical cognitively-challenged reader into thinking the piece is very scientific, so that its conclusions must be accepted.  But when one shakes off the awe over the statistical density, one realizes that not one of the numbers are relevant to their hypothesis: that the way Arizona runs its government is the driver of these outcome differences.

It's really not even worth going through the rest of this article in detail.  You know the authors are not even trying to be fair when they introduce things like foreclosure rates, which have about zero correlation with taxes or red/blue state models.  I lament all the negative statistics the authors cite, but it is simply insane to somehow equate these differences with the size and intrusiveness of the state.  Certainly I aspire to more intelligent government out of my state, which at times is plagued by yahoos focusing on silly social conservative bugaboos.  I am open to learning from the laboratory of 50 states we have, and hope, for example, that Arizona will start addressing its incarceration problem by decriminalizing drugs as has begun in other states.

The authors did convince me of one thing -- our state university system cannot be very good if it hires professors with this sort of analytical sloppiness.  Which is why I am glad I sent my son to college in Massachusetts.

PS- If the authors really wanted an apples to apples comparison that at least tried to find states somewhat more demographically similar to Arizona, they could have tried comparing AZ to California and Texas.  I would love for them to explain how well the blue state tax heavy model is working in CA.  After all, they tax even more than MA, so things must be even better there, right?  I do think that other states like Texas are better at implementing aspects of the red-state model and do better with education for example.  You won't get any argument from me that the public schools here are not great (though I work with several Charter schools which are fabulous).  For some reason, people in AZ, including upper middle class white families, are less passionate on average about education than folks in other states I have lived.  I am not sure why, but this cultural element is not necessarily fixable by higher taxes.

Update- MA supporters will argue, correctly, that they get a lot of immigration as well.  In fact, numerically, they get about the same number of immigrants as AZ.  But the nature of this immigration is totally different.  MA gets legal immigrants who are highly educated and who come over on corporate or university-sponsored visa programs.  Arizona gets a large number of illegal immigrants who get across the border with a suitcase and no English skills.  The per-person median household income for MA immigrants in 2010 was $16,682 (source).  The per-person median household income for AZ immigrants was $9,716.  35.3% of AZ immigrants did not finish high school, while only 15.4% of MA immigrants have less than a high school degree.  48% of AZ immigrants are estimated to be illegal, while only 19% of those in MA are illegal.  11% of Arizonans self-report that they speak English not at all, vs. just 6.7% for MA (source).

Teach for America

One of the charities my family supports is Teach for America.  Among other things, we sponsor a local teacher in the program.  A bunch of our friends were kind enough to chip in with gifts for the kids in her class and my wife and I delivered them last week at the Phoenix Collegiate Academy, a charter school in South Phoenix for 5-8 graders.

The fun of delivering the presents was reduced later on finding out that at almost that same moment, another group of kids was being killed in Connecticut.  But through a strange series of articles that seemed to have used the Sandy Hook massacre as an argument for teacher unionization and against charter schools (yeah, I don't get the connection either), I found out that teachers unions hate Teach for America.  Which means that I will likely double my contribution next year.

Postscript:  Teach for America began as a senior thesis at Princeton.  Its key idea is to make teaching a viable job option, as least for a few years, for top college grads.  The program is quite selective, and combines talented highly motivated young people with a proven teaching approach.  They then drop these teachers into the public school system, often in classrooms with a high percentage of kids who qualify for school lunch programs (ie low income).

It's clear from the article that teachers union and education establishment types hate these teachers.  Since they make a contrast by calling themselves "professionals", the presumed implication is that these young people are unprofessional.  Its amazing to me that anyone who has spent even ten minutes in a room with a group of TFA teachers could be so hostile to them.  I have met many of them, and they are a consistently amazing bunch who are both smart and genuinely love their kids.

I was skeptical, and still am a bit, of the notion of throwing great teachers into a failing public school system.  They clearly help individual kids, which is why I am still behind it, but they do nothing to help the overall system.  It's like sending great engineers into Solyndra  -- at some level, it seems like a waste (though I am impressed with this particular charter school, which seems to be doing a good job with the limited resources it has -- it gets far less money per pupil than the average public school in Phoenix but does a better job given the demographic of its students).