education


What follows is the seventh installment in a series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Part 5, Chapter 3 of Wealth of Nations.

One of the biggest misconceptions of Adam Smith is the idea that he believed unregulated free markets were perfect and ideal. While he believed the market system to be the best way to fight poverty and increase the produce of a nation, he knew that market economies were not without their faults. Specifically, Smith observed that the specialization from division of labor, while allowing the flourishing he saw in Northwest Europe at the time, has the inevitable consequence of intellectual atrophy. From this, he justified a public provision of education to promote a well-informed electorate and prevent superstitious ignorant beliefs.

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too are perhaps always the same, or very nearly same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention…He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become…the uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard, with abhorrence, the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier.

The worker whose entire life is devoted to one tiny task in the pin factory will cease to exercise the vast majority of his or her brain. This mind-numbing life is accompanied by a decrease in “marital spirit” – the desire to go to war for one’s country. Smith contrasts all of this with the people in less economically developed societies.

It is otherwise in the barbarous societies…of hunters and shepherds…invention is kept alive, and the mind is not suffered to fall into that drowsy stupidity, which, in a civilized society, seems to benumb the understanding of almost all the inferior ranks of people. In those barbarous societies, as they are called, every man, it has already been observed, is a warrior.

These societies that have yet to reach commercialization and industrialization require every person to be a jack-of-all-trades, stimulating the parts of their brain required for war, cooking, navigation, etc. It is by necessity that these people lead well-rounded lives and are always ready for battle.

In addition to the decrease in martial spirit, Smith noticed the harm this intellectual atrophy would have on society. The population would be prone to superstition and ignorance, with detrimental effects on civil institutions.

The more they are instructed, the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition, which, among ignorant nations frequently occasion the most dreadful disorders. An instructed and intelligent people, besides, are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one.

A base level of education is necessary to mitigate the dumbing effects of division of labor. (though his idea of public education is a little different than how we imagine it today). Marx even picked up on this in his description of the alienation of labor.

The complete lyrics to The Dumb Specialist:

Through division of labor, so improved and refined
With so much variety of goods I can try
And all that specialization at the cost of my mind
A few operations take all my time

And from this mindless employment, I’ll avoid and abhor
The life of a soldier, I won’t go to war

Will I forget how to read? My intellect atrophies
I’m drawn to superstition from the routine of my trade

For the hunters and shepherds, though their state is so rude
Every man is a warrior, industrious too
And all that specialization at the cost of my mind
A few operations take all my time

Mental invigoration, can I be saved? Ten years of education, I’ll be ok

 

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Discussions of higher education policy in America are structured around three assumptions: 1) a college degree is a necessary ticket to get into the middle class; 2) debt from college is crippling millennials’ financial trajectory; 3) the existing college landscape perpetuates inequality. Policies typically aim to level the playing field in terms of access and financial hardship. In order to correctly address these goals, several misconceptions about the typical college experience in America need to be corrected. The narrative commonly depicted in the media is inaccurate and counter-productive to achieving goals of equity and decreased financial duress.

Reading popular newspapers and watching adolescent hijinks movies, one gets the impression that the median American college student lives in a dorm, graduates in four years, and spends a good amount of time participating in alcohol-fueled debauchery. The years before college are wholly dedicated to gaining acceptance to that elusive elite private university. The time in between school years is spent between the promising unpaid internships and the well-paid summer gig in the big city.  But pretty much of none of this represents what one would call a typical American college experience.

By nature of being in organizations that have mass exposure, the people in Hollywood or those writing for the Washington Post and the New York Times disproportionately craft the narrative around what college in America “looks like.” While not everyone in these industries come from privilege or attended an elite university, it’s fair to say that they are relatively high-performing and many of their peers had similar experiences in college. Their view of college is one defined by four years of self-exploration, graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and a first taste at independence and adulthood.

Despite the constant discussion of what’s going on at the Ivy League universities, NYU, Berkeley, or Stanford, more than 40 percent of the undergraduates last year in America went to community colleges. How often does the New York Times do a profile of the student activities or cuts to funding at any community college? More often, there seems to be an article about how more Americans are choosing to study one particular university in Scotland; while this may be relevant to those in the New York Times newsroom and their social bubbles, we’re talking about a few hundred people a year enrolling at St Andrews. Only 62% of those attending a community college are able to attend full-time, throwing shade on the image of the idle student sleeping until noon. The wild dorm life is less common than one might think as well. Over half – yes half – of American undergraduates live at home during their studies and around 40% work 30 or more hours a week. And although the commonly pictured college student is on the cusp of their 20s ready to freshly face the world, a quarter of undergraduate students are actually older than 25, and an equal number are single parents.

Increasing student debt is placing significant burdens on graduates – and drop-outs – as they enter the labor market and eventually try to buy a home. Any level of debt of course is a higher burden for students coming from lower-income backgrounds and will discourage prospective students away from studying in the first place. But calls to have a student debt jubilee need to consider the profiles of this debt distribution. Those who hold the most debt are more likely to come from higher-income families, have additional degrees, and have a much higher lifetime income. Wiping out all student debt, in the simplest plan, would thus be much more regressive than most people realize. Lower-income students at community college would benefit from having their debts eliminated in this hypothetical situation, but most debt relief in dollar terms would actually be going towards people from higher-income families, with high future income, and with less financial burden. Assumedly, the taxpayers picking this up means a complete debt elimination would be a redistribution upward. Decreasing the financial burden of lower-income individuals in their higher education pursuits should be elevated as a policy priority – debt relief and support just needs to be targeted based on financial need rather than those with a steadier path to financial security.

Wealthy individuals love to make a philanthropic splash by giving money to build their alma mater a new library, football stadium, or dorm. But of the over $40 billion given to higher education institutions last year, nearly a quarter went to only twenty universities. Giving to Harvard to make sure the under-privileged kid can attend without paying tuition is ostensibly a noble cause, but the students that really need help are at community colleges, perennially ignored by the donor class and policymakers at large. The reality is that when elite university graduates give back to their alma mater, it’s more likely to improve the experience of someone from a middle-class background than give an underprivileged student an opportunity to succeed.

Stories about typical college life, even outside admissions and tuition costs, on things like “political correctness” again focus on campuses in that Ivy universe where only 0.4% of American students attend. Even among large universities, the actual destinations for most students are ignored in the national media narrative. During the most recent academic year, the four universities with the highest combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment were Texas A&M University, University of Central Florida, Ohio State University, and Florida International University.

When it comes to making glamorous movies or writing dramatic articles about college dreams, the focus understandably can be more centered on elite university life rather than the community college student who works in retail part-time. But if we are going to level the playing field in American higher education and improve the financial hardship of attendance, there needs to be a reality check of what the typical American college experience is. Obvious places to start would be giving community colleges need more funding, increasing childcare funding for students who are parents, and redirecting philanthropic efforts towards institutions that serve lower-income students. Without recognizing the typical student experience outside of the private/elite universities, we risk dodging the issue and potentially making it even worse.

Episode 5, all about corn subsidies, has also been posted for your enjoyment. iTunes or direct RSS feed.

My job as an in-class math tutor at a Title I middle school in Austin has come to an end. Some thoughts a week after I finished, some of which I have written about before:

  • There needs to be a new incentive system. Merit pay or bonuses based on performance have their flaws. But something definitely needs to change. Positive incentives for rewarding hard-working teachers need to be present just as much as sanctions for lazy teachers. How to fully evaluate it? I don’t know. But something needs to be done. The lack of accountability for everyone in the entire system seems outrageous.
  • The “schools” can’t be confused with the “education system.” Policy can be changed regarding teacher incentives, administration decisions, and funding. But the fact is that performance in schools reflects society as a whole, for better or for worse. In the case of my school, low-performance comes from things as broad as low English language proficiency, broken down homes, lack of finances, and overarching discipline problems that start way before the kids get to school. The welfare state solution known as the American public school system is not equipped, and frankly shouldn’t be equipped, to solve all of these problems. As such, I now know that comparing American test scores or performance to other developed countries without our cultural and lingual homogeneity or relatively small welfare state is not fair at all. Korean or Danish results cannot be expected to be replicated.
  • Apathy: it consume everyone, even the most well-intentioned. The state of American schools is so dire that even the most highly motivated person can’t help but be defeated. One amazing teacher can change many kids’ lives forever. But even then it takes 16-hour days and often times the satisfaction won’t be seen for years to come. There are so many problems with the kids that come to low-performing schools, especially in terms of behavior, that one cannot help but feel helpless against all the problems. Suddenly, it’s easy to get in the mindset of “there’s only so much I can do” that one gives up on turning the children into well-functioning members of society. Helplessness blues sets in and it’s easier to pass the kids onto the next grade than give the extra mile for the 1% chance that you make a demonstrable difference. This is tough.
  • While I still think the incentive scheme for teachers, administrators, and staff are pretty shoddy, this experience has made me blame the aforementioned personnel a lot less. From a statistical perspective, America spends so much on education and gets so little out of it. It’s easy to blame this on the monopoly of the public school system and teachers unions. There’s still a lot to be said for the detrimental effect of low school competition and the monopsony of teachers unions, but I now realize that comparing America’s performance to other countries is very much an apples and oranges comparison. The schools’ low performance is a reflection of society as a whole and not just the “system.”

NPR’s Planet Money podcast recently exposed one of the strangest yet most important point about college tuition costs today. Although college tuition has increased by gargantuan amounts in the last couple decades, this doesn’t take into account what people are actually paying.

The list price of college has definitely gone up, as Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have been talking about in their campaigns. But this doesn’t mean people are actually spending that much on it. The average sticker price of a private college is $28,500 for the current school year. What the average person pays? $12,970. That’s essentially the same as the $12,650 students paid in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2000-2oo1.

The difference between the “sticker price” and the actual cost comes from financial aid, grants, scholarships, etc – usually from the colleges/universities themselves. So what’s the deal? Pretty simple, when you think about it. You go to a store and see two seemingly similar sweaters, both priced at $30 – except one has been marked down from $50. They both look the same so you might as well take the one that was marked down, right? You assume you’re getting a $50 quality sweater for the same price as the other. Similarly, if a college is insanely expensive you think that that price is a signaling of quality of sorts. Further, giving prospective students huge grants or aid after they get in is a sneaky way to “recruit” students by convincing them that they are truly wanted at the institution.

This means that college tuition payment is fairly progressive. Those that can pay $50,000 a year are paying it. And, sometimes, those with very little money are paying close to nothing. The price of college is still a barrier financially for many, but the amount of aid given definitely needs to be taken into consideration.

I still think American colleges feature way too many frills and is too expensive nonetheless, but at least the amount paid isn’t skyrocketing as much as we think it is.

People go to college for a variety of reasons. I’d say the top 4 are:

  1. Increase human capital – education makes you more productive.
  2. Signaling device – the fact that you can get good grades, follow directions, meet deadlines, etc shows a potential employer that you can probably do the job they’d hire you for.
  3. Consumption good – education satisfies curiosities much like reading a book does.
  4. Status Symbol – college graduates enjoy prestige and avoid the social stigma of not going to college.

So why do we subsidize higher education? Well, economically speaking, increases in human capital make society more productive which everyone benefits from. That’s the traditional view of college – go there to get smart so you can get a good job and make more money. But people right away assume that an increase in productivity is what causes higher wages in workers. I tend to believe that this is much more of a correlation than a causation. Why? First, almost twice as many people are going to college today compared to a few decades ago yet we’re not really any smarter and definitely not any more productive. How could supporters of #1 above reconcile this fact?

Instead, I tend to believe that college graduates do better in terms of money and employment because of #2. If you go to a great college and/or get good grades, an employer sees you have some level of work ethic. Bryan Caplan brought up a great example:

Take me.  If I’d failed Spanish, I couldn’t have gone to a good college, wouldn’t have gotten into Princeton’s Ph.D. program, and probably wouldn’t be a professor.  But since I’ve merely forgotten my Spanish, I’m sitting in my professorial office, loving life.

The push for everyone to go to college has been misguided. Not everyone should go to college. The exorbitant cost of it today makes it very inefficient for most professions. The reason people are still going is because not getting a college education puts you behind all other applicants who are similarly skilled but have that degree on top of it. So when are people going to stop paying $200k and wasting four years for an experience that doesn’t help their productivity at all? Well hopefully sometime soon. Unfortunately though people are not only wasting that much money and time on undergraduate degrees but also going to more school by the way of graduate school. All to gain a leg up on the competition. Especially in a weak employment market getting a graduate degree can show an employer that you are fully committed to the topic of your degree and can get good grades. Often these graduate degrees can do nothing to improve your productivity.

Yes, I am intending on getting a graduate degree in the future so I am not totally innocent here. But increasingly people are going to graduate school because they don’t know what else to do and/or they just can’t find a job so it seems like a good alternative.

So will the bubble burst? I sure think so. Over 42% of Undergraduates are attending community colleges. I believe this reflects that while most people see college graduation as necessary for certain careers, spending $200k on a four-year all-things-included experience is just not financially worth it. Community colleges provide essentially the same experience as all those expensive liberal arts schools, even if they don’t have the glitz and glam. Soon, as the costs of college get to the point where the wage benefits are exceeded by the time and money of college attendance, people will realize the stupidity and go to more community colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeships.

Bottom line: the government shouldn’t be subsidizing higher education. It only over-saturates the market of college students and makes college even more expensive.

I have always been pretty in favor of legal immigration. The most relevant immigration debate in America, of course, is Mexican immigration. The “data” shows that immigrants provide a benefit to the American economy as a whole. Any claims of job-stealing seems to be overpowered by the net impact immigrants have on the overall economy. Most importantly, the immigrants themselves are so much better off that any employment loss to natural-born Americans seems to be trivial from an overall human welfare standpoint. But I have come to see a different side of Mexican immigration in my current job. First hand I can see the frictions that widespread Mexican immigration can cause in a city like Austin.

75% or so of the students at my school are Hispanic, almost all second or first generation Mexican immigrants. What this means is that a significant portion of the students have parents that know little to no English. This means that communication between the teachers/faculty and parents can be very difficult. It also means that the kids are learning an English that is dumbed-down and almost never reading English.

The school of course accommodates this by providing bilingual classes and sending any note home in English and Spanish. But the English illiteracy is probably the greatest hurdle to overcome in the Title I school where I work. While the children are relatively competent at math operations, when it comes to word problems they can do almost nothing. “Plot” as in “plot the coordinates on the grid” means something totally different than “plot” as in the direction of a story. Without speaking anything close to academic English outside of school, how are they supposed to pick up on this difference?

The important thing for policy is how to adapt to this. It makes sense to have bilingual classes. But it crossed my mind that this gives too much of a coddling atmosphere to immigrants. Move to America and don’t worry if you don’t try your best to learn English – the “system” will take care of it. The public school system is obviously largely funded by the parents not sending their kids to these bad schools. Is it right for immigrants to be able to move to America and assume that public schools will do everything they can to make sure your kid can get by in an English-speaking America? The alternative I suppose would be to do everything at school in English. No flexibility for Spanish speakers. You can’t use dictionaries on standardized tests, we won’t have bilingual classes, and if you don’t get the English we’re speaking you better do something about it.

This would inevitably cause some kids who are so illiterate in English to just totally get discouraged and lose all hope. Inevitably these kids end up being picked up by “the system” anyways through welfare and what not. I think this would be bad and pretty wrong from a social justice perspective.

But the fact still remains – the lack of English proficiency of the students at my school is the source of a tremendous amount of resources and teacher-time. Is it right for any immigrant to move to America – legally or not – and expect the government-run system of public schools to totally acclimate their children and prepare them to be successful in an English-speaking America?

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