Reader Response

A friend of mine penned a response to my post calling for a dramatic expansion of universities to put a dent in inequality. It’s reproduced below with his permission.


While expanding access to large public institutions (such as UCLA) is certainly one method of improving social mobility in a society, the sheer size of such institutions unfortunately inhibits many of the extremely positive attributes that smaller, typically private institutions have. There are two primary reasons for this.

First, social capital – in the form of close bonds to alumni, professors, and peers – is much harder to achieve at large public institutions, partly because the number of alumni, professors, and students leads to a diminished sense of individual ownership and investment in the institution; large public universities don’t need your involvement to succeed since there are so many other successful alumni, whereas a small college can only succeed if every alumni is engaged and giving back, forcing greater effort on both the institution’s part and on the part of its constituents. This fosters a greater number of connections in general and, more importantly, a greater number of close connections, which have a strong tendency of leading to explicit financial benefits – internships, jobs, and investments – as well as benefits that simply improve quality of life, such as meaningful friendships and relationships. Individualized attention in the form of mentorship, guidance, and connection is incredibly difficult to achieve on a large institutional scale (i.e. auditorium-size classes) but much more doable on a small scale – this is also the reason why large conferences tend to be less impactful than intimate retreats.

Second, homogeneous cultures and rigid operating procedures typical of larger institutions limit innovation. Large public institutions have many more moving parts and immense oversight given the brand names they carry (and the huge amount of public funding they receive), meaning that they are unable to move quickly when student needs rapidly change.

Instead of expanding our large public institutions, states might find it more advantageous to fund small, highly-specialized public institutions with independent cultures and operating procedures. These small institutions could operate in a consortium model with other small public institutions nearby (i.e. the Claremont model or the Babson/Olin/Wellesley model), sharing resources while maintaining institutional independence and nimbleness. Public university systems could thus reap the benefits typically found at exclusive liberal arts institutions while maintaining a high level of scale and accessibility.


I have to admit, the consortium model did not cross my mind when I wrote my piece. The five C’s and Babson/Olin/Wellesley are all thriving institutions, so it’s worth examining whether their construction allows us to get the best of both educational access and quality.

More admissions foolery

UCLA conducted an internal report on quid-pro-quo athletic admissions way back in 2014.

It looks a lot like what happened last March. Underqualified athletes, large sums of money, a lack of transparency in the athletic admissions department. Hell, even Rick Singer was implicated. He was quoted in the report trying to claim money does not influence the application process.

The only difference this time is that the donations found their way into university accounts as opposed to sham charities or the pockets of coaches. This is why nobody received more than a slap on the wrist and no laws were broken.

Colonial Massachusetts education facts of the day

All of the following is from David Labaree’s Someone Has to Fail which I am working through now. All emphasis is added.

Only in new England was there a systematic effort by colonial governments to establish schools for all (white) members of a community. Boston established a public Latin school in 1635, only fifteen years after the Mayflower, and Harvard College was chartered in 1636. In 1647, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law requiring that towns of a certain size should establish a primary school and that larger towns should also establish a grammar school. Other colonies in New England gradually followed suit by requiring the public provision of schooling in local communities.


These efforts to provide education in the American colonies had a significant impact on the literacy of the population, especially in New England. […] male literacy in New England reached 60 percent in 1660, 70 percent in 1710, 85 percent in 1760, and 90 percent in 1790. In contrast, male literacy among non-slaves in other colonies remained constant at around 67 percent throughout the 1700s. This was slightly higher than estimates for male literacy in England during the same period, which hovered around 60 percent, but markedly lower than New England, which may have been the first region in the world to achieve something approaching universal literacy in its white male population. [1]


[…] the major factor that promoted schooling in New England during this period was the intensity of the community’s commitment to the Protestant religion, especially the Puritan version that characterized the original English immigrants to the region.


At the core of the Protestant faith —especially the Calvinist version— was the belief that worshipers had a direct connection to God, which, in contrast with the Catholic belief, was not mediated by the church and its priesthood. As a result, the faithful could not afford to be left illiterate, which would make them dependent on a literate clergy to interpret and transmit the gospel. Instead they needed direct access to the word of God in order to maintain their faith, and this required learning how to read. Therefore, at the heart of the push for schooling in colonial America was a profoundly conservative vision of education’s mission: to preserve piety and maintain the faith.

For all of the criticism that religion endures in some circles, it was directly responsible for the emphasis on education that set the stage for America to become a wealthy industrialized nation.

Louis Vuitton Education

In light of the college admissions scandal, I’ve been thinking about the roles we expect our educational institutions to fulfill. We are repulsed by the those who sought to lie, bribe, and cheat their way into schools because we see education as a tool of social mobility. Typical American success stories often look like an immigrant/child of immigrants working their way through the educational system during their youth to land at an elite college with a ticket to the upper-middle class. Think Ben Carson or Shaan Patel.

Yet, why should we reasonably expect top-tier private universities to give economic opportunities to those that need them the most? It is true they have a moral/civic obligation to do so, but it does not fall exactly in line with their demonstrated goals. Big name schools want to retain prestige and power while doing what is necessary to avoid scrutiny.

This corresponds to what I will call the “Louis Vuitton” theory of higher education (stolen from Malcolm Gladwell in a conversation with Tyler Cowen).

Restricting supply is a surefire way to increase the price/value of a product if you’re a monopoly, or participate in what economists call “monopolistic competition,” which is what happens if you sell differentiated products of the same type. Louis Vuitton could sell many more bags than it already does, but then it would charge lower prices and be in the “commodity bad business” as Gladwell quips. Any monopolist knows she will make more money by reducing the accessibility of the product and waiting for the price to rise. This benefits consumers as well, if they can get their hands on a bag. Gladwell, and others, surely understands that part of the thrill of owning a luxury item is knowing few others have it. It’s the reason fashion companies charge exorbitant amounts for their products and destroy unsold merchandise.

I’m going to pick on Harvard. It’s safe to assume it wants to remain the best, most prestigious university in the world. Yet, prestige is inversely proportional to access. The reason why a Harvard undergraduate degree is so valuable is due in part because 96% of students who apply to get one do not. Any increase in the number of degrees awarded would decrease their value. Imagine if Harvard enrolled as many undergraduates as Ohio State or the University of Florida. 45,000 other students in your graduating class would surely put downward pressure on the perceived prestige of your degree.

Harvard, and other elite private universities, are “in the luxury handbag business, not the education business” according to Gladwell. This is the reason why enrollments are small and the price to get in —whether you’re paying indirectly by living in a good school district, paying private school tuition, hiring tutors, or bribing— is high. On the flipside, this confers huge benefits in the form of better future earnings prospects and increased social status to those that can finesse their way into a hyper-selective institution.

When you recognize some colleges behave like fashion houses, it seems downright irrational to expect elite private institutions to provide social mobility for Americans on the scale we desire. Even if they do commit to increasing the proportion of low-income undergraduates under threat of having their federal funding pulled, increasing percentages can only get you so far. There are still no incentives for these schools to dramatically increase their access.

It’s not like Harvard faces non-brand related barriers to expanding its educational reach, either. UCLA has an undergraduate enrollment of 32,000 on a campus of 419 acres. Harvard’s 6,500 undergraduates roam 567 acres, meaning space is definitely not an issue (UCLA is actually building even more dorms outside my window right now). Money is another restraint, to be sure, but I’d be skeptical of any financial excuses from a university that has a $40 billion endowment and just closed a $9.6 billion fundraising campaign. Yet, Harvard retains the status quo for the same reason LV doesn’t open a surplus store. You have to protect the brand.

Suppose Harvard increases the percentage of undergraduates from the bottom 20% of the income distribution to 25%, from where it currently stands at 4.5%. This is a jump from 292 to 1625 students from the bottom quintile of income. These numbers may seem impressive until you consider UCLA already educates 2656 students in the same economic bracket without having to undergo any significant demographic change in their undergraduate population.

Given, UCLA and other public universities are about five times as large their private elite counterparts, but this is exactly my point. I’ve written in the past about the educational limitations of massive public universities —and I stand by those views— but it appears institutions like those making up the University of California or the SUNY/CUNY system are the ones we should be paying attention to if we want the average American to be able to exercise some type of economic mobility. They do not fall prey to Louis Vuitton incentives and seem to understand they are providing a public good which entails occasional dings to their prestige. It’s never sexy to build bridges or roads or educate a poor student body, but nobody will argue these activities don’t serve vital long-term economic functions.

Public institutions actually have a chance of touching enough students to make anything resembling a dent in income inequality, and they’re good at it. In data compiled by the NY Times, 8 out of the top 10 colleges nationally with the highest social mobility index are public (Vaugh college, what I linked to, is private, but scroll down to the social mobility index row and click “all colleges” on the right hand side to see the top 10). Students going to these universities aren’t discussing heady political theory in an Ivy League seminar room, but the economic expected value of the average low-income individual applying to the City College of New York is much higher than submitting to Brown or Dartmouth.  

Dylan Mathews, writing for Vox, seems to recognize what a school that’s serious about social mobility would look like when he throws out that Harvard should double, or nearly triple its undergraduate enrollment to move the needle on poverty. The implicit statement is that a high percentage of low-income students is not enough, but an independently large number of such students must be graduating every year. Yet, some well-placed italics in the preceding clause, “if [Harvard] really wanted to expand the school’s impact on poverty and mobility,” indicate that he understands the Louis Vuitton mentality in higher education more than most. Mathews’ statement is a throwaway bit in an article about making a bad system transparent, but not better, by auctioning off spots to Ivies and the like. Princeton could accept these legal or illegal admission payments in ExxonMobil stock or bitcoin for all I care. Large public universities are the real engine of social mobility in the America. They are the way to realize the visions of opportunity we irrationally vest in private institutions.

[]’s take on the education system

Great little interview with a psychologist on how he believes our education system is failing us.  

To be honest, you’ve probably heard it all before if you’re a current or recent student. Our collective obsession with standardized tests has crowded out the focus we should be providing on qualities like creativity, practical problem-solving, and ethical reasoning.

Even though I’ve heard people give the same diagnoses for our educational system, this article was interesting in part because the interviewee, Robert Sternberg, claimed that we should add wisdom to the list of skills —like creativity— that should be taught in school. It made my ears perk up to hear this coming from a bona fide scientist rather than a philosopher or cultural critic. An excerpt:

(bold is the questioner)

Our overemphasis on narrow academic skills—the kinds that get you high grades in school—can be a bad thing for several reasons. You end up with people who are good at taking tests and fiddling with phones and computers, and those are good skills, but they are not tantamount to the skills we need to make the world a better place.


Do we know how to cultivate wisdom?
Yes, we do. A whole bunch of my colleagues and I study wisdom. Wisdom is about using your abilities and knowledge not just for your own selfish ends and for people like you. It’s about using them to help achieve a common good by balancing your own interests with other people’s and with high-order interests through the infusion of positive ethical values.

The division between technical competencies and a type of “soft” reasoning ability reminds me of a distinction that philosophers have made for centuries. In a nutshell, there are two types of reasoning, or “rationalities:” Instrumental and intrinsic. Instrumental rationality concerns itself with selecting the best means to achieve a given end. For example, the road tripper who is figuring out the best arrangement to pack her gear in her trunk so everything will fit is exercising instrumental rationality. Intrinsic rationality deals with setting the goals/ends an actor may strive towards. If the same road tripper deliberates between driving to Yosemite or Las Vegas, she exercises intrinsic rationality in weighing how much she values sweeping vistas of mountains and forests versus casinos.

In this view, the critique against modern schooling seems to be that we’re getting really good at cultivating certain types of instrumental thinking in students, but are ignoring all things intrinsic. Students may be damn good on the ACT, but they can’t be counted on to think ethically or make value judgements unless those are already given. This, coupled with the fact that the institutions our students spend the majority their time in tend to emphasize performance and prestige above all else, leads to an environment that is successful at producing “people who are very good at advancing themselves, often at other people’s expense,” according to Sternberg.

Obviously, this needs to change, but the conversation gets weird to me when we look hard about how Sternberg conceives of the “ethical reasoning” that seems to be part of his conception of wisdom. Rather than describe something that resembles reasoning about ethics and morals, he seems to say we should take those as givens and think about how to implement them.  

Basically, ethical reasoning involves eight steps: [1] seeing that there’s a problem to deal with (say, you see your roommate cheat on an assignment); [2] identifying it as an ethical problem; [3] seeing it as a large enough problem to be worth your attention (it’s not like he’s just one mile over the speed limit); [4] seeing it as personally relevant; [5] thinking about what ethical rules apply; [6] thinking about how to apply them; [7] thinking, “What are the consequences of acting ethically?”—because people who act ethically usually don’t get rewarded; [8] and, finally, acting. What I’ve argued is that ethical reasoning is really hard. Most people don’t make it through all eight steps.

(numbers added)

This is beginning to look a lot like the instrumental rationality that we’re trying to escape from, especially the “what’s in it for me?” mentality that sneaks through in step 7. Sternberg seems to think our students are receiving the correct ethical principles already, and following an 8-point plan is all that is necessary. This description of what needs to happen doesn’t quite explain the presence of the social ills he wants to combat, unless you believe that people do have socially constructive values, but something goes wrong in the Sternberg 8-point™ plan so they never end up acting on them. This is possible, but it is much easier to explain the same phenomena as originating from deficient values/lack thereof as opposed to thinking everyone is a saint on the inside but can’t make the connection between [4] and [5], for example.

In any common-sense conception of wisdom, critical thinking plays a large part. Questioning the “ends” is part of what makes intrinsic rationality such an interesting concept, and potentially useful (instrumental — hah!) in achieving what Sternberg wants to. Rather than banking on our educational institutions to provide us with the correct values off the bat, we can task our students to engage in a little bit of intrinsic rationality and interrogate the ideas they come across. Hopefully, after reflection and a bit of adolescent angst, they arrive on the side of altruism, curiosity, civic engagement, and a deep concern for the well-being of the world, rather than the tribalism Sternberg describes.

Perhaps Sternberg is using “wisdom” and in a sense different than mine, but I’ll claim his idea of it doesn’t look like the wisdom we want. Part of wisdom is indeed using your “abilities not just for your own selfish ends,” yet, the decision to be altruistic must be a result of autonomous reasoning as opposed to the internalization of dogma that only happens to be constructive

How to Make it as a Millennial

The New 30-Somethings (came to my attention courtesy of a good friend).

This article is great. It ties together a lot of things I’m personally interested in. Stagnating wages, the residue of the great recession, intergenerational wealth, insane real estate prices, student loans, the cost of lower-education, and parental dependence.

The informal synopsis is that millennials are fucked because they are encountering all of these things at once. The paradigmatic millennial took out student loans to attend college, graduated in the midst of the great recession, has seen no real growth in wages, lives parsimoniously in NY, LA, SF, etc… can’t afford rent, is raising a kid, can’t afford preschool either, but scrapes by on the assistance of their boomer parents. ‘Rental financial assistance allows them to purchase real estate and maintain a high-ish standard of living when traditional financial life milestones like paying off student loans or putting a down payment on a house would otherwise be unachievable.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

As one economic analysis concluded recently: “For Americans under the age of 40, the 21st century has resembled one long recession.”


On average, each millennial parent receives $11,011 per year in combined financial support and unpaid labor, the 2017 TD Ameritrade Millennial Parents Survey found, for an annual total of $253 billion in America.

[back of the napkin math reveals this to be ~2.2% of GDP]

“Education is incredibly expensive and keeps going up, but grandparents feel very strongly about their grandchildren having a good education,” said Dana Haddad, who runs New York Admissions, an education consultancy that works with children starting at 10 months.

10 months!! The rat race is starting earlier and earlier. The article doesn’t push this point, but I believe it’s the case we can attribute much of the competition and insanity surrounding American higher education to the financial insecurity faced by recent college grads. The plight of the millennials makes this extra salient.

While it’s true that families with means have always helped their children (discreetly or not), what’s different today is that as the economy has more extreme gyrations and wages flatten, family wealth plays an outsize role in helping people get ahead, said Chuck Collins, a scion of the Oscar Mayer food corporation and the author of “Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good.”

Sudden, unexpected gain in respect for a sausage heir.

So last year Ms. Alvarez’s parents surprised her with a $50,000 cash gift to help with a down payment on a $435,000 condo three blocks from the beach in San Diego. “I grew up middle-class, and my parents immigrated from Cuba,” she said. “They saw that I’ve worked hard but also that I had the bad luck to graduate into the 2008 recession

Millennials aren’t lazy. They’re just unlucky to come-of-age during a recession and but are fortunate to have parents that earned when there wasn’t one.

[these transfers of wealth] create a distorted idea of what it takes to attain success and what financial milestones are actually achievable if you are starting from zero or less.


If this article isn’t terrifying, you either have a boomer parent or are majoring in CS/engineering. We’re becoming more financially dependent on our parents than we’ve ever been. Beyond the economic woes the article directly addresses, I see this as threatening the supposed autonomy in young adulthood that is necessary to establish a complete person.

Being bankrolled by your parents is nice, but it comes at a cost to your agency. How can you really develop your own thoughts/opinions if you need to make nice with your parents so they’ll pay your way through school? How can you truly explore your interests if there is financial pressure to pick a high-paying degree? In a more extreme case mentioned in the article, how can you ensure the best education for your child if your parents are footing the bill for their tuition?

A perpetual antagonistic relationship with your parents is bad, but if you’ve never really pissed them off I maintain you’re doing something wrong. Economic freedom is necessary for our development as autonomous, responsible agents. Young people taking risks in their 20s also fuels economic growth, raising the general standard of living and creating enormous wealth — problems of distribution aside.

This article’s prognosis is grim. It’s easy, and even rational, to read this as a student and decide to double down on academic competition and credentialism to ensure your financial security. Yet, it doesn’t have to be like this. I am idealistic, but also optimistic. A solution should be reachable, but currently it is a mystery to me.

Online Schools

The Rise of the Mega-University

The gist is that a few players (some traditional universities branching out online, some purely virtual) are achieving massive enrollment numbers.

 Graph contained in the article. Graph contained in the article.

They are doing this mainly by serving working adults with some or no college that want to expand their career prospects.

“the higher-education value proposition is all around the most inexpensive education and certification that will get me a job,” says Susan Grajek, vice president for communities and research at Educause


“For our adult learners online, it’s ‘Get me a credential that will get me unstuck, that will get me a better job,’ ”

This credential aspect is also what seems to have given the traditional universities that offer online programs an advantage over the Courseras/Udacities/Udemys of the world.

At one point, free online education was supposed to pose an existential threat to brick-and-mortar institutions — remember massive open online courses? But the MOOC revolution collapsed in part because the courses typically didn’t connect to credentials that employers, or students, valued.

My biggest question for these online programs is whether employers recognize the credentials. How do I value a full bachelor of science in economics offered online? Do these degrees actually get working adults “unstuck” from their current position? The tuition ain’t cheap either. Fees for an online academic year at Arizona State are $12,702. University of Oregon’s yearly in-state tuition is $11,898. Given, you don’t have to pay for room and board while pursuing an online degree, but I assume you’re going to be living and eating somewhere while doing schoolwork. At least for full bachelor’s, it seems like your local state university is still a relatively good economic deal.

I also think it’s interesting how we’re seeing online education specialize. It seems like some of the fears surrounding the death of the university via the internet are overblown, as digital degrees are most useful as tools of economic advancement to those already in the workforce rather than substitutes for what a high schooler should do after graduation. Traditional universities shouldn’t get comfortable though. Just because a competitor is successful in a demographic other than your own doesn’t mean they can’t enter it one day. I personally believe the 4-year live-on-campus-talk-with-real-people-go-to-class model will always have superior potential, but some institutions act like they want it to go unrealized.

The physical, tangible aspect is what will always separate ASU Online from University of Arizona, Tuscon for example. Brick-and-mortar institutions should invest real money into getting undergraduates talking among themselves and with their professors. Being able to have free and spontaneous exchanges with your teachers and peers has immeasurable value in the idealistic intellectual sense, and the professional.


Often and often, a marriage hardly differs from prostitution except by being harder to escape from

-Bertrand Russel, Proposed Roads to Freedom

What’s at stake in LA

Apparently, public schools in LA used to be good. I’ve heard anecdotally from adults that LAUSD schools are notoriously shitty, and that’s why there are so many private schools in LA proper and the valley. All of the good public schools are now south in the Irvine area.

The article also posits a charter school conspiracy headed by Eli Broad.

In Los Angeles, they have had more success. After his plan to move half of the Los Angeles district students into charter schools failed to get traction, the billionaire and charter school supporter Eli Broad and a group of allies spent almost $10 million in 2017 to win a majority on the school board. The board rammed through the appointment of a superintendent, Austin Beutner, with no educational background. Mr. Beutner, a former investment banker, is the seventh in 10 years and has proposed dividing the district into 32 “networks,” a so-called portfolio plan designed in part by the consultant who engineered the radical restructuring of Newark schools.

Their alleged goal is to get the LAUSD to implode from within so charter schools seem more attractive by comparison.

Personally, I think Southern California embodies the worst of modern education systems in different ways. You can take your pick between underfunded public schools, private/charter schools oozing with privilege (Harvard-Westlake, Marymount, Pacific Palisades), or the hyper-competitive public schools where the average GPA is 4.8 and if you’re not taking 6 AP classes your sophomore year, you may as well not apply to college.

Depending on how long this strike lasts, I really want to head downtown and lend some support to the teachers.