Totally unqualified students were admitted to our most intellectually rigorous universities based on bribes…

… yet none of the unqualified admittees had any difficulty in doing the required coursework or graduating, perhaps with honors.

“College bribery scandal: students sue elite schools in class action” (Guardian) says that second-rate students went to Yale and Stanford, for example, but there is no mention of them encountering any struggles with the academics.


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Admissions fraud layered on top of the existing American college fraud

A professor friend’s Facebook post:

A game: name a worse investment than spending $6.5M to get your kid into college.

“College Admissions Scandal: Actresses, Business Leaders and Other Wealthy Parents Charged” (nytimes) has all of my academic friends excited.

(One interesting aspect is that the people involved are charged with “racketeering,” a crime that was defined to apply to mobsters. Presumably these folks are guilty of something, but it doesn’t seem like a Godfather-style situation. We will find out that the people are facing potentially epic-length prison sentences?)

The American undergraduate education system is already mostly a fraud, in the sense that families pay a lot, but students may not learn anything (see my review of Academically Adrift, in which Collegiate Learning Assessment scores, before and after attending college, are discussed; see also Higher Education?).

[Why a “fraud”? If Honda sold cars at $30,000 and half did not function for transportation people would say “Honda is a fraud.” But a liberal arts college may charge $300,000 for four years of tuition and produce quite a few graduates whose thinking and writing abilities are no better than they were when those folks entered as freshmen. So why not hold the college to the same standard that we would hold Honda?]

Could we use this as an opportunity to motivate folks to fix a fundamentally broken system?

Currently, since there is no agreed-upon measure of achievement in college, graduating with a label from a prestige university is critical. Nobody seems to care that, with the exception of a school such as Caltech, it is almost impossible not to graduate once admitted.

The result is huge pressure on the admissions process. When U.S. population was under 100 million, almost anyone with money could go to an Ivy League college. In my youth, when U.S. population was just over 200 million and international students were rare, any American who was reasonably intelligent and worked hard in high school could attend a top school. Now that we’re heading toward 400 million (Atlantic), parents will be ever more tempted to take extreme measures to assure their children’s futures.

Complicating matters is that virtuous Americans agree that the system actually should be rigged. See “Turns Out There’s a Proper Way to Buy Your Kid a College Slot,” from the righteous editorial board of the NY Times:

And colleges have a legitimate interest in emphasizing various forms of diversity. But it seems safe to stipulate that being born to wealthy parents is not by itself meritorious.

In other words, it is legitimate to base admission on criteria other than academic achievement (“various forms of diversity”). But then the authors say that it is illegitimate to favor children from wealthy families. Every reasonable person can agree that the scales should be tilted and, even better, every reasonable person will recognize a set of universal moral principles that can guide the tilting.

Could we take some of the pressure off young Americans who will be entering a crowded-like-Asia adult world? Why not a set of national examinations that people can take in various areas to demonstrate accomplishment? Then the Harvard graduate who can’t do anything won’t be ranked by employers above the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA) graduate who is able to demonstrate achievement. We would truly have multiple paths to success and we would have a meritocratic system in which anyone who works hard can succeed.

One could argue that we already have some of this in place. There is the Graduate Record Exam that some graduate schools use for admissions. It is SAT-like, though, and doesn’t seem to measure real-world capability (it is more of a test of IQ (correlation 0.7-0.85) plus studying for the test). There are some “major field tests,” e.g., in Physics. But these suffer from some of the same issues as other standardized multiple-choice tests.

What about investing in a week-long supervised test in which students have to solve problems, do research, write up results, etc.? It would be a little challenging to accomplish given that you’d have to figure out a way to deny test-takers the use of 10 Ph.D. helpers connected via smartphone.

Since the government runs a substantial portion of the economy, perhaps people could be motivated to take this test by using it as a factor in government hiring, e.g., for schoolteachers (maybe we can catch up to Finland if we start hiring academically strong teachers the way that they do!) or Federal workers.

Readers: What do you think? If there were a recognized test of achievement and capability for 22-year-olds, would that take some of the pressure off?

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“There’s so much messaging in general about STEM, STEM, STEM”

“As STEM majors soar at UW, interest in humanities shrinks — a potentially costly loss” (Seattle Times) is kind of interesting.

The liberal-arts decline is making the university financially poorer, too.

That’s because it’s cheaper to teach a history class than a computer-science course — but the UW charges the same for both. In effect, the humanities courses have always subsidized engineering, natural sciences and computer-science classes, said Sarah Hall, vice provost of UW planning and budgeting.

Nationally, it costs an $410 per credit hour to teach electrical engineering, one of the most expensive majors. Sociology, one of the cheapest-to-teach subjects, costs less than half of that — about $176 per credit hour.

Should people go to college in order to be happy or in order to earn enough money to pay back student loans and compensate for four years out of the workforce? Humanities professors have the answer!

Humanities professors disagree. They say it’s a myth that humanities majors can’t find jobs, and it’s disappointing that so many people are discouraged from pursuing their passions.

“What’s sad for the younger generation is that so many students here have been literally pushed away from the social sciences and humanities to STEM, and are not happy,” said UW history professor James Gregory.

“There’s so much messaging in general about STEM, STEM, STEM,” he said.

The innumeracy displayed by journalists and editors is interesting. The Seattle Times:

The stereotype that English majors wind up as highly educated baristas isn’t borne out by research, Stacey said. A recent study showed that many English majors are more likely to become teachers, lawyers, CEOs and legislators.

So they’re saying that if “many” out of thousands get good jobs then English is plainly a good vocational choice. The link-to article is even more interesting:

According to the Census Bureau, graduates with an English degree have about a 4.9 percent chance of working in one of these food service occupations for some time between the ages of 22 and 26. By comparison, the average among all degree holders in this age group is about 3.5 percent. So English majors are only about 1.4 percentage points more likely to work in food service than the average for all degree holders.

Wouldn’t it be a 40 percent increase to go from 3.5 to 4.9, not a 1.4 percent increase? And that’s across all degree holders, not measured against STEM graduates. Considering how many degrees are irrelevant to employers, a 40 percent greater likelihood of becoming a burger-flipper is huge!


  • “Two big questions for economists today”: Justine Hastings, of Brown University, presented “Earnings, Incentives and Student Loan Design: The Case of Chile.” It seems that Chile did what the U.S. did, i.e., offered a lot of student loans for higher education. Their program was more intelligently designed, however, in that they didn’t allow universities to raise tuition in response to this new source of funds. Schools ended up with more students, but not more money per student as has been prevalent in the U.S. Nonetheless, the default rate has been high, especially for graduates of non-selective schools and especially for those who majored in humanities and arts. Unlike Americans, Chileans don’t like to keep flushing cash down the toilet, so now they are experimenting with adjusting the maximum loan amount according to the expected return to getting a particular degree (in Chile you don’t apply to “University of Santiago” you apply for a specific major). It turns out that when students see that the government won’t lend them the maximum for a particular degree program they get the message and try to switch into a degree that will result in higher post-graduate earnings. This is especially true for “low SES” students. SES? Due to the rejection of Marx, mainstream economists apparently can’t talk about class so they refer to “Socioeconomic status“. Hastings has a separate paper “The Labor Market Returns to Colleges and Majors: Evidence from Chile” with the discouraging result that attending a lower quality college and majoring in poetry will not set the country’s employers on fire and, in fact, many people would have higher lifetime earnings if they refrained from attending college.
  • “The Hard Part of Computer Science? Getting Into Class” (NYT, Jan 24, 2019)
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Yale students upset at a political party that “favors the wealthy”

An East Coast Aero Club customer from Switzerland wanted to burn up some Cirrus SR20 time. So it was off to KHVN and the Yale University Art Gallery. Walking around the campus we saw signs preparing Yale students for the upcoming election. I posted the following on Facebook:

Students at a school that costs more than $73,000 per year are upset at the idea of a political party that “favors the wealthy”…

(You’ll have to click on the images to really see them; WordPress is not nearly as smart as Facebook about image display.)

My friends immediately jumped to Yale’s defense. The school gave huge discounts to the poor. I agreed that this was great, but pointed out that only 2.1 percent of Yale undergrads come from bottom-quintile families (nytimes) and also that the school apparently created poverty because 7.8 percent of graduates fell into this bottom quintile for income: “Maybe it is time to re-think some of those majors!”

I then added the following:

The Yale students are upset because Trump is “disrespectful to women”. But if they respect women, why wouldn’t they save a ton of money and attend University of Connecticut, where a higher percentage of faculty is female? (CollegeFactual says that 62 percent of teachers at U. Conn are female; the corresponding number at Yale is only 56 percent) “The ratio of male to female faculty at Yale is above average.” Yale students want to respect women faculty at other schools rather than at their own? Or Yale students respect women in general, but, compared to students at other universities, they prefer to take classes taught by men?

The Yale students say that Trump “subjugates people of color” (unlike the  Yale students who call 911 whenever there is a sighting… (nytimes)) and “supports white supremacists”. Did Trump ever name one of his buildings after a white supremacist? The NYT reports that Yale named a college after “one of the 19th century’s foremost white supremacists” (nytimes). And, apparently, blackface was a common Halloween costume at Yale until recently (TIME).

A fellow Facebooker pointed out that Calhoun’s name had been replaced by Grace Hopper’s (sacred female computer nerd). So Yale should be off the hook because they supported white supremacy only for a few hundred years and stopped in 2017.

A thoughtful friend:

I’m not sure why you think the two notions are mutually exclusive. Why can’t one be well off, or from a family that’s well off, and still support a party that strives to represent people equally, as opposed to lobbying to protect wealthy people from, say, paying less than their fair share of taxes?

My response:

Sure. In the same way that a person can put a “I want to help the poor” bumper sticker on the back of a $70 million Gulfstream or $120,000 Mercedes. If these folks actually did care, though, why are they consuming so much personally rather than giving money to the poor. Why do they need to wait until Robin Hood is elected before they stop spending it all on themselves?

If these kids cared about the non-wealthy, wouldn’t they use their $300k in Yale expenses to fund 15 poor people to graduate from state schools? (And then use their academic smarts to get a full ride at a high end university with merit scholarships.)

Separately, I happened to be at the Providence, Rhode Island airport during Brown University’s parent weekend. The PVD ramp was clogged with heavy personal jets, including a Gulfstream G650. The folks working at the FBO said that fueling bizjets for parents visiting their 91-percent very liberal or liberal children made it the airport’s busiest weekend. By noon on the Sunday they had already sent 22 families off in their private jets.


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Okay for Harvard to violate the 14th Amendment if they do it gently?

I was chatting with a friend who is a Harvard graduate and a tenured professor at a big American research university. He asked for my opinion of the Harvard admissions race discrimination trial. I said that “As long as they are availing themselves of the river of Federal cash subsidies from the Department of Education, I think they have to comply with the Fourteenth Amendment. If they want to throw a race-based party then they need to do it without collecting tuition from students who are getting Federal student loans and grants.”

His response was to ask whether administrators shouldn’t fight against the nearly-all-Asian university that a purely merit-based admissions policy might produce. I said “Taking the long view, Chinese civilization is probably the world’s most successful and the Chinese intellectual tradition the strongest. Chinese universities have been more or less all-Asian. So if Harvard’s mission is academic excellence, what’s wrong with mostly Asian students?”

His personal view was that administrators should engage in racial discrimination, but that they should do so “gently.” He described a “non-gentle” year in his own (rather technical) department in which three sought-after non-white non-Asian women were accepted to graduate school. A dean had come down on the unlucky faculty and taken them to task for their non-diverse cluster of nerds. Despite special treatment, including an expensive investment in tutoring, two out of the three favored minorities failed out within two years. The experience of watching these students struggle and fail did not sour my friend on the idea of race-based discrimination, apparently contrary to the Constitution. Instead, he wanted the dials turned down slightly so that people admitted on the basis of their race or sex were less likely to fail.

I’m kind of surprised that few Americans seem to take the Fourteenth Amendment seriously. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, for example, faced no media criticism for talking about how proud he was that all of his law clerks were female. Why did people accept the idea of a federal official, part of whose job was enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment, being happy that all of his employees were of one race or sex?

  • “What Is Harvard Trying to Hide?” (Politico): Harvard’s documents also showed that while applications from “Chicano,” “Puerto Rican,” “Native American” and “Black” applicants were directed to readers from those groups, the other entry on that list was framed differently: “Blue Collar Asian. Harvard officials said the sole Asian-American admissions officer at the time, Susie Chao, sought to read all the applications from Asian-Americans whose parents had a blue-collar background and many of those from wealthier families. Applicants from other ethnic minorities generally got a minority reader regardless of the family’s background, the records showed.
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My tuition-free MIT idea gets implemented… by NYU

“Surprise Gift: Free Tuition for All N.Y.U. Medical Students” (nytimes):

The New York University School of Medicine announced on Thursday that it would cover the tuition of all its students, regardless of merit or need, citing concerns about the “overwhelming financial debt” facing graduates.

N.Y.U. said that it had raised more than $450 million of the $600 million that it anticipates will be necessary to finance the tuition plan. About $100 million of that has been contributed by Kenneth G. Langone, the founder of Home Depot, and his wife, Elaine, for whom the medical school is named.

I proposed this idea for MIT back in 1998 (article), not because of a grand moral imperative but because I thought MIT wouldn’t be able to compete with Harvard for the best students. It was also an easy time to raise money due to the (first) dotcom boom/bubble that was then inflating.


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Tiger Woods vigil ended

My two-week vigil at the Tiger Woods residence is over and I have returned from Orlando to Boston. I believe that I have provided all of the counseling and assistance that the Woods family might want from a computer programmer. Living so close to Mr. Woods prompted reflection on his achievements. Practicing constantly and becoming #1 in the world at anything is extremely impressive. Even more impressive is someone able to remain the world’s best golfer while simultaneously responding to the demands of a wife and two children. Now it seems that his abilities as a golfer are so far above anyone else’s that he was able to stay at #1 while devoting nearly all of his non-competition time to non-golf activities. Gauss was a great mathematician, but had only one female companion at a time (source).  Balzac wrote nearly 100 novels, but as soon as he got married dropped dead (presumably from fatigue; source).

The trip to Orlando was not entirely occupied with the unfolding Tiger Woods story. I photographed an obese man eating a turkey leg at Epcot and came home with a new pilot’s certificate. This one has a CE-510S code on it, enabling me to be the single pilot of a Cessna Mustang business jet (any turbojet-powered aircraft requires a “type rating”, indicating specific training and a proficiency checkride to Airline Transport Pilot standards). Don, Gary, and Steve at FlightSafety never lost faith in or patience with me and for that I am grateful.

The experience at FlightSafety made me realize how important a pilot’s emotional state is to the safety to flight. On the first day of simulator training I was completely relaxed. Despite having had hardly any sleep and not knowing how to manage emergencies in this airplane, I flew reasonably well. A typical challenge is an engine failing and catching on fire as the plane reaches 100 miles per hour rolling down the runway for takeoff. Due to the thrust all coming from one side of the airplane, the plane will start wandering off the runway. The pilot first has to recognize that a problem has occurred and that the tendency of the plane to wander is not due to a gust of wind or sloppy flying. Then there are two choices: (1) pull back the thrust on the good engine and stand on the brakes, stopping before the end of the runway, or (2) wait patiently for the aircraft to reach flying speed and then lift off to climb slowly on the good engine. All of the relevant numbers have been precomputed, so the pilot knows that above “V1” it is better to go and below V1 it is better to stop. The pilot also knows that, at that altitude, temperature, and weight, the plane will actually climb on one engine (assuming good technique, the bad engine windmilling rather than stuck, and a few other optimistic conditions). Figuring all of this on a piece of paper at a desk is a lot easier than doing it with the ground rushing by.

Over a 12-day period, I got more and more practice in the simulator. I should have been flying vastly better than on the first day, but as the expectations on me grew higher and the checkride loomed, my improvement wasn’t as dramatic as I expected. It did not help that I learned that 33 percent of applicants for this rating fail their checkride. The day of the checkride I was so nervous that I woke up at 4:30 am and could not fall back to sleep. I wasn’t tired for the 10 am test, and I felt fairly relaxed despite the presence of an FAA inspector in the back of the sim (the FAA periodically audits checkrides). But the subconcious fear of failing the checkride and having a black mark in my pilot record was apparently affecting my abilities because I flew every maneuver worse than in a practice session the day before. I didn’t crash or do anything remarkably foolish during the 2.5-hour flight, which involves multiple takeoffs, landings, approaches, and systems failures, and therefore walked away with a passing grade.

Being the single pilot is at least 4 times more difficult than being one of a two-pilot crew. An airliner is more complex than a Cessna Mustang, but when something goes wrong one pilot can concentrate on basic flying of the airplane while the other pilot finds the appropriate checklist and begins to follow it. A single pilot must keep the aircraft’s attitude, airspeed, and rudder coordination under control, possibly without any help from the autopilot, while simultaneously finding, reading, and running a checklist.

My friend Suzanne offered to pick me up at Logan Airport at 11:00 pm, despite the fact that she had to drive her daughter to an event at 6 the next morning. She asked if I was satisfied with my life. I responded “Anyone who has a friend to pick him up at the airport and drive him home around midnight should not complain.”

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“Why not teach something more practical?”

One of the reasons it is worth paying $1 million for a 100-year-old sagging fixer-upper starter home in Cambridge is that you run into interesting people.  At a sandwich shop yesterday I encountered a friend who is a professor of Architecture.  His companion asked what I was teaching this semester.  “Intro circuit theory for sophomore electrical engineering majors,” was my response, “Inductors, resistors, capacitors, transistors, op-amps, feedback, impedance method.”

He was taken aback.  “Why not teach something more practical?”  Like what?  How to build a TV?  “No, I meant something more advanced and specialized, like a graduate seminar.”

I thought about it for awhile and said “Undergrads are fun to be around.  They’re always in a good mood.  For the average person, the likelihood that they’ll be in a bad mood is directly proportional to their age.”  I asked the architecture prof to concur:  “Aren’t your students in a better mood than the average working architect?”  He concurred and said that in fact he has noticed that when he teaches undergrads they are happier than the grad students that he usually teaches.

At first glance you’d expect college students to be unhappy.  They’re adolescents.  They don’t know what they want or what makes them happy.  But on second thought maybe undergrads do have a lot of reasons to be happy.  They don’t have any aches or pains because their bodies are so young.  They don’t have to worry about money because their parents send it to them.  They don’t have to call the plumber or electrician because the university maintains their dorm.  They don’t have to take their car in for service because they don’t have a car.  The last two points free them to read interesting books, watch movies, play video games, indulge in sex and drugs, etc.

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Give Fs to your best customers?

Here’s a portion of the “to the instructor” blurb of Internet Application Workbook:

The daily cost of attending a top university these days is about the same as the daily rate to stay at the Four Seasons hotel in Boston, living on room-service lobster and Champagne. It is no wonder, then, that the student feels entitled to have a pleasant experience. Suppose that you tell a student that his work is substandard. He may be angry with you for adversely affecting his self-esteem. He may complain to a Dean who will send you email and invite you to a meeting. You’ve upheld the standards of the institution but what favor have you done yourself? Remember that the A students will probably go on to graduate school, get PhDs, and settle into $35,000/year post-docs. The mediocre students are the ones who are likely to rise to high positions in Corporate America and these are the ones from whom you’ll be asking for funding, donations of computer systems, etc. Why alienate paying customers and future executives merely because they aren’t willing to put effort into software engineering?

In teaching with Internet Application Workbook you have a natural opportunity to separate evaluation from teaching. The quality of the user experience and solution engineered by a team is best evaluated by their client and the end-users. If the client responds to the questionnaire in Exercise 3 of the Planning Redux chapter by saying “Our team has solved all of our problems and we love working with them”, what does your opinion matter? Similarly if a usability study shows that test users are able to accomplish tasks quickly and reliably, what does your opinion of the page flow matter? During most of this course we try to act as coaches to help our students achieve high performance as perceived by their clients and end-users. We use every opportunity to arrange for students to get real-world feedback rather than letter grades from us.

The principal area where we must retain the role of evaluator is in looking at a team’s documentation. The main question here is “How easy would it be for a new team of programmers, with access only to what is in the /doc directory on a team’s server, to take over the project?”

America’s most grade-inflated schools tend to be its most expensive, e.g., Harvard.  Assuming a 5 percent annual increase the cost of education at a top school will top $1 million within 40 years.  Are the employee-teachers really going to give Fs to people donating $1 million to the institution?  Is there any way to maintain academic excellence and good relations with our wealthy patrons (the students)?

Suppose that there were a set of standardized problem sets and tests, shared among groups of universities.  A student at School A would have his or her work graded by teachers at Schools B,C, and D.  The relationship between students and staff at School A would therefore be more akin to that of athlete and coach, people working together to achieve great results, never having opposed interests.

This idea might be tough to implement in advanced courses in very rapidly changing fields but should be easy for old standbys such as undergrad physics, chemistry, math, etc.

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Teaching them to become lawyers

This evening we showed our 6.002 students the Ken Burns PBS documentary Empire of the Air.  This was adapted from a book of the same name by Tom Lewis.  Here are the facts that were related in two hours:

Lee De Forest, who did much to publicize the idea of using radio for broadcast rather than point-to-point communication, claimed credit for other peoples’ inventions and, through good luck and great legal talent, managed to prevail in a decades-long lawsuit against Major Edwin Armstrong, the true inventor of most of the important technologies behind radio broadcasting.  De Forest ridiculed America’s entry into World War I and then became a profiteer.  On the cusp of his 60th birthday, De Forest married Wife #4, a beautiful 21-year-old actress who remained devoted to him until his death at age 88.  As an old man, De Forest wrote a book entitled The Father of Radio and unsuccessfully encouraged his wife to write a book entitled I Married a Genius.

Edwin Armstrong worked hard and labored through formal electrical engineering training at Columbia University, the very sort of EE torture that our students are getting in 6.002.  Armstrong developed the circuits that enable using a vacuum tube as a radio transmitter and the superhet receiver, which together made it practical to transmit music and voice over AM radio, rather than Morse code.  A staunch patriot, Armstrong donated a royalty-free license to all of his patents to the U.S. government for use in World War II and served in that war by designing communications systems including that used during the invasion of Normandy in 1944.  Armstrong developed frequency modulation (FM), which was suppressed by David Sarnoff at RCA because it would threaten revenues from his AM radio monopoly and the emerging television.  RCA eventually was forced to use FM for the federally mandated NTSC television system but they refused to pay Armstrong royalties on his patents.  Armstrong committed suicide while embroiled in lawsuits attempting to force RCA to stop infringing.

David Sarnoff had no formal technical training.  Through ruthless business dealings and manipulation of the federal government managed to create and sustain a magnificently profitable enterprise that included the RCA radio and TV manufacturing company and the NBC radio and TV networks.  Though Armstrong’s widow eventually made him pay up a bit for his flagrant infringement of the frequency modulation patents, Sarnoff sailed unscathed through a sea of lives that he wrecked.  He died an old and rich man.

The only people in the drama who made millions without taking tremendous risks, working very hard, and occasionally going bankrupt, were … the lawyers in the patent and regulatory disputes.

What are our students to make of all this?  It can’t be that working hard as an MIT electrical engineering student and contributing useful innovations to society will be rewarded.  If you’re walking your dog in the Harvard Law School Yard four years from now and you run into our 6.002 alumni, tell them “hi” from me.

[The video also made one wonder for whom public television programs are made.  Despite having two hours the show did not attempt to explain even the simplest physics or engineering behind radio or any of the inventions that were the subject of the disputes chronicled.  The biographical and historical information was narrated so slowly that it could have been sped up 3X without approaching the speed of dialog on the Simpsons, which most people seem to have no trouble following.  It seems as though public TV is designed for people whose minds are not quick enough to handle the quick pace and intellectual challenge of commercial TV shows.]

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