Elizabeth Warren’s student loan forgiveness idea is flawed…

… because it doesn’t go far enough!

Economists have found that most of the benefits of subsidized federal student loans went to colleges, which used the money to overpay administrators (how do we know they’re overpaid? look at the quit rate!).

Colleges seem to charge students however much they think a family can cough up. When the Feds added guaranteed and/or subsidized loans, colleges just raised their prices. Students did not receive a better education because they paid more. The extra money was used for more administrative bloat and higher salaries for existing administrators.

Instead of merely forgiving student loans that haven’t yet been paid off, what would be fair is if the government admitted this was a welfare scheme for universities and, in addition to forgiving unpaid loans, refunded all payments made under these ill-advised programs.

Readers: Is it time to admit that the government helped universities fleece American families and give back the stolen money?


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Ireland’s exam-based university entrance system

My hosts in Ireland have four children, the youngest of whom is just graduating from high school. He is studying like a demon for a high-stakes “Leaving Certificate” exam. All of the responses are to be written out (i.e., it is not multiple-guess like the SATs). He will spend 10 days taking exams, typically one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Who could possibly have time to grade these? “The teachers do it during their summer vacation,” he said.

Results don’t come in until August at which point the student is informed of his or her university assignment. In other words, the young learner potentially has only one month in which to move, find an apartment, etc. (most students select universities close to their parents’ houses and continue to live at home)

There is no room for an admissions committee looking at auguries. There is no preference for children of alumni. There is no preference for children of big donors. There is no way to bribe an athletic coach because there is no preference for sports potential (though my hosts thought that there was some preference for athletes who’ve represented the country at international events).

How can they run a university admissions system with no special provisions for those who have suffered from adversity? They apparently can’t! Ireland has the “HEAR scheme“:

The scheme aims to improve access to college for school-leavers from socio-economic backgrounds that are under-represented in third-level education. Under the HEAR scheme a number of third-level places are allocated to school-leavers on a reduced points basis. To be eligible for the scheme you must meet certain indicators or criteria related to your financial, social and cultural circumstances…

There are links from the above web page explaining the criteria, but essentially your family has to be on welfare (a low bar; roughly 40 percent of residents are on some form of welfare) and/or your parents have to either not work (“housewife”) or do an unskilled job. Skin color or ethnic background is not a factor.

What does welfare look like in a society that is, on a per-capita basis, now much more productive than the U.S. (CIA Factbook ranking)? A retired police detective explained that he rents a small-town house to a “town council” for 750 euros per month on a 10-year lease. They’ll likely buy it from him when the lease ends. The town gives it away free to a family with five children in which neither parent has ever worked. “I know the family; nobody has worked for the past three generations,” said the former policeman. “Once they get on social welfare, why would they?” (I also learned that the front-line officers in Ireland who deal with day-to-day issues don’t carry guns).

Welfare bureaucrats occupy an office in the nicest part of what the guidebook says is the nicest seaside village in Ireland (Kinsale):

What does college look like for those who score high? (or who score reasonably high and have parents who don’t work?) Dodging tourists at Trinity College:

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all,” from Oscar Wilde is supposed to inspire the young scholars. Does that exclude most scientific and engineering advances? What is “dangerous” about Katherine Clerk Maxwell‘s equations? Are today’s T-shirt decorations not worthy of being called “an idea”? How about the “waves can propagate through a vacuum (without ether)” concept of Margaret Hemingway and Imbella A. Birdsall, confirmed in the Michelson–Morley experiment. That’s not an “idea”? Or it is somehow “dangerous”?

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Can rich parents move to a poor neighborhood for a year before their brat applies to college?

We know from the recent college bribery scandal that wealthy parents are willing to commit (federal!) crimes to get their brats into a good college (apparently contradicting the assertion that being born into a wealthy family guarantees success due to “privilege”).

Now the SATs will include an “adversity score” that considers the neighborhood and the school of the test taker (NYT explains the 31 factors). What stops a rich family from renting an apartment in a poor neighborhood starting in August of the applicant’s senior year of high school. The kid then takes the SATs in September, after enrolling in the local public school.

The NYT article is fun because it shows that American educrats aren’t interested in academic achievement:

“If you’re a really well-educated, higher-income family living in a poor neighborhood, this measure is going to overstate the disadvantage you face,” said Sean Reardon, a professor of education at Stanford University.

But, he added, “The question is not whether it’s perfect, but whether it’s better than the alternative of what colleges have had access to, to date. It sounds like this will be better than nothing.”

I.e., nobody questions the idea that students from unsuccessful neighborhoods are to be preferred and students from successful parents and neighborhoods should be admitted only as a last resort. (But if The Son Also Rises is correct, in the long run this means that the most successful people in a society will be graduates of universities that don’t discriminate against children of the successful!)

The long-term goal is to pry into the individual student’s situation:

Among the scholars who consulted for the College Board was Richard D. Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Century Foundation and a proponent of class-based affirmative action. He said he would like to see the College Board tool evolve to also include information on a student’s individual family. Still, he called the measure “an enormous step forward.”

Doesn’t that open up more opportunities for resourceful parents to game the system? Big factors are “single parenthood” and parental income. A one-income married couple living in Nevada, for example, could avail themselves of the state’s no-fault divorce laws and get divorced just before the child takes the SATs. The non-working parent will be getting the $13,000/year (tax-free) child support cap and therefore qualify as low income. The applicant can tell the SAT folks that the working parent is nowhere to be found and that the working parent’s income is unknown.

[Is this already happening for financial aid? The non-custodial parent (a.k.a. “loser parent” the winner-take-all states) is not considered by the Federales for financial aid, though finaid.org says that private colleges can “require a supplemental financial aid form from the non-custodial parent”. But the typical child of an American divorce hasn’t seen the loser parent within the preceding year, so how is the child supposed to get that person to fill out a form? Massachusetts is a classical winner-take-all state and Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority says:

What if there is no contact with the non-custodial parent?

Colleges that require the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA understand there are cases when a second parent is not involved in the student’s life. For students in this situation, colleges have a waiver process. Students should go to the college website or call the college and ask about a non-custodial parent waiver form or process. Students will need to do this for every school that requires the non-custodial parent to submit a Profile. Colleges are understanding of cases when the other parent is truly not a part of the student’s life at all, but will not waive the requirement for a case when the other parent simply does not want to complete the application or contribute toward college costs.

Since children of single parents are preferred by colleges, why would any applicant whose parents aren’t married admit to having spoken with the loser parent?]

This would seem to penalize children of low-income parents who make the effort to move to public housing in nicer towns with better schools. I know a few immigrant “single moms” who live in Newton, Massachusetts for example. Upon arrival in the U.S. they realized that there was no stigma to being divorced and promptly sued their husbands. As these guys were low-income immigrants themselves, the child support revenue from the divorce did not disqualify them from public housing. So they live in taxpayer-subsidized apartments in Newton and send their children to the Newton schools. Their SAT scores will come with a “no adversity” tag even though they (a) did not speak English as their first language, (b) did not have two parents in their home, and (c) did not live in a high-income household.

If the mission of American universities is to educate young people (God forbid they should admit anyone significantly over the age of 18!) who have suffered from adversity, why would they admit anyone who grew up in the U.S.? An American on welfare has a greater spending power (housing, food, health care, smartphone) than a middle class family in most parts of the world.

In a global economy, what’s special about residents of the U.S.? Why are they entitled to take a spot at Harvard, for example, ahead of someone with a similar SAT score who grew up in Vietnam (excellent academic scores, but few people living better than an American on welfare).

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Percentage of public school teachers who are “excellent”

I was chatting with a dyslexia specialist at a public middle school in a wealthy Northeast U.S. district. The union pay scale for teachers reaches $100,000 per year for those with a bit of experience. The specialist interacts with nearly all of the roughly 70 teachers in the school.

  • me: How many of the teachers would you say are excellent?
  • her: About 2 percent. But another 50 percent are “good”.
  • me: So 48 percent of the students aren’t getting the curriculum delivered as designed?
  • her: True. But you have to remember that it is all about the school leadership. They’re not investing enough in teacher training. The administrators send one teacher to a class and then expect the teacher to come back and teach other teachers. That’s not what they’re qualified to do.
  • me: Suppose that the district had infinite budget and time for training teachers. How many would then work hard enough to become “excellent”?
  • her: Maybe 10 percent.
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New York Times highlights academic achievement-skin color correlation

“Only 7 Black Students Got Into N.Y.’s Most Selective High School, Out of 895 Spots” (nytimes):

Students gain entry into the specialized schools by acing a single high-stakes exam that tests their mastery of math and English. Some students spend months or even years preparing for the exam. Stuyvesant, the most selective of the schools, has the highest cutoff score for admission, and now has the lowest percentage of black and Hispanic students of any of New York City’s roughly 600 public high schools.

My comment on the piece:

What if you heard about a reporter and some editors who hung around outside an academic testing center and noted the skin color of every person who failed a test? And then published the observation that people with a particular skin color were very likely to fail?

If that isn’t racist, what would be?

Readers: What does this story even mean? If Elizabeth Warren had gotten into Stuyvesant, would the NYT have included her in their Native American participation statistics? Who is the arbiter of race or skin color in the NYC public schools? Also, how does it help a group of people when there is a front page story underlining for employers the correlation between membership in this group and low academic achievement?

Thought Experiment: Suppose that Fox News had run a story revealing the same statistics and then Donald Trump had referenced that story in a Tweet. What would the NYT Editorial Board have said?


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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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Can public school teachers be credible social activists?

Here’s the public Instagram feed of the teacher at a suburban Boston-area school (one of her thankless tasks is molding the 12-year-old mind of a friend’s daughter who previously caused mayhem with a feigned nut allergy). The feed is primarily for communicating with her students and their parents and many of the items are titled “Homework” and contain instructions such as “Just answer the Part 1 Questions! Please DO NOT do the figurative language on the back!”. Some non-homework material has made its way into the feed lately though…

(clumsily redacted in MSFT Paint for some privacy!)

This public servant, whose union has ensured her a total comp of well over $100,000 per year (salary, benefits, and pension), has apparently attended a “Teaching Social Activism Conference”. But with median hourly wage in Massachusetts down around $23 (was $22.81 in May 2017), or $46,000 per year on an annualized basis, can she credibly teach Social Activism? She and her union are directly acting to increase inequality by taking money from people who earn median wages to put it into the pockets of folks who earn above-median wages.

[The other parts of this feed are also interesting. The teacher exhorts her charges to “do something great for your community in honor of Dr. King”. Yet she teaches in a nearly all-white suburb thanks to the miracle of two-acre zoning minimums. African Americans are welcome as long as they can afford $1 million for a vacant lot and $30,000/year in property tax on a completed house.

There is an LGBTQ+ meeting on “Pink Days” in a 7th grade classroom sponsored by the Sexuality and Gender Alliance. Where does that leave 12-year-olds who want to gather around the topics of sexuality and gender but don’t identify as “LGBTQ+”? (maybe the “+” includes cisgender heterosexuals?)

Finally, the Instagram feed reveals that “Google Classroom” is heavily used. Americans will be Google users from cradle to grave? Will Google automatically flag K-12 heresy as a service to the young? An AI on a Google server will read one of the assigned essays on refugees and mark any passages in red that are not appropriately sympathetic and welcoming?]

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Middle school students assigned books about and by People of Color

Received from a teacher by a parent of a local 7th grader:

We will be reading March together as a class for our next unit and additionally students will be working cooperatively in book clubs for books that are about and by People of Color.

I asked “So they can pick any book written by or describing a Virginia Democrat?”

It seems that the answer is “no.” The letter continues with

Today in class the students had the opportunity to preview the book club books and rank their top choices.

So students can’t stray from the approved list and pick the autobiography of Clarence Thomas, for example, or Economic Facts and Fallacies by Thomas Sowell:

Government spending is often said to be beneficial to the economy, as the money disbursed is spent and re-spent, creating jobs, raising incomes, and generating tax revenues in the process. But usually if that same government money had remained in the hands of the taxpayers from whom it came, they too would have spent it, and it would still have been re-spent, creating jobs, raising incomes, and generating tax revenues in the process. This again is usually at best a zero-sum process, in so far as the transfer of money is concerned, and a negative-sum process in so far as high tax rates to finance government spending reduce incentives to do all the things necessary to generate economic activity and the prosperity resulting from it.

Poetry by Kanye West is presumably also excluded, though it might be interesting to hear a class discussion of “Gold Digger”:

Eighteen years, eighteen years
She got one of your kids, got you for eighteen years [23 in Massachusetts]
I know somebody payin’ child support for one of his kids
His baby mama car and crib is bigger than his
You will see him on TV any given Sunday
Win the Super Bowl and drive off in a Hyundai
She was supposed to buy your shorty Tyco with your money
She went to the doctor, got lipo with your money
She walkin’ around lookin’ like Michael with your money
Shoulda got that insured, Geico for your money
If you ain’t no punk
Holla, “We want prenup! We want prenup!” (Yeah!)
It’s somethin’ that you need to have
‘Cause when she leave yo’ ass, she gon’ leave with half [maybe closer to 0% after subtracting litigation costs?]
Eighteen years, eighteen years
And on the 18th birthday he found out it wasn’t his?!

The official list would also keep students from asking whether Chinese Nobelists such as Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan qualify as “of color” (of the wrong color?).

Personally I would love to see a student with the temerity to demand In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World, by Rachel Dolezal.

Readers: Does it help Writers of Color to put them in a February ghetto and tell students they can read books on white subjects by white authors the rest of the year?

Exciting Update: I got hold of the list! (Kanye West is not on it!).

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