Oh, Bears!

Time to update the amazing failing-upward saga of the UC Berkeley Intercollegiate Athletics program, because we have hit the front page of our local paper with another humiliating roundup.  Just to review, we are talking about a $70m-per-year business that loses $10m sending athletes to compete against other schools in a couple of dozen sports where they have fun, do fairly well, and mostly graduate without a lot of handholding and tutoring.  It also sells tickets and television access to people who want to watch about 150 men play basketball and football, and rights to make the usual chotchkes and sweatshirts. There are about 850 so-called student-athletes in the care of IA; our other 20,000 students are allowed to buy tickets and watch them, but IA has nothing to do with “students being athletes” in any general sense.  (Given that the average playing time for a member of the football squad is eight minutes per year, it’s not so clear that those guys should be scored as athletes either…they do get $10,000 each for those eight minutes, so maybe they should be compared to pro stars)
Nor does IA have much to do with anything else on campus, other than absorbing a Niagara of student fees and tuition money. It was once supposed to be self-supporting, like the parking garages, but the regents – the university’s governing board – fixed that silly rule for us several years ago so the chancellor can give it money that would otherwise be wasted on labs and scholarships and other frills. It even has its own spiffy web site (with a .com, not .edu, suffix).
A few years ago, it was discovered that our art museum and our stadium were too dangerous to occupy with the BO (big one) getting organized under our feet.  The museum was temporarily propped up with some awesome steel braces, we designed a really nice new museum at a downtown corner of the campus that would benefit from foot traffic and street activity, and we set about fundraising. Continue reading “Oh, Bears!”

Radix malorum est cupiditas

It seems I’ve been channeling the Bursar this evening.

Are you looking for a prestigious internship for your teenage child? Are you worried that, despite your best efforts to make Junior respectable in public, the interview skills aren’t quite where they need to be? Do you think s/he would benefit during a college admissions interview by referring to “that time [I] interned at an energy consultancy”?

You’re in luck!

My high school, Westminster School, is offering internships at auction as a means to raise funds for its capital building projects and its Bursary Programme. On offer are internships in retail, finance, law, energy, and consultancy, among others. Fabergé? No problem. Coutts Bank? Roll up! We can serve all your needs here.

Ok, you’re interested? Great! All I’ll need is for you to 1) cough up hundreds of Her Majesty’s Pounds Sterling (I know, I know, can you really put a price on your child’s future? It’s priceless, after all. But then again, in addition to being a self-evidently valuable life experience, why not show people how valuable these internships are by making them prohibitively expensive?), 2) be a “member of the Westminster Community, aged 18 or over, unless previously notified otherwise. This includes Parents, Former Parents, Old Westminsters, Staff and Former Staff.” After all, if you aren’t somehow attached to the School, your money clearly doesn’t have the same pretty lustre to it. Marvellous, I’m glad you understand.

What’s that, you say? There might be a problem of nepotism? Some people who might otherwise be qualified might not be able to participate in the auction?  And some pupils who are attending the School on the Bursary Programme (designed as similar to a need-based stipend) for which the auction is intended as a fundraiser might themselves struggle to afford the internships?


The School has already issued a clear statement that such apprehensions are unwarranted:

The option of including work placements was raised early on by our donors, and in the end it was felt that as this had for some years been a common practice by other organisations and as the places offered would be in addition to, and not in place of, existing positions, we would go ahead.  Each work placement donor was asked if they would be willing to provide 2 places – one to be auctioned and one for the School to pass along to a pupil at one of our partner state schools – and some have chosen to do so. While these places have been created solely for the auction, we are hopeful that the businesses will be inspired to maintain these new positions and will openly recruit for candidates going forward.

Fine, fine, I suppose that statement wasn’t entirely convincing for all involved. I suppose that the fact that one high-profile bank has withdrawn its internship offer in response to the bad publicity (Exhibits A, B, and C) means that we can’t please everyone. But look, at least the School has had a dedicated commitment to social mobility in the past, yes? Surely this doesn’t set back all the positive gains that have been made thus far? I really don’t think Nick Clegg’s vocal opposition to internship culture in the past has anything to do with it. Nor does it matter that he went to Westminster. Or that he acquired an internship through nepotism himself.

[Calls off, stage right]

Junior, remind me: what is it you said you wanted to be when you grow up? A lawyer, eh? Yes, yes, don’t worry. Daddy will take care of it.

Breaking character: No, I won’t be giving them money — for an auction or as part of alumni giving — until I’m convinced they have their act together.

EDIT: On reflection, the title of the post is rather OTT. But it was ringing in my ears, in the voice of my English teacher from Westminster, when I read about the auction.

The Visible and Hidden Harms of the Elite University Admissions Process

One reaction some people had to my post on elite university admissions in a winner-take-all-society could be easily summarized: So what? Hundreds of thousands of families invest time, energy, hope and resources into attaining a child’s admission to Harvard, Princeton etc., most of them don’t make it, but life is tough, deal with it, nothing to fix here. I don’t agree with that, which is why I proposed a positional arms control agreement among elite universities that would reduce the pressure for adolescents to have a thousand extracurricular activities, SAT training camps, admissions coaches and the like.

The harms that I think do warrant some type of reform are of two types. The first, which is well-discussed by Frank and Cook in their book The Winner-Take-All Society, is mis-allocated resources. Certainly there is no damage done when students strive to improve their odds of elite university admissions by making sure that they become proficient at math and writing. These are investments that will likely pay off no matter what happens to them afterwards. If you become an excellent writer in the hopes of getting into an Ivy League school and you don’t make it, you are still an excellent writer, which will have professional and personal value for you forever.

In contrast, what use is knowledge of how the SAT is designed once you have taken the test? Kaplan is currently charging between $300 and $1300 to prepare students to do well on the SAT and its brethren. Families can spend even more money on an “admissions coach” who will help their child choose the “right” extracurricular activities (many of which also cost money), craft the “perfect” admissions essay and otherwise reveal the tricks of the admissions trade. As with SAT prep courses, virtually none of this has economic value that outlasts the moment when that fearful letter arrives from the elite university’s admissions office.

Meanwhile, the money required for all these services is a strain for many families, drawing down resources they need for other things. And of course countless families whose children will never get into an elite university (A key feature of winner-take-all markets is that they attract too many participants) will make the investment anyway and have their elite university dream crushed just the same.

These sorts of harms are fairly visible and I think most people can see them. But there is another type of damage I see when I work with elite universities on problems of mental health and substance use among students. Fair warning: I cannot prove with systematic evidence what I am about to describe, so take it as only as one person’s report from the front line.
Continue reading “The Visible and Hidden Harms of the Elite University Admissions Process”

Elite University Admissions in a Winner-Take-All-Society

Megan McArdle is surely correct when she notes how much is expected today of young people who aspire to attend elite universities. Her own experience as a teenager was different:

…the things that we achieved were basically within reach of a normal human being who was going about the business of growing up: playing a sport, perhaps badly; taking classes; occasionally volunteering as a candy striper. Most of us took the SAT without the benefit of test prep services, and the “test prep” we got in class consisted of–learning vocabulary and algebra. People like me, who were painfully unathletic and had hashed some early high school classes still had a shot at an Ivy League School

These days, a nearly-perfect GPA is the barest requisite for an elite institution. You’re also supposed to be a top notch athlete and/or musician, the master of multiple extracurriculars. Summers should preferably be spent doing charitable work, hopefully in a foreign country, or failing that, at least attending some sort of advanced academic or athletic program.

She then raises a provocative question:

This entire thing is absurd. I understand why kids engage in this ridiculous arms race. What I don’t understand is why admissions officers, who have presumably met some teenagers, and used to be one, actually reward it.

Robert Frank and Phil Cook’s Winner-Take-All Society was written almost two decades ago, but its acute analysis of situations such as this remains relevant and informative today. Admission to an elite university is a classic winner-take-all-market. First, competition is intense because the number of competitors has grown (i.e., there was a time when you competed for a Harvard slot only against a narrow sociodemographic segment of Northeasterners — now all manner of people all over the world apply). Second, rewards are distributed based on relative rather than absolute performance and even a narrow advantage over other market participants can have enormous consequences. Third, the rewards are concentrated in the hands of a small number of winners. That is, if 10 applicants are fighting for a single slot at Harvard, there is no scenario under which they can each come out with 10% of the reward they seek, or even a scenario where the best candidate gets 30% of the reward, followed by the next person getting 20%, third place receiving 15% and everyone else getting 5%. Instead one person gets 100% of the reward and everyone else gets nothing.

This situation has generated what McArdle decries: An arms race that families hate yet at the same time are afraid to retreat from unilaterally. If no parent signed their teenager up for SAT prep courses, interview training and essay coaches, and no adolescent invested thousands of hours in resume-stuffing extracurricular activities, all parents and all adolescents would be better off and no one’s chance of getting into an elite university would be affected (Recall that in a winner-take-all-market, it’s relative performance that matters). The problem of course is that in a winner-take-all-market such as elite university admissions, once even a few people engage in these competitive behaviors it costs everyone else not to engage in them also. Hence begins an arm’s race that the participants are damaged by but will not unilaterally exit. Continue reading “Elite University Admissions in a Winner-Take-All-Society”

Glaeser on teachers

Edward Glaeser, an urban economist on the Harvard faculty widely and properly regarded as a smart guy, explains quality assurance for K-12 teaching in the Washington Monthly.  Ed, don’t risk your day job.

Glaeser’s article falls off at least two cliffs, a cautionary lesson not to opine outside the range of the data you actually have at your disposal.  First, he sounds like, um, an economist who has never really managed anything, and treats good teaching as a trait of teachers. Not a skill that can be improved and developed, a trait, like blue eyes. Teachers are what they are, so just find the bad ones and fire them.  As he is a teacher for a living, one has to assume he believes he has learned nothing about the craft since he was a wet-behind-the-ears new PhD. But just because you haven’t learned to improve your own performance is no reason to conclude no-one else can.  If, like me, he has indeed become a better teacher with coaching and practice, there’s really no explanation for not expecting the same of K-12 teachers.  And an economist should be quick to realize how much cheaper it is to train and coach than to fire and start over again and again, even if the latter worked.

He likes standardized tests, perhaps because they generate data of the usual (quantitative) type, whether or not they measure what you actually care about, and I think he wants to apply them to teachers.   Now, what would that be like?  “When John and Susie raise their hands at exactly the same time, and John is a row in front of Eddie and didn’t turn in his homework today, (A) Call on John (B) Call on Susie (C) Assign extra homework (D) Erase blackboard (E) None of the above. “  Maybe he just means external testing of students, and going back to the well of promoting teachers by score gains, and to be fair, he also wants to supplement these measures with classroom observation by experts.

But however we test whom, what’s most deaf-and-blind about this column remains Glaeser’s complete failure to say a blinking word about any way to make teachers better at what they do beyond threatening them with firing and (I guess) dangling a pay carrot.  For someone whose job is half teaching people to do stuff better than they can when they arrive, this is not just narrow-minded but incomprehensible. What does he think is happening to his students in his own courses, for Pete’s sake?  Does he think they stop learning forever when they graduate?

No, child, asking random questions is not “research”

How do you respond when a student, following a teacher’s instructions, sends you a question indicating absolutely no preparation?

From my email in-box:

Dear Mr. Mark Kliemem,

My name is [——-]. I’m in the 6th grade attending [——] Public Charter School. I am in my Research and Techonology class and we had to do a project on any topic. My topic is Drug trafficking. I went on amazon and I had to find a expert on the topic, and I found your name. Can you take the time and answer the follow questions? What made you write about drug Trafficking? Have places where drug trafficking is located? What Is drug trafficking, and is it located all over the world? Thank you for your time. I look forward of hearing back from you.


Continue reading “No, child, asking random questions is not “research””

How Stanford University Uses Its Wealth, With Some Notes on the Analysis of Rising Tuition

Stanford University uses it wealth in the best way: To make high-quality education affordable

Stanford university’s annual undergraduate tuition is over $41,000 and our endowment is a gasp-inducing $17 Billion. Based on these facts, many people would argue that I work for one of those money-grubbing dens of elitism that is preventing middle class parents from providing their kids a world-class education.

Since I am a professor, let me respond to these concerns with a pop quiz. Try answering the following three questions.

1. What has been the inflation-adjusted increase in Stanford’s net tuition (i.e. tuition minus financial aid) from 1994 to the present day?

2. What is the modal amount of debt taken on by new Stanford graduates over their time at the university?

3. If your family were in the 75th percentile of American income, how much would Stanford charge you for tuition?

Continue reading “How Stanford University Uses Its Wealth, With Some Notes on the Analysis of Rising Tuition”

What price democracy?

There’s an old joke about a man who asks a woman to sleep with him for $1 million. She agrees, whereupon he asks her to sleep with him for $1. “What kind of a girl do you think I am?” asks the woman indignantly. “We’ve settled that,” replies the man, “We’re just arguing about the price.”

This came to mind in response to this story about the price of the Broad Foundation’s generosity to the schools of New Jersey. A recent Broad Foundation grant stipulates that it will be available only as long as Chris Christie remains governor.
Continue reading “What price democracy?”

Hair of the dog

Let’s reflect on the two real lessons of the Battle of Newtown.

First, the Second Amendment is not about hunting animals and punching paper, it’s about winning a war against the government, and here we have a man who didn’t whine about tyranny, or run and hide: he took up arms like a Real American, went right at the most dangerous hotbed of government freedom-killing  subversion, a public school, and put a decisive end to the daily internationalist indoctrination of twenty Connecticut children. But Lanza was not able to kill even thirty people before the jackbooted thugs of blue-state Connecticut imposed their tyrannical will on him, another martyr to liberal sabotage of our Second Amendment God-given rights to insurrection. (Those rights are in the Bible, right where Jesus teaches his wussy disciples to go armed at all times, and practice quick reloading so as to really Render unto Caesar, not just mess with the odd drunk Roman soldier.)  The government won the Battle of Newtown in the end, because Lanza was disarmed by the regulations people like Mayor Bloomberg want more of. Government has stuff like tanks and helicopters now, so insurrection (freedom) needs serious hardware.   If Lanza (and his mother) had been allowed the belt-fed machine guns,  grenades, armor-piercing rockets, and ground-to-air artillery the constitution plainly allows but our surrender-monkey disarmers do not, he could have given the UN a real warning.  Patriots need stuff to take down an invisible black helicopter, not toys from an old western movie.

Some, however, may not see Lanza’s intervention exactly as a blow for freedom but in a slightly different light, perhaps as an insane explosion of savagery.  Never mind:  just turn the page to the other lesson, the one about the importance of arming everyone all the time to prevent mayhem. Everyone, even the principal, went to work without so much as a little .25 caliber automatic, never mind the Uzi, slung dashingly over the shoulder for easy use, that should be a part of every responsible teacher’s equipment.  (I myself have nothing but chalk on my sleeve to maintain order in the classroom, and that Uzi would be a real asset to my pedagogy.)

But what about the kids, Professor Volokh?  A safe society is one where everyone packs heat all the time: wouldn’t it build character for for citizens to learn their responsibility early on? There’s no problem finding a firearm for small hands: if every one of them had had a piece in his desk, and opened up on Lanza from all directions right away, only a few more would be dead now, maybe even fewer, and the survivors would have learned about pride and self-sufficiency instead of fear and surrender. We have fire drills; don’t we care enough about our kids to give them rapid-fire drills? And come to think of it, kindergarten is not too young to learn freedom through armed revolt (see lesson one above): what more oppressive, authoritarian institution is there than a school to its students?  K-12 students with suitable weapons could be learning to fight tyranny before the school crushes their spirit and turns them into slaves of big government.

The correct ideological exegesis of this event is above my pay grade; indeed both of the foregoing may be correct.  Either way the action implication is clear, as clear as those eternal and unvarying truths “Now this”, “Here we are”, and “Cut taxes on the rich”:  we need lots more, bigger firearms everywhere, and now more than ever. If freedom fighters like Lanza, and ordinary citizens like the innocent teachers and kindergartners at risk from murderous lunatics like Lanza, all get the serious weaponry they deserve, some good may come of this sad episode.