SHELL GAMING, PART III

Posted in Rants on May 20th, 2018 by Ed

(Part I and Part II)

So colleges – at least the majority of higher ed institutions that are not swamped with amazing applicants like some elite schools are – take a lot of international students for largely economic reasons. What's the big deal? Why shouldn't they take them? Diversity is good!

The problem (and note, crucially, that it's not a problem for the entire university community) is that these students can be poorly prepared to succeed in a US classroom and very little is done to help integrate these students into campuses often located in rural areas that lack much diversity. Let's unpack that a bit, and note that not all international students and not all colleges are identical on this point. Obviously.

First, international students often have an educational background that amounts to intense math, science, and computer skill training with nothing resembling what we broadly recognize as a Liberal Arts type education here in the US. This means universities will do one of two things: either put international students in courses where some will struggle mightily, or alter their curriculum so Tech-oriented students don't have to take any liberal arts or humanities courses. Those are both bad outcomes.

Another big problem is basic facility with English, which I hope we can agree is a prerequisite to any student succeeding in a US college classroom. I don't care if immigrants to the US speak English or not, as history shows that over time they and future generations will learn it inevitably. But for a person coming to the US specifically for the purpose of taking college courses, not being able to speak, read, and understand English is going to be a big problem.

I hope that isn't parsed or misconstrued to endorse some sort of racist closed-door policy. The issue is that – OK let's be real, we're talking specifically about China here – international student applicants are certified to have English language ability in a process that is clearly flawed. I'm not saying Chinese state policy is to cheat standardized testing and fudge applicant backgrounds and qualifications, but…it totally is. This is common knowledge, not a conspiracy theory. Administering standardized tests in China is a nightmare issue for organizations like ETS or College Board, and applications from China regularly have certification of skills and degrees completed that are of doubtful provenance. This is not the students' fault in the slightest. This is a situation beyond their control.

Anyway, the 80s movie stereotype of the Exchange Student who no-speak English is generally false, but in recent years with the sharp rise in recruitment from China there are in fact some issues.

The second big issue is support and integration. You cannot accept a couple hundred Bengali or Ukranian or Chinese or Turkish students and just drop them in the middle of rural western Michigan and say "OK, good luck!" Support resources for foreign students might not be urgently needed in Chicago or San Francisco or Miami, but they definitely are in Rural Rust Belt, Missouri. Real efforts to integrate students with the larger campus are rarely attempted. Instead, schools more commonly take the "self contained biosphere" approach, setting up a separate living environment for all international students and just sort of telling them to make the best of it. I've never been an international student, but it's not hard to imagine how social, personal, and psychological issues could be a big problem. I imagine myself dumped not into Beijing but into some rural city in China where I might be one of only 100 English-speaking white people and I do not have a hard time seeing how that could be intimidating and alienating.

Let's be honest again and recognize that in some parts of the US, the non-campus community might also be hostile to the idea of universities (especially if public) catering to thousands of people speaking foreign languages. I don't need to elaborate here; suffice it to say that is a problem and it is rarely dealt with in a systematic and serious way.

International students are great. Don't get me wrong. It is ironic to me that every non-US citizen student who has ever taken my (often required) Intro to American Government course has passed it, often with an A or B. These are good students as a group; smart people and a pleasure to deal with. Unfortunately they are often (though obviously not always) put in situations where they are going to have a hard time succeeding through no fault of their own. Their government is telling them "Go, do this or you have no future" and on the American end we are saying "Yes, come, show us the money!" and it doesn't take an overwhelming amount of cynicism to see how that doesn't create the best set of incentives.

I don't see a likely solution so long as the vast majority of higher education institutions in the US compete for a stagnant or (in some states) shrinking population of college-aged people. Tuition will go up, but so will the discounts given in what is a very competitive environment for highly qualified students. Someone and something has to take up the slack.

SHELL GAMING, PART II

Posted in Rants on May 16th, 2018 by Ed

(Part I here)

Not everything I described yesterday applies universally – obviously. Elite universities tend to play a different game (since they don't need to do anything to get boatloads of applicants) and some public schools are seriously constrained by decisions made in state capitals. But bear in mind that the vast majority of the 6000-plus degree-granting higher education institutions in this country are hurting or starting to hurt for enrollment. For every Stanford that kinda just does whatever the hell it wants there are ten New England or Midwestern private schools scrambling to make their enrollment target.

To summarize Part I:

1. For ethical and economic reasons, higher ed is going all-out to recruit 1st Gen and non-traditional students
2. Those applicants are the least likely to understand that the full stated tuition price is not what he/she is likely to pay
3. 1st Gen students opt out of applying for places they think they can't afford, lacking the insider understanding that, as a heavily targeted and recruited population, he or she is likely to get substantial discounts
4. The cycle of failing to bring in 1st Gen and underrepresented students continues

The question we closed with is: If few students are paying "full freight" at a lot of universities, why is the stated tuition price always so high? What's the point of saying your tuition is x when the average student is paying (x/2)?

There are three answers of varying complexity.

One is a feedback loop in which expectations of discounts (from students with college-educated, hyper-well-researching parents who are likely well-off and successful) pushes tuition higher. If you know everyone is expecting to be able to tell their friends "Junior got a 50% scholarship" but you still need to make some money, pushing the base price as high as possible makes sense. This is simple enough.

Two, universities hurting for enrollment can cultivate what a colleague (not at my current or previous universities) euphemistically calls "no discount students" by targeting marginal or underwhelming students with rich parents. Mom and Dad have money and want Junior to go to a good school. Junior's grades and test scores are pretty bad. Good School says, look, your kid is under the admissions bar here and *ordinarily* we would have to reject this application, but…well, maybe we can make an exception. Think about the incentives here. Mom and Dad are less concerned about money than about Junior's future. Junior would like to go somewhere Good. The university can easily justify sliding a few below-average applicants in under the bar (and when such students end up succeeding, everyone can feel good about that). It's an all-around win, excepting of course for the faculty who have to teach incoming freshmen who may lack the ability to do work at a college level. But no university administrator has ever cared about that, so.

Finally, there is the elephant in the room: non-US students. High base tuition rates are primarily intended to soak international applicants. They never get discounts. In fact, some places create a separate, even higher price point for them. And while domestic applicants are sensitive to tuition rates – push it too high and they simply go elsewhere – internationals tend not to be for a couple of reasons. One, the students (particularly from Asia) whose parents are sending them to the US for college tend to be among the very wealthiest. You are *not* getting a cross-section of India's population when you look at students from India coming to US universities. Second, in many cases (China, the Middle East, etc.) neither the student nor their family is writing the checks. When the state is footing the bill, the students could care less. I'd be shocked if some of them even know what the tuition rate is.

Schools of every type are working double-time to bulk up on international students now, creating new programs to appeal to the needs and wants of foreign governments that are, in effect, wealthy patrons. Oh, China wants a million electrical engineers? Well heck, we can expand that program easily. The percentage of foreign students on US campuses – many of which are very poorly prepared to integrate and accommodate the needs of anything other than American white kids – is rising not out of some soft-headed liberal desire for multiculturalism. It is strictly a matter of economics. Every US applicant who comes to campus at a discount has an international student counterpart who is getting reamed on tuition – and probably couldn't care less. Everybody wins!

Of course, everybody doesn't win. But that's a story for another day.

That day will be tomorrow.

SHELL GAMING, PART I

Posted in Rants on May 15th, 2018 by Ed

There is a lot of talk in higher education these days about first generation college students. There is an ethical component to emphasizing this (to reduce, or at least not perpetuate, inequality by keeping college the province of kids whose parents are graduates). There is also obviously an economic component to this. As well-off people have fewer kids, colleges need to target a broader range of potential students. That pool now consists, for almost every college or university in the nation, of essentially anyone who has graduated high school.

One area in which 1st Gens are at a distinct disadvantage is in understanding how The System works. Specifically, they and their parents tend to take the information they find at face value. If XYZ.edu says the tuition is $45,000/yr, mom and dad somberly tell Junior, "I'm sorry, but we just can't afford that" while steering the kid toward the cheapest options – low-tier state schools ("directionals") or 2-year options.

People somewhat more savvy to the process would understand that the stated price is not what one pays. Well, almost nobody pays it (more on that in a moment). But universities have what is called a discount rate – the average (choose your preferred term: grant, scholarship, merit aid, financial aid, etc.) given to their student body. And especially at private universities, that discount rate can be *significant*. Which is also the case at universities where getting 1st Gens is an institutional priority. Which is also ALSO the case when the students in question are African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, etc. etc.

Discount rates are often substantial. 50% is not uncommon. 50% plus a bonus for having excellent grades or test scores or other application criteria is not either. 75%-plus for 1st Gen students who excel and belong to underrepresented groups is not rare at all. Not every college will offer these deals to every student, but a student who applies broadly (common applications help with the costs here) to 10-15 schools is very likely to find this kind of deal somewhere unless grades are really abysmal.

And non-college parents don't know this in many cases. 1st Gen students don't know this. They let the stated cost scare them out of applying. They don't realize that applying to – no specific reason for giving these examples other than that they are recognizable private schools – Villanova or Butler or DePaul or Drexel there is not a guarantee but no less than an excellent chance that the actual cost could be only 1/4 or 1/3 or 1/2 of what they see on the website.

You could argue that even with the discount it is beyond what many families can afford. That is a story for another time. The point is that decisions are made based on bad information. In reality, three things alter the math in ways that (no offense intended here, as my parents didn't know this either) unsophisticated consumers do not understand.

1. Every school wants 1st Gen college students, for ethical and practical reasons
2. Since everyone wants this pool of students, schools have to compete to attract them by offering incentives
3. Those incentives can be, and for the very best students often are, significant if the student is willing to consider a range of options

Make no mistake, these same incentives and discounts are available to students who aren't 1st Gen. The only difference between any other applicant and 1st Gen students is that the former is more likely to understand that, at many perfectly good schools, an applicant with good credentials is likely to get grants, merit scholarships, and the like. Public schools may have limited flexibility based on state legislative preferences, but at private universities it's hard to find many students truly paying 100% of the stated cost – "full freight" students, in the biz.

This raises an obvious question, of course: If few students are actually paying the stated price, why not just lower the stated price?

Perch yourself on the edge of your seat. Part II tomorrow.

TEN PERCENT OF CRAP

Posted in Rants on May 14th, 2018 by Ed

Among the most reliable genres of economic / financial journalism is the "Americans aren't saving enough for retirement" boilerplate piece. Nothing is easier to write. Cite the low rate of personal savings. Estimate what a person is likely to need to live in retirement for x years. Mention that relying on Social Security is really dicey to prepare people for the reality that it's disappearing in the next decade or two. Get a graphic of a piggy bank with a red arrow pointing down. Go to lunch.

The underlying fallacy of this argument is that there is something meaningful most Americans could be doing that they simply aren't prudent or smart enough to do, that the path to a financially secure retirement is there and most of us are just too dumb to tread it. Sure, anecdotal evidence is pretty easy to find; some people take on a lot of debt relative to their income and some people who could be financially secure spend frivolously on stupid things. Too often, though, those anecdotes become the argument, like during the housing crisis when lazy homeowners who just didn't feel like repaying their mortgages became the accepted explanation for a collapse designed and engineered by an unregulated industry allowed to let their wildest fantasies play out in reality.

Understanding why Americans save so little for retirement comes back, as so many things economic do, to stagnant wages. People who don't make much money are barely meeting expenses, especially in a system engineered to throw large financial obligations at them in random intervals (big medical bills, educational expenses, the car you have to own because public transit sucks, etc). The bigger problem, and one that not just the very poor experience, is that if you save 10 or 20 percent of your income and your income isn't very high, you rapidly realize how little that accomplishes. It is not hard to see why a lot of people conclude that the money is better spent now than saved in a financial system they do not understand (God only knows, the 90% of us who are financially unsophisticated think, what a 403b is going to be worth in 30 or 40 years) for a future that may never come.

If your annual income is under six figures and you're not getting some kind of generous retirement plan benefit from your employer – and the overwhelming majority of Americans fail to meet those conditions – there is an outstanding chance that whatever you manage to save isn't going to be "enough." You can save as diligently as you want and still retire poor. Ten percent of a shitty income is shit. Twenty percent of Not Much is Not Much.

Talk to people in the industry, or get a financial planner three beers in, and they will tell you that the problem with most Americans' retirement saving is that he or she simply doesn't make enough money. You can only cut back so many expenses. You can only scrimp so much. You can only tell people not to spend any money on anything ever so many times. Eventually the math wins and you must confront the reality that even if it's possible (and generally it isn't) for people to raise kids, pay for affordable housing, and meet other expenses on 90% of their after-tax income, saving that 10% doesn't really amount to shit in the long run. The only way to make that look like it will work is to work until age 75 or 80 (reducing the number of years one must live off savings in the model) or to assume some ridiculous, pie-sky rate of return that will never happen.

The definition of a system that does not work is one in which an individual can follow every one of the rules and still come out a loser. Save 10% annually of a median income in this country (about $43,000) for ten years and, congratulations, you have $43,000. Do it for your whole working life at that salary (which will never go up, because of course it won't) and you have maybe $150,000. How long is that going to last in your retirement given what things are likely to cost in 2045 or whenever.

Now consider that half the country earns less than that and do the math again. It just doesn't work. Rather than focusing on the handful of people who spend like idiots, let's talk about the reality that following every single rule of prudent retirement and financial planning is not going to allow most of us to retire until we're ready to drop. With the extinction of defined benefit retirement plans, our savings are tied to our earnings and our earnings aren't moving. It'll be an interesting time to be alive when everyone figures that out.

UNDER THE RADAR

Posted in Rants on May 10th, 2018 by Ed

Are you half-decent at geography and keeping up with the news? See if you can guess the country I'm talking about without cheating, and see if you can do it before reading every hint.

1. It is home to the deadliest conflict since the end of World War II, responsible for somewhere between 3 and 5.5 million deaths.

2. It is the 11th-largest country in the world by area and has a population greater than France, UK, South Korea, Spain, Poland, or Argentina.

3. It is the world's leading producer and exporter of cobalt, and in the top ten for diamonds and gold.

4. It is the largest country in the world with French as an official language.

5. Foreman and Ali fought in its capital city in 1974 (the "Rumble in the Jungle").

Still searching?

Well.

6. It used to be called Zaire.

The correct answer, if the final one didn't give it away, is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And I am fascinated by it. I have no proper academic experience studying it, but I wish I did. It is the absolute perfect example of the long shadow of colonialism, the minimal attention paid in the western media to conflicts – sometimes enormous conflicts – in the Wrong parts of the world, and a lesson I hoped Americans might learn after Iraq about the fallacy of placing any importance on map lines in that region.

The DRC as a nation-state has zero historical basis. None. It's kind of amazing. This notion of "Zaire" as a historical entity barely goes back 100 years and was drawn up by Belgium with the assent of the other European colonial powers. The USA is a fairly ethnically diverse country, right? We're such a melting pot, right? Well within the modern borders of the DRC there are over two hundred distinct ethnic groups, often with no common language. And some people from outside the continent simply decided, OK you're all a country now.

Hmm. I wonder why it hasn't become a stable democracy yet.

Ethnic conflict is just one of the many reasons behind its enormously bloody civil war, sometimes called the Second Congo War when it is noticed at all. Eight – eight! – different African countries in the region have sent armed groups, massive floods of refugees, or both across the borders into the DRC in the past two decades, contributing to the chaos and death toll. If you think it would be impossible for 3-5 million people to die in a war without anyone noticing, surprise. Here you go.

Like many ex-colonies, DRC is cursed and blessed with resources. If its people had any basis whatsoever for coming together as a modern nation the potential for wealth is there, but of course not only do they have any common national identity but the extensive corruption, in-fighting, and constant outside interference ensure that will never happen.

It is, even by post-colonial African standards, just a broken place. It should not exist as a country, as its people had to be informed that they were to exist as one and were not consulted in the matter. And it amazes me the extent to which such an enormous place with so much turmoil can get so little attention. It's an example begging us to learn something from it, hiding in plain sight. When was the last time you read anything about it on the news?

PIVOT TO LIKE, 2013 I GUESS

Posted in Uncategorized on May 9th, 2018 by Ed

The website is undergoing a substantial update to make it more friendly to mobile devices. The complaints that it was difficult to read if not on a laptop/pc/etc were increasing in frequency and urgency. If any interruptions occur, thanks for your patience. Content will resume shortly if things go dark.

TRY YOU HAND AT GRADING COLLEGE WRITING

Posted in Uncategorized on May 8th, 2018 by Ed

I'm reluctant to beat what is (on Twitter) already a very dead horse, but today's newest literary feces from Bari Weiss on the once-not-totally embarrassing New York Times opinion page is just astonishingly bad. If you ever wondered what it was like to grade a paper written by a really conceited (Everyone tells me I'm so smart!) 19 year old journalism major, here's your chance.

I decided it is too long, tedious, and stupid to give a full FJM treatment, since that actually requires effort on my part. And I realize (as they anticipate when publishing shit like this) the recourse to "Respect opinions you don't agree with" is strong. But this isn't about opinions and differences surrounding them. This is about the Newspaper of Record, in a misplaced stab at "intellectual diversity", giving regular column space to someone who literally sounds like a teenager. A not insightful, sickeningly proud of herself teenager.

Read as much of this as you can. This is simply awful. It is written at a college level, and not a high college level. "There be dragons" and "That which cannot be named" appear before the end of the fourth paragraph. The cliches and thesaurus-thumbing verbiage are so thick that you can see them coming two sentences in advance. If this were an article about luxury automated socialism for Arizona Cardinals fans, I would still loathe it because it is fucking unreadable.

Why does this person have this platform when equivalent writing can be found in the campus newspaper of any university in the country? Whose cousin is she? Who do mom and dad know? This is either a case of nepotism or Bari Weiss is the goddamn luckiest person on Earth, plucked out of the sea of millions of other people who can sort-of write in sentences but do it with the tone and cadence of a high school senior trying too hard.

And on its merits, even if this weren't juvenile and hard to read, this argument is just fucking ludicrous. "Intellectual Dark Web" is a bunch of people with massive, highly visible platforms. Hack comedian and former gross-out TV host Joe Rogan has the second most listened to podcast. On Earth! Like, out of all podcasts! He was on a sitcom so even your mom and dad know who he is! Literally nobody is silencing Joe Rogan. Or Ben Shapiro. Or Jordan Peterson – you can't go five fucking minutes without seeing his cadaverous mug these days.

Here is a set of supposedly taboo ideas so subversive that one cannot avoid seeing them everywhere, every day. Major media outlets. The high-traffic internet. On university campuses. On talk shows. On podcasts. From the Republican majority in both chambers of Congress as well as the White House and 3/5 of state capitols. And the ideas are SO taboo that…you can name every single thing she is going to bring up by the time you've gotten six sentences into the piece.

Oh let me guess. Feminism is out of control. College kids are snowflakes. Identity politics something something. Immigration is bad. Muslims are terrorists. "Western culture" something something. There, did I get them all?

How does an editor let this happen? Do these people have no self-respect at all? Some overgrown sorority girl sends you a pitch like, "I'm gonna write about how all my friends and all the people who agree with me are REBELS!" and what do you say in response? Maybe the writing is on the wall for the Times to the extent that everyone just shrugs and says "OK, whatever" at this point. I can't tell if that is more or less sad than the idea of an editor reading this and thinking, "Great, this is exactly what I wanted."

FEIGNING IGNORANCE FOR FUN AND PROFIT

Posted in Rants on May 7th, 2018 by Ed

Former U.S. Attorney and National Review mainstay Andrew McCarthy wrote an absolutely must-read piece on Saturday entitled "Why All the Secrecy?" Don't worry, it's not useful or informative. But you have to read it because there may never be a better example of everything wrong with journalism in the Trump era.

Being a lawyer who not only graduated law school but passed a bar exam and – AND! – rose to one of the more prestigious categories of jobs in the legal profession as a U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Andrew McCarthy absolutely goddamn knows "why all the secrecy." He understands exactly how criminal investigations, grand juries, and the other basics of the criminal justice system work. He knows as well as he knows how to put on a pair of pants that no prosecutor, judge, or investigator on the planet is going to conduct an investigation via the mass media. He knows which part of our nation's legal process is the "Turn over your cards and show the public" stage, and he knows that this certainly is not it.

Yet here he is, writing this entire goddamn piece without once mentioning things that even an observant Law & Order binge-watcher probably knows. He makes some half-hearted attempt to justify why no such rules should apply in this situation, but the fact that he could write this entire thing (and have an editor give it the green light) without using the phrase "Rule 6e" even dismissively is…well, it takes 'brazen' to a new level.

Of course the problem is he's not interested in making any kind of argument that stands up to logic or scrutiny. He is, in the media outlet conservatives often cite as their Serious Intellectual Place, throwing red meat to conspiracy-hungry idiots. The false naivete implicit in the titular question is preposterous, as though this retired Federal prosecutor really can't understand why some level of secrecy is being maintained here. But he doesn't care. In his post-prosecutor career as a journalist he also knows how to attract clicks and to whip his following of increasingly deranged Trump cultists into a frenzy.

This is modern "opinion" writing, especially on the right: pretending you don't know really obvious and simple things to appeal to people so dumb or myopic that they legitimately don't understand.

Where do I sign? I hear it pays well.

BASIC INGREDIENTS

Posted in Rants on May 4th, 2018 by Ed

Many years ago, one of my most successful former students – she had been in a few of my undergrad classes at a previous institution – called me in a panic. I had heard from her fairly regularly on the internet, and our conversations were a mix of me giving her pep talks for the difficult first few years post-graduation and her regaling me with awesome Washington DC insider stories ("I saw ____ vomiting in the bushes last night.") But here I could tell something else was wrong.

Long story short, it turned out to be rather amusing (from my end). She had met a young man she liked, and had "panicked" and invited him over for dinner. Now in the cold light of day she was realizing that she didn't actually know how to cook anything. So, with considerable help from Rachel Ray I talked her through a basic action plan and the problem was solved.

Later, after I thought about the implications, I asked her: out of curiosity, you've been living independently for something like five years. Without even the most basic cooking skills (she really was at Ground Zero; I sent her a copy of the invaluable How to Boil Water cookbook) what the hell had she been eating all this time? Obviously a Young Professional is getting a lot of carry-out and delivery food, a lot of restaurant meals, and so on. But you have to make something to eat sometime. At least occasionally.

The answer: "Healthy Choice frozen meals. And nachos."

It was at that moment that I became convinced that American schools need to devote a semester or two during K-12 to teaching kids how to cook. Home Economics classes get a bad rap because of their historical role as something "For Girls" intended to shepherd young women into a lifetime of uncompensated domestic labor. But think about some of the problems that could be solved if every student left high school with the basic skills and knowledge to make 10 to 15 simple meals with ingredients costing between $5 and $10.

I know there are a lot of other problems, like the cost and geographic availability of food. But the knowledge simply isn't there in a lot of cases, and the blithe assumption that young people are learning to cook from their families or from osmosis or from the internet isn't helping. Imagine how much the dependence on low-priced fast food or high-calorie garbage food (Doritos can be a meal if you have a 2-liter with them!) if young adults were flung into independence with at least some knowledge of what to do with the kitchen part of the apartment other than fill it with chips and granola bars.

How hard would it be for each school district, combining contributions from parents, students, and teachers, to come up with a dozen things suitable to local preferences and spend less than schools routinely spend on less useful pursuits buying the ingredients? Hell, you could probably get half of it for free when the grocery stores are getting ready to throw it out. Or hell, just have the state pony up the money after admitting that this is going to save millions in the long run.

It seems uncontroversial enough, but I'm sure there's something I'm missing that would turn this into a pitched battle in the culture wars.

VISUAL AIDS

Posted in Quick Hits on May 1st, 2018 by Ed

After several text-based designs, proud to unveil these awesome new t-shirts with some colorful-ass artwork (by Chloe Hoeg) front and back. These are available in Unisex/Men's Canvas brand crewneck, or Women's Canvas crewneck. If you have bought shirts previously, these are the same brands and sizes I always use, except the women's shirt is crewneck instead of v-neck this time. Small through XXL available in either men's or women's. Please email a special request for XS or 3XL and I'll see what I can do. 4XL not available. Canvas 6001 and 6004 sizing charts here.

If you are a $25 patreon subscriber, DO NOT ORDER – YOU'RE ALREADY GETTING ONE!

Quality screenprinting by Screenin' Fever. Shirts are in my hands May 18-20, and will be in the mail to you immediately upon arrival. Click image to enlarge front, rear, and mockup designs.

International shipping has gotten very expensive and I apologize. US shipping is $4. All non-US orders including Canada must order using the International button below.

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