Economics

The Odd Institution

There’s a conversation I once had with the director of admissions at a top west coast business school that I’ve kept tucked away in the back of my mind for the past 15 years or so. Yesterday’s college admissions fraud scandal  that was plastered all over my social media feed brought it back to the front of my mind.

I had recently returned from my second deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and I was smack in the throes of my first military separation after six years as an officer. I had a plan. That plan was to go to a top business school, transition into work in the private sector and start a life and a family.

It was a good plan.

I didn’t get into my top choice school though. And that led to the conversation. When I contacted the director of admissions for feedback on why, he told me plainly that my undergraduate GPA at Annapolis was too low.

I asked him if he had a frame of reference for how overall GPAs at service academies, notorious at the time for not participating in grade inflation, stacked up with other groups. He said he didn’t know. And that it was something that they didn’t consider. He said there was a waiver system for low GPAs. But he told me that they had run out for the year. And that he didn’t know what the cut line for how many waivers was based on. Or how they chose priority for who got the waivers. Or to what other standards, besides GPA, the waivers would be considered against.

My take away from that conversation wasn’t that I had been unjustly wronged by an institution and denied something that I deserved. Instead, I concluded that it was clear that the process was pretty loose. At least relative to how much it mattered to my personal outcomes that I went to a top business school.

In the end I ended up going to another good, but not “as good”, business school. One nice enough to hold my spot when I got recalled and sent back to Iraq after my first semester. I had no problem with the academics as everyone got A’s and B’s pretty much no matter what. And then I transitioned out for good into the tech sector in Silicon Valley where I am a decade later.

My experience affirmed my original suspicions. A whole lot of this doesn’t really make much sense. This being the role higher education and things like admissions processes and standards play in our society.

If an alien came down to earth, or even someone from Denmark really, and tried to figure out what’s going on in American higher education, they’d have some questions.

Why does it matter if I can swim fast?

Why do text books cost more than tablets that could hold a thousand text books worth of data…or access all the text books via the magic of internet?

What’s tenure?

Why does it cost so much? And why is that cost rising faster than other things?

What role do Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, our two highest paid state educators, play?

Can you use a government loan to pay for tuition at a government school? If so, how come the government loans you money for you to pay back to another government, which is partially funded by the same government, to give you something that you can then pay interest back to the government.

What does one do with an endowment larger than 37 state budgets?

What’s the Fiesta Bowl?

They’d fumble around with these novelties and then eventually get to the big one. What’s the purpose of higher education in America?

The quick answer is to provide America with an educated society, so that we may be a more capable one. Economist Bryan Caplan offers a compelling argument in his book, The Case Against Education. Caplan takes a data backed approach to addressing the question. Is it all about human capital, as the answer I provided above would lead you to believe?  Or is it about signaling a mixture of intelligence, commitment and the ability to follow the rules to future employers.

Caplan believes it’s mostly the latter; much more than anyone cares to admit. And in a society in which that’s true, educating one’s self is the right thing to do in order to benefit one’s own potential outcomes. As a society as a whole though, the entire activity yields limited positive impact that couldn’t be duplicated with a much less ridiculous and far less resource intensive vetting process.

Even if one believes that Caplan has overstated his case, it’s fair to ask, in a world of skyrocketing education costs and overwhelming student loan debt, is the juice really worth the squeeze?

My experience in education is that it’s far more signaling than human capital. My Naval Academy ring has earned me more money than my ability to work our differential equations. I need little science to prove this as I’ve done zero differential equations in my work life and spent the majority of some period of my life learning how to do them in school.

Which brings me back to yesterday’s news about the college admission scandal. It’s everything we want in a story. It’s people of privilege with no-good kids that they can’t get to do anything, doing unbelievable, reprehensible and illegal things to get those kids into school. We can’t get enough of the moralizing and finger wagging at the things that we love to hate. Restrictive elite organizations. And people of privilege. And no-good kids.

As I read through the list of bad deeds and unbelievable behavior, I couldn’t help but wonder about that 15 year old conversation. And just how odd the things that we care about are. And that when pressed, people that ought to know why we care, can’t really say why we care.

Sailing teams. Special considerations for standardized tests. Community service. Money.

I value the place academia has in our culture highly. There needs to be a place where knowledge and learning and science are the objective. Not the means to an end. But I can easily separate that purpose from the industrial complex that is higher ed today fairly easily. And I can see the great burdens and barriers to opportunity the institution is contributing to society. And I can’t help but wondering how many better ways are there to do what we’re doing.

4 replies »

  1. My colleague and I spent last evening at an event celebrating and thanking companies like ours who provide badly needed scholarship funds to students who otherwise might not have been able to attend the great public university that hosted the event along with the student scholarship recipients. The keynote speaker was a young woman who was plunged into near poverty in middle school when her father abruptly left her family. This happened to her in the midst of a privileged, upper middle class community in the suburbs of NY. She told us how for most of her 8th grade year her mother rationed bushels of apples that had been given to them and that on most days her only food was the 5 apples her mom rationed for her. She ate all of them, including everything but the stem, the seeds and the little fuzzy connector at the bottom. She was given hand-me-down clothes by the private middle school down the street which she says were “really nice”. Fast forward, with continued scholarships, work/study arrangements and hard work, she is now attending the university’s medical school. She insists, and is most believable when she says this would have been IMPOSSIBLE without help. My question is this… which physician would you rather have caring for you when you are ill and hospitalized — the rich person’s fake crew team member or soccer player? Or this young woman?

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  2. Early on in my career as a professional educator, I served on the adjunct faculty at several private colleges for both undergraduates and graduate students. I stopped doing this work when the Chair of my department changed a grade, because, well, low grades are not to be given to graduate students, especially students from donor families. In that moment, I couldn’t respond meaningfully to “what was the point!? So, I left.

    I later became an elementary school teacher. That experience led me to my overarching answer. The purpose of education is to accustom and extend the ability to think.

    Unfortunately, from the youngest to the oldest students, in public or private schools, there is a systemic failure to accomplish this purpose.

    Perhaps, having experienced the progressive movement in educational trends in my own education, I am optimistic that this failure can be corrected. My pessimism kicks in when I consider the ability of current movers and shakers to will it to be so.

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  3. My second kid is a little bit more lazy in the whole college admissions process. He hasn’t opened his study guide for the ACT. He doesn’t seem to motivated about the whole college visit thing. I am sure he will be motivated eventually.
    Who knew if I had enough money I could be assisted in this whole process and even get someone to take the ACT for him.
    I knew the rich were different and that they had an edge that our family does not have as far as getting into an elite school. I had no idea that that edge would be something similar to the story that came out yesterday. Yikes!

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  4. My dad was an electronics engineer. When I took differential equations, I got stuck once and asked him for help. He said he hadn’t used differential equations since he took the course himself, twenty years earlier.

    And don’t get me started on textbooks! That’s been a racket that Al Capone would envy at least as far back as the 1970s.

    Finally, the farcical “industrialized” education system seems to be more about administration and building new classroom buildings (and staffing them with underpaid and underqualified teachers) right down to the community college level.

    So, good post, but it only hints at the craziness in our whole higher-education system!

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