Category Archives: academia

the weirdness of the higher ed marketplace

Princeton has $2.86 million in endowment per student, which would yield about $140k per year in interest for every undergraduate. Princeton could charge no tuition if its goal were to maximize accessibility. On the other hand, Princeton received 32,000 applications last year, so it could easily fill a highly-qualified class with people who could pay its full tuition price–or much more than that–if the university’s goal were to maximize tuition income. Princeton could also double or triple its size or create a new campus in another state or country if it wanted to maximize both accessibility and revenue.

Of course, a university sees itself as doing more than providing education. It also generates research, arts and culture, public service, etc. Every dollar that it collects from a student can go to those other purposes. But any endowment money that it spends on those other purposes could have gone to financial aid.

Meanwhile, prospective students also want a bundle of things, including prestige. Prestige comes with selectivity and sticker-price. Imagine you have a choice between paying the basic in-state tuition at UW-Madison ($10,725) or the same amount to Stanford after receiving financial aid. Stanford might look like a better deal, since its tuition sticker price is $55,473. It seems like you are being given $44k. However, it is unlikely that the marginal cost per student at Stanford is really 5.5 times higher than the cost at UW-Madison. More likely, Stanford knows it can charge a base tuition of $55k because many families will pay that much; and asking for less would be leaving cash on the table. Stanford with financial aid is arguably a better deal than UW-Madison’s full price, not because Stanford offers a better (or more costly) education in the classroom but because attending a college that is extremely selective and expensive looks better.

In short, the demand curve rises with price. The more other people pay for a given college, the more valuable it is to you, holding your own costs and the quality of the education constant.

It sounds as if college is a Veblen good, one that rises in perceived value the more it costs. But that logic does not exactly apply. If a college that regularly turns away 94% of its applicants decided to fill its seats with people who could pay full price, it would look less academically selective (as well as less diverse), and it would become less desirable. Many of the people who could pay to attend would now try to go elsewhere. In other words, if you pay full price, you are better off the more of your fellow students do not. Financial aid demonstrates that the college is selecting on criteria other than wealth. This is not typical of a Veblen good, which looks more desirable if only rich people buy it.

As Frank Bruni amusingly postulated, a college could win the prestige sweepstakes by deciding that no one was qualified for admissions. Bruni imagines the day when Stanford finally admits zero applicants:

At first blush, Stanford’s decision would seem to jeopardize its fund-raising. The thousands of rejected applicants included hundreds of children of alumni who’d donated lavishly over the years. …

But over recent years, Stanford administrators noticed that as the school rejected more and more comers, it received bigger and bigger donations, its endowment rising in tandem with its exclusivity, its luster a magnet for Silicon Valley lucre.

In fact just 12 hours after the university’s rejection of all comers, an alumnus stepped forward with a financial gift prodigious enough for Stanford to begin construction on its long-planned Center for Social Justice, a first-ever collaboration of Renzo Piano and Santiago Calatrava, who also designed the pedestrian bridge that will connect it to the student napping meadows.

One of the anomalies that Bruni is pointing to is that people who attended a college in the past now underwrite it voluntarily with their donations. Usually, you pay in order to obtain a good. Here, you get the good and then you pay for others to get it–in part so that it can be withheld from as many applicants as possible, thus raising its value even more on your own resume.

These are strange incentives ….

navigating the disciplines

In a year of virtual orientations, I made a video to help inform Tufts undergraduates who may be thinking about what disciplines to explore as they choose courses and–later on–majors. I addressed “civically engaged” students: those who want to improve their communities, nations, and the world and are trying to decide what academic disciplines might help them to do that.

My presentation is not argumentative or judgmental in the sense that I advocate some disciplines over others. But I do impose an organizational scheme with classifications and generalizations that would probably be controversial. For example, I say what I think a “science” is and why the social sciences are scientific. I acknowledge that these definitions are personal and contentious, but they might make the video interesting for some people beyond Tufts.

my thoughts for students as we move online

Like many other universities, Tufts has decided to close physically for the semester and switch to online education. I am sure my colleagues across the country are discussing this shift with their students as they meet for the last time this week–or virtually, if students have already dispersed.

This is what I’m saying. The text is “open source” in case anyone wants to copy some of it, although I’m sure my colleagues will want to say different things or make similar points better.

First, I am disappointed that we will not meet again in person. I thought the conversations were fascinating and compelling. I have been impressed by your commitment and intellectual and emotional investment.

For my part, I was committed to continuously improving the class. We recently made a shift to more small-group discussions, and I would have sought to make more such changes. My goal would have been to end the semester very strong, better than we began it. It frustrates me to have to move into a kind of triage mode.

But we need to do the best we can. The point is to give you the best learning experience possible under the circumstances, which will vary from person to person and over time. Of course, that’s always supposed to be the point. A college class is not a transaction, with you doing what the professor wants in order to get a grade. It’s always supposed to be a joint creation with the objective of learning. Now we’ll really have to accomplish that together.

Usually, students want predictability. A syllabus nowadays looks almost like a contract: you do this, I will do that, and the results are guaranteed. I don’t think we can be predictable this semester. Who knows how many of us (if any) will be directly affected by the disease? Or whether videoconferencing platforms will hold up under the strain? On the bright side, I assume that professors and teachers will invent successful new strategies that will go viral. We don’t know now how we’ll teach and learn in April.

In the absence of predictability, we need communication. It’s your responsibility to share feedback and ideas with me–especially since we will not be meeting face-to-face. I can’t know what you are experiencing or how you assess the course unless you tell me.

I assume that your circumstances and responses will vary. Some may find it hard–for practical and/or emotional reasons–to participate in various ways. But some may be bored and frustrated that they’re not learning enough during one of only eight semesters of a conventional undergraduate education. I need to hear from you, wherever you stand.

I cannot customize perfectly because I have more than 50 students and more than 20 advisees, plus other responsibilities beyond teaching. However, we can differentiate the experience to some extent. We can add optional activities for students who want more and make accommodations for those who are struggling to keep up.

As always, assigning grades is an inevitable task, and I’m not saying that everyone will get an A because of the circumstances. Still, I am hoping that, even more than usual, we can put the assignment of grades somewhat aside and focus on maximizing the learning for everyone. Your responsibility is not only to try to learn but also, to the extent possible, to help others to learn. Those are the two overarching criteria of assessment. We will succeed if we co-produce this class and fail if we give up on it.

With all that being said, my current plan is to form you into groups of 4-5, with changing membership each time. Those groups will hold videoconferences during each of the scheduled class times. I will provide detailed discussion questions with suggested allocations of time for each topic. Each group will write succinct overview notes on a shared document. I will comment substantively on that document when I see places to weigh in. Individual writing assignments will remain the same as on the syllabus.

Now and throughout the semester, suggestions and critiques of this plan are not only welcome, but expected.

how have political science and k-12 civics diverged?

It’s risky to generalize about k-12 civics. In the USA, there are no national standards for civics, state standards tend to be incoherent and not firmly enforced, and textbooks divide the market. Some teachers in some classrooms present highly critical accounts of US politics. Others are committed to American exceptionalism and celebratory narratives. The whole woke-to-MAGA spectrum is represented.

Many k-12 teachers try to avoid adopting positions in the classroom by presenting only hard facts about the constitutional process or by organizing deliberative discussions in which many perspectives are honored. Yet even an ostensibly neutral approach must reflect choices about the most important questions, topics and themes.

It is also risky to generalize about the discipline of political science, which encompasses more heterogeneous subfields than most disciplines. Whole subcultures of political scientists strike me as pro-regime, while others are radical. (See this post for some observations about the balkanized profession.)

But I’d still tentatively hypothesize that the center of gravity in political science stands apart from the center of gravity for k-12 civics, especially if we look at mass-market textbooks and state standards documents for evidence about civics. And I’d suggest that these are the three main gaps:

  1. Political science has haltingly recognized a wider range of perspectives on American political history and institutions, giving more attention to women and people of color as political thinkers and critics. That has meant more attention to critiques of the US system, but also alternative ideals and visions of progress. Again, this generalization ignores woke high school teachers and conservative or traditionalist political science professors, but I’d still venture the generalization.
  2. Political science has widely embraced versions of the New Institutionalism. I have written a primer on that movement, but in essence, it finds that institutions rarely operate as intended because they have their own logics and incentives. This means that it is unlikely that the US government would work as its authors planned. James Madison was an early and brilliant institutionalist who designed constitutional provisions to prevent certain kinds of corruption and failure. But the New Institutionalism has vastly expanded the list of threats, and few political scientists would argue that the US Constitution’s design addresses all these threats in a satisfactory way. Much of the high school curriculum is designed to teach students why the framers designed our system to work as it does. Many political scientists would emphasize that it does not, and could not, work as intended but rather faces serious perils. By the way, here I am not referring to intended “features” of the original Constitution, such as white-male dominance. I am referring to unforeseen “bugs.”
  3. Political science has experienced the behavioral revolution. Human beings evolved to make decisions without full consideration of relevant facts and information, employing heuristics and biases and rationalizing our biases with cherry-picked reasons. It’s common in civics curricula to present a model of the citizen as an independent thinker who decides on the best policy and chooses the candidates who come closest to those views. At least according to political scientists like Achen & Bartels (Democracy for Realists, 2016), this model is a myth. Citizens inevitably join up with large groups and vote to demonstrate loyalty to their groups.

The solution to this gap is not to move k-12 civics all the way to the center of gravity of professional political science. For my taste, the professional discipline is too cynical, not sufficiently normative or interested in problem-solving. Exposing students to cutting-edge political science is unlikely to make them more active and efficacious citizens. A big dose of New Institutionalism plus Behaviorism could kill anyone’s interest in politics unless the insights of those movements can be combined with some creativity and optimism.

At the same time, to ignore the findings of modern political science is increasingly untenable. We need new combinations.

See also: don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic; the New Institutionalism, deliberative democracy, and the rise of the New Right; on teaching the US Constitution; is our constitutional order doomed?; we should be debating the big social and political paradigms; and constitutional piety.

the Oberlin cultural appropriation controversy, revisited

(Washington, DC) In 2016, I began a blog post:

The Oberlin College Cultural Appropriation Controversy is almost certainly getting more attention than it deserves because it reinforces critiques of political correctness in higher education. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting case to consider the general questions: What is cultural appropriation, and when is it bad?

Some Oberlin students criticized Oberlin’s dining hall’s bánh mì and General Tso’s chicken as cultural appropriations. …

I tried to offer a nuanced response to the general topic of cultural appropriation. Although I see some legitimacy in some critiques of appropriation, I am worried about the stance that cultural products belong to ethno-cultural groups and cannot be borrowed. I find that view empirically untenable, because culture is always borrowed and shared. And I can think of unsavory examples–like Richard Wagner’s decrying classical music composed by European Jews, partly on the ground that music belonged to Germans and not Jews. I start with enthusiasm for a global cultural commons and opposition to all forms of “enclosure.”

However, we now know that I shouldn’t have been writing about the Oberlin episode at all. No Oberlin students organized to criticize the campus food on political grounds. Instead, the college newspaper asked some individuals their opinions of the college bánh mì and sushi. A majority of those interviewed thought these dishes were poor examples of their genres. The bánh mì was made with ciabatta, and the “chicken sushi” wasn’t sushi at all. It’s not clear that even the individuals who were quoted had political or ethical objections to the food. And even if they did, they were responding to a question. There was no student movement against cultural appropriation.

This story fit some people’s prior assumptions and went viral without being fact-checked. In this case, it was about allegedly spoiled PC students on a liberal campus, but we are all subject to being fooled by virally contagious anecdotes. This phenomenon can happen accidentally, but it can also be made to happen by people with nefarious motives. An example is the shadowy Twitter account that “posted a minute-long video showing the now-iconic confrontation between a Native American elder and the high school students.” This misleading video was carefully designed to play on the ideological priors of liberals.

Looking back at my post, I am relieved that I hedged my opening and I didn’t criticize any students. But I did file away the memory that Oberlin undergraduates had mobilized against the bánh mì, which did not happen. And my post, despite its caveats, played its small role in spreading that misperception. We all need to pay more attention to the reliability of the alleged facts that we use as opportunities for arguments.

See also: what is cultural appropriation?; notes on cultural appropriation after the royal wedding; when is cultural appropriation good or bad?; V.S. Naipaul’s view of culture; cultural mixing and power; a political defense of Hamilton; Maoist chic as Orientalism; and “a different Shakespeare from the one I love”