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The Uncharity of College: The Big Business Nobody Understands (conradbastable.com)
292 points by cjmb 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 140 comments



This article is interesting, but it makes the fundamental error of assuming that the primary product of an R1 research university is education for undergraduates, which it is not. The primary product of an R1 research university is research, largely performed by Graduate Students, Postdoctoral Researchers and Professional Researchers. All of these are paid a salary of some form, some market-rate, others less-so. That's where the cost is, along with actual costs of instruments, libraries, consumables and buildings necessary for cutting edge research. Most of the funding for that comes from research grants and you can see how it represents a huge fraction of the budget in his charts. Unfortunately, all of the expenditure data that the Education department puts out combines both R1 and non-R1 institutions, so it's hard to see just how different the top 120 schools are from most of the rest. If you have expenditure data segmented by research intensity, I would love to see it.

The undergraduate education is part of the university, but not the primary part. (At UChicago, grad students still outnumber undergrads!) If you want to see what the finances of an institution that primarily educates undergraduates looks like, go to one of the Liberal Arts colleges, or non R-1 state schools, like any of the Cal States in California, or non-flagship schools in other states.


Good points, and thanks for reading!

You're definitely right that "educating undergrads" is not the "primary purpose" of these institutions. I definitely did not & do not believe that. If that came through in the essay, I apologize for being inaccurate. If anything, I expected the response to be that I was assuming the primary product of a research university was Investment Returns, which is at least closer to a point I tried to make.

Regarding Research: "Research" in the abstract is -- I believe -- considered a tax-deductible expense in America, and the IRS treats it pretty favorably and that's probably for the best.

However, engaging in "research" to some capacity does not -- to the very best of my knowledge -- allow you to claim a full tax-shield on the Investment Profits of $10 billion+ merely by virtue of the fact that you engage in "research" (compare: Big Pharma, which actually has to write off expenses in order to reduce taxes, or Google or Boston Dynamics).

That is VERY different from how Education works today. To be a University is to be a Charity operating in the Education space. Additional Revenues and Expenses in Research areas are not important for this designation. Once the designation is established, the returns on your Investment Profits (invested in both the open and closed markets) are tax-free, forever.

That's a pretty big deal in the finance world as it relates to your ability to accumulate capital and build Wealth.

Whatever the "primary purpose" of that Wealth might be, the fact remains that (at MIT) that Wealth has grown 1,500% over the last 25 years, while the operating budget has grown ~250%. I believe that is somewhat noteworthy, and I could not avoid noticing how critical the Education-Charity tax-shield was to this compound growth.

The question I tried to raise was: "if your Education was affordable, would we allow the service provider to be considered a Charity?"

Regarding finances & more data: every institution named in this essay has it's 2017-full-year financial report linked, which I spent some time going over to better understand revenue sources (i.e. to understand the truly minimal importance of Tuition) and expenses (to understand the nature of the costs involved).

Sadly that data doesn't appear to segment anything by "research intensity", but it usually pulls research out at least research in all forms. And you're right, that Research usually dominates both "Instruction" and "General & Administrative" in terms of spend. (Quick example here: https://web.mit.edu/facts/financial.html, the other institutions have their fully detailed reports linked in the bullets at the start of the essay )


I see that your point is more focused on the financial side, which I don't have a lot of experience to evaluate.

> Whatever the "primary purpose" of that Wealth might be, the fact remains that (at MIT) that Wealth has grown 1,500% over the last 25 years, while the operating budget has grown ~250%. I believe that is somewhat noteworthy, and I could not avoid noticing how critical the Education-Charity tax-shield was to this compound growth.

This is noteworthy, but is it really out of line? You're comparing apples (Wealth) to Oragnes (Operational Expenses). From a strict financial perspective, the standard advice to ensure an endowment or lump sum lasts is a 4% withdrawal rate. At a 4% rate, a 1500% increase in wealth would result in a 60% increase monies available to spend operationally. 250% is much higher than that, although not all of the operational increase comes from the endowment.

Is there an accepted rate of expenditure that endowments should target? Is MIT meeting or exceeding that?


I think your math is off. If I have a $100 endowment, I have $4 to spend. If I have $1500, I have $60 to spend, 15 times as much as $4.


> Once the designation is established, the returns on your Investment Profits (invested in both the open and closed markets) are tax-free, forever.

So it sounds like you'd be a fan of Trump's tax on university endowments? I was surprised it wasn't mentioned at all in your writeup. https://www.chronicle.com/article/A-Tax-on-Endowments-Became...


If OP's analysis is correct, will this new law help keep Ivy's tuition in check?

I wonder if we will see those school open a "sister school" which enrolls tens of thousands of students, with that school under the same endowment, so that they can remain under the threshold of $500k per student, while keeping the prestige of the original school intact?


Yeah it turns out that new regulations often lead to unexpected consequences, especially when the regulated entities are some of the most well-advised organizations in the world. I saw a lot of this in my prior life working at a big law firm as a tax lawyer.


The top priority of a R1 research university is its ongoing existence in perpetuity. A lot of its decisions make more sense under that lens.


Continued existence is a prerequisite for ongoing production of research, no?


> go to one of the Liberal Arts colleges, or non R-1 state schools, like any of the Cal States in California, or non-flagship schools in other states.

...and look at the instructor's salaries. PhD's from top universities who could easily make 300k+ in the private sector but instead take positions that pay 60k-70k. Even with tenure, that's a labor of love.

Blaming highly paid admins would be great, except that university presidents at teaching colleges are the highest paid (reminder: branch campuses and liberal arts colleges never have Div 1 sports programs) and still make $50k-100K less than a green phd out of a top 10 CS program (200k is good money for a president of a branch campus or liberal arts college -- and remember, that's typically a person with 30+ years experience and a uniquely positive track record).

I worry about what will happen to the American teaching college (public or private) over the next 50 years if the current war on college -- which this article typifies -- wins out in the public mind.

If you doubt a single word of this feel free to reply to this comment. I'm extremely familiar with both markets. When I say that (even tenure-track) CS teaching requires a 200k paycut, I really do know what I'm taking about.


> Blaming highly paid admins would be great, except that university presidents...

When people talk about the cost of university administration, they're not always talking about the cost of the most highly-paid, but rather the aggregate cost:

"Since 1980, the number of administrators per student at colleges has about doubled; on most campuses their numbers now match the number of faculty,” the study reads. “Here are some of their titles: senior specialist of assessment; director for learning communities; assistant dean of students for substance education; director of knowledge access services."

from http://mediahub.unc.edu/administrator-salaries-drive-cost-pu...


> Since 1980, the number of administrators per student at colleges has about doubled

I don't doubt that's true; I see it at my college. But I also see at my college that the percentage of students who need extensive administrative attention has shot up in the past ten years. (I teach at a SLAC, so if I have a concern about a student then I call an appropriate administrator and they genuinely try to see if the student is OK. For instance, not too long ago I called about a student and it turned out to be a suicide risk and my call and others prompted an intervention, and the student is OK. I don't know how many hours of administrator attention was clocked on this one person but I expect it was a lot.)


There may well be a need for more administrators these day. Not saying I agree, but I'm sure some people (like Jonathan Haidt) would say this is because we over-coddle young people – and by the time they reach college they are not as independent as students a generation ago.

Note: I am not at all saying this applies to suicide risks, which obviously are not new and which colleges have had support staff for going way back.


> some people (like Jonathan Haidt) would say this is because we over-coddle young people

I'm sorry, I don't know that person. But we try our best to deal with who we have in front of us. I don't know what else we can do, in good conscience.

I am not saying that all additional admins are accounted for by this kind of thing. I don't know enough about it. (Actually the cost is a mystery to me but I've never been an admin of any kind.) I'm only saying that some of the increase I see on the ground is in response to trying to meet real needs.


Jonathan Haidt is a famous social psychology professor at NYU, whose work has been widely cited in recent years. He co-authored the book The Coddling of the American Mind: https://www.amazon.com/Coddling-American-Mind-Intentions-Gen...


Agreed. I think a big part of that is the expansion of access to the academy that we've seen since 1980. Applicants to Berkeley increased 4-fold from 1976 to 1986. (It's gone up another 4-fold in applicants and two-fold enrollments since then.) The increased applicant pool and enrollments probably means that a lot more less-well-prepared students were attending, and the schools staffed up administrative services to meet those students' needs: https://academic-senate.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/kar...

We've also added a lot of services for disabled students, transfer students, etc. All to the good, I would say give more students access to a quality education, but the services needed for 6,000 students of 80,000 applicants is way different from when they were enrolling 3,000 students of the 5,500 who applied.


It's good that the student got help, but these students are adults, aren't they? Why can't they use the same resources as everyone else?


I probably come from a very certain camp on these kinds of issues, but...

Most students are hardly adults. They look it, but they are not necessarily yet fully equipped to manage themselves.

And what if the people the same age who didn’t attend college— well, I would push for more and improved social programs to help them. Of course then you could reduce the staff at the colleges.

I’m all for being proactive about rising needs like social and mental health issues, but I also think a reactive response needs to take place in the interim.

The approach of “here’s a helpline phone number, now deal with it” hasn’t proven effective so far so why lean into it?


Because raising the cost of uni for everyone including poor folks to provide a bundled service they don’t need is not fair to them.


somewhat cynical perspective: maybe the long-term cost of a suicide on campus is greater than the cost to prevent them? one or two over the course of many years is sad, but probably not that damaging to the institution. on the other hand, if your school becomes an outlier, you probably start to feel it in the admissions department.


Yup. When i taught a class (contract) at a local U i had 6 supervisors, none of which taught students. I had a list of another dozen who while not direct supervisors could still command things (diversity coordinators, access to education people etc).

But when i was at law school my contracts prof was the semi-retired former dean and all the admin taught at least a couple courses. Admin was a secondary duty to teaching. That old school still exists in places.


I don't doubt any of it. The CS market is an outlier though, so I wouldn't make too many arguments based entirely on that. For someone with a decent degree in a biological or physical science, the pay cut for a tenure-track position compared to industry is not that bad. (The work-life balance and employment market may be worse, but that's a whole 'nother issue.)


> with a decent degree in a biological or physical science

Mathematics is as close to "humanities" as the STEMs get in terms of compensation and employment options for PhDs, and even top 10 mathematics PhDs can make 2x in the private sector with at least 2 years fewer opportunity costs.

Basically the only fields where what you're saying is true are the humanities and social sciences, but those aren't expanding programs or cost centers.

Work-life balance is one of those things that you would think would better in academia, but is often actually not.

The broader point is that outside of R1, prices mostly reflect the fact that for most students education doesn't scale very well and experienced human labor is more expensive than ever. Those are self-reinforcing, for obvious reasons. Case-in-point: the would-be educator who can't afford a 200k pay cut because of the loans they took out for their own education.


> The broader point is that outside of R1, prices mostly reflect the fact that for most students education doesn't scale very well and experienced human labor is more expensive than ever.

Education scales fine with motivated students or with mechanisms to help students with their motivation. I did a MicroMaster’s with EdX that covered ¼ of a Master’s degree. Now I’m doing a Master’s with SOAS, University of London. Exam and essay marking aside marginal costs per student are close to zero. MOOCs work with motivated students.

For students who are tackling subjects with steeper learning curves scheduling and project based learning seem to work very well along with initial selection. Lambda School is 40 hours a week for 30 weeks. It’s entirely online but the lectures are live so it’s cohort based and you are on the same schedule as the rest of the class. They have a university like method with TAs and lecturers, where the TAs can solve most problems. It seems to be a pretty good system, people have gone from lambda school to MicroSoft and Google.[1]

Education scales fine. The fact that it hasn’t been scaled yet means we’re getting started.

[1]https://mobile.twitter.com/austenallred/status/1010214066701...


I do agree with your comment. Education scales fine as long as your students are independently motivated and have the study skills that help them help themselves. Unfortunately, that describes a surprisingly tiny fraction of the US college population.

Education is not about what works for outliers.


Yeah, I think we largely agree. At just a 2x pay cut, and the potential to be an tenured scholar, there are plenty of people who want to try for it. It's also close to the height of the job market right now, with unemployment very low. That pay disparity may go down quite a bit during the next recession.

>The broader point is that outside of R1, prices mostly reflect the fact that for most students education doesn't scale very well and experienced human labor is more expensive than ever. Those are self-reinforcing, for obvious reasons. Case-in-point: the would-be educator who can't afford a 200k pay cut because of the loans they took out for their own education.

The challenge here is that for the 85% of students getting an education from a public school, is the increase in tuition costs they've seen due to increases in expenditures (which I haven't seen any supporting data for), or a decrease in state funding of tertiary education (which is wide-spread)?


what tier of liberal arts colleges are you talking about here? the president at the college I attended made over $400k base and that was five years ago.


For some other data points:

https://www.bostonmagazine.com/education/2017/12/11/boston-u...

"Robert Brown earned nearly $2.5 million in 2015, according to the most recent tax filings." (President of BU)

"Three other leaders had seven-digit earnings in 2015: Harvard President Drew Faust, who will retire at the end of the school year, earned $1.57 million; Northeastern President Joseph Aoun notched $1.45 million; and MIT President L. Rafael Reif took home $1.03 million."

Maybe the OP isn't talking about the same tier of school, or maybe Boston is an unusual place for university president salaries, but those numbers are pretty far from $200k.


None of those are even close to teaching colleges. MIT, Harvard, Northeastern, Boston University... those aren't just R1s, they're top-tier R1s. Located in one of the most expensive cities in the country, no less.

I'm talking about places with words like "south eastern" and "central" and "state" in their names. And SLACs with endowments below ~100M. In other words, I'm talking about the vast majority of universities and colleges -- the ones that aren't (literally) Harvard or MIT. Places that don't have phds programs, and maybe don't even have sizable masters populations.


Given that the student loan system and accreditation process already imply significant central planning, I think it is fair to ask if these places are net positive for society as a whole.

Conditional on them existing students are forced to attend in order to keep up in the credentialism race, but a supra-market force like the federal government could impose a more globally efficient solution.


Think >60% acceptance rate, low 100MMs endowment.

(Even at 400K, "highly paid administrators" doesn't pass the smell test.)


If you look at california public payroll records for CSU system, the first few pages are dozens of people getting 400 to 500k altogether. Vice president of this and that, administrator IV, etc. But you're right that the people putting in insane hours and putting their hearts in are paid significantly less. (Still over 100k for assistant prof. Or department dean)


That is not the case. Here is the data: https://transparentcalifornia.com/salaries/california-state-...

The only person making $400k+ is the Chancellor of the whole system, the majority of people making $300k+ are presidents of the individual CalState schools, and the administrators over $250+ are almost universally CFOs and senior executives at each school. Many presidents of the smaller schools are in the $200k range. You only start getting to non-executive administrators under $200k.

PS: There are people getting $400k-$500k total, but over $100k of that is benefits.


> instead take positions that pay 60k-70k. Even with tenure, that's a labor of love.

Not to say academics don't take a pay cut compared to industry, but at least in CS $60k-$70k is very low for a tenure track position. Here's a good indication of where salaries are in CS: https://cra.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/2017-Taulbee-Surv...

$90k (9 month salary) is the bottom 10th percentile for a starting assistant professor in CS. $200k (9 month) is the 90th percentile for a full professor with 16+ years.

This obviously varies by school and region, but $60k-$70k is what you would expect for an instructor at a very low rank school, which is not a position PhDs from top universities would be applying for.


My posts are all about teaching, as opposed to more research-oriented academic labor.

> $90k (9 month salary) is the bottom 10th percentile for a starting assistant professor in CS.

That's only because your data includes professors at R1s and also not including instructors at R1s. This is doubly misleading, since those professors you are including spend most of their time on research and those instructors you aren't including are the ones doing the bulk of the teaching.

And outside of R1, 90k is damn good for ast professors.

If you are teaching for a living, as opposed to doing research, $90k is in the upper 10th percentile at the asst prof rank, and $100k is a ceiling for tippy-top candidates at the asst prof rank.

> $200k (9 month) is the 90th percentile for a full professor with 16+ years.

...and is also bottom 10th percentile for wet-behind-the-top- ears top 10 PhDs, who don't have 16+ years experience on top of their 5+ year phd...

> This obviously varies by school and region, but $60k-$70k is what you would expect for an instructor at a very low rank school, which is not a position PhDs from top universities would be applying for.

Sure, but outside of top 10 $150k is still pretty typical industry salary for phds.

The same problem exists at every scale.

Your assertion is also fairly confusing; lots of smart people decide to teach at places where they can have the greatest impact, which is typically not a large-endowment private school...


Colgate is a liberal arts college with a div 1 sports program. There are probably others


I can only think of 1 other.

There are literally hundreds of liberal arts/teaching colleges...

Also, Colgate definitely isn't in the tuition-dependent, take-all-comers mold of the vast majority of teaching-oriented colleges and universities in the USA. Their acceptance rate is below 30%, whereas most teaching-oriented colleges take 70+% of applicants (and draw from a much less well-prepared population of applicants to begin with).


Is the other one Colorado College? Because when I was there we played for the national championship in hockey, with only 1800 students or so.


Wow this essay is fantastic. The idea that the amount of people who "need" financial aid has stayed constant while tuition prices have increased 170% (way outpacing wage growth) is unreal.

Conrad if you wrote a book about this I would buy it. Super fascinating stuff. Colleges are clearly massive financial instruments that need to be analyzed further.


I doubt analyzing university would do much since its already a common knowledge at this point still nothing is happening. Government and legal institutions are ineffective in solving problem where solution results in loss in profit.

Building alternatives to universities that are driven by grass-roots movements are the perfect way forward here. Home schooling, MOOCs and startup businesses are some of the developments that have started diminishing the need of expensive degrees.


What I think will be interesting in the next few decades is if universities will maintain their monopoly on accreditation or if they will lose that like they did on their monopoly of education.

As long as there's a need for degrees as a signal for baseline competence/barrier to entry, it seems those needing it will be at the mercy of the systems that provide it.


> a need for degrees as a signal for baseline competence/barrier to entry

The signal is valuable. The unnatural barrier to entry is, at best, unethical.

Ideally, the barrier to the opportunity to earn the credential would not exist. It should be available to everyone worldwide.

Individual research positions should be applied for. Certain practical skills must be taught in labs, etc. But the vast majority of intellectual effort in a Harvard degree should already have all its coursework and testing available to everyone, and at reasonable cost. Otherwise it is not an open competition, it is an institution promoting socioeconomi status.


I think that's part of the issue as it relates to the article. If that accreditation becomes available to anyone, it loses its elitism and erodes some of the value signal.

That may or may not be why some of the elite schools open up their courses but not their accreditation online. It may not be in the institutions best interest to be as open as the ideal you describe.


Yes, and especially as charities that are effectively subsidized by Joe Everyperson taxpayer, they should not be left off the hook.


Sadly MOOCs as provided by US institutions have gone pretty much the same way as tuition: insane cost for what it is. The French national online university is an interesting model though.


Really an eye opening discussion. I think I’ve been consuming reporting on the ever rising cost of tuition for all of my adult life. Yet never has any journalist approached the question of universities 501(c)(3) status, in the publications I’ve read.

Its crazy! Over time the tax advantage could make university endowments (as well as wealthy religious entities) the largest owners of capital in the world, along with sovereign wealth funds.


Thanks for the words of encouragement.

I'm not focused enough right now to put a book together -- although I agree that there is more to be said on and around this specific topic. Some good nuggets are in this comment section -- as is usually the case for HN.

The essay format allows me to spend a month writing an essay about the intersection of Game Theory, Anime, Military Strategy, AI, and Political Economy without stressing about any grander narrative, which I very much enjoy...


The underlying assertion is that universities must provide financial assistance to the majority of their students to be considered tax exempt. No citation is provided.

26 USC 501(c)(3) explicitly lists an organization operated exclusively for educational purposes as being tax exempt. Charitable organization is listed as a separate type.

Also worth considering is the example of Cooper Union: It charged no tuition and therefore offered no financial aid for most of its history. While one could argue that that is a form of aid so too would any other tuition reduction enabled by an endowment. This further suggests that universities do not set tuition in order to maintain tax exempt status.


They author has commented below, which I needed to read a few times to understand his justification.

He's not really saying that there is some "50%" magic number in tax law. What he is saying is that, imagine a situation where the price of admission was much more reasonable (i.e. hadn't gone up 300+% in the last generation) so that only, say, 10% of students needed aid. This means 90% of students would be paying full price. Well, if 90% are paying full price, he imagines the political pressure would come to say "Why the fuck are these absolutely gigantic, small country-sized endowments able to earn all this profit, and compound it, tax-free, and still 90% of students are paying full price!"

Thus, he argues that the large universities play this fuzzy-math shell game to consistently jack up the price of tuition so that the majority of students require aid. That way they can argue their endowment profits should remain tax-free because they are going to subsidize the students' education.

That's just my summary, but all-in-all I think the whole essay is powerfully argued. In my mind (and I say this as an Ivy league grad) I agree that getting an Ivy league degree 25 years ago is basically like buying real estate in SF 25 years ago. The overall supply has remained artificially constrained which has made prices go through the roof, with the social signalling and economic benefits accruing to those who graduated when admission rates were higher and tuition was lower.


I agree wholeheartedly with the larger point that we have a higher education bubble.

I’m skeptical both that: Lower tuition would make taxing endowments more likely and that universities believe that that’s the case.

In a world with lower tuition, endowments grow somewhat more slowly and are easier to justify because they are the thing that enables low tuition.

For a more direct set of examples of how much inertia we have, consider the way wealthy individuals use foundations to avoid taxes. I haven’t heard people crying out to tax the Gates Foundation despite its endowment growing over time because it can’t keep up with its contributions. Nor is there a massive uproar about donor advised funds which (particularly in CA) can be 80%+ taxpayer funded while effectively lacking minimum disbursement requirements as part of a larger organization.


> I’m skeptical both that: Lower tuition would make taxing endowments more likely

Yes, if the tuition were reduced by increased endowment subsidy, the political cover for the endowment would not be much affected.

But that strategy would limit the value of that cover (for the university staff) by 1) ultimately limiting the size of the "politically justified" endowment and 2) limiting the overall resources they control.

Re: 1), if the university contains cost inflation below endowment retained returns, the endowment eventually grows to fund 100% of tuition. At that point, the question "why do they need more?" becomes obvious and unanswerable.

Re: 2), note that the article implies an "agency" effect with university personnel, in that they benefit by their control of the institution's resources. In companies, such effects are seen in executives taking higher than market salaries and excess perks. All that diverts income from equity owners to managers. In a university these might be above-market salaries, research budgets, job security, prestige, trips, subsidized housing, etc etc etc -- diversions of endowment returns from "teaching" to the staff.

The agency model argues that university staff benefit from _growing_ costs, which give them more resources to control. The story that education costs rise faster than inflation and middle class incomes removes the limit on the size of the cost base / resources controlled. It also "politically justifies" an ever-growing endowment.

Thus lowering tuition simply by paying ever increasing portions of tuition does not serve the university staff. The point of the article, I believe, is that those staff have an ongoing interest in _increasing_ the costs to be subsidized by the tax-free growth of their endowments.

(It is also worth noting that such arguments justify more than protection of endowment returns: state funding for public schools, federal "overhead" payments for research grants, etc. We might even wonder if the endowed universities play a "cost-setting" role for higher education generally. They operate at ever-higher cost, sustained internally by the endowment returns; those costs then help justify the budgets of unendowed schools. "Hey, if you want the kids of Michigan to have a first-rate education, this is what it costs, just look at Harvard." If so, and MIT, Harvard et al began controlling costs, those controls would then ripple over time throughout the whole system through those benchmarking effects. Thus even unendowed schools would have long-term political interest in protecting those endowment returns.)

Note that we don't have to fully believe the whole story to learn from it. The "market" for higher education market is clearly pretty weird, and explaining that will require so pretty involved stories.


"...the endowment eventually grows to fund 100% of tuition. At that point, the question "why do they need more?" becomes obvious and unanswerable."

This is a very good articulation of my points, thanks for laying it out so crisply. Worth noting that this is already a reality at a select few places. While there is continual agitating in America for our Gov. to provide free college, it turns out that some elite private institutions are already in a position to do so, or will be in the next decade. Food for thought, including the follow-on social implications of the headline: "Tuition Now Free At Harvard! Still $50,000/year At Your Local State University Though"

Regarding agency effects / moral hazard:

Someone asked me on another forum what predictions, if any, I would be willing to make in defense of this article.

I tried to rattle off a few off the top of my head with low conviction. One that I comes back to me still is:

"Professor Salaries will have an increasing Gini coefficient vs. today (i.e. profs at Harvard make a higher multiple of Profs at State Colleges 25 years from now)"

Given that the Top institutions will be competing for talent with Compound Returns while everyone else must compete with Tuition increases, I think this would be interesting to study & observe. I have zero data on this unfortunately, so it's just an unsupported hypothesis for now...


Thank you for an interesting article.

> Professor Salaries will have an increasing Gini coefficient

I think your own model says this is too noticeable. Better strategy would be harder-to-notice changes, like smaller teaching loads, more sabbaticals, earlier retirement, travel abroad to conferences, etc.


This is absolutely spot on, and I just wanted to comment to say thank you for articulating my point more succinctly than I did.

The comparison to artificially-constrained SF housing is very apt (as a current SF resident, I know it well).


Most elite private high schools in the UK are charities, and only about 10% of students there receive some form of financial aid. There’s some political impetus to remove that, sure, but it hasn’t happened yet and it isn’t overwhelming.


I believe the post is referring to the 501(c)3 status of the endowment, which is basically a trust fund, and is not operated exclusively for educational purposes.


Two thoughts: Funds are explicitly mentioned as acceptable entities in 501(c)(3). For what non-educational purpose are endowments used? While some uses may seem tenuously connected to a given observer, all are determined to further the university’s mission in some way.


> For what non-educational purpose are endowments used?

Most of the money is used to make more money tax free. i.e., it's invested & managed by Wall Street.

Edit to add I wasn't suggesting the type of entity mattered re: 501(c)3 status but rather was pointing out that the endowment fund is an entity separate and apart from the educational institution.


The point you’re raising is that an endowment could simply exist to make money for its own sake. The IRS combats this by requiring a minimum distribution of 2/3 of the endowment’s minimum return (which tends to be lower than actual).

See https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/private-foundation... for details.


... yes, exactly. Let's review:

I pointed out it's not the university, but the endowment that needs to spend a certain amount to maintain tax-exempt status and that most of it is invested to make more money, which is not an educational purpose.

You've just pointed out that the IRS requires the endowment to make certain distributions. And you've even noted that the IRS required distribution is often much lower than the actual investment income earned. What does this mean? It means even after making the qualified distributions the endowment grows.

Let's say the investment pot has $100 principal and earns 8% a year. At the end of the first year the endowment has $108. Most endowments FBO educational institutions distribute 5% of the total assets[1]:

Year Prin. Int. Dist.

---- ------- ---- ----

1 $100.00 $8.00 $5.40

2 $102.60 $8.21 $5.54

3* $105.27 $8.42 $5.68

4 $108.00 $8.64 $5.83

5 $110.81 $8.87 $5.99

As you can see as the endowment grows the amount of money that needs to be distributed grows as well.

It's interesting to note that the specific rule you've cited came into effect in 1970 precisely because endowments were reaping the benefits of tax-free earnings without actually using the money for the benefit of any of the tax-exempt activities.[2] When did college tuition start skyrocketing? The mid-1970's.

[1] Professional experience: I'm a securities & investment attorney.

[2] https://www.irs.gov/irm/part7/irm_07-027-016

*Edit: Skipped a year's worth of numbers


> And you've even noted that the IRS required distribution is often much lower than the actual investment income earned. What does this mean? It means even after making the qualified distributions the endowment grows.

Not in real terms it doesn't. When was the last time typical moderate risk investments had long-term returns more than 5% above inflation?

If you had $1000 1970 dollars in 1970 and it increased by nominal 3% annually until last year, you would have $4012 in 2017 dollars. That isn't a real >$3000 gain, it's a >$2400 loss (in 2017 dollars), because $1000 1970 dollars is $6418 2017 dollars.

> When did college tuition start skyrocketing? The mid-1970's.

This is also just after the Higher Education Act was passed, giving out low interest student loans.


> Not in real terms it doesn't. When was the last time typical moderate risk investments had long-term returns more than 5% above inflation?

The asset allocation for a $100MM+ endowment FBO educational institution typically includes about 10% PE, 5% VC, and 20-25% in alts (hedge funds, derivatives, long/short plays, etc). These aren't even close to "typical moderate risk" investment vehicles.

And the bigger the endowment, the bigger the percent allocation to those types of investments. For example, a super endowment like Harvard probably has closer to 50% of the portfolio in alternative strategies.


> These aren't even close to "typical moderate risk" investment vehicles.

In terms of average long-term returns they are, if not worse. Major index ETFs have a very inconvenient tendency to edge out actively managed funds as a general rule, and university endowments are no exception.


Does the fact that universities own insane amount of land and have all sorts of diversified investments to be funded have any bearing on this discussion?

I think right after the Catholic Church, universities and colleges collectively hold the massively large tracts of land as investments/REITs and as physical asset.

Some of them..like the 2 year community college in my town in Bay Area, CA...are selling it to real estate developers. Federal and bond money ...public money meant for education is going to a speculative activity like real estate

I’d wager that most of American education is funded by speculation. Ivy leagues have land in South America and invests outside the country. Even public schools are funded by property taxes(at least in California..)...which to me is a speculation. Considering the insane house prices in California, our burgeoning population and prop 13. Throw in unionized teaching staff, it’s no wonder that most of the best and brightest minds come from outside the country. We attract immigrants because they really can fill a gaping vacuum in the labour and skills market. And they can work for less aka demand less because they don’t have the burden of student loans.

I am not sure if any of the above is relevant but those were my first thoughts after reading the article.


>And they can work for less aka demand less because they don’t have the burden of student loans.

Depending on their country of origin, they also are comfortable with lower standards of living. Which puts negative pressure on wages.


> Even public schools are funded by property taxes (at least in California..)...which to me is a speculation.

Local K-12 education is funded by property taxes, but I don't think this applies to the CSUs and UCs.

Also, I don't think it's appropriate to refer to this as speculation. Are property taxes in CA driven by high prices? Yes. Is the bottom likely to drop out? Given the "burgeoning population" that you note, probably not. Also, if property values crash, incomes and consumer spending will likely also crater as part of the same event. So if we chose to fund education through income or sales taxes, it would be similarly "speculative".


Does anybody know what are the major running costs involved in a university? What I found disturbing in the (public midwestern) university where I studied are the luxurious sports complexes that kept popping up, whereas many classrooms were poorly heated and ventilated. As far as the staff is concerned, I hear that teaching and tenured positions are being reduced in favour of increasing administrative staff and corporate-style bosses. The peripheral processes seem to be eating up the core, much like one of those parasites which thrive as outer shells long after their host trees are gone.


I worked in a state university's accounting IT department, and one (not the only) factor is that most of the money in the budget was not money the president of the university had any say in spending. Most money, whether donations or from the state or the feds or anybody else, came in with strings attached. If I give you money on the condition you build a new stadium with it, you have to use it for that, you can't decide instead to renovate the building where Literature is taught, even though it is falling down. Any grant, government corporate or private, came with strings attached on what you were allowed to spend it on. And people like paying for new buildings, including sports, more than they like paying for upkeep.


Bellmont Hall (https://www.utrecsports.org/facilities/facility/bellmont-hal...) was allegedly paid for out of academic building funds.

It's the set of ramps up the west side of Darrel K. Royal Memorial Stadium.


Sure. The department of education publishes this data: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d95/dtab336.asp


the ratio is shifting dramatically toward admin side


Yes. Administrative staff, and spending on dubious things such as e-textbooks, LMS systems, online learning and IT in general is out of control.


Do you have a citation for this? The data I have shows that on a real basis, expenditures at state schools for administrative services are largely flat: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d16/tables/dt16_334.10.a...


https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/21/univer...

I think looking at top level figures could be problematic because we don't really know how classification was done.


Intetresting. That's UK, which is a totally different system, but still neat.


Athletics facilities are normally paid for by donors, and their operational costs are budgeted out of athletics revenue which is separate from the overall University budget. Tuition dollars normally do not fund athletics in any way.


Afaik, most athletic programs sped more then earn. Earners are an exception, not the norm.


Fascinating article. A question I ponder is: given that, as I believe is true, the student loan bubble is going to burst in a messy way sometime in the next few years, what happens to the college industry at that point? The last time it happened they made it illegal to discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy, but the rates of people unable to make payments is going up again, and at some point it will cause a financial problem, I would think. Does any of this calculus change if the student loan industry goes bust?


As another commenter says, any semblance of the private student loan industry was wiped out shortly after the financial crisis. All the US student debt is now essentially backstopped by the US Federal government (in quasi-government run institutions like Sallie Mae).

What will happen when this bubble bursts is that we will bail out the bad loans using US taxpayer money. This is another reason why universities can continue to raise tuition rates: they know there is significant political support to having the government "help students pay for college". The government tipped their hand regarding being open to outright forgiveness of debt by including a rule that they do full debt forgiveness if you go work for a non-profit right after school. This turns out to be a fantastic deal if you go to medical school. You can rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in med school loans, go get a job at non-profit hospital for several years (and get paid market rates for your skills!), and then saddle the US taxpayer with your med school loans.


What industry? Most of the debt is to the federal government. Many loans used to be offered by banks but guaranteed by the government but in 2010 those were eliminated, making the Department of Education the sole issuer. The government already takes a number of steps to ease the burden and it could do more, offering more subsidies and/or opportunities for loan forgiveness.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Student_loans_in_the_United_St...


I suppose the word "bubble" might be problematic, since the term implies that once it stops growing, it will shrink dramatically. But, I'm not sure the government has an ever-growing ability to increase student loans, and the forgiveness programs are turning out (10 years on) not to result in much forgiveness.

I have heard it said that indebtedness in student loans is interfering with the ability of many to take out loans for cars or houses, in other words, getting too much debt from the government to get any from the private sector. I don't like banks all that much, but I think they are politically powerful, and if they perceive student loans as impinging on their ability to make money, I would think they would get something done to change the situation.

Who has more powerful lobbyists, universities or banks? Both way more powerful than I am, but I would not bet on universities.


What makes you think it's a bubble? Just because something is unpleasant, or even outright evil doesn't make it a bubble.

Perhaps at some point an equilibrium is reached where these institutions extract exactly as much as the degree is worth, minus the little bit left that will incentivize people to take the deal. After all, the 'value' of these degrees has only gone up. Overproduced malthusian elitehood[0] has to be better than starving with the unnecessariat[1], maybe[2].

We are after all already at the near-apocalyptic scenario. Economically disenfranchised liberal arts graduates are roaming the earth and using the only skills they have to extract resources from the environment. In practice this amounts to a sort of Trust Me I'm Lying dystopia of manufacturing outrage with one hand and selling solutions on the other.

For calibration, many students in the UK have turned to literal prostitution[3].

[0]: https://nationalpost.com/news/world/jonathan-kay-on-the-tyra...

[1]: https://morecrows.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/unnecessariat/

[2]: https://berthamasonsattic.wordpress.com/2018/10/12/i-applied...

[3]: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/...


Anything that grows exponentially is a bubble.

The only question is when it stops growing because it has run out of space.

A simple example is that if Caesar had invested one gram of gold after the conquest of Gaul at 3% compound interest today it would be worth 2.64e24 dollars. Or a trillion times larger than the world economy today.


So if I’m a Georgia resident (which I am). Why would I pay the exorbitant tuition of MIT when I could pay 1/5 as much to go to the Georgia Tech and have basically the same average outcome?

In fact, I could pay even less and do the 2+3 program and go to an even cheaper school for the first two years and stay at home?

https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/loans/student-loans/highest-...

On the other hand, I graduated from a no name state school in the mid 90s and within three years I was sitting by people who went to “prestigious” schools making just as much as they were making with no student loan debt. My entire four year tuition was less than they spent in one year.


Your example is a one-person example. MIT grads on average earn $223k 10 years after graduation (1) while Georgia Tech grads earn $115k (2).

(1) - https://www.paysa.com/blog/harvard-vs-mit-which-tech-grads-m... (2) - https://www.ajc.com/news/education/this-how-much-alumni-geor...


My example included a citation for graduating seniors starting salaries.

https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/loans/student-loans/highest-...

Not that I’m disputing the 10 year salaries.


"Why would I pay the exorbitant tuition of MIT..."

According to the article, 58% of MIT students received aid (averaging to 2/3 of tuition (?)).


And anyone who meets the requirements to get into GT and is a resident of GA, would also meet the requirements of the GA HOPE scholarship and wouldn’t pay tuition at all.


GT is free for in-state residents? Neat.


All public colleges in GA are free for in state residents that meet the requirements of the HOPE scholarship. But for the most part, Hope scholarship requirements would be lower than GT admission requirements.

But it’s not 100% anymore. It’s actually 90% now.


Author here. Another long read -- apologies!

The TL;DR of this essay might perhaps be:

- College degrees are more valuable than ever in post-industrial economies, so applicants to top-tier schools are up 240% over the last 25 years

- Meanwhile, available spots at top-tier colleges in America have increased just 2% over the last 25 years (Thanks to Tyler Cowen & others for complaining about this publicly)

- Microeconomics 101: Fixed Supply + Increased Demand = Increased Price

- That’s the obvious part

- The non-obvious part is that this is intentional...

- ...because the Charity-status ( 501(c)(3) ) of Colleges in America depends on more-than-half of their students being unable to afford the education (read: “receiving financial aid”)

- That Charity-status protects the Investment Returns of College Endowments from Uncle Sam & the IRS

- Investment Returns Compound over time, and there is no more powerful force on Earth — anyone not playing the game to maximize Compound-returns will lose to everyone who is

- Thus: if Colleges want to keep their Investment Returns tax-free, Tuition MUST remain unaffordable for at least 50% of undergrads


"...because the Charity-status ( 501(c)(3) ) of Colleges in America depends on more-than-half of their students being unable to afford the education (read: “receiving financial aid”)"

I wasn't aware of this at all. Do you have a source? Non-profits don't generally need to give away their money.


For sure, you’re totally right that non-profits don’t generally need to give away their money.

I tried to touch on this idea in the “Case for Charity: A Charity Case” section, but my approach is to view it idealistically / as things should or might be.

And in a hypothetical world where Colleges charge double-digit fractions of a family’s net worth, while generating as much investment profit as our best companies and hedge funds, but where 0% of students received any “aid”......

.....and the institution was still allowed to remain a non-profit and have returns tax-sheltered....

....I can’t imagine that such a state of affairs would be allowed to continue.

Which organizations are allowed to be considered 501(c)(3) and on what basis and what privileges that affords them is a matter that is hypothetically at the prerogative of Congress.

I know trust in Congress/the political process is pretty damn low these days.

But my point with the “best play it safe” comment was basically...if I were colleges, I wouldn’t roll the dice.


But no one is "colleges", if they're each acting in their own best interest. I don't see how this argument explains their behavior unless colleges are coordinating as a cartel. What's keeping them each in line?


One of the points in the article is that this tier of colleges have been operating as a cartel since before the 1990s.


Are you implying that there's more to the financial-aid-cap scheme than we know?


You weren’t aware of it because it’s not true.


A minor quibble: The ratio of admissions to applicants is kind of a funny number. Applications could be driven by an external factor such as online application systems and word processing making it easier to apply.


Foreigner here ... can confirm this. The application process to US universities has gotten much better compared to 20 years ago. Back in the day, we needed to pay application fees+international postage. Now, the second part has gone away. The first part, surprisingly, has not gone up by much.


Colleges have amped up their marketing budget to increase the top of the funnel as well.


Yes, and the improvements in financial aid at elite schools makes them as affordable as a state school so applying to them is a low cost gamble.


Since you're using MIT as an example, it says here [1] that 90% of students get financial aid.

I doubt that's changed much. The "sticker price" for elite colleges has always been too high for most families to afford, but most students' families don't pay that price.

If you want to prove that maintaining charity status is a cause of tuition increases, you'll have to try harder.

[1] https://web.mit.edu/facts/tuition.html


The college board publishes a nice charge of net cost of college: https://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tabl...

Room and Board is a major driver of the increased cost of colleges.


Do you see a responsibility of the federal government in lending money to students who have no ability to reasonably pay back their loans because their degrees don't have a high rate of return?

Do you see a problem with universities increasing the quality of student housing, sports programs like football, and college administration, and that this desire to spend more to get more students to pay more tuition dollars is an undesirable feedback loop that perpetually increases tuition costs over time?


> Do you see a responsibility of the federal government in lending money to students who have no ability to reasonably pay back their loans because their degrees don't have a high rate of return?

Can we all agree that this is an awful idea societally and for the individuals involved? If you couldn't get credit to go, it's because the market is sending a signal that it's a really bad idea to go. Yeah, it sucks if your dream is to do [insert unmarketable degree here] and there are few jobs for people who do that and the training costs just as much as an engineering degree. The idea that "society" should subsidize that is narcissistic at best.


We absolutely cannot all agree on that. As you point out - the fact of the matter is that an undergraduate degree in business, engineering or medicine costs the same as a degree in art, social work or childhood education and pays about 3-4 times as much. So it's individually quite stupid to major in anything _other_ than engineering, business or premed. Do you really think a society is going to function without teachers, psychologists, lawyers and artists? So in that case can we all agree that arranging the incentives so that the only thing Universities produce are engineers, MBA's and medical professionals is an awful idea societally and for the individuals involved?


> As you point out - the fact of the matter is that an undergraduate degree in business, engineering or medicine costs the same as a degree in art, social work or childhood education and pays about 3-4 times as much.

And one of the major reasons for that is that we continue to produce an oversupply of liberal arts graduates, who then get stuck in food service rather than actually working as a teacher or psychologist, while their existence suppresses wages for anyone who can actually find work in those occupations because the employers can choose the lowest bidder from a desperate population of qualified applicants.

It's like saying corn farmers are having a hard time, so let's subsidize the production of corn. Well, then there's too much corn, and what does that do to the price of corn?


> Do you really think a society is going to function without teachers, psychologists, lawyers and artists?

This is a loaded question based on a faulty assumption. A societal shortage of people in these professions would cause their compensation to increase accordingly, incentivizing more people to enter them until an equilibrium is reached. This is basic supply and demand. Also...

> So it's individually quite stupid to major in anything _other_ than engineering, business or premed.

This is based on the faulty premise that everyone has the same skill set and can succeed at engineering, etc. as opposed to other fields where they may have a comparative advantage.


The thing is, society doesn't survive a drought of teachers, for example. If the number of teachers fall below a certain amount, the new generation will not be correctly educated and the knowledge transmission link is broken.

This is similar to any other area, really.


I think the education market is ripe for disruption with increased online education and collectives for socialization. Homeschooling 2.0, which doesn't require expensive physical plants for every neighborhood.


But why does the "degree" require paying for college football or fancy dorms or student entertainment? College has lost its focus on education and, nationally, colleges are competing on providing amenities and costs of college are skyrocketing.

Wouldn't it make sense to bring college education back to its original purpose?


Which original purpose? The elite school one of allowing the next generation's ruling class to network with one another, or the land grant one of doing the same thing for flyover country, but also discovering new ways of applying fertilizer at the same time?


do you think it's likely that the number of teachers, psychologists, etc. could actually approach zero without significant increase in pay for these positions?


Thank you for this. Can we start backwards from a model of what we believe a rich, healthy society should look like, and then figure out how to get there? A society that depends only upon "market signals" to determine which jobs have value is not one I would wish to live in.


But, our current society already does this, since we're not living under communism and centralized price fixing.

Even "public" school salaries are determined by the market.


Arranging the incentives to be responsive to market signals would move us towards a situation where there are paying jobs for all who graduate, not one where everyone graduates in what are currently the top-paying fields given a different system.


The government has decided that it's unethical for a bank to market a credit card to a college student (maybe a $5,000 credit limit and dischargeable in bankruptcy) yet we permit 18-22 year olds to take out $50,000+ in loans without regard for the return on the investment and make it almost impossible for them to get a fresh start if it turns out to be a bad investment.


When did they decide that? I started getting 5 credit card offers a day as soon as I applied for college.


Title III of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure ("Credit CARD") Act of 2009[1] and the CFPB's Reg. Z[2] which implements it. It amended the Truth In Lending Act to prohibit a lot of the "sign up for a credit card and get this free poster" marketing that had been happening on college campuses. It also requires that card issuers evaluate a consumer’s ability to pay before opening a new credit card account or increasing a credit limit. That requirement effectively stopped the issuance of credit cards to full-time college students without a co-signer. It also had the unintended side effect of making it much more difficult for stay-at-home parents to get a credit card without their spouse as a co-signer because the regulation only permitted card issuers to consider the applicant's income/assets. Reg. Z was amended a few years ago so now card issuers only need to evaluate someone's ability to pay if they're under the age of 21.

[1]https://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/documents/statutes/c...

[2]https://www.consumerfinance.gov/policy-compliance/rulemaking...


Yep that’s after my time.


Do you have a source of data on the costs for the different degrees? I'm skeptical for a couple of reasons. First, there may be disparities in the cost of hiring teachers in different disciplines.

Second, to exaggerate just a wee bit, engineers need big expensive labs and modern computers, whereas French literature majors only need a supply of French literature.


As far as I know (at least in the US) college tuition is constant at each college across majors, though there are occasionally extra materials costs for particular classes.


Ah yes. I was thinking of the overall cost of running the program, not the out-of-pocket cost to the student. In fact, two students within the same major don't necessarily pay the same tuition.


> the Charity-status ( 501(c)(3) ) of Colleges in America depends on more-than-half of their students being unable to afford the education

This would still be true even if college cost 10x less than it does now. Very few 18-22 year old full time students can afford any level of tuition.


I guess it might be more precise to say that it depends on the familiies of most students being unable to afford tuition.


Thanks for the quick breakdown. Reading now...college is a subject I’m endlessly fascinated by.


I have not yet read through all of this 2013 IRS Official ”College and Universities Compliance Project - Final Report”. However, nothing so far talks about tuition and 50% attending receiving financial aid. The 50% rule may be based more on 501c(3) spending at least 50% of their income on “their mission”.

This seems to be the latest legal reference with regard to colleges and universities retaining 501c(3) status.

> Of total endowment distribution, 56 percent were made for scholarships, awards, grants and/or loans in the amount of $3 million. 29 percent of total endowment distributions were made for general university operations in the amount of $3 million.

Off-topic:

> Half of the systems reported that at least one of its five most highly paid employees received NCAA income.

https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-tege/CUCP_FinalRpt_042513.pdf


A crucial distinction: Of total endowment distribution is VERY different from of total spending.

Tuition-dependent colleges and universities tend to look very different from their large endowment counterparts.


Both MIT and the author are missing the point on tuition — disengenuously in MIT’s case. I get the same budge numbers the author does (thanks, development office!), and while tuition is 10% of revenues (down from 14% a couple of decades ago) spending on education is about 12-15%. So your education isn’t 50% subsidized.

The best way to think of MIT is not as a school but as a research lab with a small school attached.


Why hasn't someone done this yet?

- You make an organization that just examines people in various subjects.

- You hire a bunch of professors in each field.

- You make sure everyone thinks the exam is hard.

- You make sure the exams are fair. Rent exam halls, get invigilators to pace up and down. Biometric scans. Passports. Etc.

- You make the syllabus and practice exams freely available.

- You make a secure website to show everyone who passed.

There must be something similar, somewhere. Perhaps the Chinese civil service exams. Or the CFA exams.


1. Suppose you're an employer. You see a candidate who did some radical education program you haven't heard of and know nothing about the details of, instead of going to university. Your natural assumption (because it's correct in 95% of similar cases) is that this is someone who wasn't good enough for university.

It's the same for a professor who got involved - everyone else in the field would assume they couldn't get a university position, or really needed the money. For the people who could give credibility to such a venture, there's only downside.

2. When the exam is cheap and the only source of credit, fraud is a much bigger risk than for normal university exams. Apart from anything else, outright bribery is now a risk at every level in the process, because a good exam result is worth far more in lifetime earnings than you can afford to pay anyone involved.


> 1. Suppose you're an employer. You see a candidate who did some radical education program you haven't heard of and know nothing about the details of, instead of going to university. Your natural assumption (because it's correct in 95% of similar cases) is that this is someone who wasn't good enough for university.

But you can see the questions yourself. If you did a degree you'd know if it was the sort of level that you'd expect from a university student. If someone can answer university level questions, why do they need to go to university?

As for the profs, you can hire them from the same universities. They're allowed to work on the side.

> 2. When the exam is cheap and the only source of credit, fraud is a much bigger risk than for normal university exams. Apart from anything else, outright bribery is now a risk at every level in the process, because a good exam result is worth far more in lifetime earnings than you can afford to pay anyone involved.

Sure, so rent a hall, make people walk through a metal detector, etc. Make sure the papers are seen by several randomized people.

It's a trust building exercise, that's true. But plenty of businesses depend on trust, and it's not like nobody has managed to build trust before.


> But you can see the questions yourself.

Sure, but how long are you going to spend reading the syllabus/example questions for some qualification you've never heard of, versus just assuming it's junk like most of the other random qualifications you haven't heard of that people list?

> As for the profs, you can hire them from the same universities. They're allowed to work on the side.

They can, but people will talk. At professor level the people in the same field know each other and reputation is important, especially for the very top level.

> plenty of businesses depend on trust, and it's not like nobody has managed to build trust before.

Bootstrapping an alternative trust basis in an area where one already exists is inherently much harder, because everyone assumes (not unreasonably) that you're probably doing it because the existing system doesn't trust you, probably for good reason.


I worked in the industry selling and designing software for Financial Aid offices. You are simply a SSN to them which equals $##,000 in potential revenue


This suggests that the "wealth gap" (Endowment gap) of colleges in the US is increasing, probably at an accelerating rate. This is probably not a good thing.

I wonder how much of a difference the tax-exempt status is a factor in the growth of e.g. MIT's endowment.

Was this tax-exempt status ever in jeopardy? It's unclear from the article whether this status was part of the failed anti-trust suit, but the article does seem to suggest this is the underlying problem.


University as a business is not the ideal model for education. It should be publicly owned and funded and all free, like it is in Germany.


This is an interesting assertion, because there is certainly pro's and con's.

I am working in Germany now (in a "good" university) and I often visit top tier US universities.

Due having money, US universities at a similar relative rank have vastly bigger faculties, vastly better supply of researchers and usually better admin. And it is not even close. Network effects among researchers are much, much stronger.

Combine this with the fact that the German system has unecessary deficiencies. The appointment system is f'ed beyond repair and it is virtually impossible to offer positions to good prospective researchers. The "Mittlebau" lacks any and all good career track and is made up of disillusioned and hopeless people on 2-year successive contracts (and nowadays, it is missing entirely). And of course, there is no real tenure track, which means a lot of Profs are really bad and would have never gotten tenure in a meriocratic process.

Since we have a couple of privately funded places that do the US system here in Germany, we can see that it just simply works much better.

On the other hand, in terms of long term stability and the average quality of education, I agree that the US system has issues. Relying on inflated undergrad fees, especially from international student, seems dangerous in the long term.


It should be fully privatised, actually.



This is a nice essay. I learned some things I didn't know before.

There's a pattern here in public policy-making that needs further attention. We have slogans and phrases that become untouchable. "Clean water" is one. Who isn't for clean water? I've never met anybody who wanted water to be dirty or poisonous. In the states we've had a very powerful movement called "Mothers Against Drunk Driving". Once again, who the hell would be in favor of allowing drunks to drive? These titles are self-evidently good things.

It goes on and on. I'm a fan of learning more about Universal Basic Income. We solve poverty by, well, giving people money. We do it anyway through social programs. Why not give it directly? (I don't know. Let's see what happens in various experiments)

"College" is yet another one of these magic phrases. Who isn't for college? Higher education? I just read another commenter on here that said we should stop this "war on colleges"

That's why I'm commenting.

The pattern is this: there's a phrase or slogan that nobody in their right mind would oppose. Lots of people and emotional energy is put into making sure we have this goodness for everybody. People who provide any sort of feedback at all aside from unanimous support are shunned. And they should be! After all, they're against $GOODNESS_X

Then we start spending money and making public policy around the phrase -- and the results can be quite mixed. Since the phrases themselves mean little, it's all about the tiny details, the implementation. Some groups do this thing very well. Some suck at it. Over time, however, in every one of these situations, architectural cruft accumulates and people figure out how to game the system to make it do things nobody ever intended.

Well then we're kind of stuck, aren't we? You can't provide any feedback aside from full support, otherwise we'll shun you. We established that when we started this movement. Colleges not working at the things the common person thinks they're supposed to be working at? Prices way up, graduates sometimes deep in debt with useless skills, use of the collegiate corporate structure as a proxy for a modern country club? You point that out and you're one of those anti-intellectuals fomenting a war on colleges.

The public discussions around dozens of policy initiatives suck. And they suck because the concepts have been so bowdlerized that we're all forced into false dichotomies. And technology, by continuing to promote the concepts that these huge, intricate, and detailed policy issues can be discussed at in terms of 140-character tweets or something similar? We've got a huge hand in making things as sucky as they have become. We're making a buck off of making people stupider than they would normally be and having them fighting over things they would normally mostly agree about. In my mind this is a terrible thing that my community is mostly responsible for.




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