Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Shop and pay off your student loans

Today’s gift of humour from the missus.


Diogenes, the sampler from Sinope

Although I graduated long ago from inmate to guard, I benefit from continued receipt of the American Statistical Society’s student magazine. Well, benefit – when one is more than a decade an Econometrician (of varying skill and/or pedigree) there isn’t much to be had inside.

Except, that is, for the likes of this (click for a larger/readable version):

page 1

page 2

Very amusing. Fair to say – Diogenes should have invested a little time, first, searching for some decent help with survey design.


So I was discussing the idea of complexity with my Eco 1 students, this morning. I got onto the idea proper of Complexity in Economics via this paper by Chantale Lessard, a PhD student at the University of Montreal (I think).

By taking for granted assumptions about actors’ interests and interactions, economists leave out a very important part of social reality. Social reality is complex, contextual and constructed. Because of their socially constructed nature, understanding preferences and behaviors requires serious attention to social reality (Bourdieu, 2005; Leander, 2001; Small & Mannion, 2005).

Complexity thinking contributes to develop awareness of issues including uncertainty, contextual issues, multiple perspectives, broader societal involvement, and transdisciplinarity (Albrecht et al., 1998; Healy, 1997; Van de Vijver et al., 2003). The ability of complexity science to detail the various perspectives and highlight their ramifications makes possible a more explicit description of the priorities and interests that are taking part in their realisation (Van de Vijver et al., 2003). Broader conceptions, and related representations, of uncertainty can enable the elaboration of fundamental value distinctions embedded in different types of knowledge. This will be particularly relevant for contextual knowledge (Gatrell, 2005; Healy, 1997).

Complexity theory suggests that many types of knowledge are valid and useful for economic evaluation, and not just knowledge produced by traditional science (Munday et al., 2003; Øvretveit, 2002). For the field of economic evaluation, the use of complexity theory will involve the acknowledgement of complex, interdependent relationships with broader contextual, economic, social, cultural, political, and other non-technical factors (Healy, 1997).

I broke up the paragraphs (and you can find the references here). As you can see, it is not much as Economics; social policy, maybe. It’s a hard bloody paper to get through, it really is.

Complexity, then, is basically this: Economic analysis employs Economics. However we’re just a part of the provision of information – the decision-maker has to consider the more complex ‘real’ world. Lessard’s argument is that we ought to consider this in our analysis, because the reality/practicality of our conclusions and recommendations should be a factor in the recommendations we make. Which seems fair enough (to a degree).

What brought this about was this article in the Sydney Morning Herald, yesterday:

Private school lobby groups are divided over whether the Federal Government should continue its controversial funding arrangements for half the nation’s Catholic and independent schools.

A secret review by the federal Department of Education, obtained by the Herald, shows Anglican schools are opposed to continued funding of schools above their entitlements under the formula. However, the powerful Catholic system – in which one in five students in Australia are taught – wants to retain the “funding-maintained” category, which entrenches higher payments to its schools.

The federal funding system measures each school’s need according to the socio-economic status (SES) of the regions where its students’ families live.

According to the department review, half of all private schools are in the funding-maintained category and are funded above their entitlements under the SES formula. The overpayments will cost up to $2.7 billion over the next four years. The funding-maintained category “entrenches purely historical inequities”, the review says. “It is not consistent with the Government’s objective of funding all schools on a consistent needs basis.”

How does this work? In Australia, we have public schools and private schools (our hospitals are similarly laid-out). Public education is an extra-welfarist good, and funded from general taxation (meaning you pay income tax, and this is just one of the things the government provides). Private schools are exclusive, usually religious/denominational and, in general, wealthier. From the report upon which the SMH managed to get their hands [PDF]:

ses report

Yes, non-Government schools currently receive, on average, 57% of the Average Government School Recurrent Costs (AGSRC).

Ah. This was our starting point for discussion. What do we think of this?

Is it fair for non-Government schools to get this much public funding?

Now I focus, in the first class of semester, on there being no such thing as “fair” or “unfair”, in a positive sense. So my students know this. Given that we all pay taxes, and given that those taxes are for specific ‘things’, including public education. If wealthier parents decide to opt-out of the public school system, should they still receive public money?

This is like giving them a refund on some of their taxes – should they be allowed to, in effect, opt-out of those taxes, or should that just be a part of the opportunity cost of buying a more exclusive, more highly-regarded education for one’s child?

Most students raised their hand for the “not fair” – either because they believed that or because they thought I believe that (it’s often hard to tell).

By this time, of course, they were on the hook.

Is it fair for parents, however wealthy, to contribute to a service that they will not need?

Actuarially, “equity” is defined as getting from something the same share as your contribution. If one pays loads of the tax money into the government, one gets the same share of their goods and services in return. Therefore, should families with children in private education not receive some of the resources from the government after all? Most of my students responded that they should.

The paradox is that this is a normative issue – when equity is simply redefined, the problem appears quite different to the same people (this is why the issue never goes away).

Is it more efficient for the government to underwrite non-government schools?

Education delivers a positive externality to society – we are better off, the more educated our people are. As a result, government subsidisation is important – our governments enter the market to add the social external benefit of education to the private (monetary) benefit of education. This boosts demand, and results in the efficient outcome. Should the government care about the distributional effects of this subsidisation? If the criteria is efficiency, no.

Following this, what might happen if, say, the money was removed? Suppose it results in more students moving from the private sector to the public sector. Now the government must pay 100%, not 57%, of the AGSRC for the pupil. Which is less efficient. Better, perhaps, to leave them in the private schools with less government resources (albeit more resources overall); public schools in fact may benefit from this system, even while we decry its distributional consequences.

At the end of the day, whether this system is equitable or inequitable is a function of normative perspective; whether it is efficient or inefficient is a function of positive, but entirely too difficult, analysis. So we wander around in the grey area, always arguing.

Complexity! A student asked what about just lowering the contribution? The perfect response! What would happen is that the schools would still pitch a fit. And wealthy parents denied their sense of entitlement won’t like the party in government, and will raise money for other people.

This is complexity: the politicians, the decision-makers, are only somewhat interested in the economics of the decision and its consequences. They also have to operate as politicians, and the political consequences are, for them, far more serious. What price a less efficient allocation of education resources, or a less equitable allocation of education resources, when it means they remain in government?

For the rest of us, what if, by making this concession, and therefore retaining government, a given group of decision-makers manages to do more good across more areas of our society/economy? Is it not also worth the cost for us?

By the end of the conversation, my students were wishing they’d joined the majority of their classmates and just stayed in bed (quite heavy snow, this morning).

The Third Way of public school education

All of the following began while reading Boing Boing. Daria fans will know this story.

Seminole County School District is, apparently, a very interesting place to find one’s education. Recently famous for signing a deal with McDonald’s that would have meant this was each child’s report card:


On the jackets, McDonald’s offered a free happy meal to any student with all A’s and B’s, two or fewer absences, or good behavior in a given academic quarter. Susan Pagan, an area parent, notified the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and an all-out public-relations battle ensued by early December. According to the campaign, the school district received more than 2,000 calls of protest.

But get this:

Regina Klaers, a spokeswoman for the school district, said in December that the school approached McDonald’s for the sponsorship, not vice versa. For the 10 years prior to McDonald’s sponsorship, Pizza Hut had picked up the tab. During that time, Ms. Klaers said, there were no parental complaints.

One wonders what the report cards looked like, under the sponsorship of Pizza Hut. One wonders why they changed sponsors after 10 years and – critically – whether or not the school approached McDonalds or vice-versa is not the issue: who insisted upon this design for the report cards? The follow-up concern, of course, is whether the parents so concerned offered to work with the County, the School Board and the PTA to work out some other solution to the school’s cash-flow crisis (casino, anyone? But seriously).

Or whether the parents, the community, the local media, or anyone at all marched on the Local and State houses of government, demanding to know just where in hell their multiple local and state income and sales taxes were bloody going.

So, Seminole County schools, already small-time infamous, doubled-down:

Despite concern about pushing advertisements to a young captive audience, the Seminole County School Board agreed unanimously Tuesday to let a Massachusetts company put its daily radio show on school buses.

Bus Radio got the go-ahead to broadcast a program of rock music, FCAT lessons and advertisements to about 4,800 students on 53 buses in a trial run that will go through the end of the school year.

If district officials decide it is a success, they’ll let the company put its radios in the district’s fleet of buses serving more than 30,000 students.

Officials say the radio program will keep students busy so drivers can concentrate on the road. Critics contend that it forces ads on kids who have no alternative but to listen.

To help win support, Bus Radio has promised the district six minutes out of each broadcast hour for its own use. Officials plan short lessons to help students pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The district also will get a share of the company’s advertising revenues, although that is expected to amount to only a few thousand dollars a year.

I started shutting down at the idea that there could even be a company such as Bus Radio – although it beats Clear Channel, I guess. It seems not to be offering much in the way of incentive to the school district, though – 6 minutes per hour, and a few thousand dollars per year? In fact, their website boasts an average of 4 minutes per hour advertising, 4 of PSA’s and 52 of music (and other programming). They also offer this:

Today’s AM/FM programming is not designed for kids. Inappropriate lyrics, adult- themed DJ banter, and commercials for products such as alcohol and R-rated movies are pervasive on the AM/FM dial. BusRadio offers a safe alternative to AM/FM radio with daily programming that targets three distinct audiences – elementary, middle and high school students.

BusRadio’s programming gives kids more of the music they want minus the offensive lyrics, with 1/3 the sponsorships per hour of AM/FM and positive safety messages and PSAs (see chart for hourly breakdown).

That cannot be the point, surely – am I an old man for thinking just don’t have that garbage playing? The schools could make more than that just by launching a website, calling it “We Need 10,000 Dollars” and waiting for the local Fox affiliate to notice it. They’d pull more than this per year just from the novelty and plain altruism.

Whipping out my calculator (okay, locating it over on the shelf and returning to the couch with it) and heading over to Mother Jones’ special report on campaign finance:


I work out that, between just the 4 front-runners across the two parties (actually only 3: McCain had no education money), as of the beginning of this year the education sector alone had contributed USD9.7m. By now half a billion has passed through the campaigns of all candidates combined. So as much as I like to give the Seminole County stick over their decision-making (quite justifiably), I can’t pretend it isn’t our priorities that put them in the position in the first place.

The Jim Kunstler preparedness check-list

From yesterday’s Clusterfuck Nation (this is an abridged version).

  1. Stop all highway-building altogether. Instead, direct public money into repairing railroad rights-of-way. Put together public-private partnerships for running passenger rail between American cities and towns in between. If Amtrak is unacceptable, get rid of it and set up a new management system. At the same time, begin planning comprehensive regional light-rail and streetcar operations.
  2. End subsidies to agribusiness and instead direct dollar support to small-scale farmers, using the existing regional networks of organic farming associations to target the aid (this includes ending subsidies for the ethanol program).
  3. Begin planning and construction of waterfront and harbor facilities for commerce: piers, warehouses, ship-and-boatyards, and accommodations for sailors.
  4. In cities and towns, change regulations that mandate the accommodation of cars. Direct all new development to the finest grain, scaled to walkability.
  5. Institute “locational taxation” based on proximity to the center of town and not on the size, character, or putative value of the building itself. Put in effect a ban on buildings in excess of seven stories.
  6. … begin a public debate about whether it is feasible or desirable to construct any new nuclear power plants. If there are good reasons to go forward with nuclear, and a consensus about the risks and benefits, we need to establish it quickly.
  7. … prepare psychologically to downscale all institutions, including government, schools and colleges, corporations, and hospitals. The centralized high schools all over the nation will prove to be our most frustrating mis-investment. We will probably have to replace them with some form of home-schooling that is allowed to aggregate into neighborhood units. A lot of colleges, public and private, will fail as higher ed ceases to be a “consumer” activity.
  8. Corporations scaled to operate globally are not going to make it. This includes probably all national chain “big box” operations. It will have to be replaced by small local and regional business.
  9. Take a time-out from legal immigration and get serious about enforcing the laws about illegal immigration.
  10. Prepare psychologically for the destruction of a lot of fictitious “wealth” — and allow instruments and institutions based on fictitious wealth to fail, instead of attempting to keep them propped up on credit life-support.
  11. Prepare psychologically for a sociopolitical climate of anger, grievance, and resentment. A lot of individual citizens will find themselves short of resources in the years ahead. They will be very ticked off and seek to scapegoat and punish others.

I believe thought-provoking is the usual compliment. Debate-provoking would be a lot more useful, but that stronger criterion depends more heavily on the rest of us.

I, for one, am with him completely on rail, light rail and shipping commerce. Rail here is worse than a joke: it’s plain insulting to a country as wealthy and richly-resourced as this. His arguments concerning civic infrastructure (including hospitals and schools) make for a very interesting wool-gathering spending of time. The immigration issue is equally interesting (not sure I agree, but I believe he is being pragmatic and, ultimately, he is right: the way things will be is the way things will be. There will be little time or space for normative time-wasting, cometh the hour).

Student debts out of control

This is an Australian story (for those who followed the link, believing otherwise).

Graduates from private colleges and universities are costing taxpayers more than those from public universities, and new ministers of religion present one of the greatest burdens.

The architect of HECS, Bruce Chapman, has calculated that the taxpayer subsidy to privately educated graduates who deferred payment on their courses is 18 to 28 per cent on average. It is less than 5 per cent for public university graduates paying off HECS debts.

I had a conversation along these lines a while ago, with a colleague here. His argument was that HECS was fine for Australia, because we have so few people/students. And because our education costs are low (similarly with regard to health care). In the US the system would just cost way too much money, and provide way too much of an incentive for too many students to take degrees with too little payoff (private and social) at the end.

Seems that Dave’s argument is being proved by the very country I had used to support mine.

HECS allows students to wait until they have reached an annual income of nearly $40,000 before paying off their degrees. Past and present university students owe $14 billion in HECS debt, which is underwritten by the Commonwealth government.

Professor Chapman gauged that because education loans were interest-free, the taxpayer was effectively subsidising the students, and those privately educated students who paid a premium for their courses were costing more in foregone interest than their public peers.

“There was never going to be a worry with the HECS system because the debts weren’t big enough and the prices weren’t high enough,” Professor Chapman said. “But once HECS went into the private sector, some of those debts are $80,000 and the interest rates start to matter very much.”

HowTo: Prepare for exams

I just gave this class (talk? I didn’t really prepare it, but I’ve had to give it to sophomore classes before). I figured I should write it up. The internet lives forever, after all: now I’ll never need to remember it myself.

So. This is – by and large – everything I learned about preparing for exams in the 10 years I’ve been a student, a student-and-a-teacher, and now merely a lecturer. It should be of value to every student, up to and including those with photographic memory who can remember everything they need anyway (and don’t we hate them for it).

Final Exams

What is it that makes finals so bloody hard? To some extent yes, it is the content of the exam. Final exams are usually cumulative, they are usually a few hours long, and they are the final exam. They’re supposed to be hard.

I refer however to Final Exams as an event, as a period. Specifically as a period in which you will need to revise and prepare for anything from 3 to 5 final exams, in a relatively short period of time, then turn around and do those exams in a shorter period of time. It is this that makes finals such a nightmare. One exam, fine. Multiple exams, optimally spaced through time, also fine. Multiple exams in 10 days? Not so fine.

Having established this, one must appreciate what we need to do to prepare us for finals. We have a tendency to try to force-feed as much information into our brains as possible.

This is the wrong approach.

Memorisation is not the key to final exams (accounting majors excepted). Performance is the key. One excels not – typically – according to how much information they can stuff into their heads, but how well they can organise that information, and how efficiently and accurately they can recall that information at the appropriate times. Having established this as the goal of revision, a different paradigm emerges.

It is not staying up until 4am on caffeine, reading as much as we can. It is not sitting with your head in a textbook, the day of the final. Those are Very Bad Things To Do.

Athletes! You will be best-prepared to absorb this lesson. Do you stay up until 4am, the day of the Big Game, learning new plays and watching video-tapes of the opposition? No (let us hope). Because you need to perform for the big game. Mentally, physically, you need to be rested and prepared to turn everything on for the few hours that it will be required.

Introduction over, let us proceed. There are two pillars of exam preparation: (1) Physical; and (2) Scholastic.

Preparing physically

First: Sleep

Undergraduates in particular, and American undergraduates moreso (this is not cultural: it is a by-product of living in dorms), sleep terrible hours, made worse when an exam approaches.

The Circadian Rhythm is an endogenous sleep cycle enjoyed by all living things. Typically it is 24 hours. Humans, for example, sleep 1/3 of our cycle, and are awake for the remainder. Attempting to do otherwise will inevitably mess you up.

This is not an Area of My Expertise, so I’ll go non-technical. When was the last time you de-fragged your PC? PCs need de-fragging so that they can sort out their memory, organise everything and generally make themselves faster and more efficient processors and retrievers of information. We are the same. Our brains are not sponges, they are PCs. They cannot absorb information for hours, then give it back to you the next day. They need downtime, every day, to sort that information out. Figure out what’s important, what gets kept, what goes in what folder.

The better you leave your brain to the business of sleeping and organising the information you give it, the better your brain will be at being able to answer all of your questions, when you need them answered.

How much is needed? Anything from, say, 8 to 10 hours. One’s sleep needs to be consistent (i.e. in a rhythm), so as many hours as you need such that you don’t have to sleep in on a Saturday. One should be sleeping your optimum, every night, and not need more or less sleep on any given day. Teenagers usually require more than adults, mind.

It is endogenous (in that we are born like that), but – for humans, definitely – our sleep cycle is synchronised by an exogenous force: the sun. We do not merely sleep 1/3 of our ‘day’, we sleep when it’s dark: our Circadian Rhythm is di-urnal. This means that, amongst other things, sleep that one gets before midnight will be better than sleep after midnight. Eight hours from 12-8am will not serve as well as 8 hours from 10pm-6am.

So not only does one need to sleep consistent hours (number) but consistent hours (time of night). The same number of hours, at the same time, every night. This will improve the body’s daytime performance – which is, after all, the point.

Mess with this at your peril. Come to finals yes, you will lose sleep, skip meals, etc. The first impact is tiredness, then poor performance in exams, then all the way to too tired to eat, have a conversation. You’ll end up with barely a functional cerebral cortex, falling down stairs.

Second: Food

What one eats is equally important. I have less to offer here, since it’s fairly easily-managed (allowing, again, for dorm-living, college dining halls, etc.). The key to food is natural. Complex carbs in the morning, no carbs after 7pm, 4 to 6 smaller meals rather than 3 bigger meals. And above all, natural foods. The goal is to have clean blood: the less shit you consume, the cleaner your blood(stream) is, the more oxygen it carries, the more it carries to your brain, and the better your brain absorbs, sorts and recalls information. Your brain is the muscle, remember; you need it for that Big Game.

Sugar: if you need sugar for energy, have it. Have it naturally, though. Don’t eat/drink things because they’re sweet: that is not the same as sugar. Corn syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup and God-only-knows what else is not the same as pure cane sugar. Put it in tea, put it on Kiwi fruit, put it in a milkshake.

Black Tea: loaded with anti-oxidants. Dump your sugar in black tea. The caffeine will keep you up without making you wired. When that wears off, when the sugar wears off, peeing every 20 minutes will keep you up. Whatever works, yeah?

Milk is apparently under review, but you should err on the side of caution and go with don’t add milk to your tea. Caseins, the proteins in milk that go in Lactaid milk and all the bloody soy cheese, strip/block all those health benefits. Research seems to go back and forth on this one, but just use non-dairy milk and it won’t be an issue. If you don’t like the taste: there is also rice, almond, etc. Use vanilla soy milk with vanilla essence, and have vanilla black tea (quite nice). Whatever works.

Omega 3, 6, 9: Omega 3 fatty acids are why fish is brain food (and why our children will suffer as we did not). Cod-liver oil, flaxseed oil, linseed oil, these all come packed in capsules as supplements, also.

These are the only specifics of which I’m aware. Fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, lean meats (if you’re going to hell), etc. Like I said, the food rules are basic: one only has to watch out for the meal-skipping, late-studying behaviour.

Preparing academically

On to the scholastic part of exam preparation.


Time for some visuals. This is the hierarchy (and there is a hierarchy) of “information” or “knowledge”, as it applies to exam preparation:


Bad Habit Prime! Do not sit, waiting for me to hand out the exam, reading the textbook, the lecture notes, or anything that isn’t a single piece of paper with your well-condensed-and-revised notes on it.

I cannot stress this enough, and I see students do it a lot. The point is to take the primary sources of information thus: I use the textbook and distill it into lecture notes. You use my lecture notes and distill it into your lecture notes. Come the time to revise, one then has 3 sources of information to review, revise and condense. Then again, then again. At least 3 or 4 times. The idea is that this process forces the brain not to skim over information. One is forced to understand material in order to re-write it more efficiently, over and over. By the time of the exam, only 2 sides of a page are even needed, because everything else is properly understood.

This goes for formulae: do not sit with the textbook for the purposes of memorising formulae: it is alien, and throws at your eyes and brain more information that merely that. Those formulae should have been written and re-written many times already, finally ending up on that piece of paper. Take nothing else to the exam except the things you need to take the exam itself.

Related to this is another bad habit. Do not “quiz” one another. Our brains are not synchronised. Your friend will be asking you something while your brain is thinking of something else. When the exam arrives those two things will no longer be distinctly ordered/organised. Much like the football player spends the day of the game doing just enough to wake up his/her body for the performance soon to be required, our brains should be engaged in just enough, carefully filtered, activity to ‘wake it up’ and get it ready to switch on.

This seems excessive (and I’m not even finished). Remember this: finals are probably the most we will require from our brains, at least in our younger days. It is a pretty heavy burden we’re placing on ourselves and our brains, every semester, sometimes more often, and we need deliberate and careful preparation. You do not need to be as fresh, after your final exam, as you were on the first day of classes – but you do need to be as fresh at the start of the last exam as you were at the first. You need to make it to the end of the exam not just awake, but performing.

Practice questions

These are also ordered: loosely, past exams, then textbooks, then problem sets (or whatever term is given to the ongoing series of questions given to students, week-by-week).

Past exams: give the best impression of the format and style to expect, but not the content. Rather than looking at past exams and thinking, “These are the questions I’ll be asked”, one should look at them and think, “Now, suppose my lecturer asked this problem, instead. What would it look like? What aspects of this problem would be asked?”

Writing your own questions is an excellent method of practice, as you go along.

Textbooks: any relevant questions. Start with those with answers in the back, move on to the others. Remember: your lecturer is a resource, too. Find them and have them clarify any problem you have. Good ones will be available, by email, more or less continuously. A few minutes of our time is not that expensive that we can’t, when sitting here, answer your question.

Problem sets: our brains skim information. Whether we like it or not. For this reason, questions that one has already done will not work as well for revisions. Our brains skip bits, cut corners, etc. Familiarity, recognition, these are not the same as remembering and understanding.

Skimming is something against which one must always fight, when revising and practising questions. Always do every part of a question, especially as you are beginning to practise. Nearer the exam you can skip parts, as you’re more certain that they are understood.

Finally, expect your practise of problems to feed back into the process of revision and re-writing – leading, ultimately, to that final, fully informed 2 pages of material.


Finals are, as stated, problematic because of their multiplicity. How does one determine the chronology of preparation? I have found this to be optimal.

First, determine the chronology of the exams themselves: the order in which they occur as well as the distance between them:

timeline 1

Then: revise and prepare in reverse order:


Huh. That did not resize well.

Why? Whatever else happens, one can only guarantee being perfectly prepared for the first exam. Every exam thereafter will struggle with deterioration. So this at least maximised performance on the first couple of exams.

Optimally, you will get at least 2 nights and 1 day between exams – enough time to sleep off the first, prepare for the second, and sleep on that. Any more or less (and it will vary, between exams) means you must adjust your preparation period. Use less of the earlier time for exams that have a longer lead-time during the finals period.

Be aware, however, of another brain-trick against which to fight: Hyperbolic Discounting (also discussed here).

You will not have as much time to study as you think.

You will not study as well during that time as you think.

These cannot be stressed enough. Your brain will tell you that things are do-able when they are not. Be very attuned to this form of bias in your time-preferencing. Being on top of this problem will also remove a lot of the stress of exam preparation and taking.

That’s it. That’s basically all I learned about preparing for, and taking, exams during my 10 years in higher education. Longer, really: I learned a lot of this while still in high school. My marks have, frankly, never been brilliant. My trick was managing to make certain to meet the fundamental rule of exams:

Your performance in an exam should only ever be as bad as your understanding of the material.

All of this advice is geared towards removing every other cause of poor exam performance. Hopefully it helps someone.

No more peanut butter in schools

No, seriously:

Like hundreds of other school districts across the country, Craneville Elementary is facing a student body that is more allergic to peanuts than ever before. “I have never seen anything like this,” says Bevan, a 25-year teaching veteran whose 489-student elementary school includes seven with peanut allergies this year. “These allergies came out of nowhere.” To protect vulnerable students, Craneville and many other schools are being forced to establish what educators are calling “peanut-free zones” — areas in the cafeteria and throughout the school where nut products are banned; some schools are going nut-free altogether.

According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, peanut allergies more than doubled between 1997 and 2002 in children under 5 and are now estimated to affect more than 1% of school age children. “It is like being in a minefield,” says Dr. Scott Sicherer, an associate professor of pediatrics, allergy and immunology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

Researchers don’t yet know why these allergies are blooming, but some experts think premature exposure to nut-based products in infancy may be to blame. Others believe the link is genetic. Still others cite the hygiene hypothesis — the idea that more and more parents are oversanitizing their kids with antibacterial agents, causing their immune systems to become more susceptible to allergies.

I – being brought up in a town/region/country where exposure to such things was more or less taken for granted (as were the attendant bumps, breaks and trips to the hospital) – go along with the hygiene hypothesis; MRSA is, of course, the most widely-known, to date, outcome. I’m sure super-strains of everything from Dengue to TB will scythe their way through our children, by and by. Grit is a good thing.

The former hypoethsis isn’t a bad one either, though: baby food is still baby food but, between the two towns in which I live (Bethlehem, Pa. and New York City), I see more than a sensible degree of parents pushing strollers containing toddlers eating shit that just isn’t food. The soy and high-fructose corn syrup in that stuff is probably doing God-knows-what to those kids.

There is, however, a social gradient to that sort of thing. Some decent social policy work and we might determing that social gradient, in the US, and perhaps even get a policy response. None of which will help kids whose lives are threatened by nuts, more-and-more. I’d also be interested to see someone track these kids and see how the percentage of those who mature out of the allergy changes (or not).

This article was also great for this line:

Whatever the cause, some parents — of nonallergic children — grouse that it’s unfair of the school to deprive healthy children of their favorite peanuty snacks. “Parents get very passionate and angry when their kids can’t bring peanut butter to school,” says Mike Tringale, director of external affairs at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. “But you wouldn’t throw razor blades all over the gymnasium. For these allergic kids, putting peanut butter in the cafeteria is the same thing.”


I make a lot of strange analogies, when I teach, but I’m still amazed at the imagery that pops into some people’s minds (except Republican members of the Congress and Senate: those freaks are twisted, man).

College loans: consumption or investment?

I noticed, in the stats for my blog, that somebody had found there way here by searching – somewhere: I’m still not all that sure how it works – for this question. Are college loans consumption or investment? More accurately, is one consuming a college education, or investing in their human capital via a college education? Wandering around on my own, I found Ezra Klein discussing the question of college loans. I’ve also dealt with it once or twice, here.

A comment down the line in the Klein blog-post:

A college education is either consumption, investment, or both.

If you’re getting an education to be “fulfilled” (or to postpone reality), it’s consumption. Why should the taxpayers subsidize you? We wouldn’t buy you a Porsche or a face lift if that’s what you think you need to be “fulfilled.”.

If you’re making an investment in your future (law school, MBA school, trade school) and it does not pan out, why should the taxpayers bail you out? We wouldn’t bail you out of the Enron or stock you bought in 2000.

An interesting perspective. I’ve tended to come across as fairly non-sympathetic to student loans (or those there-burdened, more specifically). My argument remains: a university education is an investment in (i) your human capital, and/or (ii) your future earnings (potential). Why, you may ask, do I distinguish between the two?

  1. To some extent, getting a degree does, in fact, make you a ‘better’ (more productive, etc.) piece of value-added Human Capital
  2. To some (some would say, and not without cause, “greater”) extent, that university degree has a signalling effect. It says to employers, “I have my shit together, enough to get to University, enough to see the value in it, enough to graduate.”

These are both relevant contributers to your employability, and the income you will earn if/once employed. Both, you should recognise, are investments. In both instances, you (the student, or not) are investing in your lifetime earnings. That investment, depending upon the degree that you choose, will pay off – and therein lies a detail.

If you choose a degree that is not, probabilistically, likely to increase either your employability or your earnings, is it an investment? If you choose that BFA (sorry: Fine Arts), is your degree an investment, or consumption? Could we, in fact, be mis-characterising the entire enterprise? Who’s to say the investment has to be monetary? The payoff to the individual does not need to be financial. We just view it that way because the costs sure as hell are.

This becomes the problem, as per the comment reproduced above. If a student takes that BFA, they will incur significant costs (tuition and materials), but their earnings potential will not move much, relative to no degree at all. Those earnings will be in a field only enter-able with a BFA, of course, but this is neither here nor there (for us). Those two counter-points remain: if the BFA is consumption, why should society share the burden? If it is an investment, why should we share that burden?

Here’s why:

higher ed market graph

There is a social benefit of higher education that exceeds the private benefit: there is a positive social externality attached to university degrees. Ergo, in “the market”, the equilibrium number of degrees will be Q1: in fact, the social optimum number of degrees is Q*. How do we get from D1 to D2? A few ways. Federally-underwritten or subsidised student loans. Government grants – hell, private grants and scholarships (this is the US, after all). Almost any act whereby we, as society, compensate individuals to turn all of the social benefit into private benefit, so that students demand higher education along D2 instead of D1.

Alternatively, following the other path, we keep D1 but shift the supply of higher education outwards, via public universities. This will lower the price, and – via the law of demand – increase the quantity of higher education demanded. Either way, problem solved.

I’ve called Q* the allocatively efficient equilibrium: the number of degrees society wants. Here, too, lies a problem. I can convince you, somewhat more easily, that economics, physics, medicine, etc. degrees are valuable for society. These are skills we want drifting around our economy and society. Fine arts? Marketing? This is a harder case to make.

In theory we value the earnings potential of these degrees, ultimately, according to the value we – as a society – place upon having people with those degrees. I say in theory – I see a lot of people earning a lot of money for shit that I just don’t see as being valuable. However.

Back to the question: is college education consumption, or an investment? It is investment. It may appear as consumption, at the time (I went to University by default: in Australia one can, fairly easily, and I just didn’t want to work. I did understand the value-added that the degree would confer, but staying in education was the guiding principle. Now I have a PhD – so who’s to say the accidental investment didn’t pay off?). Lord knows plenty of my students seem oblivious to the tens of thousands of dollars being blown on them by their parents.

We have a tendency, however to ‘write off’ (for want of a better description) degrees that “we” do not see as valuable. You take Middle-America, Red-State, etc. – name your Joe Sixpack term of art – and they will, most likely, view a lot of the crap doled out at liberal coastal colleges as useless. I.e., as consumption. This is, though, only because they see no value in the investment – so it can’t be one, can it?

Like I said, I cannot deny there is some economics attached to this. If liberal arts degrees were valued in society, they would have a greater marginal revenue, once received. But they don’t. So…

There is the other, more American proof: money in University goes to Business, Engineering, etc. – because those alumni made the money, so they’re responding to that value-add by putting money into getting to D2 – but only for those degrees. We leave degrees with less social benefits at D1.

Getting back to the issue of student loans, then: what does this mean, for them? For students loans, for student debt? It’s hard (for one person, i.e. me) to say. I would like to see an Australian system of financing (basically you get your loan from the government, and they take it back via taxation – meaning it isn’t structured like a bank loan, which is where the heavy repayment burden comes in). I’ve discussed this with a colleague, though, and he made two very good points in the face of my obnoxious welfarism:

  1. Australia only has, like, 21 million people or so. Not 300 million. We have fewer people living in poverty, we already have health care and K-12 education covered (more or less).
  2. Making the government responsible for where D2 lies, relative to D1, will still result in discrimination according to the value of the degree – why would we trust the government with that rationing decision?

Dave’s latter point was not a part of some neo-Norquistian, twisted, idiot logic. His argument was sound. Our governments are not qualified people. Are relatively technocratic alumni? Maybe – can you think of anyone better?

My solution! The “system”, as it stands, is only – allowing for where we are, and the prevailing social welfare function, market neo-liberalism, etc. – marginally broken. The problem is information: one’s student loans should not (repeat, not) be able to be sold to various companies every couple of weeks. Interest rates should be fixed. The loan, its length, its conditions, should all be stable and easily understood, and students should be made aware, going in, what repayment of those loans will entail. This means that, yes, I want government regulation. Student loans can be as predatory as anything else. We don’t let kids this age drink, for Cliff’s sake. But we try to get them to apply for our credit cards? Come on.

BFA students (for example) should be made aware of where their employment is distributed, the income attached, the costs incurred, etc. Will you add in a few thousand in credit cards or supplementary loans for final-year projects, only to end up at some small indie magazine somewhere, starving in New York? We should all be made aware of the implications of our majors, responsibly, and those implications should not be hijacked (or allowed to be hijacked) by usurers. If we value higher education as an investment, a commitment must/ought to be made to protect young people who make that investment (again: I think. My idealism is not highly-regarded in many circles).

Do I want everyone to end up (like a few of my students) frustrated kindergarten-teachers, miserable in their parent-pushed “sensible” finance degrees? No. Hell no. My wife would make a shit marketing major, and I wouldn’t be half as interested in her if she’d tried (nor, for that matter, would we have even met). But, like anything else, you pay your money and you take your choice. If only we all can make our choices with the proper information, our choices will get to be our own.

Saudi king tries to grow modern ideas in desert

Bloody interesting.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is staking $12.5 billion on a gargantuan bid to catch up with the West in science and technology.

Between an oil refinery and the sea, the monarch is building from scratch a graduate research institution that will have one of the 10 largest endowments in the world, worth more than $10 billion.

Its planners say men and women will study side by side in an enclave walled off from the rest of Saudi society, the country’s notorious religious police will be barred and all religious and ethnic groups will be welcome in a push for academic freedom and international collaboration sure to test the kingdom’s cultural and religious limits.

For the new institution, the king has cut his own education ministry out the loop, hiring the state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco to build the campus, create its curriculum and attract foreigners.

It all sounds vaguely Syriana-ish – not to mention wonderful! I’d work there. If only they had some medieaval art for my (Jewish) wife to study. So…

Upon completion, the energy-efficient campus will house 20,000 faculty and staff members, students and their families. Social rules will be more relaxed, as they are in the compounds where foreign oil workers live; women will be allowed to drive, for example. But the kingdom’s laws will still apply: Israelis, barred by law from visiting Saudi Arabia, will not be able to collaborate with the university. And one staple of campus life worldwide will be missing: alcohol.

The university president will be a foreigner, and the faculty members and graduate students at first will be overwhelmingly foreign as well. Generous scholarships will finance the 2,000 graduate students; planners expect the Saudi share of the student body to increase over the years as scholarships aimed at promising current undergraduates help groom them for graduate studies at the new university.

The university’s entire model is built around partnerships with other international universities, and faculty members are expected to have permanent bases at other research institutions abroad.

The university will also rely on a new free-market model. The faculty members will not have tenure, and almost all of them will have joint appointments. While the university will initially be awash in money, its faculty and graduate students will still have to compete with top international institutions for the limited pool of private money that underwrites most graduate research.

Very impressive.