Affirmative Action Hurts Minorities the Most

While the Supreme Court is currently deciding the constitutionality of race-based affirmative action in Fisher v. University of Texas, it’s worth taking a look at the effectiveness of the practice.

In a new book Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, Richard Sander, a law professor and economist at UCLA and Stuart Taylor Jr., a Washington-based journalist, argue that the affirmative action policies of the past four decades have hurt Black and Latino students more than anyone else.

The argument is simple – by lowering the standards of admission, we are sending millions of Black and Latino students to universities that they are not prepared to be in. Instead of going to “less competitive but still quite good schools”, these minority students are admitted to elite universities where they are at a competitive disadvantage as compared with their White and Asian peers. In an excerpt published in The Atlantic, Sander and Taylor show mounting evidence from the past decade:

  • Black college freshmen are more likely to aspire to science or engineering careers than are white freshmen, but mismatch causes blacks to abandon these fields at twice the rate of whites.
  • Blacks who start college interested in pursuing a doctorate and an academic career are twice as likely to be derailed from this path if they attend a school where they are mismatched.
  • About half of black college students rank in the bottom 20 percent of their classes (and the bottom 10 percent in law school).
  • Black law school graduates are four times as likely to fail bar exams as are whites; mismatch explains half of this gap.
  • Interracial friendships are more likely to form among students with relatively similar levels of academic preparation; thus, blacks and Hispanics are more socially integrated on campuses where they are less academically mismatched.

The most damning piece of evidence though is from California where, in 1998 Continue reading “Affirmative Action Hurts Minorities the Most”


Retraction: TED Is Awesome

I liked TED and then convinced myself that I didn’t. I was a hater. Please don’t be one too. 

Urban Dictionary defines a hater as: “A person that simply cannot be happy for another person’s success. So rather than be happy they make a point of exposing a flaw in that person”. An example follows:

Susan: You know, Kevin from accounting is doing very well. He just bought a house in a very nice part of town.

Jane (hater): If he is doing so well why does he drive that ’89 Taurus?

My post from two weeks ago, Is TED Watering Down Our Minds?, is a prime example of hatertude, and for that I am sorry. I had explained how my initial love for TED had given way to boredom with the increasingly repetitive lectures. I cited Salman Khan’s education project as the last time I was genuinely impressed by a TED talk. What I failed to mention was that before Khan, there was Theo Jansen’s kinetic creatures that roam the coastline of Holland. Before that was Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir of over 2,000 voices from around the world. And Pranav Mistry’s 6th Sense technology that will revolutionize the way we interact with computers. And Hans Rosling’s data presentation that are so simple and so informative. The list goes on.

Although TED isn’t perfect, it has probably blown my mind away more than just about any other internet site. It will not save the world, but that’s OK. TED is an introduction and inspiration. TED is not comprehensive, but it’s not supposed to be. Most importantly, it is not watering down our minds.

TED may have faults with self righteousness and elitism (I’m beginning to doubt even those), but to suggest that it is watering down our minds is a red herring and a sad attempt to take a swipe at something because it enjoys mass appeal. If an organization can convince tens of millions of people to commit nearly 20 minutes of their day to sit down and think about something new, then they have succeeded and I applaud them. By today’s standards 20 minutes is quite a bit – especially on the internet.  There are so many things that are watering down our minds (stupid cat videos anyone?) and turning to a fast food approach to learning (cable news anyone?). TED is not one of them.

Is College Worth it? Part 3: Learning

We are filling colleges with too many unprepared students who don’t want to be there in pursuit of a misguided idea of prestige.

For most middle class American families, the four year undergraduate college experience has (de)generated into merely an expected step in the process – motions rather than actions. As discussed in part 1, college grads have more jobs than non college grads. So far, the remedy for this gap has been, let’s put everyone in college. Well, perhaps not everyone is meant for college (read till the end before sending hate mail).

I do not mean that certain students are not “good enough” for college. Rather, we must change our understanding of the term “good enough”. Rick Santorum recently referred to President Obama as a snob for supposedly saying that all Americans should go to college. Santorum defended those who were “gifted with their hands” implying that Obama wishes to herd everyone to the base of his ivory tower. Santorum is either a fool or a liar because he and the President actually agree on this issue. 

Germany and much of northern Europe have maintained a competitive advantage in manufacturing by supporting a system of vocational education built around developing skills necessary for a robust and productive industrial sector. Our politicians all pay lip service to the blue collar work ethic, but increasingly, parents and employers look down on those who don’t work at a desk. We enjoy watching Deadliest Catch on TV, but God forbid if one of our kids wants to catch fish for a living. How many times have we heard someone say something along the lines of “study hard, or else you’ll end up a janitor”. No wonder kids feel pressure to sign up for degrees they don’t want and can’t afford.

I learned a lot in college. I’m sure many of you have as well. But of course you did – it would be near impossible to progress through your first few years of adulthood without learning anything. The point is, how much did college instruction have to do with it, and was it worth the cost to you, your family and society?

College is no longer primarily a place for learning. A recent book, Higher Education?, argues that teaching has taken a back seat to research. Even small colleges put so much pressure on their faculty to publish that they often have no time to actually teach. College and university rankings rely heavily on the extent to which an institution’s publications are cited by other publications. But is writing an arcane article on Chaucer’s diet more important than helping students grasp the basics of English literature? We are losing our way and academic scholarship is the currency with which we are selling our souls for prestige.

Another book, Academically Adrift, argues that our colleges are caught up in a public relations arms race in which they are watering down curricula and standards so as to graduate more students and make short-term gains against their peer institutions. Professors are scared of giving bad grades. The end result is that students leave college without having acquired important skills like critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.

Even critics feel that the US university system is still the envy of the world. But much of that is based on inherited prestige from our graduate programs, which rely heavily on being able to attract the best and the brightest from around the world. If we continue to send more kids to college than we should, it’s only a matter of time before we have yet another debt crisis and a collapse in confidence in an already overvalued product that often fails to deliver on its promises.

Is college worth it? Yes, but we should really be encouraging high school graduates to genuinely consider all their options and support them if they choose something other than a 4-year degree. By channeling students to build off of their actual interests and capabilities, we will certainly produce both better mechanics and better writers.

Is College Worth it? Part 2: Cost

College degrees may no longer get you a job, but tuition costs continue to rise and student debt continues to accumulate.

I spent 4 years at a private liberal arts American college where the cost of tuition and board was about $35,000 per  year (for the current academic year, the amount is $55,450). I then spent two years in India, pursuing a masters degree, where the total cost was $1,200 per year.

Both schools provided me with an excellent education, but one was 30 times more expensive. Sure, the facilities at my undergraduate college were much better, but was it worth more than half of my parents’ combined salary? In reality, I actually only paid about a quarter of the full tuition because of various grants made possible by the college and the Federal Government. And then there were loans. By American standards, I was fortunate to walk away from college with only about $15,000 in student debt.

Every year, the Federal Government provides more than $150 billion in post-secondary financial aid – mostly through low interest, easy to get loans. Sound familiar? Government backing makes it very easy for students, many of whom are not ready to take on such a burden, to access large amounts of credit. As of last year, Americans had more student loan debt ($867 billion) than credit card debt ($704 billion). Even more modest calculations show a huge (511%)  increase in tuition in just over a decade.

In the previous post, I described how a college degree is still the best way to get a good job, but no longer a guarantee for one. Some folks believe that the cost of tuition has finally reached a tipping point and that it is no longer worth it, even for a job. Peter Thiel, co-founded of PayPal, started the Thiel Fellowship, which pays 20 students (all under 20 years of age) $100,000 to not attend or drop out of college and pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions. Peter Thiel and I may not see eye to eye on most things political and economic (here’s why), but I think we both agree that $200,000 is too much to pay for college.

Attending a four year private college is tantamount to undertaking a mini-mortgage for most students. There are some unnerving similarities between the housing mortgage crisis and our current education system:

  • cheap government-backed credit encourages unreasonable and unsustainable increases in price.
  • if the public/market decides that a product is overvalued, then the correction for overvaluation will be painful – yet another round of defaults, bailouts and hindsight finger-pointing.
  • folks were given far too many incentives to make purchases and undertake loans that they were not able to afford. 
On this matter, even Peter Thiel and Bill Maher seem to agree.

In Part 3, we will look at whether or not our undergraduate colleges actually teach students anything.

Is College Worth it? Part 1: Jobs

A degree used to guarantee secure employment – not so any more, but the alternatives are even worse.

There was a time when the United States had so many well-paying jobs  that having a college degree wasn’t necessary, but if you did have one, you got an even better job. Adam Davidson argues in this past weekend’s New York Times that much has changed since this “golden age”, which lasted roughly from 1945 to 1973. The two main reasons for this change both have to do with competition.

More big fish in the pond: In the early 1970s, only 10% of Americans had a college degree. In 40 years, that number has tripled. On the one hand, this means that there are more skilled people and, thereby, better conditions for overall economic growth. But it also means that the level of internal competition is greater than it has ever been and that each graduate must do more to stand out. There’s a real chance that we have too many liberal arts majors (it’s not just them, but that’s the stereotype) who lack real world job skills. Now that it’s expected that you get a degree, too many kids are coming out of high school and getting a degree for the sake of getting one, i.e. not actually learning anything.

The pond is connecting to the sea: Technology has made it much easier to ship jobs overseas. It started with manufacturing and now includes virtually everything (it’s not just call centers either).

So what’s the lesson? Don’t bother getting a degree? Not quite. It’s easy to encounter high levels of unemployment in the Great Recession and think that perhaps college is not worth the investment. While it’s true that a college degree no longer guarantees you a job and a pension, not getting a a degree is increasingly becoming the best way to guarantee underemployment and low earnings.

According to the US Census, a college graduate earns, on average, more than $23,000 more per year than a high school graduate. The unemployment rate among college grads is the highest it has been since 1970, but at just over 5%, it is still only half that of high school graduates. It’s bad for grads, but worse for non-grads. College seems to be a necessary, but not sufficient aspect of full employment.

So stay in school…unless you’re brilliant, in which case, don’t waste your time with class – get good at computers, drug trafficking or money laundering. Check out the list of college dropout billionaires.

It looks like college is still the best way to land a good job. Next time, we look at whether or not it’s worth the (skyrocketing) price of tuition.

Is TED Watering Down Our Minds?

TED takes big ideas and makes them plain, but does it also dumb them down?


When I discovered TED, I was thrilled. The idea of 18-minute lectures on technology, entertainment and design wasn’t sexy in and of itself, but the conferences had the type of swagger that only confident nerds could pull off. I would frequently forward links to talks that I found interesting and felt good about myself. Before long the conferences and events were being held all over the world and the videos had attracted over 500 million views online.

Earlier this week in the Atlantic, Megan Garber points out that TED, like the Chautauqua movement before it, is seen as either intellectual discourse for the common man or self-congratulating elites peddling watered down ideas. TED is decried for reinforcing elitism (conference admission is $6,000), but the most scathing criticism is that is takes big ideas and makes them too small – fast food for the mind. TED is where you go to listen to buzz words and feel good – Khan Academy is where you go to actually learn something.  

It wasn’t until I started receiving recommendations myself that I started to grow a little tired of TED. Was I upset that my little secret had gotten out? That it had gone mainstream? Maybe, but I would have grown tired of it eventually. Whenever something transitions from niche to mainstream popularity, the original fans complain that the masses have corrupted what was once pure and noble.

In truth, I am rarely impressed with TED talks anymore (Salman Khan of Khan Academy fame was pretty awesome), mainly because it has developed into a parody of repeating management Newspeak of empowerment, synergy and thinking outside the box to save the world. But TED still serves a purpose – the gathering of intelligent and powerful people to discuss ideas and ways to make the world a better place is generally a good thing. What remains to be seen is if that gathering will be a genuine meeting of the minds or an exercise in mental masturbation and branding.


Update: A comment below makes me feel compelled to add something. If TED is capable of sharing just a bit of knowledge with everyone, then it is a wonderful thing and I support it. If it’s aim is to change the world and look at problems in truly original ways, then it occasionally succeeds, but mostly repeats itself. I still don’t oppose it – God knows we have a problem in the US with the cult of anti-intellectualism. The very fact that more than half a billion people have viewed TED talks is a testament to its power. But my gut still tells me that with the exception of a few gems, it’s all one big light and sound show.