“Yay, College!” Part 1: The Smiley-Face Super-Villainy of American Higher Education

The “Yay, College!” Series

Part 1: The Smiley-Face Super-Villainy of American Higher Education

Part 2: The Big Short of American Higher Education

Part 3: Making American Higher Education Great Again

A little more than 6% of the American economy, about $1.6 trillion per year based on current GDP levels, is spent on education. That’s more than national defense (about 3% of GDP) and less than healthcare (about 18%), but haha! everything is less than healthcare. So yes, a quarter of the sum total of all American economic activity is devoted to our schools and our hospitals. All of our jobs, all of our incomes, all of our expenditures, all of our construction … a quarter of it is education and healthcare.

But the power and political importance of these two institutional pillars of American society go far beyond their economic scale.

Both of these institutional systems – schools and hospitals – enjoy intensely positive narratives, particularly at the higher end of those systems. The most powerful common knowledge in the world today – what everyone knows that everyone knows – is that American universities and medical centers are the best in the world. These institutions are our narrative superheroes in a world where we don’t have many superheroes left.

Of these powerful and positive social narratives, those surrounding American higher education are the most powerful of all. Why? Because we don’t want to go to the hospital, no matter how prestigious the medical center. But when it comes to our colleges and universities, particularly our ‘elite’ or ‘highly selective’ colleges and universities … oh yes, we WANT very, very much. We want keenly for ourselves. We want desperately for our children.

And because we want so very, very much, the narratives surrounding American higher education are intensely political. Not in the red vs. blue or Democrat vs Republican sense of the word ‘political’, but in the power sense, in the maintenance of political stability sense, in the channeling and control of our hopes and dreams sense. In narrative-world, American colleges and universities – especially our most prominent ones – are our Superman, our most powerful and respected institutional superhero. They are at the core of our common knowledge of truth, justice and the American way.

And so we cheer.

Yay, College!

The Boys, Season 3 episode 8

The Boys is a dystopian comic book series brought to TV by Amazon, where the ‘superheroes’ are all debauched bullies who get away with (literally) murder so long as they do The Man’s dirty work and wrap themselves in (literally) the flag. This scene shows Homelander, the Superman-esque leader of the debauched superhero bullies, right after he murders an anti-superhero protester with his laser eyes. It’s all very bloody and awful, and Homelander is not at all sure how the group of civilians around him will react, even though they’re a pro-superhero crowd. And then they start to cheer.

The modern American system of higher education – especially its most prominent public and private universities – is less our Superman than our Homelander, a smiley-faced faux superhero who does The Man’s dirty work in exchange for wealth, privilege and … our cheers.

The Man has two sides – a corporate side (what we call the Nudging Oligarchy in Epsilon-speak) and a political side (what we call the Nudging State) – and they each have a nasty itch that only our colleges and universities can scratch.

In service to the Nudging Oligarchy, our colleges and universities have created an occupational caste system of enormous power and universal acceptance.

In service to the Nudging State, our colleges and universities have created a luxury consumption economy of higher education so that the non-rich FEEL RICH even as they stay non-rich.

In exchange, our colleges and universities have received trillions of dollars in funding from the public tax code and the public financing of private debts, funding used to embark on a self-serving program of property purchases, facilities construction and administrative hiring of obscene proportion.

Here’s how it works.

This is a chart from 2015 data (IMO, this educational pecking order has gotten even stronger since Covid), published by the Washington Post, and it’s pretty obvious how to interpret. Our lifetime incomes are driven by the reputational dynamics (aka narratives) of where we go to college and graduate school. Not IF we go to college or graduate school, but WHERE we go to college or graduate school.

Is this fair? Is this right? Are Ivy League students so much more talented or educated than all other students? No, no and hell no. But fair or right or true, this disparity IS.

It’s the ‘one of us’ caste system.

Even more than an IQ test (another sorting function traditionally fulfilled by American higher education), employers want to know if a job applicant is ‘one of us’. Sometimes that ‘one of us’ quality is race. Sometimes that ‘one of us’ quality is gender. Sometimes that ‘one of us’ quality is political orientation, sexual orientation or age. Far more often, however, to the point where it has become the water in which we swim, that ‘one of us’ quality is educational class, a status system defined and stratified by first, a set of highly selective universities with global narratives, second, a set of highly selective universities and colleges with national narratives, third, a set of selective universities and colleges with regional narratives, fourth, a set of selective-I-guess colleges that people nod their head at but have no narratives, and fifth, everyone else.

Yes, this stratification has little to no bearing on the actual education delivered by the college or university in question. Yes, I think this stratification is ridiculous and unfair, just as I do any caste system.

And yes, this stratification is absolutely real and absolutely sets the path of at least your first ten years of adult life. And yes, this stratification is a largely hereditary status that is mostly determined by the educational class of your parents, but has enough variation on this factor to make us all feel good about ourselves and our society as we sing the social mobility verse of “Yay, College!”.

What makes our educational caste system so stable and ubiquitous?

Common knowledge.

Even if, like me, you do not personally believe in the social mobility variant of the “Yay, College!” narrative, you believe that everyone else believes it. Common knowledge is what everyone knows that everyone knows – not what you personally know or believe! – and everyone knows that everyone knows that going to a ‘selective’ or ‘highly selective’ college or university is the ticket to a better life for ourselves and our children, a ticket that’s available to anyone who’s smart enough and works hard enough to grab it.

This common knowledge of “Yay, College!” is why we put such enormous pressure on our children to get into a ‘good’ college, and it’s why so many of our children are damaged by that pursuit. It’s why we borrow such incredible sums for ourselves and our children, sums that our government is only too happy to lend to us.

The American system of higher education is the linchpin of Fiat World, where reality is declared rather than lived, where we are told that social mobility is real and true and we are told that it is virtuous to borrow vast sums as the pathway to a better life for ourselves and our children.

Why are we told this?

Because the truth – that our world is organized as a largely hereditary, educational class-based pecking order – cannot be imposed from above, but must be accepted from below.

Because starry-eyed students accept a ceiling on their potential if they are told that the ceiling is a starry sky.

We are told that college is the indispensable experience for young adults to discover their potential and set themselves on a path of economic prosperity and personal fulfillment. We are told that college is the only experience that can satisfy these most central wants that we have for ourselves and our children. We are told that it’s not about the money.

These are not bald-faced lies. There is a kernel of truth in all of these stories, all of these narratives of “Yay, College!”. But only a kernel. The far more dominant truth, the truth with a capital T that has no popular narrative to support it is this:


College education is insanely expensive today because colleges and universities have worked in tandem with the US government to jack up prices with one hand and provide infinite amounts of easy debt financing with the other.

Here, I’ll show you. First, the jacking-up of prices.

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Colleges and universities have raised tuition costs far more than the underlying inflation rate for decades now. Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics and its consumer price index data collection, college tuition today is 13.5x what it was in 1980, versus a 3.8x multiple in the price of all goods and services.

Notably, the BLS reports that tuition price increases have rarely been for improvements in the measurable quality of post-secondary education (for example, “increased instructional time”), and so the price data has had few hedonic adjustments applied. In other words, unlike say, your TV or your car, your college education today is no better than your college education 40 years ago. It just costs 13.5 times as much!

Okay, that sounds pretty awful, but our wages and salaries have increased over the past 40 years, too. Maybe our wage growth has kept pace with college tuition? Hahahaha! Nope. Nominal wages have increased 4x since 1980, just ever so slightly outpacing inflation.

Relative to our incomes, college is 3.4 times more expensive today than it was in 1980.

Not better. Just 3.4 times more expensive.

That’s what I mean by the jacking-up of prices.

How do we pay for something we want so badly when its cost outstrips our income? We borrow. And that’s where the federal government rides to the rescue, to make sure that we can borrow all the money we need to achieve our “Yay, College!” dreams.

Here’s another look at that college tuition price index chart. Notice the two inflection points where prices accelerate, one in the early 1990s and another around 2003.

Bureau of Labor Statistics

These tuition cost accelerations match directly with the legislative timeline of federal direct lending programs and, even more importantly, the narrative timeline of efforts to politicize federal direct lending.

In 1992, the Higher Education Amendments bill gave the federal government the ability to make student loans directly. Prior to this, the US government could only provide subsidies to private lenders. The Student Loan Reform Act of 1993 made the Direct Lending program official, threatening to take market share away from the highly lucrative “Guarantee Program” administered by private lenders. As a result, private lenders significantly increased their student loan marketing efforts to hold share, and colleges and universities accelerated their price hikes.

In 2003, the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students (HEROES) Act gave the Secretary of Education the unilateral authority to reduce or eliminate student debt under the Direct Lending program in response to “national emergencies”. While little used since its passage, it is today the primary legal basis for the Biden Administration’s court arguments supporting a $10,000 to $20,000 principal reduction in most student loan accounts. This was a Republican bill, btw, and it passed easily as the GOP controlled the House, the Senate and the White House.

But that’s the point. In 2003 the Republican party weaponized arguments against federal direct lending, pulling out a GAO report that the program had lent out $90 billion more than it had been repaid over the eight year period 1995-2003. I mean, it’s a silly argument seeing as how these were 10-year loans, and it seems kinda quaint to be all bothered by $90 billion over eight years, but those were silly, quaint times, I suppose. Why was the GOP taking aim at the federal direct lending programs? Because we were entering the Golden Age of asset-backed securitization, and every large commercial bank in the United States wanted to make as many private student loans as humanly possible, all subsidized by the US government, natch. And by subsidized I don’t just mean monetarily. I also mean that the US government made it illegal to discharge your private student loans through bankruptcy. I mean …

So of course the usual suspects on the Democrat side, like The New York Times, leapt to the defense of the Clinton era legislation that had established direct lending in the first place. In particular, there was an influential article written by US News & World Report (yes, the same publication that ‘ranks’ colleges and universities!) titled “Big Money on Campus: How Taxpayers are Getting Scammed by Student Loans” that called out the private loans + government subsidies arrangement as the “true” scandal here.

The result of these weaponized narratives was enormous publicity for student loans. An issue that very few people cared about a year earlier became an issue that everyone who considered themselves a ‘good Republican’ or a ‘good Democrat’ had to have an opinion about. Sound familiar?

In response, colleges and universities accelerated their tuition increases yet again.

In response, consumer borrowing for college increased dramatically in 2003, and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York began tracking student loans as a distinct category of non-mortgage consumer debt, along with credit cards and auto loans.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Student loan debt grew from $220 billion in 2003 to $1.6 trillion in 2022 – the largest single-purpose amount of non-mortgage consumer debt ever taken on in the history of man.

Federal Reserve Bank of New York

As for the federal government’s share of that lending, you’ll notice that the growth rate of student loan debt doesn’t skip a beat through the Great Recession of 2008-9, despite pretty much every large US bank abandoning their asset-backed securitization businesses and fleeing the student loan market. That’s because the US government jumped in to provide every single dollar (and more) in public financing that private financing would not. Why? Because the US government – regardless of which political party is in the White House – knows that if they lose the narrative of “Yay, College!” and its promise of a better life for ourselves and our children … well, then it’s not a Great Recession, but a freakin’ revolution.

Today, more than 90% of the $1.6 trillion in outstanding student loans is lent directly by the US government.

That’s what I mean by the infinite supply of easy debt financing.

The Nudging State currently provides 1.5 TRILLION dollars in public financing for the private debts incurred to support the luxury consumption economy of modern higher education and its Nudging State-supportive narratives. Additionally, the tax code of the Nudging State provides hundreds of billions of dollars worth of benefits to colleges and universities – particularly our richest institutions! – through tax-advantaged charitable donations and tax-free endowment investments.

These trillions of dollars in public support have been used for a singular purpose by America’s colleges and universities: the expansion and administration of an ever more lavish, ever more well-compensated institutional empire.

Without exception, every college or university I’ve examined has embarked on a massive program of property purchases, facilities construction and administrative hiring over the past few decades.

For example, here’s a map from 2014 showing New York University’s expansion in the Greenwich Village area of Manhattan since 1981. The light pink buildings are the original properties, the buildings in maroon are those purchased or leased since then, and the buildings in red are new construction since then. Thirty-seven additional buildings, including 14 new constructions! And this doesn’t even show the NYU Medical Center properties on the East River, the downtown properties, or the dozens of buildings leased or built by NYU over the past eight years.

And what projects! Here’s one of those post-2014 NYU construction efforts, the $1 billion-plus renovation at 181 Mercer, replacing the old gym facilities from when I was a professor there. That’s the mock-up on the left and the actual construction on the right (scheduled to open this spring). Good lord.

I know it seems like I’m picking on NYU, but I’m really not. Pick ANY college or university you like and google an old map, then compare it to the school’s footprint today. Look for yourself at the new construction and facilities that are being built at EVERY college and university in the country, each more Taj Mahal-ish than the next. They’re ALL doing it.

As for the expansion of the ecclesiastic administrative class … I’m sure everyone has read an article or heard a suitably shocking anecdote about how many administrators there are at colleges and universities today, and how well paid they are. For example, one recent article making the rounds was about Yale now having a one-to-one ratio of administrators to students. Not faculty to students, that ratio is basically unchanged for 30 years except that much more of the instruction is done by graduate students and not faculty at all, but administrators to students.

But hearing these anecdotes doesn’t prepare you for the full scope of what’s going on.

Here’s a link to the Fall 2020 list of employees and salaries, organized by department and office, for the University of Florida, our fifth largest single-campus public university with 58,000 students. This document is 1,035 pages long. That is not a typo. The list of University of Florida employees is one thousand and thirty-five pages long.

Every page looks something like this, the personnel and salaries associated with the Office of the President (President’s Office), not to be confused with the Office of the President (Chief Diversity Office) or the Office of the President (Office of Internal Audit). And on every page there’s a surprise.

Like, it’s surprising to me that the Office of the President (President’s Office) has not one but two executive assistants who make more than $100,000 per year. Or that the Office of the President (President’s Office) requires a Scheduling Specialist, a Logistics Specialist, a Conference-Event Planner and an Executive Events Director, separate from the other 47 Conference-Event Planners and Managers I found located in other departments. Perhaps most disappointing was that the Executive Housekeeper makes less than $35,000 a year. But these numbers don’t include benefits and bonuses, so maybe it’s not as dire as it seems for the Executive Housekeeper. Certainly President Fuchs can’t complain about the additional $500,000 he received in benefits and bonuses above and beyond his $926,000 salary.

I think my favorite page, though, was this one for the VP of Governmental Relations (Vice President Office), not to be confused with the dozens of Public Relations administrators found throughout the rest of the university. This is an office of 11 people, averaging about $140,000 per year in salary, and they are the lobbyists for the University of Florida.

I could go on all day. The Advancement Office has 157 full-time employees. These are the people charged with securing donations from alumni. The Office for Strategic Communications and Marketing has 18 full-time employees. I’m not entirely sure what this office does. Is it separate from an Office for Tactical Communications and Marketing? I dunno.

But I do know this. The University of Florida has a lot more pretty buildings and a lot more administrators than it did 20 years ago, and the tuition for the University of Florida, both in-state and out-of-state, has tripled over the past 20 years.

Just like every other college and university.

That’s what I mean by doing The Man’s dirty work in exchange for institutional wealth and privilege.

That’s what I mean by a smiley-faced faux superhero, wrapped in a flag, desperate for our cheers.

It wasn’t always this way, you know.

American colleges and universities used to be a genuine superhero of an institution. Of course not without flaws. Every superhero has flaws. But American higher education used to be an other-serving institution of heroic proportion, not a self-serving institution of obscene proportion.

Next: “Yay, College!” Part 2: The Big Short of American Higher Education

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  1. Hidden in plain sight for anyone who has wanted to see it for the last 40 years. I tried for the first 20 of those years to engage my “elite national but not Ivy” alma mater’s administrations on this subject, to no avail, so I gave up. I have experienced it as adjunct professor for a good part of the second 20 years at an “elite regional” university. The game that Ben describes is, from the point of view of entrenched and well-paid players, the only game in town.

  2. Avatar for jrs jrs says:

    My main conclusion from this essay is that functionally, our higher education system has turned into a public jobs program for the middle class. All those Yay, College! narratives are just fluff, as the DnDers say. (But fluff that is necessary to keep the money rolling in “from” students.)

    This system is a public jobs program not just for the ecclesiastical class of administrators, but also for those employed by the construction industry, local landlords, all those funky little shops in your favorite student ghetto, my local ER, etc etc. Anything that all this higher education money touches.

    This whole system is propping up millions of people with good, secure, middle-class jobs who might otherwise be much worse-off financially, and/or rebellious.

    Fair conclusion, or oversimplification?

  3. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Fair conclusion, and this is at the heart of part 2 of the series (The Big Short of American Higher Education). I think there’s a clear catalyst to blow up the easy financing, which reverberates through the entire sub-economy built up around higher ed.

  4. As an employee, part time professor and full time at the endowment, I feel seen. One thing that is missed in here, and I’m sure will be talked about in the future, are the professional masters programs. I teach in one, and my class this semester has 1 non-Chinese national (0 last semester). We market these programs to students outside of the country and they come paying amounts that boggle the mind. One student’s tuition for 1 semester pays my teaching salary for the full year – I teach 50+ students a year, in an elective class.

    Not to say I’m not proud of the program we put together. It’s highly technical and our students generally have 2-3 job offers with salaries well north of 100k when they graduate. They’re smart and hard working, and we push them harder than they expect. We do this while running a net “profit” center for the university that helps fund everything talked about here.

  5. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    100%. The vast majority of MA programs are pure grift, certainly those outside of STEM and finance, are just a pure grift. Makes me so angry!

  6. Avatar for drrms drrms says:

    Another devastating piece. The data and images from Rusty’s earlier Starry Eyes and Starry Skies piece are a dagger through the heart:

    I think that is the most epic heinous criminal deception I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe we’re talking about the likes of FTX, Elon and Hunter when things like this are happening just behind the curtain.

    It’s striking too that the quality of the education has deteriorated even as the funding has exploded.

    It’s hard not to conclude that we have badly lost our way. I am shaken.

  7. I would go one better…it is a public jobs program for individuals nurtured by the nudging academic state to major in topics that have little to no economic value in ‘the real world’ (think most any ‘major’ that ends in the word ‘studies’) Individuals with such majors need a place to implement their often activist goals…and what better place for such an individual than an institution of education (followed closely by a government agency or HR department).

  8. Avatar for lhouts lhouts says:

    As a recent college grad, I think the whole industry contributes to the luxury experience spending mindset of many of my peers. Our parents saved our whole lives, just to spend it on four years of partying and “enrichment” classes that are more about self-actualization than direct job skills (with some STEM exceptions).

    Now, we’re doing the same thing in miniature-- saving up for a few months or a year so we can afford a vacation to Europe or Asia where we can party and “enrich” ourselves through tourist cultural activities (museums, guided tours of historic areas).

    Our parents modeled our spending behavior, but they mostly did it because they bought into the college → better life. Now that we’ve experienced that college is just “low-effort enrichment and party” we buy into “low-effort enrichment and party” → better life."

  9. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    100%. And it’s entirely intentional.

  10. Avatar for 010101 010101 says:

    How close a relationship does the ideology present in these vaunted institutions resemble the Church of Man? Is it ‘there is no god except me’?
    Have flickering emotions been raised to be the highest morals so that a brisk scorn or mere irritation can become gleefully resolved by summary public execution?
    This must leave front dead centre, for a generation whose natural, youthful scorn for mundane institution one worthy target, humanity itself. During the best years of their lives they wrestle with a hobgoblin, the corroded remains of the soul, that social relations in their capitalist society are total revolution.

    Productivity to this cause cannot be in addition but by subtraction.
    The freedom to opt out becomes unwanted, obsolete, forgotten.
    You want to be human, right? Then obey, or be cancelled.

  11. Can’t wait for Parts 2 & 3!

    The paradox for all parents in recent generations was that this meat grinder managed to grind out a better life for your children if you played, and hindered them if you opted out. Yes, there are enough “one-off” success stories of entrepreneurial and visionary leaders that did not choose this path and still succeeded. But, observe that their narrative stories are usually that they got into these colleges but then had to follow their passion as it was so intense (Gates, Dell, Jobs, Zuckerberg). So, they are still held up as successes within that system and use it to populate the companies they created.

    My children are starting families of their own and will eventually face this dilemma that my parents and I didn’t consider too deeply -ultimately to my and my children’s benefit! But, my $500 annual scholarship paid my tuition so the economic bet was much easier then.

  12. Overproduction of elites has been one of the causes of our broken discourse the last 10-15 years. Meanwhile nobody knows how to actually fix stuff when it breaks. Hard to believe that we need this damn many management consultants, but here we are.

  13. Ben, looks like you can put a “Yay, …” series together on our lost guilds. The note also reminded me of David Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs” and made me replay David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech. “But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and displaying …. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

    Looking forward to the next parts.

  14. As a public high school teacher, I encouraged students to avoid going to college for the “Yay, College” reasons. Hammered home the inability to discharge student loans through bankruptcy. Walk through any school and you’ll see colleges and universities that the teachers attended proudly displayed by their classroom doors. It’s a propaganda machine operating in plain view.

  15. Avatar for lhouts lhouts says:

    Do you mean intentional as in planned by individuals? Or in a greater narrative sense? Not that they’re mutually exclusive.

    I guess I’m skeptical that any of the individuals advocating for greater debt financing for colleges, or the college administrators raising tuition, are really thinking far enough ahead to consider the consequence of “college students will save less and spend more on vacations once they graduate.”

    I’d guess most of the debt financers either genuinely buy into the heroic narrative of college and think it should be accessible to anyone (legislators) or are just excited about a new low-risk way to make money (private loan givers). I’d also guess most of the tuition-raisers are focused on the rat race with other colleges, which means new facilities, new experiences and endowment has to increase every year. I’m sure lots of them are cynically aware that they are not providing the experience they claim to, that they are irresponsibly spending public money, etc., but this just feels too elaborate (and difficult to predict: what if college students reacted to the experience by rebelling and becoming super savers?) to attribute to intention.

    To be clear, I agree that easy college loan financing is an intentional policy to encourage overspending, I just don’t think that people who have recently graduated college are the intentional targets (just parents and prospective students).

    I just got a subscription and have really been enjoying your articles, but sometimes I’m concerned you attribute evil intentions pretty widely to people in power who are actually just following the same incentives as everyone else. Since I don’t see these people giving up power anytime soon, I’m concerned that this alienates them unnecessarily and prevents the analysis and proposed solutions in epsilon theory from being acted upon.

    Open to being convinced that it really is intentional in part 2 though!

  16. I was at my wife’s nieces HS graduation last year and noticed something that blew me away. Small town in So ILL.

    During the graduation:

    The Principal said everyone with a 3.5 GPA or higher please stand, no shit 80%, of the class of 200 or stood up , then he said anyone with a GPA of 4.0 or higher please remain standing. A little less than HALF of the class remained standing.

    YAY College is so powerful that all these teachers in HS do not want to ruin that dream for their students. Grade inflation is the net result. I would say that these kids will be in for a rude awakening when they get to college but suspect I would be wrong.

    The education is not better , its not the same ,it’s worse - WAY WORSE. Much of it isn’t education at all---- it is indoctrination.

    We note that Willingham’s numbers about UNC accord come in the context of the study’s larger finding that “most schools have between 7 percent and 18 percent of revenue sport athletes who are reading at an elementary school level.”

  17. Avatar for TyB TyB says:

    I agree with Ben entirely, but college isn’t the beginning. By the time college rolls around you have spent a fortune!

    As a “legacy” Ivy League graduate, I was taught by my seven sister’s graduate mother, that the purpose of college was to learn how to think. Dad mostly stayed quiet, or, if anything, described his business school education as more transformative (specifically the case method). My Mom emphasized the liberal arts as a way to learn how to think, reason, and judge. My college era, late 80s into the early 90s was one where conservative and/or free-market ideas were a distinct minority at least on my campus, but accepted, albeit “lightly vilified”. Sure “fascist” was used as a descriptor, but with a smile.

    I then invested over almost two decades an unknown sum, but certainly over a million dollars, sending my three daughters to K - 12 private schools to make sure my girls had the best possible chance of getting a world-class-education. My second daughter is a sophomore in the Ivy League now, and after her freshman year came home and raved about the incredible diversity of ideas at Penn vs. what she has been taught in Seattle. Penn.‘s “diversity”…from a school where in late 2020 96% of the faculty polled were democrats. Most of my daughters’ friends at school also utilize tutors, and then you have test prep!

    I say this not because I think my investment in private schooling has been a complete waste. I believe it superior to public education (a tragedy in itself), but because especially over the COVID lockdowns, which in Seattle went forever, I saw exactly what my daughter was talking about - the private K-12 schools themselves were engaged almost solely in credentialing my girls specifically for that “elite” machine. These aren’t education institutions, these are “Get into a good college” institutions. I was extremely proud of this same daughter explain it succinctly, “We were taught what to think, not how to think.”

    Although, I admit, I told her that she was no doubt being taught what to think at Penn also. One thing I learned from Ben, we are always being told what to think, by everyone. But making it so damn expensive is just a way of pulling up the ladder behind you after you get to the top. And ultimately, it will lead to stale ideas and dead thinking.

  18. Great charts, just shaking my head…

    True story that speaks to “Yay!”, Corporate America’s tuition aid reimbursement programs from one HR professionals experience:

    A highly compensated employee (defined as +$150k/yr) walked into my office to gripe about his pay grade and current assignment. Part of his argument had to do with his Master’s Degree being just a good as his peers, employees 1, 2, and 3 blah blah blah. I listened.

    When he wound down the rant, knowing we both knew his pay grade and job assignment were not changing as we were winding down this business segment, he asked, “What do you think?”

    I answered: "Over the past 15 yrs in HR, I’ve processed countless tuition reimbursements for employees enrolled in masters programs. Oddly, I never saw a report card with anything less than a B.

    How is it no one gets less than a B grade ever? From top tier master’s programs across this nation, not one employee received less than a B. Not even a B minus. Hmmm, seems kinda odd, don’t you think?

    My client, still understandably cranky about his professional situation, said, “That’s a good observation.”

    Mmmhmmm. Yep.

  19. Avatar for jewing jewing says:

    But but but: the university arms race was solely the product of a “visionary” university President, Stephen Trachtenberg of GWU (with a hat tip to Ben Sasse, now at U Florida), who has - or had - no regrets about jacking tuition to ostensibly milk primarily the wealthy students.

    This narrative has not aged well.

    Also, note how increasing debt loads were barely an afterthought in the article.

  20. Avatar for naiguy naiguy says:

    It is a quandary of existential significance to ponder upon, whether the circumstances arising from the discourse of cultural synthesis within the establishments of our society are a deliberate orchestrating by the institutions themselves, or a mere echo of the tumultuous clamor of the youthful progeny, clamoring for their voices to be heard and their ideological perturbations addressed within the hallowed halls of these bastions of power.

    “I said, watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical
    A liberal, oh, fanatical, criminal
    Oh, won’t you sign up your name? We’d like to feel you’re acceptable
    Respectable, oh, presentable, a vegetable
    Oh, take, take, take it, yeah”
    -The Logical Song by Supertramp

    “Wrong, do it again! (Children playing)
    Wrong, do it again!
    If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding!
    (Wrong, do it again!)
    How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?
    (Wrong, do it again!)”
    -Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2 by Pink Floyd

  21. Just sent a missive to an Oxford professor who was bemoaning “retirement inequality’. My response was to point out our educational system teaches nothing on compounding of returns, incremental saving and investments. I pointed out that it isn’t about inequality but a failed educational system not even getting to financial shakedown.

    Regarding college, the best application solution is that 20% should be an auction and 80% a lottery of qualified applicants. The question is why hasn’t this happened organically? My sense is such a process would eliminate the current corrupt structure that furthers the current system and those benefiting.

  22. Avatar for 010101 010101 says:

    Because the powerbase is formed around forced ‘multiculturalism’ and a cartoonified ‘diversity’ that seems to mostly cause polarization and hostility. There are ready-made scapegoats for any failures, i.e. racism or sexism.
    This makes a feedback loop to demonstrate how absolutely correct the ideology was all along.
    The survival of this nonsense does not depend on the talents of the indoctrinated. It relies on its position in your political economy and as such is an ingredient in the stability of the state of widening gyre.

  23. $500 for annual tuition ?
    Damn Patrick, you certainly don’t look like you’re 95 years old

  24. Avatar for drrms drrms says:

    Clearly Mr. Trachtenberg is a humble man only in it for the good of his students.


  25. Hard to believe but tuition my freshman year at the University of Texas in 1981 was $4 per credit hour. So, 15 hours that fall was $60. Add in the Athletics package to get student tickets to all of the sporting events of $45 and access to the Health Center and the total was around $200. And, it had been $4 per hour since 1972 - no inflation in tuition for a decade! I think it was bumped to $12 while I was there which created outrage but still allowed a minimum wage part time job to easily cover it.

  26. That is hard to believe.
    Big Oil money subsidies?

  27. Historically, the Texas Legislature paid more than half of UT’s annual budget. And, it sure doesn’t hurt to own 2.1 million acres in the most prolific oil producing basin in the US!

  28. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    That DFW address is also the source of the “water in which we swim” metaphor that we use for the role of narrative and storytelling in our lives.

  29. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Absolutely right! I couldn’t fit all this into the note, but deserves a postscript.

  30. Both of those freedoms DFW speaks of is one in the same —the freedom to pursue your happiness.

    Just two different paths.

  31. Avatar for robh robh says:

    The UT endowment is $43BB (second in size to Harvard’s $52BB) and presumably that is with all that land marked at cost. Texas A&M has another $18BB in its endowment.

  32. Colleges use a 6/30 fiscal year, but UT’s performance vs peers had to be tough to beat in calendar '22 as they are NOT considering divesting from hydrocarbons and have the highest energy allocation of any school. Bloomberg picked up on this last summer:


    I just reread the article, which was from a Bloomberg Green perspective. They highlight that Texas is also big in Wind and Solar and tout that revenues from UT leases for those renewables were forecast to be roughly $5 mil in 2022. This could act as a hedge for when hydrocarbons dim. LOL. Revenues from oil/gas royalties were >$2 BILLION in 2022.

  33. Back to the meat of Ben’s analysis. My trusty HP 12C (if you didn’t already know I’m a Boomer) tells me $120 to $14,000 over 42 years is a 12% cagr. Put another way if I could have gone long UT tuition I could have turned $40k (a reasonable guess at what my parents spent all in for my UT experience) into $4.7 mil and a very comfy retirement! And, this math bankrupted the original Texas guaranteed tuition program that allowed me to buy my kids tuition at 1997 prices figuring stocks and bonds could keep up with tuition paid in 2008-2018.

  34. People don’t use logic enough, and they don’t consider counterfactuals. They ignore Simpson’s Paradox (like with COVID vaccines), and here lies another example of this at work. Take a population of Ivy League graduates, state school graduates, and high school graduates only. The composition of the “smarts” of those groups are not the same populations. If you instead used the dreaded IQ test as a proxy for “smarts” and capability, and then took distributive sample of IQ results that is equal in composition within three groups, and then sent a set of each equal group into Ivy League, state school, and no college, I would assert that the results would not look the same as they do now. Employers would dip into the pool of high school graduates for the diamonds that are out there. They only choose the pools to recruit from now because recruiting from the high school graduate only pool has TOO LITTLE talent because the talent has all migrated to college. But are these students truly doing better because of college or because the composition of those groups reflect the talent in them?

    Ben will get this football analogy. Recruit 5 star athletes to your university football team, and you are going to finish above 500 regardless of the coaching. Does that mean the football program made a better team or just collected more talent? Let’s tease out the variables, and I think we would find these super bright students at various colleges would be almost as successful if they didn’t go to college because employers would skyrocket them up the chain once they recognized their talent. College isn’t producing great talent, they are collecting it. Then they are bragging about what was collected and the success the talent has while taking credit for success the student was going to have anyway.

  35. Avatar for drrms drrms says:

    The existence of an embedded “ecclesiastical class” in our Universities is the clearest proof I could imagine for the case I’ve been making over in the Metaphysics thread that scientism is THE dominant religion of our times. It’s the religion that no one dares call a religion.

    Ecclesia = church.

  36. Avatar for 010101 010101 says:

    Freethinking has for so long now been fighting against creed. How impossible for a science affirmed atheism to have to confront materialism
    as mere religion!
    Mein Gott! (Engels spitting out his teeth).

  37. Avatar for drrms drrms says:

    That is such an important article Brent. Thank you for posting it. It speaks to one of the big gaps in this conversation which is what the heck is happening to our young people at these schools?

    This description by a young woman about her ex-boyfriend who was then at Yale says it all:

    Before he started college, he spent most of his time reading and writing short stories. Three years later, he’s painfully insecure, worrying about things my public-educated friends don’t give a second thought to, like the stigma of eating lunch alone and whether he’s “networking” enough. No one but me knows he fakes being well-read by thumbing through the first and last chapters of any book he hears about and obsessively devouring reviews in lieu of the real thing. He does this not because he’s incurious, but because there’s a bigger social reward for being able to talk about books than for actually reading them.


    I also found this comment particularly interesting on the subject of actually learning how to think:

    Religious colleges—even obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coasts—often do a much better job in that respect.

    Anecdotally, we were having dinner with some friends recently (both college professors at a prestigious public university). One son when to Yale and one son went to Thomas Aquinas College. They said that hands down, the son that went to Thomas Aquinas College was much better at asking deep questions.

    If we don’t know how to ask deep questions, there is nothing to think about!

    Thank you again,


  38. And now for something not-so completely different – here’s a link to a wiki entry describing the fate of a very tiny liberal arts college (just a town or two away from me): Chester College of New England - Wikipedia

    I did not hear too much about it at the time, until local news reported that the campus was going to be sold to a Chinese organization as a music school. The links on the wiki page are not too helpful (or are hidden behind paywalls) but as I remember, locals were mildly positive that the school was going to remain open in some form.

    Back on point: how many other small colleges who are providing a worthy service to their local communities are closing or getting bought out?

  39. Can we touch the NCAA third rail? Or, (God help us)… the Travel Ball Industry? Designed almost specifically to act as a sales funnell for children 5+ to get into a college pathway?

  40. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Woof. Yes, I’ll touch on this in Part 2 and say a lot more in Part 3.

  41. Sounds like part 2 (The Big Short of American Higher Education) might start a grassroots campaign “College is Free”.

  42. Avatar for Hobbes Hobbes says:

    Much easier and much, much cheaper as captains of industry to convince us that a college degree is the answer versus paying people a livable middle class income. Why, just team up with your local and national government the old fashioned way – campaign contributions, and soon you’ll need a PhD to have a chance at a decent paying job. It will be very curious to see what happens to higher education as the demographics do not support a steady stream of new customers. And especially as we see more young people find trade schools, mentors, and hands on experience can lead to a decent career and a helluva lot less debt.

  43. Now we are getting somewhere…
    I am saying this with a considerable amount of “tongue in cheek”, but are you (and @bhunt ) suggesting that our economy might be relying on a considerable amount of “false” employment, partially engineered or sponsored by governments? Surely not? :slight_smile:

    I (rather ironically) don’t have the time to write many coherent sentences about this today, but here is a laundry list of ideas I think are related to the issue of “creating jobs where no jobs are needed”. Technically they are “needed” but this is a system of our own making…):

    • We have created a system were both more survival and economic thriving is contingent on employment, necessitating an endless supply of jobs for the masses.

    • This has caused a parasitic relationship between governments and corporations. Corporations provide jobs in exchange for favorable tax treatment. This worked really well during an era when corporations and workers were in a mutually beneficial relationship - but that relationship is breaking down. Demographics and productivity drive GDP and productivity is no longer intrinsically linked to simply labor.

    • this relationship is breaking down due to the unstoppable force that is technology and innovation. Corporations do not need as many people, but they need/want the tax breaks and it is not politically palatable to get rid of people en masse. Unless you are corporation with a decent view of the lie of the land (tech companies), then you do it anyway (consider the interesting juxtaposition of recent nonfarm #s and the wave of tech layoffs.

    • Bullsh#t jobs abound in this system, as people are required to work to survive, but their efforts are no longer required in the same meaningful way (I recommend just about anything David Graeber wrote about this topic, starting with the term he coined - bullsh#t jobs).

    • Politicians do whatever they can to deliver on the promise of jobs, forgetting that people in general didn’t ask for jobs. They asked for the means to survive and thrive. For many, working being productive in an economic sense can be one of life’s great sources of meaning. For others it is simply an obstacle to be climbed in order to access other sources of meaning (parenting, volunteering, creating), while giving you less and less back in return…We need both kinds of humans, but we act as if we only want the former. Eventually, it will become clear that not all jobs are intrinsically valuable. Some are positively harmful, both via negative externalities like student debt, but also via lost opportunities in other areas of human flourishing. One of my favorite books ever, was “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, from which my main take-away was the people will put up with a lot but never a sustained loss of meaning. We should act accordingly.

    • On the topic of negative externalities of being made to work meaningless jobs for mere survival: addiction, breakdown of families, mental and physical health cataclysms…all serious economic costs of a system that is no longer fit for purpose.

    Personally, I think a lot of what we debate in this little corner of the internet to be the many different symptoms of the bigger problem. And its not that I don’t find each symptom really interesting and worthy of debate (I do!) but at what point to we sit back and consider this from a first principles point of view?

    If we knew yesterday what we know today about the inextricable force that is innovation and technology, would we build a system where human survival was built on 9-5 employment of EVERYONE? Or would we attempt the construction of a system whose tax code does not so grotesquely distinguish between the labor of humans versus that of technology?

    Considering the non-trivial impact John Maynard Keynes has had on the current problematic relationship between the private and public sectors…, as well as the fact that it is now nearly 100 years since this was written - I would wholeheartedly recommend a read or re-read of my personal favorite - “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren”

    Economic Possibilities for our (yale.edu)

    Personally, I think our failure to adapt to the exponential changes brought about by technology is the type of failure of the imagination that we should expect when we focus our whole existence on only that which is economically productive.

    And there is no small irony in the fact that a shift most will insist that we cannot AFFORD (!), is the shift that we can least afford to avoid.

  44. Here is celebration for 50 years at UMSL - University of Missouri - St Louis. They went from 3 professors for every admin, to 2.6 admin per professor. They went from 1 building for 672 students to 1 building for every 299 students. Yea progress!

  45. Random thought …

    The barriers to entry on the business of universities is complete. Its been complete probably since the 1950’s and now universities are just jockeying for position. I have to do more research, but try to name a prestigious college opened after 1950. Is seems a great number community colleges were established in the 1960’s. Pepperdine opened in 1937 and Air Force in 1954. I could get funding to open a hospital, not a university.

  46. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Good thought! I can’t think of one within the US, although many examples of universities totally changing their prestige/reputation by massive spending projects (NYU, for example).

  47. Avatar for 010101 010101 says:

    Yeah, that is almost Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ but oddly completely missing a massive turning point in economic history. Why?

  48. Avatar for Laura Laura says:

    Just came across this tuition hike notice from Stanford that has some relevant numbers for those tracking. Tuition increasing 7% and the threshold for grants goes up $25K to families with incomes ≤$100K. Undergrad tuition now almost $62K and graduate figures to be posted still. They say 86% of students graduate with no debt.

  49. My child is in college as a recruited athlete. It is a parallel universe of college admissions where the student athlete is offered a fast track through special admissions committees, pre-reads, letters of intent. It blew my mind that it actually worked that way. The top academic kids were not getting all of the one on one attention we received. I wish colleges would calculate their early admission excluding all of the athletes who know they have committed spots. This is not to say student athletes don’t work incredibly hard, but it is a hidden track. It also leads to mentoring, internships, and jobs only available to the athlete groups. And travel ball. There were lots of family paying a profound amount of money to join mid level travel teams that got their kids no where. If you were not on the right travel teams or in the right tournaments, you were not going to be recruited. But that didn’t stop the parents from spending on the hype. It was unreal. It starts around 5 and it consumes a lot of time and money. I still don’t know what to make of the whole experience.

  50. For you financial brained musicians or music lovers (@Zenzei, I’m missing many more), I’ve really enjoyed Ted Gioia Substack. He’s a musician, historian, was embedded in financials of music industry and wrote a piece a few days ago on a parallel track to the Yay College series, entitled “A Chilling Paragraph from 1960”. He quotes a book written 1960 (that I now must read) by Paul Goodman called Growing Up Absurd where Goodman apparently makes many predictions about the media, higher ed and healthcare. Here’s a Goodman quote on higher ed:

    “Or suppose again (as is not quite the case) that in a group of universities only faculties are chosen that are “safe” to the businessmen trustees or the politically appointed regents, and these faculties give out all the degrees and licenses and union cards to the new generation of students, and only such universities can get Foundation or government money for research, and research is incestuously staffed by the same sponsors and according to the same policy, and they allow no one but those they choose, to have access to either the classroom or expensive apparatus: it will then be claimed that there is no other learning or professional competence; that an inspired teacher is not “solid”; that the official projects are the direction of science; that progressive education is a failure; and finally, indeed—as in Dr. James Conant’s report on the high schools—that only 15 per cent of the youth are “academically talented” enough to be taught hard subjects.”

    Goodman concludes: “But it is in these circumstances that people put up with a system because “there are no alternatives.” And when one cannot think of anything to do, soon one ceases to think at all. It is my belief that we are going to have a change. And once the Americans can recover from their mesmerized condition and its astounding political apathy, our country will be in a most fortunate situation. For the kinds of radical changes we need are those that are appropriate to a fairly general prosperity. They are practicable.”


  51. But deep questions are counterproductive in the investment banking world. If the junior banker asks questions they might get a ping of guilt over the next vulture capital deal- fail to extract out the maximum amount of profit, leaving the most loss with whatever bag holder, damn the consequences to workers, etc. Obviously only successful investment bankers become major endowment donors, Yale’s raison d’etre.

    Maybe you said it best (the water in which we swim):

  52. Reading part 1, I kept thinking about so many useful anecdotes that I hope come out in Parts 2/3. But I have to say something if you are going towards the NCAA - because it is personal, and more importantly I think there’s some very compelling stories that are not well known.

    Remember COVID March Madness - how it was ALL played in Indiana? You know why? Because Indiana passed a COVID immunity law the day before the announcement. So if a bunch of spectators or players got COVID and had ongoing medical expenses, or died, the NCAA would have no liability. And of course the NCAA is based in Indy and has it’s own self-selected judge. How can that be you ask? Aren’t cases randomly assigned? Yes of course :rofl:. There’s a bunch of lawsuits against the NCAA over knowledge of CTE. All consolidated to the NCAA’s preferred court, Marion County Superior 1, and Judge Heather Welch.

    When the Horizon League sued Valpo for breach of contract leaving for MVC, someone at Horizon ‘chose’ to hire the boutique litigation firm that had just hired the then Valpo President’s daughter, a recent graduate of Valpo Law. That case was moved from one county to another. The assigned judge recused themselves and a Valpo Law grad took over.

    Obviously Horizon never had a chance. Neither do these CTE claims unless they can get to federal court. Many of those lawsuits are filed by executors so they have proof from a brain inspection that the psychological issues were caused by CTE. And there’s a crap ton of proof that the NCAA knew about the issue for decades, considered revising rules and safeguards, but didn’t.

    @bhunt lmk if you want to discuss further.

  53. Avatar for Laura Laura says:

    Taking this story back even further, I think many of you might be surprised to learn the origins of the endowments in some of our finest public universities including my alma mater. The Morrill Act of 1862 set up a system whereby the federal government expropriated indigenous lands out West (never forget the metanarrative of Manifest Destiny!™) by theft or fraud and parceled them out to 52 different universities around the country, including back East, in perpetuity thus creating the basis of their endowments. This is researched in the article below which reminds us this was the USG’s first foray into funding for higher ed.

  54. Fort Lewis College reads the following before every on campus event or activity:

    We acknowledge the land that Fort Lewis College is situated upon is the ancestral land and territory of the Nuuchiu (Ute) people who were forcibly removed by the United States Government. We also acknowledge that this land is connected to the communal and ceremonial spaces of the Jicarilla Abache (Apache), Pueblos of New Mexico, Hopi Sinom (Hopi), and Diné (Navajo) Nations. It is important to acknowledge this setting because the narratives of the lands in this region have long been told from dominant perspectives, without full recognition of the original land stewards who continue to inhabit and connect with this land. Thank you for your attention and respect in acknowledging this important legacy.

    FLC is free to all indigenous students. Parent orientation started with the head of the Native American Center reading the statement while wearing his tribe’s traditional headwear. Any concern for FLC would be honest about the history was eased. Apparently I should have been more concerned about Purdue’s land grant where eldest went.

  55. Avatar for Laura Laura says:

    The University of California has also made tuition free for all members of a federally recognized tribe. So the saga continues…

  56. Define Free?

    Because that usually just means somebody else is paying for it.

  57. The student isn’t paying… taxpayers are. It was part of a deal when FLC converted from a boarding school for native youth (eg indoctrination), to higher education and was given native land on the plateau overlooking Durango to build a new campus - that it would always be tuition free. It might be the only good deal indigenous ever got from the US gov’t.

  58. Avatar for Laura Laura says:

    I hope you appreciate the deep irony of your statement in this context!

  59. Have you ever read any on the history of the native tribes here in America prior to colonialization?

    Pretty brutal stuff , pretty much like the history of every civilization in every corner of the globe.

  60. Avatar for Laura Laura says:

    I sure have Lawrence and I wouldn’t say that I tend towards narratives of the Noble Savage. Perhaps you’d disagree?

    One of my favorite books that really changed how I think was 1491. I can highly recommend that one if you haven’t read it. The follow up 1493 is also excellent.

    Another favorite is Black Elk Speaks, which I re-read during the earlier days of the pandemic. What a story and what an incredible life!

  61. Very interesting article today in the NY Times:

    On Wednesday, Harvard Law School held a conference on the rankings that was largely critical and alluded to some of the schools’ complaints: that the rankings used a misleading measure of student debt that schools could game by admitting more paying students; that the emphasis on grades and test scores encouraged merit aid, to the detriment of need-based aid; and that the methodology undermined efforts to support public interest careers for graduates. (U.S. News has already promised to address some of those criticisms.)

    At the conference, the keynote speaker, Miguel Cardona, the education secretary, attacked the publication. “It’s time to stop worshiping at the false altar of U.S. News & World Report,” he said. “It’s time to focus on what truly matters — delivering value and upward mobility.”

    Having attended a top-10 law school, I call bullshit.

    Tl;DR. Harvard and Yale et al. are trying to push an Equity! narrative as well as promote their belated concern for their public-mission in order to protect the regime of federally-subsidized university gluttony. If Harvard and Yale et al. lose control of the narrative and common knowledge changes - if law schools are no longer understood to be a guarantee of professional success and rapid upward mobility which justifies their massive debt-funded tuition but are suddenly a questionable or possibly ridiculous investment - that threatens to bring down the entire regime for all universities, and in particular the richest ones.

    All law schools, and in particular the top law schools like NYU, are completely dependent on US News rankings to justify telling students that that it’s perfectly fine to take out checks notes


    This shocked even me, because that has actually gone UP by almost $25k, or 30% since I graduated in '15, and I borrowed the whole enchilada. NYU Law was already one of the most expensive schools in the world, and I borrowed the whole damn thing, all of it, to go there. Has NYU Law started producing lawyers that are 30% better educated in only 8 years? Hmm…Something tells me no.

    Or maybe yes, if you mean that first-year salaries at corporate firms are 30% higher. Of course that has nothing to do with what NYU teaches, because it remains true that first year attorneys know general things about various areas of law but have no real legal skills to speak of, and learn what they really need to know on the job. But this is exactly my point, as I shall discuss presently.

    The Paper Chase?
    Let me backtrack a little bit. After my first year, I was puzzled. I had heard and read so much about how cutthroat law school was. I primed myself to work as hard as possible to succeed in this environment. I got pretty good grades my first semester. The second semester I worked almost as hard (as I was already starting to burnout a little), but then did not get as good grades. What made this strange was not the disappointment but the fact that I had no idea what the difference was. Law school has a particularly bad sort of pedagogy in which you get almost no feedback whatsoever on your knowledge or performance until you regurgitate as much as possible on your final exam, and even then, you are not told your score or what you got right or wrong. You just see your final grade for the class, your ONLY grade for the semester. This is a horrendously inefficient way to learn anything, but that’s okay because teaching you is beside the point.

    Far from cutthroat, it is impossible to fail unless you simply do not take the exam. At least one professor explicitly said this, and another professor of mine cryptically implied it when asked about the curve on his upcoming exam. It is also practically impossible to get less than B- in a class. What do I mean by practically impossible? In my first year criminal law class, a professor apologized to a student for giving her a C+ because she could not in good conscience give a better grade to someone who stopped attending class completely half way through.

    Once you did enough work to be sure you would get a B minus - that is, mostly show up and produce sufficiently voluble and plausible regurgitation on the final exam to convince the professor you did something in his class - there were sharply diminishing marginal returns on effort. I really had no idea what the difference was between a B and an A in most classes, so it seemed that once you acquitted yourself to perhaps the B level (just to be safe), your grade was randomly distributed somewhere between B- to A-. Some students did consistently get As, but I never figured out what they were doing that I wasn’t. So the strategy was, study enough to get a B, and don’t sweat it after that.

    We’re All Going to Eat
    Why is that strategy viable in the most cutthroat of all educational environments? Well, in fact the student culture was not cutthroat or competitive at all. We even had a few transfers come in from lower-ranked schools that actually were cutthroat, who took an extremely competitive “gunner” attitude, and this was seen as a bit déclassé. Why? What these transfers do not realize is that (as one of my friends put it) at NYU “We’re all going to eat.”

    And there you have it. We’re all going to eat.

    What he meant by this was: we are all going to get jobs that will allow us to pay off the massive amount of debt we have incurred. What he didn’t realize he was saying was:

    We, like all other students at Harvard and Yale and the like - “the like” being the top 10-20ish schools - are in a pipeline that ends at a big firm in corporate or litigation making a first-year salary of $150k-ish, which is basically standardized across the major firms. In the past few years, the big firms have all raised their starting salaries to something closer to $180-200k, or perhaps more.

    That is, the job of the top law school is not to train top legal minds but to ingest academically impressive undergraduates, and place them at prestigious high six-figure attorney positions. The big firms then work them to near death in 80-100+ hour weeks for a couple years doing things that you mostly don’t need a JD to do, to justify paying these massively inflated but standardized salaries. The student pays off their several hundred thousand in debt in a couple years, and then their career really starts - they usually leave, go in-house, regulatory, or at least something more relaxed (though a few of the real sickos try to make partner). And for anyone who wasn’t interested in this proposition, like me, you could go work in public interest for 10 years (i.e., non-profit or government), and have all your debt forgiven.

    Now suppose NYU or Harvard or Yale or whatever could not credibly (but mostly implicitly) guarantee their end of this proposition. Suppose there weren’t enough $200k jobs to go around at the end of your three years, or maybe it was actually realistically possible for you to fail out despite your best academic efforts. Suppose there were no debt-forgiveness.

    What sane person would borrow $109,290 EVERY YEAR to go to a school that had ANY chance of failing to deliver on its promise to make you either wealthy, or, failing that, at least a financially comfortable professional? If things were not STRUCTURED to guarantee these outcomes, going to a top law school would be FINANCIAL SUICIDE.

    That’s why you almost can’t fail out. That’s why there’s no throat-cutting. That’s why Yale doesn’t give letter grades, or any grade at all to first-semester students. That’s not the deal. The deal is, you get on the train here, you jump through the hoops we tell you, and you get off with a fancy job at the end. If you have better grades, hey, great, you go to Kravath or Wachtell, if not whatever, you go to one maybe with no name recognition but still pays the standard salary. The point is, if you know you’re gonna make $200k coming out, we can charge you $300k, financed by federally guaranteed debt.

    The Rankings
    So what does this long digression have to do with US News rankings? Look at how they calculate your ranking:

    Placement Success

    Placement success is composed of five indicators that total 26% (previously 25.25%) of each school’s rank. The two most heavily weighted indicators pertain to employment.

    Employment rates for 2020 graduates 10 months after graduation (0.14) and at graduation (0.04): For both ranking factors, schools received maximum credit when their J.D. graduates – in alignment with ABA reporting rules – obtained long-term jobs that were full time, not funded by the law school, and where a J.D. degree was an advantage or bar passage was required. …

    Reasonable right? The top law schools are organized to maximize this, as they all should be. But, uh oh:

    Average debt incurred obtaining a J.D. at graduation (0.03) and the percent of law school graduates incurring J.D. law school debt (0.02): According to a 2021 American Bar Association report, many new lawyers are postponing major life decisions like marriage, having children and buying houses – or rejecting them outright – because they are carrying heavy student loan debts. J.D. graduate debt is impacting Black and Hispanic students the most since they borrow more, according to the ABA. For the second consecutive year, the ranking includes two indicators that took into account this J.D. graduate debt load and its impact on law school graduates, the legal profession and prospective law school students.

    Uh oh. So in the last 2 years, US News is suddenly counting how much debt they induce students to take on, and also the impact it has on their lives afterward. And now - surprise! - the top law schools suddenly are pulling out of the rankings!

    Note also that they apparently don’t include starting salary in the rankings, although you can look that up easily in the actual ranking pages. So on the one hand, you understand Harvard and Yale’s real complaint here - we are getting penalized for heavy debt, but we still follow through on our end of the deal, to shove kids into fancy, high-paying jobs. The low ranking schools aren’t able to follow through on this because they can’t rely on their name value, but charge almost as much as we do, and that’s BS. If you’re going to count the cost, you should also count the benefit!

    Harvard and Yale et. al have a point - or would have a point, if they were saying what they really meant. But nobody wants to say that, because it would call attention to the billions in effective taxpayer subsidized for luxury professional class consumption that law schools (and universities generally) are gorging themselves on.

    Investment vs. Equity!
    Instead, they are trying to make this about “equity.” Or rather Equity! You see, they just can’t in good conscience participate in this, it’s not their mission, which some schools claims is to “diversify the profession.”

    You see, the rankings force us to focus on objective measures and merit-based aid and not need-blind aid.

    Problem here is that lack of need-blind aid is not limiting who attends the top law schools, because need-blind aid is effectively provided by the federal government. There is essentially no one who qualifies academically who cannot “afford” to go to a top law school or any law school - assuming the school holds up its end of the bargain by giving you a fancy job or a public interest job with debt forgiveness. Unlimited federally guaranteed loans allow almost anyone without severe credit problems to borrow as much as is necessary to pay for tuition and living expenses. If you get the fancy job, you’ll pay it off. If you get the public interest job, it’s forgiven after 10 years. So, I just don’t know who gets into Harvard or Yale but doesn’t go because they can’t “afford” to. Maybe they go to a slightly lower-ranked school that offers more non-debt aid, but when I was applying the idea was (and still is), go to the best school you get into, figure out the cost later. So if you only get into really expensive ones with little or no aid, you’re taking on that debt.

    Therefore, I fail to understand the complaint about merit-based aid vs need-blind? Are they complaining that they are not incentivized to give away more of their own money? Shouldn’t schools feel relieved that Uncle Sam effectively covers need-blind aid so they can focus on merit alone to enhance the reputation and prestige of the school? But of course, it is not fashionable to say such things these days, these days “merit” and “prestige” mean Privilege! and that’s not Equity! So, the rankings are classist and racist, implicitly according to Harvard, explicitly according to the lower-ranked schools who can’t guarantee fancy jobs:

    One of the panelists, Deidré A. Keller, dean and professor of law at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, a historically Black university in Tallahassee, said that the rankings’ emphasis on LSAT scores, grade point averages and selectivity was “inherently problematic” for her school. To make selectivity a hallmark of quality, she added, “we would have to be acting against our mission.”

    More important, she said, was the support students received from the school to succeed.

    “We have a mission to diversify the profession,” she said.

    Hence US News’s suspicion they are trying to sidestep forthcoming strikedown of affirmative action. Their mission of Diversity! justifies removing objective indicators of merit which allows them to admit people based on non-objective and non-merit based factors. This doesn’t seem consistent with their educational mission to me. Unless they are implicitly admitting that they think their educational mission is ensuring the success of “people like us” - whoever “us” may be - instead of, or perhaps even to the detriment of, actually, you know, educating them.

    Oh and don’t forget, the rankings undermines their efforts support to public interest careers.
    Except I also fail to understand why schools can’t focus on putting people in public interest careers, when in fact, the federal government ultimately foots the bill if the student can’t afford the debt? Actually I do understand. It is because the optics of charging $330k with a large proportion of your grads making $50k their first year out just aren’t great, no matter how generous debt-forgiveness may be.

    Of course the better question is, why do they SUDDENLY have a concern about this, when their debt loads have been skyrocketing for decades, and the forgiveness program has been in place for decades? After all, US News didn’t create this situation. Their problem is obviously not with the FACT of huge debt loads disincentivizing public interest, that has been true a very long time. Their problem is with the fact that US News is paying attention to it.

    Control the Narrative
    I think the schools probably are trying to do what US News suspects, but that’s not the main event. I think the bigger concern here is that the US News rankings as they are currently calculated are calling greater attention to the question of whether any law school is a reasonable educational investment. And this is a problem because there are a large number of lower-ranked law schools that are NOT a reasonable educational investment:

    A law professor at the university [of Miami], Anthony Alfieri, said law schools “foster this kind of cruel optimism” in students, letting them think six-figure salaries are attainable, when in reality, those high-paying jobs are largely reserved for students at only the top-ranked law schools.

    “Law schools encourage a kind of magical thinking in order to keep the lights on,” he said.

    And I suspect that law schools are among the financial crown jewels at major universities because they charge huge tuition, and have rich alums donating, but don’t do anything expensive like, say, building particle accelerators or 10,000-participant randomized double blind medical studies. It’s just people reading and writing and arguing about stuff. The law school is the crystallized nexus of universities’ taxpayer-funded gluttony threatened by mounting questions of return on investment. They have to protect law schools, or that federally guaranteed money hose might start to sputter.

    Tl;DR. Harvard and Yale et al. are trying to push an Equity! narrative as well as promote their belated concern for their public-mission in order to protect the regime of federally-subsidized university gluttony. If Harvard and Yale et al. lose control of the narrative and common knowledge changes - if law schools are no longer understood to be a guarantee of professional success and rapid upward mobility which justifies their massive debt-funded tuition but are suddenly a questionable or possibly ridiculous investment - that threatens to bring down the entire regime for all universities, and in particular the richest ones.

  62. Student loan crisis solutions (done entirely through Congress so that it can actually be law):

    Wipe out all existing debt for all borrowers making <$150k

    Remove tax exempt status from universities with regard to any revenue that is outside of tuition or donations. Every dollar that lands on campus from any source other than direct tuition or donation for educational purposes is treated as income, just as it would be for every other business. This would cover at least some of the cost of the debt forgiveness.

    End the Federal student loan program entirely. This seems obvious, but nobody is talking about it. If we have a huge debt crisis then wouldn’t it stand to reason that you don’t keep doing the thing that caused the crisis to begin with?

    Expand Pell Grants for lower income borrowers to ensure that poorer students can still attend college if they so choose.

    I’m open to other ideas as this is only preliminary.

  63. Avatar for Laura Laura says:

    I stuck with it and learned a lot, thanks David! I had seen some headlines about the changes in rankings but I feel so much better informed now. I’ll also have plenty of fodder for the next dinner conversation with my in-law, who decided that being an Of Counsel is just fine actually.

    I’m connecting what you describe to shifts in the “rule of law”. Corporate rule is what we have de facto in the US, if not de jure. I present this signal of our legal future if we don’t wake up and smell the system failure.

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