Category Archives: Education



The Weakonomics blog talks about how history is taught in school.

In the grade school level, the content was always about events. It was “this thing happened on this date”. We never had to explain why it was important or even where that event fits in with its past and future. High schoolers can do that, but it was never presented that way.

And shares a video he finds entertaining. We agree, although a video of course does not allow for the conversation that he seems to imply would benefit education (here, too: we agree).  In any case, a subject we enjoy as we, too, believe in the importance of delving deeper in to historical knowledge.

Words to ponder

From Coyote Blog, on education and affirmative action.

My only thought on this is one I have had a long time about colleges and diversity.  Universities are, if anything, institutions based on ideas and thought.  So it has always been amazing to me that university diversity programs focus not on having a diversity of ideas, but on have a diversity of skin pigment and reproductive plumbing.

Students get clever, upsetting everyone

I point you to TechDirt’s article:
Study Indicates College Textbook Piracy Is On The Rise, But Fails To Call Out Publishers For Skyrocketing Prices
from the the-best-way-to-replace-’lost’-money-is-to-charge-people-more,-apparentl dept

The survey mentioned uses the suspect methodology of “you or someone you know”, which tells readers nothing about actual numbers or percentages.

But in any case, as TechDirt points out:

the key takeaways never point to the main culprit: textbook publishers.

Prices for textbooks border on extortionate. Valerie Strauss, covering the subject for the Washington Post, notes that prices for both tuition and books have increased at unreal rates over the past several years. (It should also be noted that BISG’s report is no bargain – $675 for “summaries” and $3,195 for the “Volume Four Bundle PDF”.)

Publishers are also trying to curb piracy by selling digital versions that are somehow only “good” for a single year (thanks, licenses!) and rendered inoperative if pirated by requiring an internet connection to access content and features. These are usually only slightly cheaper than their physical counterparts, but can’t be resold at the end of the year to recoup any of the purchase price and can be completely useless to the purchaser (depending on what’s locked up by the license) after the end of the license term.

Also note the Vocativ website’s reaction and research, succeeding in “pirating” three books in the public domain, “publication dates (in the order listed) 440 BC, 1789 (for the latest edition), 1478 and 2001.”

Presuming they did pay for their own textbooks, they should perhaps brush up on “piracy”, “public domain”, “copyright”, “fair use” and “English”.


Feeling lachrymose and wistful, I write today’s post about the forthcoming SAT revisions:

One big change is in the vocabulary questions, which will no longer include obscure words. Instead, the focus will be on what the College Board calls “high utility” words that appear in many contexts, in many disciplines — often with shifting meanings — and they will be tested in context.

the 211-page test specifications and supporting materials being shared publicly include “everything a student needs to know to walk into that test and not be surprised.”

I abhor this noxious abasement of our students’ abilities, bilking them, nay downright abrogating them, of the blithe life to which a broad vocabulary can inure them. This obdurate and pernicious habit of coddling young people’s intellect will make a generation of blunderbusses with the concomitant ignorance of the etymology of all our greatest vocables.

Too wan to continue, I sign off.


Is an Education Worth it?

"Is it really worth it...?"

We have received various requests for information and advice about education in this country. Is it worth the cost? And what is the relationship between the cost of education and its subsequent rewards?

Then again, some of you may be thinking “Does any of this even apply to me? After all, I’m getting a great education at University of Great, and I’ll be earnings tons once I have those extra letters from that cool school”.

So, we have decided to feature, once more, Ababon’s Is it Worth it Program, which will solve all your problems! (Editor’s note: This will not solve all your problems) You can find a link to the original post, along with its discussion, here.

If anyone is wondering whether to go for that Master’s degree, MBA, CPA, CFA, etc. you’ve probably put quite a bit of thought into it. You might be making a passable salary now, but you know you could be making a much more attractive one with a few more letters added to your name. On the other hand, these letters cost money, time not earning any money, and/or the foregone salary itself. So will it really be worth it?

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University MLM scams: Textbooks

At the risk of rehashing a topic we’ve brought up again and again, it is worth looking at another aspect of education that has affected all of us who have studied in the United States: Textbooks.

We are all familiar with the several hundred dollar textbook required by the professor, oftentimes because the professor was the author/co-author/good friends with the author. So with five classes per semester each student will spend between $500 and $1,000 on textbooks alone. From 1986 to 2004, furthermore, the price of textbooks has risen by 186%, over twice the rate of inflation. If you are a student at a public 2-year college, textbooks can account for over half of your academic costs.

This was supposed to be disrupted by Amazon, and then by Apple, neither of which made any difference at all. Interestingly, there is a wrinkle to all of this. Take, for example, the 2011 edition of Paul Krugman’s International Economics textbook (the latest version), available for $178.46 and up from The same book is available on for just GBP 53.24, or $85.35, or less than half the price.

This is true for most textbooks, which raises several questions. First of all, Why? Second of all, why can’t we just order the British textbooks from and have them delivered to the United States?

The first is slightly opaque, but it has to do with financial aid. If a student is on financial aid, this aid will be used to buy books as well, so the more the books cost, the more the government is paying the professors (and university) for their book. Of course, the government is just loaning the money for the purchase to the student, who will spend the majority of her life paying it back. But at least the institutions have been paid.

The second has to do with minutiae. If you live in the United States, you will find it hard to sign up for an account, which requires a mailing address in the United Kingdom. Of course, this can be circumvented (by knowing someone in the UK, or by entering the address of, say, Buckingham Palace and hoping for the best). And then, if you can have the book delivered to the United States, there will be slight changes in the text (that won’t make much difference) and a different cover (that won’t make any difference).

So, we propose that an enterprising entrepreneur take advantage of this arbitrage opportunity and help students in the process. By setting up a business that has books delivered for cheaper prices to the US, and possibly even changes the cover to the US version, they could then sell the books at a cheaper price to students and still make a nice profit, and thwart one very crooked part of education expenses that needs thwarting.

It is very possible that this service already exists. If so, please feel free to let us know in the comments, as we would love to hear about it.

More Evidence of that Education Bubble

Many top tier schools have lately been praised for allowing more and more people access to their education system. UC Berkeley and MIT offer all of their lectures for free on Youtube. Harvard, as well as many other schools, offers an “extension school“, where people can take classes part time or remotely.

While this is undoubtedly good public relations, one may start to wonder: “If I can get a full MIT education for free online, why would I want to pay upwards of $40,000 per year for the same privilege?”. And then one will wonder, if everyone else starts thinking in the same manner, won’t MIT et al lose all of their students, and therefore all of their money?

Well, they won’t. These schools have discovered that the most valuable part of a college education is not the education itself, but the “signalling” (or signaling) that goes along with it. A person who went to MIT will receive a diploma from MIT, and therefore be allowed to add it to their resume. Someone who followed the courses online will not. Likewise, someone who attended a Harvard extension course will only receive the extension course certificate, not the diploma. When looking for a job, most interviewers (or human resource departments) will not test the applicants on what they really learned and retained, but they will notice the degree (or lack thereof).

Once again, a bubble occurs when a certain product (or service) is bought not for its inherent value, but purely as an investment. If enough people keep purchasing something as an investment without regarding its value, the discrepancy will become larger and larger, until people decide to abandon the whole ordeal. In other words, I will choose to attend MIT because I know it will raise my expected salary by x%. MIT knows this as well, so it charges quite a bit. Of course, more money attracts better professors, but if smart professors worked solely for more money they would all become consultants. So I will be paying a lot solely for that degree on my resume (although these days being a Harvard dropout seems in vogue as well).

Unfortunately, in this global economy, people will start noticing that they can learn just as much at a good school in a foreign country, or simply my following the online lectures diligently. They will be at a disadvantage when job seeking, but will perform just as well once they have the job.

You could also make the networking argument, that you go to Harvard or MIT for the classmates (who will surely be very powerful in the future). If, however, over the years people of the same (or higher) caliber come from other places, the influence will wane, slowly but surely. Company bosses (and human resource departments) will start to notice that Harvard graduates are not the best people for the job.

At this point, these schools will be charging $40,000 for something that can be obtained for free, and they will be doling out degrees that are worth less and less, and students may wonder what the benefits are. And then, one day, these schools will lose a huge percentage of their students and realize they need to lower their tuition fees. Way down.

Ever closer to that bubble

Recently some more issues have arisen regarding education. Some of you may remember how we recently said higher education is a bubble about to burst. When students (or, more likely, their parents) are paying upwards of $100,000 for an education which, all too often, can’t be said to be worth nearly as much, some problems will surface.

First of all, if the parents are paying for the education, the child will then be expected to earn enough to pay for his/her children’s education. Of course, by the time these children are in college, tuition will have climbed to at least $140’000 (if current rates continue). This is far above any inflation rate and is therefore like one big Ponzi scheme.
The second option would be student loans, which then means the students needs to pay back this $100’000 on top of all other life expenses, including a car, mortgage, family, etc. Chances are, more than 20 years will be spent paying this, at which point the child is getting ready to go through the same cycle. Here the loans will be for a greater amount (to cover higher tuition rates), since there is very little chance the parents were able to save enough since they’ve been paying off their loans*.
Well, could anything make this situation worse? Sure. It turns out many students in China, as well as many other countries in Asia, just have other people apply to college for them. This means someone else who can offer “ghostwritten essays in flawless English, fake awards, manipulated transcripts and even whiz kids for hire whoʼll pose as the applicant for SAT exams.” The price for this? Between $5,000 and $15,000.

And, lest you think it was purely a cultural matter, a certain Sam Eshaghoff from Emory University was recently convicted of taking the SAT for six other students, earning between $1,500 and $2,000 for each test.

In other words, families are paying extra, under the table money in order to have their children go to an institution where they will then pay exorbitant fees, and somehow hope that our economy will provide jobs to make it all worthwhile.

This does all sound a bit crazy, doesn’t it? So what are the alternatives? Some have been proposed, such as degree-based tuition in Florida (science students pay more than humanities students since their degree is technically worth more in legal currency), or just offering elite education for free. While we don’t disagree with the fact that certain degrees are worth more monetarily than others, an increase is certainly not what is needed. And unfortunately, even if MIT offers courses for free (as does Berkeley in the form of online lectures), people will still pay much more to actually have the degree.

Here is one likely scenario, however: A recession might occur, during which students decide to get more education so they can A) ride out the recession and B) be more qualified once it’s over. Unfortunately, if it’s a prolonged recession, this strategy won’t work. This means they will search and search for jobs, finally settling for being underpaid in a job they likely could have had without the extra education. In other words in two years they’ve only gained a degree and loans.

Suddenly people will look to who was able to weather the recession and come out on top. As happens with all recessions, creative destruction (as described by Schumpeter) will occur. This means that old, inefficient companies will die out, while new, more efficient ones will be born. The dot-com bust brought us Google et al. In fact, some people will even realize how 70% of the Forbes 500 started during downturns**. In other words, entrepreneurial activity is what is beneficial, not higher degrees. At first a few intrepid souls will start pushing their children towards entrepreneurship rather than more and more degrees (these will most likely be entrepreneur parents to begin with). Slowly but surely, other parents will catch on.

The process might take a while, but the longer the economic downturn lasts, the more it will be sped up. At this point the bubble that is higher education will finally burst, and parents will stop blindly and mindlessly throwing money at these institutions for unworthy degrees.

* For more precise calculation check out “The proud parents”.
** Including Texas Instruments, HP, 20th Century Fox, Eli Lilly, IBM, Lexis Nexis, Merck, Burger King, IHOP, Hershey’s, Gillette, GM, Alcoa, J&J, Hyatt, Chevron, CNN, GE, AT&T, Fedex, Abbott, Procter & Gamble, Lilly, MTV, Coors, Trader Joe’s, Bristol-Myers, Microsoft, Apple, Sun, Adobe and many others.

The Importance of History

We at Dumbagent tend to deal primarily with Economics, but we have never ceased to believe in the importance of History. While Science and Math are in vogue, and languages are popular these days, history seems to have been neglected at every turn: the Economist reports that only 47% of American students scored “basic” on a national history test (while 69% achieved that score in math).

Aside from the usual “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” adages about learning from the past, which are all true, history is a truly essential part of any person’s education. And we’re not talking in the “fluffy know-your-culture-and-appreciate-others” sense either. For one, it is easy to see how Tea Party goers have twisted and turned various aspects of history to suit their own needs (thought they are by no means the only ones, as the Occupy Wall Street people should notice). Counting on the fact that most americans are not well versed in history, politicians like Michelle Bachmann can make statements like “America’s Founding Fathers worked tirelessly until slavery was no more” while Sarah Palin can distort Paul Revere’s story, both confident that many people will take them at their word.
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