Free lunch: college edition

Andrew Cuomo recently proposed making college free taxpayer funded for middle class New Yorkers. He argues that college is a “mandatory step if you really want to be a success.” For the sake of argument, let’s assume that he’s making adequate adjustments for vocational training.

As a SUNY employee, I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, it means an increased demand for my services. On the other hand, it means increased pressure to keep costs down, which could mean a fall in my future earnings potential. Increased admissions pressure means I might have easier to teach students, but also probably means less chances for the low-income students coming from the worst public schools.

At best, we’re looking at a middle-class to middle-class transfer that will trade off the benefits of market pressure against the benefits (to families paying for school) of not having to think too hard about how to manage a large expense.

I won’t go into the issue of signaling (see Bryan Caplan), or the sheer wastefulness of having people get bachelor’s degrees for jobs that don’t need them (see Dick Vedder… esp. table 1). These are important points, because they get at the root problem Cuomo is misdiagnosing. College is mandatory because of subsidies and subsidies will only make it worse. But we don’t even need to be that sophisticated to understand why this plan is a problem.

Here’s my basic problem with “free” college tuition: it’s too good to be true. I get the desire to help out poor people, but the average household in NY makes just under $60K/year and this plan is for all households making less than $125K. That’s “free” tuition to a lot of households that would be sending their kids to school anyways. That money has to come from somewhere. The people paying for this program will largely overlap with the people benefiting from it.

If everyone thinks their kids should go to school, then what’s the point in taking away their money to send their kids to school?! We all like burritos, so give me your money and I’ll buy us all the burritos we want. Doesn’t make sense! Giving up control of your spending can only make you worse off, so this will ultimately be a bad thing for the middle class. And that lack of control from middle class helicopter parents will likely be a bad thing for the working poor people who could have been net beneficiaries (hopefully… I’m not certain this won’t back fire on net). Even if subsidizing higher-ed were a good idea, this is almost certainly a terrible way to go about it.

The struggle for life

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


In elementary school, grades were handed out in class in a terrifying monthly ceremony. The same deranged Principal would walk into each classroom in turn holding a thick pile of “livrets scolaires,” individual grade-booklets, rather than simple, one-shot report cards, under his arm. There was one livret per student per year with numerical scores and verbal comments for each subject matter, and a monthly overall ranking of students. The Principal would lay the grade-books upside down, in reverse order of students’ ranking for the month ending hence, lowest-ranking student first.

For several years, every month, without fail, the lowest-ranking pupil and the first on the mental scaffold was a runty, scrawny, rheumy-eyed boy who always sat in the last row, “Colinet.” The Principal would start ranting as he entered the room; his glasses would drop down his nose and he would deliver himself of the same furious tirade at the top of his voice against miserable, crouching Colinet. He was a large middle-aged man whose eyes became globulous when he was angry. He would foam at the mouth and spittle would dribble down his shirt as he promised Colinet the guillotine or worse. Colinet never got used to it. I sure did not. I almost crapped my pants several times although I was sitting near the front row and the Principal was staring over my head, straight at the back of the room, as he yelled and screamed. As he called out names from Colinet to the higher-ranking pupils, he would calm down, his voice would subside, and his comments became briefer. By the time he reached the livret of the tenth-ranker, his manner had become civilized as if there had been no raging storm minutes earlier.

In my family, there was a completely arbitrary rule that only the first six places were acceptable. I think my parents secretly thought only the first five were really acceptable but added the sixth because it made them feel magnanimous. Once the Principal had called out the ninth-ranked name, my body began to relax and I was breathing normally. If the Principal was down to the fifth livret and my name had not come up, the sweet song of victory began ringing in my heart. “Very good, my boy,” the Principal would say in a low, calm voice as he handed me my livret (to be signed by both parents).

Cheap college: Ten Tips

If you’re about to embark on your undergraduate education in the US or Canada, you probably have a good chance of ending up owing some money to pay for your studies and expenses. Can you avoid financial disaster and still end up with a pretty good “education” section on your CV? I believe so, and I’d like to share with you a few tips on cheap college education. They might turn out to be useful, whether you want to go straight to the job market after graduation or whether you have further studies in mind.

I did my undergraduate degree in Brazil. Then, I moved to the UK and completed my graduate education there with a very generous stipend. I also taught in higher education in both countries, including two top universities in the UK. I worked part-time for an institute attached to a university in Europe. Now I work at a major university in South Africa. I know a few things about higher education, and here’s a list of tips for you.

1. Accept a full-tuition scholarship.
If you’ve received an offer of a full-tuition scholarship, go for it. As long as it’s not a loan. No brainer. You’re being subsidised to study full-time. This is your job now. Do a little bit of networking and career skills training, but focus on your degree. Try to do as well as you can. The problem with this strategy is that, quite frankly, the vast majority of students aren’t offered scholarships that get even close to covering full tuition costs.

2. Avoid the athletics trap.
Don’t count on your prowess in sports to put you in a position where you earn full tuition to study. Athletics scholarships cover at most a fraction of the college cost. At most, you’d be able to combine an athletics scholarship with some other source of funding, but even if you get to that stage, you’ll have to figure out a way of earning B+ or A on average with little time to study.

3. Split your degree.
This is the oldest trick in the book. Yet, not enough students seem to follow it. I didn’t know the North American system very well, and I owe this point to Gary North. He explains it on this video. In the US, you can save a lot of money by doing the first two years of your degree at a community college or some other low-cost higher education institution. You can earn an Associate degree and then transfer credits to a four-year college to complete your Bachelor’s degree. One advantage (apart from the financial factor) is that you could do it in the evenings, while you earn some money during the day. Another advantage is that permanent teaching staff in a small college or a community college are gifted teachers – that’s why they were given their jobs in the first place – whereas at a major university professors are rewarded according to their research achievements and teaching might not be terrible, but it’s not necessarily the best you can get either.

4. Try distance learning.
This is emerging as a major alternative to traditional university attendance. You can either earn credits (which you can, later, transfer) or a whole degree at a fraction of the normal cost of university attendance. You can also combine this with point (3) above.

5. Stay with your parents.
Okay, as a Brazilian I didn’t see any problem in staying home for another four years during my university education. There are advantages and disadvantages to this, and it’s up to you to decide if this strategy is worth it, depending on your family’s culture and habits. But the fact is that, even if your parents charge you some rent, they won’t charge as much as the average university dorm would. This means you can save. Plus there won’t be any learning curves related to living in a completely new locality. This strategy requires you to do either a distance-learning degree or to attend your local college, and you can combine this with points (3) and (4) above.

6. Distance learning abroad.
This can be combined with (3), (4) and (5) above. The truth is, most employers don’t care very much about where you got your undergraduate education, except if the place is one of the top five or ten universities in the country. Higher education in the UK is slightly cheaper (on average) than in the US, and often much cheaper if you’re doing it online. You can register at the Open University, or at the University of London’s international programmes. Depending on the area of study, you can even do a distance degree part-time while you work, paying for each course at a time. The University of Aberdeen, for example, offers a distance degree in Religious Studies along those lines. If you give up halfway, you can still earn a CHE degree after completing the first year, a HE Diploma after two years, and the undergraduate course in the UK normally lasts for three years (except, normally, for Scotland).

If you want to save even more money and benefit from favourable exchange rates, you could also apply to study at the University of South Africa (UNISA), one of the world’s largest universities. UNISA has a very good reputation. Remember Nelson Mandela? He earned a degree there. For South Africans, each year of study costs around 1,000 dollars, and if you live abroad, you need to pay extra, but not a whole lot more. There are no classes. Normally, you use multimedia material, lots of written material, and travel to some place in your country where you can do the exams. So you need to factor in the cost of travel, but it still might be worth it. Other South African universities, such as North-West University, also offer distance degrees for certain fields.

7. Move abroad.
This is also becoming more of an alternative for North Americans. In Germany, for example, you can register at a university, as long as you can prove you know the German language well, and get a degree from some of the top universities in the world. The downside is the learning curve of moving abroad, visa bureaucracy and, perhaps, the cost of living in Europe might not be worth it. For example, you could pay low tuition fees in Finland, but it’s not that cheap to live there. For a tuition fee of around 1,000 Euros per year you can also do a degree in Portugal or Spain. Tuition fees in France and Italy are also relatively cheap. All this assumes you can prove you know the local language well enough to register. Depending on where you go, the case for doing a degree abroad is even stronger. In Portugal and Spain, an undergraduate degree normally takes four years. In Italy and France, it depends. In Germany, it normally takes three. This means you save a whole year of expenses.

8. Erasmus+.
If you decide to do your degree in Europe, you can still end up experiencing campus life and networking in North America. The reason is that students at European universities can be selected to do a year abroad under the Erasmus+ programme, and some of the partner universities are from North America. This is not very easy, but what I mean to say is simply that going abroad doesn’t mean abandoning any hope of experiencing student life in North America.

9. Cut corners while still following the rules.
You should thank Gary North for pointing this out. In a North American degree, you must do a number of credits, including electives or credits you can choose, as part of the total number of credits you must earn to obtain the degree. You can cut corners and save time and money by learning independently and then doing a credit-awarding exam. Some of the exams you can do are for general courses you’d end up doing as an elective anyway.

10. Make sure you do French and German.
How does this relate to “cheap college”? I confess there’s no direct relation. But I’d still urge you to do French and German as electives, particularly if they’re “for reading knowledge“. Those are intensive courses that get you to be able to read scholarly work in French or German by the end of a semester. This might not in itself make your college life cheaper now, but it will get you some skills you can use in the future. It gives you a head start in applying for the top, well-funded, PhD programmes in the US and Canada, in case that’s what you’re planning to do. Most PhD courses require you to have reading knowledge of at least one, if not two, of these languages. You might as well do it now. Moreover, if you just want to go to the workplace after you graduate, this can also give you a little advantage over the competition. While it doesn’t necessarily make your college any cheaper, this strategy will make your life easier by adding another relevant item to your CV which might turn out to be very useful in the near future.

I hope those tips can be useful. Maybe you’re even reconsidering whether you should really get deep into debt in order to earn a degree. Well, here’s my appeal. Please reconsider. Student loans may be common. Some even call this kind of debt an investment. But it’s not healthy to owe tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars when you’re just 22 or 23 and under pressure to find a good job to pay that money back. You want to be free. Maybe you want to go to a well-funded graduate programme without that stress. Maybe you want to get married. Who knows? Before accepting a loan to finance your education, please consider these alternative options. I urge you.

Before concluding, a disclaimer. I’m not saying any of these tips will work in every case. Be responsible and make sure you understand the details and implications of any decisions you make. Check, for example, if your target university or college will accept credit transfers from the place where you obtained those credits. Read the small print. But this is more or less what you’d be doing if you accepted a loan – you’d read the small print, right?

Who needs a list of progressive professors?

Turning Point USA has a new list out of progressive professors. The list has already begun to be attacked as signaling the rise of a new era of McCarthyism where academics will be prosecuted for anti-American discourse.

I agree that the list should be attacked in so far that it tries to define what is acceptable discourse in academia. Academia should be a place where ideas, no matter how absurd or controversial, can be discussed and this list doesn’t help that goal.

There may be a limited place for safe places. Recently I’ve been willing to accept ‘safe places’ in those cases where individuals genuinely cannot handle certain ideas being discussed. There’s no point in, for example, attending the university’s Jewish student club and claiming that the Holocaust didn’t happen. There’s no point in going to a support meeting of transsexuals and claiming they’re going to hell. Etc etc. Emphasize on the limited though. I am willing to hold my tongue in support group settings, but that’s it.

That said the list, and the response to it, are funny in several ways.

Turning Point USA crafted the list to indicate professors who have been documented attacking conservatives. One professor barged into a Republican student and shouted profanity. I can see a point in the list if it listed only those professors who had a reputation for encouraging an environment of hostility – there is a different between being able to discuss radical ideas and yelling fire in a theater. I’m not so clear why Holocaust deniers are listed though. I don’t agree with such individuals, but if they only express the ideas I see no reason to avoid them. If Turning Point USA is serious about promoting a culture where conservative ideas can be freely discussed in academia it must be willing to protect the Holocaust deniers. Does Turning Point USA not realize the absurdity of trying to, on one hand, create a safe place for Judeo-Christian conservatives, and promoting the right of conservative ideas to be discussed in academia

What I find funny about progressives talking about the need for universities to tolerate their own ‘radical’ speech (what’s radical about wanting more government?), they themselves are intolerant to conservatives. Consider this: I’m a double minority – an illegal alien libertarian. Which of these two identities do you think is more cumbersome in academia?

After the election of Trump several members of the academic community assured me that I would be protected if need be. Yesterday the President of the University of California system released an op-ed defending the undocumented student community. Earlier today she announced that the UCs, including its police force, would refuse to cooperate with any deportation efforts.

In comparison as a libertarian I am often advised to keep quiet about my political views. At minimum I should try to avoid researching things that make it clear that I diverge from the rest of academia in political thought. Otherwise I will have a hard time getting my research published or be cut off from the social networks needed in the job market. On occasion I have found myself ostracized socially for voicing dissent on things like the minimum wage or affirmative action. I’m not alone in this.

In an ideal world I should be able to be an illegal alien, a Holocaust denier*, homosexual, and a devout Muslim** without feeling the need to suppress my view points. Academia should be a safe place for ideas no matter how radical.

Thoughts, comments?

*I’m not a Holocaust denier.
**I’m not a Muslim either.

When are safe places okay?

I am against the idea of safe places (see my previous post on the issue), especially in academia. I believe that if an idea is worthwhile it should be able to survive critic from all sides and safe places, regardless of their intent, hamper that process. How can you critic something if you aren’t supposed to even acknowledge its existence?

I also believe that, if our pluralistic society is to continue, we need to be able to empathize with those who are our intellectual opponents. I’m not saying we should become Marxists and rename the site The People’s Notes. Nor should we become Trumpistas. However we should be able to break bread with non-liberals and hear their side of the story out. We can continue to disagree with them, but we need to be careful to not de-humanize someone because of their ideological leanings. Safe places make this hard to do. If X group isn’t politically correct to talk about, much less with, how can we learn about them?

Safe places are, in more than one way, harmful to a free society.

-But they may still have a place in a free society.

Why the change of heart? It is this whole Trump fiasco. If you haven’t read them yet, several NoL bloggers have written about it here, here, here, etc.

I have seen several extreme reactions to the election of Trump, including quite a bit of anger and sadness. I cried for a good six hours myself when I saw the election results; as I’ve mentioned before I’m an illegal alien and so there is a very real chance I’ll be deported and torn away from the country I’ve loved since childhood. After drying up my eyes though I put that aside and went back to work. How I see it, as liberals we are constantly fighting against anti-liberal forces.

Am I sad that Trump won? Yes, but Hillary wasn’t an angel either. Before Trumpistas we had to fight Communists, Fascists, and every other type of ‘ists’ imaginable. After the Trumpistas are defeated we will have new enemies pop up. I am optimistic that in the grand scheme of things the future is better than the past, but I don’t think we will ever be rid of anti-liberal thought. Equilibrium is an illusion.

But I digress. I went back to work after my crying session, but many others around me didn’t. They couldn’t. And we shouldn’t try to force them to.

I still think safe places are a bad idea in so far that we are concerned about promoting free discussion and would never want to go into one. However maybe I can tolerate one or two of them if they help others improve their mental health. Maybe I can use ‘undocumented’ instead of ‘illegal’ if people are really that emotionally disturbed by it. Maybe I can use someone’s preferred pronoun if ‘he’ really hurts them that much. Maybe I can keep my mouth shut and just listen to someone who is in pain.

I think that in the long run we need to be able to stand up to our critics. If you’re gay, you’ll eventually find someone who goes out of their way to tell you your leading a sinful life. If you’re a woman and feel that the patriarchy is why you’re paid less, an economist will eventually lecture you on why that’s wrong. Infantilizing people doesn’t help them. The world is tough, and you need to be rough to survive it. 

However if someone needs a bit more time before they go out and face that world, is it wrong to provide a safe place for them until they feel ready? If I want to make a controversial remark, maybe I shouldn’t do so in the middle of the class. Maybe I should just blog it on NoL.

As always thoughts and comments are always appreciated.

What sort of discipline is women’s studies?

The tenets of women’s studies – and gender or multicultural studies – of patriarchy, intersectional oppression and social constructionism are, as noticed by Toni Airaksinen, unprovable and unfalsifiable. (We’ve had some discussion of Popperian falsifiability elsewhere; maybe this is another opportunity.) Social constructionism, I would argue, stands as a legitimate scientific theory: it can be either confirmed or refuted by biological evidence (Cf. John Dupré, Ian Hacking, Nancy Cartwright, etc.). The other two tenets, however, cannot hold the esteem of science, and don’t fit nicely as philosophical, sociological or political theories either. If they are considered philosophical theories, it has to be recognized that they began with their conclusions as premises; ergo, they are circular, and only confirmed by circularity. Neither conjecture has even the loose falsifiability to belong to a social science like sociology, and their refutation (were it possible) would mean the closing of their scientific branch, so they cannot be (relevant) sociological theories. Finally, very few theories that fall under the branch of “political” are fundamentally political; usually, they begin in another, more atomic field and are only secondarily responsive to the political realm. So, calling them political theories begs the question. It makes the most sense to classify theories of “patriarchy” and “intersectional oppression” as theological conjectures instead of philosophical, sociological or political.

To demonstrate the point: firstly, they posit an original sin: some of us are born with privilege, and only through reparations or race/gender-denunciations can we overcome it. They also, again like Christianity, possess a disdain for the current, real state of things: where Christians posit a celestial heaven for the afterlife, progressive idealists embrace utopian visions materially impossible to accomplish, or at least humanly unrealistic. To fuel the utopianism, historicism or a disregard for enlightened economic, historical or sociological analysis comes with the politics. Another tenet of religion is its typical weak exclusivism (van Inwagen, 2010): religions take themselves to be logically inconsistent with other sects (that is, if two belief systems are logically consistent, one is not a religion), and hold that, for people in the typical epistemic state of its adherents, it is rational to accept that religion. This mild exclusivism is very obvious for movements like modern feminism; it is also easy to see that stronger exclusivism not only follows from weak, but is applicable to the leftist ideologies as well: proponents of a religion must find opponents that possess the same epistemic certifications to be irrational. Also, the same exceptionalism, and infiltration into politics, is familiar to religions (like Christianity and Islam) as well as feminist theorists that seek to distort the law into beneficial means, beyond its legitimate jurisdiction.

Finally, Ludwig Feuerbach wrote in the 1840’s that theology was truly anthropology: Christianity was an appraisal of man, and the story of mankind. Gender studies sees this reversed: what might euphemistically be termed social science or anthropology, sociology, etc. is discovered to be instead a new sort of theology. Facts are subordinate to blind belief and obedience, and the probing essence of reason is dismissed for the docile, hospitable nature of faith. It seeks to see God, or masculine oppression, in everything. This is another instance of its discontent for anything formerly satisfying; until the tenets of women’s studies are taught exclusively in the classroom, its students will consider themselves forever oppressed. Creationism’s proponents wrestled fruitlessly as evolution replaced their faith in American middle schools. Feminists will try tirelessly to invade grade school as well, until faith can again triumph over critique.

“Apparently they have been whispering while others have been shouting obscenities and interrupting guest speakers.”

This is an observation found in the ‘comments’ threads of economist Mark Perry’s blog, Carpe Diem, on a post he did about the reaction of students at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor to their president’s remarks about Donald Trump.

(I’m not going to summarize it here, because you are all probably familiar with this storyline. You can read Perry’s whole post here.)

I wanted to highlight that this comment basically summed up my political experience on campus. I am by no means a conservative, but there was no way in hell I was going to pipe up in class discussions on alternative understandings of “neoliberalism” or even play the role of contrarian. Doing so would have hurt my GPA. It would have resulted in a loss of social standing. It would have invited accusations that I was racist, or sexist, or – gasp! – conservative.

So instead I started this blog and talked about sports or homework with my peers.

My guess is the guy who left this comment was a libertarian or conservative in college back in the 70s or 80s. Michelangelo recently blogged about his experience on campus, but has anyone else found that this is the norm on campuses in the West?

I understand that conservative and libertarian groups like to get obnoxious sometimes, by carrying out public demonstrations like “affirmative action bake sales” or whatever, but the fact that these don’t work (they do help promote a culture of toleration on campuses, albeit in an indirect manner, so I guess I should be thankful for that, but if this is the case then the drum-beating and chanting done by Leftists on campus does the same thing for me in this regard) in convincing the other side of their wrongness suggests that the quiet whisperers are the better thinkers.