Seven Theses on Theil and Drezner [1]

The Yule season is upon us, and as I sit watching sun progress across the windswept prairies of central Kansas, my Twitter-lurking attention was drawn to Dan Drezner’s recent challenge to Peter Theil’s prediction of the impending collapse of the “education bubble.”

With all due respect to Messrs. Theil and Drezner, I think they are oversimplifying the issue [2], as the pressures for change in higher education are quite multi-faceted. I’ve written—though of course, never bothered to publish—are rather extended  essay on this issue  which you should consider reading as an alternative to listening to <severe tangential riff alert!!!> the annual rendition of the cross-country trip your grandparents imposed upon your parents: coast-to-coast on a partially-completed Interstate system in a 1962 Ford station wagon with the emission controls, gas mileage and suspension of a Soviet T-34, your grandfather chain smoking unfiltered Camels while your grandmother confined herself to the more ladylike Salem Menthols, the recirculated air of the vehicle rapidly accumulating the same mix of carcinogens as the Love Canal Superfund site, though arguably this was less of a health threat than the food at Howard Johnsons and Nickerson Farms, to say nothing of the “Reptile Gardens” run by that family where people had six fingers and no teeth, and on this journey their children—your parents—counted cows [4], particularly while crossing Kansas, from the rear of the vehicle, unencumbered by seatbelts, much less the child safety seats you were strapped into even for those half-mile drives to Whole Foods when your parents went to pick up organic free-range tofu, elaborate contraptions which would have given the crews of the Challenger and Columbia shuttles at least a 50% chance of survival, and…well,  even this far into the story, except that you’ve now heard it at least nine times, you are wondering how any DNA was ever passed on in your family…I digress…<back to Drezner and Theil, at least sort of>…there are multiple changes going on.  Consequently, while I would not take Drezner up on his wager—which is to say, he is probably correct, and Theil is under-estimating the ability of academic institutions to resist change—there is more to be said.

So, in the spirit of the words variously ascribed to Stravinsky, Picasso, and Steven Jobs—”good artists copy, great artists steal”—and in the immortal—for as we are told, he is now immortal [5]—words of Stephen Colbert [6], the answers to life’s great questions are themselves questions, what follows are [of course] seven more specific questions, each with a Ehrlich/Simon style question following Drezner’s model, then a second Good Judgment Project (GJP) style question for just the next year. But unlike Drezner, I don’t plan to put money on any of these: I have squirrels to feed.

1. Public funding of higher education

Ehrlich/Simon: By 2020, the average state-funded contribution to the public universities which are members of the American Association of Universities (AAU) [10] will be at least 20% less than it was in 2014.

GJP: By 1 January 2016, a bill to privatize a public university which is a member of the AAU will have passed in at least one legislative chamber in some state.

Comments: Ehrlich/Simon version simply continues existing trends which show no sign of reversing. The logical extension of this is the GJP version, and many more major institutions than most people realize are already well below the 10% public funding point. An increasing number of state legislatures have increasingly tax-averse Republican majorities and such privatizations could generate substantial revenue streams: large universities are multi-billion-dollar corporations with tens of billions of dollars in capital plant and many could readily generate funding buy themselves out were the circumstances right. Relations between conservative state legislatures and universities were generally antagonistic even in the best of times, and we’re certainly no longer in the best of times. This one is nearly inevitable in the relatively near future.

2. Decline of tenure

Ehrlich/Simon: By 2020, the percentage of student credit hours taught by tenured professors in universities which are members of the AAU will be at least 20% lower than it was in 2014.

GJP: By 1 January 2016, at least one member of the AAU will announce that tenure is being phased out in the liberal arts: all subsequent hires will have fixed-term appointments.

Comments: Both of these are academic manifestations of that most notorious of the Boomer [9] Mandates: “Raise the drawbridge, boys, I’m safe inside!” Slam dunk on the Ehrlich/Simon version, and just a matter of time before someone gets the nerve to pull the GJP variant: I’m pretty sure—though too lazy to look up—this has been done in some AAU professional schools, but not the liberal arts, and also has been done in the liberal arts outside the AAU.

3. Grade inflation

Ehrlich/Simon [reversed]: By 2020, the percentage of students receiving a grade of ‘C’ will increase by more than 20% in any college or university ranked 50 or higher by US News and World Report (USNWR).

GJP: By 1 January 2016, at least ten institutions ranked in the top 100 USNWR list of either colleges or universities will be shown to have submitted false information.

Comments: Allowing reversal of the polarity, this question is also a slam-dunk, as the motto of the modern educational system is the “Dodo’s Verdict” in Alices’s Adventures in Wonderland:EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.” [12]  Even those students spending their entire six undergraduate years majoring in substance abuse with a minor in sexual assault. How much of this due to USNWR rankings and how much to the “self-esteem” madness—supported by zero empirical research [16]—is unclear.

As for the mouse, I’ll look at the courses you took, but I’ll pay no attention to your grades: I want to see the code you’ve contributed to Github. [7]

The GJP version: Lots of this going on already, of course. The fun will really begin when the current oath of omertá breaks down and institutions start actively ratting each other out.

4. Degree-granting sport franchises

Ehrlich/Simon: By 2020, the average salary of the football and basketball coach in the 65 major university-based athletic franchises [8] will be at least three times the average salary of a full professor in the liberal arts, and at least 50% higher than the average salary of the most highly-paid administrator.

GJP: By 1 January 2016, inaction by the NCAA in responding to the University of North Carolina athletic grade scandal will lead to the restoration of Joe Paterno’s football record. Bonus prediction: through continued litigation and legal discovery, Penn State will recover a significant portion of the $60-million protection money paid to the NCAA.

Update 16 January 2015: Nailed it! That certainly didn’t take long. Issue of protection money is still open.

Comments: The Ehrlich-Simon merely projects existing trends. A more interesting question, I suppose, would be projecting the number of institutions which will follow the University of Alabama/Birmingham model of dropping out of this competition once it is clear they will not be part of the “The Sixty-Five.” Per Joe Nocera’s recent column, UAB’s decision is being denounced at the present, but given the millions in financial costs involved, and the sheer hopelessness of any secondary school competing in the new system, methinks we are witnessing a serious case of “Denial is not just a river in Egypt” here.

As for Penn State, if Joe Paterno’s record was vacated because he may or may not have known he had a serial pedophile on his staff, should not UNC have every single victory vacated during the eighteen-year period they were running an academic eligibility scam? Yes, I know you are laughing so hard you are choking on your egg-nog: of course the NCAA isn’t going to penalize UNC, so they will reverse the decision on Paterno. If Penn State’s lawyers can ever get some time free from fighting Penn State’s “We have to destroy the university in order to save it” elected members of their own Board of Trustees, they’ve already discovered enough incriminating emails from the NC-“You say `protection racket’ like that’s a bad thing…”-AA that the refund is probably all but in the bank. Curiously, almost to the dollar the amount reportedly paid in the settlements with Sandusky’s victims.

5. Growth of distance-learning alternatives

Ehrlich/Simon: By 2020, members of the AAU will have increased their revenue from distance-learning enterprises, including MOOCs, by at least 100% compared to 2014.

GJP: By 1 January 2016, at least one member of the AAU will have formalized a system where all large introductory courses in the social sciences, humanities and mathematics can be satisfied with a non-classroom-based alternative and will be actively encouraging students to use this option.

Comments: Any university which is not pursing distance-learning revenue streams needs a new administration. But almost all of them are, often with very substantial investments, and protestations by such institutions that MOOCs are a mere fad has, shall we say, more than a little of a David Copperfield aspect to it.

There is a very obvious model for established universities to monetize MOOCs—give away the instruction, validate (for a fee substantially less than the cost of residential tuition) the credentials based on successfully mastering the material—and it will be in place fairly soon. MOOC-based credentials have the further advantage over the traditional model by having open content, and presumably there will be fewer incentives to reward mere self-esteem.

This GPJ question for this topic is one of the hardest to call because unlike monetizing MOOCs, I don’t see how a major institution gets from the status quo to this vastly more efficient alternative. Theil is correct that these introductory courses are ripe for elimination: we do not need thousands of instructors providing, in person, nearly identical material to tens of thousands of students—at least a third of whom will show up for lectures [13]—using the old “sage on the stage” methodology which countless studies have shown is pedagogically one of the worst conceivable methods of instruction and has changed little, except with the addition of PowerPoint, since the times of Pierre Abelard.  These courses are, however, immensely profitable—at many institutions they provide about 50% of the tuition credit-hours—provided one has a supply of instructional cannon-fodder in the form of poorly-paid adjuncts and graduate students (most of whom—as noted above—have no chance of ever getting a tenured position).

Eliminating these courses would probably reduce total instructional labor requirements by at least a third [14], leading to a far more efficient model, but in the absence of a law-school-like collapse of student enrollments, particularly one driven by tuition concerns, it is hard to see how institutions could cross over to this model in the near term. Eliminating the fixed costs of tenured instructors, however, probably would be a necessary first step, but this will be gradual. [15]

6. Decline of law schools

Ehrlich/Simon: By 2020, enrollment in accredited law schools will be less than 50% of the level it was in 2010.

GJP: By 1 January 2016, at least one university which is a member of the AAU will begin the process of closing down its law school.

Comments: The extraordinarily rapid decline in law school enrollments is almost unique in the annals of academia, as U.S. law schools were caught in a nearly perfect storm where they faced simultaneously a technologically-induced decline in the demand for legal professionals, had evolved a system which, unlike medical schools, by most accounts does almost nothing to prepare one for either passing the bar exam or the actual practice of law, and had institutionalized tuition levels far above their marginal costs, leading to over-expansion. I would guess that Theil is anticipating that the liberal arts are similarly situated and thus poised for a comparable rapid fall. Consistent with Drezner, I do not think that is the case.

7. Problems with publications

Ehrlich/Simon: By 2020, the average lag between the first presentation of a research finding and its publication in a “top five” social science journal will be the same or longer than it was in 2014.

GJP: By 1 January 2016, one of the top five journals in political science, sociology or international relations will be shown to have published an article based on data which was largely fabricated.

Comments: The refereed publication system is horribly broken but I’ve seen little evidence that it will self-correct, even in the presence of blazingly dysfunctional incentive structures for institutions, which continue to require that their employees give away their intellectual property so that the institutions can buy it back at extortionate rates. All the while constantly complaining about the injustice of a system they have the power to change in a heartbeat. As I’ve noted before, were an individual to act in this manner, their financial affairs would be quickly turned over to a court-appointed guardian.

The likelihood of the discovery of fraud is not a criticism of those fields but a simple extrapolation from recent experience in the natural sciences, where such malfeasance is uncovered almost weekly, as well as with the opportunities for greater scrutiny that is developing with stricter replication norms.

Update 20 May 2015: Science isn’t exactly a social science journal but certainly counts as a top-five journal in general, so I think the retraction of the Green-LaCour article counts. The interesting thing to watch now is whether this has any cascade effects.

My predictions:

All of the Ehrlich/Simon questions are virtual certainties (allowing [3] as zero), except [7], where it is conceivable that on-line open-access alternatives would cause a change.

The short time frame on the GJP questions puts these at much lower probabilities, though that also makes them more interesting. GJP (and other prediction markets) work with probabilities—the eventual accuracy evaluated by a Breier score—and to show how rapidly I think the changes are trending, I’ll give those probabilities with deadlines of both 1 January 2016 and 1 January 2017

Question 1 Jan 2016 1 Jan 2017
Privatize public university 20% 40%
Abolish tenure in liberal arts 10% 30%
USNWR ranking fraud 70% 90%
Paterno decision reversed 70% 80%
NCAA shakedown refund 60% 80%
Distance learning intro courses 30% 50%
Law school demise 80% 100%
Publication fraud 40% 60%

Again, if you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, I have written way more extensively on these issues here.


1. The reference, as I’m sure you all immediately recognized, is to Karl Marx’s Eleven Theses on Feuerbach. My generation would smoke a lot of dope, score some LSD and then read Marx. Except for the losers, who read Ayn Rand. Drezner’s generation—though probably not Drezner—would smoke a lot of dope, score some cocaine, and read Derrida and Foucault. Except for the losers, who read Ayn Rand. The current generation, as best I can tell, have been taking powerful psychoactive prescription drugs since nursery school and can legally purchase THC-laced consumables in states with really nice mountains, if not in Federal districts deprived of home rule, so they just score six-packs of Red Bull and read Twitter. Except for the losers, who read Ayn Rand and occasionally found internet-based companies with capitalization in the billions of dollars.

2. Over-simplifying in a blog posting!: I’m shocked, shocked!

3. To say nothing of gullible parents living in constant fear that sending their loveable puppies anywhere but a USNWR top-ranked school—or, Thor-forbid, an affordable public university—will mean a waste of those years spent shuttling the little darlings to zither lessons starting at the age of three, astrophysics camp, investing in the horses and kit required to participate on polo and fox-hunting teams, all culminating in the child’s critically-acclaimed solo performance, as a high-school junior, of the whole of Schoenberg’s free atonal compositions, on the zither. Some fourteen pages of closely supervised accomplishments now being required for mere consideration for admission to schools in the USNWR top 50, or 20, or 2, or whatever.[11] And should that fail, and, Thor-forbid, should it fail so badly that your children receive degrees from public universities, they have nothing to look forward to but a lifetime of sleeping under bridges wrapped in discarded U-Haul packing blankets, standing on freeway median strips begging for quarters, and sniffing paint thinner stolen from highway construction sites. Yes, parents, that is the consequence of getting a degree from an institution that doesn’t leave you with $100,000 in tuition debt, yesiree Bob!: U.S. News and World Report and the college-applications industry tell me so!

Lux et veritas, my ass: numquam intermissum a stulto.

4. The count goes to zero when you pass a graveyard! This was before DVDs.

5. He says, pretending as always that he actually watched the show rather than the reading about it the next day.

6. Or was that Alex Trebek? Again pretending that I actually watch the shows.

7. Were I hiring. Which I’m not.

8. The emerging four professional-grade 16-member athletic conferences plus Notre Dame.

9. And, if anything more so, “The Greatest Generation.”

10. If you are not familiar with the AAU, these are the big dogs of the research university world, so if something changes here, it is a major deal. Almost everything on this list will probably happen at, or be done to, a non-AAU institution before it occurs in the AAU. So using the AAU as the reference group is setting the bar high.

11. And even all that will be for naught should accident of ancestry mean that admission would cause your elite target institutions to exceed their long-suspected quotas for Asians and Asian-Americans.

12. And Charles Dodgson, let us remember, taught at an elite academic institution: some things, one suspects, never change.

13. There are various ways one can force students to be physically present, though that merely provides them uninterrupted time for updating their Facebook—nowadays, Instagram—pages.

14. At present it is hard to say what this number will be in the long run, as we probably need another ten years of experience to determine the optimal mix of professional, peer, and machine interaction in a MOOC, and that mix will also, of course, vary by topic. At least two secondary financial effects also need to be sorted out: how much of the professional instruction will be institution-based rather than decentralized (which will affect pay rates), and how much can be saved by the elimination of “graduate programs” that currently exist almost solely to provide ill-paid instructional cannon fodder for the generally farcical “discussion sections” of the introductory courses.

15. Theil, I would imagine, sees the rise of start-ups following the entirely new models—how higher education would look were it being invented today rather than 11501810 or 1950—as the solution, and some of this is happening, perhaps most dramatically (and certainly coherently) in the Minerva Schools. There are, however, at least two serious impediments to this

  • It’s a bad neighborhood: The existing for-profit universities have had a very nasty tendency to be little more than quasi-criminal enterprises whose business model rests on extracting funds from the public purse under the protection of for-profit members of Congress while saddling their clients with unconscionable and crippling levels of debt. Which is to say, acting like financial institutions.
  • The instant that any of the big dogs with established reputations, several dating back centuries, jump into this game—the costs of entry are quite low, and these institutions will become involved only when they are certain their models will scale—any institutions without such reputations will be at a very serious disadvantage, and could be wiped out almost overnight. Not an enterprise for the faint of heart. Or, possibly, the strong of brain.

16. My favorite result being a study of high schools that found the students with the greatest self-esteem were consistently the drug dealers.

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