Introduction

This is going to be a poorly-researched article where I make clear the opinions that I hold on higher education. Specifically, private colleges. I will propose many sweeping process changes. None of these things will ever happen. While my commentary will be regarded as sophomoric and my research as insufficient, I have spent a good deal of time thinking about this. Whether you agree with me or not, I appreciate your readership.

Admissions

Why the Admissions Process is Broken

Colleges employ entire departments that design pamphlets for prospective students containing meaningless admissions statistics. Why do we care that all fifty states were represented (even Alaska!) and that they picked up a kid from Croatia? Ah, maybe because we’ve been conditioned by the media to believe that arbitrary diversity is always good.

Stats like this provide some indication of the organic reach and reputation of a school, right? No, not really. You see, schools also pay entire departments to perform outreach. What does that mean? They pay someone to fly out to Montana, attend “college day” at a few schools, and then compromise their admissions standards to admit a few kids from Montana who attended those presentations. There’s nothing organic or impressive about it–just a vanity metric.

This is one of many examples–I’m not going to touch the topic of race. The fact of the matter is that most parts of the admissions process are a sham. They give the school a free pass to discriminate against you (or others you’re competing with) for things completely out of your control. Oh, and there’s an entire department doing it. Twenty, thirty, fifty, people. Some “specialist” who works in a way that is likely completely unsupervised has biases and incompetencies that directly impact prospective students.

If only we could …

Fix the Admissions Process

Use this:

  • SAT + Subject Tests, PSAT
  • ACT
  • IQ
  • Adjusted GPA
  • TOEFL
  • Part-time work tax forms
  • Athletic Achievement Index
  • Extracurricular Involvement Score
  • Early Decision
  • Disciplinary/Legal record

Stop this:

  • Early Action
  • Legacy
  • Writing samples
  • Recommendations
  • Any/all demographic information
    • Gender probably has to be considered though
  • Demonstrations of interest
  • Human touch

Elective / Pay to Play:

  • Merit scholarships are binding for 4 years.
  • Schools can pay $5,000 per interview (+ covering all student travel/lodging costs) if they think prospective student interviews are necessary.
  • Schools can offer guaranteed admission to students who meet a subset of requirements. This decision is binding in that the student must pre-pay an entire year’s tuition + $5000 upon confirmation of having met requirements. This is non-refundable.
  • Application fees $10 each. Schools can pay $100 to waive a student’s application fee.
  • After a certain day in the spring, students can appeal up to 3 rejections for $100 each. It seems like this would be a natural place to introduce writing a statement. Nope! Can’t do it. But a school can set requirements such as having to take a mandatory summer class or even as drastic as a one-strike academic probation policy once the student gets to campus.

Let’s get down to it. The parts of the college admissions process that really benefit the “rich” kids are the parts that they can sit down with an expensive 3rd-party admission’s counselor and figure out. How many kids really write their own essays? What’s the value of a recommendation when every high school teacher heavily uses templates anyway? Who actually benefits from demographic information?

Imagine this. It’s time to apply to college. You pick the schools you want to apply to. There are fall, winter, spring, and summer “deadline days,” “decision days,” and “commitment days.” You apply by October 1st. You receive a decision with financial aid or merit money by October 15th. You commit by November 1st or your acceptance is rescinded.

What goes on behind the scenes? Standardized algorithms not maintained by any individual school. There’s still a common app but it only contains the stuff outlined above. Everything can be reduced to numbers and algorithms. Schools get the score reports (aggregate and composite), but anonymized and without a name or any demographic information. They then choose who they want to accept. Most schools will have a parameterized algorithm that does this, and just a few overseers that validate the results and consider how to compete considering other schools may be emphasizing the same things.

In Practice

  • 50%: Standardized college-readiness tests (including TOEFL)
  • 25%: Adjusted GPA
  • 10%: IQ
  • 5%: Athletic achievement (varsity athletics candidates left out for now)
  • 5%: Extracurricular achievement
  • 5%: Disciplinary record
  • X%: Part-time work
  • Y: Early decision

Your SAT/ACT score is going to comprise about 50% of your profile. The tests are pretty much without flaw and are great at separating excellent candidates from ones who are not self-sufficient, can’t handle pressure, or are not good at time management.

Adjusted GPA will attempt to reconcile a school’s rigor and a student’s local achievement with a student’s scores on AP tests and national language exams. Tons of 5s on AP tests? Your actual GPA doesn’t matter. Come from a school with a low rigor and low academic integrity score? GPA is less meaningful, but AP scores are more heavily weighted. This is where we try to implement socioeconomic fairness in case schools are significantly different in their resourcing. There will need to be serious changes at a national policy level to give meaning to “rigor” and “academic integrity” scores, but it shouldn’t be impossible.

Why doesn’t anybody talk about IQ anymore? You can’t fake it. You can’t study for it. There’s no need to account for bias in upbringing. But, people who make the rules are embarrassed by their average IQs. Secretly, every elite school would prefer the 150 IQ wildcard to the 115 IQ bore who worked really hard in high school.

Athletic achievement–how do we standardize this across the country? I have no idea. Obviously, you’ll need coaches to play a part in this. I think it’s fair to ask coaches to rank their teams on a scale of 1-5 kind of like a more generalized version of the scouting websites. 1s are the kids who are basically just there to have fun (depending on the sport–this may not exist), 2s put some time in, 3s put time in and perform (make a varsity basketball team but ride the bench), 4s put time in during the offseason and could probably compete at the D3 level (start on a large HS football team), 5s are full-package, team-captain, ambassadors of the sport who are winners and almost always at least small-school walk-on candidates (running a 4:24 mile). Target distribution should be 15%-35%-40%-8%-2%. Again, will need to do extra accounting for the fact that some sports do not have 1s or 2s by senior year.

Extracurricular achievement is, again, hard to quantify. Put smart people in a room and pay them a lot and they’ll quantify it. Most clubs are useless and participation is really hard to verify. However, things like science/math olympiad and different speech/debate competitions and class officers must be accounted for. Also, participation in theatre, volunteer, and trade-based extra-curricular activities should ideally be validated, but this would be difficult. Participation would be down across the board, once parents realize it matters less and they stop driving their children to have arbitrarily diverse hobbies.

Your disciplinary record is just that. It can include things like if you made student of the month, but it’ll contain things like unexcused absences, tardiness, suspensions, things of that nature. Also if you have run into any legal action. Kind of like a background check for minors.

Part-time work could be important. Fairly hard to fake for poor people but really easy to fabricate for rich people. I don’t think we’d ever be able to make it equitable.

Schools would be allowed to discriminate based on if an applicant is an early decision applicant.

Remember, all of this comprises a composite score. All schools will have access to the component parts and can filter those how they wish. What will end up happening? My guess is that high-IQ somewhat-athletic students become the most desirable candidates. Maybe I believe this just because… nevermind.

Sidebar: The Value of a Student

Let’s take a more capitalistic approach than we already have. What does a college actually want in a student? Some combination of these things:

  • Low utilization of school resources
  • High resource contribution to school while a student
  • Monetary contributions from student after graduation
  • Ambassadorship, brand-building for the school

And…

Nope. That’s it. That’s all a school really cares about. They want you to utilize the smallest amount of resources possible while you’re there, pay full tuition and “donate” your time to activities that boost the school while you are there, donate a ton of money after you graduate and, from the day you graduate til the day your name is spoken for the last time, they want your association to reflect well on the quality of the school.

Just like… investments… this can be broken down as different levels of risk on different time horizons.

Short-term (0-4 years): Get people in the door and get them to pay as much as possible. This is fairly low risk for the school but is high risk for the individual. A student can’t redo college, but a college can depend on a steady stream of tuition money. The payoff expected by the young student is often not fully realized. When it is, it’s usually much further down the line. The risk level rises from the school’s perspective only as they admit more unqualified applicants who drop out at significantly higher rates or who simply have completely mediocre outcomes that harm the school’s reputation.

Medium-term (3-6 years): Hope these students have a decent time, excel somewhat, and get great first/second jobs out of school. Ideally, they donate a little bit, speak highly of the school, and proudly display diplomas in their cubicles. This is where the school’s goals align most directly with the students’.

Long-term (5-25 years): The goal here is for alumni to gain reputations in their fields and social circles that reflect well on the quality of the education (etc) of the school. This is where you get into the $10-$50k donation territory as status seekers in certain career paths may turn their competitive natures to alumni giving efforts. This benefits the school in many ways, but it’s pretty much a dead zone for the givers. Most donations aren’t enough to matter.

Life/Legacy (50+ years, generational): I’m not saying it’s wrong for an alumnus of a school to have an unwavering dedication to the institution. It seems overplayed to me, but I’m a cynic. This stage of giving is perhaps more important than any other. If you’re a school administrator and you identify a successful alumnus in the twilight of his or her life, you’d be an imbecile if you didn’t court them. How common are personalized outreach efforts here? Probably awful–mixed in with the rest of the cold-call fodder, for sure.

As you advance in age, you look for fond memories to grasp on to. A school has much more of a foundation than a job, or a romantic partner, or a special moment, or a first car. It’s always going to be there, still as fresh as the day you left. I guess the late-stage capitalist doesn’t really care about getting +1s as the end gets closer, but there is some value in establishing a legacy. With enough money, you can have your name live on for a long time. That’s pretty cool. I understand why people chase it.

If we snap back to the who do you let in question, it still isn’t clear. Of course, if you could enroll 1000 Mark Zuckerbergs, that would be phenomenal. Aside from the dropping out part. If you take too many risks in pursuing the darkhorse candidates, because all the smart kids matriculate to Harvard and MIT, then you can be plagued with high dropout rates and relatively low possibility of student success. At the end of the day, this isn’t worth exploring in more detail, do you think that the average admissions person has ever thought about the topic this deeply? 🙁

Curriculum

College curriculum needs drastic change. I’m not saying gut whole departments. It’s just that a lot of the labels you see when it comes to social sciences or even business schools are completely passe and useless.

Let’s call college what it is–the new high school. Most students have areas of interest, but most aren’t pursuing careers where they can endanger peoples’ lives by being incompetent. If there’s no professional exams or equivalent to train for, what’s the real difference between a Sociology major and a Women’s Studies major? They’re mostly the same core classes. What you first look to is did this person go to this school then you’re trying to determine if they fucked around at school and, ultimately, are they qualified for the job. Chances are that a lot of social science degrees are viewed the exact same way! If you want to specialize, go for your master’s.

What does the most basic simplification look like?

Arts & Social Sciences
– B.A. General Studies
– B.A. Writing Intensive
– B.A. Critical Thinking Intensive (a.k.a. Pre-law)
– B.A. <Languages>

Business
– B.S. General Business
– B.S. Mathematical Business
– B.S. Entrepreneurial Business
– B.S. Engineering & Business (honors)

STEM
– B.S. Information Technology
– B.S. Computer Science
– B.S. Mathematics
– B.S. <All Engineering Disciplines>
– B.S. Hard Sciences (a.k.a Pre-med)

What does the percentage allocation look like across the country, and then within each degree program?

Arts & Social Sciences (65% of students)

  • B.A. General Studies (80% of students) [general]
  • B.A. Writing Intensive (10% of students) [competitive]
  • B.A. Critical Thinking Intensive (a.k.a. Pre-law) (7% of students) [highly competitive]
  • B.A. <Languages> (3% of students) [specialty]

 

Business (15% of students)

  • B.S. General Business (73% of students) [general]
  • B.S. Mathematical Business (15% of students) [competitive]
  • B.S. Engineering & Business (1% of students]) [highly competitive]
  • B.S. CPA Track (5% of students) [specialty]
  • B.S. CFA Track (1% of students) [specialty]
  • B.S. Entrepreneurial Business (5% of students) [specialty]

STEM (20% of students)

  • B.S. Information Technology (50%) [general]
  • B.S. Computer Science (10%)[competitive]
  • B.S. Mathematical Computer Science (5%) [highly competitive]
  • B.S. <All Engineering Disciplines> (15%)
  • B.S. Hard Sciences (a.k.a Pre-med) (20%)

The plurality of American college students will pursue General Studies degrees. Why the hell not? Currently, it’s seen as a dirty word but it doesn’t have to be. Go to college, have fun, develop your skills, and see if there’s a job out there…

Oops. There won’t be a job out there for the first few cohorts. And everyone will have the same degree so there will be less meaningless individuality. The misery will be shared, the reality will be evident. Not specializing in a stem or business field at a school that isn’t elite means you will have mediocre job prospects. This is crucial to the reformed system of higher education. People start to be less willing to pay for useless degrees when the facade of higher education starts to crumble. This forces further reforms.

Before we get into the Engineers versus Managers conundrum, let’s talk more about higher-value degrees in Arts & Social Sciences. Writing-intensive degrees are useful. If rigorous enough, you can come out of school writing a blog of a similar quality to mine. Why is this important to highlight? You’d be shocked if you found out just how many of the essentially-general-studies grads come out and can’t write. That’s what they’re supposed to be learning! What are they learning?!

Next, we have the critical-thinking-intensive track. Man, do I like the idea of this. It’s just smart people who lack direction taking interesting high-level classes. Here’s what’s amazing about it. You’d be willing to hire these students. Demonstrated critical thinking ability is a desirable skill. This more-or-less becomes the equivalent of banks hiring English majors for analyst roles 30 years ago just because the students went to elite schools where social science curriculum was known to be rigorous.

Business is pretty rough. Most entry-level business positions are mindless, anyway, so my thought is, again, who the heck cares? You want to be an accountant? CPA track. Going to grind out math and basic programming classes? Mathematical business, analytical finance, who cares what we name it?

The only real change to STEM programs is that you add in a basic I.T. degree. You want to get a basic programming job? Get your IT degree. Freak intelligence? Get a Math and CS degree.

Not every school would offer all programs. This would increase the pull of state schools quite significantly. That is, having a built-in honors program to every one of the three major trees of study. There can still be schools that are better at engineering and schools that are better at business. Nothing wrong with that.

The Cost of College

Alright, so now we’re in my dream world. We’ve standardized admissions and cut out most of the bullshit. We’ve standardized degree programs and cut out most of the bullshit. Students will have an easier time making college choices. They will have an easier time connecting those choices directly to their desired career paths. But what about the insane cost of college?

Where is all of that money going?

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My alma mater, Lehigh, had costs of $415 million and revenue of $408 million. Alright, so a little bit of a deficit, but Lehigh has a billion-dollar endowment which counts for something.

Not surprisingly, the majority of revenue–59%–is generated through tuition. (note: actually, this is surprising. Only 59% of costs are covered by one of the highest tuitions in the country? Yikes.) Tuition, excluding room & board, is about $55k per year. So, 5100 undergraduates * 55,000 = somewhere around $250M, which is in the ballpark of what the school claims. Wow, that’s a lot of money.

It’s not like they’re hiding or embezzling the money, either. The costs are laid out in this report.

The gut instinct here is to just fire a ton of staff. I’ve already outlined who I’d like cut on day 1. I truly, truly believe that by cutting out bureaucrats and other positions that have been replaced by software in the real world, a school like Lehigh could cut the entire deficit. Then you could also replace some of the stupid stuff being purchased by departments with no oversight by software and automation solutions, and you’re sitting on a surplus of $2-3M per year. Not bad!

This isn’t enough. Lehigh still costs $70,000 to attend per year, including room and board. That’s… ludicrous. How can anyone see that number and justify it? How can someone look at this number and not think higher education needs help? I have no idea.

Staff Cost a Lot

We need to take a hard look at essential teaching staff. Lehigh is a research institution, and I can tell you that a lot of the STEM professors I interacted with probably did not enjoy teaching. On the other hand, I can say that virtually every “social sciences” professor I had was incredible. Seriously. I almost pursued minors in certain disciplines several times.

I opine that one of the most important ways to control college costs is to switch the instructional model to pre-recorded lectures for most of “very large” classes.

Switching models means less wear & tear on large rooms and that the professors won’t have to repeat themselves multiple times per day. Also gets rid of bullshit attendance policies. When it comes to testing, require students to record themselves and employ menial employees to verify the students’ integrity based on recording and screen data.

Then, for specialized classes and small class sizes, continue to require attendance.

It’s easy to hate on the bureaucrats. Every college has… a lot… of them. So many that if I started to research and name them for a given school it would turn into a hit piece and I’d end up banned from campus. Maybe that will be a new segment I start on the blog. “What the fuck does this person even do?”

Where the Government Must Step In

If everything I’m asking for happens, there will be a seismic shift in higher education. I think it would all be for the better, I don’t see much of a case for opposition aside from “yeah this would be hard.” As more people accept “college is the new high school,” we’ll become increasingly reliant on state-funded schools. Not just flagships, but also the mediocre schools that are probably less rigorous than certain highschools.

Safe to say that state governments will have a lot on their plates. But there’s even more that, contrary to my belief system, I will entrust to the federal government!

Loans

I understand that there’s a difference between private loans, government loans–whatever. We need to reform this significantly. If you have no chance of earning an annual salary equal to the cost of one year’s tuition, what the fuck are these lenders thinking? What are you thinking?

Loan amounts and loan approvals need to be adjusted based on expected earnings. These are what keep private colleges afloat. A neverending stream of money lent to those with delusions about their future job prospects. That’s all there is to it. Anyone studying computer science and performing decently in that program should get a loan at a great rate, perhaps even at a rate that improves as you establish yourself further.

Someone studying theatre? Who will probably go on to take out more loans to study more theatre? You’ve got to be kidding me. I wouldn’t loan them anything! How can you build a sustainable business model on loaning $70k per year to this type of student?

I don’t have a concrete plan here, just… fewer loans. Smaller loan amounts. Loans based in reality and interest rates better tied to the probability of student success. Students aren’t going to turn to loan sharks if you cut off the money supply. They’re going to face reality and choose cheaper schools or degrees with better expected value.

The Buy-Outs

There are a lot of struggling private schools. Not just for-profit schools, either. We don’t hear much about them because they’re mostly small schools with pitiful endowments. You don’t know anybody who has attended these schools.

These schools provide very little benefit to the world. They support the economies of tiny towns. They hand out liberal arts degrees to undergraduates who were too good for state school and wanted to be unique. Or something like that.

Let’s shut these schools down. The federal government will identify maybe one-hunded candidate schools across the country. It will then first assess what will happen to current students:

  • Special admission/credit transfer for attending the closest state-funded school. Considered for tuition credits as well
  • Small stipend for next year’s living expenses
  • Full/partial reimbursement of outstanding student loans from this institution

Then, what to do with the actual school:

  • Endowment investments auctioned to the highest bidder
  • All staff furloughed but offered priority for interviews for jobs at state schools across the country
  • Buildings/grounds:
    • Sold to the highest bidder
    • Turned into museums or local-government offices
    • Sold to a local school (including public primary schools) at a discounted rate
    • Used for senior housing, rehab housing, etc
    • Turned into “opportunity zone” offices with blessing of state government

Sounds fair to me.

The “Shit Outcome” Tax and the Outcome Tier

Getting a job occurs at a confluence of ambition, opportunity, education, and academic performance. I respect that a school cannot control every one of these outcomes. I respect that a few students from top schools struggle to get decent jobs and even more fail to advance their careers in meaningful ways.

But let’s hold schools accountable. Simply, let’s create metrics for schools and their graduates. If less than a Z percentage of graduates are reporting less than $X on their taxes Y years out of school, easy! Tax the shit out of the school! Use it to fund buyouts! I don’t care how this gets implemented.

Schools don’t want to play? Too bad, you then create “outcome tiers” which schools are grouped into. Think of this as the US News ranking except way harder to game. It’s not just salary but a number of other factors. It’s also fluid each year, so a school’s ranking can change. If they drop off the tier list and don’t hit the minimum threshold, you tax the school. Now, it’s too easy for schools to hide behind facades of campus life and culture and student experience. Kids want jobs. Why not provide a system that holds schools more accountable for preparing students?

Summary

This is a topic I spent a lot of time thinking about over the course of several very long runs. Of course, the ideas have been ruminating since I attended college. When I hear discussion of student loan debt, I default to thinking about how we could solve problems at the source, rather than providing relief in a way that is materially unfair to those who may have incurred other opportunity costs by paying for more of their education upfront.

Just wanted to get this out there. Thanks for reading.

Radical Ideas for Improving Higher Education in America