A college degree ain't what it use to be

Last December, in my post titled “That’s Messed Up!”, I wrote about how broken feedback can explain just about any problem.  Now, I’m going put that to the test on often debated topics in our society – education and healthcare.  I’ll start with education.

I often hear “a college degree ain’t what it use to be.”  Same goes for a high school diploma.  Why?

Schools use to award diplomas to those who mastered the requirements.  The standards were high.  A diploma was a reliable sign that the person was literate, self-driven, able to complete assignments and responsible. 

That’s when grades (i.e. feedback on student performance) were awarded based on the mastery of the material.  To move to the next level you had to pass the previous level.  That isn’t the case anymore.   

While some students gain a lot from education, they share distinctions with too many who were promoted for reasons other than their true academic performance.  And it’s hard to tell these people apart, so the simplest thing to do is to assume the degree means little or nothing.  Of course there are some distinguishers like graduating with honors and winning academic awards, but the diploma itself is too easily had to be of much informational value.

There are many reasons why students receive inflated grades.  All these reasons can be traced back to more feedback problems.  For example, there may be many reasons why teachers give inflated grades (e.g. don’t want to have a tough conversation with a student or parent, believes self-esteem is more important than grades) but the root cause is that administrators allow it by not giving proper feedback either willingly, because the administrator may have the same views on inflated grades as teachers, or unwillingly, because the teachers’ union doesn’t allow behavior changing action to be taken against the teacher giving inflated grades.

Want to fix education?  Fix the feedback problems.  Get rid of grade inflation, fire ineffective teachers and pay great teachers well.  Finally, give schools more power to kick out troublemakers.  To earn the privelege of occupying a desk funded by our tax dollars, we should expect kids to behave in the classroom.  Troublemakers simply should not be tolerated.  Let the parents deal with the brats they created.  

I’ll tackle healthcare in another post.

Price Gouging

Thomas Sowel offers some good words on price gouging from Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy (Basic Books, 2000):

 …when some natural disaster such as a hurricane or flood suddenly destroys many homes in a given area, the price of hotel rooms in that area may suddenly rise, as many compete for a limited number of of rooms…

People who charge higher prices for hotel rooms, or for other things in short supply in the wake of some disaster, are especially likely to be condemned for “greed”, but in fact the relationship between supply and demand has changed.  Prices are simply performing one of their most important functions – rationing scarce resources.  When some natural disaster suddenly makes these resources even more scarce than usual, it is important that prices reflect that underlying reality, so as to reduce the demand that each individual makes on the reduced supply.

Regardless of what hotel owners charge, a sudden and widespread destruction of housing in a given area means that there may be not nearly enough hotel rooms for all the displaced people to get the kinds of accommodations they would like.  If prices had remained at their previous levels after the hurricane, a family of four might  well rent two rooms – one for the parents and one for the children.  But when hotel prices shoot up well beyond their usual level, all four family members may crowd into one room, in order to save money, leaving the other room for other people who have likewise lost their homes and are equally in need of shelter.  If the government were to impose price controls under these conditions, then those who happened to get to the hotels first would take up more space and leave more latecomers without a place to sleep indoors.

Similarly, if local electric power lines were put out of commission for a few days, the demand for flashlights in that community might suddenly increase, causing prices to rise before new shipments of flashlights could arrive.  Had prices remained at their previous level, a family might buy several flashlights, so that each member could have one.  But, at suddenly higher prices, the would likely buy only one or two, leaving more flashlights for others with a similarly urgent need.