Sunday, August 31, 2008

is school too feminine and prone to deflation?

my friend's 11-year old son has stuggled at times in the academic environment. he sounds very bright and skilled with his hands, but does badly on tests. literature, culture and art bore him. he's happy dissecting animals and playing sports and doesn't want to bother with writing and poetry.

the school environment doesn't appeal to many boys because it's very female-dominated, according to my friend.

this has long been my general opinion about schools. by forcing boys into classrooms at ages 11-14, you can make them hate school forever. I have read anecdotal stuff suggesting this is the case for years... about 2 years ago, the new york times reported on colleges having too many female applicants because boys weren't trying to excel in academia.

I think male human beings are much more capable of appreciating culture and art when they're closer to 20-25 years old. in their early adolescent years, they are mainly interested in sports and blowing things up.

it also appears that education became less masculine as college-level education spread. there's no time for learning carpentry or welding -- which was taught 40 years ago. instead, there's just studying and competing on tests.

in my town in CT growing up, something like vocational training wasn't even an option. everyone was expected to attend college.

add in the easy money of government-backed student loans, and the higher-education bubble began to inflate.

once again turning to the new york times, a woman named hannah seligson compares academia with the real world:

... In my graduating class (more than half of which was female) there was a feeling of camaraderie, a sense that we were helping each other succeed.
Then I left the egalitarianism of the classroom for the cubicle, and everything changed. The realization that the knowledge and skills acquired in school don’t always translate at the office is something that all college graduates, men and women, must face. But for women, I have found, the adjustment tends to be much harder. It was certainly hard for me — I lasted only nine months in my first job out of college.

ever since I was a child I doubted this obsession with academia... it seemed strange to me being surrounded by tons of steel and concrete at school, riding in a car that magically just worked, eating food that came from boxes at the store.
unlike most humans in the long line of history, we moderns don't think about, or even understand, how our basic need for food and shelter is met. boys learned to hunt, farm or perform a trade from childhood. girls learned to be mothers.

until about 80-100 years ago, most children would be contributing economically to their families before the age of 10. by 20, they would be supporting their own families. they didn't have time to waste on non-essential things. they were too busy struggling to survive.

the post-WWII, higher-education oriented culture didn't ask children to make money or provide for their families. the parents who knew the great depression wanted something better for their kids.

but what if this avoidance actually reduced their attention span because it forced them to focus on matters that were literally "academic"? what if they knew the material wasn't directly helpful? would they stay engaged?

I believe schools gradually became more female-dominated in the post-WWII era. (it seems that things like markmanship and boxing used to be far more common, for instance.) at the same time in society, office work grew more common and industrial jobs declined.

I hope we can regain some positive momentum in our schools. but first, they will need to suffer as the money runs out. I have previously stated that education is another bubble that's breaking now. I dug into the historical CPI data and found some worrying data that should worry the entire educational establishment:

college tuition could be entering a deflationary cycle.

between 1984 and the end of 2007, it rose 453% if you look at the BLS's seasonally adjusted data. the overall CPI level increased just 110% over that same period.

since the end of 2007, college tuition rose just 3.8%, while total CPI rose 4.7%. it seems to be the first time education prices went up slower than everything else.

given the fact this is also a debt-financed asset, it is also vulnerable to deflation. people spending someone else's money have driven up the cost of academic training, spurring excessive and wasteful investment. now these institutions will have to retrench under a heavy cost load as students are able to afford less.

while I don't know much about education, I know it's not run like a normal industry. without a profit motive, people have no incentive to be efficient or minimize costs. young adults were steeped in a cultural bias in favor of a college education, then offered a pile of cash to go study.

nowhere along that route did anyone step in to say "you shouldn't run up $70,000 of debt studying english and drama"... at the same time, an entire educational industry was marketing itself to prospective students.

to boil it down: for years the universities got rich by telling students it was ok to mortgage their futures. for years, students accepted this premise. for years, investors gobbled up the billions of dollars of securitized student loans.

now kids see home mortgages inflicting pain on their parents. it seems they will be much more wary of debt in the future, and much less willing to borrow wantonly. at the same time, investors throughout the credit market are demanding more and more spread to compensate for any risk. this will drive up rates on people who are already feeling jaded about heavy debt loads.
once credit freezes up, prices will inevitably follow. some schools will start cutting prices to win students... some will go under. hopefully at the end of the process we'll have a healthier and better run university system. but getting there won't be fun.
this is what deflation looks like... change in college tuition every year - overall CPI. I call it "excess inflation". after years of running far in excess of normal inflation, college tuition is now running behind. this multiyear process is only now beginning.
the last data point is just comparing july with december, instead of december-december..

hopefully, in the future we'll revive vocational training and some of bill gates' billions will go to teaching solar technology to inner-city boys. colleges and universities will get squeezed.

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