College as Country Club?

We've made periodic attempts to explain the massive spike in college tuition in recent decades. There are many viable explanations: rising labor costs (more non-faculty staff and professors who cannot be cloned), shrinking federal and state funding, increased demand, etc.

On that last point -- the demand side -- we should especially consider "consumption amenities," as Brian Jacob, Brian McCall, and Kevin M. Stange label them in a new working paper called "College as Country Club: Do Colleges Cater to Students' Preferences for Consumption?" (abstract; pdf). I find the passage that I've bolded, below, to be especially fascinating:

This paper investigates whether demand-side market pressure explains colleges' decisions to provide consumption amenities to their students. We estimate a discrete choice model of college demand using micro data from the high school classes of 1992 and 2004, matched to extensive information on all four-year colleges in the U.S. We find that most students do appear to value college consumption amenities, including spending on student activities, sports, and dormitories. While this taste for amenities is broad-based, the taste for academic quality is confined to high-achieving students. The heterogeneity in student preferences implies that colleges face very different incentives depending on their current student body and the students who the institution hopes to attract. We estimate that the elasticities implied by our demand model can account for 16 percent of the total variation across colleges in the ratio of amenity to academic spending, and including them on top of key observable characteristics (sector, state, size, selectivity) increases the explained variation by twenty percent.

It would be great news if this meant that high-achieving students craving high academic quality will be rewarded with cheaper tuition in the future, but somehow I don't see that happening. Do you?

How to Get the Best out of College? Your Questions Answered

We recently solicited your questions for Peter D. Feaver, Sue Wasiolek, and Anne Crossman, the authors of Getting the Best Out of College. Your questions ran the gamut and so do their replies. Thanks to all for participating. And feel free to check out our podcast on the value of a college education, “Freakonomics Goes to College” (Part 1 herePart 2 here, and together as an hour-long special). 

Q. Michael Pollan summed up his philosophy of nutrition in seven words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Do you have similarly pithy advice for students trying to maximize their college experience? Don’t feel limited to seven words – I’m just looking for something aphoristic. -Glen Davis

A. Your choices in college matter more than your choices of college, so choose wisely. 

How to Get a Doctorate in Six Weeks

I assume this is only a coincidence but still, it's a good one.

Shortly after putting out the first half of our "Freakonomics Goes to College" podcast, which included a segment on the market for fake diplomas from counterfeiters and diploma mills, I got the following piece of spam. It appears to be from a Norwegian e-mail domain:

The Verdict Is in: Sociology and Political Science Deserve the Hatchet

Last week, I asked Freakonomics.com readers “Which Social Science Should Die?” The results are in. Thank you for your clear-eyed, sober judgment. Recall that some of you answered in the comments (see previous link) and others visited the on-line poll (which is still open). As of this writing, more than 1,200 votes have been registered. 

And the winner -- er, “LOSER”(!) is: 

Let’s Kill Off Sociology and Political Science!

As you can see from the chart below, nearly 50 percent believed that college/university presidents should eliminate sociology. Nearly 30 percent thought poli sci should be shuttered. [Editor's note: it is perhaps not surprising that Freakonomics readers wouldn't vote to eliminate economics.]

How Much Do Football Wins Pay Off for a College?

An NBER paper by Michael L. Anderson looks into the how a university's football performance affects its academic performance:

Spending on big-time college athletics is often justified on the grounds that athletic success attracts students and raises donations. Testing this claim has proven difficult because success is not randomly assigned. We exploit data on bookmaker spreads to estimate the probability of winning each game for college football teams. We then condition on these probabilities using a propensity score design to estimate the effects of winning on donations, applications, and enrollment. The resulting estimates represent causal effects under the assumption that, conditional on bookmaker spreads, winning is uncorrelated with potential outcomes. Two complications arise in our design. First, team wins evolve dynamically throughout the season. Second, winning a game early in the season reveals that a team is better than anticipated and thus increases expected season wins by more than one-for-one. We address these complications by combining an instrumental variables-type estimator with the propensity score design. We find that winning reduces acceptance rates and increases donations, applications, academic reputation, in-state enrollment, and incoming SAT scores.

Adventures in Ideas: Which Social Science Should Die?

Freakonomics Readers,

I’d like to enlist you in a debate that, to date, is mostly occurring within the academy.

Imagine that, in order to respond both to budgetary pressures and calls for greater relevance of the American academy, College & University Presidents are re-examining their social science disciplines. They have decided to eliminate one major discipline. In your opinion, which of the following is no longer as relevant to the mission of research and education, and should be eliminated as a consequence?

A New Solution to Rising Tuition Costs

We've blogged in the past about the college tuition inflation. Now some students think they may have a solution.  FixUC, a student organization based at UC Riverside, wants the university to stop charging tuition and instead take 5 percent of students' yearly salaries for the 20 years after graduation.  "Charging students when they don't have money doesn't make sense," says Chris LoCascio, the group's leader. "In 20 years, our plan would double the amount of money coming into the UC system."

What to Do With Cheating Students?

I'm nearly certain that a pair of students cheated on my final exam—the probability they had so many identical answers on the multiple-choice exam is infinitesimal. If I pursue them, it takes me time, and there’s no assurance they will be found guilty. If I don’t, I’ll feel badly about giving them an undeserved grade. Even for fairly risk-averse students, cheating seems like a good idea. I doubt that most cheating is caught; and unless the penalty is very severe (expulsion) and/or the students’ costs of contesting the accusation are high, and both are very well-publicized, the incentive to cheat for students with weak consciences seems overpowering. To salve my own conscience I’ll report them, although it’s probably a waste of my time; but I doubt that reporting them will deter their future cheating or deter others very much.

A Strange Study on Italian Nepotism

These are dark days for Italy. The country's bond yields are way up; Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi looks to be on his way out. And Italian soccer superstar Antonio Cassano is in the hospital recovering from a suspected stroke.

What better time then to blog about a strange new study about Italian nepotism? Authors Ruben Durante, Giovanna Labartino and Roberto Perotti study the effects that a 1998 law decentralizing the hiring process at Italian universities had on levels of nepotism. Pre-1998, candidates for academic positions were selected through a national process. After 1998, however, universities were given the power to hire their own professors. The researchers found that this decentralization led to increased nepotism in areas of "low civic capital," but not in areas of "high civic capital."

What Happens When Nobody Is Better Off? Pareto Deterioration

A tenured senior professor at another university, one of his department’s top researchers and best teachers, asked his department chairman for a temporary one-course teaching reduction for this Fall. The chairman refused but offered a terminal three-year appointment that included this reduction for all three years, at the same salary as if this professor taught a full load each year.

The professor accepted the deal, as he desperately wanted the teaching reduction this Fall, figuring he could get a teaching job elsewhere after three years. But he tells me he would have been happier teaching a full load over the next two years, and would rather not have to search for a job in two years. He is worse off. The department and university are also worse off, since they lose his courses in each of the next two years, and thereafter will not get the benefit of his teaching and his research/publication luster; and students are worse off too.

Is this really a Pareto deterioration—a new economic phrase denoting a change in which at least one person is worse off, and nobody better off? And is the phrase Pareto deterioration the best name for this unusual phenomenon?