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The Tier-Ing of College, and the Damage Done
“If you want to go to a top-tier school…;” It’s a “lower-tier school, but good…” In conversations about college, you often hear rankings-focused comments.
It’s difficult to remember the time before college tiers. I never heard the term in my college deliberations in the early 1980s. We did talk about safety schools, and the Ivy League, but this terrace farming of the higher education landscape into tiers of quality played no part.
A Google nGram search for the phrase “top-tier college” reveals that it was non-existent, as in, never used, in 1982. In 1983, it first appears as a statistically miniscule glimmer. Then its usage skyrockets, all through the 1990s.
You have to hand it to U.S. News & World Report, which published its first “Best Colleges and Universities” rankings in, you guessed it, 1983.
Whether or not you agree with its methods, it singlehandedly changed the conversation about admissions. It’s almost impossible today in college-aspiring, middle-class, or affluent communities to talk about colleges without mentioning rankings which are derived, sometimes distantly, from U.S. News’ list.
Their rankings are perhaps the most influential example of a kind of manic sociological taxonomy. Victorians were obsessed with the sorting and classification of all the elements of the natural world. We apply the same zeal to lifestyle. Rankings lists abound, of the “best” places to live, vacation, get a good night’s sleep, be rich, be poor, suffer a train derailment, or go to college.
It’s not clear to me, even after years of seeing the college rankings, what constitutes a “tier.”
For its part, U.S. News uses the term “tiers” but basically includes the vast majority of schools it ranks in each sub-category as in one tier, and the lower 25% as a second (keep in mind that fine schools that don’t use the SAT fall into the purgatorial tier of the “Unranked”). Ambitious, competitive parents demand a much finer taxonomy, of course, and parse the rankings more minutely.
Shall we call the very “top tier” the top 10 schools in each major category? If we define a tier this way—and I often hear ambitious parents implicitly define it thus, in the sense that nothing less than an Ivy or an uber-elite college will satisfy parental vanity—then three colleges (Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore) are perennially in the top tier. They’re the top three schools of 2014. On the university side, the perennial top tier include Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. What variety you see is typically just a re-shuffling of these three.
But why not expand the top tier to include—how many others? 20? 30? To many, it would seem improvident to expand your top tier much beyond 30, or it loses its tier-ness. When do we enter into the realm of the lower-tier schools that are still competitive but not the “best”? Who knows. For all the exactitude that a list promises, it spawns judgments that are imprecise but ironclad.
If I were inclined to define the top tier, I’d probably do just as well to define it by going to a sperm bank and seeing which college men produce the most coveted, expensive sperm. Or, by looking at which college’s donated eggs draw top dollar from infertile couples in the personals ads.
Or, I could define the top tier as those schools included in the pretentious “Ivy League Dating Service.”
I agree with U.S. News that college is an important decision, and an expensive one.
When I applied to college, pre U.S. News, two published sources helped me. First, the glossy packets that colleges sent to prospective students. In these brochures, it was always a bright autumn day, and everyone was smiling, lively, and appropriately diverse. These packets were obviously self-promotional, but the material was so extensive that by sheer volume alone, there were many opportunities for the curious, attuned applicant to find a “tell,” some unguarded moment in which the soul of the college revealed itself.
Maybe the tell would be what they chose to feature photographically—more sports, or more drama performances? Or, the words they chose most frequently to describe themselves. I applied to (and attended) Swarthmore for several reasons, but a substantial one was a student-authored poem in their brochure. It was quirky, intense, highly descriptive, and featured students jazzed up about papers and ideas. Although I hadn’t realized it before, that poem captured just what I was looking for in a college.
These materials created a richer forensic scene to pore over for clues as to whether this school would be a good fit.
The second resource that I dog-eared was a book produced by the Yale Daily News, a guide to colleges, as reported out from students. I loved that book. It provided basic information about the percentage of applicants accepted, and their average SAT scores, but it was mostly a book of generous, thoughtful, honest narratives about each college, and its pros and cons as reported by students themselves. It was like the college tour that you wish you could have taken—unexpurgated, but fair. The Yale Daily News felt no compunction to rank the colleges.
U.S. News’ list, in contrast, places colleges firmly in the camp of other major “consumer purchases.” It’s “one of the most important investments” in life. There’s been attention lately to how colleges have become like spas, and how students consume a college education. U.S. News’ logic, subtly, is of the same gist. “When consumers purchase are car or a computer,” they analogize, they have access to data about quality, and should have the same data for college. “From picking a school to buying a car, our rankings help make hard decisions easier.” It's basically the same process, they posit.
But what does a college more closely resemble? A car, which is inert, stable, and fully-formed, or a community, which is interactive, and transformed by your presence, like an organism? I’d say a college is more like an organism, or community. The quality and nature of the college—the “product”—changes according to the humans who constitute it. And in this sense, it can support no objective indicia to indicate best-ness, because the product in which you are “investing,” unlike a washing machine, changes from consumer to consumer and, indeed, is changed itself by the consumer formerly known as a student.
True, you can collect graduation rates and other statistics that have probative value. But don’t use these objective, factual indicia to declare the subjective status of “the best.” Just use them to create an “Index of Vital and Helpful Statistics on Colleges”—if you must...and I wish you wouldn’t.
Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.
- Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
- Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
- Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
The nervous system’s ancient reflexes<p>You accidentally place your hand on a hot stove. Almost instantaneously, your hand withdraws.</p><p>What triggered your hand to move? The answer is <em>not</em> that you consciously decided the stove was hot and you should move your hand. Rather, it was a reflex: Skin receptors on your hand sent nerve impulses to the spinal cord, which ultimately sent back motor neurons that caused your hand to move away. This all occurred before your "conscious brain" realized what happened.</p><p>Similarly, the nervous system has reflexes that protect individual cells in the body.</p><p>"The nervous system evolved because we need to respond to stimuli in the environment," said Dr. Tracey. "Neural signals don't come from the brain down first. Instead, when something happens in the environment, our peripheral nervous system senses it and sends a signal to the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord. And then the nervous system responds to correct the problem."</p><p>So, what if scientists could "hack" into the nervous system, manipulating the electrical activity in the nervous system to control molecular processes and produce desirable outcomes? That's the chief goal of bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There are billions of neurons in the body that interact with almost every cell in the body, and at each of those nerve endings, molecular signals control molecular mechanisms that can be defined and mapped, and potentially put under control," Dr. Tracey said in a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJH9KsMKi5M" target="_blank">TED Talk</a>.</p><p>"Many of these mechanisms are also involved in important diseases, like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension and shock. It's very plausible that finding neural signals to control those mechanisms will hold promises for devices replacing some of today's medication for those diseases."</p><p>How can scientists hack the nervous system? For years, researchers in the field of bioelectronic medicine have zeroed in on the longest cranial nerve in the body: the vagus nerve.</p>
The vagus nerve<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYyOTM5OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTIwNzk0NX0.UCy-3UNpomb3DQZMhyOw_SQG4ThwACXW_rMnc9mLAe8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="09add" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f38dbfbbfe470ad85a3b023dd5083557" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Electrical signals, seen here in a synapse, travel along the vagus nerve to trigger an inflammatory response.
Credit: Adobe Stock via solvod<p>The vagus nerve ("vagus" meaning "wandering" in Latin) comprises two nerve branches that stretch from the brainstem down to the chest and abdomen, where nerve fibers connect to organs. Electrical signals constantly travel up and down the vagus nerve, facilitating communication between the brain and other parts of the body.</p><p>One aspect of this back-and-forth communication is inflammation. When the immune system detects injury or attack, it automatically triggers an inflammatory response, which helps heal injuries and fend off invaders. But when not deployed properly, inflammation can become excessive, exacerbating the original problem and potentially contributing to diseases.</p><p>In 2002, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues discovered that the nervous system plays a key role in monitoring and modifying inflammation. This occurs through a process called the <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01321" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammatory reflex</a>. In simple terms, it works like this: When the nervous system detects inflammatory stimuli, it reflexively (and subconsciously) deploys electrical signals through the vagus nerve that trigger anti-inflammatory molecular processes.</p><p>In rodent experiments, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues observed that electrical signals traveling through the vagus nerve control TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. These electrical signals travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, triggering a molecular process that ultimately makes TNF, which exacerbates conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.</p><p>The incredible chain reaction of the inflammatory reflex was observed by Dr. Tracey and his colleagues in greater detail through rodent experiments. When inflammatory stimuli are detected, the nervous system sends electrical signals that travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, the electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, which trigger the spleen to create a white blood cell called a T cell, which then creates a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. The acetylcholine interacts with macrophages, which are a specific type of white blood cell that creates TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. At that point, the acetylcholine triggers the macrophages to stop overproducing TNF – or inflammation.</p><p>Experiments showed that when a specific part of the body is inflamed, specific fibers within the vagus nerve start firing. Dr. Tracey and his colleagues were able to map these relationships. More importantly, they were able to stimulate specific parts of the vagus nerve to "shut off" inflammation.</p><p>What's more, clinical trials show that vagus nerve stimulation not only "shuts off" inflammation, but also triggers the production of cells that promote healing.</p><p>"In animal experiments, we understand how this works," Dr. Tracey said. "And now we have clinical trials showing that the human response is what's predicted by the lab experiments. Many scientific thresholds have been crossed in the clinic and the lab. We're literally at the point of regulatory steps and stages, and then marketing and distribution before this idea takes off."<br></p>
The future of bioelectronic medicine<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYxMDYxMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjQwOTExNH0.uBY1TnEs_kv9Dal7zmA_i9L7T0wnIuf9gGtdRXcNNxo/img.jpg?width=980" id="8b5b2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c005e615e5f23c2817483862354d2cc4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2000" data-height="1125" />
Vagus nerve stimulation can already treat Crohn's disease and other inflammatory diseases. In the future, it may also be used to treat cancer, diabetes, and depression.
Credit: Adobe Stock via Maridav<p>Vagus nerve stimulation is currently awaiting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, but so far, it's proven safe and effective in clinical trials on humans. Dr. Tracey said vagus nerve stimulation could become a common treatment for a wide range of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension, shock, depression and diabetes.</p><p>"To the extent that inflammation is the problem in the disease, then stopping inflammation or suppressing the inflammation with vagus nerve stimulation or bioelectronic approaches will be beneficial and therapeutic," he said.</p><p>Receiving vagus nerve stimulation would require having an electronic device, about the size of lima bean, surgically implanted in your neck during a 30-minute procedure. A couple of weeks later, you'd visit, say, your rheumatologist, who would activate the device and determine the right dosage. The stimulation would take a few minutes each day, and it'd likely be unnoticeable.</p><p>But the most revolutionary aspect of bioelectronic medicine, according to Dr. Tracey, is that approaches like vagus nerve stimulation wouldn't come with harmful and potentially deadly side effects, as many pharmaceutical drugs currently do.</p><p>"A device on a nerve is not going to have systemic side effects on the body like taking a steroid does," Dr. Tracey said. "It's a powerful concept that, frankly, scientists are quite accepting of—it's actually quite amazing. But the idea of adopting this into practice is going to take another 10 or 20 years, because it's hard for physicians, who've spent their lives writing prescriptions for pills or injections, that a computer chip can replace the drug."</p><p>But patients could also play a role in advancing bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There's a huge demand in this patient cohort for something better than they're taking now," Dr. Tracey said. "Patients don't want to take a drug with a black-box warning, costs $100,000 a year and works half the time."</p><p>Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, elaborated:</p><p>"Why would patients pursue a drug regimen when they could opt for a few electronic pulses? Is it possible that treatments like this, pulses through electronic devices, could replace some drugs in the coming years as preferred treatments? Tracey believes it is, and that is perhaps why the pharmaceutical industry closely follows his work."</p><p>Over the long term, bioelectronic approaches are unlikely to completely replace pharmaceutical drugs, but they could replace many, or at least be used as supplemental treatments.</p><p>Dr. Tracey is optimistic about the future of the field.</p><p>"It's going to spawn a huge new industry that will rival the pharmaceutical industry in the next 50 years," he said. "This is no longer just a startup industry. [...] It's going to be very interesting to see the explosive growth that's going to occur."</p>
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
A physicist creates an AI algorithm that predicts natural events and may prove the simulation hypothesis.
- Princeton physicist Hong Qin creates an AI algorithm that can predict planetary orbits.
- The scientist partially based his work on the hypothesis which believes reality is a simulation.
- The algorithm is being adapted to predict behavior of plasma and can be used on other natural phenomena.
Physicist Hong Qin with images of planetary orbits and computer code.
Credit: Elle Starkman
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