Is High College Tuition Defensible?

Coming from an upper middle class family, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita says, he could have afforded to pay some college tuition. Instead, he was the beneficiary of the tax dollars of less well-off New Yorkers. He argues that "tuition discrimination" makes private universities a fairer option. 

What's the Big Idea? 


Bruce Bueno de Mesquita got a great higher education for free. In the glory days of the City University of New York, he graduated from Queens College with strong enough credentials to secure a full fellowship at the University of Michigan’s PhD program in Political Science. Today, he is a professor at New York University and the well-known author of several books on game theory and the dynamics of political power.

Coming from an upper middle class family, de Mesquita says, he could have afforded to pay some tuition. Instead, he was the beneficiary of the tax dollars of New Yorkers who didn’t send their kids to public institutions. Is that fair? Not so much, he argues.

The high tuition of private universities, de Mesquita says, is misleading, because few students actually pay it. He sees it as a way of attracting educationally ambitious students and creating a social networking pool that will benefit them in their careers. This, he says, is how private universities compete against public ones.  Most private universities engage in “price discrimination” – reserving scholarships for students in financial need and making the de Mesquitas of this world pay a bit more. No free rides for the rich kids.




What’s the Significance?

There are two intertwined questions here. 1) Does free market competition create better schools? and 2) How egalitarian is the “tuition discrimination” de Mesquita describes, really? Question one is playing out right now in the public school system nationwide, as privately run (but free to students) charter schools compete with traditional public schools for students and resources. Enthusiastically embraced by educational policy makers and politicians, charter schools have had mixed academic outcomes so far, failing (on average) to improve reading and math scores significantly more than their public competitors. This does not definitively refute the “improvement through competition” argument, but it doesn’t support it, either.

With respect to question two, it is also arguable that the specter of high tuition drives away not only the less academically ambitious, but also the less wealthy – students from families without a long history of college attendance, or experience with scholarships and low-interest-rate loans.  These students are more likely to consider a $40,000 tuition categorically out of reach than those who can afford it, or those whose parents attended private universities at cost but now find themselves in reduced circumstances.

What is abundantly clear, however, is that the current models of higher education will be under close scrutiny for some time to come. Tuition discrimination or no, many students are graduating with enormous debt loads into a sagging economy. Educating students about student loans (“Know what you’re getting into, kid!”) is at best a halfhearted solution, given that the very existence of federal loans and their low interest rates are designed to encourage students to take them – and to boost their career prospects through higher education. It’s like giving away lollipops along with a flyer about dental care.
 
Private universities aren't likely to disappear any time soon, but the longer the economy lags, the more competition they'll face internally (from other schools) and externally (from alternate models, such as on-the-job training). The pressure to offer more affordable, high-quality educational options will become especially intense as online learning becomes an increasingly viable, sophisticated, and academically respectable option. 
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What do we see from watching birds move across the country?

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  • A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
  • The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
  • Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.


The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?

While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.

In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?

Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."

The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.

What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.

Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.

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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

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It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.