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How College Financial Aid Really Works

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Forbes has a somewhat breathless but informative article “The Invisible Force Behind College Admissions” on the Noel-Levitz consulting firm that advises hundreds of colleges on what to offer in financial aid to maximize their tuition income.

Twenty-two elite colleges used to get their Overlap Committee together in a hotel conference room every year to fix prices student by student to make sure they didn’t compete with each other. The first Bush Administration pointed out that this was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act (and much else) and Harvard and Yale shamefacedly agreed. But MIT argued that colleges were special (much like baseball did in its 1922 Supreme Court victory over whether the Sherman Antitrust Act applied to the major leagues), and the new Clinton Administration agreed.

But the system seems to have evolved from colleges fixing prices face to face to colleges employing consulting firms to share data (and even employ numerous college admissions officers part time so everybody can keep an eye on everybody else). It’s all so much more hygienic.

Economic theory suggests that the ultimate goal of any monopolist would be “perfect price discrimination” in which each customer is charged the maximum they would possibly pay. To ensure they know exactly how much that is, student by student, colleges require parents of applicants to perform a financial colonoscopy upon themselves via the federal FAFSA form, accompanied by signed 1040 forms. And many require the even more intrusive CSS document.

Of course, colleges aren’t a monopoly, but they appear to be a pretty successful cartel, at least as far as I can tell from noticing their Augusta National-level landscaping budgets. It’s been decades since I’ve seen a college campus that looked as dried out as Pinehurst No. 2 at the U.S. Open last June.

This economic theory angle isn’t the perspective of the Forbes article, but it does make a good implicit point: of course you’d prefer to send your kid to the handful of super-rich schools with 11-digit endowments like Harvard and Stanford. They’re not more expensive than most of their competition, in fact they may well be cheaper for you because they are so flush with cash.

The article bemoans the practice of colleges giving out modest merit scholarships to smart affluent kids, although I have a hard time seeing that as a crisis.

Something that nobody has noticed except Tiger Parents abroad is that American colleges are still pretty good about treating American citizens better than foreigners, at least when it comes to financial aid. American colleges typically expect foreign applicants, of whatever means, to pay full list price, while discounting tuition for middle class American citizens.

Shhhh, don’t tell anybody, or American colleges will decide that’s Nativist and that social justice requires them to have to start accepting whatever fraudulent documentation Shanghai millionaires conjure up for their kids’ FAFSAs.

Right now, though, foreigners pay full freight, which is one reason for the booming business in Birth Tourism. Rich pregnant Shanghai ladies pay to hang out in El Monte, CA and give birth in an American hospital before going home. Birth Tourism advertisements list numerous pecuniary advantages of American citizenship. One reason is so in 18 years the Little Emperor can not only get into UC Berkeley as a Californian, but also not to have to pay any tuition either because the FAFSA sent in by the American citizen’s father’s accountants in Liechtenstein and legal staff in Luxembourg says the family makes $9,700 annually.

So, I probably shouldn’t have mentioned it because this kind of financial aid discrimination against Chinese millionaires’ children sounds racist to modern American ears.

 

49 Comments to "How College Financial Aid Really Works"

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  1. anon
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    “One reason is so in 18 years the Little Emperor can not only get into UC Berkeley as a Californian”

    I don’t think this is accurate. As I understand, the UCs have fairly stringent residency requirements. Shanghai millionaire can send his US citizen Little Emperor to a California boarding school and avoid that problem, I suppose.

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  2. Dan
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    Yes, but now with MOOCs, university tuition prices should collapse and these universities should even go out of business. Sort of like how Blockbuster went out of business with the rise of Netflix because you no longer had to actually pick up the movies.

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  3. anon
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    The Overlap Committee and the 568 Group that is its successor are doing things that would lead to some time in federal PMITA prison if it was Time Warner and Comcast

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  4. Bob
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    It was interesting, but not actionable. Give me something that can give our 3.8 GPA, 30 ACT, 12K EFC children an edge on getting a bigger piece of the cake.

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  5. Anon
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    “So, I probably shouldn’t have mentioned it because this kind of financial aid discrimination against Chinese millionaires’ children sounds racist to modern American ears.”

    No, China-bashing is allowed. American rules of ‘racism’ is all about who, whom.
    Look how America changed its policy on South Africa and Mandela(who was pro-terrorist before whites finally caved), but it’s perfectly okay for pundits of all stripes to wave the Israeli flag as the bodies of Gazan women and children pile up.

    Russia-bashing is allowed too. For some reason, we are told that we have more to fear from Russians not allowing ‘gay pride parade’ in Moscow than millions of illegal Mexicans crossing the southern border.

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  6. MOOCs will kill Faber College but they’ll never kill Stanford. And state schools will soldier on even if no students show up.

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  7. syon
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    “Yes, but now with MOOCs, university tuition prices should collapse and these universities should even go out of business. Sort of like how Blockbuster went out of business with the rise of Netflix because you no longer had to actually pick up the movies.”

    Dream on. The brand name value of MIT, CalTech, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, etc, carries a lot of weight.

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  8. Jim
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    That consortium of elite colleges also started replacing student loans with grants about 10 years ago. Before then, most students got a combo of grants from the university and student loans to cover the non-parental contribution to the tuition. I think Harvard started replacing the student loan portion with grants, and then the rest of the Ivies and other major universities followed suit. So now these schools have a nominal yearly tuition of around 50K, and will demand the parents pay a portion according to their ability to pay, with the rest being covered by the universities through direct grants. Poor students might just pay 0 or just a few thousands dollars per year if their parents are poor enough and they don’t have any debt after graduating.

    Like Steve explains, it seems to be a way of monopoly price discrimination. You’re able to charge a different price to each student. Nominal tuition prices used to be much lower, and everyone except for scholarship winners paid the same price, even the rich. Now the nominal price is set much higher so that the wealthy who can afford it are forced to pay.

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  9. Dan
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    I think that’s what Blockbuster execs were saying right before they went bust. Blockbuster had tremendous brand name value. Everyone had a Blockbuster card in the 90s.

    Also, a lot of those universities you listed are going MOOC themselves.

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  10. Superman
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    Dream on. The brand name value of MIT, CalTech, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, etc, carries a lot of weight.

    Yep, as long as employers are forbidden from giving IQ tests, college prestige rankings will have to suffice as a proxy.

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  11. Jon
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    All those schools you just mentioned are the ones running the MOOCs. Look

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  12. anonymous
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    As the UC budget tightens, the UC system is working hard to import foreign students who will pay big bucks. They’d probably love it if they could guarantee a student an H1-B and double the per foreign-student tuition:

    “University of California steps up out-of-state recruiting”, Alexei Koseff, Sacramento Bee, 11 Aug 2014:

    “Last spring, representatives from the University of California, Davis, made 20 trips to China to encourage admitted students to accept their offer to study in the United States. …

    …schools in the UC system increasingly are recruiting nonresident applicants, who likely will make up a fifth of all freshman for fall 2014.

    …international students who have brought in hundreds of millions of dollars for the university system in recent years. …

    …this is a win-win situation,” said Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management at UCLA

    …the move has raised concerns that Californians are being pushed out of the UC system.”

    UC worry about Californians? How quaint.

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  13. Alec
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    Dream on. The brand name value of MIT, CalTech, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, etc, carries a lot of weight.

    Probably true, with respect to “MIT, CalTech, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford”. The question is, how far does that “etc.” go. Personally, I would go balls-to-the-wall (if you will forgive the expression) to get my kids through one of those schools (excluding Columbia) and maybe a few others. If my kids don’t get into one of those then the next steps are a well regarded state school (in my case one of the top three or four University of California campuses) and then local/MOOC. The other alternatives just don’t seem to pencil out.

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  14. Renault
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    Yes, but now with MOOCs, university tuition prices should collapse and these universities should even go out of business. Sort of like how Blockbuster went out of business with the rise of Netflix because you no longer had to actually pick up the movies.

    @Dan

    Well, this is the spergiest comment of the night.

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  15. Big John
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  16. FredR
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    “Economic theory suggests that the ultimate goal of any monopolist would be “perfect price discrimination” in which each customer is charged the maximum they would possibly pay. To ensure they know exactly how much that is, student by student, colleges require parents of applicants to perform a financial colonoscopy upon themselves via the federal FAFSA form, accompanied by signed 1040 forms.”

    I once asked a group of PhD economics students why we allowed higher education institutions to practice perfect price discrimination. The answer they come up with is “total surplus is maximized under those conditions.”

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  17. How college financial aid really works | Reaction Times
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    […] Source: Steve Sailer […]

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  18. Anonymous
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    So, I probably shouldn’t have mentioned it because this kind of financial aid discrimination against Chinese millionaires’ children sounds racist to modern American ears.

    Every once in awhile, I have to remind people that it is still OK, in the US, to be “racist” towards Asians. They don’t even have a Council for La Raza, let alone an Al or a Jesse. Easy pickins…

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  19. Anonymous
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    Wouldn’t the US-born little emperor be liable to pay federal income tax, which is imposed on worldwide income? With FATCA rules, especially the draconian civil and criminal fines for unreported overseas assets, the kid could suddenly end up with negative net worth or even in jail.

    This is only the most obvious pitfall. In principle, the kid could be impacted by US government actions throughout his lifetime. A lot could happen over his lifetime. What if, say, the draft comes back, the US imposes sanctions on China or his citizenship creates problems for him in China?

    Besides, I wonder if the birth tourists are actually rich ladies. Chinese millionaires could get an EB-5 visa by investing $500,000 in the US economy–similar visas are available from Europe and Australia–and/or pay tuition without this loopy racket.

    My guess is that the birth tourism operators are targeting lower-to-middle class Chinese–the kind of people who use coyotes to cross the border from Mexico. As their clients probably don’t have very good legal counsel, I believe this adventure has a significant chance of going horribly wrong.

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  20. Hitch
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    https://archive.org/details/AlfredHitchcockLongInterview-FranoisTruffraut

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  21. Steve Sailer
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    But not when it comes to U. of California admissions rules …

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  22. Anonymous
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    Richard Dawkins has been tweeting some Sailer-esque things lately

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  23. Anonymous
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    Another tweet from Dawkins, who clearly has picked up on the simpleminded Who? Whom? manufactured outrage of the “useful idiots”

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  24. Anonymous
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    It’s pretty ridiculous that UCD, a public state university, is recruiting foreign students like that.

    The entire notion of a public state university recruiting foreign students is strange. A public state U is not supposed to even market its product at all. It’s mission is supposed to be to provide a quality higher education to state citizens.

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  25. anon
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    “it’s perfectly okay for pundits of all stripes to wave the Israeli flag as the bodies of Gazan women and children pile up.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/06/world/middleeast/civilian-or-not-new-fight-in-tallying-the-dead-from-the-gaza-conflict.html

    The Times analysis, looking at 1,431 names, shows that the population most likely to be militants, men ages 20 to 29, is also the most overrepresented in the death toll: They are 9 percent of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents, but 34 percent of those killed whose ages were provided. At the same time, women and children under 15, the least likely to be legitimate targets, were the most underrepresented, making up 71 percent of the population and 33 percent of the known-age casualties.

    But nah, you’re not an anti-Semite, randomly bringing in distortions about Gaza into a discussion of financial aid in colleges.

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  26. reiner Tor
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    OK, so best case (for Israel) only a mere half of the Gaza victims are civilians. Still an awful lot of civilian deaths, if you ask me.

    There could of course be other explanations. For ecample Israel might target young men indiscriminately (similarly to how the victims of the Srebrenica massacre had been men of military age) to reduce the enemy’s short term military potential. Possibly this demographic gets disproportionately victimized in any conflict for reasons not unrelated to their higher testosterone levels (less likely to flee danger, less perception of danger, etc.), even if they are fully innocent civilians. Finally, they might be the ones going out on shopping trips etc. during shellings, when it’s too dangerous for others to stay outside. (They are also more likely to volunteer for any such dangerous tasks.)

    But just to repeat, if the numbers need to be totally proportional, then divide the number of victims by two.

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  27. M_Young
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    “Yes, but now with MOOCs, university tuition prices should collapse and these universities should even go out of business. ”

    Dude, you have about 2 years reading ahead of you. There have been effective online education (in the sense of conveying information) programs for at least a decade and a half now.

    College isn’t about what you know, it is about who you meet.

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  28. reiner Tor
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    It’s funny how the NYT suddenly learns how statistics works in the case of Gaza victims and Gaza victims only. The only thing keeping me from wondering why they only apply such statistical insights when it helps the Jewish state is that it would be anti-Semitic.

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  29. DYSPEPSIA GENERATION » Blog Archive » How College Financial Aid Really Works
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    […] Steve Sailer pulls back the curtain. […]

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  30. Paul Mendez
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    MOOCs are the cold fusion of higher ed.

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  31. “Probably true, with respect to “MIT, CalTech, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford”. The question is, how far does that “etc.” go.”

    Of the next tier, the best for the “who you know” factor is probably Notre Dame. Back in the oppressive days of WASP country club exclusion, well-to-do Catholics formed their own professional networks through the Catholic universities, of which Notre Dame was foremost. ND was to Catholics what Harvard-Princeton-Yale was to the WASPs. And I think I did read not long ago that of the non-Ivy private universities, Notre Dame is near the top in average starting salaries and job placement.

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  32. Mr. Anon
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    I didn’t quite get the point you were trying to make, Steve. Is it your contention that the whole purpose of the college financial aid racket is to allow colleges to survey the parents’ financial information through their FAFSA forms (since the colleges are not – at least for now – permitted to simply read our income tax returns), so as to extract the most money from them that they can?

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  33. They run MOOCs as a PR gesture, knowing they don’t threaten their brand. Possibly they are targeting 2nd-tier universities.

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  34. IBC
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    For an interesting perspective on MOOCs read this:

    http://www.thenation.com/article/176036/inside-coursera-hype-machine?page=0,1

    I’ve looked at them and it seems like they’re mostly useful for previewing classes rather than actually getting ahead in school or professional development. Remember, you usually don’t get any credit, let alone an actual grade. I agree that they’re mostly PR, at least for now.

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  35. Whiskey
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    Hamas sites its rockets in schools, hospitals etc. Sensibly Israel puts its people first over the enemy civilians. Sort of like how Truman put US servicemen first over Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, wanting the war (and dead US servicemen) OVER as soon as possible.

    MOOCs from say, MIT or Stanford, if you get the certification, will kill State Schools and Faber. Leaving Ivies and MOOCs as the only ones standing.

    If you are disciplined enough to go through the MOOCs, you pay the cost only of certification for passing the exams, roughly $200 per course. At an average workload of say, five courses a semester that amounts to $1000 a semester or $2,000 per year. So for a cost of at most, $8,000 over four years (and maybe less — as MOOCs being virtual don’t suffer physical limitations that make enrollment in required courses for graduation/majors hard to get for students attending physically — which drags out degrees longer than would be the case otherwise, as students fight to get into limited class size courses); a student can graduate with far less cost than Faber or State U.

    Meanwhile, your degree says “Stanford.” Or “MIT.” True it is not the “real” MIT but it has more prestige, more employer validity than say, Faber or State U. MOOC students lose the social network power of actual, physical Harvard or Yale, but gain far lower costs.

    And one thing in consumer spending has been, convenience and lower costs beat everything else. Graduating with almost no debt vs. say, $100K or more? That’s an easy call.

    Of course, this also means that US students are in direct competition with the smartest, most disciplined Indian, Chinese, Pakistani, etc. students also taking MOOCs with a certification from Stanford, MIT etc. that they know the course work.

    Moocs lower costs dramatically, but also increase competition globally since there is no theoretical limit to the amount of smart Third World people with a modest amount of money that can attend them as there is with the real Harvard or MIT, or even State Us and Faber. Or Notre Dame, Alabama, etc. Those schools are destined to be merely the minor leagues of the NFL, similar to baseball’s minor leagues.

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  36. Mr. Olorin
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    Re: discrim against Chinese. They don’t need a Council for La Raza. They simply buckle down, compete, and excel. And at the end of the day, what is more despicable than people who do that? The whole point of globalizer economics is to remove merit and replace it with retail trend management and demographic engineering.

    I am being a bit disingenuous, of course. In 30-plus years in the Ed Biz I also saw a lot of corruption among Chinese (mostly in engineering), also Saudis (mostly in finance/econ). Actually had a few of those Han Helicopter parents try to bribe me in various ways for higher grades for their kids. They interacted with an obsequy that told me they despised me and thought I was a pushover.

    The blacks and Latinos (and women) tried shakedown/victimization. The Jews let you know that they ran certain things, or knew someone who did.

    And in all my years of teaching/doing research at Ivy League and Big Ten universities no white kid or parent ever tried to get me to change a grade, re-give a test, excuse an absence, get an inner line on grant or scholarship money, or anything else reeking of Third World corruption. They simply showed up, worked hard, took their tests, got their grades, and if they were disappointed, they asked how they could improve. In other words, they were the greatest possible barrier to higher education being converted from a meritocracy to a globalized profit-maximization scam. No wonder we got Affirmative Action.

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  37. Newdist
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    MR. Anon: Yes, of course. He’s been saying that for years (decades?).

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  38. FWIW
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    Are the top 20 colleges really maximizing their income? They could simply auction off admissions for 10% o 20% of their freshman class. Since the auction participants would only include parents who are already committed to spending $300,000 over 4 years — a lot could afford another million or so. It would take a lot of experimentation to optimize all aspects of this form of pricing — but at least it would be honest and transparent. As any sex worker knows, collecting up front is essential. Otherwise, people lose interest.

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  39. Anonymous
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    Isn’t Georgetown more prestigious than ND in terms of Catholic universities?

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  40. E.D
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    “But just to repeat, if the numbers need to be totally proportional, then divide the number of victims by two.”
    The U.S army in Iraq (e.g the Battle of Fallujah ) didn’t achieve better armed/unarmed ratio then the IDF .

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  41. Ryan
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    The one kid from my HS class that got into Harvard was a wealthy white guy who was able to get extra time on the SAT because his parents had his doctor write a note saying he had some kind of ADHD, even though he didn’t and didn’t take any medication. He was very bright and one of the top students in our class, and he scored very high with the extra time.

    I went to one of the “lesser Ivies”, and cheating was not uncommon among the white students, especially the athletes. A lot of the sports teams had their own frats that upperclassmen lived in, and they would keep a lot of the old tests that professors would recycle at the frats for other guys coming up to use. They didn’t cheat so much to get straight A’s as to get decent enough grades for jobs after graduation. The investment banks and other financial firms that recruited liked to recruit athletes, but they usually had a grade cutoff that recruits had to meet, and the athletes would cheat to be above the cutoff. In fairness to the athletes, they often had early morning workouts and afternoon practices, so they did have less time to study.

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  42. David
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    Dan,

    Gibbon wrote in the mid 1790′s, “It has indeed been observed, nor is the observation absurd, that excepting in experimental sciences, which demand a costly apparatus and a dexterous hand, the many valuable treatises, that have been published on every subject of learning, may now supersede the ancient mode of oral instruction. Were this principle true in its utmost latitude, I should only infer that the offices and salaries, which are become useless, ought without delay to be abolished.”

    MOOC’s are the new “many valuable treatises.”

    Interestingly, Jim Morrison made almost the same point, even “excepting experimental sciences” in a Howard Smith interview, although I can’t find the quote.

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  43. I don’t envy the humanities profs, who have to face more and more English-challenged nerdy Asians who don’t give a rip about Sophocles or Chaucer. Good luck transmitting our glorious culture to a dwindling audience.

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  44. That would be the honest approach, yes, but maintaining the pretense of highmindedness is essential to the brand, and to the profs&admins’ morale.

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  45. I once asked a group of PhD economics students why we allowed higher education institutions to practice perfect price discrimination. The answer they come up with is “total surplus is maximized under those conditions.”

    That’s correct, but those economists could also tell you that 100% of that surplus is captured by the seller (ie the college).

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  46. Jones
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    Most humanities departments stopped teaching “the great books” a while ago. Some colleges do still have “great books” programs though.

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  47. @Anonymous

    “Isn’t Georgetown more prestigious than ND in terms of Catholic universities?”

    At one point Georgetown had higher SAT scores, but I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. But anyway, Georgetown has never had the place in the heart of Catholics the way Notre Dame does. The much older Georgetown was formed to serve the small Catholic population of Maryland at the time, and over time Georgetown has developed a more secular humanist academic tradition in the spirit of its Jesuit founders. Notre Dame appealed more to the large numbers of Ellis Island Catholics that arrived in the 19th century, and is largely seen as being more true to its Catholic roots than Georgetown. And of course, Notre Dame’s legendary success in football struck a nerve with Catholics as well.

    Notre Dame thus has a much more loyal and active alumni base than Georgetown does, and a degree from there is probably more valuable for networking and such than one from Georgetown. Now, Georgetown is probably better for a career in politics, but that’s true regardless of religious affiliation.

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  48. Reciprocity
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    Steve, I agree with you completely in principle. The problem is we don’t live in a principled society any where any more. I think we need to come around to this fact, and milk it while the milking is good. It’s one thing to martyr oneself on principle when it’s just oneself but when one starts thinking about one’s children, one begins to see things differently. Why let the Chinese millionaires have an unfair advantage on your children or grandchildren? Of course the right thing in this case is to prevent them from gaining the unfair advantage to begin with, but you know that is not possible any more. So respond in kind. I say out cheat them. If some one infringes on your rights, infringe back. It’s every individual’s moral right to defend themselves in like kind.

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  49. Brutusale
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    Re: Catholic colleges. Georgetown accepts about 20% of its applicants. Boston College, Holy Cross and Notre Dame all accept about 30%. BC and The Cross have a sort of inferiority complex in that they’re excellent institutions but, given their location, are almost safety schools.

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