Thursday, June 23, 2011

Victory through Credentials

When a society begins to push up against its maximum economic output- the point where for every additional input you get a marginally declining output- people start fighting over resources.  In the age of the industrial revolution, this did not occur all that often because technology has always  been able to make the pie bigger- at least for people in the West.

But there has been some indications that the returns on technology have been decreasing.  In addition you have the issues of ever increasing population growth with its attendant side effects of peak oil, global warming, and food shortages.
In the past, the response to this crises was seen inflation in food and food producing lands.  This increase occurred even though the economies were using gold or silver coin.  Manufactured products generally did not increase their prices at the same rate, and (not surprisingly) labor became less expensive.
There another effect of this overpopulation crises; the elites would begin fighting over entitlements and positions.  When you look at the major revolts that occurred during these crises, you will often find it was elite infighting that was the trigger rather than mass peasant or urban trades uprisings.
One area where you would see the elite infighting was in the struggle for the available professional positions of the day.   Influence peddling, and buying position have always been popular.  But another method is through increased credentials.  If you are an administrator (or King) and you are trying to fill some sort of position, one obvious way to go about it is to take all the people with the highest level of qualification and then discard the rest.  This weeds down the pool of applicants and gives a ready and fair explanation to a large number of people why they were not selected:  less feelings hurt.
In today’s terms, if you are a local police chief, and you are getting thousands of applications for the 4 slots you have available, you can cut the pool drastically by requiring a Bachelor of Science degree.  That the police never needed this degree before and there is a very unclear correlation between an advanced degree and effective policing is very much beside the point.   Not only does it lower the application pool, but it does so in a way that at least on the face does not appear arbitrary.  It is also likely to choose candidates weighted toward the higher end of the social strata, and that may also be helpful.  Choosing the sons and daughters of the elite can bring political advantage.
But you say to yourself:  Those poor elites! They can no longer grab all the best  positions because they are the only ones with access to education!  LOL.  O.K. you probably would not say that.  Why wouldn’t you likely say that?  Because most people are at least in a fuzzy way aware that the wealthy have an advantage getting into the more prestigious institutions.
The first piece is an introductory setup.  It somewhat overstates the advantages of the prestigious institutions, but none-the-less an advantage is an advantage.  And if you can collect enough advantages together, pretty soon you have an irresistible force:  snowballs add up to avalanches.

Top Colleges, Largely for the Elite (NYT)

David Leonhardt, New York Times, 24 May 2011
The last four presidents of the United States each attended a highly selective college. All nine Supreme Court justices did, too, as did the chief executives of General Electric (Dartmouth), Goldman Sachs (Harvard), Wal-Mart (Georgia Tech), Exxon Mobil (Texas) and Google (Michigan).
Like it or not, these colleges have outsize influence on American society. So their admissions policies don’t matter just to high school seniors; they’re a matter of national interest.
For all of the other ways that top colleges had become diverse, their student bodies remained shockingly affluent. At the University of Michigan, more entering freshmen in 2003 came from families earning at least $200,000 a year than came from the entire bottom half of the income distribution. At some private colleges, the numbers were even more extreme.
[In a] Georgetown University study of the class of 2010 at the country’s 193 most selective colleges [of] entering freshmen, only 15 percent of students came from the bottom half of the income distribution. Sixty-seven percent came from the highest-earning fourth of the distribution. These statistics mean that on many campuses affluent students outnumber middle-class students.
“We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent,” Mr. Marx says. “Yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution.”

Public Schools that offer a wide range of options and electives to large group students probably offer the greatest overall competition to the privately schooled elite.  If all public schools were off top-notch caliber than the elites would have problems.  With the very large population base in public schools, it is likely that the elites would find themselves swamped by even the small fraction of truly brilliant students.

Of course if you have a demographic anomaly, such as the success of the extremely hard working Asian American population, you can simply used a biased assessment scheme to reduce their numbers.  I have no doubt that if the home-schoolers ever become a threat, they will find some way to stack the odds against them as well.
Given that extracurricular activities weigh very heavily in the admissions process for elite schools, the headline of the following account is not too surprising.

Public Schools Charge Kids for Basics, Frills

Stephanie Simon, Wall Street Journal, 25 May 2011
MEDINA, Ohio—Karen Dombi was thrilled when her three oldest children were picked for student government this year—not because she envisioned careers in politics, but because it was one of the few programs at their public high school that didn't charge kids to participate.
Here in Medina, the charges imposed on the Dombi family's four children include $75 in generic school fees, $118.50 for materials used in biology, physics and other academic courses, $263 for Advanced Placement exams and $3,990 to participate in cross-country, track and band. That's not counting the $2,716.08 the Dombis paid in property taxes specifically earmarked for the schools.
The proliferation of fees comes at a time when the cost of public education has been soaring. After adjusting for inflation, average spending per pupil has increased 44% over the past two decades, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Personnel costs—which amount to about 80% of expenses in many school districts—have driven some of the increase, along with increased costs for utilities and technology. The average salary for a public-school teacher nationally has jumped 26% since 2001, though that growth didn't quite keep pace with inflation.
At the same time, school revenue has plunged, mostly due to cutbacks in state funding. Squeezed by lower tax revenue and higher expenses for programs such as Medicaid, states have cut education funding by a collective $17 billion in the past two fiscal years, though some of that was backfilled by the federal stimulus.
Two Examples (of many provided):
Community Unit School District 200 – Wheaton, Ill.
Elementary school:
Registration fee -- $95
Technology fee -- $15
High school:
Registration fee -- $175
Locker fee -- $6
Music fee -- $10
Technology fee -- $40
Graduation fee -- $30
Blue Valley School District – Overland Park, Kansas
High school:
Learning resources fee -- $100
Technology supply fee -- $15
Activity programming fee -- $120

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