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No mention of the Common App? I've seen this pointed to for years as the primary driver of increased #'s of applications (and decreased acceptance rates) at universities across the board. You can fill out one application, tick 20 boxes, and you've just applied to 20 schools.

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Put in the line to make it explicit.

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I would also recommend looking at European colleges as an alternative. If you’re willing to learn (or already know) a European language, there’s plenty of excellent colleges in Western, Central and Northern Europe that are nearly free of charge and many are on par with MIT for STEM education. The exception is Ireland/UK that can charge more because they teach in English but everyone else only charges token tuition. Their 17 year old cohorts are also shrinking far more dramatically than American cohorts so I expect them to provide even more incentives for foreign students in the future.

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My father (retired professor at Smith) told me once his dream admission scheme was for Smith to admit hugely more students--let's say 3x--with an explicit and well advertised cut after freshman year. Hugely more signal, just like internship vs interviews. Mildly cold-blooded viewed from normie lenses but if you phrase it as giving the other people a chance they'd not get at all I see it as compassionate.

It's obviously flatly impossible as a one off--no one would sign up for this where if you fail out your life is functionally over--but if this was a common top-100 school norm, we'd see some form of repechage develop for the stragglers, and I think this could work very well. Curious for your opinion.

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It actually seems like you could totally do it as a one-off, if you could support the extra classes and students? Again, you only need so many students to get excited for it, and there are various places those students could then fall back. But in practice, no one does things like this, alas.

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That’s exactly how European college admissions work. One of my classes at the Czech Technical University had a 75% fail rate.

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You'd need don't kind of safeguard from repeat applicants crowding out next year's.... Although if college admission becomes mostly impossible for fresh graduates system wide that can heavy interesting knock on effects

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I wish more people had supported Flooding the Zone when I was in HS. My HS counseling department DIRECTLY argued against this as a tactic, and somewhere around 5 applications would start telling kids to stop applying to more places. Completely misaligned incentives (which technology may have reduced/fixed now) and I hope no HS counseling department is telling kids it is too much work for them to send all those transcripts out in 2024.

On Early Acceptance/"The second is if you are close enough between several candidates where you expect to be admitted that scholarships and final cost are the key factor, so you need to see everyone’s offer":

You have to carefully read the exact terms of the school's early acceptance programs, there are a range of policies from "you can only EA to our school, you must instantly accept it and cancel all other applications and we have a demonstrated history of withdrawing EA from people that waffle on this" to "EA is basically normal acceptance, but we let you apply early" and everything between. Check the exact rules.

As a potentially paranoid aside, DO NOT CHECK via calling the school and giving your name if you're doing so in such a way that would make you seem less than 100% crazy about that school. My take is more and more every touch you make (at least at fancy schools) is going into the decision matrix and an impertinent question that makes you seem less than fully interested in the school could be a ding.

I also think the college cost system where the state pays for most everyone fully upfront, and then maybe the loans get paid back eventually (in what seems to be a corrupt cost+plus pricing model) has to break in the next 30 years. Decent, but not flagship, state schools costing 40k-50k per year for 5 years is an INSANE outlay if they get you a normie job. No one would underwrite that loan, and the cost increases don't seem directed towards things that actually benefit students. Either the system snaps back and state governments force schools to spend less or I think smaller colleges/unis will eventually be able to meet the market demand of "a reasonably priced, in-person, loan free/reduced education".

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What state schools are you thinking of that cost that much now??

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Here's my thinking on that: "CoA" estimates are silly bullshit, and are off by at least 25% per my understanding (IIRC they use an "avg" cost for the credits which is fudged, and then wildly underestimate costs of books/food/housing.

Now, I would personally have this UMich burnt to the ground and, salted, and then have radioactive waste stored there in a southeast Michigan Yucca Mountain branch depository, but I hear most people will agree it's pretty good:

UMich reports 33k "cost of attendance" (in-state, before finaid). UMich is by far the best school in Michigan for undergrad, the 2nd best school is MSU with an argument (for very specific life plans) Mich Tech as 2nd (or 3rd).

MSU reports >31k, Michigan Tech 33k, Uni of Illinois 32k, Grand Valley 28k, Lake Superior State 28k, EMU 31k. Central Mich 27, Western Mich 29k.

Accepting that they are massively under-costing the CoA and UMich is def over 40k, then MSU/Mich Tech are over 40k as well. Grand Valley is... probably close. However, even if you don't accept my premise that they are underestimating costs by 30% (which I think they are), please consider this fallback position:

Lake Superior State costs 85% of UMich and 90% of MSU. EMU somehow costs as much as MSU? These prices make 0 sense from a cost-benefit direction. Both my parents have degrees from EMU so forgive me fam, but EMU has a TERRIBLE rep. It's basically a state run degree mill. Somehow it costs more than Western/Central (both schools with much better reputations). Something is rotten...

I'd also note that I looked into MSU's detailed breakdown and it seems to be based off "sophomore" credit prices, but of course it goes up 2k/year once you're a "junior" (which, for many people (if they are going off credit hours on your transcript (see note) means you're paying junior rates for 3 years if you enter with any decent level of AP credits).

note: IDK how they still do it, but I know that (oh lord) almost 20 years ago the internal system and (iirc) the prices did this. I could purchase restricted parking passes as a 1st year b/c the system had me as a sophomore on credits from AP and as a sophomore I was a junior.

So, overall the costs are at least somewhat off and I suggest substantially off once you account for books/fees (many classes have required online services now)/actual cost of living (i.e. you're going to sometimes eat off campus or spend money on clothing/travel/car).

EDIT: Also, note apart from undercalculating the actual cost of room/board/books/fees/tuition, there's also the cost of "doing college". A huge part of the value of college is club activities, trips, conferences, learning opportunities, study abroad, all of which cost more and none of which are included. I'd guess that being on a travel club sport team would cost 1.5k-2.5k per year. Huge learning experience, life lessons, fun, development/personal growth and incredibly worth it, but also another 2k/year they don't include. Stuff like this adds up and is why I think a school listing 32k/year has students actually spending 40k+/year to attend.

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Ok, I don’t really understand why we’d want to talk about total cost of attendance including costs of living that would be incurred independently of going to college. But that explains why your numbers were so striking.

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There’s no way they’re underestimating the costs of books, though. You don’t even have to buy the books and you just sell them back at a small loss if for some reason you decide to get them. And it’s a 3-digit number. I just looked at the current calculations for IU where I went and they seem very plausible. I’m sure many students spend more but I don’t really see how it’s the university’s fault if some students go out a lot.

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For me, and maybe people disagree, it's fair to include in the real total cost of attendance. If you don't go to college and get a job you'll do some of those things, sure, but you'll also scale your activities to your income (at least in theory... consumer credit card usage may disagree). Many college kids are handing interest bearing loans and told "use this to support your life in college, pay it back when you've got the fancy job" and then go onto make terrible decisions.

The thing I really don't like about this is you're basically asking them, for every single purchasing decision to weigh it over some long time horizon. It's just not something people are good at doing, especially when combined with the assumption that most people have that they're going to graduate and walk straight into a cool job that pays well forever.

At the same time, we want them to do some of this stuff b/c it's hugely important in them actually learning/becoming useful (i.e. you'll learn more running a collegiate club as a senior than in a semester of classes).

If you live on campus, buy used books/acquire them offline, do no clubs, do no off campus activities, have parent provided healthcare where your parents cover all health expenses/co-pays, it's a good CoA model. The less this is true the more you're in for 20-30% more per year. Which I have an issue with b/c they're advertising "low" cost of attendance that doesn't represent what people are actually spending.

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UVA in-state total cost of attendance is ~$50k/year for engineering: https://sfs.virginia.edu/financial-aid-new-applicants/financial-aid-basics/estimated-undergraduate-cost-attendance-2024-2025

Virginia Tech in-state total cost of attendance is $40k/year: https://finaid.vt.edu/undergraduate/coa.html

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How do you think it impacts the decision if someone is confident that they're going to go to graduate school? Does the undergraduate institution matter less?

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It might actually matter more, depending on the specifics. it really does matter which graduate school you go to, and that graduate school is going to care which undergrad you went to.

Note that there is an angle where there might be a university with a specific prominent individual professor or similar to give you that prestige and networking leg up into grad school without the university being otherwise super elite - plenty of flagship state schools will be top tier in a handful of specific specialities.

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I just want to point out, that when you have a contest where many self reported hard to check facts will determine the outcome. One should assume that most people are lying, or at the very least you are competiting with a non-trivial percentage of decitful bastards.

Given that, the optimal strategy is not to do all the extra curriculars, but to figure out which ones to say you did that will count but won't be checked. Did you go build houses in guatamala, is your essay about the loss of a brother, true, false, who cares. No one will check.

Addtionally, you should search your family tree for minority connection. If 23 and me says you are at least 1% something, that is your main thing, one drop rule motherfuckers. Also, always say you are gay/trans. It can't be checked, won't be revoked if you change your mind, and will give you wokemon points for affirmative action. Imagine saying my sons were straight white CIS males, whose parents only have incomes in the low 6-figures.

No we are Cubans, maybe one grandparent stayed there between fleeing Europe, then Castro. My kids identify as lesbian females, we are cuban lesbians, who aced the SAT/AP Math tests. Fuck all these people!

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This seems like a race to the bottom as well as a great way to feel terrible about oneself.

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It is a race to the bottom. This is why system design is important, trade-offs are real. If you let the virtue signalers design things, they will do it badly.

But honestly I always have a sense of pride from knowing which rules you have to follow, and which rules you can break. The ultimate social mastery is getting ahead by following the real rules of how the world actually works, rather than the story everyone else is telling themselves for signalling purposes.

Like the Pope doesn't believe in god, he just another narcasitic psychopath, who else climbs so high.

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Moving to a 'never' high school seems like a big mistake because of the negative network effects. There is likely an increased chance your kid ends up hooked on fentanyl, or just decides college is not for them because it isn't for any of their peers.

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I think Matt Yglesias nailed this the other day. Make students at elite schools study a lot harder, and several problems will be solved simultaneously.

Kids who know what it's like to spend four years at one of those schools, and who either can't hack it or don't want that kind of college experience, won't seek to enroll for signaling reasons. The campuses will drastically reduce their output of [waves hands] all the things that make the broader society dislike them. And employers will become much more confident that having a degree from one of those schools actually means what everyone is supposed to pretend that it means.

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Also my preffered way to do admissions is wide band testing. I like the idea of using merit, but making it fuzy enough that their is little incentive is waste time improving your position.

Schools are graded, A, B, C, D. There is a test, and the cut-off for A is the number of seats in the A Tranche, same with B, C & D. There can be a matching application after that, but the pool is fixed you 100% get into an A school. Maybe you can do a scholorship program with those who made A get a big discount going to B.

The great thing about wide-band testing, is that since there are like 50,000 seats in tier B. the SAT score band could be as wide as 1200-1400. Which means there is little point in studying or killing your self over your score. Unless you take a practice test and get a 1370, close enough that studying could make a difference.

Also price could be a good basis of compeition among schools with equal reputation.

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Apr 24·edited Apr 24

Zvi—thanks for this piece. I found it enormously entertaining and somewhat informative. When you cite Kevin Carey as "of The Atlantic" rather than as "a noted expert whom my audience should take more seriously than they take me, because he is as skeptical as I am of the higher education system, but unlike me has worked on understanding it for decades, writing well-received books and running institutions", it highlights the downsides of your approach. I genuinely enjoy your leveraging tweets and posts from prominent tech/Libertarians into first principles thinking, and I do learn from it. But note the stark difference with your AI posts, where you take expertise seriously and which I therefore find significantly more informative than your work on the economy, college, etc.

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That is fair - I actually had no idea Kevin Carey had those credentials or who he was - I found his presentation credible and called it a day.

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U of Toronto ~97k students, 43% admit rate

UBC ~ 72k students, 52% admit rate

McGill ~34k students, 46% admit rate

Many other factors affecting admit rates of course, but always thought it was elegant to make the most prestigious colleges in a country super large; increasing the supply on the margins decreases the "price" (ie the extent to which your childhood is eaten). Wonder if any Canadians could chime in about relative childhood eaten-ness there vs here?

Apropos of this: IIRC stanford recently tried to increase enrollment by 7k but local NIMBY county council didnt allow, due to overpopulation (transportation, housing) concerns. Seems very bad.

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University admissions work differently in Canada. In Canada, you apply to a particular program at a particular university (e.g. Mechanical Engineering at University of Toronto). You don't apply to the university as a whole. There are programs at the universities you mentioned that are easy to enter and ones that are very competitive.

In my case, I went to Queen's University, which doesn't seem very exclusive if you look at the acceptance rate for the university as a whole. However, I studied in their undergraduate business program, which is considered to be one of the two most prestigious in the country. The acceptance rate for the business program is somewhere from 5-10%, whereas the acceptance rate for Queen's University as a whole is >40%.

High school students who care about going to one of the competitive programs definitely have to work hard and choose the right extracurriculars, but I get the impression that the sacrifice is nowhere near as severe as it would be to try to get into an Ivy in the US.

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In many states in the US there is an opportunity to do Running Start / College in High School programs where the student can attend the nearby community college for both high school and college credit when they would be in grades 11 and 12. If the student has prepared for this and chooses courses that will transfer to the program and department they are interested in at the state university, the student can save up to 2 years of education time. The student may have to be quite accomplished to pull this off, as some of the flagship state universities are quite selective. If the student is planning on a STEM course of study they will have to have accelerated their math while in school as they must be ready for college level calculus no later than 11th grade.

But students who can do this route can cut their college costs roughly in half.

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I haven't had time to read through everything, but:

"an admissions system that persuades people to structure their whole lives around it is profoundly inhumane"

Is exactly correct, and the race to the bottom here is a Molochian trap that can be fixed by adjusting supply/demand. More colleges, more seats at the elite universities, more colleges that carry an 'elite' designation, more emphasis on status from major/field and achievement than from school, and generally pushing back on cronyism. You can also make adjustments on the demand-side by not forgiving student loans (!) and rewarding blue-collar work more visibly.

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Note on Texas 10% rule. For the top colleges (such as UT Austin) it is now 6%. And only up to 75% of their freshmen class. And you may/will be restricted in what major you can take. And they may track you into their CAP program which requires you to spend a year at a different UT school, take a math class higher than College Algebra, and get at least a 3.2 GPA there before coming back and still being limited in what major you pick (mostly restricted to a subset of College of Liberal Arts).

That's the problem when you subsidize (mandate?) demand.

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Apr 25·edited Apr 25

Income Sharing Agreements are much more economically efficient because the details of the ISAs are dependent on major. This gives very valuable information to the student. "Huh, an ISA isn't even available for my art history major. Better take out loans."!?

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This might be the best summary of the sordid realities of American college admissions that currently exists. Despite how depressing it is — millions of childhoods destroyed trying to win an opaque, brutal, zero-sum narrative-crafting pageant, all because simply relying on test scores like other countries do is politically unpalatable — reading this also filled me with a strange joy. The joy comes from knowing that the undergrad admissions machine could’ve easily destroyed my life *but didn’t*: even though I went directly against what the machine was looking for in almost every way, I’m now safely on the other end, and about as successful as I could’ve reasonably hoped. Of course I worry about my kids.

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