2020 has been, to put it lightly, a weird year. COVID-19 has upended almost all walks of life, not least of which is education. Right now, thousands of college students are waiting for their universities to tell them if they will be allowed back to campus this fall or if they will take classes online instead.
If you’re one of those students, don’t let your university make the decision for you. Take a gap year.
What is College?
College is an investment. Students pay an upfront cost (tuition) in hopes of a better life: to be richer, have a more rewarding job, marry someone from a higher social class, etc.
The value of college is:
- Signaling & exclusivity – the diploma
- Connections – a social network
- Actual learning – the subject matter
- Social environment – all of the benefits of adulthood with none of the responsibilities
Distance learning only hits #3 on that list. If you attend an elite school, you also get the signaling value of the degree (#1). This raises the question: Is solely learning subject matter worth the cost of college tuition? Is it possible that students would be better served unbundling their college experience and pursuing each of these items independently?
The Business of Higher Education
As a college student, you are the consumer of a product: the package of the four items above. Over the past several decades, universities have grown their total addressable market by offering a more and more attractive product. Tautologically, as they grow this market the average caliber of student decreases. So too does the signaling value; when more people have a degree, each degree is less valuable. To compensate, universities have ramped up their social offerings and invested in the student “experience” – facilities like fancy gyms and dorms, student clubs, and administrative bureaucracy. Throw in loans that are subsidized by the federal government and can’t be discharged even in bankruptcy, and you’re looking at huge inflation in the price of tuition.
Many would characterize this view of college as overly cynical.
What about learning for the sake of learning?
- I’m all for learning for the sake of learning. However, with an internet connection and a few books from your local public library, you can learn almost anything. The question at hand is not whether or not to learn, but about the value and the opportunity cost of spending four years of your life and thousands of dollars paying for a college diploma. Additionally, there is strong evidence that a majority of students don’t actually learn very much in college (or at least don’t retain knowledge).
The value of a college education is intangible and will serve you later in life as a framework for how to think about the world.
- The value of education itself may be intangible, but before spending thousands of dollars on anything it is wise to perform a cost-benefit analysis. This is an argument for lifelong learning; it does not apply to college itself.
If you don’t go to college you’ll irrevocably screw up your life. To get a good job, you need a college degree.
- Not necessarily. It depends on what type of work you want. Some blue collar jobs that don’t require a degree pay extremely well. It also depends on what your college major is. It should come as no surprise that not all majors are created equal. In tech, self-taught software developers have been able to get jobs for many years now. Top companies recognize this and are starting to offer more formal certifications that are affordable alternatives to college.
Nevertheless, I recognize the irony that the majority of people saying “You don’t need a college degree” hold a degree from a top university themselves. The takeaway here is that a college degree is largely a credential; the value of that degree has a high variance depending on your school and major.
Students are starting to wake up to this reality. Harvard can get away with charging full tuition for its online classes because…it’s Harvard. But the majority of schools are in for a rude awakening when they realize that students were paying for the social environment and aren’t willing to, in the words of Good Will Hunting, “Waste $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.”
Alex Danco argues that positional scarcity will actually increase the impact of universities. Like a peacock’s tail, the uselessness of a degree and its high opportunity cost is a feature, not a bug. This argument works for top universities. But less prestigious university incumbents face a serious challenge from winner-take-all internet competition for the first time. Harvard’s brand will grow stronger. At the same time, “unbundled education” – some combination of MOOCs, work experience, and a social network – will increasingly be seen as a viable alternative to a liberal arts degree from the average institution.
What to Do Now
If you’re a current college student, drop out for at least the next year. It can feel overwhelming, but is actually incredibly easy. There’s no declaration that you have to make to the world; you generally just need to fill out a Leave of Absence form and are welcome back anytime in the next several years (though eventually the credits for the classes you’ve taken do expire).
Easier than this, and you won't go bankrupt from student loans
Take some community college courses, work, travel (in a COVID-responsible way…maybe road trips only). This is a unique opportunity to get off of the well-trodden path and far preferable to sitting in front of a computer in your parents’ house for a year. If you’re attending an Ivy or other top school, the case for this is even stronger. Once you get into one of these schools, you’re in the club and have a huge safety net. Best case scenario, you start a business and no longer need Harvard, à la Zuckerberg or Gates. Worst case scenario, you graduate broke at 23 (with some great stories), rather than broke at 22 (sans stories).
Six years ago, I left college for a semester. It was one of the best decisions of my life. I interned at an investment bank and realized that I didn’t want to work in finance. I spent a month backpacking around Australia and New Zealand. I did a lot of soul-searching.
I learned more than I would have in a semester at school. Upon returning to college, I approached my classes with more intensity and a greater appreciation for the social enviornment. If I were king for a day, I’d change the current university system in the US such that you are required to take two years off between high school and college. Engage in service (the Peace Corps model), join the military (the Israeli model), learn how to sell (the Mormon model), travel, work, gain some life experience before commencing your university studies. If more people did this, it would improve the college experience for all by increasing the maturity level of the average college student and intellectual diversity on campus.
What about grad school?
If you want to go to grad school, current circumstances actually present an interesting opportunity. Because many universities have moved online, if you find the right program at the right price, you may be able to get a degree without quitting your job.
However, make sure that you’re not just going to grad school as a form of procrastination. Watching people trying to navigate early adulthood, I’ve seen many acquaintances in a career crisis default to “more school”, without recognizing the opportunity cost of tuition, lost income, and foregone life experience.
A Rant on MBAs
I’ve been blown away by the number of my LinkedIn contacts who have changed their headline to MBA Candidate at [Harvard / Wharton / etc.] in the past few weeks. They are paying $500,000+ upfront cost (tuition + two years’ lost income) to take online classes. But this defeats the purpose; being an MBA student is essentially paying to have a two year networking party. The hardest part of an MBA program is getting in.
When I was at Wharton as an undergrad, I saw that MBA students’ experience was like being in college, except they had money to spend and grades didn’t matter (due to a grade non-disclosure policy for MBAs). Because of this grade non-disclosure, MBA classes were significantly easier than their undergraduate counterparts. Many classes had an undergraduate section and an MBA section – the same material taught by the same professor. After the midterm and final, the professor would post the median test score and standard distribution in order to establish the grading curve. The median score for the MBA section was consistently 1.5-2 standard deviations below the undergrad median.
The value of an MBA is made up almost entirely of the signaling and the social network provided by attending an elite program. Whether or not to actually get an MBA is a subject for another time (short answer: not worth it unless you’re an investment banker making $250,000 and want to be making $400,000 in Private Equity). However, if you’re dead set on getting an MBA, put off your enrollment until you can take full advantage of the benefits in person.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a sense that time is running out. When I was in college, I felt like I only had a few years to make an impact on the world. Now that I’m 27, and my early 20s have turned into my late 20s, this sense of urgency has only accelerated.
I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul. At least that’s what I tell myself. But life is comprised of both decisions that you make and other things that…just happen to you. The more I go through life, the more I realize that what happens to you has a greater impact than the decisions that you make. All we can try to do is shift the relative weights of that equation a little bit.
As a kid, I felt that the future was full of infinite possibilities. I had a million things to learn, books to read, places to travel, and experiences to rack up. I felt like I could be anything I wanted – a theoretical physicist, a musician, an athlete – if only I would dedicate myself to one pursuit.
I still feel like most of my life is ahead of me. But with each day that goes by, the universe of options that I have is quickly shrinking. Every day I decide to continue down my current path, countless other doors are closed off to me.
I started boxing last year. I really love it; it’s the first time I’ve felt dedicated to a sport since I played football in high school. But I will never be an elite boxer. That door has already closed. My athletic peak will probably occur in the next 5 years, if it hasn’t already. I could choose to train as hard as I could at boxing and devote myself to the sport, but even so, my ceiling would be a few amateur bouts. And the opportunity cost of going down that path is high.
You can’t have it all. Life is a series of tradeoffs. That truth, while simple, is hard to accept. It’s difficult to escape the feeling that your 20s is just a series of doors closing to you. Most people don’t even realize that those doors exist; their lives are lived by default. I wonder how much I fall into that camp. How much have I missed out on because I skated by on raw intelligence and didn’t challenge myself for the majority of my life?
When I was 10 years old, I thought that at this point in my life I’d be a pro athlete or a paleontologist. When I was 15, I thought that I’d be running a non-profit in Africa. When I was 20, I thought that I’d be a successful startup founder.
Now I fear that I’m not living up to my potential. By not diving deep into any one area, I’ve had an amazing breadth of experiences, but also worry that I’ve fallen victim to the Optionality Trap. Did I work hard enough over the past 10 years? Did I study the right things? Did I make the right choices?
There is so much I want to learn, experience, and accomplish in life. Despite my best efforts, I’ll only ever do a fraction of those. Life is short and I don’t have the time to do it all. I’m not sure if this feeling goes away with time, or if you just learn to live with it.
The Four Burners Theory
James Clear talks about the Four Burners Theory: there are tradeoffs among the different areas of your life. If your life is represented as a stove, every time you decide to invest time in one of the four burners – family, friends, health, and work – you necessarily lower the heat on your other burners. To be successful, you have to cut off one of your burners. To perform at an elite level, you need to cut off two.
I’ve felt this acutely. I’m trying to:
- Perform well at work
- Get a coffee roasting business off of the ground
- Read and write regularly
- Be a good boyfriend, son, and brother
- Work out hard and reach my athletic potential
- Improve my technical skillset – I’m currently working on a few Coursera classes and have applied for a Masters program in Computer Science
Many days, I feel like I’m barely treading water. By trying to do everything, I excel at nothing.
How to combat this? For me, it’s a combination of:
- Introducing constraints
- Short-term immersion; long-term balance
I am not entirely happy with the final draft of this blog post. If I had worked on it for a few more hours, it would be better. But is the marginal benefit worth the marginal cost? (For those who don’t think in economic terms: Is the juice worth the squeeze?)
I’ve always been a procrastinator. I file an extension for my tax return every year. I’ve written every paper I was assigned in school the night before it was due. So I have tangibly experienced two truths:
- Work will fill the time allotted for it (Parkinson’s Law).
- “Done” is always better than “perfect…but not yet launched”.
I think often of the story of the clay pots, from the book Art & Fear.
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
By time-boxing tasks and letting go of the pursuit of perfection, I can produce both a greater quantity and quality of work.
The overarching constraint in life is time. The clock is ticking: we will all die. Without this constraint, we wouldn’t have the motivation to do anything. Paradoxically, embracing constraints can lead to better long-term results.
Short-term Immersion; Long-term Balance
I’ve found that intense learning over short periods of time is superior to casual learning over longer periods of time. I took Spanish from second grade through college, but I only improved dramatically when I studied abroad for a semester in Buenos Aires. Those first few weeks in Argentina, I struggled, but by pushing through the pain period I was able to become functionally fluent. Since then, my Spanish abilities have declined, but I can reactivate my Spanish when necessary.
Likewise, to make substantial progress in any area of my life I need to get into a flow state, a period of obsession where all I’m thinking about is this blog or Cadena Coffee. Today, I worked on this blog post and spent time with family. I didn’t make any progress in my health or work-related goals. That’s okay.
By diving deep and solely focusing on 1-2 burners for a burst of a week, month, or quarter, I can make drastic progress in those areas – progress that I wouldn’t be able to make in the same number of hours spread out over a period of time. So while my life may not have balance at any single point in time, over the long-run I can make progress in all of the areas that I care about.
It’s been about two months since my last post. That’s reflective of a strange reality – at least for me, March felt like a year while April and May felt like a week.
Nobody knows what’s going on. Some of the best data has come from *checks notes* Kevin Systrom, Instagram co-founder. Slate Star Codex has turned to satire.
Remember when we all thought that the key to escaping Coronavirus was washing our hands and not touching our faces? ’Twas a simpler time, back when everyone outside of a hospital was talking about Coronavirus, not COVID-19.
Empire State of Mind
In the past two months, the public health crisis in New York has gone from a state of foreboding, to bad, to strangely…fine?
A few weeks ago, ER doctors at local hospitals were talking through the ethics of triage. Hospital employees were sneaking in PPE due to shortages, yet were threatened with disciplinary action (including termination) if they went forward to the media. Health care workers who were nearly certain they had contracted COVID could not get a test.
But now, things have largely stabilized. Antibody tests suggest that many more New Yorkers have had COVID than we initially thought (though we’re now not sure how much we can trust the tests’ accuracy). Regardless, hospitals are no longer overwhelmed.
Where I live in Chinatown the streets are empty. The city is much quieter, but at the same time the emptiness makes it feel more dangerous.
The days have all blended together. On work calls, people forget what day it is. The men are quarantine chic: beards combined with hair that is either way too short or too long. It’s the era of buzz cuts and man buns.
Working at a health insurance company right now feels a little bit like arguing about what music the band should play as the Titanic sinks. Work-life balance has disappeared, at least for those of us still lucky enough to have jobs. We’re suffering from Zoom fatigue. We’re going to see a lot of burnout in the next few months.
When I go outside, people in the city seem to be on the same page. We give each other a wide berth in the streets. Two months ago, only a few people wore masks. Now, everyone does.
I’ve settled into a tenuous post-apocalyptic, yet civilized, routine. Ride Citi Bikes to Brooklyn. Grab a to-go beer from the brewery while dressed like a bank robber. Sit in the park, enjoying the sun while avoiding other people.
Walk on the Wild Side
In my personal experience and in the city more broadly, COVID has highlighted the disparity between the haves and the have-nots. This reality has manifested itself both in the public health crisis and in the interrelated economic crisis.
With regards to health, the crisis has disproportionately affected lower-income individuals, who don’t have the privilege of working from home. Then Elmhurst Hospital in Queens becomes a war zone, while NYU Langone is largely fine.
We lionize “essential workers” in the same way that we honor the military. Your delivery driver doesn’t want to be a hero. The 18-year-old that we send off to fight for oil overseas isn’t a hero. We call them heroes in an act of cognitive dissonance, to feel less guilty about an inherently unequal societal and economic structure. I’m an avowed capitalist. Yet the current situation has made me feel like a resident of Omelas.
The rich have fled the city, leaving only the hardcore New Yorkers or those without the means to leave. Long Island beaches are closing to NYC residents, making the “Locals Only” t-shirts more than a joke.
We’re starting to enter the next phase of this crisis. People are still cheering for the essential workers at 7pm, but have also started to recognize these vast disparities. Some are picking up assets on sale while others would just be happy to have a job.
We’re all in this together…but some people are a lot more “in this” than others.
Zooming out, big companies are weathering this storm much better than small ones. Big companies have greater access to capital, bargaining power, and/or enough cash reserves to ride this out. Unless the government steps in much more than they have already, we’re going to see the local mom-and-pop shops go out of business around the country (especially in areas with high rents) and be replaced by branches of Chase Bank and Starbucks. PPP loans can only provide a few months of runway.
Summer in the City
What is the endgame here? It’s not clear to me what the long-term plan is. Shutdowns were never supposed to be more than a way to buy time, to ease the strain on the healthcare system. We haven’t implemented any of the playbook.
There’s an interesting paradigm shift in which the Silicon Valley intelligentsia who were warning of COVID’s spread and clamoring for shutdowns back in February and March are now saying that we will destroy people’s lives if we don’t open up the economy.
But when we open back up, how do we prevent another shutdown in a few months? There are a few ways this could play out.
- We emulate Hong Kong and Singapore to crush the virus (potentially also squashing civil liberties).
- We put up with rolling shutdowns over the next few years as we wait for a vaccine. The current status quo lasts much longer than people think it will.
- We put our heads in the sand and hope that the virus magically disappears. Millions die before we reach herd immunity.
- We were all wrong about how dangerous and prevalent this virus actually is, and we’re going to recover rapidly.
Option 1 seems politically unviable in the U.S. Perhaps with a much more deadly disease, but not with this one.
Option 2 is the path that we’re currently headed down. But is it sustainable? With paychecks gone and evictions coming in a few months, how long until people start rioting? The marches on state capitols has been a bit of a joke, but they seem like harbinger of unrest to come. People are thinking about buying ammo.
Option 3 is self-explanatory. It’s Option 2 with no shutdown actions. Additionally, there is evidence of potential longer-term adverse effects for those who contracted COVID.
Option 4 would be great, but is unsupported by the data. Medically, there hasn’t yet been a definitive answer about the number of asymptomatic cases. This may be our closest guess. Economically, we are in a race to increase consumer spending enough to save businesses and get workers re-hired. However, data out of the U.S. and China don’t paint a rosy picture on that front. I suspect most people will be hesitant to attend a crowded concert or travel through a busy airport, even after the lockdowns end.
But based on the number of people sitting in parks (at a respectable distance from one another), I don’t buy the doom and gloom about the long-term end of public gatherings. We are social creatures, so while everything carries a huge sense of weight right now, it’s important to keep in mind that this has all happened before.
The best posts that I read this week. Given what’s going on in the world, all are SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19/Coronavirus-related.
In my last post, I referenced a bar that has turned into a general store. I walked by it this week and snapped a photo.
It’s a cool concept. But it seems like there are a lot of people hanging around outside of it, which defeats the purpose of social distancing.
In the past week, New York City has become the global epicenter of the fight against Coronavirus. I’ve never experienced the city and the world changing so quickly. The days feel like months and the weeks feel like years.
This is now our best-case scenario. A far scarier and perhaps more likely reality is that the initial shutdown and quarantines in the West are inadequate, leading to needless deaths in addition to a protracted recession. John Hempton minces no words.
I regard the current course of English speaking democracies (other than New Zealand) as mass murder by the political elite. I think history will regard it that way too.
We’re still in the early days of this crisis. Let’s dig in.
Mood in Manhattan
New York has been eerie lately. When I walk outside, it feels like I’m in the movie I Am Legend. Almost all businesses are boarded up. While restaurants can still offer takeout and delivery, most have shuttered entirely, leaving behind handwritten signs on the doors saying they will be closed until further notice. I worry for the small businesses that will crumble due to this pandemic. One small bright spot is a local bar that has reinvented itself as a general store selling soap, toilet paper, and other essentials.
On calls with family and friends, when leaving grocery stores and delis, and even at the end of work meetings, “Stay safe” has replaced “Goodbye”. But we’re experiencing nothing compared to what is going on at the front lines.
The front lines is an apt analogy; it feels like we’re at war. NYU Medical School is graduating students early so that they can aid the fight against COVID-19. A Navy hospital ship has been dispatched to the city. The Army Corps of Engineers is building temporary hospitals. The American colossus is awakening. Perhaps our fear will save us.
How long has the virus been here? Hospital reports of flu-like illnesses began climbing weeks ago. Testing capabilities have only recently ramped up, but they have ramped quickly. People we know have started testing positive; this disease is no longer an abstraction. Any of us could be next.
I’m torn as to whether or not Governor Cuomo is doing a good job. My emotional side sees that he is saying the right things, has put aside political games, and is demonstrating strong leadership. At the same time, I see graphs like the below and think that if he had acted earlier in shutting down the state, we wouldn’t need to surrender to the virus.
I now understand why the Romans nominated a dictator in times of crisis. I wish that our politicians had the same sense of duty, rather than prioritizing their investment portfolios. I wish that I could pay my taxes directly to Bill Gates, instead of the government.
In addition to the public health crisis, the economic sky has come down. The stock market dropped 25% in a 10-day period. Unemployment claims are expected to jump by an order of magnitude week-over-week. Tax Day – Tax Day! – has been pushed back.
There are rumblings that the medicine is worse than the disease. But we must stay the course; the worst possible action to take would be the epidemic yoyo.
I wonder if this pandemic will lead to a de-urbanization movement. What is the point of living in New York and paying the high rent if you can’t experience any of the benefits? All of the restaurants, bars, shows, and museums have shut down. When we are all living our lives online, why live it from a shoebox-sized apartment?
- What is the true denominator of cases? There is some evidence that many who test positive are asymptomatic.
- I’d like to see a cohort analysis through time. Do those people develop symptoms later on?
- What is the false positive (and false negative) rate?
- Of course, this doesn’t matter right now with regards to the systemic risk of overwhelming our healthcare resources. But the more data we have, the better the modeling we can do, which directly translates to better decisions made to combat this crisis.
- How will information be shared in crises of the future?
- There is a need to share medical knowledge and best practices regarding COVID treatment at a much quicker rate than peer review allows. Right now, social media is serving this role, but in the future a company will be built around this.
- Some of the highest-level discussion about Coronavirus is taking place in the COVID19 subreddit and on Slate Star Codex.
- Do other countries have the political will to recreate the suppression approach that was so successful in South Korea and Taiwan?
- Would this require a military takeover in the U.S.? At what point would people welcome this?
- Bureaucracies like the FDA and hospitals work well under normal circumstances. How can we improve them in order to help people in a crisis?
How will the global order be reshaped by this crisis? Will China emerge stronger? Will America degenerate on its own?
- What is going on with Japan? Are its numbers really as good as the country claims, solely due to a courteous, compliant, and conformist population?
Which drugs actually help? What non-obvious solutions to this problem should we consider? Should we use more copper in public spaces?
Jerry Seinfeld voice: What’s the deal with masks?
- I’ve had longstanding doubts about the viability of the on-demand delivery industry. Is this finally the end of VCs subsidizing our meals?
Things will get worse before they get better. It’s going to be a tough for a while.
All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.