Finding a better signal

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Forgive me as I quote myself:

Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education argues that employers value college degrees not because college imparts skills and knowledge, but because a degree is a good signal that someone has a pretty high IQ, is conscientious, and mostly conforms to social norms.

Simply put: going to college helps you get a job not because of what you learn, but because it tells employers about who you are.

The thing is, a college degree is a pretty good signal. It’s still true that those with college degrees probably have the IQ / conscientious mix employers look for.

So folks like me and Bryan Caplan who want to minimize the role of education need to help develop a better signal. If not a college degree, what tool can white-collar employers use to find good employees? 

One big thing is actual work experience. The more experience you have, the less your degree matters. So we should be making it easier to get white collar jobs. I just wrote a tweetstorm that suggests some concrete policies.  

I want to flesh out one of the ideas a bit more: have academics study the question. 

As far as I know, there’s lots of research on college as signaling, and not much on my questions. But there should be. Academics should be studying it, and then working with local firms to test and refine their theories. The more research and real-world testing we have, the easier it will be to move away from a college-degree as a useful signal. 

Basically I want academics to figure out how to make themselves less relevant!

It’s the white supremacy, stupid!

George Floyd’s death moved police brutality and mass incarceration beyond liberal activists and made them issues for all Americans. The riots and violence that ensued also highlighted, albeit in a more muted fashion, the everyday violence faced by African-Americans. Here’s Andrew Sullivan noting the disparate outrage that police violence generates:

 African-Americans are being gunned down in America vastly out of proportion to their numbers in the population as a whole. We’ve heard this truth before, of course, but usually when talking of police shootings…But the disproportion for African-Americans killed by civilian shootings is almost twice as skewed as that for those killed by cops. And the scale of it is on an entirely different level. If you believe that black lives matter, where is the outrage about that 7,484 [Black people killed by civilians]?

A murder is a murder. A grieving mother and family is a grieving mother and family, regardless of who the killer is. And when the likelihood of an African-American being killed by a civilian is almost thirty times the likelihood of being killed by a cop, it seems to me perverse that almost all the attention is on the police.

It is no accident that the killing of George Floyd prompted a massive outpouring of protest while no such national movement emerged in response to, say, the killing of a one-year-old child in Brooklyn. Black lives matter, it seems. But some black lives matter more than others — depending entirely on who took them.

Although other writers have echoed Sullivan’s complaint, I haven’t seen anyone try to explain why there’s so much outrage for one type of murder but not another. Why isn’t there some theory for the American indifference to blacks murdering other blacks in large numbers?

For police brutality and mass incarceration we can at least point to the legacy of slavery, white supremacy, institutional racism, etc. But the 7,000-plus “normal” murders of African-Americans don’t have this sort of analytical backing. They just happen without much notice.

Put another way: black Americans suffer from both over-policing and under-policing. The former occasionally leads to tragedies like George Floyd. The latter routinely leads to tragedies like Travis Nagdy. The former leads to nationwide protests and is backed by overarching theories of American society. The latter leads to very few, if any, protests and no grand theories. But again: why this discrepancy?

I think there are a couple things going on. The first relates to why some issues become national concerns. From perusing the research, I believe you need a combination of sustained interest group pressure over many years plus support from some subset of elites–the media, academics, cultural elites, etc.

For whatever reasons, liberals activists don’t get excited about ordinary crime, and so they don’t protest it. For probably similar reasons, mostly liberal academics don’t seem to study it much. And the mostly liberal cultural elite don’t experience much crime and thus don’t think about it.

Conservatives on the other hand, don’t get excited about bad things that happen to black people. So our activists definitely don’t agitate about it. The five conservative academics that exist just study tax policy, and there are no conservatives among the cultural elite. So there’s ultimately no mechanism for non-police inflicted violence to filter up to politicians and policy makers.

The second reason for the disparate outrage relates to…America’s legacy of slavery, white supremacy and racism! Yes, really. Historically, America has had no problem with black people experiencing violence, whether it was inflicted by the state or citizens.

We’ve since improved on that stance. Now we’re at the point where state violence is roundly condemned. But I’m not surprised the focus has been on the smaller problem, or that America still mostly ignores thousands of black people who get killed every year.

I offer this hypothesis as a conservative who finds the constant invocation of white supremacy and racism tiresome. Racism exists and we on the right should offer solutions to it. But the left is too quick to analyze every single issue through the race lens, often leading to self-parody. That said…if you’re looking to understand why no one seems to care when black people get shot, racism in some form is probably a part of the explanation.

The solution to liberal overuse of the race framework isn’t to ignore it or complain about it, but to use it better than they do. It’s racist to ignore the general black murder rate in favor of the much fewer killings by police, and we shouldn’t be afraid of saying so. Pro-cop can also be pro-black, and a historically law-and-order coalition should make that case.

Bloomberg reporter Donald Moore recently lamented: “A significant portion of the U.S. lives in legitimate fear of themselves or someone they know being murdered or maimed by gunfire, and it’s kind of just…tolerated? I don’t even know the right word in this instance.”

Well I have the right words. They’re white supremacy and racism. That’s why it’s tolerated.

Which brothers and sisters?

I don’t exactly know why, but we noticed the police started stopping gang members. Stopping them in the park and on street corners. We noticed more patrolling by cops in our neighborhood. It was a welcome relief…I don’t know if there was pressure at City Hall or the police department just decided to do something about the crime. But we and the overwhelming majority of decent people in our neighborhood didn’t care “why.” We didn’t really care about “mass incarceration.” We applauded the incarceration of the people who had been victimizing and terrorizing us.

What Black Neighborhoods Want – Steve Bellow

DeCruz’s ‘Big Brown Army’ podcast just hosted Joash Thomas to discuss racism in American Christianity and politics. I’ve written on why and how conservatives can improve their standing with black Americans, and so I agreed with many of the general themes in the episode.

At one point (forgot to note when), DeCruz said something like: “I need to listen to my black brothers and sisters in Christ [when they talk about police brutality or racism].”

While I get the sentiment, my question is…which brothers and sisters? Black people–like all people–don’t agree on everything.

Some black folks view police brutality and incarceration rates as the issue to be solved. And some black folks have different priorities. As suggested by Steve Bellow’s quote above, some black Americans may be fine with even more incarceration. Or at least they’re more circumspect about policing and crime than CNN might lead you to believe.

Beyond the crime issue, since the end of the Civil War black Americans have debated amongst themselves whether racism or socioeconomics should be prioritized. Some reasonably prioritize racism while others–just as reasonably–prefer to focus on jobs.

I’m not trying to settle this debate, but to highlight that the well-intended “listen to my black brothers and sisters” in practice means you listen to some siblings and ignore others.

These sorts of debates inevitably end up ignoring large swaths of black America. Specifically, the black Americans who want more cops and policing in their neighborhoods, and those that don’t really care about privilege or intersectionality.

I get that as Americans we almost have no choice but to crudely speak of “black America.” We should try to avoid that instinct.

Instead we should try to make Jane Coaston’s dream a reality:

Marriage makes the grind worth it

I want to expand on this tweet from Justin Murphy:

While Justin’s analysis is true, here’s another side of the story. I’m probably biased because I know so many ultra-Type A personalities in the SF Bay Area..but I’ve seen people not marrying until they meet someone with their own degree of perfection. The partner has to be uber-educated, ambitious, have a sexy career, and complete 5 triathlons before lunch every day.

This Scott Stanley post quotes some research suggesting my observation is a trend (emphasis added):

Eli Finkel and colleagues have described the changing standards that guide our search for mates: “Throughout American history, the fundamental purpose of marriage has shifted from (a) helping spouses meet their basic economic and political needs to (b) helping them meet their intimacy and passion needs to (c) helping them meet their autonomy and personal-growth needs.”[iii] Finkel and his coauthors argue that this expectation leads to average marriages being less happy while a small number of marriages that can satisfy the expectations for personal fulfillment may be happier than the “best marriages in earlier eras.”

Now I totally get the desire to marry someone who meets your “autonomy and personal-growth needs.” And I’m lucky my wife and I do that for each other. All else being equal, it’s nice to have that.

But there are a couple of problems with how this idea plays out in practice. One is that many people often take it too far. They try to optimize for criteria 3 when they should be trying to–as Justin wants to do for hotness–satisfice it. As long as a potential partner is somewhat supportive of your personal growth and autonomy, she’s probably good enough on that criteria.

But the bigger issue is that optimizing on autonomy/growth leads to, I think, neglecting the mundane, day-to-day parts of marriage (how I interpret Finkel’s “basic economic and political needs”). At some point you’ll get uglier and less athletic. You’ll also hopefully realize your career really isn’t that important. But even after all those realizations, you and your spouse will need to plan your weekly schedule. That’s not going to change.

Daily life can be a drag sometimes. You may end up hating your job. You won’t want to clean the house or wake up to put the blanket on your screaming toddler. It’s marriage that makes it better. It’s marriage that makes something as necessary as planning your schedule worth it.

Arrange relationships, not marriages

So at the end of my last post, I said that although 3 years ago I was gung-ho about arranging marriages, I’m now more hesitant. This post goes into why.

For starters, and to get a bit personal, my parents had one of the worst arranged marriages in history. They separated and divorced when I was very young. A significant fraction of my childhood memories are filled with their marital strife. Trust me when I say it was some ugly stuff.

Yes, anecdotes aren’t data. And the data we have suggest that arranged marriages “succeed” (i.e. divorce less) more than the usual fall-in-love-first marriages.

But then again…there’s no real data on what fraction of traditional arranged marriages are happy and thriving. Especially if the couple is from a culture that ostracizes divorce, we may never know. Again based on anecdata within my extended family, I think many South Asian arranged marriages are not what most would call “good.”

As an aside, it wasn’t until college I got over my discomfort at telling other Desis that my parents were divorced. I had no problem telling white people because, well, all white people get divorced. It’s really not a big deal among the whites. Now, I’m at peace with my it. I even wear a ‘My parents are divorced’ shirt when I go to Indian functions. But I digress.

Anyway…even in my parents generation, people weren’t necessarily “told” who to marry. I believe it was presented as: “Here’s someone we think is a good match for you.” My parent met several times before getting engaged.

There was of course implicit pressure to agree to the proposal. But at least in theory they could have said no. And as I described in my last post, among South Asian Americans there’s definitely a period of dating. It’s common to not go with your first proposed match.

So even for people who grew up around arranged marriages, it’s a big ask to present someone who they haven’t met before and say: “This is your future spouse.” A really big ask. I think it would be even harder for people who are less familiar with it.

And even if enough Americans agree to an arranged marriage to make the endeavor profitable, I wonder if Justin’s strict requirements will lead to happy marriages. Justin laments (as I do) our lost capacity for faith. But I think he’s guilty of too much faith in believing that an algorithm alone, however sophisticated, can predict marital bliss

One of my core beliefs is that people say ‘no’ too easily to potential relationships, and especially when they meet online. They get distracted by potential options and overoptimize. We’re all more compatible with more people than we think.

But it’s also possible to say ‘yes’ too easily. Solid relationships take time and learning from both parties. I’ve been reading Scott Stanley’s blog a lot the past couple days, and his ‘take it slow’ advice sounds like the right move to me.

So how do we square this circle? How do we foster marriage without dictating a spouse while also while not creating too many options? Here’s the You’re Good Enough (YGE) solution:

  • Sign people up to to my relationship service. When they sign up, they promise to deactivate all other dating accounts.
  • Use data to determine which couples are more or less likely to have a long-term relationship
    • This part is quite a bit hand-wavy right now. But I’m instinctively opposed to the machine-learning big data approach used by most sites. I’d lean more towards a fast and frugal tree. This Stanley post delves into some of the research.
  • Match two people. You don’t get to see pictures of other people on the site. You don’t need to wink, poke, wave, smile, punch, or message anyone. You get a match.
  • That match will be active for 3 months, and both of you agree to go on at least 6 dates over that time.
    • If one insists on ending before the 3 months are up, he doesn’t get another match. He has to wait. So there’s an incentive to go on more dates and get to know your match.
  • My site would “guide” the dates. Or rather, provide questions to ask / things to look out for to help people decide if they’re with someone who they could marry. Finding a spouse would be the stated end goal.
  • After 3 months, the couple can decide to enter into a more committed relationship that (hopefully) leads to marriage, or decide it won’t work out. But they have to stick with it for at least 3 months.

I think some variation of the above would, on average, lead to more successful marriages. The couple has to be given some time to explore and learn for themselves. An algorithm can’t do that.

You’re good enough

Are You Good Enough for a Career in Comics?

About 3 years ago my wife and I discussed how dating and marriage in her childhood church can be very similar to modern Hindu “arranged” marriages.

I put arranged in quotes because it’s not arranged as traditionally understood. Way back in the day, a few Desi aunties would get together over chai and decide that Akshay and Seema make a great match because of caste, education, fairness of skin (yes, really), etc. And that would be that. There wouldn’t be much choice, and they’d get married. But now, even if your auntie “picks” someone for, you still go through this quasi-dating process.

The thing is–with both some CoC relationships and my fellow American Desis–it’s not usually the kind of dating (normal) Americans do.

You’re not trying to find out if you have this cosmic connection and align on 29 dimensions of compatibility. It’s more along the lines of: is there some baseline level of attraction, and are there any red flags that would prevent me from marrying this person? It can be a pretty quick assessment, and it’s common to go from first “date” to being engaged in a few months.

I can speak more confidently on my own culture, but the idea seems to be that even if you’re not in love initially, you’ll grow to be so. Put another way (and I’m definitely plagiarizing this from somewhere): In Western marriages you marry who you love. In Indian (and to a lesser degree some Christian sub-cultures) you love who you marry.

Now the above analysis is admittedly speculative because neither of us actually followed that path. We dated for almost 6 years before our wedding. And my parents obviously didn’t arrange my marriage to this white Christian girl. But I think many of our peers would agree with what I just wrote.

At any rate…We both thought that this mindset should influence American relationships. It shouldn’t be the only consideration, and it’s easy to go too far. But it should be part of the calculation. And the main reason is that (a good) marriage is awesome. It’s seriously the best thing ever.

Modern dating–especially online dating–prevents some people from experiencing that awesomeness. It encourages people to continually overoptimize and search for perfection that simply doesn’t exist. There’s too much darn choice.

I have many friends who rejected potential mates for the stupidest reasons. And all of these friends wanted to get married! At some point people should really say: “You know what…he/she is good enough!” Justin Murphy said it more eloquently than we did:

We (I more than my wife) got really excited about trying to bring this mindset to Western dating.  I wanted to start a quasi-arranged marriage site.

I felt there was a market for it. I’ve had several non-Indian friends tell me they wish they had arranged marriages. All of us know people who want to be in a relationship / married but don’t like dating.

There are many products for people who just want to hook up. There are also sites for people who want to get into a relationship by dating lots of people. But there’s nothing for people who more or less want it worked out for them.

I got really into this idea. I started taking time off from work to do market research and flesh out the idea.

It never took off. A job promotion, two toddlers, multiple foster placements, a summer in East Africa, a run for City Council, covid, and general risk aversion all intervened.

But I did tell people about it. When I did so, I often said something along the lines of: “I don’t think I’ll ever do it, so I hope someone does.”

But now that Justin has inspired me…I might just give it another shot. But if I actually do anything this time (still unlikely), I’m going to start an arranged relationship (read: not marriage) site.

My next post will explain why I’ve shifted away from arranged marriages. In any case…what do I plan to call my site that will never take off? You guessed it: “You’re good enough!”

How to help the foster care system Watch Spider-Man: Homecoming | Prime Video

Last month I was happy to read Hans Fiene’s essay encouraging more people to become foster parents. My wife and I have been fostering for four years, and it is more meaningful than anything else we do. Fiene is right that there are many children who need your help, that adoption is more common than you think, and that the kids will never stop benefiting from your love.

That said, this calling is not for everyone. Child welfare is brutal, and many people will understandably shy away. But you can still support the system even if you can’t commit to becoming a foster parent. Especially since coronavirus has made the job harder, and becoming certified can take several months, you should look for ways to help right now. Here are a few things you can do.

  • Donate to non-profits
    Money is always helpful, and there are several non-profits that serve the foster system. A friend started one in Colorado that matches foster families with people who want to help them. Here is another wonderful non-profit that would welcome a donation. Both organizations bring meals to new foster parents, support bio parents as they improve their lives and try get their children back, and provide foster children with clothes, toys, and books. Both are also gearing up to provide extra help for families under stay-at-home orders. Foster Together, e.g., is providing cash grants to parents and activities for kids.

  • Bring food to foster parents
    We had two hours to decide whether we would accept our first child—a medically fragile four-day old infant. We had no diapers, wipes, or a crib. We had not organized any time off from work. Having an infant when you have months to plan is already tiring. Having one dropped in your arms is even more so, and not worrying about food makes the job a bit easier. So take the initiative and setup a Meal Train. You can also signup with one of the non-profits linked above and bring food to foster parents in Colorado and California.

  • Babysit foster kids
    Like all parents, foster parents need childcare help, if even the occasional date-night. You can help provide that! While there are regulations around babysitting foster kids, you’ll probably have no issues if you watch them for just a few hours. Simply put: you can likely help watch foster kids right now. For longer periods of time it may not be that hard to become certified. In Colorado, you just need to be background-checked, get fingerprints taken at the Department of Human Services, and do a one-day First-Aid / CPR course.

  • Let your foster parent friends know you’re thinking of them
    That first foster placement left us physically and emotionally drained. Managing his health issues was a full-time job. His case took over two years to resolve, and the uncertainty often left us in tears.

    This process taught me and my wife that it is hard to be around people who are hurting. We were not fun and we were not good company. In fact, we were usually bad company. Our conversations focused on one thing, and we were often withdrawn, exhausted, and stressed. Yet, our community stuck by us. Having friends and family around mattered so much. It gave us something to look forward to, and a way to feel like ourselves again.

    It might be awkward, and you may not know what to say or do. But saying or doing anything is, 99 times out of 100, the right move. To be with others as they hurt is a gift as valuable as any other. It doesn’t have to be much. A simple text to check in and let your friends know you are thinking of them is immensely helpful.

  • Accept emergency placements and respite care
    After the coronavirus pandemic has abated, I encourage you, as Fiene did, to go through the certification process and become a foster parent. But note that Fiene described long-term care–what most people think of when they hear foster care.

    There are two other ways to be a foster parent that involve less commitment. You can accept short-term emergency care. We once had a teenage girl at our house for 10 hours because she needed somewhere to sleep while being moved between group homes. We also had a pair of brothers for just three days. Such placements give case workers time to figure out a more permanent solution. They are also easier than long-term foster care.

    You can also serve as a respite option. That is–you can watch fosters kids while their caregivers are on vacation, or if they simply need a break for a few days. Like emergency care, respite care is a crucial part of the foster system.

  • Become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA)
    If you want to do more than donate money or babysit but cannot envision hosting a foster child, there is another option. You can become a CASA. These volunteers develop a relationship with the foster child, and often act like a big brother or sister. They also work closely with the child’s lawyer to advocate for his best interests. Depending on where you live, CASAs may even serve as the child’s legal representative. Like becoming a foster parent, CASAs must take months of training.

Whatever path you take, working with the foster system will be one of the most important acts of service you can do. Though it will rarely be easy, the joy will be worth it. As Pastor Jason Johnson said: “It will be far more difficult than you could possibly imagine, and far more beautiful than you could have ever hoped for.”

As for the infant we accepted: our son turned four a month ago. Other than having me as a father, and the fact he just changed his name to Spider-Man, he’s as normal as can be.

Job success is multi-dimensional

Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education argues that employers value college degrees not because college imparts skills and knowledge, but because a degree is a good signal that someone has a pretty high IQ, is conscientious, and mostly conforms to social norms.

Simply put: going to college helps you get a job not because of what you learn, but because it tells employers about who you are.

I found Caplan’s arguments both persuasive and a bit depressing. I get that from an employer’s perspective, it’s rational to focus on prospects with college degrees. I get that on average this sort of statistical discrimination is a smarter bet.

But even if this decision is rational, it still sucks for the many people who didn’t complete college but would do just as well in a given job.

I’ve had a few non-academic jobs since I graduated college over 15 years ago. My big take-away is that job success is multi-dimensional. I think the major dimensions are IQ, skills, knowledge, personality and talent. This metric is admittedly heuristic. But even if you quibble with the components, it captures the idea that job success depends on many factors.

Note that IQ is simply one of the components. It may be the most important. But it’s not everything. The smartest people aren’t always the most successful at a given job. (I describe a variation of this rubric in the clip above.)

Here’s the rub: IQ is probably the most important factor for college. The smartest people do tend to be the best students. I suspect that the academic approach to learning works for only the top ~20% of IQs, and so Caplan understates IQ as an initial filter. Only after eliminating the bottom 80% of IQs does college add in conscientiousness and conformity as filters.

But again…that really sucks for a lot of people. Many jobs don’t honestly require that much smarts. Even jobs that allegedly do (e.g. engineering) make coursework harder than it needs to be.

During college I tutored in the Penn State math center. I remember working with a forestry major who had to take calculus. Not the class for engineering or science students, but a much easier version.

He was a good kid who really wanted to do well. He came in several times for help, and even paid me to work with him one-on-one. But he still struggled, and didn’t pass the mid-term.

I’ve been thinking about this student a lot. What I keep coming back to is: why on earth do forestry majors need to take calculus?

Unless a significant number of forestry majors actually have to use calculus during their job (I’m doubtful), it shouldn’t be a requirement. Making it so is simply an unfair barrier to entry.

We need more shuffling to vocational schools

I often learn that that ideas I thought were original actually aren’t–someone else got there years or even decades earlier. In 2015 Andy Rotherham chastised education reformers’ shallow definition of diversity, which excludes students who weren’t good at school:

Yet for all the attention to diversity, one perspective remains almost absent from the conversation about American education: The viewpoint of those who weren’t good at school in the first place. Of course there are people in the education world who were not good students, or didn’t like their own schooling experience. But for the most part the education conversation is dominated by people who not only liked being in and around schools, they excelled at academic work. The result is an over-representation of elite schools and elite schooling experiences and little input from those who found educational success later in life or not at all.

My post from late October is thus just a few years late.

Andy may not know this, but he has deeply influenced my thinking. When I first started learning policy in my spare time, he graciously responded to my emails and recommended a couple books that changed how I thought about politics. He didn’t have to respond, and I’m still grateful that he did.

And so it is with a bit of chagrin that I criticize these two sentences:

So shuffling poor students into vocational education is seen as good for them on the assumption most won’t be college material anyway. This is seen as admirable realism rather than a kind of prejudice.

I know it can be a bit nit-picky to isolate a couple sentences in an essay I otherwise agreed with. But I think they illustrate how much the academic approach to learning undergirds our thinking.

Even though Andy recognizes that most students are not full time, and that they zig and zag through their education (rather than going straight from kindergarten to a BS at 22 like most yupsters in education reform), and that we need to create more schools that cater to the different ways people learn…he still belittles the idea that moving off the college pathway may be the right move for some. His end goal is still to get people to engage in the academic approach to learning that colleges specialize in. He just wants to create different pathways to get to that goal.

But that’s the wrong goal. College matters now only because we’ve created an economy that often requires it to enter the middle class. We should be fighting this paradigm, not figuring out different ways to strengthen it.

Whether or not they can succeed in college, most people wouldn’t voluntarily choose to sit in a classroom for several hours a day. We shouldn’t force them to suffer through it if it’s not absolutely necessary.

Which again brings me back to the idea of a working track.* Vocational schools are viewed negatively in no small part because they are designed for those who aren’t good at school. The way these things play out in America, that means in practice they’re also designed for the poor.

Such schools would have a very different image if middle-class kids who want to work in sales, marketing or engineering were also attending them. Those are vocational jobs too!

We ultimately need to expand the idea of a vocational school and shuffle even more kids down that path. I fear we won’t really change its image otherwise.

* Testable prediction: Within 3 months, I’ll learn that some professor in Iowa wrote his 1959 dissertation on the working track.

The reverse co-op and the education MVP

Many colleges have a co-op program for business and engineering majors. It allows students to get much more work experience than they typically would. Starting in their junior year, co-op kids will work every for 6 months instead of taking classes, ultimately delaying their graduation by a year.

I love the concept–anything that helps prepare students to work is a good idea in my book. But I would push it even further. As it stands, co-op programs still fit within the four years of school ideal. Co-ops simply tweak that model to add work experience on the margins.

Why not flip the basic approach? Instead of starting with two or three years of classes, you could begin with 3 to 6 months of work, and add in just as many classes as needed to be more productive in the next co-op. The ideal could be a minimum of three years of work, which could then be tweaked to add education on the margins.

How much school would students need? It would ultimately depend on the particular jobs, majors, and even geographies at play. And so I don’t have a definite answer. I can, however, offer a framework for how to approach the problem, from my time as a software product manager.

When you’re taking a new product to market, you have an almost infinite list of features that can be in the first release. How do you decide what should be included? A helpful starting point is to recognize that you don’t actually know. You can and should analyze the customer base, similar products, etc.

But there’s a good chance that what you think customers want won’t be what they actually want. Too much up-front planning is thus a waste of time.

For this reason, modern software engineering increasingly favors creating the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). To get the MVP, you often think in terms of use cases. Some feature will meet 50% of the use cases, others 75%, and so on. You continually ask yourself: is this feature absolutely necessary for the first release? You eliminate as much as you possibly can.

You might end up with a release that only meets 50% of the use cases. That’s fine. You will also knowingly release something with bugs. That’s also fine. The goal isn’t perfection. It’s to get your product in front of actual users ASAP. They will tell you what features to develop next and which bugs to fix first. Done right, this approach minimizes waste and maximizes customer value.

While education is  not a for-profit business and shouldn’t be run like one, aspects of this mindset can be helpful. Many college majors seem to have adopted the opposite of the MVP approach, including much more knowledge than most students will ever use.

In terms of electrical engineering, I’d describe the approach as: if there’s a 10% chance any EE anywhere might use a certain snippet of knowledge, teach it to everyone without exception. I can think of no other reason to force EEs to take, e.g., intro chemistry.

A better approach would be to get students into the workforce as soon as possible, and for the education system to adapt, learn and change in response to what students actually want and need.

With all that, here’s a first pass on how I’d structure the MVP degree for electrical engineers:

  1. Definitely include: calculus 1, physics I and II (classical mechanics and E&M), basic circuits, intro circuits lab, intro programming course, and some sort of project-based design course.
  2. Definitely drop: any abstract math class like matrices, Laplace transforms, advanced circuits, microcontrollers, chemistry, chemistry lab, all general education requirements except maybe writing.
  3. Probably should drop but I can’t bring myself to do so: advanced E&M (my area of research!), solid state physics, all advanced senior level courses.
  4. Can’t make up my mind (which almost always means you can drop it): calculus II, differential equations, writing.

Note that the above is only what we’d require of students. If schmucks like me want to take plasma physics and quantum mechanics, we should be free to. And obviously the above list could change as we learn more. That’s the point actually.

But as a general goal, reducing course requirements is a good first step. I find it grotesque to force people to sit in a classroom for any longer than necessary. Degree requirements should be closer to an associates degree than what it is now.

Which brings me to my closing thought: If a BS or BA has already become the new high school degree (i.e. you need college for a middle class life), a useful corrective for us reformers is to reverse that trend. We should want to make the associates the new bachelors.