Thursday, September 29, 2016


Friday Fragments

Marketplace’s story on Rochester this week really took me back.  It’s about the impact of the demise of Kodak as a local employer, both in terms of numbers (from over 60,000 to under 2,000) and in terms of perks and local clout.  

I grew up there in the 70’s and 80’s.  Most of my classmates’ dads worked at Kodak.  It was a simply dominant force in the area.  Now, the parts of Kodak Park (a sprawling complex of factories) that haven’t been torn down have been rented out.

In the 70’s and 80’s, the story goes, the top three local employers were in manufacturing: Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb.  Now, the top three local employers are the University of Rochester, Strong Memorial Hospital, and Wegman’s.  That’s it, in a nutshell.

Hearing the local accent again was fun.  TW tells me the only time she hears it in me is when I pronounce “Rochester.”  People who aren’t from there pronounce the second syllable slowly, and like “chess.”  Natives pronounce it quickly, and like “chiss.”  If you hear the audio, the difference is between Kai Ryssdal’s pronunciation and the way the guys on the softball team say it.  I say it like the guys on the softball team.

After three-plus decades of decline, it’s trying to reinvent itself with startups.  Admitting some hometown bias, I think it has a shot.  It always had weirdly good public schools in the suburbs, and Monroe Community College is a national leader.  (The U of R and RIT are nothing to sneeze at, either.)  It has a lot of place-bound engineers and techies who left, or were laid off from, Kodak or Xerox.  Heaven knows it has office and industrial space.  When I lived there, the culture could not be described as “entrepreneurial,” but that was a long time ago.  The winters are an acquired taste that I never really acquired, but at least there’s a strong and steady supply of water.

If it can let go of the past, it may have a chance.  I’m rooting for it.  The generation coming up has no memory of the big manufacturing years; if the city tries too hard to cling to the past, it will lose its talented young, just as it lost most of the best of my generation.  But if enough startups have enough room to move, and keep enough of the talented youth, the raw material is there.  Even if everyone else pronounces it wrong.


Last week I was able to provide a reference for one of the best people I’ve ever worked with.  There’s something satisfying about helping one of the good ones.  Hope it worked...


“Colleges are lavishing more financial aid on wealthy students.”

Two thoughts:

First, why do we accept without blinking that scholarships for a good jump shot are okay, but scholarships for good grades are not?  I’d rather reward the latter than the former.

Second, if you force public institutions to act like private businesses, then that is exactly what they will do.  Public institutions are institutions, with all of the obligations that term implies.  By dint of being public, they could be somewhat autonomous from the market.  To the extent that we take that autonomy away, we should not be surprised to see them behave like market actors.  They’re simply adapting to the environment.

If we want public colleges and universities to direct resources towards low-income students, we need to fund them accordingly.  At a minimum, that should involve directing more funding towards the colleges with the lowest-income students.  To the extent that we force colleges to get their funding from students, we reward them for cherry picking their students.  

Don’t just condemn the adaption.  Change the environment.

You missed a significant reason that public universities might devote academic (that is, not need-based) scholarship money toward well-off students with good grades:

Performance-based funding.

There is a reason that Duke graduates a mere 95% of its freshman class in 6 years. (They lose 5% as dropouts. Everyone else graduates. No one takes more than 6 years to finish.) It is a simple reason. They only admit students who can graduate in 4 or 5 years even if they slack off. Teaching quality is irrelevant if you get those students. So the easiest way to continually increase your success metrics, as we say, is to do your very best to only admit and increasing fraction of FTIC kids who are very likely to graduate on time. And those are the bright kids who get scholarships to go to private schools -- but might still have to borrow money to go there. That takes your money, even if they have money.

And it is a double win if you can use those hot-shot admits to justify telling some kids who really want to attend (but have a lower chance of graduating) that you don't have room and they will need to do a year at a CC to prove they belong. That eeps them out of your FTIC pool, so they can't hurt your grad rate.
Re: good public schools in the Rochester suburbs, I often comment that more of my friends and acquaintances from high school have Ph.D.s, compared to friends/acquaintances from college. (The count of MacArthur Fellows is even at this point.) This was after college at a well known R1 (most readers have heard of it). This was also at a high school that was not particularly better (and some would say worse) than those in another 3 to 5 towns that are near Rochester.

I don't think low housing costs came up as an advantage in your post. That may keep some people trapped because of sticker shock. The winter definitely is an acquired taste. I can say that I've never found a place to be more snowy than I expected.
Sounds like you'd enjoy Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil.
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