I've exchanged some e-mails with the winner as well as someone whom I know and who works for the Breakthrough Junior Challenge. The "simple" amount that the winner is said to win is $250,000. But I should have studied the conditions more carefully. They reminded me of those and the winner actually gets
$250,000 for tuition at a university of her choice, $100,000 for a lab at her high school, $50,000 goes to the teacher who inspired her.So if you look carefully, she doesn't actually get anything at all! More precisely, the winner doesn't get any funds that may be safely assumed to have a positive, nonzero value according to the winner herself.
Six years ago, an Intelligence Squared Debate took place in Chicago (see 100 minutes above). Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and an aide to Donald Trump now, teamed up with Charles Murray, a researcher of IQ. They defeated Vivek Wadhwa and Henry Bienen after they argued that too many kids go to college.
It was a decent debate and Thiel and Murray obviously made more sense. It has become almost automatic – and I would say, it's a part of the political correctness – to assume that everyone may go to college, everyone should go to college, and the college experience will be a positive thing for everybody.
It just isn't so and can't be so. Only a fraction of the kids of that age may be considered "material for college". They are sufficiently smart and they are sufficiently disciplined, patient etc. to actually suffer through the activities that the college involves.
The defenders of the "college for everybody" have argued that there is a clear correlation between the degrees and lifetime salaries etc. I don't doubt it. But it's because
- the people who are really unable to do a well-paid job or study a college end up in the group outside the college, anyway;
- and because some companies or other employers prefer to employ a person with a degree even if he or she is exactly as good as a candidate without a college!
(In the debate, the Indian "everyone should go to a college" guy sounded crazy when he denied a point he made himself – and that Thiel stressed – that while India and China have a reasonable 10% or so in the college, it's a majority in the U.S. Clearly, with 10%, things are reasonable, near 100%, they are not. The increase of the percentage isn't just some "scaling" because as the percentage grows, a different kind of people is being added. I still believe that their left-wing dogma that "everyone is the same" is the root of all their misunderstandings about these issues.)
But those things could be obvious, anyway, and neither point indicates that the college actually brings something positive. Wouldn't it be better if everyone got the degree immediately after he's accepted to the college, or after one year that he survived? The reason why it could be "enough" is that the information about the school that gave the degree is more useful for the employer because they may figure out what kind of a person he was. We know what characteristics are common among those who are accepted to Harvard.
As Charles Murray said, if you only know that someone has a bachelor degree, you literally know nothing about the person. Almost everyone can have the bachelor degree – especially the easy degrees that are abundant outside STEM. (The B.A. once meant that you were an educated man; it is no longer so and the B.A. was the main devil that Murray fought against.) There are lots of crazy bachelor degrees – often spread by pseudo-departments of pseudo-women's and pseudo-African pseudo-studies that were created purely in order to allow a college degree to those who don't belong to a college. The average IQ and related characteristics of a recipient of a bachelor degree doesn't significantly differ from the average IQ in the population. And Murray said that the selection of employees that "requires a BA" is a self-fulfilling prophesy. You're labeled dumb or lazy without a BA. And that's why the kids who aren't lazy go to schools even though they normally consider the learning process at the school worthless (and it often is worthless for them) – they're there purely for the certification that they're not dumb or lazy!
This bubble of education has diluted the value of the degree – the basic university degrees don't really mean much today. But the excess of students has also lowered the quality of the education in the legitimate departments. They also receive a higher number of students which means that their average readiness had to go down and the best students – who would be there even if there were no education bubble – often have to wait for the slower, "bonus ones".
And perhaps more importantly, a big segment should be inserted here to discuss the evil of "colleges as the indoctrination centers" with their extreme left-wing atmosphere, speech codes, snowflakes in safe spaces, and so on. A priori, this political distortion of the Academia seems like an independent question from the education bubble. But they're not really independent. Many of these safe spaces and speech codes etc. were introduced partly or largely as tools to defend lots of the students who really shouldn't be students at all.
I think that somewhere in the debate, Peter Thiel was asked whether it's consistent for him to oppose kids' going to college while he has spent lots of time in colleges. Well, fake modesty has become a "must", too. But believe it or not, Peter Thiel is an example of a man (or boy) who would naturally belong to a college in any system. He is of the "right" type that makes a college natural. It's not just about the intelligence. It's about the curiosity, patience, and intellectual discipline, among other things. But there are lots of people who are (sometimes extremely) skillful at many things and who could create and lead huge new companies who are simply not the Academic types in the same sense as Peter Thiel. And those are the folks for whom Thiel's $100,000 scholarship paid for "avoiding any university" was created for.
Around 1:07:50, Peter Thiel was explaining that people are diverse and he was immediately attacked by one of the "education for everybody" guys – and his applauding soulmates in the audience – who claimed that everyone is the same as Peter Thiel in the pre-college age. Please, give me a break with this stunning politically correct, egalitarian garbage. If you compare the people and teenagers etc. according to many trivial criteria, even e.g. how many books or non-fiction books they have read, you will get vastly different results – by orders of magnitude – because people are just different from each other.
It's been months when I watched the whole 2011 IQ2 debate last time [update: I watched it again today] so I don't remember everything. But I suspect that much of the discussion was also about the gap between the things that are being taught, and the things that are useful in the later life (and demanded by the employers or industries), and so on.
The final monologues have made it clear that the "education for everybody" side just wanted to mindlessly push the "college for everyone" and not watch any consequences or whether things are beneficial at least in the zeroth approximation, whether the correlations actually show that the education is beneficial, and whether kids are pushed to go to colleges for the right reasons. Peter Thiel pointed out that there was no accountability (if it turns out that the idea that "many extra years in the college are an absolute good" is invalid) and the bubbles generally deflate when people start to think independently. Murray said that a system that would be optimized would be very different from the current one. Students would study because of the stuff they learn, not because of the piece of paper, and many types of folks would spend much.
Before the debate, 39% voted "too many kids in college", 40% opposed. This tiny edge reversed after the debate, to 47%-to-46%, so Peter Thiel and Charles Murray apparently did an infinitesimal piece of work to persuade the audience that there is an education bubble.
Back to the "tuition as price"
OK, according to the existing rules, the winner of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge doesn't get any real money to her pocket. $50,000 goes to her teacher, $100,000 to her school for a lab, and $250,000 is to be paid for some tuition (which may cover books and "living expenses"; whatever the latter means, I guess that there exist serious restrictions how to spend it). The last, largest amount was claimed to be "a prize for her" by the person whom I know at the Breakthrough Foundation. Is it really? I don't think so.
First, the tuition is often an administrative detail so who pays for it is often an abstract and irrelevant question from the student's viewpoint. In my country, college students still pay no tuition. At Harvard, some students or parents pay the tuition but others are classified as students from poor backgrounds and the university pays for them.
It seems rather likely to me that a student from the Philippines could belong to this category. So if she gets to Harvard, she will have her tuition paid by the Breakthrough Foundation while some classmates from a similar background, perhaps not as good as she is, will have the tuition paid by Harvard. This is a likely outcome and if you assume it will be the outcome, you should ask: What's the difference? What has the winner of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge really won?
She just won nothing in that case. Less good folks similar to hers could win the same thing from someone else partly because of some "compassion".
The main problem really is that the product one pays for the tuition doesn't have the advertised price for everybody. Some students or parents are willing to pay $250,000 for four years of tuition or insane amounts like that. But it's usually because they're rich and they're looking for an investment – in other words, they don't really know what to do with their money. But most people in the world do know what to do with their money. They're not drowning in millions of dollars in cash. Most people in the world consider $250,000 for 4 years of tuition to be obscene.
The fact that a university sometimes randomly separates the students who have to pay from those who get the education for free is a crazy non-deterministic, unjust element in the story. But this discontinuity is also a reflection of the very real gap between two worlds – a wealthy world of some kind that has no trouble to throw $250,000 somewhere; and the world of the normal people who know that $250,000 is a lot of money and one shouldn't throw them away mindlessly. In particular, I think that an overwhelming majority of the mankind would agree with me that it's unreasonable to be in debt of $250,000 because of college tuition. When Harvard pays the tuition to a poor student, it basically just adopts the "normal world's" opinion that in reality, the tuition should be considered nearly worthless.
Second, $250,000 for tuition lowers the winner's freedom because it's basically a commitment, a duty, for her to attend some expensive college, probably in the U.S., something like Harvard or MIT. It's reasonably likely that she badly wants to study in a country where similar obscene amounts are paid for tuition. But it just cannot be taken for granted. There exists a very reasonable possibility that the winner could prefer the best school in the Philippines or Indonesia or another country where the tuition just isn't anywhere near $250,000, and this choice could be better for her and could lead to greater achievements later. Or the winner could prefer e.g. Rutgers whose tuition for 4 years is closer to $100,000 than $250,000. If you say that this is impossible or extremely unlikely, I want to see a proof and I will show you why your proof is wrong.
For this reason, the prize actually restricts the number of possible steps that the winner can make after the high school. In this sense, it's a negative prize. The money should normally mean as something that increases the owner's freedom. The money gives one some power to do things that he or she couldn't do otherwise, or freedom to do certain things in many new ways that would be otherwise impossible, and so on. If the money means an obligation to go to "something like Harvard or MIT", the prize may reasonably be considered negative.
Now, some people who have invented this format of the prize could protest, claim that it's wrong or politically incorrect for me to even write such things. But this way of argumentation solves absolutely nothing. There are surely billions of people in the world who don't dream of spending four years as Harvard or MIT students – and they have lots of reasons. Some of them just aren't people of the scholarly type and don't want to spend years in libraries. Another, not quite overlapping group considers Harvard to be full of spoiled brats or hates the extreme left-wing atmosphere there or other things. Many of these attitudes are perfectly compatible with the people's extraordinary potential to be great scientists and other things.
Assume that one of these folks just wins the challenge. If someone persuades such a winner that he or she is wrong, it simply means that the prize is both a pressure restricting the winner's freedom how to spend the following 4 years (because she or he has to go to the expensive school); and it also includes a restriction on her or his freedom to think. She or he is expected to go to one of the places that a foundation determines; and she or he is expected to parrot the foundation's opinions about the value of such places, slogans implicitly or explicitly saying that $250,000 is such a great investment.
It's wrong, wrong, wrong, and in many cases and with a high enough pressure, the actual value of such a prize may very well be negative.
So I think that the $250,000 tuition prize is a pseudo-prize of a similar type that I remember from the communist era. In effect, someone is just picked as a symbol of a Stakhanovite-like movement. She or he doesn't really get much for herself. Instead, while others are expected to be respectful towards the winner in public (sometime, usually in more private spaces, they are critical, jealous, or nasty because of the same reason), she or he is abused to promote certain views. In this case, it's the view that "$250,000 in tuition is a great investment" and "schools that charge a lot for tuition must be considered the best places by everybody".
On top of that, the winner – by voluntarily sending $50,000 to her teacher, $100,000 to her high school, and $250,000 to her future university – certifies and strengthens someone's claims that she is a product of the environment and her future achievements will be products of another environment. The individual talent and the individual moral attitudes and hard work play virtually no role. It's the environment that deserves to be praised etc. Well, I know it's rubbish in many cases, probably most cases. Einsteins etc. aren't really products of their environments.
In reality, a majority of the mankind thinks it's insane to pay $250,000 for 4 years of tuition. Such an amount equals some 80 years worth of the the average Filipino's nominal GDP. Is that a reasonable amount to pay for several years of education? This majority of the mankind is likely to include the person who has the abilities – and tools – to shoot the winning entry for the Breakthrough Junior Challenge and lots of other contests of this type. For this reason, if the prize is defined by saying that "you have to pay the money for the expensive tuition", it's likely that the best person in the world will actually not compete in your contest at all, and the pool of the potential winners is significantly restricted.
If I had realized the details of the prize, I probably wouldn't have the desire to participate in this contest or similar ones. Lots of people (and teenagers) in the world are like me. Expensive colleges are smug. You don't really need a college with an overpriced brand to find a theory of everything or do something else that is important. Some students at those overpriced colleges may think that they're guaranteed to do all the best things in the world but if they really believe so, they're just full of šit, they're arrogant spoiled brats. Lots of great things in science and especially outside science are being done by people who haven't attended overpriced colleges and in some cases, it's even important that they haven't.
So I think that this format of the prize is counterproductive, the prize isn't real, and the winner should get something that is a demonstrably and indisputably valuable for everyone who could win such a contest. Prizes shouldn't automatically include an ideological package – e.g. the claims that teenagers shooting great science movies are the products of their environment – and they shouldn't be hidden advertisements for some products, in this case, overpriced colleges. Unfortunately, this prize violates both of these conditions.