Chris Blattman

Surprising facts about airline tickets, butter, and (maybe) university

From a Reddit thread entitled, What are some useful secrets from your job that will benefit customers?

When purchasing items on the internet (especially airline tickets), use incognito mode on your browser.
We use your own cookies against you: raising the price on tickets the more times you check, as you shop around for better deals. That way you’ll think the price is going up or that seats are being actively sold – thus increasing your urgency to buy, and punishing you for trying to get a good deal.


I used to work in a butter factory. As far as bricked butter is concerned, buy the cheapest s**t you can find. It’s literally the same stuff. There are like 3 butter factories in the US, and they send them off to get packaged. That’s what the company I worked for did. The butter came in 22kg boxes and were put in a giant churner for freshness, and that churner pushed it through the pipes to 16 different labelling machines.
…Salted and unsalted, that is the only difference.

Does a professor have useful secrets to offer? Suggestions welcome. Here’s the best I can do:

Open secret #1: U.S. Master’s programs in social science are pure money-making degrees for a university. Core faculty will probably not teach in them, and may be reluctant to advise the students. It’s basically a second senior year of college. Economics degrees may be useful for finance jobs (I couldn’t really say). Otherwise, perhaps the only good reason to do one is to improve on your undergraduate grades or preparation for a PhD (and that’s not a great reason to fork out $25k a year).

If you want a terminal master’s degree, go to a professional school (policy, business, public health, etc) where you are the focus of their energy.

Open secret #2: Research universities hire and promote faculty solely on their research ability. In the sciences and health it is also crucial to bring in grants. Undergraduate teaching quality is nearly immaterial to advancement unless you are truly horrible. Your peers admire good teaching, and universities like to see more of it, but it is a minor issue in your performance evaluations.

Indeed, untenured professors may even get warned to spend more time on research if their teaching investments are great. Winning a teaching award can be a mixed blessing as a junior faculty member. New professors will receive roughly zero guidance on how or what to teach, and, other than a cursory review of a syllabus for a new course, are generally left to teach what they please.

From a purely teaching perspective, far better to attend an elite teaching institution without a graduate program. Good teaching is expected and rewarded at many of these schools (though not always or automatically).

26 Responses

  1. U.S. Master’s programs in social science as a money making operation is a nickel in the national debt. For-profit universities have enjoyed a resurgence in the last five decades by recruiting students with a high potential for a federal student loan, independently of their academic potential and with racial preferences, who then pay exorbitant fees for easy grades and minimal attendance on a path to a bachelor’s degree or certificate, marginally accredited if at all. Not limited to social science, this government induced program includes engineering and the physical sciences (e.g., ITT Technical Institute). A notable by-product of this lucrative program has been so called Student Loan Stadiums (e.g., University of Phoenix Stadium).

    Not to be outdone, not-for-profit universities have adopted the strategy, producing a crisis in student loan debt, a swelling population of unemployable, heavily indebted graduates, especially among minorities, and degrading the academic standing of US universities.

    Student loan universities, taxable or not, is an industry created by the US Student Loan Program.

    File under Socialism: Unintended consequences.

  2. How do you then feel about MA econ programs at public universities where the costs of at attending are relatively low? Does the value-add from the degree exceed the cost?

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