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Transcript of My Testimony Before Committee of the PA House of Representatives

Posted on October 11th, 2012, by 1 Comment

This past summer I testified before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives State Government Committee on a package of bills that had been introduced to make a number of regulatory changes to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PSSHE). The transcript has now been released and is available on the Pennsylvania legislature’s website (a link is also available on our website). I primarily focused on what I saw as the positive development proposed in the bill which would have made student activity fees non-mandatory (by providing for students to opt-out of those fees) at PSSHE schools. I argued that this is a desirable policy because it increases student’s freedom of choice and would force schools to demonstrate to students that the activity fees they assess are justifiable and worth the cost to the students.

NB- At one point during the hearing I mistakenly said “marketing” when I think I really meant “management.”

A Student’s Perspective on MOOCs

Posted on October 8th, 2012, by 1 Comment

It seems like everywhere one looks today in the world of higher education, one cannot help but see news on the Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by servers such as Coursera, Udacity and EdX.  But how are students supposed to take advantage of these new opportunities?  What are the experiences like?  For whom are these classes?

In visiting each of these sites, it quickly becomes clear that, to date, Coursera offers the most courses in the broadest range of topics with over 100 classes.  Udacity and EdX are much smaller, offering fewer than twenty courses apiece.  All of their classes are in the math and science fields, with a very strong emphasis on technology related courses.  And while there is nothing at all wrong with focusing on these topics, the wider variety offered by Coursera led me to enroll in several of their classes to get a better understanding of the MOOC experience.  As a person with much more on a penchant for history, literature and the like, I was naturally drawn to Coursera.

From this experience, I have come to several conclusions about the value of MOOCs and areas in which they need to improve.  As I wrote in a previous post, MOOCs have a lot of potential to become a powerful tool in improving the availability and efficiency of education.  They do, however, still have a number of issues to work out before becoming truly viable.  The primary issue is the almost complete lack of personal interaction.  This dearth of connectivity applies to both troubleshooting and to the actually class experience.

When a technical issue arises, students are instructed to post in a forum for such issues.  However, when I had an issue with a quiz submission, I received no assistance on that forum, nor from anywhere else.  I found this to be troublesome, as it direct affects a student’s ability to pass the course for a reason other than a lack of a grasp on the material.  MOOC providers such as Coursera must find a way to satisfactorily address technological issues that inevitably arise in an online class format.  A disruption in internet connectivity, a power surge or an overheating computer should not adversely change a grade.  It should not be assumed that every student has a top-of-the-line computer that always works exactly as it should.  A student should not be punished for having a four-year old machine that has developed some annoying tics, which are likely to show themselves on occasion during an online class, given the amount of online time it takes to complete each week’s assignments.

Another issue that needs to be addressed by MOOC providers is the general lack of personal communication and feedback that is rampant in this very large type of online class.  With no common time or place that they share, students feel dissociated from the class.  The forum format that encourages students to start a thread to discuss class material is, at best, a poor substitute for actual classroom discussion.  At worst, what students write is ignored, not responded to, or just plain lost in the sheer volume of responses, even if they have valuable insight.  The forum also requires each student to spend a large amount of time browsing earlier posts in order to engage in a dialogue, which certainly cuts down on the efficiency of having a face-to-face conversation in the classroom.  A “conversation” could take several days to complete as opposed to hashing out ideas in just a few minutes.  While there certainly are more potential good ideas in a MOOC to discuss than in a much smaller traditional classroom, students and instructors must wade through in order to exchange ideas.

This is not to say that the concept of the MOOC is a bad one.  To the contrary, it offers many distinct advantages that a traditional classroom does not including, but not limited to, the sheer number of students it can reach and the ability to serve people with irregular schedules.  The student experience, however, is diminished due to the lack of personal interaction and the difficulty and disappointing substitute of the forum.  In order for MOOCs to even hope to become a source of viable, long-term mass education, instead of just a flash in the academic pan, the companies that offer these courses must come up with solutions to these problems so that students will not become disaffected with the classes they are taking.

Say it Ain’t So!

Posted on October 8th, 2012, by Leave a comment

There is much to commend the for-profit Christian school, Grand Canyon University, in this profile Paul Fain did for InsideHigherEd. Seeking to add NCAA Division I athletics is not one of them.

Canary in the College?

Posted on October 1st, 2012, by 1 Comment

While it may just be a matter of coincidental timing, the recent announcements in the last week of retrenchments at both Bridgepoint Education Inc. and Kaplan Education (two of the largest for-profit higher education institutions) may be an augur of what is to come for the for-profit sector, at least for the near future. Interestingly enough, it appears that both moves were driven in no small part by concerns about accreditation. With respect to Bridgepoint, it appears that the cuts in admissions are focused on dealing with addressing student success problems that lie at the heart of a challenge to its accreditation while in the case of Kaplan, the decision to close campuses evidently stems from the threat of loss of accreditation at several campuses. In both of these instances, of course, the underlying importance is that the accreditation agencies function as gatekeepers for federal financial aid dollars (a role which has its problems, as CCAP points out in our report on accreditation, but that is a topic for another day), so a lose of accreditation would place these institutions in a difficult financial posture. It will be interesting to see if these trends in cutbacks continue or if other companies will take similar action or if these measures that have been taken will be sufficient and adequate.

SUNY Moves to Address Student Debt?

Posted on September 26th, 2012, by Leave a comment

The State University of New York System announced recently a new statewide effort to reduce the rates of defaults on student loans.  This plan is the most comprehensive one attempted by a large state university system to combat one of the biggest challenges facing higher education, namely student debt.  This year six schools in the SUNY system are using a pilot version of the program and next year the plan is for all 64 schools in the system, including community colleges and four year colleges and universities, to be using it by next year.

The five-point plan includes establishing a central online location from which borrowers can get information on their loans as well as establishing offices at all 64 schools.  The plan also includes setting up a partnership with the United States Department of Education to track and share data concerning potential risk factors that correlate to loan defaults that could be used to predict potential issues and to take steps to counteract them.

The SUNY system is to be commended for taking this approach on dealing with student loans in a comprehensive manner as opposed to minor tuition or fee changes that are common with other state systems.  The price of higher education has risen to a point where a very large number of students require loans in order to attend school and New York is recognizing this reality and taking steps to address it rather than simply wishing it away.

One potential tool that schools and federal loan providers could use to combat student loan default is education.  The infamous entrance and exit counseling that all students must complete when taking federal loans do not count.  Many students in college have had very little real world experience when it comes to handling money and the repayment of debts and do not understand the financial jargon used in these online counseling services.  There is no one there to ask the inevitable questions that arise from people who have never had to deal with repayment plans or APRs.  Schools should offer an actual seminar for all first-time borrowers and for those students about to graduate with student debt.  These courses could even be offered for 1 credit, such as the “Freshman Orientation” seminar required at many schools.  Actually having a forum in which students could be educated about what student loans actually entail beyond, the vague “you must pay them back” may very well go a long way in encouraging more responsible loan-taking and repayment over the long term.

Some Student Loans are Aid

Posted on September 20th, 2012, by Leave a comment

Although I largely agree with the generalized idea that Jonathan pointed out here, namely that student loans are not aid (even if they are originated by the Federal government), I believe that one can make the case that some loans are aid. Think about the role that NGOs such as The World Bank and IMF play in “aiding” underdeveloped countries with financial loans that they would not be able to obtain through the market due to a poor institutional structure and the poor fiscal condition and credit constraints that follow it. Perhaps it is fallacy to refer to this type of assistance (remember that I stated that recipient countries likely cannot obtain loans through private markets, at least not at rates that will enable them to achieve a sustainable “reversal of fortunes” to borrow a phrase from Daron Acemoglu) as aid, but it is in the sense of considering the savings that the country is realizing by receiving below market interest rates for its particular situation. Note that I am not endorsing these policies, merely pointing them out.

Similarly, it is a fact that some students are from low-income families that have neither the financial resources or borrowing capacity to finance a college education. There are private students loans available from commercial banks for such students, with the risk of default pricing the interest rate well above the 3.4-6.8% that government loan applies. Thus, the interest rate savings from taking a government as opposed to a commercial loan could in fact be classified as financial

aid – at least to an economist who likes to account for unrealized opportunity costs. Of course, one also has to think that some students who take loans from the federal government may be able to borrow at a lower cost if a pure market existed. These students, although likely small in number, are paying a premium.

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The Debt Be with You!

Posted on September 20th, 2012, by Leave a comment

Daniel Luzer of the Washington Monthly brought to my attention this piece by Mike Konczal wrote for Salon in which Konczal asks the rather obvious question: “Do we make both a conceptual and analytical mistake when we refer to student loans as a form of ‘financial aid’?” Of course, there’s nothing original in Konczal’s pointing out the problem of identifying student loans as a form of “aid.” It goes without saying, in my opinion, that appending the label of “aid” to student loans is, at  best, somewhat misleading, particularly for students who are not well-versed in matters financial. Having said that, however, I have very little confidence that this problem, though widely acknowledged, will be corrected. As I pointed out a year and a half ago, someone who later became a prominent U.S. Department of Education official made essentially the same point Konczal makes now and yet, even after that official left the department, ED continues to classify student loans as a form of aid, on par with grants.

One Small Step for a Course; One Giant Leap for MOOCs

Posted on September 20th, 2012, by Leave a comment

Colorado State University’s Global Campus recently became the first American university to decide to grant transfer credits to students who have completed a massively open online course (MOOC).  Specifically, they are granting credit to those students who completed Udacity’s “Introduction to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine” and took a proctored test.  This is a small, but very significant step in the quest to get the learning undertaken in online MOOCs to be recognized by major American universities as credit-worthy.

Two of the biggest MOOC providers, Udacity and EdX, have recently come to agreements with Pearson VUE for students to take proctored exams in locations where identity can be verified and potential cheating monitored.  This service comes with a fee of $89, according to the New York Times.  The clear benefit is that students are able to obtain college credit towards a degree for only $89, saving a substantial amount of money from the costs of tuition and other higher education expenses.

If MOOCs are to stay relevant in the world of higher education, they must adjust to offer some sort of official results that are recognized by other schools and by employers as valid.  They would offer an excellent platform from which students can learn the basics of many fields as well as potentially the more advanced concepts of some areas as well.  In the humanities and laboratory sciences, however, that require more face-to-face time, students will still need to meet in smaller groups to truly grasp the finer details of their field, but MOOCs would still offer a very good starting point from which students can learn the background necessary to build upon in later studies.  On top of being able to offer these courses to large numbers of students, MOOCs can do so at a much lower cost than traditional colleges.  If post-secondary education were to start off at MOOCs, whose classes can be transferred in as prerequisites at traditional schools, students would be able to complete their degrees while spending less time at a traditional college and, thus, at less cost.

Stumbling Towards Transparency?

Posted on September 18th, 2012, by Leave a comment

The American History Association has passed down a new recommendation calling for increased transparency among post-graduate history programs concerning job placement. The AHA wants this information to be publically available so that undergraduates and other potential applicants to a specific program know the facts about future career prospects in their intended fields of study. Many schools already provide some sort of list, but these are usually very inadequate, only reporting the highlights from a graduating class while not showing graduates who are unemployed or underemployed. This recommendation is particularly timely considering the very poor state of the job market for liberal arts academics, particularly in history-related fields.

Some historians have gone so far as to call for a reduction in the acceptance rate of graduate students to bring the number of PhDs more into align with the job market. Another option is the restructuring of history graduate programs to remove the perceived stigma of non-academic careers, such as museum curatorship, from many departments across the country. Many historians, however, are not so open to change. They point out the AHA has suggestion power only and cannot enforce its recommendations of transparency. While true, this kind of closed-minded thinking leads to the maintenance of an unsustainable status quo among historians. Department administrators must approach issues of post-graduate admissions differently than in the past in the face of major changes in the academic landscape.

Despite foot-dragging by history department administrators, the AHA is to be commended for its pursuit of transparency and is a model for academic groups across disciplines. By making information such as job placement of alumni publically available, potential students will have greater information before they apply. By providing information on the outputs of a program (i.e., job placement, income, etc), universities will give their prospective students the tools they need to make a decision on which school would serve their goals best.

The Real Significance of MOOCs

Posted on September 14th, 2012, by Leave a comment

It seems to me that the real danger to the traditional, degree-based model of higher education posed by Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) lies not so much in the possibility that MOOCs might provide a dramatically lower cost alternative for obtaining a degree (or even more broadly, higher learning). Rather, MOOCs can do more damage to the traditional model by revealing its weaknesses. Take, for instance, the results of an edX survey of its MOOC students (as reported by Steve Kolowich for InsideHigherEd this week):

perhaps the most interesting piece of data is that 80 percent of respondents said they had taken a “comparable” course at a traditional university prior to working their way through Circuits & Electronics.

Of that 80 percent, nearly two-thirds said the MOOC version was better than the “comparable” course they claimed to already have taken. Only 1 percent said it was worse.

Now perhaps this result is an artifact reflecting that prior familiarity with material is more important than the platform through which the material is presented, in terms of student perceptions. On the other hand, if the quality of instruction and material is indistinguishable between an MOOC and a traditional class, colleges and universities will have even more trouble explaining to a concerned public why the tuition bill must be measured in the tens of thousands of dollars.