The principal economic argument for subsidizing college is that a college education equips the graduate (and to a lesser extent the student who leaves before graduation, for
example with a two-year associate’s degree) with skills that increases the lifetime value of his output, which benefits society as a whole and not just the graduate. But the more that college education is subsidized, the less of this external benefit (benefit to others besides the graduate) is likely to be produced. Little more than 20 percent of students enrolled in for-profit colleges obtain a bachelor’s degree in six years (it’s supposed to take only four), and probably most of these never obtain the degree. There are many drop outs from public colleges as well. The problem ideally should be self-correcting: the lower the income boost from a college education a high-school graduate anticipates, the less debt he should be willing to take on to finance a college education, and if the net expected benefit to him is negative he may well decide not to enroll—he should decide in that case not to enroll, if one sets aside the consumption value of a college education, though that is considerable for some people. But because of uncertainty of career prospects, this is a difficult calculation to make.
Why does this “attend college” mania flourish despite ever more graduates struggling to find jobs worthy of a college degree? Many factors are involved, but one deserves special mention, namely how modern social science altered the definition of “middle class” so just getting the degree, it was claimed, secured the American Dream. And with this new definition in place, a government committed to economic improvement began pushing as many young people as possible into college. What an uncomplicated solution to generating wealth–just award scholarships, build more colleges, hire more faculty, and just watch as the American Dream comes to everyone.
The college “completion agenda” has helped community colleges face facts about where they fall short. But if the focus on completion gets too singular, two-year colleges run the risk of neglecting student access and even the quality of learning on their campuses.
Two bills requiring online, open-source material for the top 50 college courses in California have been overwhelmingly approved by the State Senate, according to the Associated Press.
A generation ago Charles Sykes wrote a controversial, provocative, but I think 90 percent correct book, ProfScam. I think a better than decent case can be made for a new book, a sequel if you will, called CollegeScam. Professors are not the only ones engaged in using higher education for personal power and glory.
“Is College Too Easy?” is the headline of a superb story by Daniel de Vise on page one of today’s Washington Post. In it, de Vise presents in substantial detail data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) that show students study relatively little. Average total time on all academic work amounts to about 27 hours a week, the story says.
Since the typical student is in class at best 32 weeks a year, the total annual hours spent “learning” is on average about 864 (27 x 32), less than one-half the time the student’s parents are spending on their jobs, partly to support the education of their child. As de Vise notes, five-year-old kids in kindergarten spend about as much time on school work as 20-year-old college students.
And, as the story notes, it wasn’t always that way. In the Dark Ages of 1961 (when this writer was an undergraduate), students typically spent about 40 hours weekly on their studies—more or less the same work week of adult workers.
Where is the “scam?” It comes from the calls from the president and others such as the Lumina and Gates Foundation that nearly everyone should go to college, that the learning gained in college is vital. It comes from the hundreds of billions of dollars in federal grants, loans, state government subsidies, and tax-sheltered gifts that are spent on higher education, some to build luxury dorms and rec centers, or provide comfortable seating for tycoons attending ball-throwing contests.
The scam is not confined to students. The faculty are complicit as well, first by creating the lax academic standards, personified by grade inflation, that allow the students to do less for more (largely thanks to subsidies coming from outside the academy). Senior faculty still largely teach what they want and when they want—and often very little. As Mark Bauerlein has pointed out to me, they are not lazy (or at least not many of them), but they are doing trivial, selfish things too often. A large portion of research is seldom cited or read, designed mainly to get faculty tenure or enhance their prestige within a very small subset of the population. The heavy lifting (large undergraduate survey courses) are often taught by low-paid adjuncts and grad students. We have a class of academic aristocrats who use the cheap hired help to do a large portion of the core academic function.
And then there is the administration. This is the group of university employees that has grown the fastest, with ever larger and deeper levels of bureaucracy permeating almost every campus. These folks command a growing share of university resources, but most faculty and many students I know believe, mostly correctly in my opinion, that you could wipe out a huge hunk of these so-called support personnel without damaging the quality of the academic offerings—indeed, you might enhance it. Any examination of pay of top administrators over the past decade or so shows that this group has scooped up a fair number of the dollars dropped out of airplanes (or the equivalent) on student homes and academic campuses. What economists call rent-seeking is alive and well on academic campuses.
To be sure, this assessment is arguably too harsh. There are still many college students who study 30 hours or more a week and are learning as much or more than their parents or grandparents did while in school. Engineers typically study vastly more than business and communication majors. And some schools seem to have more rigorous standards than others. According to de Vise, students at Centre College or Washington and Lee study over 20 hours weekly, while those at George Mason (14 hours) or Howard University (11 hours) study less than the already pathetically low average. And the use of adjuncts to teach mass sections of undergraduates to free up senior faculty for research is rare at liberal-arts colleges. Moreover, much research is truly meaningful and done by hard-working professors whose pay is relatively modest by professional standards.
Still, when something becomes costly or unproductive, people look for cheaper substitutes. Despite being sheltered by massive government subsidies, the process of looking for new models of certifying competence and knowledge is accelerating, and transformative change may be coming to higher education.
*This post originally appeared on the “Innovations” blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education on May 23, 2012.
I thought this was funny:
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H/T: Jason Fertig
A week or so ago Richard Vedder delivered an address to Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center in Washington, DC. The topic was the large outstanding student loan balance and the role federal policy has contributed to rising student debt. Video of the even
t is available at Hillsdale’s YouTube page:
For all the lip service about universities being “market places of ideas” and havens for unpopular thoughts, three stories over the last week or two drive home the reality that there is a clamor by many in the academic community for either ideologic
al conformity or resistance to “interference” from the Real World that feeds it.
Naomi Riley puts up a blog that said what I believe many people in higher education have long believed but were largely afraid to say: Black-studies programs in the United States are weak academically; moreover, employers have apparently not clamored for black-studies graduates, and enrollments are stagnant or falling in many institutions. Ms. Riley did not spend a lot of time researching the issue (which, in her defense, is not terribly unusual with blogs), and she could have eased the uproar a good deal by noting that academic weaknesses are not exclusively confined to black-studies programs. A similar criticism is often made about, say, colleges of education, and other so-called “studies” programs that are allegedly interdisciplinary in nature but often seem to me more nondisciplinary. Black studies is not the only area in the university seemingly driven as much by ideology as by facts and reason. Ms. Riley was crucified, accused of being racist (absurd given her marriage to a black man and mothering two inter-racial children), and after 6,500 people complained fiercely, she was dropped by the Chronicle. The editor said “Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles.” Riley called it “mob rule,” and that got me thinking: Isn’t that a growing problem generally in higher education?
Over the last year or so, a seemingly altogether different kerfuffle has been brewing in Texas. The University of Texas or its supporters mobilized a frontal attack on the release of data on UT faculty teaching loads, and what was viewed as hostile analysis of it (I bore some of the brunt of that attack for the report I co-authored on faculty productivity and costs), and when 200,000 or so persons complained that know-nothings were trying to destroy the greatness of UT, the Board of Regents appeared to back off meaningful attempts at reform. After a hiatus, the war has erupted again over the governor’s audacity to oppose a tuition increase at UT, which has nearly triple the endowment of any other public school. Again, it appears that the administration of UT is trying to mobilize public support to try to enact a tuition increase that is perceived important to maintaining the academic good life.
Also, controversy recently emerged from a Wall Street Journal article by Buzz Bissinger that advocated the end of intercollegiate football. This led to a huge response. The most astute came from Sally Schott, who opined “Of course, college football should be banned, along with war, pestilence, famine, disease, leaf blowers and wearing pajama pants in public… unlike college football, the latter six stand some remote eventual chance of riddance.”
Generalizing from this academic menage a trois, the academy loves to use group protests to intimidate or silence those with politically incorrect views, to preserve financial prosperity, and maintain academically dubious programs, be they black studies or high-level intercollegiate football.
Interestingly, some of the time, such as in the case of Naomi Riley, the academy uses intimidation and vicious name-calling to enforce a conformity of expressed views that is the very antithesis of the Enlightenment out of which the modern university sprung. In these cases, the academy argues that the Real World has no right to interfere, and that piddling little things like the First Amendment are irrelevant, since the Academy must be independent of the Real Word in order to function in a vibrant fashion.
Yet, on other occasions, such as when policy and opinion makers threaten revenues or something truly sacrosanct, like football, the Real World is mobilized to shut down proposals for change or innovation. The groupie jock alums are mobilized to insist that we continue to pursue Greatness by spending more on ball-throwing contests.
Of course, serious scholarship on the African-American experience in America is going on in English, economics, and history departments, dramatically reducing the rationale for separate black-studies programs (side note: I did some pioneering work myself on the exploitation of slaves). Of course, UT’s endowment reportedly rose by well over $2-billion from FY 2010 to FY 2011 alone, and that the use of the interest on this money alone for current operations would allow tuition freezes or even reductions without new spending cuts at UT. Of course, scandal on top of scandal in college sports this year mars the academy (the best recent account: David Ridpath’s Tainted Glory).
Yet the academy increasingly says to scholars within its walls: conform or get out, and to others its says, keep giving us money (appropriations, gifts, ticket and sky box purchases) but leave us alone—unless we need you.
*This post originally appeared on the “Innovations” blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education on May 16, 2012.
A couple of weeks back, NPR’s “All Things Considered” had a segment on the “explosion” of online learning and the implications this will have going forward for hig
her education. NPR’s Steve Henn, I thought anyway, had an insightful comment about the risk an online learning model would allow someone who is nothing more than a “shut-in, matriculating couch potato” (to use Robert Seigel’s term in the segment) from never leaving his bedroom and yet obtaining a college degree. While that is certainly a legitimate concern (and one of a number of reasons why many people are understandably skeptical of online learning in general), I think Henn’s response was appropos:
while perhaps someday, there may be people who never leave their basement, I think at this point, there are many thousands more people around the world who really, this is a window that opens and allows them to see a bigger, broader piece of the world than they could before.
Like Kevin Carey, I think the real promise with online learning lies in its potential to offer “Massively Open Online Courses,” dramatically expanding access to the world’s best teachers or researchers. That’s why I think Henn is correct when he says now is not the time to worry about the insular individuals because of the vast size of the untapped market. The value to the student who is one of those unreached lies not so much in obtaining a traditional degree as it does in obtaining a new form of credential, either as a stand-alone credential or as part of a broader portfolio-in-lieu-of-college-degree (as Andrew Coulson terms it, a savoir-faire). Then again, as Bryan Caplan reminds us, to the extent that college education and the degree serves as a signalling device, online education and alternative credentialing may not wind up having as much of an effect as most people think.
Government grants for basic research are defensible because, by definition, basic research generates only external benefits. Subsidizing tuition by means of below-market student loans makes less sense. If the loans, not being subsidized, were more costly, tuition would be lower; and promising students would still receive scholarships and low-cost loans, financed by the universities themselves, because universities want to have good students (along with student athletes, legacies, and “diversity” admits), to build reputation and attract good faculty. Many students who receive subsidized loans to enable them to go to college, but would not be subsidized by a university, would be better off not going to college. College is not for everyone.
But even if student loans are what many economists consider “good debt,” an increasing number of borrowers are struggling to pay them off, and in the process becoming mired in a financial morass.
Unless Congress acts soon, the interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans will rise from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, on July 1. Democrats and Republicans both want to postpone the increase for a year, to placate student voters, but they disagree on how to cover its cost.
The Saylor Foundation has been building an online catalog of free, self-paced college courses since 2010. But students who completed those courses could not typically earn credit toward a degree, since the nonprofit group is not an accredited institution. Saylor’s new partnership with the online course-provider StraighterLine seeks to change that, giving students an inexpensive way to earn academic credit using freely available materials.
Charles Miller, chair of the Spellings Commission, reminded me the other day that that panel in its report referred to the federal financial aid system as “dysfunctional.” I think I (as a member of the commission) picked the word and Charles seized u
pon it. More than five years have passed, and the system now has been promoted to “uber dysfunctional.”
Let me outline seven problems or “sins” with the program, some of which I outlined earlier in a piece for National Review Online.
1. The low interest rates (3.4 percent currently, and likely to continue) on federal subsidized Stafford loans are set by the political process, not market forces. Loose Federal Reserve monetary policy along with irresponsible lending by such government subsidized agencies as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac contributed hugely to the housing bubble and 2008 financial crisis, and federal student loans today are having a smaller but still sizable detrimental effect in higher education.
2. Loan terms are invariant–the wealthy, bright kid almost certain to graduate from Cal Tech in engineering into a high paying job gets the same loan terms as the risky student of marginal educational background attending a school with a high dropout rate, and who majors in ethnic studies, English, social work, or education–subjects whose graduates usually get relatively low-paying jobs. Thus, subsidies are implicitly greater for mediocre students than good ones, and the same is true for majors that are less valued in the job market.
3. There is good evidence that the student-loan explosion has contributed to the tuition explosion of the past three decades or so; cheap loans increase the demand for higher education and reduce the supply in a way that raises the cost of attending school. Former Secretary Bill Bennett hypothesized this relationship in 1987, and it is even truer today than 25 years ago.
4. That said, the net effect of student loans is to increase enrollments, leading to dual problems. First, the quality of the incremental students on average is probably lower than those who would have attended in the absence of loans, leading to more mediocre students, a dumbing down of material, an easing of student expectations–all of which has happened (read Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift). Also, the number of graduates now far exceeds the number of traditional college-graduate entry level jobs. Hence we are now in the era where well over 100,000 janitors have college degrees. This has contributed to the anger and angst over servicing over $1-trillion in student loan debt.
5. As currently run, the U.S. government has become essentially a monopoly provider of student loans, robbing students of the variation in options and competition between private providers, etc. Just as the U.S. Postal Service and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles will never win awards for customer satisfaction, the same can be said of the U.S. government’s loan program.
6. The student loan and related federal grant programs have spawned the infamous Fafasa form, hated historically for its complexity (over 100 questions) and the fact that it is a significant barrier to application, especially among low-income persons not used to completing long government bureaucratic documents. It also allows the colleges to engage in price discrimination of its customers to a degree that no other providers of services can.
7. The problem above, along with the tuition price explosion, has led to a smaller percentage of low-income recent college graduates today than was true in, say, 1970, before loan programs were as large as now. A program designed originally to promote equal educational and economic opportunity may well have contributed to rising, not falling, income equality in the United States.
The Congress and the President are tinkering with a failed system, giving it a Band-Aid in the form of essentially zero-interest (in inflation adjusted terms) loans until after the election, if things go as predicted in the Senate and House-Senate Conference. It is time to start from scratch with a newer, more innovative, approach. I hope to discuss this more in subsequent epistles.
*This post originally appeared on the “Innovations” blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education on May 4, 2012.
Back in February, InsideHigherEd reported on efforts underway at the American Historical Association (working with th
e Lumina Foundation) to “define what an associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree in history should mean.” As reporter Scott Jaschik noted at the time, this was the first time a disciplinary association has sought to implement Lumina’s idea for defining specific and targeted outcomes for students. While I’m by no means qualified to comment upon the propriety (or for that matter the efficacy) from an academic perspective on the particular standards the Association focused on, I did think James Grossman, executive director of the Association, was right on the money when he said that “[w]e need to ask what we want our students to learn. It’s not what do we want to teach.”
This is very much the attitude academia needs to begin with. Otherwise, professors can too readilty lose focus (if some haven’t already) of their mission as teachers; teachers not just in general but teachers of their own specific students. Without an embracing of the proper attitudes, faculty could fall into the error of just teaching their own very narrow (though perhaps somewhat interesting) academic interest with only a passing consideration of its usefulness to the world as a whole or falling into the trap of neglecting to account for what Arnold Kling terms the “disconnect between the academic talents of the professors and the more ordinary abilities of the students.” I wonder if it’s actually a failure to recognize the existence of this disconnect that is at the heart of some of the current ills in higher education.
My colleague Roy Boyd and I were complaining about the latest excesses in intercollegiate athletics (ICA) at our school (Ohio University), when Roy opined that a large number of the seven deadly sins were involved. Upon further reflections, I think<
em> all seven of those sins have been part of the ICA scene in recent years.
I will use a slightly updated (from Biblical times) list of the sins as used by Dante in the Divine Comedy, very close to what I understand to be the official doctrine today of the Roman Catholic Church regarding such matters.
1. Lechery or Lust: Of course, the Penn State scandal seems rooted in lust, but so are many others. Football coaches have been sacked at several schools (e.g., the University of Arkansas, University of Colorado) over scandals related to the provision or inappropriate pursuit of sexual favors.
2. Gluttony: Excessive spending and consumption pervades high level and even mid-major college sports. Coaches love to brag to competitors, “my indoor practice facility (weight room, office, artificial-surface football field) is bigger/nicer than yours.” This has contributed to the athletics arms race.
3. Avarice/Greed: Arguably the most pervasive of the sins, the pursuit of wealth and power is the hallmark of modern intercollegiate athletics. The mega-million dollar salaries, exploitation of students in the pursuit of wealth (e.g., the NCAA), etc., are all about greed.
4. Discouragement/Sloth: True, most of the successful participants in ICA are anything but slothful (lazy), yet the culture of ICA discourages hard academic work, and stories abound of athletes taking no-work courses, of schools canceling classes to allow the party atmosphere around big games to fester, etc. News reports claim that even Berkeley administrators are telling instructors not to schedule midterms on days when the team has a Friday night home game.
5. Wrath: Again, the competitive juices that lead to entertaining matches sometimes boil over into excessive anger accompanied by physical force. Players have been intentionally maimed, coaches have hit their own players, etc. For decades, Bobby Knight’s temper tantrums were a fixture of college basketball.
6. Envy: Much of the spending spree has been motivated by envy–a desire to not only keep up with competitors but also a desire to reduce their power and glory in order to improve one’s own relative position.
7. Pride, Hubris: Supposedly the deadliest of the deadly sins, the desire to be more important, more regarded than others, is at the heart of the athletics arms race. All the talk about the favorable financial and applicant gains associated with athletic success are all cover-ups for the hubris involved.
My discussion with Roy was prompted by news from Ohio University. A few weeks ago, our basketball team went far, making the NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen. Our $250,000 a year basketball coach, John Groce, behaved rationally–within a few nanoseconds (it seemed) of season’s end, he departed for the University of Illinois for roughly five times the salary. Ohio University then hired a new coach, with a below .500 record at Texas Christian, as head coach at $425,000 a year–70 percent more than the previous coach was paid (but less than his TCU salary). The football coach, Frank Solich, making a paltry $330,000 a year despite a pretty good record, probably marched into the athletic director’s office and demanded to make more than the basketball coach, and reportedly is now being given a $100,000 raise. A successful basketball season leads to a $100,000 raise for the football coach–go figure.
Stories like this are going on all over the country. In the same year that I was told I could no longer have a phone because of budget constraints, my university is increasing intercollegiate athletic subsidies because it succumbed to some of the Seven Deadly Sins.
College sports is not Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. The fatal problem is the Iron Law of Sports: every time someone wins a game, someone else loses. It is mathematically impossible for a majority of schools to excel at the major sports. A majority of schools, including mine, almost certainly can never really succeed on any sustained basis, since they lack the population base or the following to realistically generate the revenues justifying extravagant expenditure. The fact that they continue to try shows how subsidies and tuition fees collected by higher education have often been misused in wasteful, even anti-academic, ways.
*This post originally appeared on the “Innovations” blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education on May 1, 2012.