Bill Gates on Higher Ed Reform

Posted on November 13th, 2012, by 1 Comment

I only now came across Bill Gates’ review (published a couple of weeks ago) of the blockbuster book, Academically Adrift. There were a few snippets from Gates which I thought are worth chewing over:

Overall, the book depicts a culture in academia where undergraduate learning is only a peripheral concern; where the professors don’t want to assign complicated papers because grading them is hard work; where the main feedback is course evaluations from students who  dislike writing complicated papers; where there’s an attitude of, “Don’t mess with us and we won’t mess with you.” And there’s no accountability for any of it…

…I’m optimistic about the potential of innovation to help solve many of the problems with our post-secondary system. But we need more and better information. I’m reminded of a point made by Andrew Rosen of Kaplan, the for-profit education company, that colleges today know more about how many kids attend basketball games and which alumni give money than how many students showed up for economics class during the week, or which alumni are having a hard time meeting their career goals because of shortcomings in their education.

While certainly would second the motion that we need “more and better information,” from where I sit, I think the chief problem in higher ed today is actually what Gates mentions at the beginning of the passage I quoted. What really needs to happen is for student learning to move from the periphery to the primary focus. New and improved information is only worth in the context of achieving that overarching goal.

Cheating U 2

Posted on November 12th, 2012, by 1 Comment

Every once in a while I find myself fixated for a time on the latest cheating scandal du jour on American college campuses (for a taste of this, see here and here and here and here). Sometimes the scandal involves student behavior (the classic example would be “The Shadow Scholar” article published by the Chronicle two years ago to the day), but other times it is relatively high ranking school officials engaging in illicit calculations (the Claremont McKenna College scandal of earlier this year being the most prominent example). Other times the scandal is out and out academic fraud, culminating in revelations of researchers fabricating entire empirical studies, such as the one recently reported concerning Yoshitaka Fujii in Japan.

Now the latest scandal of dishonesty to hit the news comes from the heart of the nation’s capital (queue the political jokes) and from the campus of George Washington University (queue the cherry tree jokes). As the Chronicle reported, “George Washington University’s admissions office misreported data on the class rank of incoming students for more than a decade… [which] resulted from a combination of good data and faulty ‘estimates.'” In one sense, the GW saga is less scintillating than the Claremont McKenna one. For starters, CMC is a top 10 school (according to U.S. News) while GW barely misses out on the top 50. While one might suppose that GW was cooking the books to effect an increase in rank, one would have a much bigger hill to climb to credibly make the same assertion about CMC. That said, there is no justification for either case; the CMC case dealt with overt data falsification and the GW case dealt with practices that are explicitly forbidden in the data guidelines U.S. News sends to schools.

Somewhat understandably the InsideHigherEd story focuses on the implications the GW data manipulation has for the U.S. News rankings. Part of the problem with viewing the scandal primarily through this lens is that it tends to ignore the possibility that this kind of less-than-laudatory behavior may very well occur absent any motive related to rankings. In fact, that appears to have been exactly what was going in the Claremont scandal: the underlying cause had more to do with the bickering between the dean of admissions and the college president over institutional policy than it did with the U.S. News rankings (and, in fact, the data falsification in that case did not change Claremont McKenna’s rank anyway).

I suspect that if we could indeed imagine a world without rankings, we would realize two disconcerting facts: 1) it’s not easy, and 2) we’d still be left dealing with problems related with institutionally reported data, if for no other reason than that there would still be motive for some to fraudulently burnish their image for prospective students, parents and the general public. In fact, I tend to view the existence of rankings as both providing much needed consumer information in higher ed that would otherwise not be available but also as facilitating our ability to catch those who do massage the data improperly. Taking the GW scandal as an example, I would argue that it would have been much more difficult to discover and establish that numbers were being cooked absent the presence of rankings. First off, if there are no U.S. News rankings, there would be no U.S. News guidelines on data reporting, implying that there would be even more disagreement than at present over what should be considered standard reporting practice. Second, if the school had thought it could get away with manipulating data without much (if any fear) of retribution because almost no one would think twice about reported class ranks (the notable exception being prospective students and their parents on a campus tour), it would not have had any less motive to engage in the practice and much less reason to disclose it (because if others are doing the same thing, why harm yourself by being the only one to raise the red flag?).

The bottom line in my view? It goes back to the issue of cheating. Should we really wonder why students seem to like cheating so much (McCabe et al estimate it’s somewhat more than two-thirds of all students) if the schools in which they are incubated are doing much the same with more regularity than we would care to think

Forward on Student Loans

Posted on November 12th, 2012, by Leave a comment

In terms of a refreshing, step-back-and-look-at-the-big-picture, Bryan Caplan’s answers to objections to a

free market in educational loans is at the

top of the list.

Milton Friedman on Universities

Posted on November 7th, 2012, by 1 Comment

While perusing in the archives, I came across this quote from Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman on the business model of universities (in a 1991 interview with Forbes magazine) that is as salient now as ever:

I have always argued that universities are multiproduct enterprises. They produce three major products: schooling, research and monuments.

Even separately, any one of those three missions can be expensive (particularly when a university is trying to impress mom and dad with a brand new, Donald Trump-esque college). Combining all three of those enterprises under one roof can easily lead to the scenario in which the total is much greater than the sum of the parts.

Now That’s Some Business Model!

Posted on November 1st, 2012, by Leave a comment

If you want to learn more about the University of Michigan’s costs, finances and tuition pricing policies? How about enrolling in a course offered by UM entitled, “The Challenge of College Affordability: Financing the University.” As Matthew Dolan reported for the Wall Street Journal,

Fifty-six students are registered this semester for “The Challenge of College Affordability: Financing the University,” a series of seven two-hour lectures taught by top administrators at the public university. The course, geared toward sophomores, is designed to explain where the school gets revenue, what drives its costs and how that translates into tuition rates and financial-aid packages.

“We were interested in elevating the thinking about the topic,” said Phil Hanlon, the university provost who co-teaches the course. “It is often the case that it’s controlled by sound bites.”

Mr. Hanlon and his co-instructor, Vice Provost Martha Pollack, said the course tells the school’s side of the story but not at the expense of a balanced, academic approach. “We wanted students to reach a better understanding of the issue, particularly the interaction between academic quality, cost of attendance, investment in financial aid and expenditure reductions we’re doing on campus,” said Mr. Hanlon, who is the school’s chief academic and budget officer.

So let me get this straight: if you want to be able to hear a defense and/or analysis of the existing operating model and tuition pricing policies at elite public universities, you must first pay tuition (set, of course, by existing pricing policy) for the privilege of attending a class devoted to that subject at one of those elite public universities. That’s absolutely brilliant.

College Sports DO Have Positive Spillover Effects!

Posted on October 25th, 2012, by 1 Comment

While I have wondered before whether college athletics really have the benefits so often attributed to them, it turns out that they do, in fact, have some rather important positive externalities. It’s just those spillover effects are not necessarily the kind one would immediately think of when addressing the topic of college athletics. In a piece for Slate, Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier point me to this paper by Andrew Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Mo which demonstrated that there is “clear evidence that the successes and failures of the local college football team before Election Day significantly influence the electoral prospects of the incumbent party, suggesting that voters reward and punish incumbents for changes in their well-being unrelated to government performance.” The paper shows that football victories within 1o days of Election Day boosts the incumbent’s vote share by 0.8 percentage points, with larger effects for localities with teams that generate high attendance or are powerhouse programs.

However, on second thought, I’m not so sure that I can really call these “positive spillover effects.” After all, whether or not they are “positive,” really depends on how one views the particular incumbent in each political race. If the incumbent happens to be on the other side (as defined from each voter’s individual perspective), then the spillover effect would be a negative one, so whether this effect yields an overall social benefit is a wash. The only problem now is that some politicians may decide to call for more spending on college athletics in the hope of stimulating their vote in the next election (just kidding!).

Minnesota Struggling to Enter 21st Century?

Posted on October 22nd, 2012, by 2 Comments

The internet was abuzz last week after the Chronicle of Higher Education broke the news that Coursera, the free online course provider, had updated its terms of service to inform residents of the Gopher State that “under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so.” Coursera had added this language after pressure from the Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education, citing a law dating back a couple of decades (the letter from the State to Coursera is available here).

Substantial backlash on this move (see Robert Talbot for the ChronicleAlex Tabarrok of MarginalRevolution or Will Oremus of Slate) caused Minnesota to do a little bit of backpedaling (or clarification, depending on how charitable one feels toward the Office of Higher Education). As Nick Anderson of the Washington Post reported, Larry Pogemiller, director of the Office, has followed-up the initial news reports to say that the Office was not trying to enforce a blanket prohibition of any and all free online education in the state and will allow Minnesotans the opportunity to enroll in free online courses.

It seems the law the Office was initially so keen to enforce is one that deals with degree-granting institutions, which Coursera is assuredly not. Furthermore, as others have pointed out, the rationale for the original requirement in Minnesota for degree-granting colleges and universities to obtain government permission is to protect higher education consumers (i.e., students) from scammers, a rationale which can’t apply to Coursera because 1) its courses are free and 2) it does not offer any degree. (Besides, none of the university partners of Coursera offer traditional academic credit for completion of Coursera courses.)

While it is heartening to see that the Minnesota Office of Higher Education is wanting to revisit the old law and update it to reflect the technological realities of the 21st century, I’m not so sure that the Office fully realizes how far its current rules are from reality. After all, Coursera really is not in a position to being the academic equivalent of a University of Minnesota bachelor’s degrees. While I’m sure Coursera would love to be in a position where it could offer the equivalent of a degree, it really can’t offer that at this point, at least in terms of a credential that employers would recognize as the equal of a traditional degree. If traditional universities want to be part of the technological frontier by partnering with organizations like Coursera, that should be perfectly fine. These universities are involved with Coursera, at least at this point, not to supplant their traditional model of offering degrees but to experiment with a completely different kind of educational offering. Otherwise, these institutions would allow full credit for Coursera courses and allow students to receive degrees for nothing more than proven completion of Coursera courses.

All that aside, however, if we do prohibit, in some form, free offerings of online courses, should we not also prohibit college professors from using free online sources (a YouTube video or online textbook) in their courses? Should we not also prohibit the more than 33 percent of professors who use social media in their classes? I doubt we want to open up that can of worms.

Quote of the Week

Posted on October 12th, 2012, by Leave a comment


Baumol’s theorem on cost disease only holds if you refuse to accept change. It requires you believing that you can only heal yourself if some doctor with 12 years of education spends 20 minutes talking down to you. The same holds for the college industrial complex. If you think that “college” means a fancy campus with fancy professors doing fancy research and jetting around the world, you can be assured that the prices will continue to skyrocket.

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.