Note: This is a guest post by Jan Škapa, a student at Brno University of Technology and Masaryk University, who met Richard Vedder at a seminar in Prague, Czech Republic last summer, and is a local coordinator for European Students For Liberty.
On ‘Education’ in General
I love education. And what I mean when I say “education” might differ from how most people define it. By “education,” I don’t mean just sitting in a physical classroom and listening to instructors. Yes, that is a specific type of conveying information, but it is quite literally an old-school model by which many people do not learn effectively.
When I say education, I mean the fascinating mental process of the human mind, which takes inputs and produces new ideas that consequently influence human action. The crucial aspect is that the mind needs to be ready and desirous of education; otherwise, the process fails, no matter how hard it’s forced from outside (and when forced, the mind relaxes and returns to familiar patterns, disregarding the new inputs).
To illustrate what I mean, let’s take an example of a person who just got a new computer. The person can either:
1) self-educate, i.e. learn how to operate the computer on his own;
2) get educated, i.e. find written instructions, seek help from an experienced user, or sign up for a class;
3) relax, i.e. give the computer to someone else, refusing to learn.
Stanford Online AI Class of 2011
Two years ago, I took an online course from Stanford University on artificial intelligence. I completed the course in the advanced track, and it felt like one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had. I love computer science and technology, so I was excited to learn about AI. However, putting that aside, the idea of massive online education fascinated me, maybe even as much as the course subject itself.
The number of people who took the course with me was astonishing: 160,000. By far, not all of them finished, and not all of them watched the first lecture. Nonetheless, just the feeling that thousands of people from around the world were getting educated in the same topic from the same leading experts was uplifting and very encouraging for me.
The year I took the course was the year when I finished high school and started university: neither of which, however, were in the United States. I went to high school in a small Moravian city, and transitioned to the largest Moravian city to attend university — all of which in the so-called “heart of Europe,” the Czech Republic.
Looking back, I must admit that high school — with mandatory attendance for every class — felt very much like prison to me. I was excited to go to university because it provided me with a chance to learn rather than “to get educated;” the learning part came primarily from the huge amount of free time that most Czech students enjoy. I was set free — and taking a Stanford course was a perfect way to start utilizing this freedom.
However, I didn’t stop there.
Universities and MOOCs
The university environment is very fruitful, but its costs are outpacing of its benefits, especially on the margin. That holds true for the United States as it does for the Czech Republic. Even though Czech students don’t directly pay for the institutions, the inefficiencies are clear when it requires more money from taxpayers (adjusted for inflation) to educate one student than it did a few years ago. The same goes for American higher education where the problem is much more visible thanks to a partial price system.
It seems to me that there is a disconnect between what is perceived as education and what education actually is. I’ve completed about 10 massive open online courses and two years of university, so I think I can compare my experience.
I’ve learned a lot while taking courses through Coursera, Udacity, and elsewhere. I’ve pursued my interests directly, but also discovered new ideas which I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. I was awarded certificates, which are a second-hand proof of my education (moreover, they aren’t yet publicly recognized), the main proof being the knowledge I acquired.
I feel, however, that I’ve learned less at university — the environment is more static, especially at Czech universities, where students get locked into the major they chose. On the other hand, I met many people, and there are also other benefits, like learning to be on time and managing my schedule. But the degree that students earn is perceived as their “education.” So, though I’ve learned less, I am supposedly still getting my “education” at university, not elsewhere.
The Future of Education
Massive open online courses are provided primarily by universities, but they change the paradigm of education, reorienting the focus back to its roots. It is about the knowledge you get, and not about the degree. It’s rather interesting that the institutions responsible for the inefficiencies in education are also a major force in advancing education on the digital frontier.
There are still a lot of problems with massive open online courses, though — some providers haven’t found a profitable business model. There will probably be a lot of competition in this field, and good business models will prevail, while bad ones will perish. That is a good thing because, after the initial hype is over, we will have a stable market-based online educational system, which may or may not change the face of universities in a sort of backfiring loop.
I believe education will once again become more knowledge-oriented, and less degree-oriented. That’s what education is about anyway — learning new things, which are useful for the individual and his or her life. We will see what role MOOCs will play — whether they will be just a transitional phenomenon or not.
There are far more students than professors in higher education, and the system is supposed to be set up for the aspirants, not the academics. I want universities to have robust, supported faculty, and I’m a professor myself, but MOOC-triggered alarms that that focus solely on faculty positions put the teacher first, learner last.
A while back the Wall Street Journal has a potentially ominous report about law schools:
Since the financial meltdown of 2008 and resulting economic recession, dozens of law schools, including those at George Washington University, in Washington; University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, based in San Francisco; and Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., have announced smaller class sizes. A survey conducted last summer by Kaplan Test Prep found that 51% of U.S. law schools had cut their admissions. The study didn’t identify the schools that made cuts.
But the move by Northwestern’s law school [to decrease the size of its incoming by 10%], based in Chicago, signals just how sharply the demand for young lawyers has dropped in recent years, and to a grim new prospect for law schools: that the legal profession may never return to its prerecession prosperity.
As the article notes later on (quoting law professor Bill Henderson), the underlying rationale for these schools to cut their class sizes is that doing so allows them to preserve institutional selectivity, in no small part to secure their places in law school rankings. Despite all the problems one might identify with prestige-seeking behavior in higher education, this is a good example of how the desire to maximize prestige can actually serve as a motive for corrective action. If we stipulate that there is indeed an oversupply of lawyers in the U.S. labor market, then perhaps the best way (and, I suspect, the most efficient way on a societal level) to address that problem is to begin curtailing law school enrollments. Notice that cutting enrollments is actually in the best interest of institutions who pursue prestige. For them, by cutting enrollments (which, for highly selective institutions implies cutting admissions) in the face of declining applications (which are themselves in response to the tepid job market for law school graduates), they are avoiding the awful specter of a decrease in institutional selectivity. An inputs-focus is certainly not all bad.
Earlier this week Kevin Kiley’s reporting for InsideHigherEd on the recent NACUBO report on tuition discounting included this interesting chart.
A little while ago, Eric Kelderman had a story in the Chronicle that is, if not surprising to some, surely is distressing:
Thirty-four colleges audited recently by the Internal Revenue Service underpaid their taxes on unrelated business income by nearly $90-million, and nearly 20 percent of the private colleges in the group violated rules for nonprofit organizations in determining the compensation of their chief executives, according to a final report issued on Thursday by the federal agency.
But the real kicker comes from later on in the IRS report. As Kelderman describes it,
The audits, the report says, “identified some significant issues … that may well be present elsewhere across the tax-exempt sector.”
Back in 2007 or so, a movement was beginning to coalesce around certain proposals to regulate and limit colleges abilities to use their endowments to build up institutional wealth. While this push rightly died in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis (which hit college and university endowments with a vengeance), this new IRS report may provide something of a new impetus for increased scrutiny to colleges’ finances. Rather than poking away at an endowment problem that is only tangentially related (as I see it) to increasing college affordability, focusing on a failure to abide by the existing laws and regulations is preferable because 1) the focus is on rectifying a problem of which we know (or have good reason to suspect) and 2) it avoids the political fallout of having to propose and implement a new regulatory regime that, if we are honest, may have unintended consequences such that the cure is worse than the disease.
There has, of late, been a bit of a firestorm over a post from CBS MoneyWatch that uses some of the data CCAP has compiled from RateMyProfessor.com. In this post for MindingtheCampus, I try to clarify things and explain why we think the CBS MoneyWatch list is an inappropriate use of our data.
Last summer I testified before the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on the subject of student activity fees and suggested that one way state lawmakers can appropriately seek to rein in college costs for students would be to make student activity fees at public institutions non-mandatory (by allowing students to opt-out of such fees). Of course, some fees should be non-mandatory (in the sense that they depend exclusively on the student’s decision to matriculate), for example, a fee collected to pay for library services. But some fees, particularly athletics fees, are only ancillary to the academic mission than are library fees. As I put it in my testimony, an institution can be a good university without a football team; it is impossible to be one without a library (even if it is only in a digital form, I might add). The latest news on student athletics fees at the University of New Mexico is a further illustration of the propriety of making these fees non-mandatory.
In their way, remedial courses are as close to purely competency-based as anything we do. It’s just that we insist on shoving them into our semester structures. Wouldn’t MOOCs make absolutely wonderful supplements for developmental classes, especially in math?
The news that Cooper Union will, effective 2014, charge undergraduates tuition (the school, with a sticker price of $40,250, automatically offers all undergraduate students a full-tuition scholarship) puts that school in the same camp as others that face protests over their decisions to increase tuition. Because of Cooper Union’s venerable tradition of charging students no tuition, however, the shift is far more significant than the school that increases tuition by 4 percent next year, just like it did last year.
The reports on this story note a number of possible causes for Cooper Union’s decision. One relates to rising faculty costs and holds that, as costs to hire and retain quality rise (through no fault of the school), the financial constraints on the school left it with no option but to seek a new source of revenue. On the flip side, others note that Cooper Union has seen at least some growth in administration, and cost drivers that are caused by administrative expansion certainly remain within the institution’s control. Both of those stories contain some measure of truth.
What I found most interesting about this story, though, was an aside in the New York Times:
Last year, Cooper Union hired a consulting firm to consider the effect of collecting tuition from undergraduates. (Officially the college lists a price of $38,500 a year, but extends to all students what it calls a full-tuition scholarship.)
The firm advised against reducing the scholarships by more than 25 percent. Anything beyond that, it said, would weaken the applicant pool and arouse expectations for costly amenities that the college does not offer. (emphasis added)
I’m reminded of the remark Claudia Dreifus (co-author of the book Higher Education?) once made when she recounted anecdotal evidence from prospective students’ visits to colleges: the parents were asking about the quality of amenities on campus, but never about the quality of classroom instruction. When the people pay the tuition bills ask for it, it is hard not to pin at least a smidgen of blame on them for rising college costs. Don’t just blame the highly paid administrators; it seems that the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
President Obama’s proposal on Wednesday to tie student loan interest rates to government borrowing costs has received opposition from some who usually support the president’s higher-education initiatives. The immediate effect would decrease the interest rates on loans, but probably increase in the long run, as The Atlantic illustrates. However, instead of focusing on whether the proposal would increase or decrease interest rates, policymakers should question the conventional wisdom about expanding loans to more students.
When it’s acknowledged that about four in 10 college students don’t finish their degrees within six years, keeping interest rates low and widely available isn’t benevolent policy for students so much as trapping them in debt with no degree to justify it. The debate about student-loan rates needs to move beyond motives and focuses on policy outcomes; until then, the unintended effects will be ignored and “student advocates” will continue to harm them. Students should have options beyond college and high levels of debt, and to assume college holds the only path to success stinks of elitism and denigration of alternative pathways.
Interest rates shouldn’t be kept artificially low to encourage more students; they should reflect market risk and opportunity cost so students don’t blindly choose college. The easy money for college students feeds higher spending and tuition by colleges and universities; why worry about restraining costs when students can always find the money to pay? The efficiency of the student-loan program as a whole is questionable; if the desirable policy goal aims to benefit college students, the student-loan program might not even meet that standard.