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The Benefits of Prestige-Seeking Behavior

Posted on May 21st, 2013, by Comments Off

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.


Chart of the Week: Average Discount Rate

Posted on May 10th, 2013, by 1 Comment

Earlier this week Kevin Kiley’s reporting for InsideHigherEd on the recent NACUBO report on tuition discounting included this interesting chart.


Tax U

Posted on May 9th, 2013, by Comments Off

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.


Correcting the Record

Posted on May 9th, 2013, by Comments Off

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 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.


Make Student Athletics Fees Non-Mandatory

Posted on May 8th, 2013, by Comments Off

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.


Quote of the Week

Posted on May 7th, 2013, by Comments Off

Matt Reed:

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?


Thoughts on Cooper Union

Posted on April 29th, 2013, by Comments Off

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.


Tying Student-Loan Interest Rates to Market Rates

Posted on April 12th, 2013, by 1 Comment

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.


Certain College Advertising Is OK

Posted on April 12th, 2013, by 1 Comment

Barry Mills, the President of Bowdoin College, makes what to me is a slightly curious remark in the course of responding to a recent report on the college published by the National Association of Scholars. Mills takes issue with the NAS report's characterization of the college's curriculum (since I haven't read the report myself, I can't speak to the accuracy of Mills' reading of the report). In response Mills says the following:

Yes, there are some courses offered at Bowdoin that come with provocative titles

In my view, the title and course description are what get you in the

door… (emphasis in original)

In other words, course titles

and descriptions are merely the academic form advertising. But I thought that advertising in higher education was to be frowned upon. Or is that only in the case when the institution doing the advertising is owned by a for-profit entity? If only the University of Phoenix had

thought to style itself the “University of Advanced Gender Studies,” they would not have raised the ire of Senator Harkin. Or maybe advertising per se is fine as long as it isn't billed as “advertising.”


CCAP In the News

Posted on April 5th, 2013, by Comments Off

A few prominent media hits for CCAP during the past week or two:

  • In a special project on student loans, The Guardian uses CCAP research for statistics on student-loan debt, underemployment, and related information.
  • The Huffington Post reports on college graduates working minimum-wage jobs and underemployment.
  • The Philadelphia Daily News references CCAP for an article on student debt and collegiate athletics spending surrounding the NCAA basketball tournament.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on the financial burden of collegiate athletics spending for all but a few sports programs in higher education.
  • Russia Today writes an article about underemployment based on CCAP’s recent study.