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.”
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.
Students and parents, upon receiving financial-aid award letters, can have difficulty in comprehending it. A discussion may ensue about whether financial-aid administrators model themselves after Kafkaesque bureaucrats, or if colleges are in such a bubble that they imagine the letters easy to understand.
As Insider Higher Ed reports, a study by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators finds that most parents and students have difficulty deciphering how much they owe for college out-of-pocket; from 23 percent to 42 percent could answer the question after reading one of three proposed templates, depending upon which was given.
It’s important to note that, of the templates, only one has been adopted (the Education Department’s “shopping sheet”), which about 500 colleges use.
In general, colleges and universities have difficulty with transparency, but it’s particularly difficult to justify when students can’t understand the price of a higher education. True, an award letter isn’t synonymous with a bill, but when the letter doesn’t show a direct, simple connection to the cost of attending college, universities should re-evaluate their approach to providing information.
For anyone in or near Minnesota, Richard Vedder will speak at Minnesota State University-Mankato, April 9 (Tuesday), on “The Value of an American College Education: Student Engagement, Retention, and Success.” The lecture begins at 6 p.m.; it’s free and open to the public.
Kevin Kiley’s profile for InsideHigherEd of Purdue University’s new President, Mitch Daniels is well worth the read.
In their paper, “Measuring Baumol and Bowen Effects in Public Research Universities,” Robert Martin and R. Carter Hill present cost data for public research universities in the United States. They break the cost data into two broad categories: academic costs (which they define as spending on instruction, research and public service) and overhead costs (which includes spending on academic support, student services, institutional support, plant operations/maintenance, auxiliary activities, hospitals, and independent operations). They examine spending growth over two periods: 1987 to 2008 and 2008 to 2010. They use the former period to gauge the long-run spending trends in higher education (at least for the past twenty years) while they use the latter period to assess institutions’ responses to the financial crisis and recession. The average annual growth rates in the spending categories are given in the following chart.
These data show that from 1987 t0 2008, costs increased across the board: total spending increased by 2.1 percent per year, with 1.8 percent annual increases in academic costs but 2.5 percent increases in overhead costs. Because overhead costs were increasing at a faster rate than academic costs, the academic share of total costs fell slightly from 49 percent to 48 percent from 1987 to 2008. However, following the 2008 financial crisis, there was an “abrupt” break in spending trends: while academic costs increased 8.2 percent per year, overhead costs actually declined by 6.1 percent per year. Because total costs increased by 0.5 percent per year from 2008 to 2010, academic costs as a share of total costs rose from 48 percent to 55 percent in 2010.
House Republicans want to consolidate federal job training programs; House Democrats are largely opposed. California Watch published some investigative reporting which suggests that California community colleges could save millions by consolidating; however, “a litany of… financial, legal and political hurdles would stand in the way.”
Without commenting on the merits of either the House Republicans’ bill or the suggestion from California Watch, I think both may be excellent illustrations that while consolidation (in one form or another) may, on its face, present the simplest way to improve affordability in education and job training, there are numerous obstacles (and not all of them are necessarily political in nature) to the implementation of any revamping that is based on that premise.
Yesterday’s InsideHigherEd reports on an interesting new development down in the Peach State. The Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia has announced that it will assume some direct oversight authority over the athletics programs at the System’s institutions (none of which have their own separate Board). Previous System policy left control of the athletics programs exclusively at the institutional level. Though Georgia is not the first university system to make this move (apparently the University System of Maryland has already adopted a similar policy), this is, I think, very much a step in the right direction and may be an indication of things to come. Basically the new policy allows for the Board to require a formal review and approval of expansions of athletic programs. There is, however, one big loophole: the whole process is triggered by a requirement of the presidents of the various institutions to alert the System’s chancellor who then gets to decide whether or not the proposal should be forwarded to the Board. What if the Chancellor decides not to go that route? Will the new accountability measures be thwarted in that manner?
On the plus side, the reason this move makes sense is that it is odd to keep certain System functions outside of the purview of the Board whose job it is to oversee the System. If we are going to pair high-stakes athletics programs with institutions of higher education, let’s at least put it all under the channels of command. Obviously, micro-management of athletics may not be desirable (even if it were workable), but that in no way is a sufficient argument against the move by the Georgia Board to take on a modest oversight role over the athletics programs. If anything, this shift may put pressure on the institutions to be more circumspect and accountable with their athletics programs knowing that they may have to justify their plans to the Board.
CCAP’s Faculty Fellow David Ridpath has been interviewed by major media outlets during the past month. A few highlights follow:
- USA Today asked for his opinion on Miami University’s scuffle with the NCAA over an ongoing investigation:
- The New York Times discussed the benefits and costs for Florida Atlantic University from letting a private prison corporation buy stadium naming rights
- Time magazine discusses his recent research on students relative knowledge (or ignorance) on how much their fees pay for intercollegiate athletics
Part higher-education critique and part self-help, Hacking Your Education by Dale Stephens isn’t an academic deconstruction of higher education so much as a guide for pursuing an alternative education. To understand the book, it’s better to start with the epilogue. Stephens states, “How do we help people educate themselves? … I am not arguing against school, I am writing in favor of choices.” As graduates hold heavy debt loads and only 58 percent finish within six years of enrollment, it’s refreshing to read something with examples of individuals able to skirt that system and achieve success.
Stephens is anything but normal. He dropped out of school after fifth grade, became involved with the unschooling movement, started a business, worked in politics, and lived in France. During his first semester at Hendrix College, he started UnCollege, a website dedicated to providing resources for and ideas on how to get an education without college, and dropped out. In May 2011, he was named a Thiel Fellow, whereupon he received $100,000 to develop projects or ideas of his choosing. Hacking Your Education “is not a book about dropping out but rather about becoming empowered to make your own decisions.”
However, his nonconformity limits the book’s practicality for policy reform. Educators and administrators can find many ideas for reform, but it’s a mistake to expect an utter displacement of traditional education. To oversimplify the thesis into a political slogan: disruption to create competing avenues for education, but not displacement for a new monopoly.
That approach to higher education—that one correct way exists and should be trumpeted above all others—has shown weakness since economic downturn exacerbated systemic issues and allowed alternatives to gain credibility. A clash of visions about what colleges and universities should be makes a state and federal top-down approach increasingly unviable. Concerns over institutional debt, student debt, and unemployment have revealed different operating presumptions of faculty, administrators, students, employers, and government officials. Who owns the university? On what should it focus? Who holds the decision rights? Hacking Your Education demonstrates that the unschooling movement has established a strong community and alternative system for a valuable education by consciously avoiding the university and its issues; it’d be foolish to avoid integrating it into acceptable educational pathways.
Arguments against forgoing college usually equivocate “Student X shouldn’t go to college” to saying “No one should go to college,” which has the advantage of pivoting the discussion from a cost/benefit examination to the philosophical platitudes about higher education. As should be clear after reading Stephens’ multiple examples of successful individuals who skipped college, some students might benefit from skipping college, while others need to attend for success. The problem is hemming in students to a dichotomy of “college or janitor.”College isn’t always necessary for success, and talented individuals have been crippled by well-meaning parents and administrators who disregard, and government policies that limit alternatives to college. Everyone can’t move to another continent, learn a language, and start a business upon their return, but someone interested in writing or business might find an alternative education more beneficial than lecture halls for four years.
Education policy could be enlightened by adopting ideas from Stephens, but he won’t drive general policy. Expanding definitions of education and success, rather than demarcating and regulating them, should be the takeaway from Hacking Your Education, and implementing those principles would be desirable. American education needs a balance of diverse traditional options while encouraging entrepreneurship and risk-taking for students unattracted to traditional models.
For students not focused on academics, Stephens does a commendable job. He proposes alternatives, provides resources, and, most importantly, helps remove the stigma associated with skipping college. The type of student attracted to the book isn’t overly risk-averse or concerned about conformity; to an extent, one must hold an interest in taking risks and entrepreneurship to see Stephens’ perspective as attractive. Even if they experience failure, they can still enroll in college. Bad policy that steers students into a prescribed path inhibits learning and leads to unintended consequences.
Stephens reminds us that “Universities do not exist to train you for the real world; they exist to make money.” The sooner policymakers understand that higher education isn’t managed and composed of selfless individuals narrowly focused on students and rigorous scholarship, the sooner will develop a realistic and beneficial policy toward education.
This post originally appeared in CCAP’s “Higher Education and the Economy” blog for Forbes.com.