Tag: higher ed

Oh, Where’d I Put Those Facts?

A few days ago the New York Times offered the following explanation for why public college and university students graduate with less debt than people attending for-profit schools:

[F]or-profit schools sometimes encourage students to borrow privately from the school, rather than from federal programs, which often have lower rates and loan forbearance for those who fall ill or become jobless.

Of course! Evil “subprime” education has teamed up with evil subprime lending to form the Dastardly Legion of Subprime Higher Ed!

Or maybe not. It could also be that the Old Grey Lady is losing her memory a bit and forgot about the, oh, $75 billion or so that public colleges get directly from state and local taxpayers to keep their prices down. 

Darn those meddling facts.

Some ‘Unsung Heroes’ These Colleges Are

Heating and cooling equipment installed upside down. A ramp for the disabled too steep for wheelchairs. A leaning tower of time. A $3.4 million renovation for a theater slated for demolition. Payouts to everyone from airborne videographers to feng shui experts.

Welcome to community college!

These and a litany of other failures and abuses are chronicled in a new Los Angeles Times article on the disaster that has been the Los Angeles Community College District’s decade-long, $5.7 billion building orgy.  It’s a tale made especially sickening by California college officials’ repeated wailing that state budget cuts are forcing them to dig “deep into bone.”  It’s also galling in the face of Washington politicians’ continued berating of for-profit schools and blind-eye-turning toward excess throughout higher ed. And topping it all off, President Obama recently proclaimed community colleges the “unsung heroes” of American education.

They’ve certainly earned the “unsung” part.

Hurrah for ‘Draconian’ Education Cuts!

Over at the Daily Kos they’re getting ready to demonize. Some congressional Republicans opposed language in the continuing budget resolution passed yesterday that would fill a shortfall in Pell Grant funding and keep individual grants at their current sizes. By not filling the shortfall, individual grants would get smaller, something that Kos contributor Jed Lewison characterizes as “draconian.” He also suggests that Republican concerns foreshadow mean things to come in next year’s Congress.

Oh please, let this be true!

For far too long, almost anything related to education has seen pretty regular, sizeable funding increases due largely to the  simplistic – and easily demagogued – notion that spending more money on education must be good. Anyone opposing such increases has generally been attacked as a fool or heartless idealogue. But here’s the thing: All this spending has produced little if any discernable good! In higher ed, it has mainly encouraged more and more people to pursue degrees that they either don’t need, can’t handle, or that don’t signify much learning, all while enabling colleges to raise their prices to capture the aid increases! In other words, all the magical thinking about education spending notwithstanding, the evidence strongly suggests that more spending ultimately does little educational good while bleeding taxpayers dry and expanding our utterly unsustainable debt.

So let’s get those “draconian” cuts going, and maybe even have an honest discussion of what really happens when government spends on “education.”

Harkin: Education Too Important Not to Mortgage Our Future

Yesterday, I wrote about a bill introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) that would allocate $23 billion to protect public schooling employment against the end of “stimulus” funding. I wrote that it appeared the stimulus would essentially set a new floor for education spending – as many had feared it would – not just be a one-time deal.  It also seemed an utterly irresponsible  expenditure given the nation’s almost unimaginable debt.

At a hearing on the measure yesterday, Harkin addressed the debt concern. Of course, he did it in the same way federal politicians have for years dealt with their spending the nation into oblivion. According to Inside Higher Ed, Harkin said the debt is a legitimate concern, but this particular issue is just too important to worry about it:

“We’re going to borrow from our kids and our grandkids to pay for this now? That shouldn’t be – we’re borrowing too much from our kids and grandkids,” Harkin said, channeling criticism he said he anticipated hearing. Harkin said he agreed with the overarching concern. But the fact that this money is targeted for education makes it different, he suggested. “How can you argue on the one hand that it’s okay for kids to borrow to go to college, but it’s not all right to borrow to make sure there’s a college for them to go to? That there are teachers in our high schools and grade schools to prepare these kids for the future? It seems to me if there’s one legitimate area where we can borrow from the future, it’s in education.”

Um, Senator, even if you think education is more important than utterly unsustainable debt, would you at least take a small moment to see if yet more spending and hiring would do any educational good? You know, if we’d get a positive return on our investment?

Oh wait – if you did that, you’d not only see that it is absurd to suggest that failing to furnish $23 billion would lead to the widespread demise of colleges and teachers (in 2008 we spent almost $1.1 trillion on education), you’d also see that decades of spending increases haven’t produced any meaningful improvements. K-12 test scores have been flat, literacy levels among college graduates dropping, and our international standing poor.

So Senator, feel free to think that a good education is more important than controlling profligate government spending.  But don’t try to tell us that spending more will actually provide that good education. That just isn’t true.

Our Little Scholars

As I mentioned a few days ago, today is the “Day of Action” in California – and, it turns out, elsewhere – when college students and just general protectors of public schooling are supposed to take to the streets and demand that taxpayers fork over not one less red cent to students and schools.

Ironically, the mindless, property-destroying, absurd goings-on that have surrounded past such demonstrations in Cali – and are already in evidence today – brilliantly illustrate one major reason we need to cut higher education subsidies, not increase them. Clearly, too many college students have both far too much time on their hands, and far too little self control, to justify spending hard-earned taxpayer dough on their “education.”

But at least the ostensible motivation behind recreational rioting in California has been slightly related to a principle – namely, the principle that taxpayers owe students stuff. That’s actually a better excuse for taking to the streets than what set off last night’s student riots in College Park, Maryland: a victory in a basketball game. (To be fair, University of Maryland students also riot after losses – they’re no fair weather fans!)

And to think – one of the reasons we’re supposed to support massive subsidies for students is that it serves the common good. Go figure.

Test Cheating by National Education Standards Agency

When you erase a test score and write in a new one for your own benefit, that’s cheating, right? So what is it when you do this several thousand times?

Ofqual, the British education standards regulator, “secretly downgraded the GCSE [General Certificate of Secondary Education test] results of thousands of pupils to avoid public fury over dumbed-down tests,” reports the Daily Mail. “Fearing a row over inflated results, Ofqual’s chief executive ordered all exam boards to cut the number of pupils getting top scores just two days before marks were finalized.”

The argument for national education standards is based on a host of unexamined and incorrect assumptions. One is the belief that the authorities overseeing such standards (and associated testing) will have truth and transparency as their only motivations. As the above example illustrates, that’s rubbish. Bureaucrats and politicians are as self-interested as the rest of humanity, and they do, in practice, consult their own interests in the execution of their duties.

The way to deal with this reality is not to ignore it – as national standards advocates and other statists are wont to do – but rather to adopt systems for structuring human action that take it into consideration. In the context of education standards, that means leaving the standards-setting process to the competitive marketplace: make it easy for all families to choose whatever schools they deem best, allow schools to administer whatever curriculum and whatever tests they want, and allow higher ed and employers to weigh the value of the various standards and certifications that arise. Lousy standards that don’t reflect real achievement won’t be valued, good ones that do will be.

National standards advocates are right that children should be encouraged to do their best and that every child’s diploma should really mean something. But that doesn’t mean that every diploma has to mean the same thing. A competitive marketplace for education standards and testing would ensure both quality and relevance, while also allowing for the fact that very different students heading toward very different futures may want to strive to excel in different areas.

For a detailed account of the evidence on national standards and its alternatives, see Neal McCluskey’s excellent recent policy analysis on the subject, linked here.

Obama Ringing the Pell

As part of his ill-considered credentialing-to-compete initiative, President Obama wants to greatly increase both the size and availablity of Pell Grants. Under his proposed FY 2011 budget, the total pot of Pell aid would rise from $28.2 billion in 2009 to $34.8 billion in 2011; the maximum award would go from $5,350 to $5,710; and the number of students served would rise by around 1 million.  

A critical question, of course, is whether increasing Pell will ultimately make college more affordable or self-defeatingly fuel further tuition inflation. The New York Times took that up in yesterday’s Room for Debate blog.

Economist Richard Vedder has long educated people about the inflationary effect of student aid, and does so again with great clarity. It’s higher-ed analyst Art Hauptman, however, whom I think best captures what likely occurs when Pell is combined with all the cheap loans and other aid furnished by Washington, states, and schools themselves:

The degree to which student aid affects what colleges and universities charge varies between the Pell Grant and student loans. The Pell Grant has not had much effect on tuition levels in part because the amount of the awards does not vary with where a student enrolls. Institutions cannot affect how much a student receives, and the institutions that charge the most enroll the fewest Pell Grant recipients.

By contrast…there are several good reasons to believe that student loans have been a factor in the rising cost of a college education. Tuition has increased by twice the inflation rate for the past three decades while annual loan volume has increased tenfold in constant dollars.

Unlike Pell Grants…colleges have some control over how much students borrow as loan amounts. Moreover, just as one couldn’t imagine house prices being as high as they now are if mortgage financing were not available, it is difficult to believe that colleges and universities could have increased their charges so rapidly over time without the ready availability of students’ ability to borrow.

[W]e should worry…that increases in Pell Grants may lead institutions to reduce the amount of discounts they would otherwise have provided to the recipients, who are from poor families, and move the aid these students would have received to others. This possibility…is supported by the data showing that public and private institutions are now more likely to provide more aid to more middle-income students than low-income students.

So what’s likely going on? Cheap federal loans – which are available to students of all income levels and vary according to a college’s price – are probably the main direct tuition inflator. More indirectly, Pell probably encourages schools to move other aid from poorer to wealthier students, enabling the latter to pay ever-higher “sticker” prices. In other words, student aid powers tuition inflation!

Which brings me to a quick comment about the submission from College Board economist Sandy Baum, who trots out the standard “declining state appropriations”  to explain our college-price pain.

How many more times do I need to disprove this? Apparently, at least once more:

(Source: State Higher Education Executive Officers)

Public funding is a roller coaster and tuition revenue an incline. Over the last quarter century, per-pupil state and local funding for public colleges and universities went up and down, but dropped overall by a mere $8 per year. In contrast, public colleges’ per-pupil revenue from tuition (net of state and local student aid) rose more or less unabated, growing by about $73 per year. 

This – as well as the fact that private colleges are also guilty of huge price inflation – clearly belies the notion that colleges raise prices because skinflinty governments make them. That might be part of the explanation, but an even bigger part is almost certainly that colleges raise prices because, thanks to ever-growing student aid, they can.

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