Tag: higher ed

College Students to Taxpayers: ‘Rent Now, Oppressors!’

Inside Higher Ed reports today on growing college student acitivism. And what are the young scholars suddenly so active about? Not unjust wars, racism, or anything else so high-minded. No, today the “no justice, no peace!” chants are all about the injustice of students being asked to pay for more of their hugely taxpayer-subsidized educations.

There’s a word for this kind of activism, and it’s not “idealism” or anything else so complimentary. It’s “rent seeking.” Or, if you want to put it more bluntly, “freeloading.”

Degree Disaster Behind The Great Wall

Based on my regular reading on education, but not China specifically, I know that the world’s most populous nation has had a lot of trouble finding jobs for its throngs of recent college graduates. I wrote a bit about that yesterday, pointing out that the important higher education lesson from China is that pumping out more college grads is meaningless if they don’t have skills that are in demand. Well, thanks to a very helpful Cato@Liberty reader who actually lives in China (and wishes to remain anonymous) I now have a much better idea just how important that lesson is. He directed me to this Asia Times article that includes, among many fascinating tidbits, this startling revelation:

An explosive report released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in September said earnings of graduates were now at par and even lower than those of migrant laborers [italics added].

Wow! If this report is accurate, until now I have had no idea how truly ridiculous Washington’s obsession with pumping out more degrees to keep up with the Chinese has been – and I’ve been pretty sure it’s ridiculous! Much more troubling, if I’ve had little clue about the true extent of the absurdity, imagine how far from grasping it our government-loving federal politicians have been! Of course, as I wrote yesterday, even if they did know it, they probably wouldn’t let on.

History Fun Fact: Ayn Rand Liked Ed Tax Credits

Many thanks to Lisa Snell at Reason for bringing this interesting historical fun fact from 1973 to light: Ayn Rand was a fan of education tax credits:

In the face of such evidence, one would expect the government’s performance in the field of education to be questioned, at the least, [but] the growing failures of the educational establishment are followed by the appropriation of larger and larger sums. There is, however, a practical alternative: tax credits for education.

The essentials of the idea (in my version) are as follows: an individual citizen would be given tax credits for the money he spends on education, whether his own education, his children’s, or any person’s he wants to put through a bona fide school of his own choice (including primary, secondary, and higher education).

Rand’s support for credits is interesting for a number of reasons, not least the fact that she explicitly endorses credits, not vouchers. I’ve had numerous and largely fruitless arguments over which policy is most “free-market” or least distorting. To me it is obvious that credits are the most “free-market” education reform. Now I can skip the arguments and yell, “Ayn Rand!”

Rand’s essay also highlights the fact that education tax credits were, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the most prominent private school policy on the scene. Federal tax credits were a live issue under Nixon and Carter. Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party gave strong and explicit support for education tax credits throughout the 1980’s – with tax credits, but not vouchers, mentioned specifically in the Republican Party platforms of 1980, 1984, and 1988.

The largely forgotten history of education tax credits … interesting …

Nothing Good about The Higher Ed Pricing Game

On Tuesday I noted that the College Board had released its annual reports on college prices and student aid. At the time I wrote the post I hadn’t yet been able to download the reports, but was planning to provide a rundown of their major findings once I’d read them. I’ve now done the latter, but it turns out that Ben Miller over at the Quick and the ED has already posted a pretty good summary of the most important findings. Go there if you want the highlights. Don’t go there, though, if you want to know what the highlights mean, at least for anyone other than students. For that, you’ll have to read on here….

The big news is that net college prices – what students pay after aid– have actually decreased over the last 15 years. While sticker prices were rising much faster than incomes and inflation, what students were actually paying dropped. The implication of this is so obvious that Mr. Magoo couldn’t mistake it: Student aid, much of which comes through taxpayers, enables schools to charge ever-higher prices with near impunity.

Back to the Quick and the ED. To some degree, Miller sees declining net price as a triumph for federal aid, making college more affordable even as prices explode:

This story should be encouraging for legislators that fought hard to win Pell Grant increases over the last few years. The steepest decreases in net price occur beginning in the 2007-2008 academic year, the same time Congress began passing legislation that boosted the maximum Pell Grant award several times. This at least suggests that the money spent on the program did play some role in lessening the financial burden for students and was not completely eaten up by sticker price increases.

On the flip side, Miller at least acknowledges that:

The net price figure also lessens the pressure on schools to actually take proactive steps to lower their costs. If the price you list isn’t actually what you charge, then why should anyone care what the listed price is and how high it gets? Net price thus serves as a kind of smokescreen that gets colleges at least partially off fo[r] charging an arm and a leg.

So what’s wrong with this analysis? 

Most important is that Miller softpedals the aid effect, suggesting that the main negative consequence of  ever-increasing assistance is that it bleeds off a bit of the pressure for schools to lower costs. But it likely has a much more destructive effect than that, not just curbing efficiency pressures, but enabling schools to constantly charge and spend more.  It’s a likelihood that student-aid defenders try to dispel by citing studies that cover very short periods of time, or that simply pronounce that we don’t know that it happens. That it probably happens, however, has been borne out empirically, and it’s readily ackowledged by prominent higher educators including former Harvard president Derek Bok, former Stanford vice president William F. Massy, and former University of Iowa president Howard Bowen. Indeed, the latter’s “law” couldn’t be more blunt: “Universities will raise all the money they can and spend all the money they raise.”

Miller’s other major failing is that he completely ignores that all this aid has to come from somwhere, and that “somewhere” is largely taxpayers. (OK, first it’s China.) Just to give you a sense of the impact on taxpayers, College Board data show that between the 1998-99 and 2008-09 academic years, total federal aid – including grant money recipients don’t have to pay back, and loans they (sometimes) do – rose from $61.1 billion to $116.8 billion. Add state aid to that, and the total goes from $66.6 billion to $126.2 billion.

And what are some of the major downsides of these forced third-party payments? Miller mentions a few pricing difficulties for students, but makes no mention of the potentially huge negative consequences for the nation: Encouraging lots of people to attend college who simply aren’t prepared for it; cranking out many more degrees than the job market demands; and potentially slowing economic growth by taking funds from productive uses and giving it to efficiency-averse colleges and students. 

The big finding in the latest College Board data, which the Quick and the ED nails, is that net college prices have been going down. The important story, however, is that this is bad news for the country. Unfortunately, the Quick and the Ed misses that almost completely.

Lies Our Professors Tell Us

On Sunday, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by the chancellor and vice chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, in which the writers proposed that the federal government start pumping money into a select few public universities. Why? On the constantly repeated but never substantiated assertion that state and local governments have been cutting those schools off.

As I point out in the following, unpublished letter to the editor, that is what we in the business call “a lie:”

It’s unfortunate that officials of a taxpayer-funded university felt the need to deceive in order to get more taxpayer dough, but that’s what UC Berkeley’s Robert Birgeneau and Frank Yeary did. Writing about the supposedly dire financial straits of public higher education (“Rescuing Our Public Universities,” September 27), Birgeneau and Yeary lamented decades of “material and progressive disinvestment by states in higher education.” But there’s been no such disinvestment, at least over the last quarter-century. According to inflation-adjusted data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers, in 1983 state and local expenditures per public-college pupil totaled $6,478. In 2008 they hit $7,059. At the same time, public-college enrollment ballooned from under 8 million students to over 10 million. That translates into anything but a “disinvestment” in the public ivory tower, no matter what its penthouse residents may say.

Since letters to the editor typically have to be pretty short I left out readily available data for California, data which would, of course, be most relevant to the destitute scholars of Berkeley. Since I have more space here, let’s take a look: In 1983, again using inflation-adjusted SHEEO numbers, state and local governments in the Golden State provided $5,963 per full-time-equivalent student. In 2008, they furnished $7,177, a 20 percent increase. And this while enrollment grew from about 1.2 million students to 1.7 million! Of course, spending didn’t go up in a straight line – it went up and down with the business cycle – but in no way was there anything you could call appreciable ”disinvestment.” 

Unfortunately, higher education is awash in lies like these. Therefore, our debunking will not stop here! On Tuesday, October 6, at a Cato Institute/Pope Center for Higher Education Policy debate, we’ll deal with another of the ivory tower’s great truth-defying proclamations: that colleges and universities raise their prices at astronomical rates not because abundant, largely taxpayer-funded student aid makes doing so easy, but because they have to!

It’s a doozy of a declaration that should set off a doozy of a debate! To register to attend what should be a terrific event, or just to watch online, follow this link.

I hope to see you there, and remember: Don’t believe everything your professors tell you, especially when it impacts their wallets!

Early Education: Lots of Noise, Little to Hear

This weekend, the Detroit News ran a letter to the editor taking issue with a piece I wrote about the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsbility Act (SAFRA). Strangley, though the main part of SAFRA deals with higher education loans; the bill contains new spending all over the education map; and I made no specific mention of early-childhood education in my piece (though there is an early-ed component in the bill); the letter is all about pre-K education.

That the pre-K pushers even saw my op-ed as something to write about illustrates how very agressive they are. Unfortunately, the letter also demonstrates how dubious is the message that they are so loudly and energetically proclaiming. Here’s a telling bit:

Economists, business leaders and scientists all know from cold, hard data that high-quality early education provides a significant return on investment in terms of education, social and health outcomes.

Whether pre-K education is worth even a dime all depends on how you define “high quality.” As Adam Schaeffer lays out in his new early-education policy analysis — and Andrew Coulson reiterates in an exchange with economist James Heckman — the “cold, hard data” say only that a few programs seem to work, and most don’t. Pronouncements about the huge returns on pre-K investment are almost always based on very small, hyper-intensive programs that would be all but impossible to replicate on a large scale. And the programs that do function on a large scale? As Adam lays out, they provide little to no return on investment.

The early-education crowd is very good at getting out its message. Too bad the message itself is so darn suspect.

Don’t Fear the Freedom, Higher Ed!

It’s not often that I can transition from my education beat to other hot topics, but an Inside Higher Ed story on colleges’ health-care benefits includes this little nugget:

One trend documented in the survey that may concern many employees is the increase in “consumer driven” health insurance plans by colleges. These typically involve employees setting up tax-free accounts to pay for some care, and then high deductibles for major medical expenses. This year, 17 percent of colleges were offering the plans, up from 11 percent two years ago.

So what’s so terrible about “consumer driven” health care, which from the article sounds like health savings accounts ? The story doesn’t say – nor does it give any details on who puts the money into the accounts or other minimally useful info – it just suggests that employees should be a little scared of controlling their own health care funds. 

Unfortunately, this kind of reflexive fear of markets and freedom is a hallmark of both education and health care debates, so this thoughtless little passage hardly comes as a surprise. But I want to help Inside Higher Ed: If you folks want to be informed next time you cover health care, give these guys a call. They’ll be more than happy to help you, just as I am with all of your education-related needs!

Operators, as they say, are standing by…