Tag: higher education

“Power 5” Power Play: Just Higher Ed Being What It Is

Though the NCAA still runs ads suggesting that college sports is all about students who happen to be athletes, big-time college football and basketball programs have basically given up the pretense of being about anything other than big bucks and big wins. See, for instance, the latest power play by the “BCS” football conferences.

That’s fine – better they be open about what drives them. Unfortunately, as I write in this SeeThruEdu post, the rest of higher ed is similarly self-interested. Problem is, it won’t admit it, and uses the notion that it’s all about the “common good” to get taxpayer money, often without producing any real benefit for the people paying the bills. 

Obama to Control the Price of Ivy?

Superabundant federal student aid has done a huge amount to get us into our bankrupting college mess. To get us out, today President Obama will propose, essentially, “soft” price controls. But they will likely leave the root problem intact while, if anything, adding new kinds of woe.

On his college bus tour, President Obama will propose that Washington start publishing ratings of schools based on such measures as average tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of a college’s students who are low-income. The ratings would also “compare colleges with similar missions.” Ultimately, the president will propose that the availability of aid be partly conditioned on the new ratings.

Let’s be clear: The price of college is almost certainly far higher than it should be, fueled largely by federal aid that essentially tells colleges “charge whatever you want – we’ll give students the money.” That’s a major reason that average, inflation-adjusted prices have more than doubled in the last 30 years. And it is good that the president, and many others, are essentially acknowledging the inflationary reality of aid. But will price controls help or hurt?

Thanks, but I’d Rather Keep My Money under This Mattress

If his election rhetoric, or stories about tonight’s State of the Union, are any indication, this evening President Obama will talk a lot about “investing” in education. And that sounds nice, doesn’t it? I mean, who doesn’t want to wisely and profitably put money into the American people? The problem is, such federal spending has never been wise or profitable, unless the profit you seek is political points.

To demonstrate the dangerous folly of federal education spending, I offer the following chart on higher education. And shortly, Andrew Coulson will be delivering a damning graphic on k-12.

What does this chart show? That inflation-adjusted student aid—the vast majority of which came through the federal government—has exploded over the last thirty years, but probably hasn’t made college more affordable. No, it has fueled a more than doubling of inflation-adjusted college prices, all while median household income has been basically flat. Schools have simply raised their prices to capture the aid.

That’s some investment: students and taxpayers are out bigger and bigger sums of money while colleges—and approval-seeking politicians who want to show how much they “care”—reap the big profits. Probably not the payoff most people had in mind.

This Month’s Cato Unbound: The Online Education Revolution

As Joseph Schumpeter famously wrote, markets are agents of “creative destruction”: when market forces are free to operate, and when entrepreneurs are free to act on their ideas, the old must often give way to the new.

Innovation and cultural dynamism are the hallmarks of a free economy. This state of constant flux is to our way of thinking a welcome and valued thing. Only an economy that is constantly in transition can hope to approximate the changing needs and wants of a robust and flourishing society.

Our love of dynamism is one reason why libertarians aren’t really conservatives, and why we might even wish that we could claim the label “progressive” for ourselves—if it hadn’t been taken, long ago, by individuals whose beliefs differ sharply from our own.

At Cato Unbound this month we are discussing what may prove to be a remarkable example of creative destruction. Within the last few years, Massive Online Open Courses—MOOCs, for short—have become one of the most important trends in higher education. As our lead essayist Alex Tabarrok argues, traditional higher education hasn’t changed substantially for centuries. Yet there is no good reason why this should be, not with all of the new information technology that the market has put at our disposal.

Together with his colleague Tyler Cowen, Tabarrok has founded Marginal Revolution University, which is planned as a growing series of free, online courses that anyone can take. The lectures are brief, watchable on your own schedule, viewable on mobile devices, and replayable. You can ask questions of the professors and receive detailed, personalized feedback. You can study in a group or entirely on your own, and students are invited to create supplemental videos that might be included in future class sessions.

MR University, as it’s called for short, hopes to deliver flexible, inexpensive higher education to the masses, in a way that Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard—for all their tradition—never could. And it’s just one small player in a burgeoning new educational sector. So how should educators and policymakers think about these developments?

To answer that question, we have recruited a panel of distinguished commentators: Siva Vaidhyanathan is the Robertson Professor in Media Studies and Chair of the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia; Alan Ryan is the former Warden of New College, Oxford, and a frequent commentator on developments in liberal education; and Kevin Carey is director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation.

As always, Cato Unbound readers are encouraged to take up our themes, and enter into the conversation on their own websites and blogs, or on other venues. We also welcome your letters. Send them to jkuznicki at cato dot org. Selections may be published at the editors’ option.

Care about the Poor? Consider Consequences

On the day of the second presidential debate, I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion at debate-host Hofstra University. The topic was “defusing the student loan debt bomb,” and I was the lone voice calling for an end to inflation-fueling federal student aid. My co-panelists were Tamara Draut of the think tank Demos, Above the Law blog co-editor Elie Mystal, and U.S. PIRG’s Ed Mierzwinski.

I had perhaps the best interaction with Mystal, with whom I had interesting chats throughout the day. Mystal’s response to my proposal was basically that poor and minority students need help, and phasing out federal aid would disproportionately hurt them. It was an argument with which I could sympathize, and it made more sense than just proclaiming “college education is a public good and should basically be free.” Unfortunately, writing on his blog post-debate, Mystal said that my “view makes a certain kind of sense” but nonetheless smacks of “the classic, Republican ‘f**k ‘em’ approach that disproportionately screws the poor and minorities.”

Um, ouch. Ascribing callousness or cruelty to either me or Republicans because we don’t like the negative effects of aid is, frankly, precisely why we can’t have a reasoned debate about these things. Maybe I’m an exceptionally gifted multi-tasker, or maybe I’ve just contemplated some important logic and facts, but I can be against mega-inflation without being indifferent to the poor. Indeed, quite the opposite.

First, much aid goes to people with little regard to their income. Pell Grants might be pretty well targeted – though they’re getting less so by the minute – but “unsubsidized” federal loans, which are backed by taxpayers, are available irrespective of need. Tax-based aid also skews high-income. The American Opportunity Tax Credit, for instance, can be claimed by joint filers making up to $180,000. And the well-to-do are best positioned to maximize their aid because they can afford financial planners to tell them how to hide wealth, or temporarily reduce income to optimize their eligibility. The cumulative effect of all this is to push up college prices.

Then there’s the psychological effect of hugely inflated sticker prices. If the message “college is astonishingly expensive” is repeated often enough, who do you think will more often be deterred from attending college, the rich or the poor? Probably the latter.

Next, the poor and minorities are no doubt disproportionately burdened by debt. Data indicate that’s definitely the case for African-Americans, and is likely the case for the poor considering that even debt loads that are small compared to some totals might be huge relative to a poor student’s wealth.

Finally, while people of all income levels and races spend too much time and treasure on higher education, the poor and minorities are probably the most snookered by “college for all.” The unfortunate reality is that those groups tend to be the least prepared to do college-level work or pay mammoth, inflated bills, and as a result tend to most readily pursue degrees without completing them. Among first-time, full-time students entering college in 2004, a weak 58.3 percent that didn’t transfer schools completed a four-year program within six years. Much worse, only 39.5 percent of African-Americans completed their degrees, and 50.1 percent of Hispanics. In large part this is the fault of factors preceding higher education – including our moribund K-12 system – but the dismal college completion reality remains.

In light of all this, is it really fair to proclaim that those who want to phase out inflationary, consumption-driving aid don’t care about the poor and minorities? Or is it long past time to give them a full and fair hearing?

Cross-posted from SeeThruEdu.com

Minnesota: Beware of Free Education

Imagine that it’s the 21st century, and that at least a handful of people in the education business have realized this. Putting their insight to good use, a few of them create an online service called “Coursera” that offers free lectures from some of the top universities in the nation (Stanford, Johns Hopkins, etc.). Then imagine that the state of Minnesota has decided that it is illegal for Coursera to offer these free lectures to its citizens.

I know, it’s hard to imagine. Unfortunately, you don’t have to, you can just read about how it’s actually happening.

One of the classes you can take at Coursera is “Principles of Macroeconomics.” Maybe the folks who lobbied for and enacted the state’s education regulations are afraid that free learning and economic literacy would threaten their phony-baloney jobs.

Why College Should Be Given Away for Free

The editor of The Nation thinks college should be given away for free. She’s probably right, but perhaps not in the sense she intends. So many college degrees today are intrinsically worthless that it should really not be possible to find people willing to pay for them. As I wrote in a recent New York TimesRoom for Debate” commentary:

Barely half of students at four-year public institutions graduate in six years — and many learn very little along the way. Nearly half of all college students made no significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or written communication after two full years of study, according to research by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Even among the more elite subset of students who stick around for four full years of college, a third made no significant gains in these areas.

So what’s the alternative if you’re a high school senior seeking higher education? How about this: instead of handing control over that education to someone else, decide what it is you would like to learn over those four years and then… learn it. Thanks to the Web, the material covered in virtually every undergraduate program is readily available at little cost—and the same is true for many advanced programs. And, having learned it, spend a few hundred dollars to create a website or even simply a YouTube channel on which you demonstrate your new skills/understanding. Conduct research. Write it up. Build something. Translate Cyrano into English, maintaining the Alexandrine meter and rhyme. Whatever it is. Then, when you’re ready to apply for work, submit your resume with a link to this portfolio of relevant work.

Employers, ask yourself this question: Would you rather hire someone with a portfolio such as the one described above, visibly demonstrating competency and personal initiative, or someone with a degree that is generally supposed to signal that competency, but that you can’t readily assess for yourself?

[And since “resume” and “curriculum vitae” are both foreign language terms, why don’t we call these portfolios-in-lieu-of-college-degrees the student’s savoir-faire. Literally: “know how to do.”]