Topic: Education and Child Policy

Starving College Students? Yeah, Right!

Read almost any news story about the price of college, and it will no doubt start with a heart-wrenching tale of some student who works approximately 3,000 hours a week, takes six classes, and has no idea how he’ll afford to pay tuition. Such human-interest hooks are great for grabbing readers’ attention, and certainly there are some students who struggle to pay for college. The problem is, these ubiquitous tales of woe have convinced many Americans that constant, on-the-edge subsistence is the plight of most college students, and that only copious amounts of taxpayer-financed aid — which itself helps drive rampant tuition inflation — can save them.

And then there is the other side of the story: all the money spent by college kids not on the basics, but creature comforts and extravagances that if he were transported to the present day would make yesteryear’s college student choke on his cafeteria mystery meat. From today’s Inside Higher Ed:

As she did her usual move-in day sweep of residence halls, Kathy B. Hobgood, director of residence life at Clemson University, noticed students in a dozen or so rooms unpacking their flat-screen televisions items that until recently might have been spotted in a campus café but certainly not in a dorm.

Up and down the halls, people piled their electronic gadgets on top of storage cubes and dishware, leaving behind a monumental trail of cardboard and packing foam.

“The volume of stuff is alarming,” says Hobgood, who is publications coordinator for the Association of College and University Housing Officers International. “This pile of boxes … you wouldn’t believe.”

Housing directors all over — and not just in places that tend to attract wealthy students — are reporting an increase in the number of belongings students bring with them to college. Carloads, they say, are becoming the norm.

Of course, one might say that tales of flat-screen TV’s and designer dorm furniture are as anecdotal as starving student stories. And one might be right. Some data in the Inside Higher Ed article, however — and in the survey linked to within — strongly suggests that student luxury is far from restricted to a few Richie Riches:

Back to college has become big business. According to an annual survey from the National Retail Federation, students and their parents are spending $5.43 billion this season on dorm and apartment furnishings, up from $3.82 billion a year ago. The survey shows that they will spend a combined average of $956.93 per student on back-to-college merchandise, up from last year’s $880.52.

According to the data, it certainly seems that a large number of college kids aren’t struggling just to survive. Indeed, it seems many aren’t wanting for anything at all.

Perhaps, though, hard statistics aren’t enough for you. Here, then, is one more heart-wrencher to help kill the starving student myth. It’s the Princeton Review’s vaunted — and infamous — list of the nation’s top-20 party schools, which, with one exception, contains all state — meaning directly taxpayer subsidized — universities.

Party on, “starving” students!

Cracking the Code on “Villainous” School Choice

Yesterday, over at The Huffington Post, education blogger Dan Brown – no relation to The Da Vinci Code’s author – posted a little homage to Democratic presidential candidates who have repudiated the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), toned down calls for teacher merit pay, and declared that all educators should be paid more. In other words, Mr. Brown praised candidates who boldly offered the same old, failed, “more money, thank you,” approaches to education reform we’ve been taking for decades. (NCLB is directly from that mold, but that’s not why Brown objected to it.) Indeed, Brown wrote that any presidential candidate who touted such bankrupt ideas is “inherently a champion of social justice.”

The absurdity of such over-the-top accolades, of course, deserves criticism. More galling, though, is how Brown characterized reforms that would lead to actual, transformative change:

If a candidate abdicates his responsibility to public education by offering superficial band-aids, or even worse, villainous profit-driven proposals like vouchers and privatization, then his true colors are seen.

“Villainous” school choice? Oh, come now, Mr. Brown! Advocating policies that have kept millions of poor kids trapped in bad schools while spending ever-greater sums of taxpayer money and protecting even atrocious teachers is the pinnacle of nobility, but parent-empowering school choice is villainous? It’s evil to let parents and children out of jail by enabling them to make their own educational decisions, but enlightened to keep them locked up and pay their jailers more?

One might not like school choice, but calling it villainous? Such dramatic, black-and-white characterizations might work for the other Dan Brown, but when it comes to educational reality, they just don’t make any sense.

A Textbook Example of Government Failure

DCPS superintendent Michelle Rhee is doing a heroic job trying to get textbooks into classrooms by the start of school. One problem is that school officials still can’t tell her how many books they actually need. Classes start on Monday. 

Is the problem insufficient funding? As it happens, DCPS’s total gross budget for the last school year was upwards of one billion dollars according to its own website, and its enrollment was about 52,000 students. That means DCPS had total per pupil spending of nearly $20,000 last year, or half a million dollars per class of 25 students. You’d think that would cover books. 

The District’s perennial problem with getting books into students’ hands is a great illustration of what’s wrong with the status quo. When was the last time you walked into a Barnes and Noble or a Borders bookstore in mid August and didn’t see a well-stocked “back to school” display? Why is it so easy for them to handle inventory issues when they don’t even know how many customers they are going to have, while DCPS is flummoxed, year after year, despite having a fairly accurate enrollment number up front?  

The reason is simple: if you’re a bookseller, and you don’t have the books people want to buy on your shelves… they shop somewhere else. Keep that up for a few weeks or months and your bookshop is history. The reason DCPS can keep limping along despite doing such a poor job is that it doesn’t face real competition for that $20,000 per pupil per year in guaranteed funding. Sure, there are charter schools, but places there are limited. Sure, there’s a private school voucher program, but it’s even tinier. DC schools will start demonstrating the efficiency and quality of a competitive business when they start having to compete for the privilege of serving District children. Until then, it simply does not matter how intelligent or dedicated the superintendent happens to be. The central problem is the uncompetitive design of the system itself, not the people in it.

The State Lives up to its Name

There’s a new report out arguing that even a modest school choice program in South Carolina that improved access to private schools would reduce the dropout rate and lead to significant savings for taxpayers. In covering that study, SC’s State newspaper tells us that

The dominant public education policy debate in the Legislature since 2004 has been whether the state can afford to provide incentives to parents who want to send children to private schools….

Two obvious implications of this sentence are that a school choice program would provide a net fiscal incentive for parents to choose private schools, and that it would add to the net cost of education in SC. Both are false.

At the moment, SC provides an enormous incentive for parents to choose public schooling over private schooling. It spends roughly $10,000 of compulsory tax dollars per pupil per year on families who choose public schools, and nothing on families who choose private schools. The tax credit programs that have been suggested in SC would only moderately reduce that existing incentive to choose public schools. The net financial incentive under such programs would STILL be to choose a public school, because the funding available per pupil would remain larger. 

And, as Clemson professor Cotton Lindsay’s fiscal analyses of the SC tax credit proposals showed (see here and here), the programs would actually have saved taxpayers money. Those reported savings, by the way, did not count the fiscal benefit of reducing the dropout rate, which was the subject of the recent State story. So, in fact, the total savings would likely be larger than Lindsay estimated.

Too much to ask that a newspaper called The State would correctly inform readers of these points?

Giuliani Is Half-Right on School Choice

Presidential contender Rudy Giuliani has just told an audience in New Hampshire that he supports competition and parental choice in education, including government-funded school vouchers. “I’d give parents control over their children’s education,” he told the crowd.

Real consumer choice and competition among schools aren’t just good ideas — they’re essential if we are ever going to see the kind of progress and innovation in education that we’ve seen in every other field over the past few centuries. But if Rudy is saying he’d back a federal school choice program, he’s got the right idea at the wrong level of government.

As someone who touts the merits of limited government, Giuliani should heed the Tenth Amendment, which reserves to the states and the people powers that they have not delegated to Washington in the Constitution. Last time I checked, neither the word “education” nor the word “school” appears anywhere in that document. 

I’ve made the broader case against federal school choice programs already, and the same arguments still apply.

An ardently pro–school choice president could do wonders to encourage states to adopt meaningful market reforms in education without usurping a power that does not belong in Washington’s hands. America could really use such an “education president.” It doesn’t need an “education king.”

A Fine Day

Today, U.S. News and World Report released its annual college guide, and I for one think it’s great. Sure, the rankings offer far from the definitive, final word about what college any given student should choose, and there could be thousands of credible methods used for evaluating schools other than what U.S. News does, but the magazine’s guide is still a valuable, market-driven tool to help parents and students choose from among thousands of U.S. colleges.

And, despite the complaints of opportunistic politicians about a supposed vacuum of data to help parents and students navigate higher education, if one is unhappy with U.S. News there are sundry other resources available, including the Princeton Review, the Kaplan College Guide, the College Prowler, the Gourman Report, and many, many more.

And so I say, “Hooray, the U.S. News rankings are out! Viva la U.S. News rankings!”

He Who Pays the Sociologist Calls the Tune

Sociologists from around the country have gathered for the annual American Sociological Association conference, and apparently they’re running scared. At least, according to an article appearing in Inside Higher Ed, many are running from research described best using such words as “sex” and “incestuous.” Apparently, having such words in the description of one’s research has been known to draw the ire of conservative activists, and has occasionally placed National Institutes of Health funding in jeopardy.

The problem, of course, is that as much as sociologists might love free money, NIH funding ultimately comes from taxpayers, and – surprise! – some taxpayers actually want a say in how their money is used. And, no, just because someone’s a scientist doesn’t give him the right to do whatever he wants with someone else’s hard-earned ducats. Of course, it can be very hard to examine really controversial issues if everyone gets a say in what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

Which leads to the only logical solution to the problem: If social science work – or any controversial scientific work, for that matter – is going to be done right, it cannot be conducted through the wallets of taxpayers. Just as scientists need the consent of human subjects to conduct experiments on them, they must have the consent of their funders if they want to be left alone. Which leaves sociologists with an important decision to make: Do they want to conduct science free of political interference, or sell out for the promise of abundant government grants? Unfortunately, right now the latter seems to be the more popular choice.