Topic: Education and Child Policy

Challenging the NEA: Priceless

To quote the old Mercedes Benz airbag commercial: “Some things in life are too important not to share.”

The National Education Association’s national convention begins today at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, FL. Outside, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation (a Washington State think tank) is parking a truck with a billboard highlighting some of the expenditures the NEA listed on its 2004 federal financial disclosure forms. 

The billboard is too important (and good) not to share:

You can read about the case Evergreen is making against the NEA (both in the court of public opinion and soon the U.S. Supreme Court) here and see some of the truck’s other displays here.

If teachers gain the freedom to decide how their own paychecks are spent, it will in no small part be due to the folks at Evergreen.

Are We Reading the Same Report?

I have to disagree with Arnold Kling’s surprisingly upbeat assessment of the draft report from the Secretary of Education’s higher education commission. While some of the recommendations he likes may be tolerable in an ideal world, it’s critical to remember that we’re talking about politics here.

First, Arnold applauds the report’s call for colleges to improve data collection on student persistence in order to help inform prospective students and parents. That’s fine, and I would encourage consumers to avoid schools that wouldn’t furnish such information. Unfortunately, it’s not supply and demand that the report says should make schools publish the data. It’s government:

Federal and state policy should focus on improving persistence and sealing the leaks in the educational pipeline at all levels: K-12, post-secondary and workforce education. Colleges should be held accountable for the success of the students they admit. Improved collection of data on student persistence will allow consumers of higher education to evaluate institutional success and identify best practices.

What a terrific tool for government control! Once they collect persistence data, opportunistic politicians can declare that schools must graduate very large percentages of their students in order to receive government funds. If grade inflation seems bad now…

Next, Arnold blesses the report’s recommendation that states and schools “review and revise” their credit transfer policies. Again, this is a fine thing for consumers to require, but if government mandates it, credit transfer policies will end up being based on political calculations, not academic merits.

The same problem applies to Arnold’s next point, in which he supports reorienting student aid from “broad-based” to “need-based.” That sounds good at first, but the reality is that in order to build enough political support to give more aid to the “needy,” politicians will define “needy” to include almost everyone. Just look at the current system, which directs oodles of cash to aid programs in the name of the poor, yet somehow always ends up putting a bunch of it in the hands of upper-middle-class kids.

Finally, Arnold approves of the recommendation that all 50 states encourage “the collection of data allowing meaningful interstate comparison of student learning.”

Now, I’m not so sure I want state governments encouraging colleges to implement standards and testing regimes, which is what this would ultimately require. I’m positive, though, that I don’t want the feds doing it, because federal “encouragement” invariably leads to federal “control.” Just look at elementary and secondary education, where the No Child Left Behind Act has given Washington unprecedented control over local schools.

Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, say hello to NCLB:

The federal government should provide incentives for states, higher education associations, systems, and institutions to develop outcomes-focused accountability systems designed to be accessible and useful for students, policy makers, and the public….

In the end, like Arnold, I encourage people to read the Commission’s draft report for themselves and reach their own conclusions. As far as I’m concerned, though, one recommendation alone completely sums up the report’s frightening, command-economy thrust:

The Secretary of Education should take the lead in developing a national strategy to keep the U.S. at the forefront of the knowledge revolution, creating a system that encourages knowledge and skills to be obtained and continuously updated on a regular basis through a lifetime of learning.

I don’t know about anyone else, but that sounds like a bad thing to me.

Another Look at the Higher Ed Blueprint

I was prepared to share Neal McCluskey’s outrage at the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education preliminary draft report, but then I followed the link, and I have a different take.  I’d give the report at least a B+. Of course, this sort of report this late in a President’s term is almost sure to be nothing but a dust collector regardless of what it says. But let me point out some of the good points.

Colleges should be held accountable for the success of the students they admit. Improved collection of data on student persistence will allow consumers of higher education to evaluate institutional success and identify best practices.

Good idea. Before you send your kid to a college, know whether the kid is likely to graduate.

States and institutions should review and revise standards for transfer of credit among higher education institutions to improve quality and reduce time-to-goal.

Another good idea. When the University of Maryland balked at giving my daughter credit for calculus she took at the University of Rochester, I was flabbergasted.

The present financial aid system should be replaced with a strategically oriented, results-driven consolidation of programs to serve students who need aid in order to attend college.

Again, a good idea. Need-based aid instead of broad-based aid.

At the state level, one promising approach that should be encouraged is placing increased emphasis on empowering consumers by redirecting assistance to individual students instead of institutions. The same effect could occur with a well designed expansion of the Pell Grant program.

This is a very powerful idea. Give the money to the education consumers instead of the rent-seekers.

The collection of data allowing meaningful interstate comparison of student learning should be encouraged and expanded to all 50 states. By using assessments of adult literacy, tests that many students already take for licensure and for graduate and professional school admission, and specially administered tests of general intellectual skills such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, state policymakers can make valid interstate comparisons of student learning and identify shortcomings as well as best practices.

As a parent about to help a third child choose a college, I really resent the lack of hard data on college effectiveness. It is tempting to shop on the basis of price, because we have no objective measure of quality.

Overall, this report says government should do more things that are relatively good, such as gather useful data, direct funds to needy consumers, and examine ways to encourage more entry and competition (which is why the issue of accreditation needs to be opened up–it’s a strong cartel-enforcement tool). It also says, if perhaps more implicitly than one might like, that government should do fewer things that are relatively bad, such as throw money at institutions.

I guess the bottom line is, don’t take my opinion or Neal’s opinion as gospel. If you think that the report matters (and again, I have my doubts), then read the draft yourself.

Do Student Debtors Need to Grow Up?

With the deadline nearing to consolidate federal student loans before their interest rates rise to reflect overall lending rates, media sob stories about student debt keep on coming….and getting harder to take.

A CBS News report last night that profiled two engaged medical school students was all too typical.

“Jason DeBonis and Katrina Lust can use any breaks they can find,” reporter Randall Pinkston intoned at the outset of the story. “The two medical students are young and in love. They plan to marry in May. Their wedding gift to each other: a combined total of nearly $500,000 in student loans.”

Ouch! $500,000 – that certainly seems like a terrible wedding present. That is, until you see what the doctors-to-be will be getting for that $500,000, which, of course, CBS News didn’t report.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2004 the average family practice doctor with less than two years experience in that specialty – the lowest paid doctor on the BLS list – made $137,119. The average doctor with the same experience in the highest paid specialty, anesthesiology, made $259,948.

Now, assume that both students in the CBS News report become family practice doctors, and for thirty years make the lowest yearly income listed by the BLS. That’s unrealistic, of course, but let’s be conservative. All told, they would make $8,227,140, a profit of more than $7.7 million after debt!

So what’s the problem? According to one of the medical students, this is:

“It makes me upset that I have to maybe not do what I want to do because I won’t be able to pay my bills at the end of the month.”

How sad. Apparently, in order to become a doctor and make her multi-million dollar profit, this medical student might actually have to give up some other things she would like to do. Reality bites: She has to make trade-offs between different things she wants just like everyone else!

An even more galling complaint about student debt in the story was offered by Anya Kamenetz, perhaps the foremost spokesperson for young people who feel unfairly put-upon because they’ve been asked to pay for part of their own education. “When you’re not standing on your own two feet, when you’re still accepting help from mom and dad, when you still can’t pay the bills, when you’re still struggling to stay out from under debt, you don’t feel like an adult,” she complained.

So this is what it comes down to: No matter how big its payoff, student debt is unfair because it keeps students from getting everything they want, and makes it harder for them to feel grown up.

What two more childish reasons could there be for crying about student loans?

Blueprint for an Ivory Tower Disaster

Late Monday, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education – a group tasked with creating a “national strategy” for post-secondary schooling – released a preliminary draft of its findings and recommendations. Thankfully, it is just a draft, because almost everything it calls for – from marked increases in student aid, to more government-imposed “accountability”– would devastate American higher education.

American academia’s biggest problem is that thanks to government aid to both students and institutions it is financed largely by taxpayers rather than the students it is educating. This “third-party payer problem” has led to huge waste, as the draft report acknowledges:

In our view, affordability is directly affected by the failure of post-secondary institutions to take aggressive steps to improve institutional efficiency and productivity. That…can be traced to a system of third-party payments…that gives college and universities little incentive to control costs and find innovative ways to teach students. On the contrary, for many institutions the path to prestige involves spending more money, whether on costly laboratories or lavish student dorms, an academic arms race that often doesn’t serve the public interest.

Having apparently understood the third-party payer problem, you would think the commission would call for the obvious – eliminating government interference in higher education. You would be wrong. In fact, the report’s very first recommendation is for the nation (read: “government”) to “commit to an unprecedented effort to expand access to college by providing substantial increases in need-based aid…”

Of course, expanding student aid isn’t the report’s only recommendation. It also calls for new “Lifelong Learning Accounts” to be financed through tax incentives; federal enticements for states and higher education organizations to implement standardized testing schemes; a new “national student unit record tracking system” that would include data on almost every college student in the country; and a “national accreditation framework” that the federal government could use to impose uniformity on the ivory tower.

All of these big-government recommendations are supposed to help us compete in the global economy, which is ironic given the performances of our competitors’ very centralized systems of higher education. In the late 1990s, for instance, China’s economic planners offered huge incentives for young people to go to college. Today, roughly 60 percent of recent Chinese college graduates are struggling to find jobs. Or look at Europe: According to the Centre for European Reform, that continent’s colleges and universities “are failing to provide the intellectual and creative energy that is required to improve the continent’s poor economic performance.”

Clearly, to keep itself and the country competitive, the last thing American higher education needs is more government money or control. Unfortunately, the Secretary of Education’s Commission seems poised to recommend a lot more of both.

When a Billion Here and a Billion There DON’T Add up to Real Money

Warren Buffett is giving away $44 billion of his fortune, $30 billion of it to the Gates Foundation. Much of that money will go toward education. If it is used for more fiddling about with our existing school monopoly, it will have a negligible long term impact on American education. If it is used to help empower parents with an unfettered choice of public and independent schools, it will transform the lives of millions of children.

Soon we’ll find out how well Mr. Buffett’s investing acumen translates to the education philanthropy business.