Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

Rube Goldberg, Call Your Office

In a recent blog post, I mentioned L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s quest for control over his city’s public schools.

Well, he got it. Sort of.

After concessions to appease both the teachers’ unions and the school board, the L.A. school district chain of command will soon look like it was designed by Rube Goldberg. On acid.

The Mayor will have more or less complete control over a dozen or so especially troubled schools, and veto power over the Superintendency. The superintendent will gain budgeting powers, except over the union employee contract (which is, of course, the biggest budget item). Teachers and principals will be made no more accountable to parents, but they will gain the power to set their schools’ curricula. The board will negotiate the union contract – except of course that they will lose control over what teachers actually teach. Oy vey.

Had Villaraigosa won the supreme authortity he was seeking, it would have meant a transfer of monopoly power from the board to the mayor, and would have done nothing for the city’s kids. The deal that has been cobbled together amounts to a monopolist with multiple personality disorder. Its prospects are, if anything, even bleaker.

What L.A. needs is for power to be returned to parents. The educational chain of command should involve two parties: the school and the family. If the school fails to measure up, the family should be able to easily move its children elsewhere.

Any other “accountability reform” is self-serving political quackery.

China Syndrome

Higher education policy is being driven by the assumption that to compete in the global economy, especially against burgeoning powerhouses like China, the United States will need a lot more college graduates. It’s the foundation of President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative, and the ivory tower’s justification for demanding ever more taxpayer dollars.

Ironically, China itself illustrates the pitfalls of having the government set education policies based on predictions for the future. Several sources have reported unrest among Chinese college students and recent graduates, whose unhappiness appears to have a single underlying cause. From today’s New York Times:

In 1998 the government encouraged a vast expansion in college-level education. Hundreds of new colleges were founded almost overnight to accommodate millions of new students thought to be needed as engineers, bankers, traders and marketing experts in the fast-growing economy.

So what happened?

The number of college graduates has multiplied fivefold in the last seven years, to an estimated 4.1 million this year. But at least 60 percent of that number are having trouble finding jobs, according to the National Development and Reform Commission….

As I wrote in a recent op-ed, don’t believe the hype: Special interests and politicians will try to scare you about the future economy in order to take your money. But as China itself has shown, the only thing we can predict with any reliability is that the government’s predictions will almost certainly be wrong.