Tag: college

“Only Progressives Need Apply”

William Felkner was a student at Rhode Island College, a state school, studying social work. The school’s faculty explained that as a profession “we do take sides” and are “devoted to the value of social and economic justice.” Accordingly, the professors required the students to lobby the state legislature for progressive policies.

But Felkner didn’t hold these same progressive views. When he refused to espouse the political ideology that was required, he was given failing grades and dismissed from the program. But of course the First Amendment has long been understood to prohibit the government from compelling an individual to espouse a political opinion with which he or she disagrees. Despite this, the lower state court actually upheld the school’s action, finding that no constitutional rights had been violated.

Cato has now joined the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the National Association of Scholars on an amicus brief to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, arguing that constitutional rights don’t stop at the schoolhouse door. The foundational case in this area was one in which the U.S. Supreme Court held the requirement to salute the flag in public schools was unconstitutional.

While the lower court here had held there was no evidence that Felkner was required to lobby, this holding is specifically refuted by the professor’s testimony. When asked, “So, in other words, the school was going to tell them which position they had to lobby on?”, he answered, “Yes.” The trial court also improperly focused on precedent at the primary and secondary school level rather than a post-secondary institution like Rhode Island College.

This precedent was about in-classroom speech—that teachers can maintain decorum in the classroom and require certain recitations as a means of instruction—but the trial court misapplied it to a requirement to lobby publicly in a context in which the student would be presumed to be speaking for himself. The trial court also misapplied precedent about speech which implicitly bore the approval of the school. While a school can properly restrict children’s speech that the public might reasonably perceive to be the school’s speech, it can’t require students to profess a certain political ideology—and there’s even less leeway if the students are adults.

In Felkner v. Rhode Island College, the Rhode Island Supreme Court should protect the First Amendment rights of students from being compelled to advocate policies with which they disagree as a condition of maintaining their standing at the school and progressing towards a degree.

Do Colleges Have an Edifice Complex, an Amenities Arms Race, or Both?

Think of college, and your mind may well conjure images of ivy creeping up the walls of stately, gray, Gothic stone buildings in which the deepest of learning occurs. Such buildings exist, of course, but reality is not so pleasantly simple: Those buildings cost big money to erect and maintain, money many colleges may not have. What’s more, students often demand that more fun stuff, rather than deep learning, occur inside them. Or so a new report suggests.

“College and university enrollments are, in aggregate, either stable or declining,” intones the report, titled “The State of Facilities in Higher Education: 2016 Benchmarks, Best Practices and Trends.” The paper is from Sightlines, an outfit that provides facilities data to academia. “In light of the building boom of recent years, many campuses now have more space to maintain and fewer students to fill it.”

Essentially, the report says that colleges have been on a big building binge, but enrollment has been stagnant or declining. The basic math is concerning: Greater capital costs, plus decreasing revenue, equals trouble.

Has the building boom been driven by an edifice complex — college presidents and faculty love new buildings all over campus that are imposing, cutting edge, or both — or an amenities arms race to bring in students?

It’s probably both, but the report puts the onus on a destructive race to attract increasingly scarce students who demand ever more luxury:

Several campuses, realizing the possibility of a decline in enrollment, used the new construction (especially for housing, dining, and recreation facilities) as a way of attracting additional students. The hope being that the development of new amenities and support services can make a campus more attractive to millennials. According to several campus administrators, today’s student body “expects” high-end dormitories, multiple dining options, and modern fitness and recreational facilities. But fulfilling those expectations comes at a cost.

The report says that for decades, college construction has focused more on creating non-academic than academic space, and about half of all college space today is for non-academic use.

It’s a classic arms race: Colleges frightened of losing tuition dollars feel constant pressure to spend on expensive facilities to compete for students, in the process greatly increasing the danger of becoming even more insecure financially, maybe hopelessly so.

But how can students demand all these pricey things that are often superfluous to learning?

The answer, largely, is that someone else is paying.

Students, like most people, would take nice things, all else equal. But most people are constrained by cost: They often can’t afford, or cannot justify, spending their hard-earned money on many lovely but expensive items or services. The vast majority of students, however, pay for college in part with someone else’s dough.

Much of that is in the form of direct taxpayer subsidies to public institutions, which enroll about 73 percent of all students, and in 2015 absorbed around $87 billion in state and local subsidies. Then there is federal student aid, including grants, loans, work study, and tax benefits, which totaled $158 billion in 2015.

Students can demand so much because, in large part, you and all your taxpaying friends are footing the bill.

College campuses are often covered in buildings that feel grand, almost mythical. But they are rooted in gritty reality: Someone’s got to pay for them, and that’s getting harder to do. Maybe the solution is to have those who demand the good life pay for it themselves.

[Cross-posted from the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog]

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?

It’s Obvious Student Aid Is Driven by Politics. But Not This Obvious

Federal aid for college students, it’s really no secret, is driven by what works politically, not what’s best for students. While logic and evidence strongly suggest that aid mainly enables colleges to raise their prices at breakneck speeds, politicians talk nonstop about aid making college “affordable.” Financial reality simply does not trump appearing to “care.” But on Friday, the Obama administration appears poised to take aid exploitation to a new level.

Tomorrow, the President will host what sounds like will be a textbook, campaign-style event featuring lots of no doubt somber – but oh-so-grateful-to-the-President – looking college students. With the photo-op thus set up, Mr. Obama will demand that Congress do something to stop the impending doubling of interest rates on subsidized federal loans from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

But the GOP-led House has done something, and it is largely along the lines of what the President has called for. Last week, the House passed legislation that would peg student loan interest rates to 10-year Treasury bills, and would even cap rates at 8.5 percent or 10.5 percent, depending on the type of loan. It’s not exactly what the President wants – rates will vary over the life of the loan rather than being set at the origination rate, and the add-on to T-bill rates is higher – but the plans are still pretty close.

At this point, you’d think the President would be negotiating, not grandstanding. But then you wouldn’t understand federal student aid (or, really, almost anything government does). It is first and foremost about politicians – who are normal, self-interested people – getting what they need: political support, not sane college prices. And you get a lot of that support by appearing to want to “help people” more than the other guys.

If ever there will be a blatant, inescapable demonstration of what really drives federal aid policy, it will be the event we are likely to witness tomorrow. Let’s hope the public will get the right message: Politicians aren’t primarily driven by a desire to make college affordable. They’re driven by a desire for political gain. And that’s why we need them to get out of the student aid business.

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

What, Us Worry about Paying for College?

Listen to the media and you might think every American is scared silly about paying for college, and  public aid is stretched micron thin to help just the neediest of students. A new report analyzing what and how Americans paid for higher education last year, however, puts the lie to that image.

How America Pays for College: 2012, from Sallie Mae and Ipsos Public Affairs, offers an interesting breakdown of who pays what and how for college, and furnishes some welcome contextual data. I’m not sure there is a unifying message in the numbers – other than people seem to be economizing a bit since the 2009-10 academic year – but some of the potential lessons are striking.

The first lesson is don’t believe that government aid is just for the poor. Families making $100,000 or more used federal loans, tax-incentivized savings programs, and federal, state, and school-based grants – which do not include scholarships – to cover 27 percent of their total cost of attendance.

Next, don’t get caught up in the overblown controversy over private student loans. It’s a diversion from the much bigger impact of government aid. Only 1 percent of the total cost of attendance last year was covered by private loans, versus 4 percent by federal Parent PLUS loans, 13 percent by other federal loans, 1 percent by federal work-study, and 16 percent by federal, state, or school-based grants. And don’t forget: much of the cost of public institutions is borne by taxpayers before the tuition bills even go out.

Perhaps most interesting, it appears that even though the sticker price of college has risen at astronomical rates, most people aren’t sufficiently concerned that they plan ahead for how they’ll pay. 50 percent of respondents either “somewhat” or “strongly” disagreed with the statement that “before my child/I enrolled, our family created a plan for paying for all years of college.” Only 39 percent somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement.

What does this tell us? Potentially many things, but one might be that many people assume someone, no matter what, will ensure that they or their child will be able to go to college. Unfortunately, that “someone” often ends up being the American taxpayer.

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.”]

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