Tag: higher education

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]

Does Higher Ed Prove We Need Bigger, Stronger Gates?

With school choice advocate Betsy DeVos slated to become the next U.S. Secretary of Education, the battle between regulation and freedom has suddenly become more intense, with people on both sides exchanging fire. Yesterday, Jason Bedrick weighed in against regulation, while today Jeffrey Selingo warns that a major reason “choice hasn’t necessarily led to better outcomes in higher education is the absence of a strong gatekeeper for quality control.”

This sort of assertion strikes me as more an article of intuitive faith than a conclusion based on evidence. If only some well-informed, smart group of experts decided what people could choose, choices would be much better. The problem is that no one has the omniscience to do the job, especially so effectively that the costs of bureaucracy, barriers to entry, and kneecapping of innovation don’t severely outweigh the hoped-for benefits.

Is For-Profit Higher Ed Horrible? Can We Talk, Please?

Obviously, numerous Obama administration policies hang in the balance with the coming of a new president and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. Among them is an administration campaign that has been waged against for-profit colleges, a sector of higher education seen by many as uniquely predatory and, it is probably fair to say, uniquely awful. But is the sector so horrible? And horrible or not, does the election mean a reprieve is coming?

To answer these questions—and in the interest of having a real exchange of views—this Wednesday Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom will be hosting a Q & A-intensive forum on for-profit colleges featuring several of the sector’s most prominent critics and defenders, including former Obama administration member Robert Shireman and Center for College Affordability and Productivity director Richard Vedder. We’ll also be fielding questions through Twitter using #CatoHigherEd.

One lesson from the just-completed election seems to be that different parts of America have been talking about and past each other, but rarely to each other. At least when it comes to for-profit higher ed, at least for one morning, we plan to do something different. Register today to join us in-person, or watch online—and join us via Twitter—at 10:00 am ET, on Wednesday, November 16.

Talk with you then!

Not a “Better Way” on Education

Yesterday, the House GOP released a report called A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America. Alas, at least in education, only if you think doing basically the same thing we’re doing right now is a “better way” could this report please you. And there is little to suggest what we’re doing now is working.

Start with pre-k education. While acknowledging the undeniable—“gold-standard” research commissioned by the feds themselves has shown federal Head Start has no discernable, lasting benefits—the report does not call for even decreasing Head Start spending, much less eliminating the program. No, it proclaims that early-childhood programs are very important and what Washington should do—again, with no talk about actually decreasing funding—is “streamline” duplicative programs and fund more research into “what works.” Because states, or local governments, or philanthropists, could never fund such research!

That’s not a better way. That is a way, maybe, to mute attacks that Republicans “don’t care” about little children or the poor. So maybe it’s a politically better way. But it isn’t a better way on policy.

At the elementary and secondary level, the report says nice things about choice, including the DC voucher program, which is all well and good. It also touts the Every Student Succeeds Act—the replacement for No Child Left Behind—before, frankly, we know what it is going to look like in practice. More and more, it seems the law may have given too much power to the U.S. Secretary of Education, which the report warns against in only the broadest terms.

A better way? We’ll see.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the report’s higher education discussion. Basically, the better way is—of course—to “streamline” stuff, including federal regulations, while failing to even mention the mountain of evidence that federal student aid—all $161 billion of it—fuels rampant price inflation and student debt; encourages massive noncompletion; finances credential inflation; and abets demand for on-campus water parks and other extreme amenities.

While we’re on the subject, the report falls all over itself to tout Pell Grants, but it would sure be refreshing if someone, in looking for a better way for everyone—taxpayers included—were to at least note how fundamentally unfair Pell Grants are. A huge benefit of completing college is to greatly increase one’s lifetime earnings—to use a term some people find distasteful, to profit—and what Pell says is you should be able to make that profit with other people’s money and no obligation to pay them back. How’s that fair?

There is one more omission from the report: any mention of the Constitution, and whether it gives the federal government authority to do any of these things. But if whether the programs work doesn’t matter, probably no one is going to care about a minor, abstract thing like the rule of law.

The “better way” on all these issues would be to be frank about the effects of federal policies, what the federal government is constitutionally permitted to do, and act accordingly. But that seems to be asking way too much.

New Study on Higher Education Aid

The U.S. Department of Education spends tens of billions of dollars a year on subsidies for higher education. Federal Pell grants are more than $30 billion a year, federal student loans are about $100 billion a year, and grants to colleges and universities are $2.5 billion a year.

College aid is growing rapidly, which is imposing a rising burden on taxpayers. And the subsidies create numerous harmful effects, as Neal McCluskey and I discuss in our new study posted at Downsizing Government.

A key concern is that government money comes with government control. There is increasing pressure to top-down plan America’s higher education system from Washington. As we’ve seen with health care, K-12 schools, disaster aid, transportation, school lunches, and many other activities, federal subsidies invariable end up being the vehicle for central planning.  

This is a big threat to the future of higher education, as our study explains. When the subsidies start flowing, the do-gooders in Washington just can’t keep their hands off. Regulatory manipulation is just too tempting for the politicians and bureaucrats, who hide their big-government impulses behind conservative-sounding phrases such as “standards” and “accountability.”

Even with its problems, the American postsecondary education system is the best in the world. Driven by consumer choice and competition between independent institutions, it has an unmatched vibrancy. However, increasing federal control and subsidization from Washington is creating a serious threat.

Efforts by the current and prior administrations to micromanage accreditation and other aspects of higher education threaten to undermine the system’s diversity and flexibility. The waste and bureaucracy of top-down federal control is exemplified by the regulatory juggernaut of education’s Title IX, the gender discrimination rules.

As we conclude in our study, the best way to avert rising central planning is to cut, and ultimately end, federal subsidies for higher education.

A Few Words on ‘Gainful Employment’

The big higher education news this week is that the Obama administration released its “gainful employment” rules aimed squarely at beleaguered for-profit colleges, which are the schools most likely to offer programs that are explicitly about supplying job skills. This attack does not seem to come because for-profits are objectively worse performers than the rest of the decrepit Ivory Tower, but because it is easy to demonize institutions that—unlike much of higher ed—are honest about trying to make a profit. Oh, and because going after the real culprit—an aid system that gives almost any person almost any amount of money to go to college—would require federal politicians to take on a system they created, and that makes them look ever-so-caring.

Perhaps the only unexpected thing about the regulations is that they do not include cohort default rates—the percentage of an institution’s borrowers defaulting on their loans within two or three years of entering repayment—among the assessments of aid worthiness. Instead, they just use debt-to-earnings ratios. The American Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities—proprietary colleges’ advocacy arm—suspects this was done because including the default rate was projected to ensnare some community colleges, and the administration wanted this to be all about for-profit institutions.

There is reason to believe this may be true. The administration has lauded community colleges as the Little Schools That Could for a long time, and, indeed, directly compared them to for-profit schools in its press release for the new regulations. “The situation for students at for-profit institutions is particularly troubling,” they wrote. “On average, attending a two-year for-profit institution costs a student four times as much as attending a community college.” What didn’t they mention? According to federal data, completion rates at community colleges are around 20 percent, versus 63 percent at two-year for-profits. The data aren’t perfect—they capture only first-time, full-time students who finish at the institution where they started—but it is a yawning gap that illustrates a crucial point not just about gainful employment, but overall higher education policy: emotions and political concerns, not objective analysis, seem to drive it.

And speaking of objective analysis: We will be hosting what should be a great, diverse panel discussion on Wednesday, November 5, that will look at the changing face of higher education—including, no doubt, gainful employment—as well as offer predictions about what the previous night’s election results might mean for higher education. Hope to see you there!

“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. 

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