Lesson Plan

by Harry on June 6, 2016

I recommend William Bowen and Michael McPherson’s new book Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education to anyone who wants a better understanding of the problems in higher education in the US, and especially to anyone who is working in higher education and wants to contribute to improving it.

Among its many virtues are that it is short, and an easy read; but, despite that, it contains lots of useful information, well-organized, and although they are sketched rather detailed, its recommendations for change should be part of the debate on your campus, whatever your campus is like. I don’t think it is eccentric of them to take the 3 central challenges to higher education in the US as being raising attainment rates, reducing disparities in outcomes relating to socio-economic status, and controlling costs, and they have a good deal of interesting and useful things to say about all three. I’m not going to provide a comprehensive overview of the book (its short enough that you should just read it yourself), but will divide the post into a section on several points they make that seem not to be well understood in the public debate, including by a lot of faculty, and then a section on a couple of their recommendations for improvement in controlling costs.

First, the five points:

1.Administrative bloat does not explain rising tuition, contrary to popular myth. You’ll see figures saying that whereas in the 1970s faculty outnumbered administrators 2:1, now there is one administrator for every faculty member; one much quoted NYT article claims that “administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60% between 1993 and 2009”. Just seeing that claim should make anyone who works in a university suspicious – where are all these people? The NYT figure leaves out of the equation that enrollments grew by 42% in the same period, so that at worst administrative positions grew 1% a year faster than enrollments. And a very large part of the change in the ratios of ‘administrators’ to faculty is a result of changes in non-faculty needs of the institutions, and the tendency to classify more jobs as ‘administrative’ than in the past. More menial jobs (like typist, gardener) that were never classified as administrative have declined because of mechanization, computers, etc. At the same time a need for more professional jobs (most obviously IT people) that are classified as administrative has increased. The ratio of “executive, administrative and management” staff to students actually decreased slightly between 1991 and 2001 from 1.1:100 to 1:100.

2.Nor, in fact, does reduced state appropriations explain increased tuition. The pattern with state appropriations for higher education is pretty predictable: they decline as tax revenues decline (in recessions) and grow as they grow. We are in a long recession right now, so we have seen an 8-year decline, as with funding for other discretionary items in state budgets. The real kicker is not declining appropriations per se, but declining per-full-time-equivalent student appropriations. As larger numbers of students attend college, stable state appropriations mean reduced per-student appropriations. Its fine to say: “oh, well, we should be funding higher education more”, but that money has to come from somewhere – either from other parts of the State budget, or from increased tax revenues. Suppose for a moment that we can get the extra money from increased tax revenues or from the department of corrections or of transportation (I just assume nobody will propose taking it from k-12 or from medical assistance, which are typically the biggest parts of State budgets). I will not be popular for saying this, and I should emphasize that Bowen and McPherson do not say this, but it is hard to see why a sensible legislator concerned with improving education, or with improving fairness in education, would prioritize additional funding for higher education. Why? It’s not a priority if you care about fairness, because higher education is not a universal program, but one which less than 2/3rds of the cohort participate in, and is not even available to those who have received the worst education up to that point, who are almost exclusively among the less advantaged people in society; and nearly a half of those who DO participate do not get qualifications, and they, too, are disproportionately among the less advantaged of those who do use it. It’s not a priority if you just care about getting an educated population because we know that investments in early childhood and k-8—the education levels in which everyone participates, are more cost-efficient up to some saturation point which we are still quite far from.

3.Student debt is a problem, but is not a crisis. Now, don’t misread this. It really is a problem, and Bowen and McPherson explain just why. But most students who graduate who take on loans end up with debt that is entirely rational given the still very large premium that attaches to graduating college. According to the latest figures 61% of all Bachelor’s degree’s recipients graduate with some debt, and the average level of debt per borrower was $26,900; more like the loan for a new car than the loan for a new house, and dwarfed by the increased earning-expectations that most degrees bring in their wake even now. In fact, as they point out, some students take out too little in loans – if your progress to degree is impeded by working long hours in a minimum wage job, you would be better off borrowing, graduating and starting to earn better wages earlier (and your post-graduation earning power doesn’t have to be much better for this to be true). Most people with large amounts of debt pursued graduate study, including post-bac Medicine and Business degrees.

4.Something I was previously only vaguely aware of, because it isn’t a huge problem in selective institutions like mine, is the role of mathematics requirements in prolonging time to degree and, presumably, fueling attrition. According to one study, among students who start at 2 –year colleges, 59% are placed in developmental mathematics courses, and 80% of them fail to complete any college level math course within 3 years of entry. Developmental (remedial) math courses typically do not carry credit and are frequently not well taught (as mathematics is generally not well taught, from elementary school onwards, especially, of course, to students from less affluent backgrounds: even well-educated parents with relatively low stress jobs have trouble compensating for the inadequate-though-not-as-bad math teaching their children get at suburban schools).

5.President Obama has proposed that community college should be free – and, I notice, free community college is part of Hillary Clinton’s higher education platform. Bowen and McPherson’s earlier research with Matthew Chingos, in Crossing the Finish Line, however, shows that students who start out at a 2 year college are much less likely than similar students who go straight to a 4 year college to complete a 4 year degree, and this finding has been replicated by a large study in Florida. Inducing students to start out in community college may not be the wisest move if the aim is to increase attainment, especially among less affluent students.

As I say, Bowen and McPherson understand that debt is a real problem. But it is not a problem for most graduates, but for the very large proportions of students who do not, in fact, graduate, who are disproportionately from less affluent backgrounds and who, because they do not graduate, earn less than those who do. And one of the core messages of their book is that we should be paying much more attention than we do to graduation rates and, to gaps in graduation rates between more and less affluent students.

So what is to be done? It’s a short book, and it does not offer a detailed master plan for change, but sketches out agendas concerning funding and debt and, especially, the federal role, increasing efficiency, and changing the role of leadership. I’m planning a post on funding and debt later, and changing the role of leadership is too big an issue to discuss in this post, so for now I’ll just pick out just a couple of things their efficiency-related points that I think would be particularly interesting to CT-ers and about which I’d like to hear what you have to say.

By the way, they do cite Clark Kerr’s famous comment that ‘the call for effectiveness in the use of resources will be perceived by many inside the university world as the best current definition of evil’ – which still has a slight ring of truth, though I think it is less true (certainly around my institution) than it was when I started teaching, and that’s a good thing. Efficiency matters independently of the debt/funding issues, of course, because whatever our budget constraint, we should be aiming to produce valuable outcomes cost-effectively. But if you believe, as I do, that we cannot rely on States and the Federal government to increase per-FTE funding, and you believe that current arrangements (including funding levels) produce considerable pressure and stress on less affluent students, resulting in unreasonably high attrition and unreasonably long time to degree for those students, you will should regard efficiency gains as particularly urgent. Their three themes – raising attainment, reducing disparities, and controlling costs – are intertwined in practice.

1.Rationalizing PhD programs.
Through the 1970s and 1980s the number of PhD programs increased rapidly, as did the production of PhDs, at exactly the same time as the number of new openings for tenure-track faculty slowed down. Whereas in 1965 the number of PhDs produced matched the growth in FTE faculty, it now dramatically exceeds it. As they observe, no-one has done a good cost-simulation study of the potential cost savings that could follow from the closing, or slimming, down of lower-ranked PhD programs, and any such study would be difficult to do because many of the potential savings are hard to quantify. [Some will point out that graduate students are used as cheap teaching labor in many programs. But exactly how cheap are they?: any study would have to take account of the faculty time spent on teaching graduate students, as well as the fact that in many programs it is not exactly right to call what they do teaching (and this is me, not Bowen and McPherson speaking now), since many programs recruit graduate students who, for example, do not speak English well enough to teach English-speaking students, even if they received training in instruction (which is rare).] Speaking just for myself, it is hard for me to believe that the number of PhD students in the disciplines I know well (Philosophy, Sociology, Education) is optimal for the efficiency of the institutions they inhabit (see this cheery report on the state of the job market in the Humanities, from today’s IHE). And, as Bowen and McPherson point out, it is not clear that the content of PhD programs is optimal: they cite Philip A. Griffiths saying that in math the tendency is to prepare students for tenure track positions that emphasize breakthrough research in traditional fields of mathematics, whereas most PhDs who do get faculty jobs will devote most of their time to teaching undergraduates, for which most programs barely prepare them at all. I’ll return to this in a moment.

2.Rationalizing Staffing
Between 1969 and 2009 the percentage of all faculty that was tenure-line was 75%; by 2009 it was just 33%. Bowen and McPherson think this is an irreversible shift, both because non-tenure track faculty are cheaper and can be deployed more flexibly, and because the supply of people willing to teach at colleges and universities is, and will continue to be, large (see above). In the post-WWII period, research institutions professionalized research staff, so that non-tenure-line research staff are a familiar feature of STEM departments in R1 universities. Bowen and McPherson’s proposal is to do the same for non-tenure-line teaching staff. This is already happening but in a very patchy way, and their suggestion is that it be done more systematically, and that leaders (and faculty) should pay more attention to how to do it so it serves the educational mission of the institutions well. They rightly refrain, in a short book, from outlining a detailed plan of action, but they do specify 4 necessary elements, and then throw in a revolutionary suggestion.

The 4 elements:

* A well-formulated set of titles plus compensation and benefits commensurate with contributions.

  • A clear understanding of the terms of appointment and opportunities for re-appointment.
  • A well defined evaluation process that spells out basic protections including protections of academic freedom.

I’ll finish with the shocking, and revolutionary, suggestion, which I’ll quote at length

A further step… would be the development of graduate programs aimed at the development of professional teachers…. It is a bit shocking [HB – a bit??] that so many college faculty are let loose on undergraduates with practically no training in the work of teaching – itself a sign of the regrettably low esteem in which the main work of universities is held by too many who manage and lead them. Preparing instructors to a high standard is demanding and important work for which universities should find a place.

You can see how these proposals are related to one another, and how they would help control costs. But the relationship to increasing attainment and reducing disparities may not be so obvious. Let’s return to the example of math requirements. Remedial/development math courses hold (mainly less affluent) students up because they repeatedly fail math. Their failing is largely a consequence of two things. First, they have not been taught math well up to the point they reach college; second, they are not taught it well even in the remedial courses. (Bowen and McPherson actually single out basic math as a promising subject for the use of online adaptive learning platforms, and one of their reasons is that “it is widely acknowledged by leaders in the field that at present basic mathematics is not well taught at many colleges and universities” – many of the math majors I have encountered would criticize that assessment as a striking understatement – and that’s the students who have majored in the subject). Teaching remedial math – that is, getting students who have not been taught math well before and have the attitude that they are no good at it – is a highly skilled job, success in which requires training, experience, and continuing professional development. Improving the quality of the teaching would help raise attainment, especially for the less affluent students who have the most difficulty.

Discuss away – and read the book!

{ 119 comments }

1

AcademicLurker 06.06.16 at 3:53 pm

In the post-WWII period, research institutions professionalized research staff, so that non-tenure-line research staff are a familiar feature of STEM departments in R1 universities.

This is a bit misleading. Speaking from my own experience at several R1 universities, universities are very loath to fund staff positions. The “professionalized staff” that keep most STEM departments running are postdocs who are paid, not by the universities, but by the NIH. And these are usually intrinsically limited term positions that have their own problems in terms of how they exploit cheap labor and unrealistic ideas about the prospects of landing a permanent job in academia.

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Barry 06.06.16 at 4:03 pm

“Some will point out that graduate students are used as cheap teaching labor in many programs. But exactly how cheap are they?:”

Very cheap. If departments tried to sell graduate study on the private market, they would have almost no students. They basically use grad student teaching to move the wooden nickels of intra-institutional money into the department’s budget.

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Harry 06.06.16 at 4:14 pm

This might vary a lot by institution. Our TAs teach a course a semester (or equivalent), get very low pay (by any standard) and faculty teach seminars rarely (one in every 8 of our courses are graduate seminars at most). But at many other R1s students teach considerably fewer than one course a semester, and are paid considerably more than here, and faculty teach seminars much more frequently. I’d be very surprised, for example, if the graduate school I attended saved money by having graduate students teach — and that was in the 80s. Maybe faculty salaries have climbed enough to change that. But even if so (which I doubt), we should compare the cost of graduate students teachers not with that of faculty but with other feasible options which, in my opinion, includes Bowen and McPherson’s sketched proposal of a professionalized non-tenure line teaching corps.

Academic Lurker — thanks, I didn’t mean to mislead. My institution has a large corps of research staff, mainly funded with soft-ish money, but fairly secure (by non-tenure-line standards) and with a moderately well articulated career structure. I wasn’t (and they aren’t) saying the teaching corps should be structured the same way (in particular, not soft money), but just that it is to learn from (positive and negative) when trying to develop an alternate structure.

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minnesotaj 06.06.16 at 4:20 pm

Interesting: I’ll definitely read (and am definitively tired of the “unbundling”/”dismantling” debate). Two quick comments that I think are worth noting/adding:

1) Math seems to have several interesting ways forward (from the adaptive model of Aleks, EdReady, and others—to, I think more promisingly, co-remedial approaches: http://www.edcentral.org/fix-remediation-at-scale/). Why an English major needs to learn how to calculate matrices has never made sense to me (nor why Computer Scientists must learn the calculus)—but we also need to do a better job pushing college and technical school advising into the 8th grade (or stop making HS math an elective when we do). Nothing sucks worse than to be Johnny X-Box, for whom math is an elective after 9th or 10th grade—then show up at County Tech and find out that the design and estimation skills he needs require much of geometry, college algebra, and maybe even a little trig (which the CCs have, in their wisdom, baked together into practical math courses—just as 4-years should co-teach Calculus and Physics).

2) We really, really need to stop defining “attainment” as “4-year-degree.” The CA CCs are actually spending a lot of time looking in the other direction, at what they call “skills builders:” Judy takes 2 classes each for just 2 semesters as Pasadena City College and they are Intro to Comp, Tech Writing I, Intro to Marketing, and Tech Writing II. Did she drop out? No, she self-designed the micro-credential that got her a job as Junior TechWriter at ACME Engineering. If she’s a single mom, 22 years old, and her chances at that age/demographic of attaining a 4 year degree are sub 10-percent, why are we A) shaming her and B) penalizing the Community College that supported her?

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L2P 06.06.16 at 4:23 pm

“Bowen and McPherson’s earlier research with Matthew Chingos, in Crossing the Finish Line, however, shows that students who start out at a 2 year college are much less likely than similar students who go straight to a 4 year college to complete a 4 year degree, and this finding has been replicated by a large study in Florida.”

It’s hard to believe those studies have anything meaningful to say about community colleges. The number of community college students that actually are the same as those who go straight to a 4 year school, but for some reason didn’t go to a 4-year school, could probably fit in a decent-sized van. The hidden but important distinctions would be enormous. Based on my high school, that population is 100% family issues, surfing is my life, and/or have a serious boyfriend/girlfriend that I will sacrifice my education for, the same things that would make them fail at the 4 year school.

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AcademicLurker 06.06.16 at 4:30 pm

harry@3: This is definitely something that will vary somewhat by institution. At least when I have hired staff, it’s been made clear to me that I’m on the hook to support them with grants, and if the grant funding runs out, so does the position.

I imagine at places like Rockefeller or Hopkins or Harvard there are enough faculty pulling in multiple large grants that there is a slush fund to support more quasi-permanent staff. But in my experience truly university funded staff positions are the exception.

7

RNB 06.06.16 at 4:30 pm

See reference to Bowen and McPherson in stats textbooks as textbook error of ignoring self-selection bias. They claim that students who get to institutions with higher grad rates often go to schools with lower grad rates; therefore, if those students went to the former institutions, grad rates would go up. But that does not follow: students who went to other institution may selected them for good reasons bearing on their ability to graduate. Seems similar to possible error noted @5.

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harry b 06.06.16 at 4:44 pm

RNB — their method is well-chosen to eliminate that selection bias, but they acknowledge that it is not foolproof (so I don’t think they make the error, but they can respond if they have time). Community colleges: L2P you really think it is 100% that? I would want to be sure it was at least 80% that before enthusing about a policy that would induce many more students who currently start at 4 years to, instead, start at 2-years. I’m convinced enough by studies claiming peer effects in all sorts of other areas of adolescent life (including high school education) that I don’t need to be 100% convinced of the validity of the studies they talk about to be cautious about the policy.

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Sebastian H 06.06.16 at 4:55 pm

I’m having a bit of trouble with the administrative bloat numbers. Are we comparing all the different institutions at once? My handle on the numbers may be faulty so let me put up my understanding.

Re enrollment: a huge increase in the enrollment is in community colleges. So when we say things like 42% increase in enrollment what we really mean is a huge increase in enrollment at community colleges, a modest increase at good 4 year colleges and almost no increase at elite colleges. The tuition crisis isn’t at community colleges, so I’m not sure how this statistic is helping us.

Student debt is a problem, but is not a crisis. Now, don’t misread this. It really is a problem, and Bowen and McPherson explain just why. But most students who graduate who take on loans end up with debt that is entirely rational given the still very large premium that attaches to graduating college. According to the latest figures 61% of all Bachelor’s degree’s recipients graduate with some debt, and the average level of debt per borrower was $26,900; more like the loan for a new car than the loan for a new house, and dwarfed by the increased earning-expectations that most degrees bring in their wake even now.

This is even worse. Most of the college premium statistics involve assumptions which suggest that the middle class will duplicate the economic experience of the baby boomers. That is either rather optimistic or downright ridiculous. The policy making apparatus is still populated by people who lived in the years where you could work in the summer to pay off your college costs. Those years are gone. It also is misleading (in the sense of causing confusion, not evil intent) in its use of averages. So we have the rich, who are already rich and graduating with no student debt. Then we have the upper middle class, who are already upper middle class graduating with little to average (car level) student debt. Then we have the middle class to poor people, who already have disadvantages, graduating with much higher levels of debt. Then we have a frighteningly increasing number of people who are not graduating at all with a very high level of debt.

The math thing is real, and a huge failure of our secondary education. Though it also represents a weird artifact in the curriculum (we definitely aren’t teaching the right skills as well as not teaching the skills we are targeting).

I’m not a huge fan of tenure as currently practiced, but even with that caveat I would like to note that universities with much lower levels of funding than are enjoyed today used to be able to tenure all of their research and teaching staff with much lower tuition. So something is up.

“Inducing students to start out in community college may not be the wisest move if the aim is to increase attainment, especially among less affluent students.”

Ugh. It depends on the needs. I think the statistics on this are particularly crappy. A huge part of the problem is in the job world we are requiring 4 year college degrees for things that never used to require 4 year college degrees. We are using the credential as a proxy for something, and I’m not sure exactly what or why. But the huge down side to using that proxy is excluding people who are poor, or worse really poor and were never taught math as a child so have no chance of ever passing the 4 year college math requirements. So if I had any good idea of how to do that, I would shift back to a more rational understanding of what jobs really require a 4 year degree. I have no good idea how to do that.

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bruce wilder 06.06.16 at 5:07 pm

Credentialism and status competition interact with the poor quality of feedback on achievement and the excessive homogeneity encouraged by accreditation practice in ways that make the increasing sclerosis of higher education the sclerosis of the society, and vice versa.

The last thing I would want to do in this stupid system is work to improve nominal attainment rates.

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Christopher Stephens 06.06.16 at 5:09 pm

On the point about remedial math: I wonder if having full time dedicated math instructors at the elementary school level would help. (I think some countries – maybe Finland? Germany? – have done this with success). Think about it: elementary schools often hire full time dedicated music teachers (at least in those schools where music hasn’t been eliminated). They wouldn’t dream of having the average elementary school teacher – who presumably has no particular skill or enthusiasm for teaching music – teach music as one of their many subjects. In math – perhaps more so than any other subject – if you don’t understand the basics you’ll struggle later because of its cumulative nature.
I don’t know how to fund this but somehow more of the resources that are now given to remedial math ed need to make their way into elementary ed.

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minnesotaj 06.06.16 at 5:35 pm

In re: Community College demographics & transfer patterns. First, students who start in community college & then transfer do better than those who start in 4-year… But those starting in 2-year have lower 6-year attainment than those who start in 4-year. There are many things going on here, almost none of them to do with quality of CCs. Only 80% or so of CC starters say they want to transfer and a good number of them only say so because they need to for financial aid. Economics are key, too: many first-generation college students can’t afford full-time for even two years… Four or five years to get to AA demoralizes many (who nevertheless get jobs with what they’ve learned). And then there’s Dev Ed. Imagine being told you MUST go to college but that you weren’t even good at high school (either by education or inclination)–and then experience college…? In short, go talk to any IE/IR/Provost at a CC and you’ll get an earful on the irrelevancy of completion.

13

EB 06.06.16 at 5:41 pm

The math remediation crush happens, in part, because you don’t have to demonstrate math knowledge/skills in order to get into college, either 2-year or often even 4-year. You just have to demonstrate that attainment in order to graduate. If colleges did not admit anyone who didn’t already have the math background for the type of degree program they want to enter, both the high schools and the students would work harder to get them pre-pared. Of course, this would amount to admitting out loud that you can’t switch from cosmetology to pre-med, but that’s a reality anyway.

14

Donald A. Coffin 06.06.16 at 6:04 pm

The math issue is one that hits home for me in a couple of ways.

I taught economics, and for our intro econ classes we expected students to do basic algebra. My institution (a second tier regional campus of a state university) gave a placement exam for math, and even students who had successfully completed two years of HS algebra frequently failed it. In part, this is a consequence of having taken algebra as first & second year HS students, and then no using it again. It part, it’s a consequence of being badly taught. Even for students who had passed the placement test, or completed the developmental math course, however, solving a very simple equation was often very difficult. There’s a concept we use a lot in econ, price elasticity of demand. the formula for it is

E = (%Change in Quantity Demanded)/(%Change in Price)

Think of it as A = B/C. So, if I give you A & C, you should be able to solve for B pretty easily, right? Or if I give you A & B. Or B & C. Students could mostly handle the problems in which I gave them A & C or B & C. But..not the other one. The error rate approached 50%.

In elementary and high school, the difficulties begin with being able to hire qualified math teachers. My sister, who taught HS math for over 20 years–and was widely regarded as excellent, and who wound up directing the introductory math sequence at the University of Houston, started teaching math because she could not find a job teaching French, and she had a math endorsement on the Texas teaching license. he has told me that it took her about 5 years–without institutional support–to make herself into a good math teacher. And that was in a reasonably good HS in Houston, with reasonably good funding. The difficulties in other environments (such as the schools in Indianapolis, where I live, in which enrollments have declined so severely that they can’t afford to hire people just to teach one subject; the HS I attended in Indy 50+ years ago, when it had 2400 students, now has about 500. They can’t have a full-time–one full-time–math teacher, because they don’t teach enough math classes. When I was there, first year algebra had 7-8 sections per semester.

Whatever it takes to solve just the math issue (and then we have the writing issue) is going to require a major change in the way we think about education from age 5 (or younger). Not just college, not just high school…and it will be difficult and it’s likely not to be cheap. And, frankly, I don’t see the political support for those kinds of changes.

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bruce wilder 06.06.16 at 7:00 pm

Much of what is said about math could be said with even greater force about literacy: reading comprehension and composition skills.

In elementary and high schools, status competition means the schools are pressed politically to sort, more than to educate.

Accurate feedback on whether students acquire requisite skills and the political ability to marshall resources or design interventions on behalf of low-achieving students in a timely way has been a problem for as long as public education has been a standard practice, though credentialism has made it worse, especially as the potential for social mobility has declined.

There is an irrepressible motive in parents to nurture their children in status competition and those with greater resources will seek advantage without considering the social consequences. Finding some kind of enlightened interest in nurturing neglected children and giving it an effect would seem to be a holy grail for a leftist politics.

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bruce wilder 06.06.16 at 7:24 pm

Donald A. Coffin @ 14

I could always do the math. My problem with the math in economics was how hard it was to do the math and critical thinking at the same time. It is sad to think anyone in college cannot manage to solve A = B/C fairly readily, but I can well imagine that even the mathematically literate might stumble over whether the elasticity of demand represents a stable and observable fact about the world, as the similarly-named concept of elasticity in metallurgy does. In my experience, some very bright students, without necessarily being able to articulate precisely why, sometimes see serious defects in the economic idea and that distracts them from simply manipulating the notation mechanically in the ways they were taught in high school.

17

Patrick 06.06.16 at 7:42 pm

I’ve always assumed that the cost of college is rising because sellers of a commodity used for the primary purpose of increasing ones income are incentivized to charge as close to the marginal increase in income their customers expect to receive, with a little fiddling thrown in to account for the possibility that any given customer might be risk averse.

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Brett 06.06.16 at 7:50 pm

The lower-than-expected administrative costs actually surprised me. We ask universities to do a lot more outside of teaching these days, from counseling to mediation to monitoring – and that’s not counting the extra complexities in management that come with increases in size. We saw that with recent student protests demanding more access to faculty and specialists tailored to the needs of different groups of minority students.

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christian_h 06.06.16 at 9:05 pm

I hav no problem with reducing PhD numbers but this will decrease the supply of people willing to teach college for minimum wage that other efficiency suggestions made here rely on.

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Peter Dorman 06.06.16 at 9:06 pm

I haven’t read the book, but I’ve read similar arguments over the years, and I’m not impressed with the case for tuition-financed education. It reminds me, in fact, of the debate over single payer health care. There are lots of upper income countries, including one right across the border (from the US) to the north, that provide mostly or all tuition-free higher ed. “Whatever exists is possible.” (Amory Lovins)

I agree with the general argument that the great social justice failing in higher education is insufficient offsetting of pre-higher ed inequality. This is a huge problem at my institution too, and one which many faculty, including some whose every other word is diversity and equity, fail to recognize. We are going to have to put a lot more of our resources into this and also become more creative in how we approach it. As another economist (like @14), I have to deal with both math and writing deficiencies constantly, and I’m overwhelmed. There are strategies I could try out, but with existing workloads I don’t have the time to devote to them. Where I teach the preferred solution is social promotion.

Aside to Bruce @16: Actually, elasticities are empirically solid and very useful in economics. What’s dodgy, in fact, are supply and demand curves. With very few exceptions, they are entirely speculative and theoretically dubious the further you go from the status quo situation — multi-market effects, nonconvexities, etc. If I ever rewrite my micro text, which I almost certainly won’t, I will reduce the space given to S & D curves and greatly expand the use of elasticities.

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harry b 06.06.16 at 9:31 pm

christian_h: the other proposals do indeed rely on a supply of people willing to do more teaching per dollar than the best paid layer of professors do. But the point of them is to elevate the place of teaching in the profession, and to eliminate the ‘minimum wage’/no job security type adjuncting; so reducing the supply of teaching labor actually is an advantage.

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harry b 06.06.16 at 9:38 pm

Peter: I’ll address that in more detail in a later post. I don’t see any feasible medium term way forward that both significantly reduces reliance on tuition and addresses the pre-college unfairness — basically because I think the budget constraints are fairly hard. Any additional funding for higher ed should, in my opinion, be very carefully targeted to lower-income students and students likely to contribute in a fairly concrete way to benefiting disadvantaged communities. Otherwise, in our context, the more affluent will capture it (as they have been doing very successfully in the past 25 years). This is a serious problem, in my opinion, for any ‘make public higher ed free for all’ plan (in the US, here and now ….)

23

Peter Dorman 06.06.16 at 9:59 pm

Harry, of course funding is very tight. I’ve served as a faculty lobbyist to the state leg, so I know what we’re dealing with. From a policy point of view, however, I can’t go along with the argument that higher ed isn’t universal, so taxes shouldn’t pay for it. If we extend the policy umbrella to include public finance the answer is simple: tax the upper tier enough extra to cover the cost. There’s no reason why their money has to be funneled through tuition payments, with all the other problems that tag along. In addition, this strategy subsidizes the publics to some extent relative to the privates and doesn’t put independent and semi-independent students in a crunch. It further avoids the distorting effect of financial aid regulation. (I have had students begging me not to reduce credits in order to keep their aid flowing. It would be nice to live in a universe in which the difference between 12 credits and 11 credits is simply one credit.)

And back to the original point: if funding is so constrained, how can a country like Canada manage it?

24

Anarcissie 06.06.16 at 11:32 pm

Class placement is positional; therefore, a rivalrous good. The more unequal the social order, the more one can charge for entrée to higher levels of it. The more one can charge, the more one will charge.

25

SamChevre 06.07.16 at 12:00 am

Peter Dorman @ 23

I do not know much about Canada, but can answer for France: France can manage tuition-free higher education for three reasons.
1) 30% of students are flatly excluded because they do not have a bac; for those who have a bac, their placement depends on their score. The American system has way more second chances.
2) A large part of the positional-good portion (Les Grandes Ecoles) requires 2 more years of specialized study and another exam, and only the top 10% or so of students can even start that course.
3) French students get far less attention from teachers, and teachers have much heavier class loads (the second is IIRC, but I think a typical classroom teacher teaches about 20 hours per week). Grades are based almost entirely on a final exam.

26

SamChevre 06.07.16 at 12:25 am

SamChevre @ 25
Okay, I was wrong the first time: professors do not have a heavier class load.

http://www.eui.eu/ProgrammesAndFellowships/AcademicCareersObservatory/AcademicCareersbyCountry/France.aspx#RequirementsforPositions

However, they are paid substantially less–it looks like the maximum for an Assistant Professor is under 50.000 Euro annually.

27

engels 06.07.16 at 12:32 am

It’s not a priority if you care about fairness, because higher education is not a universal program, but one which less than 2/3rds of the cohort participate in, and is not even available to those who have received the worst education up to that point, who are almost exclusively among the less advantaged people in society; and nearly a half of those who DO participate do not get qualifications, and they, too, are disproportionately among the less advantaged of those who do use it.

I don’t want to derail this but I’d hazard that the tangible injustice of someone who clearly has the potential to benefit from a particular course of education being excluded because they don’t have the financial means weighs heavier in many people’s minds than the less observable but perhaps more consequential chain of causation that leads to (many but not all) less advantaged children failing to develop that potential in the first place. Leaving the ‘justice’ perspective aside it’s also a fact that policy priorities aren’t formed by philosophers but political leaders who have to ride the wave of popular feeling.

28

Christopher 06.07.16 at 1:13 am

Peter Dorman @20 and 23 asked about Canada, and since nobody more well informed as replied, I will try to provide some answers. I’ve studied at universities in Ontario and Quebec, so let me add my two cents.

First, I don’t think it is entirely fair to group Canada with countries like France, Germany or Scandinavia. Those countries really do have zero to little tuition fees, while those in Canada have tripled since 1990, after adjusted for inflation. One study found that Canadian tuition fees are the third most expensive in the OECD after the USA, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Chile. My vague impression is in those countries costs are keep low by not providing as many student services (or at least, not at the university level — maybe they are provided by student union or state elsewhere) and having stricter standards for admission; but again, I’ve never been there.

Second, most Canadian universities are most comparable to the US large public universities. Small liberal arts colleges are only present in the Maritimes and there are few private universities, mostly religious institutions. That probably keeps the averages down. Still, it’s cheap compared to the US. Average domestic tuition here is 6 000 CAD/year, while in-state tuition at public university in US are much higher (e.g. The Ohio State University 10,037 USD/year, University of Colorado Boulder $11,091 USD/year, University of Virginia 14,468 USD/year). Note that that the proportion of international student is about double in Canada compared to the USA, which might help plug in funding gaps. Probably somewhat like the zero tuition countries, costs are keep low by with limiting the more frivolous expenditures of US universities.

Having said all that, in the end I would agree with Peter Dorman @20 and 23 that it does come down the how much the provincial/state governments contribute. My guess is that during the 90’s (and 00’s), both Canadian provincial and US state cut funding for higher education — but the provinces did it less, with the resulting difference in tuition rates.

29

Alan White 06.07.16 at 2:30 am

Harry–
Thanks for this. One part of the book’s proposals:
“A further step… would be the development of graduate programs aimed at the development of professional teachers…”
was pursued for many years at Michigan State under the guidance of Martin Benjamin, who graciously invited me to participate in his grad seminars on teaching philosophy in both APA sessions and using my few writings on how to teach 101 in his seminar (which he took on the road in summer sessions). Benjamin was downright inspiring on the importance of undergrad teaching–I had the privilege to see his retirement lecture at APA Central–what energy and fervor–and I had hoped the APA might follow up in encouraging what he did in those seminars. But what I see is just lip service. My own now-tiresome line is that 101 is our most important course, and that we need to design it to serve the most students in the most effective ways–once we can determine what those are. My view is that we need to press 101 students into a patient, semester-long and coordinated analysis of a few complex problems. Get them to use their minds–not just feed them what we think might interest them–or worse, us.

30

harry b 06.07.16 at 2:59 am

Also worth noting that Canada has a lower participation rate than the US (and even a lower proportions of graduates within each cohort, I think — few countries the US would compare itself with have such low graduation within each cohort, because few have such high attrition rates).

Also, I’m curious whether higher education has the same class character in Canada that it does in the US? I only know the US and the UK, in both of which countries higher ed is a basically an instrument for social closure: is it different in Canada?

I might be wrong about the first thing, because i haven’t actually bothered to look it up, but I seem to remember that (pressed for time — will try to respond to other things in the morning).

31

harry b 06.07.16 at 3:01 am

Alan. You haven’t mentioned Martin Benjamin before. Should I talk to him?

32

Alan White 06.07.16 at 3:59 am

Here is a pdf of an APA newsletter that contains as a lead article a precis of his seminar in 2003:

http://www.apaonline.org/resource/collection/808CBF9D-D8E6-44A7-AE13-41A70645A525/v03n1Teaching.pdf

As you can see, he had done this since the mid-80s. I wish someone would have continued his work–and the fact that it is now just an afterthought in our profession is disheartening.

33

Marc 06.07.16 at 5:03 am

We live in a country where your parents’ income dictates your income to a far higher degree than we used to. We used to live in one where state universities were inexpensive and where college student loan debt did not exceed mortgage debt. These facts are deeply connected.

Something utterly missing in this exercise is any recognition of the fact that we managed to do all of these impossible things in the recent past. And yet we get sweeping denial, in the form of books like this, that there is any actual problem – because having people graduate with 100K in debt is OK and normal because, on average, they can afford it. Why not go for the gusto and make them pay for K-12 education too?

34

J-D 06.07.16 at 5:04 am

‘One study found that Canadian tuition fees are the third most expensive in the OECD after the USA, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Chile.’

If there are four others ahead of you, you’re not third, you’re fifth.

35

Tabasco 06.07.16 at 6:53 am

And yet we get sweeping denial, in the form of books like this, that there is any actual problem – because having people graduate with 100K in debt is OK and normal because, on average, they can afford it.

According to the book $100K debt is not the norm (for bachelor degrees): the average level of debt per borrower was $26,900.

36

dsquared 06.07.16 at 8:27 am

We are using the credential as a proxy for something, and I’m not sure exactly what or why. But the huge down side to using that proxy is excluding people who are poor

To quote Stafford Beer, “The Purpose Of A System Is What It Does”. Excluding the poor is, as the system is currently set up, the answer to what the degree is acting as a proxy for. Your suggestion to take a harder look at whether four year degrees are really needed for a lot of jobs is one I agree with, but it would be a change in the purpose of the system (currently – maintaining the class hierarchy and excluding an underclass) rather than an optimisation for its current purpose.

37

bruce wilder 06.07.16 at 9:25 am

The system, until recently, channeled a lot of people’s ambitions into fairly capable and productive service. Apparently, it is increasingly sufficient to the system’s purpose, that those ambitions be squandered in various ways, as long as the peons yield enough cash.

38

armando 06.07.16 at 11:05 am

“Excluding the poor is, as the system is currently set up, the answer to what the degree is acting as a proxy for.”

Very true. Many academics (in my experience) refuse to acknowledge this, but it is pretty clear. And so broadening the socio-economic intake is a really tricky problem, since the function of supporting hierarchies is baked in at a pretty fundamental level.

39

SamChevre 06.07.16 at 11:16 am

Marc @ 33

we managed to do all of these impossible things in the recent past

No. We didn’t.

Yes, in 1960 college was free for those attended. BUT only about 15% of people of college age attended college–approximately none of whom needed accomodations for disabilities, and most of whom completed college. Now, about 50% of that cohort attends college, and only about half get a bachelors degree. Even without the obvious fact that the marginal student is more expensive than the average student (because less likely to have the academic and social skills that help with college and so needing more assistance), this would take 3x the resources.

http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/p20-566.pdf

40

SamChevre 06.07.16 at 11:20 am

Sorry, my editing skills are horrible. Strike-and most of whom completed college- that’s not true.

41

Mr Punch 06.07.16 at 11:35 am

Agree with most points (book’s, as reported, and Harry’s) but:

1) State funding is indeed way down, over a period of decades, as a percentage of educational costs at public institutions – which means the student/family burden is way up, which is a problem.

2) There’s an argument for reducing the number of PhD’s, and doctoral students, in many fields and at many institutions; but the cost savings for institutions come from eliminating programs and tracks. That’s because counting a three-student seminar as a course is a terribly inefficient use of faculty time.

42

SamChevre 06.07.16 at 11:55 am

Just to note that this:

State funding is indeed way down, over a period of decades, as a percentage of educational costs at public institutions is true but incomplete.

The incomplete part is that state funding is much more level as a percentage of state per-capita GDP–but instead of keeping tuition down for the same student pool, it is spread across a much larger student pool. (And costs have gone up per-student–see Campos for much much more on that aspect.) (See the Grapevine data, which goes back to 1960. It seems that funding on a per-capita basis rose a bit from about 1960-1980, then fell a bit 1981-1995, then rose a bit 1995-2007, then fell a bit.)

43

engels 06.07.16 at 12:06 pm

When I hear the word function I reach for my Elster

44

harry b 06.07.16 at 12:32 pm

Mr Punch

on your second point — yes, they are really talking about programs, and the desirability of eliminating some, or maybe many. They also talk, very briefly, about colleges — observing that in certain regions there are more small liberal arts colleges than there is really room for, and a lot of money (relative to the numbers) goes into life support. Most of that money is private, but it could (and much of it would) be spent more efficiently otherwise if some of these colleges closed.

To add to Sam Chevre’s point at #39: and most of those students had parents who had attended college to guide them through college, and college was less complex because there were many fewer courses to choose from, largely because the course offerings were more designed around what students needed to learn than around what professors felt like teaching. And professors taught more courses, and did more of the (then less-needed) advising. Professors do not come out of this story well, in my opinion, but that’s for another post.

45

harry b 06.07.16 at 12:35 pm

Sam Chevre @25,26 — BUT they do have more students, and less help with grading, and there are fewer academic PhD programs (I’m pretty sure).

46

SamChevre 06.07.16 at 1:13 pm

On eliminating programs: I have frequently wondered what would happen if we used the same “gainful employment” standards that apply to for-profit undergrad institutions for every program that has separate admission, including graduate programs (for both new loans and deferrals of existing loans). It seems likely that this would put substantial pressure on graduate programs.

47

mdc 06.07.16 at 1:36 pm

harry b-

What’s meant by “life support”, since no liberal arts college I know of covers its costs with tuition? It’s also not clear to me how much expenditure per student would go down by way of effective consolidation. Savings on facilities wouldn’t get you very far, I don’t think, and increasing the size of a given college wouldn’t necessarily decrease the staffing needs per student.

48

harry b 06.07.16 at 1:43 pm

Its not just facilities (though they matter — lots of underused facilities), but smaller than optimal class sizes, admissions and marketing departments, Deaneries of students, registrars, IT departments, etc — college presidents! Actually most private colleges are highly tuition dependent.

49

TM 06.07.16 at 1:50 pm

The post deserves a longer answer than what I can manage now so with apology I’ll offer a short asnwer:

11 states spend more on prisons than on higher education
http://money.cnn.com/2015/10/01/pf/college/higher-education-prison-state-spending/

50

Watson Ladd 06.07.16 at 1:51 pm

Shocking suggestion: maybe university isn’t for everyone. Maybe high schools have a role to play in preparing students by teaching them things like algebra. And maybe 50% of all people aren’t smart enough to complete college, and there are no interventions that will change this.

As for math instruction, students have to teach themselves. It’s much more like weightlifting then biology.

51

Anarcissie 06.07.16 at 2:10 pm

Watson Ladd 06.07.16 at 1:51 pm @ 50 —
Part of maintaining the class system of the US is avoiding making the class war too explicit. Therefore, it must seem that college is for everyone.

It’s sort of interesting the way you all are talking past one another on this one. The mechanical issues, the financial issues, the intellectual issues, the class issues — they’re really not all that separate. An educational system reflects the social order in which it is embedded.

52

harry b 06.07.16 at 2:18 pm

TM
yes, that’s right. And those that don’t still spend a great deal. But… so what? My point above (and, to be clear, this is mine, not theirs) is that supposing we could extract half of all that spending, and put it elsewhere in a State budget (a heroic supposition as things stand), if we cared about education, or fairness in education, we would not repurpose it to higher education — but on k-12 and early childhood (and improved public health). Of course, as engels points out, people who care about education and fairness about education, are not making these decisions.

WL — I agree that higher education is not appropriate for everyone, including many who currently enroll, many of whom are smarter than some for whom it is appropriate (and, unfortunately, many who do not enroll are people for whom it is appropriate).

Your comment about math instruction is, I suspect, widely believed by math teachers, and helps explain why so many lower income students do so badly in school, and so many more affluent students have parents who are frustrated by the amount of time they spend learning how to do and doing the basic instruction that the math ‘teachers’ their children have think is unnecessary.

53

bianca steele 06.07.16 at 2:25 pm

engels @ 27

I’d hazard, myself, that what weighs most heavily in most people’s minds is what they’ve happened to observe, themselves. For those who actually see kindergarten students with no preschool experience at a disadvantage because they don’t know the numbers 1-10 yet, they think universal pre-K would help. And so on. What they happen to have read plays a role, too, of course.

54

SamChevre 06.07.16 at 2:32 pm

Re Math instruction:

I partly agree with Watson Ladd, but would add–a good teacher makes a huge difference.

Math is more a skill than a set of facts; like any skill, you can’t just memorize it–you have to practice it. And like most skills, you need to practice regularly. (In college, it was noticeable how much more bumpy the student effort levels were in humanities than in math.) But like most skills, a good teacher to show you what to work on, and what you are getting wrong, and explain how the concepts fit together and how to think so they make sense, makes a huge difference.

(For background–I started college without ever having taken algebra. My understanding was “the same letter is the same number throughout the problem” and that was it, but I was very good and fast at basic arithmetic. I graduated with a math minor and work in a math-heavy field.)

55

harry b 06.07.16 at 3:05 pm

Everything is like weightlifting in one way — to gain skills or knowledge you need to put in the time. But good teachers do exactly what SamChevre says, PLUS induce students (one way or another) to put in the time — teaching is emotional labour. Math teaching is a serious problem all the way down to K and earlier because i) many people teaching math just don’t know the math well enough to teach it (the queries I get from student teachers asking about the ethical problem of what to do when they see elementary and middle school cooperating teachers just teaching things wrong), ii) many lack the emotional skills needed to induce students to put in the time and iii) many teachers think that their job is just to teach to the students who ‘get it’ — I’ve heard that from a good number of high school teachers, and a good number of college teachers (and not just of math, but philosophy too). No, your job is precisely to teach to the students who don’t ‘get it’ — that’s why we call it a job, and the public pays you for it.

56

mdc 06.07.16 at 3:49 pm

“admissions and marketing departments, Deaneries of students, registrars, IT departments, etc — college presidents!”

Ok, I’ll buy that.

57

Sebastian H 06.07.16 at 3:56 pm

“Your suggestion to take a harder look at whether four year degrees are really needed for a lot of jobs is one I agree with, but it would be a change in the purpose of the system (currently – maintaining the class hierarchy and excluding an underclass) rather than an optimisation for its current purpose.”

I agree that a big part of the current college system is about actively excluding the poor. I think that having some people appeal to the aspirations of the system and others point to the ugliness of how it currently works are both good tactics that can work well together.

For my limited part in this limited discussion, I just want to point out that we shouldn’t take nearly as much solace in the debt numbers as harry seems to be willing to take as they are heavily weighted against the poor.

Regarding the college wage premium, has anyone looked at how the debt numbers interact with the premium numbers? I have a sneaking suspicion that the zero-debt/low-debt rich students end up with a much larger portion of the premium but I have no way of figuring out if that is true rather than just suspiciousness bias.

58

novakant 06.07.16 at 4:29 pm

There is no reason whatsoever for tuition fees except stupidity and greed – if anyone tells you otherwise you can refer to e.g. Germany, France, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Brazil …

59

marek 06.07.16 at 4:38 pm

@14 – Donald Coffin describes a US high school with 500 students as being too small to hire people to teach just one subject (in this case maths, but by implication other subjects too). I know virtually nothing about US secondary education, so I can’t tell whether that sounds odd or untypical – but from outside that system, it sounds very strange indeed. My British high school with just over 700 students when I was there had something like four FTE maths specialists, and there is a problem in primary education with non-specialists teaching maths, I have never heard of a UK secondary school without designated maths specialists (awkwardly phrased because being able to fill all those posts with specialists is a different problem).

So is this a widespread phenomenon in the US or an unhappy edge case? And if the former, that does strongly suggest that remedial teaching as part of higher education is solving the wrong problem in the wrong way.

60

harry b 06.07.16 at 5:33 pm

Sebastian — I don’t exactly take solace in what they say about the debt problem, but understanding it the way they do helps us see exactly what you say — where it is located, which is among lower income (not only poor) students, and especially those who don’t graduate. Most of their book (and my post reflects this) is about making college more affordable for, and making college work better for, students from lower income backgrounds; the real debt problem (which is the one you identify) is a consequence of college not being affordable for or working well for a particular group of people, not everyone.

61

Sebastian_H 06.07.16 at 6:33 pm

Sorry, I didn’t mean it as an accusation, though I see how it came across that way.

It is a pet peeve of mine how headline numbers like the one in the book get used. I know that summaries have to summarize. I know that people don’t always summarize the way I think is most useful. Sometimes I should just take a breath.

62

harry b 06.07.16 at 6:56 pm

I saw your comment as (helpful) advice to me about how better to summarize!

63

Michael M 06.07.16 at 7:28 pm

” Speaking just for myself, it is hard for me to believe that the number of PhD students in the disciplines I know well (Philosophy, Sociology, Education) is optimal for the efficiency of the institutions they inhabit.”

I would say that this is very different in English than in other areas of the humanities as grad students there are often used (with or without training) to teach compulsory intro writing courses that tenured faculty have little interest in teaching. I actually think this is a significant problem, for one, because teaching literature and teaching writing are not at all the same thing, and two, because the constant turnover of grad students means that teaching writing devalued, something that is appropriate for a grad student with little to no training. This is a problem at larger institutions (at my tiny undergrad writing was only taught by tenured and tt faculty) that is probably akin to the problem with teaching math. I haven’t read the book, but I was surprised to see no mention of writing in the post.

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harry b 06.07.16 at 7:50 pm

Michael M….. don’t get me started… YES. Derek Bok writes about this at length in Our Underachieving Colleges. But he is too kind. I see it as a akin to regulatory capture — the real purpose of many writing programs is to underwrite the desire of English faculty to teach graduate seminars (basically they are an artificial subsidy to English literature research). English Literature is thus enabled to maintain its position as a powerhouse in the humanities, with various consequences for smaller programs. (EG — because they are large and powerful it is easy for them to get permission to teach non-English literature, in translation, and compete for enrollments with the departments that have faculty better qualified to teach that lit. Some wag in the Medical school said “well, why don’t they teach medicine in English departments, after all, medical text books are texts”.)

65

engels 06.07.16 at 9:51 pm

Bianca, I think you misunderstand. I don’t have anything against funding pre-school and I’m aware of the difference it makes (but do think it’s far from the only mechanism by which better educated parents advantage their children).

I think that most British people would think not being able to go to uni, when you have the same grades as people who do but can’t afford the fees, is unfair. Pace Harry, I don’t think most of them think that just getting lower grades than someone else in the first place is in itself unfair. That isn’t to say they’re not aware of the pervasive injustice of social class: they are.

So I don’t think voters or politicians don’t ‘care about… fairness about education’ (Harry), I do think they have a somewhat different idea of fairness to Harry’s.

New Labour’s vandalism of Britain’s post-war system of free higher education,which set us off on a voyage towards ever greater marketisation and higher fees, was a hugely unpopular move that caused large-scale and militant protests from students and the wider Left at the time and outrage from the general public which continues to this day – including as it happens many whom Harry has regretfully informed don’t have a hope in hell of going to university anyway – which isa stain of the Party’s history only exceeded in that period in many eyes by the Iraq war, and which led to the almost total meltdown of one of the UK’s other main political parties, the Liberal Democrats. Such facts may be of no interest to a post-Rawlsian philosopher determining the normatively superior way to re-purpose a hypothetically immutable tax take but it is of interest to an elected politician in a democracy.

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harry b 06.07.16 at 10:11 pm

Yes, when I said ‘fairness’ in education, it was a shorthand for a particular conception of fairness (blog post, not philosophy paper), and I understand quite well that many people don’t care about that – if they did, the debate would look different, as would the policies.

Note that this post was about the US, not the UK. Things are different in different places. And I don’t feel obliged to pay much attention to how British people feel about a UK policy when I am trying to think about how to improve policies relating to higher education in the US; just as I wouldn’t pay much attention to how Americans feel about gun control when trying to improve public safety in the UK. I don’t think that is especially eccentric of me, or indicative of some sort of irresponsibility peculiar to academic philosophers.

Making people pay for college is not a matter of principle. But engels — how would you feel about the government giving a voucher to the family of every kid who goes to Eton, Winchester, etc, while leaving in place the dramatic inequalities of income and wealth, and leaving Eton, Winchester, etc the power to choose whom to admit? If not, why are you ok with the government doing that for all the kids who go to Oxford, Imperial, Cambridge, etc? When the Tories introduced the Assisted Places Scheme in 1980 most people on the left opposed it (I did then, still would now). But that’s almost exactly what the traditional funding arrangements for universities was before New Labour. Why is higher education different?

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bianca steele 06.07.16 at 10:27 pm

Bianca, I think you misunderstand. I don’t have anything against funding pre-school and I’m aware of the difference it makes (but do think it’s far from the only mechanism by which better educated parents advantage their children).

I didn’t say you did. I said that people are most likely to think of examples from their own experience, and then I offered an example from my own experience. I don’t see how you got the idea that I was criticizing you for disagreeing, when you hadn’t said anything on the subject before.

I think that most British people would think not being able to go to uni, when you have the same grades as people who do but can’t afford the fees, is unfair. Pace Harry, I don’t think most of them think that just getting lower grades than someone else in the first place is in itself unfair. That isn’t to say they’re not aware of the pervasive injustice of social class: they are.

That’s interesting, because the case that comes to mind for me is different, at least in particulars. There’s the valedictorian from a school that just doesn’t prepare kids well enough to send them to competitive colleges (where–if they’d gotten in–their parents would likely not have to pay anything), who might have been able to go if they’d gone to a different school. I’m sure that your perspective, being a leftist/Marxist and English rather than American, is different from mine. One of the ways that shows up, presumably, is that when you consider the question “what preparation should kids have for school?”, you start by saying “what do well-off parents do that the worst-off don’t, so we can be sure to condemn that?”

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bianca steele 06.07.16 at 11:38 pm

Also, the financial aid system as it currently exists is something that should be added to Sebastian’s list above of things most policy makers probably have no direct experience of.

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F. Foundling 06.08.16 at 12:13 am

University should be free, and so should school, and so should pre-school. This is a matter of principle and the only way for a society to signal clearly its commitment to equality in this sphere. There will always be more equalising improvements to be made in schools and nursery schools, but these should not be used as an excuse to keep any part of education paid. Accepting that one has to choose between free decent university, free decent school and free decent pre-school – especially as one didn’t have to before – is already a capitulation.

It’s very important that university education should be free of charge for the same reason for which it’s very important that being elected to public office should be free of charge.

70

otpup 06.08.16 at 12:14 am

Harry. As a relatively new math (and cs) teacher who went through an alternative licensure program and not an academic education department, I had wondered about the grumblings of colleagues about the poor qualifications of elementary math teachers. OT: The econ question reminded me that one of the pervasive deficiencies of students coming into high school (and surely college after) even among fairly high performing students is fear of and/or non-facility with fractions.

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F. Foundling 06.08.16 at 12:32 am

To paraphrase some of the above a bit: removing immediate, overt financial restrictions should take priority over removing more remote and increasingly subtle effects of the individuals’ background. The way you fight an injustice is that you proceed from the most obviously and directly inflicted form to the least.

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Moz of Yarramulla 06.08.16 at 1:23 am

F. Foundling: that’s where the comments about “the purpose of college is to exclude the poor” come from above. Redesigning a system to exclude the poor so that it doesn’t exclude the poor is a huge change. One that was arguably in progress and arguably that progress is under attack.

Part of the problem is actually that – there isn’t wide agreement on what college is for, and to many people that question itself is like “what is god for” – college exists, their goal is to better manage its effect on their lives. The idea of completely rebuilding college/god so that it better serves their needs is outside their frame of reference.

I’d almost be tempted to write the top schools out of the discussion, with the semi-explicit acknowledgement that they are too powerful for the likes of us to pick fights with. That might make the revision significantly easier, and let us say “what is college for” with more chance of getting a coherent answer (eventually) rather than spending all our time dealing with Harvards doing the “privilege is a social justice warrior concept and I am offended that you bring it up” and similar derails. For get that, tax the rich (because they’re the ones with the money).

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Sebastian H 06.08.16 at 4:01 am

“One that was arguably in progress and arguably that progress is under attack.”

What do you mean by that? The GI bill did a great thing for many of the poor and college, other than that the trajectory has been very bleak for decades (40-50 years at least) hasn’t it?

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Moz of Yarramulla 06.08.16 at 4:40 am

“The GI bill did a great thing for many of the poor and college”

That and a more general push to have more colleges open to more people, and further down the income scale. The whole student loans scam is largely about that opening up. A quick googling round produced this graph showing a solid upward climb in the number of students enrolled in each year since 1870 (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93442.pdf pdf link, page 65 for the graph) showing 0 million in 1870 and a steep climb starting in about 1960, a blip in the 1980s and the trend still steeply upwards in 1991 when the graph ends. I can’t easily find more recent graphs but I’m sure they exist.

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QMLC 06.08.16 at 11:45 am

harry b @55 writes: No, your job is precisely to teach to the students who don’t ‘get it’ — that’s why we call it a job

It is probably a good idea to listen when somebody describes their actual job for you, rather than deciding that their job is whatever you’d like it to be. Teaching towards the students who mostly `get it’ is what I was trained to do, what I was hired to do, and what most of my students and employers expect. As far as I’m concerned, that means it is my job.

The job you’re describing sounds like a nice job, and it seems nice to hire people to do that. Most teachers I know have tried to make that part of their job at some point, before realizing that we were woefully unable to do it. I don’t know how two students who were unable to add fractions made it into the upper- year course on real analysis I was teaching a few years ago. I do know that 40-odd additional office hours made no appreciable difference to their abilities. Teaching this way for the range of backgrounds in a 300-person introduction to statistics would easily exceed 168 hours/week; teaching for the worst-prepared students would leave us at subtraction.

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Snarki, child of Loki 06.08.16 at 2:43 pm

“Administrative bloat does not explain rising tuition, contrary to popular myth.”

Administrative bloat is not a cause of rising tuition. It’s an EFFECT.

As in “all this money is coming in, and we have to spend it somewhere, and Ghu forbid we raise faculty salaries, plus 10 out of 10 administrators agree ‘administration is more important'”

The ’cause’ of rising tuition is the intersection of limited supply and rising demand, no longer restrained by competition with a ‘public option’.

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engels 06.08.16 at 3:29 pm

how would you feel about the government giving a voucher to the family of every kid who goes to Eton, Winchester, etc, while leaving in place the dramatic inequalities of income and wealth, and leaving Eton, Winchester, etc the power to choose whom to admit

For that analogy to work we’re not talking about vouchers, which can be topped up, but nationalising Eton etc and maintaining selective admission. I’m not in favour of that (I want to raze em to the ground) but it would be an improvement on the status quo.

When the Tories introduced the Assisted Places Scheme in 1980 most people on the left opposed it (I did then, still would now). But that’s almost exactly what the traditional funding arrangements for universities was before New Labour.

Iirc that was 10% of subsidised places at predominantly fee-charging institutions. Pre NuLab Oxford etc didn’t charge fees to undergraduates. Not the same thing at all.

I’m opposed to selection in general and to the cultural mechanisms of opportunity hoarding and intergenerational transmission of privilege but your efforts to equate them with the shameless wealth-based methods which are rearing their ugly heads more than ever in the era of Piketty aren’t convincing.

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Metatone 06.08.16 at 5:33 pm

One worry I have is that “non-tenure track teaching staff positions with dignity” just isn’t a flyer because adjuct sweatclassroom labour will be cheaper in many cases.

The more likely cost cutting moves, given the lack of political will to fix the systemwide problems:

1) More adjunct teaching.
2) More Standardised lectures and materials. Why run Ethics lectures when you can assign the students to watch Michael Sandel on youtube?
3) Probably PhD programs will be looked at, not clear how much it will save.
4) More automated testing. Move to formats that allow automation and away from things like essays.

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casssander 06.08.16 at 5:58 pm

@harry b

>Making people pay for college is not a matter of principle. But engels — how would you feel about the government giving a voucher to the family of every kid who goes to Eton, Winchester, etc, while leaving in place the dramatic inequalities of income and wealth, and leaving Eton, Winchester, etc the power to choose whom to admit?

The easiest fix in the world. Require any voucher accepting institution to admit a certain portion of every class by lot.

@Founding

>University should be free, and so should school, and so should pre-school. This is a matter of principle and the only way for a society to signal clearly its commitment to equality in this sphere.

Schools should also be powered by rainbows. Schools are not free, nor is anything else. the question is who pays, not if someone pays. Having the people who benefit the most pay strikes me as the fairest system, but opinion on that score seems to be divided.

> Redesigning a system to exclude the poor so that it doesn’t exclude the poor is a huge change. One that was arguably in progress and arguably that progress is under attack.

I never cease to be amused by the progressive obsession with being attacked. “Cet animal est très méchant, quand on l’attaque il se défend” indeed.

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engels 06.08.16 at 6:09 pm

Schools should also be powered by rainbows. Schools are not free, nor is anything else.

Thanks for the lesson in hard facts about The Way Things Are. So are money and markets scientific features of the world like atoms and molecules or were they ordained by God?

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harry b 06.08.16 at 6:28 pm

Facts don’t have to be ordained by God to be the kind of facts that we have to deal with when we are thinking about what to do in the short to medium term. The way an institution should look in a just society doesn’t necessarily determine the way we should try to make it be in our society.

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novakant 06.08.16 at 6:31 pm

Having the people who benefit the most pay strikes me as the fairest system

Good, so you’re in favour of highly progressive taxation, right?

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casssander 06.08.16 at 6:32 pm

@engles

>So are money and markets scientific features of the world like atoms and molecules or were they ordained by God?

Money is just an accounting system for costs. Costs are every bit as real as atoms and molecules, as much as people around here like to deny it.

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casssander 06.08.16 at 6:51 pm

@Metatone

>2) More Standardised lectures and materials. Why run Ethics lectures when you can assign the students to watch Michael Sandel on youtube?

Is this necessarily a bad thing? People have been giving lectures on plato and aristotle for a couple thousand years, I doubt some newly minted PhD is going to best all of them. Why not have everyone watch the lecture at home then convene the class to discuss/ask questions. There’s an absurd amount of wheel re-inventing that goes on in classrooms. Historically, it was necessary, but it’s a hell of an expensive way to do business going forward.

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engels 06.08.16 at 7:37 pm

Schools should also be powered by rainbows. Schools are not free, nor is anything else. the question is who pays, not if someone pays. Having the people who benefit the most pay strikes me as the fairest system

is not a description of contingent circumstances which progressives need to reckon with in the medium term, nor is it a normative argument. It is ideological rhetoric which compresses a lto of questionable normative assumptions into a string of pseudo-facts. In this respect it is similar to statements liike ”business is business,’ ‘nice guys finish last’ or ‘boys will be boys’. It’s also rather patronising towards people in this conversation who having decades of experience in undefunded parts of the system are not unaware that education requires resources.

Anyway, Harry, if it’s got to the point where you’re defending Cassander I think my work here is done.

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harry b 06.08.16 at 7:53 pm

I agree about re-inventing. In higher ed (but in high school too) enormous amounts of energy goes into preparing lectures, despite the fact that others have prepared good ones, and few of us have any training in how to prepare a good lecture. The truth is, if you can induce the students to do the reading, there is not much lecturing to be done, and watching Sandel, or whoever, would be quite good enough*; and the time and energy freed up could go into actually attending to what the students need to experience in order to learn. The two proposals I focused on, between them, aim at improving this situation.

* Sandel is better than most lecturers, and is certainly accessible to students from places other than Harvard. I don’t have my students watch him, but I’ve learned a lot from him about how to teach (in a much smaller setting with, if the discussions we have are anything to go by, more impressive students who actually do the reading).

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casssander 06.08.16 at 8:07 pm

>. It is ideological rhetoric which compresses a lto of questionable normative assumptions into a string of pseudo-facts.

that you think “costs” are ideological rhetoric and pseudo facts says far more about you than it does me.

>It’s also rather patronising towards people in this conversation who having decades of experience in undefunded parts of the system are not unaware that education requires resources.

What’s patronizing is ignoring the people who actually provide those resources and who have spend the last several decades doing nothing but give(pg.73) you more and more, with little to show for it, while you complain incessently about not having enough.

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casssander 06.08.16 at 8:11 pm

@novakant

>Good, so you’re in favour of highly progressive taxation, right?

For the funding of genuine public goods? Absolutely.

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harry b 06.08.16 at 8:18 pm

If ad hominem works for you, engels, there’s nothing I can do about it. (Is that the right phrase? My Latin isn’t good enough).

I don’t think Oxford is a nationalized institution. In fact the 1992 universities are the result of a denationalization; one that I am ambivalent about. More broadly I think you place too much significance on institutional forms compared with the way institutions actually function.

When you say:

“I’m opposed to selection in general and to the cultural mechanisms of opportunity hoarding and intergenerational transmission of privilege but your efforts to equate them with the shameless wealth-based methods which are rearing their ugly heads more than ever in the era of Piketty aren’t convincing.”

I don’t really know what you mean. On this and other threads I have argued that governments should use as many of the additional resources they spend on higher ed as is politically feasible to counteract those shameless wealth-based methods by targetting those resources to less affluent families and students who are more likely to contribute to benefiting less advantaged people. You have been arguing that, instead, they should spread those resources equally among those who use higher education, including those whose parents have massive resources which they would be willing spend on their children’s higher education. And that in a system which, we can predict, will spend more resources on more affluent students anyway (Go back to 1980, or 1991 or 1997: do you think that Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial, and Kings London, which were almost exclusively populated by upper middle class kids, were spending the same amount per student as the Polys and (by 1997) ex-Polys that were mainly middle class?).

Going back to the US, which is what the post is about: within any State, government spending per-student across institutions varies with the social class background of those students. This has been true for many decades, and is not an accidental feature of the funding structure.

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Collin Street 06.08.16 at 8:22 pm

Money is just an accounting system for costs.

Gods you’re fucking pig-ignorant self-satisfied pompous idiot, Cass. “Is”, yes: “Is just”, no, it has other properties.

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Metatone 06.08.16 at 9:05 pm

There’s nothing wrong in principle with replacing lectures with videos, although if you compare the quality of the Sandel videos with (for example) international trade ones, you can see that there is some way to go on the provision side.

But the real savings come from ditching class discussion. They don’t actually pay adjuncts that much for lecture time in the first place.

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harry b 06.08.16 at 10:17 pm

Absolutely about Sandel! That’s sort of the point. He’s in the stratosphere, and its not surprising since we have had ZERO training, and we get ALMOST ZERO professional development.

Ditching class discussion/problem solving sessions is where the savings come from, and also where all the benefits evaporate, since that is where you induce the learning to happen, by asking good questions, conveying expectations, modelling thinking, engaging them, making students want to please you, etc. Leading discussions is a highly skilled activity, and, again, we need training and professional development. But its not as if university and college leaders don’t care about student learning. They want it to happen, and have a budget constraint, and Bowen and McPherson’s book is primarily an aid to people who want to make more learning happen for more students (and especially for more disadvantaged students) within whatever budget constraint they are under.

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Fuzzy Dunlop 06.09.16 at 12:31 am

It sounds like it really comes down to more people want to go to college than ever, and I think we ought to be having more of a holistic discussion about how that changes what we as academics do rather than/in addition to seeing higher ed as faced by a congeries of financial & political issues that otherwise seem like paradoxes (funding has increased!/hasn’t kept pace with enrollment!/should be free!/should give people second chances!). And that holistic discussion means facing up to all the implications of this bigger issue. Greater emphasis, in the profession as a whole, on teaching relative to research, including as part of graduate training, is certainly called for.

As for the idea that college isn’t for everyone… unless you subscribe to the cynical economists’ view of higher ed that it’s mostly about signalling*, the demand for higher ed must be at least partly a consequence of technological change, automation, &c. (An aside: do the people who think college isn’t for everyone have hard-core biological determinist views of human intelligence?) Literacy used to be ‘not for everyone’, and I suspect the many very insightful social thinkers of the middle ages would have found the idea of mass-literacy absurd (that said, medieval Middle Eastern travelers to China observed that most (urban?) Chinese knew how to read at least a little bit–probably most people knew the more commonly-used characters). Comments in the IHE article on the increase in health sciences & decrease in humanities jobs are instructive: some troll says ‘nurses have way more direct encounters with the human conditions than some English professor’, actual nurses respond ‘but the humanities are how we actually make sense of those encounters!’

It’s hard to see how this is not, on the whole, a triumph of the humanities and academia more generally, albeit one that we need to do more to capitalize on. What we offer is what people want, it’s not replaceable by robots.

* The “signalling” theory is students don’t get much from the degree, but that it is useful to prospective employers as a “signal” about your basic character as a worker–that you made it through college proves you are literate, can meet deadlines, etc.

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SamChevre 06.09.16 at 1:13 am

I lean strongly toward the signalling hypothesis (and I’m an economist, and I’m notoriously cynical). Here’s why:

I think some people enjoy learning from books, and some of those people find doing so in a typical classroom environment desirable. Some people prefer learning other things, in other ways. That seems to me to be an observable fact.

The level of education that is necessary for a wide variety of jobs seems to be stuck at “x years more than free”; for x=2 (manage a restaurant, work as an entry-level office professional), in 1900, it took an 8th-grade education, in 1960 it took a high-school diploma, in 1990 it took an associates degree, and now it takes a bachelors degree. That looks like credentialling/signalling to me.

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engels 06.09.16 at 1:34 am

I don’t really know what you mean.

I wasn’t clear. I take it we both think transmission of privilege from one generation to the next is objectionable. Three ways it occurs (not the only ones) are

1. direct transfer of wealth
2. wealth buying education that opens doors to high-paying jobs
3. non-wealth advantages (including earlier-stage education) obtaining access to education which gets high-paying jobs

My impression is you’re not really denying fees and private schools make 2 easier but whenever this is mentioned you seem to focus on 3 (state school catchment areas when it comes to private education, class origins of students at selective colleges when it comes to fees) to try to disillusion people about the egalitarianism of a free system.

I think the problems you’re talking about are important but I think F. Foundling is right that it is natural to focus on the most obvious and apparently tractable forms of injustice first. And in the case of fees there’s a clear popular will for doing so.

You have been arguing that, instead, they should spread those resources equally among those who use higher education, including those whose parents have massive resources which they would be willing spend on their children’s higher education.

Not to my knowledge – I’ve been arguing for ending fees and the intrusion of the market and I didn’t mean to imply anything about the proper distribution of funding in a non-market system. Tbh it’s not something I know or have thought much about but I don’t think I’m against something like the pupil premium for HE. In general I’d be in favour of a far less stratified and if possible non-selective system. I suppose I’d also want to acknowledge that HE is different from secondary ed in that there might be a need for some funding to be channeled in an anti-egalitarian direction to support specialised courses for various elite groups (trainee brain surgeons or whatever).

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Christopher 06.09.16 at 3:24 am

J-D @ 34: Opps, my bad.

harry b @ 30: I don’t know. I didn’t notice any greatly overt “class character” at my time in university. The closest I recall is with some of the international students, who did come from great wealth from developing countries (e.g. China, the oil-rich Arab states, Latin America, etc.). On guy from Jordan I knew had a condo minutes from Parliament Hill, paid for by his father. Aside from that, I do think there is a hierarchy between the universities, with the older universities on top, as with elsewhere. As well, my cursory examination of the Google-able evidence shows that university students in Canada shows all the biases towards the well off as again with elsewhere. Looking back at my own education, I would posit that the streaming in the math and science classes is where the class bias of universities begin.

Regarding math classes in university and why remedial math is such a problem, it does look like a failure of the US high schools to teach high school math. Unless the degree program requires math (e.g. science, economics, etc.), I don’t think their should a general math requirement. If it’s essential, it should be though it high school. Otherwise it just looks like arbitrary road block, or a way to subsidize the math department as with the English department and the writing programs.

Fuzzy Dunlop @ 93: “Signalling” here might not just include economic benefits, but social prestige as well. We as society have decided that Education Is Important, University Is Important, and To Get Ahead In Life You Need A University Degree. So anybody who does want to get ahead in life goes to university, regardless of their actual interests in scholarly and intellectual pursuits. A fellow student of mine, after seeing me with a big book from the library, told me plainly that she didn’t like to read. She wasn’t there become of her true desire to learn, but she wanted to get a BA to advance her career prospects. Note I don’t think she is a bad or even a stupid person. She just didn’t care about (university) learning as an end to itself.

Now, is this a bad thing? I don’t know. The field she wanted to enter, Speech and Language Pathology, probably does require some higher education that alternate training programs couldn’t match. And hopefully, some of the humanistic education will rub off on her and make her better at her job and life. On the other hand, it does mean lower standards (which if you aren’t interested learning for learning’s sake comes off as an arbitrary roadblock). There’s also diminishing returns here: there are great benefits for both individual and society if everybody is functionally literate; I don’t think that the case if everybody went to graduate, or even just undergraduate, school.

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TM 06.09.16 at 11:36 am

93 “An aside: do the people who think college isn’t for everyone have hard-core biological determinist views of human intelligence?”

Counter question: if everybody should have the same education, do you also believe that we all should have the same profession, the same hobbies, listen to the same music and read the same books?

One doesn’t have to be a biological determinist to observe that the specific kind of activities commonly practiced in those institutions known as “college” aren’t everybody’s preference. As pointed out by Christopher, plenty of people aren’t interested in reading text books, writing essays and so on. The problem particularly with the US education system is that high school graduates are told (in fact children are told continuously from an early age) that they have to have a college degree or you’ll end up flipping burgers. Education doesn’t have to be one size fits all. Learning doesn’t have to be college learning. There should be other options, there should be a diversity of educational models, as is the case in many other countries. Not having a college degree shouldn’t be reason to look down on a person. As it stands, in the US, it is. And that is a big part of the problem complex “US higher education” and it is very difficult to even imagine how to get away from that unhealthy situation given the path dependencies that got us to this place.

Re the Math question: my last teaching job was trying to teach introductory statistics to students who really shouldn’t have to take Statistics. Quantitative Literacy, which includes some fundamentals of statistics, yes, and that is challenging enough for many students who got through high school with at best indifference to and at worst hate for everything mathematical. Now why did our administrators in their wisdom decree that students need to take two semesters of statistics (and instructors effectively need to pretend that most of the students passed the class) even if statistics is really not among the things that they ought to have to learn? Well it’s credentialism. The institution used to be named College of Textiles & Science and it’s mission was to teach mostly skills needed in the textile industry. A few years ago they decided to change their name to University and get more prestigious academic accreditations, and part of the requirements was that more students now have to take useless statistics classes. And that illustrates my point above. Apparently education has to follow the traditional college model or it’s worthless.

Students are urged to get a college degree not for the sake of education but for the sake of the prestige, the signaling, the “college premium”. As a result, I would posit that higher education in the US isn’t about education period. Under the conditions of neoliberal capitalism, the calls for universal higher education have perversely succeeded in making non-education accessible to more people, at a much higher cost.

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harry b 06.09.16 at 1:41 pm

engels
thanks, we may disagree a whole lot less than it has seemed. The way I see it is that in the short to medium term reformers of higher education and higher education funding are working within a framework of massive (and unjust) inequality about which they can do nothing (or not much). I just accept it, not as good (its bad) but as a background fact. Not that a particular level of inequality is fixed, but that it can only be changed a slightly right now, and in the near future. I have a great degree of confidence of that in the US context. I also assume, what has historically been true in both the US and the UK, and I don’t see a way of changing, that children from more advantaged backgrounds will concentrate in more selective colleges, which will, in turn, have more (government) money to spend on them (that’s part of the design) and which confer much more positional (private good) advantage. So, I am very resistant to seeing free tuition as an egalitarian program in that context, because at best it does nothing to counteract the inequalities, and at worst it compounds them. (My impression is that in the UK the compounding problem is not as bad as in the US, but in US State universities, there is huge inequality of spending even within institutions, and a tendency for more to be spent on more selective programs (which admit more advantaged students) like Engineering, Business, and the Arts (Music, etc), and less on less selective programs (which admit less advantaged students and, ironically, produce more public good) like Education and Social Work. And then the education majors at an institution like mine have to endure the contempt of their teachers who… no, I’ll get too annoyed if I write more about that). So rather than using marginal funds to make tuition lower (or free) for everyone, I prefer to see it spent on educating kids who are on the wrong end of the unjust inequalities. In a society with more equal, or entirely equal, net wage rates I would have a different view, and I’d also have a different view if I thought that we had a prospect of moving toward such a society.

We differ in how we see the political opposition to fees when they were introduced in the UK. I saw it as an alliance of old Labour statists (I’m an old Labour statist, in both sense of old) and the upper middle classes protecting a generous welfare program targeted at them. As it is, most upper middle class parents now seem to understand that the loan system is a (quite forgiving) graduate tax in disguise, and are less opposed to it than they were.

We seem not too far apart when talking about how we would like things to be, but quite far apart when thinking about what, right now, should be done, maybe because I am more pessimistic in the short term about what will be done macro-economically. (We probably agree about what CAN be done, but because I believe it won’t, I accept that as a parameter).

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harry b 06.09.16 at 1:42 pm

PS — I sometimes find your tone pretty irritating, which I think you intend (so — success!), but always find it worth putting that aside and trying to think through what you are arguing.

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Fuzzy Dunlop 06.09.16 at 3:06 pm

TM @97 “Counter question: if everybody should have the same education, do you also believe that we all should have the same profession, the same hobbies, listen to the same music and read the same books?”

I don’t think everyone should have the same education, just that it would make sense if the level of education most workers need is slowly rising as more job functions get automated out of existence. (Maybe managing a restaurant takes more education than it did 100 years ago, but is it really still the same job?)

One doesn’t have to be a biological determinist to observe that the specific kind of activities commonly practiced in those institutions known as “college” aren’t everybody’s preference.

But if those preferences aren’t biologically determined, what determines them? (Obvs. family & social environment, primary & secondary education…) Of course we’re now outside what is strictly in the purview of higher ed, but that doesn’t mean higher ed has no role to play in shaping goals of primary & secondary ed. Even among the more well-to-do, lots of people aren’t interested in reading textbooks and writing essays, but then you could say the same thing about learning to read, learning fractions, learning algebra… Let’s say we extracted the vocationally-useful elements out of history, philosophy, and literature classes: “HUMN 150 Language and Communication for Bureaucrats”, an English class stripped of all the non-professionally-useful content, just teaching people the skills they need beyond high school English to function as a member of an organization. Or replace humanities distribution requirements with “Business Writing”. I expect that would be an incredibly boring experience for everybody, with the additional disadvantage that it does not, unlike a good humanities course, train people to be (what I would consider) better citizens and community members.

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Fuzzy Dunlop 06.09.16 at 3:47 pm

Christopher @96 “Signalling” here might not just include economic benefits, but social prestige as well… So anybody who does want to get ahead in life goes to university, regardless of their actual interests in scholarly and intellectual pursuits… The field she wanted to enter, Speech and Language Pathology, probably does require some higher education… And hopefully, some of the humanistic education will rub off on her and make her better at her job and life.

Prospective employers would probably say that those aspects of the humanistic education that (potentially) make her better at her job and life are why they value it, not the prestige itself. In other words, why not just take the businessfolk at their word here? She’s gaining skills that are a pain in the @ss to acquire, & that have some professional benefits, so she’s putting in the time–the same way I felt about a lot of things I did as a college student and then as a grad student. (I may be coming from a different perspective from a lot of people here: my family background is immigrant on one side and working class on the other, I didn’t like the classroom environment at all (I was always amused when people told me, as a grad student, ‘you’re here because you like going to school and taking classes, unlike most of the students you will teach’–maybe I disliked it less than a lot of people, but liked it? No.) I was also especially careful to gain any kind of “credentials” I could, because I had a (possibly exaggerated) mistrust in how fairly society (e.g. potential employers, colleagues) would assess my capabilities. Better to have something on paper.) All of which is to say that the idea that we pursue these things (higher ed, the liberal arts) because we like them always sounded funny to me. (Most) people aren’t just born liking (most) things.)

As for diminishing marginal returns, I agree, although I don’t see anything inherently wrong with spending 16 years educating 75% of working people as opposed to 12. Given that a lot of the ‘skills’ (general knowledge of the world, bureaucratic habitus, language skill, whatever) that people get from higher ed (or that higher ed signals) are taught at home in more educated families & communities, and that the portion of society seeking higher ed is growing, these skills should become more prevalent in the population as a whole over time, which may put a ceiling on the expansion of higher ed that has been going on (assuming diminishing marginal returns matter a lot here). It would also make remedial education less necessary over time. Altogether these trends make up a socio-economic shift towards more educated societies that has been going on in much of the world for centuries, and I think one reason why attacking higher ed (and insisting on its irrelevance!) is so urgent for the right is that they realize we are moving towards a society with a much greater proportion of college radicals, when they would rather we become a society of Joe the Plumbers who just take Business English and learn to discuss social and political issues from the news, at home, and (for those so inclined) in Church or Bible study groups.

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SamChevre 06.09.16 at 6:12 pm

But if those preferences aren’t biologically determined, what determines them? (Obvs. family & social environment, primary & secondary education…)

There some component that’s either biological/genetic, or prior to our ability to assess environments well. I’m fairly certain of that, because you can frequently observe different children in the same family to have different interests and preferences as 1 and 2-year-olds.

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Fuzzy Dunlop 06.09.16 at 6:55 pm

SamChevre @102 I agree, but then some populations send a much higher proportion of their kids to college than others. It doesn’t seem implausible to me that the average years of schooling across the whole population could one day be 15 years (HS + 3 years college), without this being wasteful or harmful. (This seems to me like a plausible outcome of current trends, for the US, 50 years from now.) I mean, sure, nobody (well, most people) don’t really like sitting in a classroom, hearing lectures, and writing papers, but (I will say, based on about the same evidence) most people don’t like working either, or they tolerate it because they’re getting paid for it.

I’m curious if anyone in this discussion has ever worked in HR or otherwise been responsible for hiring people, and if anyone with that experience would agree that college teaches something valuable or is more just a signal. Like, do they find that there are particular things that non-college-educated workers lack that are relevant to the work and that are not products of social/family background? This doesn’t seem like the best question to answer using only economic theory.

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casssander 06.09.16 at 7:11 pm

@Fuzzy Dunlop

the evidence we have says that years of education are a godawful predictor of employee quality. If that’s the case, then school is almost certainly not teaching something employers value.

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harry b 06.09.16 at 7:23 pm

cassander — your second sentence seems unrelated to the first. It certainly doesn’t follow. Many applicant shortlists, which the studies seem to be working from, will include a very small range of education levels. Others will include a wider range, but for those jobs the more educated people may be unsuited because of the education they’ve had. And… even if the educated are no better than the uneducated, that doesn’t mean they’re no better than they would have been had they not been educated.

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Fuzzy Dunlop 06.09.16 at 9:39 pm

Adding to harry b’s point, I would expect the distribution of years of schooling to skew right: probably not a lot of people with less than minimum required education level are on applicant short lists, so the study probably tells us nothing about the effects of *not* having the minimum expected educational attainment.

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Fred in Boise 06.09.16 at 11:09 pm

Great post. Am now interested in reading the book.
Have to say am dismayed the otherwise observant authors are minimizing the debt issue. The reality is It IS a crises and most college graduates cannot get jobs that make it appropriate.
I question the stats they cite.

My other “beef” is the notion that everyone needs a Bachelor degree.
This is nonsense.

The observation about Math is astute.

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TM 06.10.16 at 7:46 am

Fuzzy 100, does the idea that college education isn’t the only kind of education make sense to you?

“the level of education most workers need is slowly rising as more job functions get automated out of existence”

I don’t think there is much evidence that “the level of education most workers need” is the one they can get in college. In fact, to be brutally honest, there is little evidence that even those workers who do have a college education “need” it in any sense other than as a credential that gives them an advantage on the job market for reasons that have much to do with the dynamics of stratified capitalist society and next to nothing with the content and quality of the education they have received.

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Eli Rabett 06.10.16 at 12:47 pm

You could close the bottom quarter of all doctoral programs and have next to no effect on the oversupply of PhDs, because the bottom bunch are very small programs. The single most effective way would be to close every doctoral program in the University of California.

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Fuzzy Dunlop 06.10.16 at 2:08 pm

TM, where is the evidence that a BA/BS is only a credential? Do employers tend to look for uncredentialed workers whom they know to be capable because they can be paid a discounted wage (or b/c they have more confidence that they won’t leave…)? Surely there must be a lot of employers trying to take advantage of this. There should be some direct evidence somewhere–or is the fact that higher ed is merely a credential a secret known only to economists?

As for how much education workers need, see my comment above about swapping humanities courses for “Writing for Bureaucrats”/”Business Writing”. Here’s something I googled up about a study by James Heckman & some others: how well a college degree pays off depends on ability (academic/intellectual ability, measured in various ways)–if the degree were just a credential, why would these other kinds of ability affect its value? On the other hand, the study speaks to the issues brought up in the OP–a lot of college students aren’t getting enough out of their education.

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TM 06.10.16 at 3:03 pm

Fuzzy, this question is difficult to “prove” either way because the observed behavior would be the same under the credential hypothesis as under the “needed skills” hypothesis.

I don’t think the study you are citing proves anything. Selective institutions use “academic/intellectual ability, measured in various ways” as a selection criteria. Employers use the prestige of the institution attended by the applicant as a selection criteria. The kind of correlation reported in the study is therefore unsurprising and crucially offers no evidence that the education, as opposed to the credential, is what is valued by employers.

But this is really a bit of a digression to my main point, which is that academic education isn’t the only kind of education. Even if I agreed with the rest of your argument, I would still strongly disagree with the claim that everybody should have an academic education or that academic education is more valuable than other kinds of education. In my view, everybody should have access to the education that they prefer and there should be a diversity of different models.

The attitude of many academics (and alas by many education experts, who tend to come from academia, and many policy makers, who tend to be college educated) to discount nonacademic education in my view reveals a shocking degree of narrowmindedness and hubris. Somebody who successfully completes a three or four year apprenticeship in wood working or commerce or laboratory technology is no less “educated” than somebody with a bachelor degree.

Btw in Germany, where apprenticeships are a popular and respected educational option, some employers and educational experts now predict an oversupply of academics and a lack of skilled workers precisely because education policy has been focused on increasing the rate of (e.g. http://www.spiegel.de/unispiegel/studium/studenten-in-deutschland-droht-uns-eine-akademikerschwemme-a-1054629.html) “tertiary education”. And tertiary education is internationally defined (by academically educated education experts) as college/university education.

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Anarcissie 06.11.16 at 12:59 am

I think the idea of a course called ‘Writing for Bureaucrats’ is rather interesting. Most people getting credentials as entrée to middle-class status are probably looking forward toward at least part-time bureaucratic performance. (As a ‘software engineer’, once I got up to managerial level, I had to spend 20 to 50 percent of my time on corporate politics and bureaucracy.) The first thing one would have to determine would be what it was bureaucrats were supposed to write — real stuff, propaganda, bullshit, obfuscation? A deeply philosophical issue. For whom? What vocabulary and register to use? And then figure out how to impart it, whatever one decided it should be. I would do all this myself but alas, I lack time, energy, and credentials.

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Eli Rabett 06.11.16 at 10:35 am

There has been an oversupply of academics in Germany since the 1980s, esp given the many new universities open in the 60s and 70s.

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Matt_L 06.11.16 at 12:57 pm

Sorry, I’ve ignored most of the comments to kick in my own two cents:

1) Harry, I teach history at a four year university in a neighboring state that begins with M. We are part of a system includes both 2 year community and technical colleges as well as four year schools. We enjoyed increasing enrollments while other schools in the system declined. Part of the reason was location along with a distinct set of programs and a university identity that was different from the other four year schools. Our own enrollment started to decline after the 2007-2008 financial debacle. Our number of majors has declined since 2011.

2) We have been operating under a constrained budget since 2008. What you said about State funding makes sense to me it goes up a little when the State has a surplus and is cut significantly when there is a deficit. The budget increases in the last couple of years have not made up for the cuts in the lean years.

3) The school is as efficient as can be. The only way we could become more financially efficient is to require professors to pay for their own copies and office supplies like they do in K-12. I would rather not see that happen.

4) I did a little historical research. Our school teaches twice as many students as it did in the 1960s. The state allocation per university has increased, but not that much over and above the rate of inflation. So we educate twice as many students as we did in the ‘golden age’ but using roughly the same amount of state money. There are new expenses for universities since Title IX , ADA and other programs, so the difference is made up in tuition increases.

5) the one thing that The American Historical Association consistently ignores is the failure of PhD programs in History to prepare teachers with guided and supervised classroom teaching experience and even a modicum of pedagogical theory. After being involved in our own department’s role in training high school history and social studies teachers, I cannot believe how college TAs first year professors are turned loose on unsuspecting undergraduates with little practical training, pedagogical background, or any supervision by a more experienced colleague. It’s fucking nuts. It is the least we could do for our students and we don’t do it.

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TM 06.12.16 at 7:02 pm

113: Out of curiosity, how did you measure “oversupply”? OECD says the opposite by the way: Geramny is wayyy below average in “tertiary education attainment”.

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TM 06.12.16 at 7:03 pm

[Need to remember to proof-read.]

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Eli Rabett 06.13.16 at 1:37 pm

113: By my experience in the German system and interaction with faculty and students. I know many students (STEM) who left the system because a) it takes like forever to get an independent position and b) there is no guarantee. From the student’s POV it is very much the same as in the US.

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Eli Rabett 06.13.16 at 1:47 pm

115: Found something in German which captures the problem. An excerpt

Wenn aber dann der Flaschenhals auftritt, weil viele fertige Doktoren auf wenige Wissenschaftlerstellen und noch weniger Professuren drängen, dann führt das nicht nur – wie bekannt – dazu, daß die Leute noch mehr ausgenutzt werden und als kostenlose Privatdozenten für die Universitäten schuften, sondern auch zu noch mehr Korruption bei der Vergabe der Professuren. Und viele der Promovierten, die in der Uni nichts finden und außerhalb der Uni nichts können, werden einfach arbeitslos und müssen durchgefüttert werden.

e.g. just like the US. The difference is that the overflow started in the 80s there in the 70s here because many German universities were started in the late 60s early 70s.

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kidneystones 06.13.16 at 2:11 pm

@114 The OP, the thread, and your comment make for interesting reading. You raise a good question. Why not, indeed?

The answer may be that once first-year students start receiving instruction from professionally-trained educators, all students at all levels will start expecting similar high quality instruction. And that in turn would mean retraining tenured faculty, which is never going to happen cause these folks is all geniuses. Just ask’em.

You’re right, of course. Just don’t hold your breath.

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