Illiberal Education Is Not a Public Good

March 10, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

University education isn’t a public good deserving taxpayer subsidies if it’s going to actively undermine our democratic and republican form of government, I write in OCPA’s Perspective in light of recent events at OU. Among other examples, this one stands out:

Recently, OU expelled students for using racial epithets, in flagrant violation of long-established First Amendment law. Six months later, the university paid $40,000 for a performance by a hip-hop artist who uses the same derogatory epithets. He also insults homosexuals, brags about physically abusing women in their genitals (hello, Donald Trump supporters!), and calls for the murder of police officers. Respect and toleration for others apparently go only one way at OU.

The question here is not whether the people targeted by OU in these cases are right or wrong. The question is whether OU believes that wrong ideas are best corrected and right ideas are best vindicated through open discussion and debate in a social atmosphere of free inquiry for all sides. The particular merits of the speech acts at issue in these controversies are, here as always, irrelevant to the question of whether everyone ought to have free speech.

Today, there is no longer a unique need for universities because they produce technical knowledge. Two hundred years ago, that may have been a key argument for institutions of higher learning; today, it is the universities who are constantly striving to catch up to Google and other leading technical innovators.

If universities are a public good, it can only be because there is an inseparable connection between truly liberal education and political freedom – because liberal education inculcates a respect for the integrity of the human mind that is the only possible justification for political freedom.

A hundred years ago, educator J. Gresham Machen summed up the connection between liberal education and political freedom: “Reasonable persuasion can thrive only in an atmosphere of liberty. It is quite useless to approach a man with both a club and an argument. He will very naturally be in no mood to appreciate our argument until we lay aside our club.” Machen even testified to the U.S. Congress against a scheme for federal control of education on grounds that it would remove freedom for diverse ideas in education. (The more things change, the more they stay the same!)

Because I’m not a university administrator, I welcome your free thoughts in reply!

Collegiate School Choice

September 4, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective has posted my article about America’s vast, longstanding, and badly broken voucher system in higher education:

The fact that we run higher education on a voucher system is one of America’s best-kept secrets. The only thing the colleges are even more eager to cover up is the fact that they’re gaming this system to line their own pockets. Not even a school choice program can make people stop responding to incentives. That’s all the more reason to make sure the programs are well designed.

I argue that “we need a revolution in higher education vouchers similar to the revolution that is now hitting K-12 vouchers in the form of education savings accounts (ESAs).” Your comments are welcome!

Yeshiva: The Ultimate Free-Market Educational Experience

July 27, 2015

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Cleaning out old emails today, I stumbled across this 2013 article from Prof. Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School describing the eminent Lakewood yeshiva in New Jersey, where about 6,700 undergraduate and graduate students spend their days studying Jewish texts, particularly the Talmud. What education reformers should find fascinating are their innovative mode of instruction and faculty selection/retention policies, the combination of which Feldman calls “a strikingly disruptive model of higher education”:

Every term, each student must sign up for a chabura (essentially, a semester-long seminar group) presided over by a fellow student who functions as the faculty member. A free-market system governs the organization of the seminars. There’s only one way to become a seminar head: to be nominated by your peers who sign up to join. If you don’t have enough sign-ups, you lose your faculty position. If you’re good, students will keep signing up each term and you keep your post.

Tenure doesn’t exist, except for a handful of senior faculty. The seminars can range in size from as few as 15 students to as many as 200. The members meet for lectures by the seminar head and guided discussions several times week. The rest of the time, they engage in analysis, debate and discussion with assigned partners. Senior faculty are available for guidance and help as needed. Subject matter, too, varies, with some seminar groups focusing on specific sections of the Talmud and others pursuing a wider range of topics addressed by Jewish legal tradition.

In essence, the students are running the institution. Traditional Jewish education is usually thought of as intensely hierarchical, and in some ways it is — respect for rabbis and teachers runs deep. But when it comes to the intellectual heart of the yeshiva, the core activity of Talmud study, the Lakewood model is astonishingly egalitarian and democratic.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a liberal arts college try this?

Do you think it might be possible that we’ve accidentally induced hyper-inflation in higher education?

July 15, 2015

Higher ed inflation

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I mean maybe? Just a little bit? Massive direct and indirect subsidies and encouragement to take on debt creates Baumol’s cost disease on steroids. Oh and by the way, take a look at that mid-aughts increase in housing prices, and then compare that to the higher education bubble, and consider all the trouble the housing bubble caused.

HT Kingsland, Buchanan and Parlapiano, BLS

One Two Minerva is Coming for You, Three Four Better Lock the Door, Five Six grab a crucifix, Seven Eight Gonna Stay Up Late

September 24, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Check out this interesting profile of the Minerva Project by Graeme Wood in the Atlantic: The Future of College? Minerva is the first elite university founded in the United States since Rice over a century ago, costs half as much as Rice, and talks of serving as the asteroid to end the Cretaceous period of American academia.

How am I supposed to hire dozens of new non-teaching staffers this week with all these dreadful explosions going on?

I find myself vaguely skeptical. The graduate student association at Rice after all has this great bar they run in the basement of the Chemistry building called Valhalla. Minerva won’t have that, and college might not be the same without it. Maybe living in Europe, Asia and South America would be even better than Valhalla, especially when it is half the price of Rice. If the Minervas of the world disrupt Rice in Christensen inspired inferno of creative destruction, I hope Rice can hang on long enough for me to savor one final pint with Odin and the boys before academic Ragnarok reaches its inevitable conclusion.

Speaking of Odin, there is a lot of bold talk in this article from from a one-eyed fat man someone with 33 students, but on the other hand fortune sometimes favors the bold. The decision to avoid federal money alone makes me want to root for them. Let’s see how they do.

The Way of the Future in Assessment

July 17, 2014


We control the SAT, ACT, GED and AP. Who the hell are you?

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Hope Matt doesn’t mind me borrowing his Way of the Future theme, but there’s no better way to point y’all to this fascinating article on people experimenting with ways to measure non-cognitive traits, like “heart” and “grit,” that have a huge impact on education and life outcomes.

While the article focuses on colleges using such measures to predict collegiate success of applicants, the measures are just as badly needed (if not more so) to change the way we measure success in K12. There is really no question that these traits, just like the cognitive outcomes we currently measure with standardized tests, are partly a result of genes and environment but also partly a result of school performance. We need a revolution in thinking about K12 that puts non-cognitive outcomes back at the center of education, where they belong. That isn’t likely to happen until we can measure these outcomes.

The early methods are still riddled with challenges, of course, as you would have to expect at this stage. And the people involved (as well as the reporter) have an unfortunate attachment to some of the usual nonsense about the evils of standardized tests. These may or may not be the people who invent the assessments we need. Often the first people to take on a tough new task are only clearing the way for greater lights to come. But there is no doubt about the need, and every little bit helps.

Epic Fail in Arizona

November 14, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Board of Regents put out a tracking study on the High School Class of 2006.  Arizona Republic reporter Ann Ryman lays out the relevant data in the first couple of paragraphs:

Half of the state’s public high schools saw 5 percent or fewer of their graduates from 2006 earn bachelor’s degrees, a new study finds.

And 62 percent of the college degrees earned by the high-school Class of 2006 went to students from just 40 of the state’s 460 high schools.

The report out today from the Arizona Board of Regents is the first in the state to provide a snapshot of college-completion rates for individual high schools. For six years, the regents tracked 53,392 Arizona students who graduated from high school in the 2005-06 school year, regardless of whether they moved or attended college out of state.

Using data from colleges nationwide, the report found that 57 percent of the Arizona students who graduated from high school in 2005-06 went on to college, but only 19 percent graduated from a four-year institution within six years.

An additional 6 percent graduated from a two-year college or trade school.

So after six-years we are looking at 25% getting some sort of credential. Half of Arizona high-schools get 5% or fewer of their graduates to earn a BA.  These results, while shocking, are actually consistent with the very low reported completion rates at Arizona’s three universities and the even lower rates reported by community colleges.

Where does one even start with this?

Perhaps with higher-education itself. This study takes aim at Arizona’s incredibly dysfunctional K-12 system, and rightly so. Let’s not however divert our attention from the role that higher-ed plays in all of this. The universities do not require the use of a college admissions exam for students graduating in the top quarter of, oh yes, those Arizona high-schools they just so effectively bashed.  Community colleges have even lower admission standards, some exercising an “open door” policy that don’t even require trivial little things like a high-school graduation.

This sets the tone for K-12 and in so doing sets up many Arizona children to fail. The universities and colleges have no problem taking money from unprepared kids and flunking them out in droves, but (call me crazy) it might serve them better by setting some minimum standards for entry and communicating those standards forcefully down to the K-12 system.

As you might expect in a state with half of the high-schools getting 5% or fewer of their kids to graduate from college after six-years, the K-12 system is just a mess. Most of the few bright spots are among schools of choice in the state, but on the whole we are looking at a catastrophe.  Defenders of the system will be quick to claim that it is Arizona’s relatively low spending per pupil that is to blame, but this won’t do for two broad reasons. First Arizona schools spend beyond the dreams of avarice of their predecessors from previous decades.  Second the state is relatively poor with wealth concentrated among retirees who came here from somewhere else with housing standing as the state’s main industry. You can guess where that winds up in terms of residential property tax rates for a state whose main industry is keeping retirees out of the cold.  Finally the state has a large number of old people and a large number of young people- translating to one of the highest age dependency ratios in the country. More than is normally the case around the country, Arizona taxpayers are either not working age yet, or past their prime earning years.

Finally even if the state had a huge amount of money burning a hole in its pocket (it doesn’t) it isn’t remotely clear that Arizona’s districts deserve anyone’s confidence in doing good things with the money. Better to create incentives for improvement and deliver additional funding upon the documentation of that improvement, which is the path that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has endorsed.

The state’s accountability system jumped the shark a decade ago.   The initial AIMS test was a rigorous exam that told Arizonans information that they didn’t want to hear, especially those working in the system. This brought on to the biggest dummy down in cut scores in the recorded history of the United States.  The testing system devolved into a bad joke- rampant item exposure and drilling to individual test items.  Our kids got better and better at taking a dummy downed AIMS exam while our NAEP scores flat-lined and very few students make it through college.

This is what is so sad about Arizona activists spending their time fighting Common Core. Um, guys, Arizona is not Massachusetts.  I have no idea how Common Core will turn out or even if it will stick around but it would boggle my mind if it somehow turned out worse than the status-quo here in our patch of cactus.  Arizona has a huge problem regardless of what happens next on standards, and btw, our current set of tests and standards did approximately nothing to prevent this problem.  Simply being against Common Core without any thought about what should be done to replace AIMS is a luxury that Arizona cannot afford.

Arizona adopted A-F school grading a few years ago, but in 2012-13 61 percent of schools received an A or a B grade.  Some cruel person could have a great deal of fun cross listing the Arizona Republic’s data base on college graduates with the school grades, but let’s resist such temptation for now. I will simply note that the NAEP exam shows very low percentages of Arizona students reading with full grade level proficiency and the Arizona Board of Regents has now found catastrophically low college completion rates. We would do well therefore to set challenging standards for school grades rather than throwing around A and B grades like beads at a Mardi Gras parade.

In short, I believe that Arizona needs a coordinated effort at the K-12 and higher education levels to toughen up what is an incredibly soft system.  Arizona’s educators policymakers are not bad people, and it was not wicked motivations that got us in to this mess. It seems nice not to require high-school students to do much of anything to graduate from high-school. It feels egalitarian and democratic to have open door policies in higher education. We can hope against hope that the handful of Arizona schools getting C grades will strive to get A/B grades, but it feels kinder and gentler to rig the game in such a way that profoundly mediocre results can get you a good grade. The road to hell-in this case backwater status- is paved with good intentions.

The problem with the delicate approach is that it systematically puts a higher priority on the comfort level of adults rather than the needs of Arizona’s children.  You can’t paper over illiteracy and the consequences of all this softness is a system that is failing to prepare students for the future.

Administrative Bloat in the WSJ

December 30, 2012

This weekend the Wall Street Journal had a front page piece detailing how administrative bloat in higher education is causing costs to spiral higher.  The piece carefully dissects hiring patterns at the University of Minnesota to illustrate their general conclusion that:

Across U.S. higher education, nonclassroom costs have ballooned, administrative payrolls being a prime example. The number of employees hired by colleges and universities to manage or administer people, programs and regulations increased 50% faster than the number of instructors between 2001 and 2011, the U.S. Department of Education says. It’s part of the reason that tuition, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, has risen even faster than health-care costs.

This conclusion is not new, but it is great to see it getting the attention it deserves.  As regular readers of JPGB will remember, Brian Kisida, Jonathan Mills, and I released a report on administrative bloat at the nation’s 200 leading research universities.  That report elicited a tizzy fit from Arizona State University President Michael Crow, including a letter to the chancellor of my university accusing me of academic fraud.  University leaders who should be the guardians of academic freedom are too often its greatest oppressors.

But the obvious facts about administrative bloat cannot be suppressed.  Johns Hopkins professor Benjamin Ginsberg recently published an excellent book on the topic.  And despite a lousy attempt by the professional association of State Higher Education Officers to spin the data, a subsequent analysis by the Pope Center successfully replicated our results and confirmed out conclusions.

And now we have a front page article in the Wall Street Journal reporting the same thing.  Michael Crow might try writing an angry letter to the editor but university leaders won’t be able to shut this story down.  The good university leaders are already taking steps to reign in runaway non-instructional, non-research costs.  See for example Erskine Bowles efforts at the University of North Carolina or the new leadership at the University of Minnesota.  The bad university leaders will bluster, brow beat, and continue to expand the mission of universities beyond their core missions of teaching and research.

The Ultimate Debate!

June 27, 2012

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Old and Tired: Star Wars versus Star Trek – which is better?

New and Fascinating: Greg Forster versus Rich Vedder – whose evisceration of the student aid regime is more devastating?

I vote for Rich. The constraints of the WSJ debate required me to address a more narrow set of questions. Rich has marshalled a more comprehensive takedown in the new Imprimis. It’s your one stop shop for everything that’s dysfunctional and destructive about the student aid regime.

HT Basic Instructions, my favorite webcomic – see more legible versions of these comics here and here!

WSJ Also Hosts College Financial Aid Showdown

June 24, 2012

In addition to the debate between Checker and me on national standards, the Big Issues in Education series that the Wall Street Journal is publishing features a variety of great debates.  I just saw that one of those is a debate between our very own Greg Forster and Mark Kantrowitz about college financial aid.  Here’s a taste:

Mark Kantrowitz:

Without some form of aid, the cost of a four-year college is beyond the reach of most low-income families. Even taking grants into account, the average annual yearly cost is more than one-half the average annual family income for low-income students….

Millions of students never even enter college due to their own limited financial resources, inadequate need-based grants or both. In a 2006 report by a congressional advisory committee on student financial aid, only 54% of college-qualified low-income students enrolled in a four-year college and 21% in a two-year college. For high-income students, the comparable figures were 84% and 11%.

Claims that there is no gap in college access for low-income students are based on a flawed analysis that understates college readiness and overstates enrollment figures. College-readiness figures like the ones my opponent cites look only at 17-year-old high-school graduates who satisfy minimal entrance requirements for four-year colleges. But people also qualify who are older than 17, some of whom didn’t graduate from high school but possess the high-school equivalency credential known as the GED.

In reality, more than half of low-income college-ready students don’t enroll in four-year bachelor’s degree programs because they can’t afford the cost.

Greg Forster:

For 60 years, we have been pouring more and more money into collegiate financial aid with little or no regard to the academic merit of the recipients. Unlimited, unmerited college financing has produced skyrocketing tuition rates, lower academic standards, and runaway spending on collegiate administration and services that deliver no visible academic benefits….

Proponents of need-based aid cite studies suggesting there is a big gap in college-enrollment rates between low-income and high-income students with the same qualifications. But those studies are misleading because the qualifications they cite don’t match up with the real entrance requirements of colleges. They omit transcript requirements, for example, like numbers of years of English and math.

In fact, virtually all low-income students who aren’t going to college aren’t qualified to go to college. Empirical research by myself and others has consistently found that the number of high-school graduates who meet the academic requirements to attend a traditional four-year college and the number of students actually entering traditional four-year colleges is almost identical.

The problem for low-income students isn’t a lack of aid—it’s a lack of quality education at the K-12 level. Almost the only way to expand educational opportunity to the truly needy is through academic, not financial, reform. Too many kids at the K-12 level never have a chance to become college-ready….

Of course colleges jack up their tuition. They’re capturing the subsidies we provide. Like any other service provider, colleges will raise prices until the market clears. Flooding the market with subsidies gives customers more purchasing power. The market clears at a higher price.

But higher tuition is only the obvious symptom; putting all that financial aid on the table with no connection to academic merit creates a huge incentive to dumb down academics. Colleges can pick up a lot of free money by relaxing admission standards. This helps explain why more than a third of freshmen now take remedial courses.

And since colleges no longer compete on price, they compete on amenities. That’s why we see so many new buildings and services on campuses, but so little improvement in educational results. From 1993 to 2007, according to a study by Jay Greene, an education professor at University of Arkansas, college administrative spending per student grew at twice the rate of instructional spending.

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