Sunday, July 11, 2010

Bloated colleges spending more and more on peripheral activities

Pity the poor schmucks who are paying for this but just want to give their kid a good education

American colleges are spending a declining share of their budgets on instruction and more on administration and recreational facilities for students, according to a study of college costs released Friday.

The report, based on government data, documents a growing stratification of wealth across America’s system of higher education.

At the top of the pyramid are private colleges and universities, which educate a small portion of the nation’s students, while public universities and community colleges, where tuitions are rising most rapidly, serve greater numbers and have fewer resources.

The study of revenues and spending trends of American institutions of higher education from 1998 through 2008 traces how the patterns at elite private institutions like Harvard and Amherst differed from sprawling public universities like Ohio State and community colleges like Alabama Southern.

The United States is reputed to have the world’s wealthiest postsecondary education system, with average spending of around $19,000 per student compared with $8,400 across other developed countries, said the report, “Trends in College Spending 1998-2008,” by the Delta Cost Project, a nonprofit group in Washington that promotes greater scrutiny of college costs to keep tuitions affordable.

“Our analysis shows that these comparisons are misleading,” Jane Wellman, the group’s executive director, said in an e-mail statement. “While the United States has some of the wealthiest institutions in the world, it also has a ‘system’ of postsecondary education with far more economic stratification than is true of any other country.”

Community colleges, which enroll about a third of students, spend close to $10,000 per student per year, Ms. Wellman said, while private research institutions, which enroll far fewer students, spend an average of $35,000 a year for each one.

Undergraduate and graduate enrollments nationwide grew to 18.6 million students overall in 2008 from 14.8 million in 1998, an increase of 26 percent, the report said. Among all the sectors that make up American postsecondary education, public community colleges added the most students over the decade, growing to 6.3 million from 5 million.

By comparison, enrollment at private colleges and universities grew to 2 million students from 1.8 million in the 10 years.

Tuition, on average, increased more rapidly over the decade at public institutions than it did at private ones. Average tuition rose 45 percent at public research universities and 36 percent at community colleges from 1998 to 2008, compared with about 21 percent at private research universities.

But the trend toward increased spending on nonacademic areas prevailed across the higher education spectrum, with public and private, elite and community colleges increasing expenditures more for student services than for instruction, the report said.

The student services category can include spending on career counseling and financial aid offices, but also on intramural athletics and student centers.

“This is the country-clubization of the American university,” said Richard K. Vedder, a professor at Ohio University who studies the economics of higher education. “A lot of it is for great athletic centers and spectacular student union buildings. In the zeal to get students, they are going after them on the basis of recreational amenities.”

On average, spending on instruction increased 22 percent over the decade at private research universities, about the same as tuition, but 36 percent for student services and 36 percent for institutional support, a category that includes general administration, legal services and public relations, the study said.

At public research universities, spending for student services rose 20 percent over the decade, compared with 10 percent for instruction.

Even at community colleges, with their far smaller budgets, spending on students services increased 9.5 percent, compared with 3.4 percent for instruction.

The study also said that the recession that began in the last months of 2008 had dramatically changed the economics of higher education, probably forever.

“The funding models we’ve created in higher ed are not sustainable,” Ms. Wellman said. “We ran up spending in the ’90s and early 2000s to levels we can’t maintain, and this is true not only in the elite privates, but in many of the public institutions, too.”

Now, with private-college endowments battered and state legislatures slashing university budgets coast to coast, “policy makers as well as university presidents and boards must learn to be better stewards of tuition and taxpayer dollars,” she said.

The Delta Cost Project, founded in 2007, is governed by a three-member board and financed in part by the Lumina Foundation. The project says it “focuses on the spending side of the college cost problem, how institutional spending relates to access and success, and ways that costs can be controlled without compromising quality.”


Expand Educational Opportunity, Don't Restrict It

Remember the Obama administration's promise to make higher education more accessible by expanding Pell grants and student loans to more students through the $787 billion stimulus? Apparently, the administration is having second thoughts -- at least when it comes to allowing students to pick their own schools.

New regulations being contemplated by the Education Department would place new restrictions on loans going to students who want to use them at for-profit schools. The administration's claim is that for-profit schools exploit low-income -- often minority -- students by promising them high-paying careers, on which they can't deliver, and saddling them with debt. But is that really the issue?

For-profit schools occupy an important niche in our higher-education system. They provide training in everything from traditional academic fields to information technology, health care, criminal justice, and automotive repair. According to recent estimates, enrollment at for-profit career schools has increased 20 percent during the recession, as many workers, young and older, realize that they don't have the skills to compete in an increasingly technical and demanding labor force. And with many states cutting back on community college budgets, for-profit schools are sometimes the only alternative to get the training students want and need.

Tuition at for-profit schools averages about $14,000 a year, according to the College Board -- not cheap, but midway between the range in average college tuition between private colleges ($26,273) and public ($7,020). But the difference is that many for-profit career colleges require only a one- or two-year commitment to provide practical job skills, not four. But like all educational institutions, for-profit schools can't guarantee success. It's up to the students to stick with the program, learn the skills, and be diligent in pursuing jobs after they've earned their degrees.

But the Education Department is now contemplating regulation changes that would make it more difficult for students to use federal loans to attend for-profit institutions. The new rules would limit the amount of money a student could use to repay loans to 8 percent of income -- but the way the government will calculate income is a problem. Income will be defined in a debt-to-earnings ratio dependent not on the individual's actual income but on the Bureau of Labor Statistics job code associated with the student's diploma or degree at the 25th percentile of wages in that field. But this formula assumes that after graduating, the person will remain at the lowest quartile of earnings throughout his or her working lifetime instead of assuming wages will rise over time. Under the proposed regulations, students would be ineligible to use federal loans for programs that cost more than the artificial debt-to-earnings ratio dictates.

It seems like the folks in charge of writing the regulations are prejudiced toward for-profit schools. These institutions already meet accreditation rules and must disclose graduation rates and other information to ensure that they are legitimate educational institutions, not mere moneymaking scams.

Schools that advertise on TV and radio and provide education to working-class adults are anathema to the education community elite -- who not only didn't attend such schools but don't know anyone who did. But I've seen firsthand the important role for-profit schools play in providing opportunity. One of my sons earned his Microsoft certifications in a for-profit school and has gone on to a very successful, steadily advancing career in IT in the 10 years since.

The idea that everyone must attend a four-year college in order to succeed is nonsense. Education is important -- and improving skills to compete in a more demanding work environment often makes the difference between those who keep their jobs in a recession and those who don't. But it shouldn't be the federal government's job to decide which school a student chooses. The for-profit market is growing because there is an increased demand for the kind of education it provides. Shouldn't the Education Department devote its resources to expanding opportunities for Americans to receive schooling, not restricting them?


Britain: The bullies in the staffroom

Joanna Leapman expected criticism when she spoke on TV to attack teaching standards. What she didn’t expect was a poisonous, online attack:

I always knew that speaking about standards of teaching in Britain’s schools on national television last week was going to have its consequences. When I took the call from the producer at BBC’s Panorama, asking me, as a former parent-governor who had already aired my grievances with our education system in this newspaper, if I would be willing to contribute to an investigation into incompetent teachers, I thought twice about saying yes. Not only would I be potentially criticising the leadership of the school my children still attend, but I would be throwing myself into the ring with members of the most vitriolic profession in our country — teaching.

I weighed up the odds, and decided my views and experience had a vital role to play in fuelling any policy change in the practice of recycling incompetent teachers. I could handle the inevitable critics.

What I didn’t expect was for some teachers on a popular online teachers’ forum to sink so low as to lash out highly personal and insulting remarks about my family’s red hair, the inside of my house — and, unbelievably, make nasty judgments about my three children.

One of them, a primary teacher hiding behind the online pseudonym “lardylegs”, says: “Severely ginger people should not be allowed to become school governors. Or breed.” She also says of my five-year-old son: “Did you see the maniacal grin on the young one at the front? He is clearly a pain in the backside in class.” She also described the children of two other parents involved in the programme as “a sandwich short of a picnic”. Others joined in the debate, agreeing wholeheartedly with Lardylegs’s attack.

Such hurtful remarks are made worse by the knowledge that they have been posted by teachers — professionals whose very job should dictate that they make no judgments about individuals in this manner. Lardylegs reveals herself on other postings to be a teacher with years of experience of teaching primary pupils, aged 7 to 11 — the same age as my two eldest children. Hiding behind a cloak of anonymity should not excuse her or the others. Is this how they discuss our kids in the staffroom? It’s shocking.

I am all in favour of open debate, and online forums only help to engage an otherwise politically apathetic public on issues. But to use them to make sniping personal attacks on people whose views you don’t share cannot be good.

The BBC investigation had uncovered new statistics that showed that only 18 teachers had ever been found to be incompetent by the General Teaching Council, despite estimates by former schools inspector Chris Woodhead that 15,000 incompetent teachers were still in the system.

In my interview with the programme’s reporter, Sam Poling, I revealed that, as the former chair of my school’s personnel committee, I knew that the headteacher was aware of the weak teachers but gave them to classes who had already had a good teacher, or vowed to give them a good one the following year.

Before the programme was even aired last Monday, the teachers’ forum, on the Times Educational Supplement (TES) website, was buzzing with angry teachers attacking reports in the newspapers of its findings. They branded it “yet another witch hunt”, accusing the programme’s makers of incompetence and hurling abuse at their long-serving arch-enemy Mr Woodhead.

The facts were there in the programme. Panorama’s own forum has been flooded with parents sharing horror stories of incompetent teachers. Most teachers surely must be aware that some of their colleagues are incompetent. Indeed one school head of department, using the name “chocolateheaven”, did acknowledge the problem on the forum, saying: “Every school I’ve worked in has had a teacher not working up to scratch, and most are not tackled… If they’re not prepared to do the necessary, then they deserve to lose their job.” But the vast majority of the 220-plus posts from teachers on the TES forum are in denial. Why?

Ask anyone else if they work with incompetent people and they will probably happily descend into a rant about some of the more useless people in their workplace. So why does everyone but teachers accept this? Why are they being so defensive? Had the programme hit a raw nerve? Had the programme hit such a raw nerve that they had to resort to getting personal?

I know the majority of teachers are hardworking professionals, and most must privately worry that some of their colleagues are not up to the job. Unfortunately, this reasonable majority all too often remain silent and allow the public voice of the teaching profession to be that of the teaching unions, whose defensiveness sounds like belligerence.

Teachers take criticism less well than any other professional body I can think of. The teaching unions line up regularly to wheel out quotes attacking their portrayal in television dramas in a way no others do. I can’t recall ever seeing quotes from pub landlords or shopkeepers saying that they are unhappy with their latest characterisation on screen.

What’s more, most teachers only ever seem to have two lines of defence when even a vague bit of criticism is levelled at them — the same two lines we’ve all been hearing for years, and the same two lines that appeared in post after post on the forum.

The first is: “Well, why don’t you try standing in front of a class of 30 all day!” and the second is: “You’re not a teacher, so what do you know about education?”

Neither of these arguments would work in any other walk of life. Imagine, complaining in a restaurant about the quality of food, to be told, “Well, you try standing in front of a hot stove all day”, and “you’re not a chef, so what do you know about food?” No. It would be totally unacceptable. Parents, like customers, have a right to expect good service. If they don’t get it, they have a right to complain. Can teachers really patronise parents by telling them that they have no understanding of what a good service actually is?

Maybe that’s why one teacher has attacked me on the forum for being “the worst kind of pushy middle class parent” and several others rushed to agree. The judgment was apparently made on the basis of me having a piano in my front room – which appeared in the background of my interview photograph. One poster, “Eureka”, an FE computer studies teacher, even started a whole new forum discussion topic about it, calling for pianos in front rooms to be banned. His remark — a joke, but a nasty, pointed one — says what I’ve suspected for a while: some teachers are uncomfortable with middle-class parents in their environment; perhaps they’re fearing their authority and their position as the “most learned one” in the room may be undermined. Or maybe, in the worst-case scenario, they’re fearing that their own inadequacies may be revealed.

Sadly, it’s become increasingly easy to enter the teaching profession and, unlike in many other countries, our teachers are not made up of our top graduates. In fact, many don’t even have A-levels. Information from the teacher recruitment body, the TDA, specifies only 3 GCSEs (at grade C) as a basic requirement. Some teacher training courses require two A-levels, but it depends on the course. Most also accept “equivalents”. Bluntly, this means that those who didn’t quite make the grade in school, those kids who struggled academically and were in the lower sets and ended up at a technical college doing BTecs, DipHEs, NVQs or CPVEs or any other lesser academic acronym, can get on a teaching course.

And judging by the teaching forum, many are lacking basic spelling and grammar skills. Some write “apparantly” and “defanately”, several confuse “its” and “it’s” and at least one posting is incomprehensible: “Who would like disciple to be enforced--end off--after that see how teachers teach…we cant get them out of school...whats been done for that?”

Teachers’ poor spelling is clearly a common problem in schools up and down the country, even among headteachers, as I know I’m not alone in becoming increasingly frustrated at poor grammar and spelling in letters sent home in book bags.

Perhaps some headteachers are scared that people like me will send the letters back with corrections in red ink! Or perhaps they really do feel happier talking down to not-very-literate parents, safe in the knowledge that their incomprehensible jargon and target-setting is unlikely to be challenged if teachers don’t quite meet the standard that year.

But teachers’ own fears, resentment and prejudice towards middle-class parents is bringing our state system down. I know of several state primary headteachers who believe their own, middle-class children are better served in private schools. But without a true balance of class, ability and aspirations in the school, the system is doomed to failure.

Schools need supportive — pushy — parents to ensure that they truly thrive. You’d have thought teachers would welcome parents who want to help their child progress with reading, support the school, help out with the PTA cake stalls, drum up support for the school fete, and so forth. Maybe some teachers do, but I suspect that staffroom mutterings paint them as “interfering busybodies”.

Parents feel very strongly about incompetent teachers. They know when their child’s unhappy; they know when their child is bored, or is being bullied and the teacher is doing nothing. They know when their work isn’t marked or a reading book isn’t changed. They don’t need a BA in education to know that.

Several parents in my children’s school, who I didn’t even know, came up to me the day after the television programme aired, to thank me for speaking out. Parents are angry and feel helpless.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has already scrapped the General Teaching Council, which handled teacher incompetency cases. He now has two big jobs to do — adopt a business-like attitude to the teaching profession to hack out the incompetent teachers that are undermining our children’s education. And secondly, to increase the standard of teachers entering the profession.


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