Thursday, July 15, 2010

Politicians are the problem for higher ed

n a recent hearing — the first in a promised series — members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee began an inquisition into for-profit higher education, suggesting the sector exploits vulnerable Americans.

"Congress has a responsibility to ensure that ... opportunity is real, and not just false hopes pedaled on a billboard or pop-up ad," declared HELP Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in his opening statement, setting the hearing's tone.

So what's wrong with federal politicians calling for-profits to the carpet? What's wrong is the entire higher education system — not just the proprietary part — is broken, and it's the politicians' fault.

There certainly are shady for-profits. One, the Drake College of Business, recently received significant attention for recruiting students in homeless shelters, likely just to bring in federal financial aid attached to warm bodies.

Then there's the lingering problem of diploma mills — institutions that dole out sheepskins for a fair amount of money ... and very little scholarship.

While such outrages are anecdotal, there is also troubling systemic evidence about problems in the for-profit higher education sector. According to federal data, only 27% of for-profit students who started four-year programs in 2000 finished at the same institutions within four years, and only 38% within eight years. For two-year programs, only 42% of students who started programs in 2004 completed on time.

Those are some rotten results, and they don't come cheap. According to the College Board, among for-profit students who received bachelor's degrees in the 2007-08 academic year and borrowed money, the median debt level was $32,650.

Unsurprisingly, there are loan defaults, which cost federal taxpayers who back most student loans. Among federal loans for which repayment was supposed to begin in fiscal 2007, 11% belonging to for-profit students were in default as of September 2009.

So for-profit schools produce lots of trouble. But they're not much worse than the rest of the higher education, no matter what senators' rhetoric might suggest.

Consider costs. Estimating federal, state and local appropriations to public institutions — direct funding that for-profits don't get — reveals outlays of $7,452 per pupil for four-year programs, $3,660 for two-year and $5,881 for less than two-year programs.

Adding those subsidies to government student aid reveals total taxpayer burdens, and suddenly for-profits don't look so singularly terrible. The annual burden per undergraduate at a four-year public school is around $15,794 vs. just $10,272 at a for-profit. For a two-year program, the for-profit is just somewhat costlier: $10,960 vs. $8,489.

How about graduation rates? Again, it all stinks. Look at bachelor's programs. While only 27% of for-profit students finished on time at the institution where they started, only 29% of public-school students did. That's hardly a major difference. The gulf widens as one moves to six- and eight-year rates, but even the best rate — 66% of students at private, nonprofit schools graduated within eight years — is underwhelming.

So the for-profit sector isn't much worse than anyone else. Why, then, are our honorable senators focusing their fire on it?

Scapegoating, that's why. Higher education is awash in government cash, with tens of billions of taxpayer dollars going to schools and students annually. But all that money, coupled with nonstop political rhetoric about everyone needing to go to college, has led millions of unprepared people to futilely pursue degrees at all kinds of institutions.

It's also fueled stratospheric price inflation. Between the 1989-90 and 2009-10 academic years, inflation-adjusted prices rose 75% at four-year private schools, 139% at four-year public institutions and 75% at two-year public colleges.

Blame that on Washington, which has kept upping student aid and driving Americans to consume far more higher education than they need or can handle. It's also let colleges raise prices with impunity.

Higher education has bad actors, and some are at for-profit institutions. Ultimately the worst are the politicians, who fuel profligacy for political gain, then shamelessly blame others for the trouble they've wrought.


Computers won't close the educational divide

One of these days, someone is going to conduct some scientific research and discover that billions of dollars could be saved by not doing so much scientific research.

For example, the New York Times last week carried an interesting story by Randall Stross titled, "Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality," in which the author previews an upcoming scientific paper on the effects of home computers on the educational outcomes of low-income students.

The study's authors — professors from the University of Chicago and Columbia University — used fieldwork from a Romanian computer voucher program to prove that low-income students who received home computers actually achieved lower test scores than students who applied for, but did not receive, the vouchers.

Here's the part where we could pocket some research grant money: Mr. Stross quotes researcher Ofer Malamud as saying, "We found a negative effect on academic achievement. I was surprised, but as we presented our findings at various seminars, people in the audience said they weren’t surprised, given their experiences with their school-aged children."

Who needs stark regression discontinuity to establish something that any competent, responsible parent can tell you over a cup of Starbucks? If you're trying to raise a well-educated, well-rounded child, you need to limit — not increase — the time he spends on a home computer.

Of course, now that there's scientific research to prove the point, will educators and government bureaucrats take notice?

After all, much is being made of the "digital divide" between the haves and the have-nots, especially between children of middle- and upper-income families with at-home Internet versus low-income families who do not own home computers. Such students are condemned to use school computer labs or (gasp!) access the Internet on free computers at the public library. Improving access for all students is assumed to be necessary in order to level the playing field of educational opportunity.

In fact, assumptions on the part of educational experts about the need for greater Internet access are behind the Obama administration's push to provide free high speed broadband to low-income rural homes. (Dial-up is simply insufficient if a poor child is to keep up in a 21st-century global economy).

Yet this study contradicts the knee-jerk solution of resolving an inequity with government dollars. In fact, it's just one more example of a cure that makes the disease even worse.

The research showed that low-income students who received home computers didn't use them to enhance their schooling, but rather, used them to play games. (Act surprised). Their scores in three academic subjects actually declined, but at least their proficiency in computers was measurably higher, so I guess the experiment wasn't a total loss if what you're looking for is a generation of low-income computer gamers.

The unvarnished truth is that the digital divide isn't what's holding back America's underprivileged children. The real problem is a discipline divide. Regardless of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity or religion, where there are strong, skilled, supervising parents, you will find successful students. And where there aren't, you'll find gamers.

It's time to stop throwing money, technology and excuses at poor children and calling it education. The only way to close any sort of gap is to stop selling kids short on competent teachers who are committed to imparting knowledge and skills rather than using the classroom to affect "social justice," and to hold their parents accountable for the privilege of a free public education.

A well-educated person — no matter what his economic background — will figure out how to get a computer in his home and use it to his advantage.

On the other hand, an uneducated child who gets a computer will use it to find and while away the hours that most certainly would be better spent turning the pages of a book.

Maybe I should start applying for research grants.


More than half of British students fear unemployment

More than half of university students fear they will face unemployment when they graduate after racking up record levels of debt, a new survey has warned. According to research, 55 per cent of students are worried they will be unable to find work after leaving university due to the effects of the recession.

A shortage of money could lead to graduates abandoning their career goals, the survey suggested, with one in three students saying they would look for a higher paid job rather than their career vocation in order to pay off their debt.

Graduates are poised to leave university burdened by record levels of debt, with those leaving university in 2011 forecast to owe an average of £21,198, according to university guide

In 2009 the average debt of graduates was £15,812, while for those starting university courses in September – most of whom will graduate in 2013 – the figure is likely to rise to £23,500.

This projection could increase further if the government lifts the current cap on tuition fees following an ongoing review into university funding being led by Lord Browne, the former BP chief executive.

The new survey, carried out by the Association of Investment Companies (AIC), an investment trade organisation, showed that half of students expect to take more than 10 years to pay off their debts incurred at university.

Results also indicated the recession has been a burden on parents, with 82 per cent saying it has increased the financial strain of supporting their children through university.

The AIC said: "Many young people go to university to enjoy some of the best years of their life but the reality on graduation is a huge financial burden which will take years to pay off."


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