Thursday, September 09, 2010

More on the Higher Education Price Bubble and Failure of Reforms at K-12

“New Houses were built in every direction; an illusory prosperity shone over the land, and so dazzled the eyes of the whole nation, that none could see the dark cloud on the horizon announcing the storm that was too rapidly approaching.” -- Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

It wasn’t that long ago that I was having lunch with the father of a friend at Mory’s, the venerable dining club at Yale, and he said to me: “Do you realize, Roger, that tuition at Yale next year will be $10,000? Ten-thousand dollars.” We paused for a moment over the Golden Buck to savor this enormous sum.

Ten-thousand dollars per annum was indeed a tidy sum. It is still is. But if you hope to join the Whiffenpoofs next year, it’s going to cost someone at least $52,900.

Exactly who is going to be presented with that tab depends on a number of factors, some of which I’ll mention in a moment. But first let’s step back and ask this embarrassing question: Is it worth it?

Is four years at Yale (or Harvard, Princeton, or any other “competitive” college) worth $53,000 x 4 plus annual tuition increases for a grand total (assuming you are entering right now) of roughly a quarter of a million dollars?

This is a question that, to the consternation of academic administrators, more and more parents — not to mention responsible teenagers — are asking themselves.

I took my epigraph from Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, a remorseless anatomy of financial “bubbles” from the Mississippi Scheme and South Sea Bubble to Tulipomania in 17th-century Holland and beyond. “At last, . . . the more prudent began to see that this folly could not last forever. . . . It was seen that somebody must lose fearfully in the end.”

Glenn Reynolds, a lawyer and genius loci of the Instapundit blog, has for many months been been cataloguing signs of the higher education bubble. Writing recently in the Washington Examiner, Reynolds explained the process:

“The buyers think what they’re buying will appreciate in value, making them rich in the future. The product grows more and more elaborate, and more and more expensive, but the expense is offset by cheap credit provided by sellers eager to encourage buyers to buy.

Buyers see that everyone else is taking on mounds of debt, and so are more comfortable when they do so themselves; besides, for a generation, the value of what they’re buying has gone up steadily. What could go wrong? Everything continues smoothly until, at some point, it doesn’t.”

Have we reached that point in higher education? Over at Instapundit, Reynolds recently linked to an illuminating article at “TaxProf Blog” which includes this illuminating chart comparing the rise in housing prices with college tuition since 1978.

Paul Caron, the TaxProf himself, observes that “the housing bubble resulted from about a 4-time increase in home prices between 1978 and 2006, and college tuition has now increased by more than twice that amount since 1978 — it’s gone up by more than a factor of ten times.” Bottom line? “The college tuition bubble makes the housing price bubble seem pretty lame by comparison.”

We all know what happened — what is still happening — with the housing bubble. Must we fear — rather, may we hope — that the same thing will happen in higher education? “Bubbles burst,” Reynolds observes, “when people catch on, and there’s some evidence that people are beginning to catch on.” He tells the story of the poor — and “poor” is the mot juste — girl who graduated from some name school with a degree in Women’s Studies and Religious Studies and debt of $100,000. That’s about 3 times her current annual income. Her monthly payments for student loans are nearly a third of her take-home pay. Has she caught on?

The sad answer is, probably not. For one thing, anyone who majors in “Women’s Studies” — the pseudo-discipline to end all pseudo-disciplines — may be presumed to be securely insulated from reality.

Nevertheless, Reynolds is right: there are many signs that the natives are restless. There has been a flurry of interest in alternative, internet-based “universities” — I’ve been approached about participating in one such venture myself. Some of these are free, others charge a small fraction of what traditional colleges charge. There is widespread, if still largely anecdotal, evidence that parents and alumni are increasingly disenchanted with the sort of education on offer at most institutions. As I wrote in a piece for The New Criterion a few years ago,

“Many parents are alarmed, rightly so, at the spectacle of their children going off to college one year and coming back the next having jettisoned every moral, religious, social, and political scruple that they had been brought up to believe. Why should parents fund the moral de-civilization of their children at the hands of tenured antinomians? Why should alumni generously support an alma mater whose political and educational principles nourish a world view that is not simply different from but diametrically opposed to the one they endorse? Why should trustees preside over an institution whose faculty systematically repudiates the pedagogical mission they, as trustees, have committed themselves to uphold?”

Just imagine the sorts of sub-literate, ideologically charged nonsense that Women’s Studies debtor was battened on in her classes! The Australian philosopher David Stove, commenting on the Faculty of Arts at Sydney University, formulated a diagnosis that applies to the teaching of the humanities of most Western universities: It is, Stove wrote, a “disaster-area, and not of the merely passive kind, like a bombed building, or an area that has been flooded. It is the active kind, like a badly-leaking nuclear reactor, or an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle.”

There are incipient signs that a Great Recoiling from this intellectual disaster is beginning to form. It will be greatly aided by the economic disaster in which the institutional life of universities is embedded. “Why,” hard-working parents will ask themselves, “does it cost more than $50,000 a year to send Johnny to college.” Leave aside the question of what it is that Johnny is and isn’t learning in those ivy-covered walls. Why does his four-year furlough from the real world cost so much? One reason, of course, is that Johnny, assuming his parents are paying full freight, is paying not only for his own tuition: he is also helping to foot the bill for Ahmed, Juan, and Harriet down the hall. Colleges routinely boast about their generous financial aid packages, how they provide assistance for some large percentage of students, etc. What they don’t mention is the fact that parents who scrimp and save to come up with the tuition are in effect subsidizing the others. How do you suppose Johnny’s parents feel about that?

There are many other aspects to the Higher Education Bubble. Charles Murray touched on some of them in his devastating critique of “educational romanticism” in The New Criterion and in his book Real Education. Too many people go to college; Garrison Keillor has it wrong: half of all children are below average; we need more and better vocational schools, on the one hand, and colleges that cater to the academically gifted, on the other.

I’ve cast a skeptical eye on the educational establishment at least since the first edition of my book Tenured Radicals was published twenty years ago (pick up the new, third edition here). I long ago sadly concluded that revulsion at the intellectual and moral depravity of higher education would never be sufficient to bring about radical change. Combined with the vivid impetus of economic panic, however, the bubble may just inflate so suddenly that, at long last, it bursts. As summer ends and we prepare to send the children back to school, I find it a gratifying daydream with which to conjure.


Racist attack on white boy by Muslim gang at British school

Every playground tiff should be investigated for elements of racism, a report has recommended. The warning follows a hammer attack by an Asian [Pakistani] gang on a 15-year-old white boy on his school’s tennis courts which left the victim with brain damage. Henry Webster’s skull was fractured when he was punched, kicked and hit with a claw hammer by a group calling themselves the Asian Invaders. They left him for dead.

A serious case review of events surrounding the attack found that his school had failed to tackle escalating racial tensions between Asian and white teenagers – even after a riot on the playing fields. It warned that schools should record the ethnicity of bullies and victims and act if a pattern of racism arises, including liaising more closely with police.

According to the review, Ridgeway School in Wroughton, Wiltshire, did not prepare for the arrival of a ‘significant number’ of British Asian students in September 2005 – less than two months after the 7/7 Tube and bus bombings in London. Some problems between white and British Asian pupils were not recognised as racist by the school, near Swindon.

Henry had agreed to fight ‘one on one’ with an Asian boy to end the harassment he thought he and his friends were experiencing. But he was ambushed by a group of youths and young men in January 2007.

The attack led to the 2008 conviction of seven young men for wounding Henry with intent to cause him grievous bodily harm.Six more were convicted of conspiracy.

Henry, now 18, still suffers short-term memory loss. He had accused the school of failing to discipline Asian pupils who abused or intimidated their white classmates.

Last year, his family launched a High Court challenge claiming the school had been negligent, failed to maintain proper discipline or deal with racial tension. The school denied liability. But in February, Mr Justice Nicol rejected their claims and said the school did not breach its duty to take reasonable care to keep Henry reasonably safe while on its premises.

Following his ruling, the Swindon Local Safeguarding Children Board commissioned a serious case review. It found that not only should playground bullying be monitored for racism, but schools should also appoint ‘different race’ mentors for new pupils to help them settle in.

And teachers should consult parents about whether their approaches to religious and cultural requirements are ‘continuously appropriate’.

But Henry’s mother, Liz, 47, said the review confirmed her belief that his school was responsible for the assault. She criticised the report as a ‘whitewash’. ‘Whilst Henry has been the primary victim, we are – and always have been – of the firm belief that this school also let down the young Asian pupils who were eventually prosecuted. They have been criminalised and demonised.

‘Had their integration been properly handled we are certain this attack would not have happened. All anybody needed to do was simple community work – to get the Asian kids playing football with the white kids, or any kind of integration. Let’s hope every teacher in this country examines why this happened.’

The school said: ‘We have noted the recommendations and we always look to improve our practice and will continue to ensure our community which remained incredibly strong after the incident, continues to do so.’

Guidance recommends schools report all bullying. Schools nationwide will not be forced to adopt the 32 recommendations from the Swindon LSCB.


Selective classes based on ability are best for dim kids too

Says Harry Mount. I am not sure what he thinks the end result for the dim ones should be however. Should they spend more years at school or be satisfied to finish school without any qualifications or skills? -- JR

Normally, I rate Frank Field for his unsentimental attitude to the problems of the welfare state and the education system. This time, though, I fundamentally disagree with him. Field is suggesting that children who fail exams should be kept back, to repeat the school year until they pass them.

I’m all for being tough on children, but this one just won’t work. Some of them are so stupid that they’ll never catch up with their peers; and so they’ll be consigned to a strange, sad future – like something out of a Roald Dahl short story, where they keep on ageing while younger and younger children join them every new school year.

However stupid, or clever, you are, it’s vital to be educated alongside people who are your age. At my school, you could be “accelerated” by a year if you passed an exam in your first term. It was fine, academically speaking – the bright children did better than the dimmer ones, despite being a year younger. But what was the point of throwing us together with children who were a year older – a big difference in your teenage years. The gap in sophistication immediately threw up communication barriers, particularly with girls who were only a year older but seemed like they’d been sent from the adult world to terrify us callow boys.

The answer is the obvious one, the one that state schools still shy away from: a combination of selection on entry and streaming. Dim children may fail their exams but they will be kept among their contemporaries and won’t feel the inadequacy of being left behind. Bright children can flourish, unashamed to work hard, spurring each other on to better intellectual performance.

Throw in good teachers and you have all you need for an excellent education. Surely wise Frank Field can see the sense in this?


No comments: