Thursday, November 03, 2011

What's Your Kid Getting From College?

Occupy Wall Street has a point about student debt—sort of

For hard-working American families struggling to make ends meet, the student protesters at Occupy Wall Street must seem like cast members of a reality show designed to make them look shallow and self-indulgent. The irony is that these students and recent grads have a point about their college debt. It's just not the point they are making.

Here, for example, is a typical entry on the blog "We Are the 99 Percent." A woman is holding up a handwritten note that reads: "I am a college graduate. I am also unemployed. I was lead [sic] to believe that college would insure me a job. I now have $40,000 worth of student debt."

The headlines tell us that, as a nation, we now owe more in college loans than we do on our credit cards. Notwithstanding the stock horror stories about the kid who leaves campus owing hundreds of thousands, however, the average college debt load is about the price of a new Toyota Prius—$28,100 for those with a degree from a four-year private school, $22,000 for those from public schools.

Even so, these figures don't touch the most important question: Are students getting fair value in return?

Anne Neal has been trying to help families answer that question for years. As president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, she believes students should leave college with a broad base of knowledge that will allow them "to compete successfully in our globalized economy and to make sense of the modern world." By that ACTA means universities should require a core curriculum with substantive courses in composition, literature, American history, economics, math, science and foreign language.

"The fundamental problem here is not debt but a broken educational system that no longer insists on excellence," Ms. Neal says. "College tuitions have risen more than 440% over the last 25 years—and for what? The students who say that college has not prepared them for the real world are largely right."

At, students can click onto ACTA's recent survey of more than 1,000 American four-year institutions—and find out how their colleges and universities rate. Two findings jump out. First, the more costly the college, the less likely it will require a demanding core curriculum. Second, public institutions generally do better here than private ones—and historically black colleges such as Morehouse and service academies such as West Point amount to what ACTA calls "hidden gems."

Alas, much of the debate over the value of a college degree breaks down one of two ways. Either people pit the liberal arts against the sciences—"Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?" asks Florida Gov. Rick Scott—or they plump for degrees that are thought to be more practical (e.g., business). Both are probably mistakes.

If the young people now entering our work force are going to change jobs as often as we think, the key to getting ahead will not be having one particular skill but having the ability to learn new skills. In this regard, the problem is not so much the liberal arts as the fluff that too often passes for it. In other words, though Gov. Scott is right to demand better measures of what Florida citizens are getting for their tax dollars, he'd probably be better off focusing on excellence and transparency than on suggesting specific courses of study.

As for the "practical" majors, New York University's Richard Arum and the University of Virginia's Josipa Roksa tell us they might not be as useful as once thought. In a recent work called "Academically Adrift," these authors tracked the progress of more than 2,300 undergraduates at two dozen U.S. universities. They found that more than a third of seniors leave campus having shown no improvement in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, or written communications over four years. Worse, the majors and programs often thought most practical—education, business and communications—prove to be the least productive.

So yes, the student protesters with their iPads and iPhones may come across badly to other Americans. Yes too, even those who leave school thousands of dollars in debt will—on average—find their degrees a good investment, given the healthy lifetime earnings premium that a bachelor's degree still commands.

Still, when it comes to what our colleges and universities are charging them for their degrees, they have a point. Too many have paid much and been taught little. They've been ripped off—but not by the banks or the fat cats or any of the other stock villains so unwelcome these days in Zuccotti Park.

"If these students and grads understood the real issues with their college debt," says Ms. Neal, "they would change their focus from Occupy Wall Street to Occupy the Ivory Tower."


Public school teachers make more than private sector workers

We can already hear the anguished, angry protests of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. But our headline captures the essence of an important new study being released today by Jason Richwine of the Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis and American Enterprise Institute's Andrew Biggs. Richwine and Biggs found that when public school teachers and private sector workers are compared objectively on the basis of cognitive skills -- rather than years of service or educational attainment -- the educators enjoy higher compensation -- contrary to the claims of union officials in public debate and in negotiations with school boards.

This is seen most dramatically when workers switch from non-teaching jobs to teaching jobs. Such a move typically results in a wage increase of approximately nine percent. "Teachers who change to non-teaching jobs, on the other hand, see their wages decrease by roughly 3 percent. This is the opposite of what one would expect if teachers were underpaid," Richwine and Biggs said.

The biggest factor in the compensation advantage enjoyed by public school teachers is not wages, however, but rather fringe benefits, which typically are substantially more generous than those paid to private sector workers in cognitively comparable positions. Public school teacher pension programs routinely offer higher benefits, thanks to the traditional calculation that lower salaries would be partially offset by more generous retirement packages. Also significant here is the provision by public school pension programs of paid or low-cost health insurance programs for retirees. Richwine and Biggs found the presence of retiree health benefits adds about 10 percent to the total value of public teacher compensation. As much as another 8.6 percent is added when the value of public school teacher job security is added to the comparison.

Nationally, this disparity in compensation means that, while comparisons based solely on salary often do find a disadvantageous wage-gap for public school teachers, the bottom-line changes dramatically when benefits are considered. "More generous fringe benefits for public-school teachers, including greater job security, make total compensation 52 percent greater than fair market levels, equivalent to more than $120 billion overcharged to taxpayers each year. Teacher compensation could therefore be reduced with only minor effects on recruitment and retention," Richwine and Biggs conclude.

No doubt trying to anticipate the objections from critics in the public education community, Richwine and Biggs argue that "no one doubts the significance of high-quality teachers to the school system and to the economy in general, but even the most important public workers should be paid at a level commensurate with their skills -- no more, no less." That's an entirely reasonable position to take, but don't be surprised in the weeks ahead to hear teachers union advocates rejecting it absolutely, even as they direct a hail of bitter and uncompromising assaults on the scholarship and motivations of Messers Richwine and Biggs.


British selective schools win the freedom to expand: Rule change could see 50 per cent more pupils in them

Huge demand for taxpayer-supported selective schooling, not least because an academic ability test before admission would screen out the most disruptive children, usually of African ancestry

Grammar schools are expected to expand their intake by as much as 50 per cent by 2018. Ministers announced yesterday that powers allowing councils to cap the number of places state schools can offer will be scrapped.

As a result many grammars, which dominate league tables for GCSE and A-levels, are expected to boost their intake by at least a sixth by 2013. By 2018 they are predicted to rise by up to 50 per cent from current numbers, equivalent to each grammar taking on three extra classes in each year.

The lifting of the cap in the new schools admissions code is also expected to see a surge in the number of ‘titan’ primary schools: schools which teach 800 pupils or more.

The announcement caused dismay among education experts who believe the optimum number of pupils at a primary is around 400. They criticised the Coalition’s ‘pack them in and pile them high’ approach to education.

The predicted expansion of grammar schools is likely to harm private schools, because many parents send their children to a fee-paying school only after they have failed to gain a free place at a grammar school. The most popular grammars, or selective state schools, currently have up to ten applications for every place.

There are 158,000 pupils currently at grammar schools – nearly 5 per cent of the secondary school roll. A 50 per cent increase in pupils would see them overtake private schools.

At present the number of places grammars can offer is restricted by local councils, which fear the expansion of selective state schools will mean more of the brightest pupils are cherry-picked, making comprehensives in the area less successful.

The scrapping of these powers from 2013, announced by schools minister Nick Gibb, is likely to reignite the bitter row over grammars within Tory ranks. Despite pressure from the Tory backbenches, the Coalition has refused to increase the number of grammar schools in England – currently 164.

Another major impact of the new admissions policy is predicted to be a rise in the number of children educated in titan primary schools.

A surging population fuelled by immigration is placing increasing strain on schools, and it is predicted that 350,000 extra primary places will be needed by 2015 and 500,000 by 2018.

Based on a typical roll of 400 pupils, the Coalition would need to build some 1,250 primaries by 2018, costing an estimated £5.2billion.

This prohibitive cost will, it is argued, lead to more pupils being squashed into existing schools, turning them into titan schools.

Currently schools must battle red tape and bureaucracy to increase their capacity – often to have the plans vetoed by their local authority.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said of the change: ‘It is unclear how we are going to cope with this increase. But it would be very sad if packing them in and piling them high is the sole solution. ‘Youngsters need to receive individual attention. Young people can get very lost in enormous schools. What we desperately need is more schools, not larger schools.’

At present, there are some 20,000 youngsters taught in titan primaries, up from 9,000 in 1997 when Labour took power and up 43 per cent in the last year.

The Department for Education insisted the changes to the admissions code were not intended to solve the shortage of places.


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