Thursday, November 15, 2012
Higher Education: Why Government Should Cut the Cord
I'm currently in the 36th grade. After high school graduation, I spent four years at UC Berkeley to get my bachelor's degree, and four years at Princeton to get my Ph.D. In 1997, George Mason hired me as a professor - and I'm still here. I have a dream job for life: GMU essentially pays me to do whatever I want, and I never have to retire. But while higher education has been very good for me, it has been a lousy deal for society.
Taxpayers heavily subsidize higher education - about $500 billion dollars per year. What does our society get in exchange? Conventional wisdom says that these billions lead to a massive increase in what economists call "human capital." The nation's colleges teach promising young people the skills they need to contribute to the modern economy, enriching us all. If you actually pay attention to the subjects that most students study, however, this story is does not fit the facts.
Think about the classes you're taking right now. How many are teaching you skills you're ever likely to use on the job? There are very few jobs that use history, literature, psychology, social science, foreign languages, and the like. Think about your major: Does it even pretend to be vocational? There may be a few engineers in the audience, but most of us study subjects that simply aren't very practical. And if you talk to engineers, even they spend a lot of time proving theorems - a skill you rarely use outside of academia.
I'm not saying that college teaches zero real-world skills. My claim, rather, is that at least half of what colleges teach is not useful in the real world. And while many professors insist that their subjects are more useful than they seem on the surface, this is wishful thinking. If you actually measure learning, students usually learn little, quickly forget most of what they learn, and fail to apply what they still know even when their education is actually relevant.
If all this is true, why is going to college so lucrative? Because completing a degree - even a useless degree - signals to employers that you're smart, hard-working, and conformist. Most people never finish college. If you do finish, you show the labor market that you've got the right stuff - and many doors open.
If you're not convinced, let me point out that the best education in the world is already free. If you want to learn at Princeton, just go there and start attending classes. No one will stop you. Professors will be flattered by your attendance. At the end of four years, you'll have a great education but no diploma. Interested? Just take I-95 North and turn right at Philadelphia.
Key point: Since college is, to a large extent, jumping through hoops to show off, government subsidies are counter-productive. When education gets cheaper, you just have to jump through more hoops to convince employers that you're in the top third of the distribution. Subsidizing college so we can all get better jobs is like urging us to stand up at a concert so we can all see better. In technical terms, education has at least one big negative externality.
Steve is probably going to give you a long list of positive externalities of education. I'm skeptical of most of them; in fact, he often misapplies the concept. But suppose Steve's totally right. All he's shown is that education has some positive externalities that at least partly offset the negative externalities of signaling. To make an economic case for government support, however, Steve would need to show that the net externality of education - all his positives minus all my signaling waste - is positive. I'm not asking for precision down to the penny; I'd gladly settle for some ballpark numbers.
Isn't there more to college than just the economic benefits? What about transforming students into enlightened human beings who love ideas and savor culture? Many economists scoff at such notions, but I don't. I'm a huge fan of ideas and culture. But the harsh reality is the most college students find ideas and culture boring - and professors rarely change their minds. In any case, the Internet now provides free unlimited intellectual enrichment for everyone. Spending half a trillion dollars a year to force feed ideas and culture to students who won't consume them for free is just silly.
What about students who genuinely want to acquire useful skills or broaden their horizons? Government spending on their education is certainly less wasteful than usual. Even there, though, there's no reason why - given the labor market's rewards for education - students couldn't pay for their education with unsubsidized student loans. If the extra cost deters a lot of students from going, that tells us something: Though students rarely say it out loud, many silently realize that the full cost of a college degree exceeds all the expected benefits put together.
One last question: Even if a free market in education is efficient, is it fair? I say it is. Suppose your parents had the money to pay for your college, but refused to do so. Would it be fair to legally force them to cough up the money? Probably not: You're an adult and it's their money. I say we should extend taxpayers the same courtesy. If your parents don't owe you an education, neither do millions of total strangers.
Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success, says British education boss
Learning facts by rote should be a central part of the school experience, the education secretary, Michael Gove, will argue on Wednesday in a speech which praises traditional exams to the extent of arguing they helped spur the US civil rights struggle.
In the address, titled In Praise of Tests, Gove describes the ideological underpinning to his planned shakeup of GCSEs and A-levels, a philosophy which will further delight educational traditionalists but is likely to prompt criticisms that he is seeking a return to the teaching styles of the 1940s and 50s.
Competitive, difficult exams for which pupils must prepare by memorising large amounts of facts and concepts will promote motivation, solidify knowledge and guarantee standards, Gove is to tell the Independent Academies Association, a trade body for academy schools.
"Exams matter because motivation matters," Gove will say, according to extracts of the speech provided by his department.
"Humans are hard-wired to seek out challenges. And our self-belief grows as we clear challenges we once thought beyond us. "If we know tests are rigorous, and they require application to pass, then the experience of clearing a hurdle we once considered too high spurs us on to further endeavours and deeper learning."
Gove professes himself a great fan of Daniel Willingham, a US cognitive psychologist who has sought to use scientific research to show pupils learn best through the use of memory and routine, arguments outlined in a book, Why Don't Students Like School?, also popular with free schools guru Toby Young.
Gove argues that "memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding". He says: "Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the working memory, so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles, do we really have a secure hold on knowledge.
"Memorising scales, or times tables, or verse, so that we can play, recall or recite automatically gives us this mental equipment to perform more advanced functions and display greater creativity.
"And the best way to build memory, as Willingham explains, is by the investment of thought and effort – such as the thought and effort we require for exam preparation and testing."
Such exams must be "proper tests", marked externally and with results ranked in league tables, rather than teacher assessment, Gove he argues.
While saying he is "a huge fan" of teacher assessment Gove argues that external tests are more fair, saying evidence shows some ethnic minority children can be under-marked by their own teachers.
He goes on: "With external testing there is no opportunity for such bias – the soft bigotry of low expectations – and tests show ethnic minority students performing better.
"So external tests are not only a way of levelling the playing field for children of all backgrounds they are a solvent of prejudice."
Eton: what is it about the school that makes it such a breeding ground for leadership?
What exactly is the source of its pupils' legendary charm and confidence, their almost as legendary slipperiness? In his book, Fraser interviews the late Anthony Sampson, the famous investigator of Britain's elites. "I'd meet Etonians everywhere I went," says Sampson, not one himself. "I've never understood why they were so good at networking and politics." Fraser speculates: "The Etonian mystique often seems a matter of mirrors, a collusion between those [non-Etonians] hungry for [Eton] notoriety and Etonians who are only too happy to supply it." One afternoon last week, I emailed the school to ask if I could visit. Within less than two hours, Little emailed back and offered to meet the next day.
Like many British centres of power, Eton owes some of its influence to geography. It was founded in 1440 on the orders of Henry VI, frequently in residence with his court nearby at Windsor Castle. Nowadays, the school emphasises its closeness to London, the great global money hub, a dozen miles to the east. "About a third of our boys have London addresses," says Little, leaving open the possibility that they also have others. For the tenth who live abroad – the proportion "has grown a little" since he became head in 2002 – Heathrow airport is even closer. Jets intermittently moan loud and low over the school's spikes and towers.
But otherwise, for much of the long school day, there is an uncanny hush. As you approach the college, there is no grand announcement of Eton's existence, just small, hand-painted signs, white lettering on black, indicating that an increasing number of the courtyards, alleyways and driveways branching off the High Street are private property. From the open windows of neat classrooms, some late medieval, some Victorian, some Edwardian, some with expensive glass-and-steel modern additions, little of the usual hubbub of secondary school life emerges. Pupils and teachers alike sit upright in the black-and-white uniform, which is somehow both uptight and flamboyant – some might say like Etonians themselves. The uniform was standardised in the 19th century and must be worn for all lessons, AKA "divs" or "schools" in Eton's elaborate private language.
When the lesson ends, the spotless pavements are suddenly flooded with pupils. Some are tall and languid, some are chubby and scurrying, some are black or Asian, most are white. Everyone carries old-fashioned ring-binder files, and no one texts or makes a phone call. But some of the boys greet each other with hugs, or bursts of transatlantic up-talking, or say "like" with a long "i", London-style – for a minute or two, many seem reasonably modern and normal. Then everyone rushes off to the next lesson. "It is possible to be bored at Eton," says the school website, "but it takes a bit of effort!"
"In many ways it is a conservative institution, with lots of tiny rules," says someone who was a pupil from 2002 to 2007. The ambiguous outside status of Eton often makes old boys reluctant to declare themselves. "But Eton is probably more liberal, more permissive than its reputation. There are amazing cultural facilities, to do art and theatre for example. There were so many opportunities, it seemed churlish to focus on how annoying it was to have to wear a gown in the heat of summer." Last month, the History of Art Society, one of dozens of such pupil-run bodies, held a typical extracurricular event, a talk on 20th-century modernism. It was given by the BBC's arts editor, Will Gompertz.
Some boys are so well-connected when they first arrive at the school, they already have a certain swagger. In focusing on a single institution, Eton's critics are sometimes avoiding the more uncomfortable truth that the roots of Britain's elites go wider and deeper. But for less overwhelmingly privileged boys, says theex-pupil, Eton can be life-changing: "It's just expected that you will drink from the cup of opportunity. So you become used to being able to do whatever you put your hand to. Or at the least, you learn not to seem fazed by opportunities in the wider world."
Little himself was a pupil from 1967 to 1972, "the first male in my family to be educated past the age of 14". His study is baronial and high-ceilinged, with a window austerely open to the cold evening, but he is less forbidding than you might expect, with a quiet, calm, middle-class voice, like a senior doctor. "Dad worked at Heathrow, security for British Airways," he says. One of the school's main aims, he continues, is to admit a broader mix. But how can it, given the fees, which have raced ahead of earnings and inflation in recent decades? "It's a huge amount of money," he admits – the appearance of candour is one of Little's tactics when he talks to the outside world. "Sometimes I think, short of robbing a bank, what d'you do?"
Currently, by giving out scholarships on academic and musical merit, and bursaries according to "financial need", Eton subsidises the fees of about 20% of its pupils. "Forty-five boys pay nothing at all," says Little. "Our stated aim is 25% on reduced fees, of whom 70 pay nothing." What is the timescale? "Quite deliberately non-specific. But I'll be disappointed if we have not achieved it in 10 years." Not exactly a social revolution. "A long-term goal" is for Eton to become "needs-blind": to admit any boy, regardless of ability to pay, who makes it through the school's selection procedure of an interview, a "reasoning test", and the standard private-school Common Entrance exam. Whether Eton would then become a genuinely inclusive place is open to doubt: one of its selection criteria is an applicant's suitability for boarding, and many people connected with Eton would surely resist its metamorphosis into a meritocracy. Hierarchy is in Eton's bones.
Either way, Little says, the school does not have nearly enough money to become "needs-blind" yet. According to its latest accounts, Eton has an investment portfolio worth £200m. The school looks enviously on the wealth of private American universities: Harvard, the richest, has an endowment of more than £20bn. Eton seems unlikely to return soon to its core purpose as decreed by Henry VI: the education of poor scholars.
Little says the school teaches pupils "how to juggle time, how to work hard", and how to present themselves in public: "One thing I say to them when they leave is, if you choose to behave the way a tabloid would expect … you deserve everything you get." He downplays Eton slang as "a quirk and an oddity. A lot of words have fallen out of use."
I wonder if he would say quite the same to a Daily Telegraph journalist. The classic Etonian skills – Cameron has them – have long included adjusting your message to your audience, defusing the issue of privilege with self-deprecation, and bending to the prevailing social and political winds, but only so far. "Do institutions in England change totally while seeming not to, or do they do the opposite?" asks Fraser. "I think the latter. And Eton has changed far less than Oxbridge."
Does he think a school can ever be too powerful? For once, his affability gives way to something fiercer: "I'm unashamed that we're aiming for excellence. We want … people who get on with things. The fact that people who come from here will stand in public life – for me, that is a cause for celebration." If Eton is too influential, he suggests, other schools should try harder. Fraser has another explanation for the success of Old Etonians: "At moments in their lives," he writes, "they are mysteriously available for each other." Subtle networking, a sense of mission, an elite that does not think too hard about its material advantages – Eton's is a very British formula for dominance.
It can be a high-pressure place. For all the Old Etonians who have considered the rest of life an anti-climax, there have been others damaged by the school: by its relentless timetable, by its crueller rituals, such as the "rips" torn by teachers in bad schoolwork, and by Eton's strange combination of worldliness and otherworldliness. Compared to most other boarding schools, Eton seems more eccentric and intense, its mental legacy more lingering. "Eton never left me," writes Fraser. Little says: "I've come across a fair number of casualties who were here [with me] in the 60s." Another more recent ex-pupil describes Eton as "a millstone round my neck every day".
Posted by jonjayray at 12:07 AM