Thursday, September 25, 2014

Disrupting the student loan bubble

In 21st century America, disruptive technology is all around us. Smartphone apps allow us to summon transportation at the touch of a button, to book accommodations in a stranger’s apartment, to arrange an impromptu dinner party with people we have never met and to navigate our way through unfamiliar cities without the need of a map or compass.

Of course, not everyone is delighted by these miraculous innovations. The people still doing business the old-fashioned way see technology as an existential threat, and are scrambling to find ways to defend their positions — typically through the use of government regulations.

The world of higher education is being disrupted by technology as well, in perhaps a more dramatic way than any other sector of the economy. Thanks to the Internet, the range and accessibility of free educational content has never been greater. Those who want to learn about a subject can now do so from their own homes. And this does not just mean reading page after page of dry, textbook-like material — on the contrary, the web offers no end of immersive, interactive resources for the eager student, all without the necessity of shelling out thousands of dollars for a glorified piece of paper from an accredited institution.

Just as taxi companies are trying to shut down Uber, however, and just as hotel chains are trying to stop Airbnb, the educational establishment wants to use government power to protect itself from the competition created by technology.

President Obama has argued that “college has never been more important,” all the while decrying the high costs of education. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is pushing legislation to allow students to refinance their loans “just like you can refinance your mortgage,” in a pattern eerily similar to the run up to the housing crisis in 2008. Meanwhile, total student debt has topped a trillion dollars — a bubble which, when it inevitably bursts, could wreak economic devastation on an entire generation that was told the only way to succeed in life is to mortgage its future to get a bachelor’s, and then a master’s and then a doctoral degree.

Government policies to extend student loans to help cover the cost of college are creating the very problem they purport to solve. Easy credit drives up the demand for higher education, which in turn drives up the price. The result is Ivy League schools with beautiful campuses and massive gymnasia turning out students who still can’t find a job. In the universities’ struggle against obsolescence, they are merely delaying the inevitable, holding back progress and simultaneously laying the groundwork for economic disaster.

Franz Oppenheimer, the German sociologist, observed that there are two ways to generate income. He called these the economic means, and the political means. Under the economic means, people make money by adding value to society and engaging in voluntary exchange with other. Under the political means, they rely on government force to boost their profits and cripple their competitors. Oppenheimer wrote a century ago, but today we have a clear example of the political means at work: The higher education industry operating through the mechanism of student loans.

We need to stop propping up colleges and universities with government loans and propaganda campaigns on the importance of meaningless certificates. Instead of attempting to treat the symptom of high education costs, we should be treating the cause. If Americans learn to embrace the alternative education approaches that technology makes possible, the demand for traditional universities will drop, and tuition prices will drop with it. The increased competition will result not only in cheaper degrees, but in higher quality education for all.


British school bars Muslim pupil, 16, in row over face veil

A Muslim student at a girls’ school known for its liberal approach cannot start her A-levels because she wants to wear a face veil in the coeducational sixth form.

The 16-year-old is understood to have been barred from Camden School for Girls in north London by the headmistress, Elizabeth Kitcatt, if she insists on wearing the niqab, which shows only the eyes, as it goes against school rules.

More than 300 people have signed an online petition headed “Stop the Islamophobia” in support of the unnamed girl. Her sister, Sagal Ahmed,18, said: “I don’t feel like her education should be compromised or the way she dresses should affect the way anyone looks at her.”

The school does not have a uniform, but there is a dress code. The headmistress said that the school does not comment on individual cases. A statement says: “We have an appearance policy and students at the school may wear what they wish subject to any requirement in the interests of teaching and learning, health and safety. Inappropriate dress which offends public decency or which does not allow teacher-student interactions will be challenged.”

According to the petition, the 16-year-old has been studying at the school for five years and sat her GCSEs wearing a niqab. “But … when the student returned to the school, wearing the niqab, a teacher claimed that she could not be allowed to study.” It added: “This school is renowned for its 'individuality’ and 'strong feminist views’. However, this poorly thought out decision by the school contradicts this.”


Marlborough Master: private schools must avoid being 'isolated enclaves of privilege'

Private schools must avoid becoming "isolated enclaves of privilege" by engaging with the community and neighbouring state schools, a leading public school headmaster has said.

Speaking to the Telegraph, following the college’s success in Tatler’s annual School Awards last week, Jonathan Leigh, Master of Marlborough college, also said that schools must fully embrace the arts and sport alongside traditional academic pursuits if they are to develop the entire character of a pupil.

Following concerns that certain subjects, including music and art, are being sidelined in favour of more academic pursuits, Mr Leigh said that any education system that diminishes the arts, is “missing a trick” as they are “vital” in creating rounded pupils.

He stressed that a healthy music curriculum, covering different disciplines, would be inspirational to any pupil, and that drama can “challenge pupils to think well beyond themselves”.

“These pursuits give pupils individuality within the larger team,” he said. “They learn a lot about themselves, at the same time as contributing to the whole.”

Mr Leigh, who has been Master of Marlborough – a £33,000 per year independent boarding and day school – for two years, also stressed that while GCSE and academic results are important, they are not the “be-all and end all”.

“If everything is just measured in terms of examination results then we are not producing the whole character,” he said. “The whole character is something that is immeasurable. There’s something incredibly exciting about drawing that character out.”

While recognising the advantage public schools have in encouraging these subjects, Mr Leigh also said that much needed to be done to “demystify the difference between state and private education.”

The college currently has an ongoing partnership with Swindon Academy [charter school], which sees academy pupils travel to Marlborough to take part in co-curricular activities and clubs, and a new relationship is currently being developed with the rural comprehensive, Pewsey Vale School.

“We have pupils who teach youngsters to read in local primary schools and we have others who travel to nearby Brimble Hill School to help those with multiple learning difficulties.

“As a school, we don’t want to be an isolated enclave of privilege stuck on the corner of a town,” he continued. “We would like to be able to contribute the best of what we offer, so we are not simply cocooned in a bubble.”

Addressing the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference in October last year, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, told private school heads that they had to offer state schools more than just “crumbs off your table” in order to bridge the gap between state and private education.

However, Mr Leigh said that rather than simply looking at academy sponsorship and “imposing set values”, the key for independent schools is to “get involved in a multitude of different projects”.

According to figures released by the Independent Schools Council (ISC) last year, while less than three per cent of public schools currently sponsor academies, 92 per cent are involved in active partnerships with state schools; sharing classes, clubs and facilities.

Yet critics say that more could still be done by private schools to lessen the gap between state and independent education.

Ahead of next year's General Election, last week the Sutton Trust set out suggestions in its new ''mobility manifesto', calling for the barriers between state and private schools to be broken down.

The Trust called for support – including state funding – for a scheme to open up leading fee-paying day schools, with pupils admitted based on their academic abilities rather than their family's ability to pay.

However, according to Mr Leigh, a high percentage of independent schools are currently working to break down these barriers, by forming lasting local partnerships.

“Marlborough is an Anglican foundation that goes back to 1843 and, as such, it’s got one of those classic mottoes ‘Deus dat incrementum’ (god gives the increase),” he said.

“The implication is that if you’ve been given the increase, you are meant to do something responsible with what you have acquired. Part of that is to understand that this is an increase that is meant to be shared."

Barnaby Lenon, Chairman of the ISC, said the council had a "strong commitment to social mobility" and that there were many ways independent schools currently contribute to maintained schools and to the community:

"We have over 110 independent schools, either individually or in partnership with federations or groups of schools, who are leading the sector’s involvement with academies and free schools," he said.

“But sponsoring academies is one way we contribute. Our schools work with maintained schools in all sorts of ways: to offer GCSE or A-level revision classes; classes in subjects not on offer at some state schools, such as classics and languages; university entrance workshops and mock interviews; aspiration programmes; shared subject workshops and talks, as well as support or coaching with music, drama and sport."


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