Monday, June 01, 2015

A Modest Proposal for Education Reform

Before he passed away recently, John M. Templeton, the distinguished physician and philanthropist, questioned: “Should we tolerate a public educational system with its entrenched self-interest which virtually every inner-city parent knows is destroying any hope or possibility of their children achieving meaningful opportunity in a 21st-century economy?” A growing number of parents say no. Now critics of the public school system are coming forward with alternatives to it, and many of them are parents, often parents of disadvantaged students, usually parents that fear for the fate of their children in schools in the inner city.

Stephen Moore, an economist at The Heritage Foundation, writes in The Wall Street Journal about the grim scene at a Washington, D.C., public school where a father, concerned about his son’s attendance there, walked in past “two police cars … (an) everyday routine. … There was violence. Fighting. Disrespect and drugs.” The father complained to the principal about what he saw, and she “shook her finger” at him and admonished, “Don’t tell me how to run my school.”

That is precisely the response I would expect from a modern-day unionized public school principal. The father would have been received more cordially if he had complained not about the chaotic environment of the principal’s school, but about the police presence out in front. Had the principal not heard about Ferguson, Mo., or Baltimore, Md.?

I think Templeton asks the right question: Should the public tolerate an educational system that is “destroying any hope or possibility” of its students being prepared to live normal lives? What is more, Moore has the answer, to wit, increased state support for vouchers, which would allow the unions to maintain their failing system, but also would provide alternatives for parents interested in their children’s well-being.

Now, from Atlanta — recently the scene of a shocking cheating scam in which teachers and principals were complicit and are headed for jail — comes a plan for alternative state funding of the school system that would provide widespread reform. It would incentivize parents to get involved with their children’s education and thereby strengthen one of the crucial building blocks of society: the family. Moreover, it would expand the types of schools available to families, from religious schools to irreligious schools, from progressive schools to traditional schools. All that would be necessary is for the schools to meet reasonable accountability standards.

Glenn Delk wrote about the plan last week in The American Spectator. Here is the plan in a simplified form. The state legislature passes a law allowing families to establish an Education Savings Account for each child, placing up to $8,000 per student into a tax-free account. The money is there to use purely for educational purposes. Any funds left unspent in a year may be rolled over to the next year or for college.

Additionally, the state applies for a waiver from the federal government so the state can apply the $1 billion it already gets to Education Savings Accounts of $10,000 each for the state’s poorest children. What is more, the state spends $8,000 per student from the $8 billion it has already set aside for students without regard for family income. Thus, the state could fund one million students without increasing funding.

If you assume that the 150,000 students currently attending private schools would qualify, then 850,000 public school students would qualify. Assuming 100,000 of them use federal funds, and 850,000 public school students use state funds, that leaves 650,000 public school students to attend schools run by traditional school districts, with $8 billion in local property tax funding.

Delk foresees a revolution in the funding of K-12 schools throughout the country, as he cites plans similar to his being discussed in other states. He sees better-educated students, stronger families and fewer outbreaks of the nihilistic violence we have seen in Baltimore. Truth be known, we have seen these outbreaks since the 1960s. They follow a familiar pattern, but they begin with too many young people who are ignorant. Improve education for them, and you improve their job prospects in the 21st century, as Templeton suggested. I think it is worth a try.


Colleges and Universities Have Grown Bloated and Dysfunctional

American colleges and universities, long thought to be the glory of the nation, are in more than a little trouble. I’ve written before of their shameful practices — the racial quotas and preferences at selective schools (Harvard is being sued by Asian-American organizations), the kangaroo courts that try students accused of rape and sexual assault without legal representation or presumption of innocence, and speech codes that make campuses the least rather than the most free venues in American society.

In following these policies, the burgeoning phalanxes of university and college administrators must systematically lie, insisting against all the evidence that they are racially nondiscriminatory, devoted to due process and upholders of free speech. The resulting intellectual corruption would have been understood by George Orwell.

Alas, even the great strengths of our colleges and universities are threatening to become weaknesses. Sometimes you can get too much of a good thing.

American colleges, dating back to Harvard’s founding in 1636, have been modeled on the residential colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. The idea is that students live on or near (sometimes breathtakingly beautiful) campuses, where they can learn from and interact with inspired teachers.

American graduate universities, dating back to Johns Hopkins' founding in 1876, have been built on the German professional model. Students are taught by scholars whose Ph.D. theses represent original scholarship, expanding the frontiers of knowledge and learning.

That model still works very well in math and the hard sciences. In these disciplines it’s rightly claimed that American universities are, as The Economist recently put it in a cover story, “the gold standard” of the world. But not so much in some of the mushier social sciences and humanities. “Just as the American model is spreading around the world,” The Economist goes on, “it is struggling at home.”

Consider the Oxford/Cambridge residential college model. Up through the 1960s, college administrators acted in loco parentis, with responsibilities similar to those of parents. Men’s and women’s dorms were separate and mostly off-limits to the other sex; drinking and drug use were limited; cars were often banned.

The assumption is that 18- to 21-year-old students were, in important respects, still children. The 1960s changed all that. Students were regarded as entitled to adult freedoms: unisex dorms and bathrooms, binge drinking, a hookup culture.

But now the assumption is that adult-aged students must be coddled like children. They are provided with cadres of counselors, so-called “trigger warnings” against supposedly disturbing course material and kangaroo courts to minutely regulate their sexual behavior.

Most colleges and universities abroad and many in this country (notably for-profit and online) don’t use the residential model. Students live with parents or double up in cheap apartments and — horrors! — commute, like most employed adults.

The residential college model, with its bloated ranks of coddler/administrators, has become hugely expensive and increasingly dysfunctional. It’s overdue for significant downsizing.

The Ph.D. university model is also metastasizing. A plethora of humanities and social science Ph.D. theses are produced every year, many if not most written in unreadable academic jargon and devoid of scholarly worth. Most will probably be read by only a handful of people, with no loss to society. But some worthy scholarship will be overlooked and go unappreciated.

A glut of Ph.D.s and an ever-increasing army of administrators have produced downward pressure on faculty pay. Universities increasingly hire Ph.D.s as underpaid adjuncts, with low wages and no job security.

The last half-century has seen a huge increase in the percentage of Americans who go to college and a huge increase in government aid to them. The assumption was that if college is good for some, it’s good for everyone. But not everyone is suited for college: witness the increasing ranks of debt-laden nongraduates.

And the huge tranches of government money have been largely mopped up by the ever-increasing cadres of administrators. Do students get their money’s worth from the masses of counselors, facilitators, liaisons and coordinators their student loans pay for? Or would they be better off paying for such services only as needed, as most other adults do?

As Glenn Reynolds of has written convincingly, the higher education bubble is now bursting. Colleges are closing; college applications and graduate program enrollments are declining; universities are facing lawsuits challenging the verdicts of their kangaroo courts.

Naturally, administrators seek more money. But the money pumped into these institutions is more the problem than the solution.


Is a College Education Still Worth the Cost?

With debt soaring for college loans and the current generation of post-graduate college students being hogtied by their loan burdens, the question of how much sense this all makes comes to one’s mind. Well, a couple of noted individuals did a detailed analysis of that and came to their own conclusions.

Jaison R. Abel, research officer, and Richard Dietz, Assistant Vice-President for Regional Analysis of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, cast their eyes on this issue. Unfortunately, repeated requests for an interview were turned down. Their study -- named Do the Benefits of College Still Outweigh the Costs? -- brought to mind one immediate question which is why the New York Fed looked at this issue in the first place.

They came to the conclusion that “once the full set of costs and benefits is taken into account, investing in a college education still appears to be a wise economic decision for the average person.” Once you review their charts and graphs you may come to the same conclusion. The unanswered questions still remain that may make it not so for many college attendees.

Their findings stated that on average, workers with a bachelor’s degree earn well over $1 million more than high school graduates during their work career. A question that would be nice to get answered is whether that is because of the college education or because of the nature of the individuals involved? Certainly many professions restrict your entry into them without a college degree, but that does not mean that the person who succeeds in college succeeds in life financially because of the college degree. We do not have to lurch to Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg (both Harvard University dropouts) to know that people who attend even superior colleges don’t often need to attend college to be financially successful in life. When the population of college attendees typically includes the smartest and most motivated people in our country, it follows that they would have higher lifetime earnings than the population as a whole.

But also notice the authors noted that the average earnings are $1,000,000 higher. Let us consider over a 40-year career that would be about $25,000 per year. There certainly are many people who will have either zero increased earnings or something like $10,000 per year on average. Those increased earnings will increase to a higher level as their careers propel forward, leaving these degree holders with little or no increased earnings in the first few years of their career and many harnessed with $60,000 to $100,000 of debt for student loans. I have counselled two young adults in recent weeks with debt exceeding $150,000 for advanced degrees.

This mountain of debt has been documented as being a stall on this generation acquiring homes because of the burden that decreases loan capacity. Also, for many of these people, their burden of debt is stifling them from taking risks to start their own businesses. Both of these issues, home purchases and business starts, are reflective of the costs of college, the debt incurred to attend college, and the resulting sometimes meager increased earnings culminating in casting a giant shadow on the future of many of these young graduates.

One of the questions I wanted to address to the authors of the study was whether people receiving some of the proliferation of degrees that leads them to unknown careers was really worth the time and money to attend college. They did include a section entitled Does Your Major Matter? They clearly stated that certain majors have a greater economic return, while they likewise stated that other majors still gave a great rate of return on investment. What we don’t know is how many of those degrees end up being totally useless because jobs are not available in any shape or form.

As a society we have put a tremendous distorted premium on attending college. Many high school students are told through societal norms that their lives will be a failure if they do not attend college. We have completely de-emphasized training for jobs that are lucrative, but not needing of a college degree. Many of those positions have gone begging in our current environment.

We currently have a person considering running for president for the first time since President Harry Truman who did not graduate from college. Governor Scott Walker attended college for three years, but did not finish. Not finishing college has brought some to question his qualifications to be president. Last time I checked that was not one of the items listed in the Constitution. And the doubters have discounted that his vast experience in government over the last 20+ years might actually be more important than that last year of college. A typical analysis was done by Albert Hunt in Bloomberg entitled Can Walker be President without a College Degree? A discussion like this crystalizes the distorted emphasis on that magical piece of paper.

The authors should have been open to a deeper analysis. It would be nice to address the trillion dollar noose around the neck of college grads for the cost of college. But none of that was done and more needs to be looked at before we continue to give this unbridled premium to colleges -- societally and financially.


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