Sunday, March 13, 2016

Can Our Colleges Be Saved?

The public is steadily losing confidence in undergraduate education, given that we hear constantly about how poorly educated are today’s graduates and how few well-paying jobs await them.

The cost of college is a national scandal. Collective student loan debt in America is about $1.2 trillion. Campus political correctness is now daily news.

How could higher education be held accountable and thereby be reformed?

Just as expensive new roofs are not supposed to leak, $100,000 educations should not leave students unprepared for the real world upon graduation. Rain and snow calibrate the effectiveness of a roofer’s work, but how does society know whether students' expensive investments in their professors and courses have led to any quantifiable knowledge?

SAT and ACT examinations originated in the 1920s and 1960s, respectively, as meritocratic ways to allow applicants from less prestigious high schools and from minority groups to be assessed on their aptitude for college — without the old-boy, establishment prejudices of class, gender and race. Would such blind exams also work in reverse as national college exit tests? Could bachelor’s degrees be predicated on certifying that graduates possess a minimum level of common knowledge?

Lawyers with degrees can only practice after passing bar exams. Doctors cannot practice medicine upon the completion of M.D. degrees unless they are board certified. Why can’t undergraduate degrees likewise be certified? One can certainly imagine the ensuring hysteria.

What would happen if some students from less prestigious state schools graduated from college with higher exit-test scores than the majority of Harvard and Yale graduates? What if students still did not test any higher in analytics and vocabulary after thousands of dollars and several years of lectures and classroom hours?

Would schools then cut back on “studies” courses, the number of administrators or lavish recreational facilities to help ensure that students first and foremost mastered a classical body of common knowledge? Would administrators be forced to acknowledge that their campuses had price-gouged students but imparted to them little in return?

Public corporations open their books to shareholders. Shouldn’t publicly supported colleges and tax-exempt private universities do the same for taxpayers and tuition-paying students? Shouldn’t the public know how much of their contributions are allotted for particular academic departments, sports programs and study centers?

Take out a car or home loan, and there are pages of federal regulations protecting the borrower. Why not give students the same truth-in-advertising protections with the liabilities they will incur?

Schools should inform all enrollees in advance of the prorated costs for a four-, five- or six-year education, including warnings about compounded interest on their debt.

Each school should publicize the percentage of its students who found employment in their particular area of studies — and after how long, and at what salary. Majoring in media studies is fine, but teenagers entering college should be warned that such jobs have become far more scarce than jobs in engineering or accounting.

The average pay associated with a particular major should be posted. Surely an 18-year-old student should have as much information about borrowing for an education as she does about going into far less debt for a car loan.

Shouldn’t campus diversity also be defined far more broadly?

Campuses need not just different races, ethnicities and religions to enrich their intellectual landscapes, but exposure to a wide variety of political and social views as well.

The country is divided 50/50 on most hot-button issues, not 95/5 as it is so often on campus. Life after college is about hearing and tolerating views one doesn’t agree with — not about shouting down dissenting viewpoints in adolescent fashion, or demanding to feel always reaffirmed rather than occasionally uncomfortable.

Why make campuses exempt from realities commonly found elsewhere?

Tech graduates will enter the workplace without guarantees of lifetime tenure at Google. There will be no “safe spaces” for supervisors at GM or Ford where others of a different race cannot enter. Employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs or NASA cannot expect their complaints and accusations to proceed by suspending the due process and free-speech rights of the accused.

No boss at Citibank will issue trigger warnings before ordering subordinates to work harder. Do not tell your supervisor at Comcast that his advice to pick up the pace was a microaggression. Try shouting down or otherwise disrupting a presenter of a new smart-phone product line whom you do not like and see what happens.

Saving the campus from itself is not about doing much that is new or different.

Instead, the challenge is simply forcing colleges that have gone rogue to grow up and to return to the rules and regulations that everyone else follows — and which they should have long ago abided by as well.


Federal Student Aid Is Responsible for Ever-Increasing College Tuition Costs

A consensus is growing that federal student aid, however well-intentioned, is directly responsible for increases in college tuition over the past few decades. One study estimates that expansions of federal student aid roughly doubled tuition costs relative to a baseline, while another finds that each dollar of subsidized Stafford student loans boost tuition by 65 cents. The logic is simple: when students have access to a generous line of credit, colleges will raise their prices because their students can easily borrow the money to pay them.

In theory, since there is a cap on how much students may borrow through the Stafford student loan program (the most common form of student loan), there should be an upper limit to how much federal student aid can fuel tuition increases. Currently, the aggregate cap stands at $31,000 for undergraduate dependent students. But as the cost of college approaches this cap, more and more borrowers may take advantage of a back door—the Parent Loans for Undergraduate Students (PLUS) program.

PLUS loans are loans which the federal government makes to the parents of dependent undergraduate students to finance the students' tuition. (Independent graduate students are also eligible.) They carry a higher interest rate (6.8 percent) than Stafford loans, which have a rate of 4.3 percent for undergraduates. Parents are eligible if they or an "endorser" can pass a basic credit check. Most importantly, there is effectively no credit limit—parents may borrow up to their student's cost of attendance.

A cap on federal student aid is a reliable, if crude, way to slow tuition increases at institutions of higher learning. But this cap will be ineffective as long as the PLUS program exists. If dependent students hit the cap on Stafford loans, they can use the parent PLUS backdoor—and colleges will be more than happy to show them the way.

This is already occurring. Since the 1995-96 school year, the number of borrowers on the parent PLUS program has more than doubled to 716,000. The total amount disbursed has more than tripled in real terms, to almost $11 billion. While the average loan disbursement per borrower has remained roughly constant for Stafford loans, it has soared for PLUS loans—60 percent since 1995. When policymakers place no limit on a taxpayer-funded line of credit, they should not be surprised at the result.

As average tuition rises, more students reach the cap on Stafford borrowing, and more must take out PLUS loans. In 1995, 12 percent of total federal loans for undergraduate study were made under the PLUS program, compared to 17 percent today. The rate of PLUS borrowing is highly sensitive to the Stafford loan cap. In 2007, Congress raised the cap on Stafford loans for dependent students by roughly 30 percent. The share of undergraduate disbursements under the PLUS program fell from 21 percent in 2007 to 13 percent in 2010. It is rising again, as inflation erodes the value of the Stafford cap.

Aside from increasing the cost of college, PLUS loans have other distortionary effects. The 6.8 percent interest rate is almost certainly below what might be offered on the private market, meaning PLUS loans function as a subsidy for higher education. While some subsidy might be optimal (higher education may have positive externalities), an unlimited one is not, and it impedes the development of well-functioning private markets.

Why? Middle- and upper-class parents of undergraduate students will easily pass a credit check and be able to obtain a PLUS loan, bypassing private lenders altogether. Poorer parents often will not. Few private lenders will take a chance on low-income students, even highly promising ones, without the ability to lend to wealthier students to balance out the risk.

Private financing arrangements can impose more accountability on colleges to raise graduation rates and help students onto more promising career paths. The existence of PLUS loans crowds out such arrangements. Moreover, many of the most promising frameworks for private finance, such as income-share agreements, still lack a legal and regulatory framework in which to operate.

While it may be politically infeasible to touch widely-used Stafford loans for the time being, Congress should act on PLUS loans while they still comprise a relatively small share of disbursements. Policymakers should put a cap on disbursements, if not eliminate the program entirely. Additionally, private financing options should be expanded—indeed, the rather limited set of current PLUS loan borrowers could be a useful test-drive for more universal private programs in the future.

However, absent student loan reform, expect to see more and more PLUS loans given out in the future. In time, this relatively obscure government program could become a greater government liability. All the while, tuition will go up and up.


Students find more awareness with later starts

But do they learn any more?  No attempt below to answer that

For decades, hundreds of bleary-eyed students across the Outer Cape scrambled to beat the 7:25 a.m. opening bell at Nauset Regional High School. Many set out before sunrise, coffee in hand, and traveled up to 45 minutes. Then they struggled to stay awake in class.

“At one point, we asked teachers not to turn off lights or show movies, because we didn’t want students to fall back to sleep,” said Tom Conrad, the former principal, now superintendent.

So in a state where most high schools start before 8 a.m., Nauset school officials in 2012 did the unthinkable: They pushed their start time back to 8:35 a.m., giving students an extra hour to sleep in.

The results were instantaneous, administrators say. More students showed up to school refreshed. Tardiness fell by 35 percent, and the number of Ds and Fs dropped by half.

Now, several high schools across Massachusetts are exploring whether to follow suit. The push for later start times is emerging in such districts as Belmont, Boston, Masconomet, Mashpee, Newton, and Wayland. The state Legislature is considering a bill to study the issue statewide.

For skeptics, the movement might seem like pandering to the whims of undisciplined teenagers who want extra Zs. But an increasing body of research has documented a shift in the biology of teenagers that delays their sleep and wake-up cycles by about two hours, pushing off their natural bedtime to 11 p.m. or later. That, in turn, means that if they need to get to school at the crack of dawn, they will routinely get only five or six hours of sleep.

The lack of adequate shut-eye can have detrimental effects on the health and academic performance of teenagers, increasing their risks for early morning car crashes, suicidal tendencies, depression, binge drinking, drug overdoses, and bad grades, research has shown. Several studies in recent years have recommended starting high school at 8:30 a.m. or later, saying students should get between 8.5 and 9.5 hours of sleep per night — not the 6 hours that is often the case.

Yet efforts in other districts to delay start times have often been stymied. Critics say the change creates conflicts with sports schedules and afterschool programs, leaves students without enough time for afterschool jobs, and could interfere with bus schedules for elementary-school students who typically get out later in the afternoon.

Many of the nearly 1,000 students who attend Nauset Regional High School, tucked within the Cape Cod National Seashore, agree that starting school later is better, even though it pushes dismissal to 3 p.m.

“I’m not a morning person,” Mason Swift, 17, a senior who plays on the school’s baseball team, said recently. “If I had to be here for 7:30, I would be asleep for the whole first block” of classes.

Massachusetts has one of the earliest start times for secondary school students in the nation, according to a report last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, the morning bell for middle and high schools in Massachusetts rings at 7:53 a.m. — 10 minutes earlier than the national average — while less than 12 percent of all middle and high schools statewide start at 8:30 a.m. or later, according to the report.

The CDC has joined a growing number of national organizations calling for later start times for both high school and middle school students. Those organizations include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Sleep Foundation, and the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association.

Owens, of Boston Children’s Hospital, said many school systems have their schedules upside down, arguing that elementary school students, who typically have the later start times, should be the ones going to school early because they are the “morning larks.”

A pre-dawn start

Shortly after 6, as the first rays of dawn illuminated the convenience stores, takeout restaurants, and doughnut shops in Maverick Square in East Boston, 17-year-old Koraliz Cruz stepped inside the glass entryway to the Blue Line. Cruz, with a tote bag slung over her shoulder, had been up for more than an hour. This was the beginning of her hourlong daily commute to Boston Latin Academy in Dorchester that has her racing to meet a 7:20 a.m. opening bell.

She must rely on public transit because the school system does not bus high school students, leaving her with a commute rife with potential delays. From the Blue Line, she changes to the Orange Line, then catches an MBTA bus in Roxbury for the final leg of the trip on traffic-clogged streets.

Many of Boston’s approximately three dozen high schools have among the earliest start times in the state.

“I usually get five or six hours of sleep,” said Cruz, explaining that four hours of homework kept her up until 11 the previous night. She said she almost always walks to the T with a friend because the neighborhood is not safe, especially before sunrise.

Cruz, a member of the cheerleading team, wishes school started at least an hour later, adding, “I usually don’t wake up until third or fourth period.”

Part of Cruz’s slowness to wake up comes down to biology.

Mary Carskadon at the Sleep Research Laboratory at Bradley Hospital and at Brown University has been leading research into the sleeping habits of teenagers for decades. Carskadon and her team have found that teenage brains secrete melatonin — a hormone that causes drowsiness — around 11 p.m., about two hours later than younger kids.

The delay in sleep then ripples into the morning hours, often causing students to miss REM episodes, the deepest level of sleep needed to recharge their batteries, because their alarm clocks go off first or a parent bangs on their bedroom door.

Shifting school start times to 8:30 or later can bring about powerful change to students’ academic performance and overall health, according to a study by the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, which examined eight schools with later start times in Minnesota, Colorado, and Wyoming.

The later times allowed about 60 percent of students to get at least eight hours of sleep, and the schools saw increases in standardized test scores and attendance rates and a decrease in tardiness, the study said. It also found that the number of car crashes involving teen drivers dropped 70 percent after a school shifted its start time from 7:35 a.m. to 8:55 a.m.

This kind of research has spurred many local school systems or grass-roots parent organizations to reexamine start times.

The Newton School Committee is expected to select from a number of proposals this spring for later starts at the city’s two high schools as early as 2017 to help reduce student stress, which can be elevated by exhaustion. A parent group is pushing for schools to begin at 9 a.m. instead of 7:50 a.m. at Newton North and 7:40 a.m. at Newton South.

In Mashpee, a panel of educators, parents, and school leaders last month recommended starting the Cape town’s high school an hour later, 8:30 a.m., beginning fall 2017.

And the Masconomet Regional School System, made up of Boxford, Middleton, and Topsfield, is studying later start times for its middle and high schools.

But a group of Boston Latin Academy parents, who have been pushing for a later start time, are facing an uphill battle, even though a survey of students that parents conducted last year found that 40 percent of respondents got less than six hours of sleep a night. Only a handful of Boston public high schools start after 8:30 a.m.

“We believe this is a public health issue,” said Deborah Putnam, one of the Latin Academy parents heading the effort.

Superintendent Tommy Chang declined to comment through a spokesman. In a statement, the School Department said Chang is “listening to parents and students on all sides of the debate” but added “there is no plan in Boston to begin high school classes later in the morning.”

Researchers caution that delaying school start times is not a silver bullet. Some teenagers are exhausted because of other reasons, such as compulsively using their smartphones late into the night, staying up to watch television shows or movies, drinking too much caffeine, or cramming too many extracurricular activities into their days.

Logistics and logic

The Nauset Regional School District — which consists of Eastham, Brewster, Orleans, and Wellfleet — spent years debating whether to shift its longstanding 7:25 a.m. start time. Ultimately the research into the benefits of a later start time proved to be too persuasive to ignore.

The biggest challenge was transportation because Nauset buses students at all grade levels and schools shared a limited number of buses.

To accommodate an 8:35 a.m. start at the high school, officials had to move the start time of the elementary school, which had opened around that same time, to 7:45 a.m. They also moved back the middle school start time by a half hour to 8:30 a.m. so those students could share buses with the high school students.

The broad changes, while benefiting the high school, caused tardiness to rise temporarily in the elementary and middle schools as families adjusted to the earlier start times. The school system also never achieved transportation savings by consolidating the middle and high school bus routes.

But the impact on sports was not as significant as school officials initially anticipated. Neighboring school systems have been accommodating in scheduling games later in the day or on Saturdays, and several student athletes say sleeping later in the morning far outweighs the late afternoon practices and games.

“It’s easier to get a good night of sleep,” said Paul Prue, 18, a senior who plays baseball and says he gets about eight hours of sleep.

Not all Nauset students embrace a later start. Branden Patterson, 17, and a group of his friends show up to school early most mornings, drink coffee in their pickup trucks, and listen to country music while they wait until classes begin.

“Starting at 7:30 would be awesome,” said Patterson, a senior, noting that an earlier dismissal would give him more time to work at a local fish market.

But Mark Mathison, a math and science teacher who specializes in teaching students with disabilities, said the later start time appears to have helped many of his students.

“Trying to motivate those students at 7:30 in the morning was tough,” said Mathison, who also is president of the teachers union. “But now they seem more alert and awake.”


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