Thursday, April 19, 2012


Friday Finds

If you haven’t seen this interview with Jane Wellman, it’s well worth a read.  She’s an expert on the drivers of college costs, and she was the founding director of the Delta Cost Project.  (She’s also funny as hell in a sardonic, I’ve-had-toothaches-scarier-than-you way.)  She makes several points that I wish we could all just stipulate before having any more conversations about college costs: that every new dollar of tuition goes directly to health insurance costs; that community colleges are routinely shafted in funding formulae and desperately need substantial and permanent increases in operating subsidies; and that the cost of prisons is one of the primary drains on state budgets.  (Yes, I also liked her recognition that the “administrative bloat” complains are symbolic, rather than serious; if you redistributed the money, it would be a drop in the bucket.)  Accepting those truths wouldn’t necessarily lead to a single policy outcome, but it would rule out some truly stupid and destructive ones.  That would help.  Even just recognizing that higher education’s funding issues are inextricably connected to health care and prisons would be a tremendous improvement.


The California death spiral continues.  Now that the state has decided that Santa Monica College’s attempt at self-preservation was illegal, the survival options for community colleges are even fewer.  Kevin Carey’s column this week drew some flak for being alarmist, but honestly, it struck me as restrained.  First, California establishes a three-tier system of higher education, corresponding roughly to economic classes.  Then it starves out the lowest tier.  Then it stops taking transfers into the second tier.  It’s gravitational pull, rather than conspiracy -- that’s why I call it a death spiral -- but it’s accelerating.  Meanwhile, the for-profits swoop in to pick up the students on waiting lists.  The only possible way to reverse it is to completely restructure the funding rules, starting with allowing campuses to keep the tuition and fees they raise.  In the absence of that -- in other words, the far likelier outcome -- is that the higher education system there will go the way the K-12 system went before it.  


Several alert readers sent me links to this piece from Esquire about the upward generational transfer of wealth in America.  It’s a little polemical, but substantially correct, and easy enough to apply at your own workplace.  What percentage of salary do the 1970’s hires have to contribute to their retirement plans?  What percentage of salary do recent hires have to?  If they don’t match -- at mine, they’re nowhere close -- then you have a problem.  And that’s before you account for the higher student loan burden of the current generation.


Speaking of, Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina made waves this week with her statement of having no patience for people who rack up significant student loan debt.  The Quick and the Ed reveals that tuition at her alma mater has more than tripled in real terms since she was there.  I assume, of course, that Rep. Foxx must therefore be a HUGE booster of community colleges.  Otherwise, she’s just awful.  


Meanwhile, I hope against hope that despite all this generational warfare, The Boy and The Girl will grow into a country that deserves them.  Better to bet on the future than the past.

In the absence of that -- in other words, the far likelier outcome -- is that the higher education system there will go the way the K-12 system went before it.

Actually, even with better funding, we'll still go the way of the k-12 system. I teach an ostensibly freshman-level STEM course that is taken by a lot of sophomores and even juniors because they first need a year (or more) of math that they should have learned in high school. Some of that math is labeled "remedial", but some of it (e.g. trig and precalc) is labeled "college level", never mind that it is high school math and calculus is allegedly the standard on-ramp to math for STEM majors. They still struggle with simple calculations.

I grade lab reports written by people who can't put together coherent sentences.

How can we deliver a first-class college education if the products of the high schools are not ready for it? On one level, no matter how you fund us, we are hostages to the k-12 system.
community colleges are routinely shafted in funding formulae

One reason is they don't have the guts to explain, to a public that inevitably includes the legislature, that state universities get much more per student from taxpayers to teach freshman composition and history and math with the same adjuncts that teach those classes at a CC.

I think university budgets deliberately obfuscate how they spend the per capita funds generated by freshmen.

the survival options for [California] community colleges are even fewer

I have one they haven't tried, and since Santa Monica isn't afraid to give a poke in the eye to the people starving them, maybe they will try it: Rent space to a for-profit that can teach those classes right on their campus, which they then accept via an articulation agreement while also collecting part of the tuition as rent. Winning!

Rep Foxx: I also noted her age and found a study of the NC system that showed a doubling since 1970, but that comparison wasn't to the minimum wage that students usually earn. That report also made clear something the article you cited did not: how much the taxpayers paid for her education back then.

if you redistributed the money [from new admin positions], it would be a drop in the bucket

Perhaps not on your campus, but perhaps you haven't added several new, non-teaching PhD positions in recent years.
The Esquire article completely fumbles the differences between income (flow) and wealth (stock or reserve) between the introductory paragraph and the first infographic.

There's points to be made about how the wage and tax structures of today represent transfers from the young to the old, but, with such fatal reasoning flaws, I must doubt the Esquire article.
I really don't think some people (mostly older?) really understand how higher tuition affects newer graduates these days. In the US, it's well possible to graduate with six-figures of debt. So far in Canada (Ontario anyway), that hasn't really happened but it's climbing.

When a new grad starts turning down $35K a year jobs, it's not necessarily because they're lazy or entitled; they're trying to hold out for a job that makes prudent financial sense. You'd need a salary of about three times that to have a half decent shot at paying your loans back in a reasonable amount of time, if at all. And that's before any debt incurred by housing, cars, or actually living. Going to a two-year community college and transferring or doing a terminal diploma might make financial sense but for a lot of students, it just doesn't jive with how they've been socialized to higher education. There's the wacky movie "Stealing Harvard" but no similar "Stealing Local Heights Community College".

It might be true that students "should've known better" before taking on such loans, but who is there to teach them? Their parents didn't have to take out such large loans for school so they don't have any direct experience. Don't even think about looking to the education system for financial advice. Plus, loans and money for school flows pretty freely comparatively while looking for work with just a HS diploma/some post-ed schooling is even more hellish than looking for work with a diploma or degree.

Blaming the students for school debt excesses is needless finger pointing, and doesn't actually solve any issues.
This logic resembles blaming cancer patients for accumulating debt and driving up health care costs. Damn those freaks who hope to beat the beast! If they cannot pay by check after chemo, then hopefully the homeopathic remedies will do the trick.

This logic from our EDUCATED Congress?! Oh if only all of us could see Russia from our house and get these legislative opportunities in the hands of those who'd really LEAD. Instead now we get this lady--and some chap running for prez who won't eat a cookie from a box.
You know, Dean, either you didn't read the article or you are leaving out some important information. Administrative bloat is indeed, according to Wellman, a major issue

"Right now, the math on this is that every dime in new tuition revenue that’s coming in is going out the door to pay for health care benefits, and frequently that’s health care benefits for people students will never see in the classroom. We should be cutting employee benefits, restructuring administrative and support costs, and changing the way we provide academic services. And there’s no reason we should have as many payroll, procurement or I.T. offices as we do.
Hope for the best, plan for the worst. Obama was our last chance to save things before they got really bad, and he decided to govern to Reagan's right.
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