Thursday, September 19, 2013


Friday Fragments

Oregon continues to flirt with different ways to fund higher education.  Now a state senator has introduced a bill to make community college free to high school graduates in the state.

As with any “free” proposal, the key question is where the funding will come from.  Since that hasn’t yet been specified, it’s hard to tell whether the idea is brilliant, awful, or somewhere in between.  But it’s a far sight better than the twenty-five year titheing plan Oregon was considering a few months ago.  I’ll take progress where I can get it.


My colleague Lee Skallerup Bessette had a bit of a meltdown yesterday in her reflections on the heartbreaking death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, who had worked as an adjunct at Duquesne University for twenty-five years and died penniless.  Although I don’t especially care for Lee’s characterization of me in the piece, I have to admit that the piece rewards reflection.

From our different vantage points, we actually agree that the current system of higher education is unsustainable, and increasingly reliant on exploiting good people.  I suspect that our proposed solutions differ; I simply don’t believe that protest will bring back the staffing levels of 1970.  That’s why I’m so impressed by the College for America that SNHU has launched, which ditches time-based learning altogether, and why I’m constantly looking for new experiments.  

Whether the competency-based approach proves successful over time, or proves simply to be a bridge on the way to the next thing, it’s at least asking the right questions.  Restoration is not a viable project.  Holding our breath waiting for the Golden Age to return just leaves good people out in the cold even longer.  The way to go now is think through changing the mode of production in higher education is a much more thorough, even radical, way.  (For example, Votjko’s case illustrates for me that we simply have to separate health insurance from employment altogether.  Go with single-payer and be done with it.) The stakes are just too high not to.


This week we had Parents’ Night at The Boy’s junior high.  He’s in the seventh grade now, and the school genuinely feels different than the earlier grades did.

We did a walk-through of his daily schedule, more or less, and heard presentations from his teachers about what the classes are doing.  (We skipped French, just for the frisson.)  His teachers were all well-spoken, although some of them seemed impossibly young.  That seems to be happening more in general these days…

The real surprise for me, though, was the “technology” class.  It’s sort of the successor to the old “metal shop” or “industrial arts” classes that tortured me in junior high.  The shop classes I endured were all about using tools to do prescribed things.  Of course, some students chose to deviate; you’d be surprised what can be soldered to what, if you manage to distract the teacher long enough.

Now, it’s entirely different.  The class is all about engineering, and the major task for the students is to design, build, test, redesign, rebuild, and retest bridges out of balsa wood sticks.  The bridges are about 18 inches long, and they’re judged on the weight they can hold.  Last year, the teacher mentioned, one bridge successfully held a 68 pound load (from a hanging bucket).  Instead of spending their time making napkin holders, the kids are steered towards figuring out how to apply their math lessons to structural design.  I loved it, and I know TB will, too.

And of course, parents now can follow their kids’ grades online.  

Now if they would just stop spending consecutive days on “pretesting” and actually start teaching, we’d be in good shape.

although some of them seemed impossibly young

A soon-to-retire colleague at graduation phrased it well. "Once the students looked young. Now the parents look young."
I'm not sure you understand the cost structure of higher education in 1970, because I was there and it doesn't match your description. (To my ear, it is like people talking about how unique our recovery is from the depression of 2008, but only because they don't have any unemployment data from the 1930s or the 1890s.) Has anyone done a full budget and salary and teaching schedule analysis of state universities circa 1965 to 1975?

CCs were full of adjuncts, as were lower division classes at university. Some adjuncts were cheap because of the PhD glut and unemployment problem in science and math circa 1970. The t-t profs were cheap, too, because they were all young. I believe that t-t Uni faculty teaching loads were higher and pay comparatively lower, but I can't prove it. (One complication is that the university in question has become the more elite and more selective research flagship it was trying to become back then, so it considers its former self unworthy of comparison. That is the biggest part of the cost difference, IMHO.) I can prove that the admin overhead has grown explosively. Just count offices and admin buildings on a campus that still has the same number of students.

PS - The 83 year old adjunct who died HAD single-payer insurance. You can't use that argument in her case, just as people struggling to get by as adjuncts would not be helped if we encouraged universities to keep full time professors well into their 80s.
Go with single-payer and be done with it.) The stakes are just too high not to.

On the other hand, single-payer systems lead to shortages and rationing.

Everyone agrees that the current system doesn't work very well—my favorite take is "How American Healthcare Killed My Father"—but the single-payer alternatives won't necessarily improve the situation for many people.

In the short term, I'd like to the feds allow the sale of insurance across state lines and, more importantly, mandatory price transparency. One huge problem with the system is the absence of meaningful prices. Solve that we may see a lot of other components fall into place.

I'd like to see a move towards a single-payer catastrophic system and some kind of mandated HSA-style system, but that's as politically unlikely as a single-payer system.
"I can prove that the admin overhead has grown explosively. Just count offices and admin buildings on a campus that still has the same number of students."

I wonder how much of this is the "death of a thousand cuts" where each individual increase in administrative overhead is justified (and even desirable) but the cumulative effect is a problem? This gets even worse when you try and cut admin, as the regulatory, tracking, and IT expectations are completely different. This makes it hard to actually identify clear waste, even if the net effect is a bit of a problem.
CCPhysicist, I understand that you don't want to "decloak", but I would love to know which school you're referring to.
I can demonstrate that the admin overhead has developed violently. Just tally business settings and admin structures on a facilities that still has the same number of learners."

I think about what amount of this is the "passing of a thousand cuts" where every singular build in managerial overhead is supported (and even alluring) yet the aggregate impact is an issue? This deteriorates when you attempt and cut admin, as the administrative, following, and IT desires are totally diverse. This makes it hard to really recognize clear waste, regardless of the possibility that the net impact is a touch of an issue.
I hat the Parents’Night.
Joseph -
IMHO even the cumulative administrative effect is not a "problem" at a flagship state R1. It is the much revered solution to increasing research productivity and grant income. Ditto for the drop in teaching loads for the tt faculty. The goal is to increase your ranking. Period.

Alex -
The very large flagship R1 that I know well is not unique except that I know more about it at a particular point in ancient times. I know several others almost as well, but only for 30 to 35 years.

I must say that what really fascinates me the most is what the actual costs of registration were compared to today. It was hideously inefficient back then, but I suspect that the manpower was mostly "free" (staff, faculty, and adjuncts who would be doing something else the next week).

Spammer -
That was a nice "bot-like" job of almost not plagiarizing what Alex wrote. Looks like it went twice through Google Translate.
It seems like it ought to be straightforward to get data from several flagships, showing student enrollments, TT faculty numbers (or, perhaps more relevant, number of sections taught by TT faculty), adjunct numbers (head count or sections), and administrative head count.

I know that flagships aren't all there is to public higher ed (I happen to teach at a non-flagship "comprehensive" school) but they're the ones that people pay attention to. More importantly, many "comprehensive" state universities do seem to have grown in the last 30-40 years, and some of them weren't even around then, whereas the flagships are (mostly) longer-lived and (mostly) more stable. Some of today's independent "comprehensives" were extension campuses or whatnot back in the day, whereas most of today's flagships existed in a roughly analogous form in 1970. So a 1970 comparison might be relevant.
I'd be shocked if the relevant data exist at all, and if they do, they will be in the form of scanned pdf files of paper documents that would take years to sort through for just one year. Even then, they might be incomplete if the assignment of duties to recitations were only indicated in a syllabus or some unofficial memo. The schedule of courses hardly ever had the kind of information we expect today.
single-payer systems lead to shortages and rationing

We already have shortages and rationing - they just hit the poor and the sick hardest so no one cares. The problem with the current system is that we have the worst of both worlds - a costly fee for service system with no meaningful incentives for cost containment or preventative medicine and cut rate care that is offered at such low reimbursement that providers in high cost areas have trouble staying in business.

For all it's faults, Medicare has improved vastly the health of older people. Yes, there are holes in the system but it's pretty equal across the board and those with additional money can pay for additional coverage. We would be lucky if everyone in this country had coverage that met the minimum standards set by Medicare.
"On the other hand, single-payer systems lead to shortages and rationing."

Sure, if you massively underfund them. Guess what other systems lead to shortages if you underfund them?

Single-payer still does the most with the least. The data is absolutely solid on this point. And remember, the US already spends more PUBLIC money per-capita than most single-payer countries. Plus the private money.
Anyways, if the point is that everyone who adjuncts for a living should stop RIGHT NOW and just leave, leave, leave, then that point is correct.

But I doubt that's DD's point, so he's wrong.
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