Sunday, December 20, 2015


An Idea Offered Freely to Candidates

On Saturday night, with The Boy out visiting friends, The Girl announced that she wanted to use her control of the tv to watch...the Democratic debate.  

So we did.

What that says about us as parents, I’ll leave to the reader.

There’s no shortage of material to write about in the debates, and others have done just that.  I’ll just focus here on some of what seemed missing in the brief discussion of higher education.

You wouldn’t know it from the debate, but public higher education in America is mostly run by the states and/or local governments.  (It varies by state: in New Jersey, for instance, counties have a strong say; in Massachusetts, none at all.  I’m not sure how public higher ed is run in D.C.)  That’s especially true at the level of community and state colleges.  Here, Federal funding tends to take the form of financial aid -- which is to say, accessible to the college only by charging students tuition and fees -- or certain grant programs to institutions, like Perkins or Title III.  Operating funds come from students -- again with the indirect help of the Feds -- and states, and sometimes localities.  (There’s also some income from facility rentals, bookstore revenues, and the like, but all of that totals in the single digits.)  

But the candidates’ plans didn’t seem to acknowledge that.  They mostly spoke of financial aid and the prices that students pay.  I did hear a passing reference to state disinvestment, but I never heard a proposal to address it.  And I don’t recall it coming up in a substantive way in any of the Republican debates, either.

If we want to get a serious handle on higher ed affordability and quality, we need to address its political economy and structure.  It’s simply not under direct federal control in the same way that, say, Medicare is.  It’s more variable across the country.

The easiest way to address such variable structures across the country is to go through the single common denominator, which is students.  Pell grants work the same way in Utah that they do in Connecticut.  And that’s largely how the Feds have addressed college access up until now.  The GI Bill, Pell grants, Federally-backed loans -- all are ways of attaching money to students.  For colleges to get that money, they have to charge the students.  

That strategy worked pretty well for a while.  But over time, states (and sometimes localities) realized that they could cut their contributions to colleges’ operating budgets without much consequence, since colleges could shift those costs to students (and indirectly to the Feds).  On the ground, it wasn’t quite that simple; over the decades, colleges have largely split the difference between cost shifting and ever-tightening austerity.  The combination of steady tuition increases and a gradual but inexorable trend towards adjunct faculty was mostly able to offset reduced support until the Great Recession hit.

The enrollment surge of 2009 briefly hid the effects of disinvestment, but as the surge has receded, the funding shortfalls have become impossible to ignore.  

Now we’re hearing calls for “free community college,” which, depending on implementation, would attack the revenue stream on which we have come to rely the most.  Yes, grants could still be available for student living expenses, but that doesn’t help colleges make payroll.  And although I would love to imagine that states and localities were itching to step up with major multiples of their current contributions, I just don’t see it.  

Here’s where the candidates have an opening.  And I’m happy to share it with anyone from either party.  

If you want to get costs under control, you have to be willing to change two things.  The first is the reliance on the credit hour, which drives costs inexorably upward through the mathematical trap of Baumol’s cost disease.  The second is the free ride that states and localities have had in reducing support.  The first holds the potential to finally get cost inflation under control, and the second holds the potential to reverse the trend of cost-shifting to students.

The Feds have nibbled around the edges of each, the former with experimental site authority and the latter with a marginally-effective “maintenance of effort” requirement in 2009-10.  But they haven’t taken either on directly.  This is where someone who was willing to step up could make a real difference.

So, here’s the idea: matching funds for operating budgets.  For every dollar a state or locality pours into a college, the feds put in one to match.  So a state puts, say, five million towards a college, but its economy gets ten million worth of activity.  (The exact multiplier is obviously adjustable; I’m just using one-to-one for the sake of simplicity.)  Given that colleges are, among other things, local employers, the appeal could be significant.  And the one-for-one would work both ways; cuts to college budgets would mean leaving money on the table.  

We already know that an educated workforce is a hugely positive investment over the long term.  But the short time horizon of elections can wreak havoc with that.  Matching funds can make the long term benefits concrete and legible in the short term.  And with robust operating budgets, colleges can both hold the line on prices and restore some of the externally-invisible cuts that do subtle, but real, damage.  

In the spirit of bipartisanship, I offer this idea freely to any candidate who wants to run with it.  Getting college costs under control isn’t just a matter of tinkering with financial aid.  It requires reversing some key underlying realities.

I’ll warn any politicians who are reading: my daughter is onto you.  If you haven’t done something by the time she reaches voting age, she’ll notice.  You’ve been warned...

The matching funds idea is an interesting one, but left out whether it would replace federal loan subsidies (which work against your idea) and/or Pell, etc.

Your comments on disinvestment appear valid for community colleges but do not necessarily apply to universities. There is no apparent austerity at the flagship universities in my state. Their tuition increases were larger than ours and remain in place as significant funding is restored with most of it going to support the research mission of the university. Colleges are ignored.

You comments on the "credit hour" appear to be Trump-like magical thinking.

You need to explain how, as a transfer-centered institution, you will decide how much of what was learned at some other college or three will translate into assessed outcomes and "credit" toward graduation at your college. And if not you, who and how? AP exams for every course? You also need to explain how some portfolio from your college will be accepted by a university without the student facing magnified risks that "credit" will not be granted. And then you need to talk to your forum of employers and see what they think of a degree with a portfolio instead of a transcript.

Trust me here: I know of one such experiment at a college and it failed miserably. Once students decided they needed a job after graduation, it was finished.

And your statement about Baumol? More magical thinking. We already generate credit hours without the hours through every dehumanizing industrial educational process ever developed by man. The problem is that we gained most of that efficiency 50 years ago and most reforms have worked at walking it back (e.g. active learning). Or will personalized education become limited to private universities in your vision of cost-effective college until Watson takes over?
Matt, I always appreciate your thoughtful column. I like your matching funds for operating budgets idea--it aligns the incentives in the right way.

I'm not so sold on getting rid of the credit hour. It might save money if the median student were learning faster than the pace of the median college course, but I've never seen any evidence of that.

Add to that the feedback from employers (at least in my neck of the woods) that one thing they value from a college education is that a graduate has demonstrated the ability to stick it out through something hard and boring. Employers have told me that they want me to automatically fail any student who asks, "what do I need to do to pass this class?" because they think that person will become an employee who wants to know what's the least they can do and still collect their paycheck.

The more entertaining and "engaging" we make the educational experience, the more shortcuts we allow, the less value the degree has for employers. Demonstrated competencies say nothing about conscientiousness or persistence. Employers aren't about to "gamify" jobs to keep their employees engaged, nor are they willing to allow their employees to "test out" of assignments. ("I already know how to do a cash flow projection so you can't make me do any more of them!" Yeah, no.)

The real problem is that we've outsourced and automated away our mid-level jobs. Close to 2/3 of high school grads are starting college, hoping to get into one of the 1/3 of jobs that require more than a high school diploma (

Producing more college graduates, whether through subsidies, prior-learning assessments, or anything else, isn't going to make more white-collar jobs rise up to meet them upon graduation, unfortunately.

Personally, I'd like to see the candidates talking more about jobs.
When kids leave school you want them to be able to handle competition but that doesn't mean the optimal method of teaching them to handle competition is to subject them to competition every day of their schooling. The optimal method may be to foster cooperation until high school and then to introduce competition slowly over the course of high school.

Similarly, just because employers want employees who can survive boredom doesn't mean the optimal teaching approach is to bore students to death over the course of their degree. In any event, I would say it's not surviving boredom that an employer wants but professional pride that an employee takes in his/her work.
CCPhysicist, so do you teach your students to make a conclusion based on one example? If so, you're one bad college teacher and should be fired. Why don't you learn how to investigate and do some research and you'll see that other state universities *have*, in fact, been the victims of state defunding, sometimes worse than community colleges. Given your poor critical thinking skills, I can understand why you're reluctant to identify your state because if were your boss, you'd be out on your backside in a minute.
And do they teach you to read, Anonymous@4:19AM?

My conclusion was that they don't NECESSARILY apply to universities. It only takes one example to prove that claim. Dean Dad was generalizing from his narrow sphere of experience in the northeast, and I think it is important to keep perspective.

However, it isn't one university in my state, and it isn't one state, but I welcome your analysis (anonymous or otherwise) of the budget trends on a per-student basis for each university and college tier in your state. In the ones that I follow, the differences are dramatic, but none are in the northeast. And, FYI, my boss is fully aware of the horrible funding situation we experience but is too cowed by the threat of further cuts to speak up about it.

The one counter-example concerning budgets that I know about is the Penn State system, but that wasn't done against their will. They wanted to become semi-private so they could be more independent of the whims of the legislature.
DD, I don't understand your obsession with Baumol and the credit hour. I'd like to echo what Frankie Bow said above: "It might save money if the median student were learning faster than the pace of the median college course, but I've never seen any evidence of that." You take issue with the credit hour because you want education to become more "productive", which only works if you can make the majority of students learn faster than they do now; I just don't see it.

Frankie Bow, while I agree with you on the credit hour, I take issue with something else you said: "The more entertaining and "engaging" we make the educational experience, the more shortcuts we allow, the less value the degree has for employers." I think our jobs *are* to make our subjects as engaging as possible. No one goes into a field because they think it's boring. I've had several students who have told me that they switch their majors to biology because I made it come alive; why would I want to put students to sleep or make them dread my class? Teaching would be a lot less fun and rewarding if we didn't want to make it as exciting as possible.
Bio and MPledger, thanks for your comments. I'm just reporting what I've been hearing from employers. Whether we share their priorities or not, they're the ones hiring (some of) our graduates. With the current "oversupply" of degree holders relative to full-time job openings, they can afford to be very particular.

The reason I brought this up was to say that getting rid of the credit hour won't help graduates land jobs. A job-seeker who put in the seat time will have a major advantage over one who didn't.

(For the record, I don't actually try to be boring...)

I don't even see how it can save money, in your remarks @5:57AM quoting Frankie Bow's earlier remark. Are we going to charge them by the week rather than the semester, based, say, on how long it takes them to finish off some automated course offered by a textbook manufacturer? That would eliminate faculty salaries from the equation, but giant classes and self-paced classes did that 50 years ago when people first started putting one person in front of 2000 students via closed circuit TV. However, I do agree that there is a future where one professor could certify thousands of students in a subject without ever setting foot in a classroom. We are close to that in some math classes at one university I know about, although (again) that just tells me that we already have absorbed the cost benefit of computerized recitations and exams with no change in cost.

I can see where "prior knowledge" assessment can save both time and money, but assessing what someone knows is not free and there is no guarantee that a transfer institution will accept the credit your college gives them unless it matches something they know the value of, based on "credits". Heck, even transcript evaluation isn't free, although the college thinks my time is free when they send me some college's variant course to judge relative to ours.

I have yet to see anything other than magical thinking.

Frankie Bow:

I thought I knew what you meant @11:22PM. When you put "engaging" in scare quotes, in conjunction with 'entertaining' and 'shortcuts', I assumed you meant the kinds of classes where standards match whatever the market will bear so students will pass and give the prof and class high ratings and maybe even learn something. Retention can be everything at some colleges.
Clinton said

by far, the top reason for rising college costs at public colleges is that "states have been disinvesting in higher education …. So states over a period of decades have put their money elsewhere -- into prisons, into highways, into things other than higher education."

Sanders has said the same thing various places.


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