Thursday, July 11, 2019

Friday Fragments

From the “sentences I never thought I’d write” file: Earlier this week, I got retweeted by Martina Navritilova.

The possibility of that never occurred to me.

The joys of social media…


I don’t know why the story of Alaska’s evisceration of public higher education isn’t getting more coverage.  It’s bizarre. A state whose economy is tied overwhelmingly to a single, declining industry decides to gut its best instrument for diversifying.  And the decision happened, in part, because about half of the legislature bolted for Wasilla, which mainlanders remember mostly as the place Sarah Palin was mayor.

I think of higher education as an institutional bet on the future; it’s the sort of thing that pays off with interest, but only over time.  Other than as an employer itself, it’s not a quick fix. But particularly for a state on a long-term economic slide, it’s one of the few tools at its disposal to try to build a better future.  Cutting it for the sake of tax rebates is the policy equivalent of eating seed corn.

With China and India building up their higher ed sectors at rapid clips, it’s hard to come up with a more effective recipe for national decline than what Alaska is doing.  It seems worth taking a moment or two to notice.


The Girl turned 15 this week.  She already has a theory about it.  This week, in the car, on the way home from a trumpet lesson:

TG: I’ve heard that the sophomore year is the best, followed by senior, then freshman, then junior.

Me: Why?

TG: Well, sophomores already know their way around, and they don’t get picked on so much.

Me: Okay, but why is junior year the worst?

She shoots a withering glance

TG: College, man.  They’re all stressed out.  

Alirghty then.

It’s fun watching her discover her powers.  She got picked as section leader for the trumpets in marching band, so she has to corral the trumpets, including a few freshmen, over the summer and teach them the routine for the Fall.  She took to leadership like a fish to water.  

Her brother is straightforward in a host of ways.  She...isn’t. Of the two, she’s the likelier to land on the Supreme Court or win a Pulitzer.  She’s also the likelier to broadcast on a video screen from a mountain hideaway, petting a hairless cat and cackling while portending doom if her demands aren’t met.  She’s complicated.

The teen years can be rough on complicated girls.  If she can get through them without losing her sense of true north, she’ll be formidable.  And we’ll be in her corner, cheering, hoping her demands are met before we lose any major cities.

Happy birthday, TG.  I hope you use your powers for good.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

MAD, We Hardly Knew Ye…

MAD magazine has announced that it’s fading away, retreating to reissues of old material.  I have to admit, that news hit me hard.

I grew up on the MAD of the 1970’s and early 1980’s (which already included generous recycling of material from the 1960’s).  That was pretty much its peak, in terms of readership and cultural weight, and it made sense that it was. As I like to tell my long-suffering kids, it was a different time in ways that are hard to reconstruct now.

At a really basic level, it was much more of a monoculture.  We had three commercial tv networks and one public one. Daily newspapers were still important, but they had already started consolidating by then; Rochester in the 70’s had two daily newspapers, but they were both Gannett, and they combined on the weekends.  A hit television show in the late 70’s might be watched by half of the television sets in the country, and all at the same time; this was before VCR’s, let alone DVR’s, on-demand, or streaming. Back then, if you missed a tv show at the moment it showed, you missed it.  At best, you might catch the rerun a few months later. “Appointment viewing” was a thing.

I remember clearly going to elementary school on Wednesdays and needing to have an opinion on the episode of Happy Days from the night before.  Everybody in school watched it. With painfully few media outlets, each one carried weight. As hard as it is to imagine now, people actually cared who anchored the CBS or NBC evening news.  (The movie/play “Network” comes off as a period piece now.) It was the early 80’s before Rochester finally got a fifth tv channel; it mostly played old movies and Gilligan’s Island.  

When you only had three or four channels to pick from, the reigning programming philosophy was “don’t offend anyone.”  That led to a certain vapidity exemplified by the variety show. (To get a sense of just how awful they were, just type “Donny and Marie” into YouTube.  You’re welcome.) In that context, there was plenty of pent-up demand for a magazine that would tell kids that yes, much of what they’re seeing is stupid.  And there were enough common cultural referents that plenty of people would get the jokes.  

In publishing, MAD was it.  (“Cracked” always came off as the lower-achieving cousin of MAD.)  In music, the old Dr. Demento show provided a weekly reality check.  It’s remembered now, if at all, as the launchpad for Weird Al Yankovic, but it was far more than that.  In trading cards, “Wacky Packages” captured the spirit of the age. The first few years of “Saturday Night Live” came off as much more threatening than they seem in retrospect because nearly everything else was so resolutely safe.

The preceding paragraph tells you everything you need to know about my dating life in high school.

It’s possible to reread old issues now, but the context has changed.  The country is much more racially diverse than it was, with people outside the old monopoly rightly claiming space.  The media landscape has changed beyond recognition; at this point, I literally can’t name any of the anchors of the three legacy network evening news shows.  The monoculture has fragmented. That’s a blessing in many, many ways, but it makes it harder for a satirical magazine to assume a common target. And the internet hath wrought a grand flourishing of snark.  In the 70’s, if a president mentioned Revolutionary War soldiers taking airports, Johnny Carson would have been pretty much the only one on the scene to crack jokes about it. Now, with Twitter, memes fly fast and free.  (My favorite put the ship from the “Washington Crossing the Delaware” painting in front of a luggage carousel, with the caption “The Battle of Baggage Claim.”) The kids who used to wait for a monthly blast of sanity from “the usual gang of idiots” can get snark mainlined, in real time, for free.  And each can customize their timeline to the jokes that they’ll actually understand.

Still, MAD wasn’t beloved just for its snark.  People who didn’t read it much missed this part, but it was, for lack of a better word, humane.  It punched up, not down. It respected its readers -- mostly adolescent boys -- enough to trust that they could understand jokes about genre.  Its stable of writers during its glory days -- the aforementioned usual gang of idiots -- had clear patterns of what they would attack, and how.  Although it was sometimes crude, it was never cruel. It had its blind spots, obviously, but it was always anti-bigotry, pro-the little guy, and in favor of basic fairness.  (Dave Berg’s drawings of women could be gratuitously sexualized, but they tended to be the exception.) Its moral compass was better than it got credit for. For a magazine aimed at adolescent boys in the 70’s, that’s something.  Its last big hit, “The Ghastlygun Tinies,” was in that same spirit, siding with helpless victims against a culture gone, well, mad. It was very much in the MAD tradition.

My mom recognized early on that if she wanted to encourage me to read, she needed to get me stuff that I liked reading.  I devoured issues of MAD. She kept ‘em coming. When he was about eleven, I got my son a subscription for a while; he laughed himself breathless at a parody of Justin Bieber.  I smiled the same way that Mom used to.  

Farewell, MAD.  You were a lifeline of sanity in a difficult time.  May the spirit of humane snark as truth-telling continue to thrive. 

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

The Business Model Problem

About twice a week I’ll see someone on the interwebs say something along the lines of “why don’t public colleges stop messing around and just fix their business model?  It’s obviously unsustainable!” Bryan Alexander had a more thoughtful version of that this week, in which he responded to some pretty alarming demographic projections by wondering how colleges could survive when overall enrollments look to be set for long-term decline.  

There’s an obvious element of truth to the question.  The economic model of community colleges was built on the assumption of subsidies.  It was never intended to be self-sustaining. The form those subsidies takes can vary from state to state -- some have local funding and some don’t, some have millages and others have appropriations, and so on -- but the general idea is the same: students were never supposed to pick up the full cost themselves.  

And that’s not unique to the public sector.  Private, non-profit colleges typically don’t run instruction on a self-sustaining basis, either.  They use philanthropy and/or endowment income to supplement revenue from tuition. The closer they get to being purely tuition-driven, the more precarious their existence becomes.  The recent mortality rate of private colleges in Vermont and Massachusetts is a direct result of what happens when tuition-dependent colleges confront enrollment declines. In a high-fixed-cost model, relying entirely on variable revenues leaves you exposed the first time enrollment drops.  It’s the nature of the beast.

It’s hard to run education on a for-profit basis, in part because the gains to education aren’t captured by the provider, and in part because they tend to lag the provision of education by years, if not decades.  It can be done in certain niches, but the track record of for-profit colleges in the US suggests that some skepticism is in order.

Some have suggested a return to the “indentured servant” model, through “income-share agreements.”  But even if that model were to take off -- and heaven knows, I’d rather it didn’t -- it still wouldn’t address price or cost.  It’s just a different way of paying for it.

“Public-Private Partnerships” offer the tantalizing prospect of access to private capital, but we need to remember that private capital brings with it private agendas.  The entire idea behind “endowments” was to separate the provision of capital (in that case, initially through donations) from control of that capital. The structure of the endowment provides a buffer.  It’s a mechanism for ensuring that academic decision-making remains within the purview of academics, who typically don’t have the money to pay for it themselves. Eliminate the buffer -- or what some like to call the “middleman” -- and you eliminate that autonomy.  “P3’s” can be useful, when carefully considered, but they aren’t full replacements for either private philanthropy or public subsidy.

Market-driven thinking has become so pervasive that many people see public colleges’ habit of running instruction at a loss as some sort of failure.  They don’t understand that it’s a feature, not a bug. We subsidize instruction precisely because if we made every student pay in full at the time of enrollment, far too few would (could) actually do it.  The citizenry and workforce would become much less educated and productive. The highest payoff to education comes when students are educated early in life, when people’s earnings tend to be the lowest. Absent some sort of subsidy, we should expect suboptimal enrollment.  In saving pennies in subsidy, we’d lose dollars in productivity. It’s a false savings.

To the extent that there is a business model problem, it’s not because we subsidize instruction.  It’s because we denominate instruction in units of time. Regular readers are probably tired of my references to Baumol’s Cost Disease, so I won’t rehearse it here, but it boils down to the mathematical impossibility of improving “learning/time” when learning is denoted in units of time.  That’s a business model problem, and a serious one. But it’s not the one that most people assume. The “business model” conversation I’d rather have is around other ways of teaching, learning, and proving competency.  

The problem most people refer to is the need for subsidy.  That’s not a problem of the model, though; it’s a problem of our politics. For example, if you replace the idea of “income-share agreements” with simpler, progressive taxation, then you wind up accomplishing the same general idea -- the folks who benefit the most pay the most -- but you do it without a generational lag, and you don’t punish the folks for whom things didn’t work out.  Even better, you don’t have to try to go back and apportion credit or blame. But that would involve admitting that the public sector can be more efficient than the private sector. It absolutely can, but that flies in the face of current dogma. In our current political culture, it’s almost a forbidden truth. FIxing that is a much larger task. Get that right, and we’ll have room for all sorts of promising experiments in teaching and learning.  Get it wrong, and we’ll keep having these same conversations over and over again.

Program Note: I’ll take a blogging break for the holiday weekend, returning on Monday, July 8.

Monday, July 01, 2019

A Neglected Variable

The Boy is trying to make money this summer to contribute to his college expenses this fall.  He’s an EMT, and he signed up with a local private EMT company to work for it. He has gone through orientation and training, and a host of hoops, but is still trying to get significant hours.  Another part-time job he holds, at a local trampoline park, gives him maybe four hours a week.

Absolute levels of pay are one thing.  Variability is another. In policy circles, we talk a lot about the former, but not nearly enough about the latter.  

Last weekend I finally read “The Financial Diaries” by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider,  a flawed but fascinating account of a project in which hundreds of families’ income and expenses were tracked for a year.  The families hailed from all parts of the country, but the findings were similar everywhere. In brief, they found that variability of income from month to month is as much of an issue for many people as the absolute level of income is. (As the authors put it, “the noise is the story.”)  A family that has “enough” income over the course of a year may have a couple of months in which it doesn’t. Those shortfall months cause deadweight costs of their own, as utilities get shut off and cost extra to get restored, or as unaffordable car repairs lead to late arrivals at work and eventual job losses.  Volatility is a cost unto itself.

The book includes portraits of occupations in which some variability is expected -- such as waiting tables -- along with some where it might not be, like fixing trucks.  

Variable income is a major issue for college financial aid.  The FAFSA and the programs surrounding it tend to assume relatively stable income over time.  “Means-tested” and “sliding scale” benefits do the same. If an income level doesn’t change much over time, it’s relatively easy to calibrate the required level of aid.  But if a weirdly flush month drives down the needed aid, and the aid isn’t there when a “short” month hits, the student may have to drop out. As the old unionized full-time factory jobs fade away, their predictable salaries do, too.  (Yes, overtime fluctuated, but it was on top of a solid baseline.) In some cases, abrupt windfalls can look like aid fraud, and actually generate penalties; the folks in those situations, reasonably, report feeling trapped. The book notes that volatility is fairly common at every income level, though it’s most common at the lowest levels, where it does the most damage.  

Financial aid refunds are typically disbursed in large lumps, contributing to volatility.  I’ve heard of “aid like a paycheck” programs, in which the refund for a given semester is divided into biweekly chunks and given out that way.  I hadn’t thought about it much, but it may help. (It also offers the institutional benefit of possibly reducing the “return to Title IV” -- R2T4, in the biz -- that colleges have to pay when students drop out mid-semester.)  The book notes a survey in which respondents are asked about their level of financial anxiety. When cross-tabulated with the time of the month the question was asked, respondents at the end of the month are far more anxious than respondents at the beginning.  

Economists like to point out that “over-withholding” of taxes, in order to generate a larger tax refund, is inefficient; it amounts to extending an interest-free loan to the government.  (These days, interest on savings is low enough to deflate that argument somewhat, but people still make it.) But people do it anyway, even knowing that, because they value the payout that forced discipline makes possible.  One woman the book follows put her “special” money in a bank an hour away and cut up her ATM card, specifically to make it harder to fall prey to temptation and spend it without reflection. (Forced self-restraint isn’t a new idea, as readers of The Odyssey know.)  A few extra dollars every two weeks would vanish down the rat hole, but a single big annual payout makes a perceptible difference. Aid like a paycheck could accomplish something similar in reverse. It would make it harder to blow through an entire refund quickly, but it would also offer reassurance that there will still be money at the end of the semester.  That way, even if a student’s part-time job shorts him some hours at some point, there will at least be a predictable baseline of income.  

The book leans harder than I would like on “there’s an app for that” solutions, spending much less time and focus on larger changes in the economy.  At a really basic level, it’s hard to save money you never saw in the first place. But as a reminder of the realities facing many of our students and families, it’s on-target.  

Ultimately, of course, income volatility is about more than “nudges” or mental math.  It’s about the larger political economy and the ways that we’ve allowed jobs to be organized.  The Boy is perfectly capable of the arithmetic required to hit a savings goal, but he can’t compel an employer to give him hours.  That’s a much larger problem than any one college can solve. But it’s useful for keeping in mind when wondering why students sometimes make the decisions that they do.