All posts by David Wilezol

David Wilezol is the co-author of "Is College Worth It?" with former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.

Lee Siegel: Bad Op-Ed, Bad Thinking

Without rehashing the fine points made by AEI’s Andrew Kelly and Slate’s Jordan Weissmann about the irresponsible advice dispensed in Lee Siegel’s op-ed in the New York Times it’s worth noting a few points on the purported virtues of defaulting on student loans.

First, Siegel seems to give the impression he was already under a substantial debt burden “by the end of my sophomore year at a small private liberal arts college.” But how much could his obligations realistically have been at that point? The explosive growth in nominal tuition prices didn’t begin until the 1980s, and if Siegel (b. 1957) was twenty in 1977, then it is hard to take seriously his claims that he was already shouldering a truly lifelong, crippling student loan burden at the dawn of his adulthood.

Secondly, Siegel’s remonstrances over being forced to choose between following his vocational passion of being a writer and working a less-preferred job are glib insults to people who actually make the responsible choice of working a less desirable job to meet financial responsibilities. As with so many people who find themselves trapped under huge amounts of student loan debts, the question of how they wound up there reverts back to a question of unconsidered or unrealistic expectations for career earnings based on degree pursued. Apparently giving no thought to how much (or how little) his lifetime earnings might be as a writer, Siegel was comfortable racking up multiple graduate degrees without any sense of how the money would be repaid. It’s clear Siegel, apparently smart enough to obtain admittance to Columbia, suffered from a lack of common sense much more than from a predatory student loan system.

Lastly, Siegel’s government-heavy solutions to making college affordable ignore how our current policy spawned cautionary tales like his. “Instead of guaranteeing loans, the government would have to guarantee a college education,” Siegel writes. If Siegel’s great object is to help young people avoid financial malaise because of education spending, he might well consider the cost, in the form of taxes and borrowing, of unleashing a massive wave of subsidies that will only increase the price of higher education. Is Siegel comfortable placing the burden of a dead loan on the back of the American taxpayers, many of whom are younger than him?

Siegel also falsely characterizes the student loan mess as a problem entirely localized to young people, when in fact, 700,000 households headed by people 65+ have student debt. Because of his own default, he will never be counted in that number.

Obama Hides $22 Billion in Student Debt

At the Washington Wizards-Brooklyn Nets game Saturday night, a Net player, in pursuit of a loose ball, careened into a waitress on the sidelines who was carrying a tray full of beers. The clip of the sudsy disaster went viral, and curious minds wanted to know more about the drenched victim. As it turns out, she is a Hill staffer moonlighting as a server at the Verizon Center because her student loan payments are so high. Out of sympathy, A GoFundMe account (similar to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter) intending to pay down her debt was even set up for her. For many indebted student loan borrowers, working a second job (or, alternatively, lucking into a windfall pile of crowdfunded money) seems to be the only way to make meaningful progress against stifling debt.

Good thing for the indebted that the Obama administration seems to be taking student loan repayment less seriously than ever. Written into the President’s 2016 budget is a very creative way of hiding what amounts to $22 billion dollars of taxpayer losses in the student loan program. How did this happen?

Recall that in 2010, Obama signed into law a bill that intended to ease the burden of debtors. The government may now only take 10% of a borrower’s income as payment, and loans are forgiven after 20 years. The preliminary result? A huge shortfall in repayments. Jordan Weissman at Slate, quoting an administration official, writes that 9 billion of the shortfall will come from Pay As You Go Losses, and another 15 billion from promoting the program. With so many accounting tricks (too complicated to rehash here) embedded in the budgetary process, Continue reading Obama Hides $22 Billion in Student Debt

The Bureaucrat Behind the “Rape Culture” Radicals

To most Americans, Catherine Lhamon is all but unknown. As the U.S. Department of Education’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, however, she plays an outsized role in pursuing colleges for their purportedly incompetent handing of sexual assault cases. As the issue of campus sexual assault continues to make news, it’s important that we understand her priorities. Her record reveals a belief in the federal government’s ability to eradicated discrimination—whether real or imagined.

Dedicated to Racial Redress

After attending Yale Law School, Lhamon clerked for Judge William A. Norris of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, one of the most liberal circuits in the nation. She subsequently became the ACLU’s assistant legal director for Southern California. It is here that the first real record of Lhamon’s jurisprudence emerges. In 2000, she scored her first major legal win as one of the lawyers on the Williams v. California case, which forced the state of California to appropriate $1 billion in new funding for poorly performing public schools. Much of Lhamon’s work with the ACLU concentrated on redressing racial grievances, and by 2008, she was named her branch’s “Racial Justice Director.”

In that same year, Lhamon served as an attorney in a suit that would become one of the most famous cases in the country, a challenge in U.S. District Court to Michigan’s constitutional ban on affirmative action in college admission decisions.This case, Cantrell v. Granholm, which featured Lhamon as an attorney of record, was later merged with another case to become Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action v. Granholm. Lhamon stayed on as counsel in this federal case, and in the Granholm complaint Lhamon and others, quoting another decision on racial preferences in Washington State, maintained that the U.S. Constitution does not tolerate “a political structure that treats all individuals as equals, yet more subtly distorts governmental processes in such a way as to place special burdens on the ability of minority groups to achieve beneficial legislation.” To Lhamon and the other attorneys, the state has a compelling interest in regulating the racial composition of educational institutions to help schools fulfill their mission of producing a well-rounded individual. Thus, in Lhamon’s view, admission on the basis of race is justified.

The Granholm case ultimately reached the Supreme Court as Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. Both Cantrell and the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action are listed as respondents in the case, but Lhamon, perhaps anticipating her nomination at OCR, does not appear as counsel. By the time Schuette was argued at the Court in October 2013 she had already been confirmed as Assistant Secretary at OCR in September 2013. The question at the heart of this case was whether a ban on the use of racial preferences in admissions violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. In a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court overturned the 6th Circuit’s decision that bans on race-based admissions as enshrined in a state constitution were unconstitutional. However, the decision was not so far-reaching as to declare illegal the use of affirmative action nationwide. Hence, Lhamon’s OCR informed schools that Schuette “leaves intact the Court’s prior holdings recognizing that institutions of higher education and elementary and secondary schools may use all legally permissible methods to achieve their diversity goals.”

Using the Federal Government for “Racial Justice”

President Obama nominated Lhamon for her current position in June 2013. It’s unclear why the Obama administration, which has committed rhetorically to a race-neutral approach, would appoint such a strong proponent of racial redress. The most plausible explanation relies on a progressive theory of education that explains disparities in achievement among racial groups as predominantly the result of racial prejudice, past or present. According to Lhamon, the federal government must use its authority break down barriers, real or imagined, which inhibit the educational achievement of racial minorities.

To that end, in September 2013 Lhamon began an investigation of the Lee County, Alabama school district to see if the underrepresentation of African-Americans in the district’s AP math classes violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s guarantee of equal access to educational opportunities. According to OCR’s compliance review, the percentage of African-American students in such classes was disproportionately low. The investigation concluded that low black enrollment in AP courses at one particular school, Loachapoka, was the consequence of inadequate preparation in lower grades for such work. Loachapoka’s principal insisted that the low number of offerings was due to an emphasis on remediation at his school. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to make sense that a school should spend precious resources on programs with a minimal number of high achievers when a larger number of underperformers need help.

Nonetheless, the District struck an agreement with OCR to hire a consultant who would assess any inhibitors to African-American enrollment in AP classes. The consultant would also assess the criteria for black AP enrollment, and decided whether there could be an “equally effective alternative criterion that will not have an adverse impact.” In other words, AP standards for all students in Lee County could be diminished thanks to one poorly performing school. Lhamon’s quest also presumes an imbalance in racial achievement because of racism, not a complex set of social, economic, and educational factors that contribute to a student’s success.

A Zeal for Intervention

In May of this year, she appeared on the Diane Rehm Show to discuss the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education. Lhamon expressed her discomfort with “intense re-segregation around the country,” which in fact is only the cumulative result of individuals across the nation making choices about where to live. Lhamon’s dialogue with Professor David Armor of George Mason University was particularly interesting. Armor suggested government intervention couldn’t solve the problem of “ethnic isolation” created by demographic trends, a suggestion Lhamon rebuffed:

But of course we can pursue it, we must pursue it. And the systems don’t operate in isolation. The places that are becoming mono race places are in part becoming that way because we don’t have schools that are ready for the kids, because we don’t have social systems.

In Lhamon’s worldview, society operates as an interconnected web of “systems” that generate discrimination and inequality. Moreover, she believes, the federal government can uproot such injustice provided its efforts are sufficiently vigorous. She has certainly applied this philosophy to her ongoing attempts to make campus judicial proceedings on sexual assault more favorable for accusers. As the Department of Education continues its crusade against due process for students accused of assault, however, it appears that Lhamon’s long-standing zeal for enforcing justice has generated serious injustice of its own.

Looking for Teachers Qualified to Teach

The U.S. Department of Education announced on Tuesday a new set of rules designed to stimulate greater effectiveness in America’s teacher training programs. States will now be required to report to the federal government statistics such as job placement rates and student performance. Favorable student outcomes, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suggested, could also be tied to the amount of grant money distributed to teacher candidates.

Adding a layer of accountability to teacher training programs is a move long overdue. Educators across the ideological spectrum have for a few years now coalesced around a wealth of data showing that, second only to a child’s parental involvement, good teachers are the most important factor in producing good student performance outcomes. I cite the oft-reported statistic from Raj Chetty (which actually cannot be reported enough): a merely average teacher is worth $267,000 more to a child over his lifetime than an ineffective one.

Continue reading Looking for Teachers Qualified to Teach

Overstating Unhappiness with Student Loans

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Student Loan Ombudsman has just released his annual report on private student loans. The data in the report suggests that an epidemic of non-repayment is happening in the private student loan sector. Some 5300 borrowers lodged complaints with the CFPB from October 2013-September 2014, an increase of 38% from the previous year. The chief difficulty of 57% of complainants was “Repaying your loan / dealing my lender of servicer.” Another 41% said “Problems when you are unable to pay / Can’t repay my loan.”

Icing the statistical cake is a number of personal testimonials describing companies’ refusal to adjust their terms of repayment:

I have no options left in regard to lowering my payment, forbearance, deferment or delaying my payments. I work full time as a teacher, but my student loan payment is more than a third of my income. My [specialty student loan company] just told me that there is nothing I can do but let my private loans go into default and to try to work something out with the collections agency. I have no qualms about paying a monthly fee that I can afford, but currently the money just does not exist.

Continue reading Overstating Unhappiness with Student Loans

How the Education Department Warped Title IX

When Congress passed the Title IX section of the Education Amendments of 1972, it aimed simply to offer women more opportunities to participate in on-campus athletics. Over the years, however, Title IX has become the legal foundation for the Education Department to insinuate itself into sexual assault cases.

The key passage of Title IX reads, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” In 1977, a Yale law student named Catherine McKinnon, tired of suffering on-campus sexual harassment that went unaddressed by the school, interpreted Title IX to argue that sexual harassment (and by extension, sexual assault) constituted a sex-based limitation of educational opportunity. McKinnon and several other students filed in the lawsuit Alexander v. Yale in federal, which, although dismissed on the basis of the plaintiffs having no standing, goaded Yale into establishing a grievance process for sexual harassment cases.

Continue reading How the Education Department Warped Title IX

Student Loan Reform Is Now a Major Political Issue

As student debt continues to climb and reform fails to materialize, it’s not surprising that some politicians are capitalizing on their constituents’ frustration. In fact, some of the brightest stars on both sides of the partisan divide are taking up the cause of student loan reform.

Senator Marco Rubio, who seems likely to run for president, understands that Mitt Romney’s economic message failed to connect with voters—especially millennials. To attract these younger voters, many of whom have grown disillusioned with the Democrats, he’s embracing student loan reform.

Rubio is familiar with the problem of student debt. After graduating law school, he amassed over $100,000 in student loan debt. “At one point in my life,” he recently claimed, “it was the single-highest expenditure in our personal budget.” Rubio only was able to pay down his debt in 2012 with proceeds from his autobiography. He can therefore identify with the many students whose student loan repayments prevent them from entering adulthood.

So far, he’s proposed two solutions. The Know Before You Go Act, pushed for greater disclosure on schools’ graduation rates and their graduates’ loan debt, employment prospects, and future earnings. The Investing in Student Success Act seeks to create a legal structure for income-share agreements (ISAs), private arrangements in which investors front tuition cash to students in exchange for receiving a portion of the student’s future income. More recently, Rubio called for an automatic enrollment of federal borrowers into an income-based repayment system. Though income-based repayment is most often associated with Democrats, Rubio calculates that adjusting the way (not whether) student debt is repaid will appeal to indebted young voters.

On the other side of the aisle is Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose embrace of economic populism has also led her to pursue student loan reform.  In May 2013, Warren introduced the Bank on Student Loans Fairness Act, which offered the incredibly low interest rate government offers to large private banks to student borrowers.

Warren has also lamented the amount of money the federal government makes off student loan borrowers. In July 2013, Warren claimed that the government would make $51 billion off of student loan interest. A year later, Warren’s estimate ballooned to $184 billion. To be sure, government’s accounting of student loans is very arbitrary, and the same government agency which at one time forecast the $184 billion profit also predicted a $95 billion loss. Experts have also disagreed with her. But to public hungry for economic populism, her critique makes for excellent headlines. Warren cast the choice of supporting her bill, which didn’t pass, in very stark terms. “Anyone who says that we can’t afford this amendment,” she argued, “is saying, in effect, it is more important to keep making profits off the backs of our kids than to ask millionaires to pay just a tiny bit more.”

More recently, Warren proposed a bill which would allow some borrowers with federal student loans to refinance at lower rates. Warren proposed paying for this fix by levying new taxes on individuals earning over one million dollars per year. And in August, Warren was one of only two other Senators (the other was Dick Durbin, D-IL) to support Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-RI) medical bankruptcy bill that, among other things, proposed that “medically distressed” students be allowed to discharge their student loans.

Rubio and Warren’s competing approaches to student loan reform reflect their respective political convictions. Rubio hopes to promote innovative, market-driven ideas like ISAs that can help middle-income Americans without over-involving the government. Unlike some of his colleagues on Capitol, his willingness to work with Democratic senators on these proposals indicates that he’s not a strict partisan warrior. Warren, who trades in economic populism, is interested in top-down government interventions to alleviate student debt.  Though they might disagree on the best solution to the debt crisis, one thing seems certain. Given growing discontent over this issue,  their student loan reform efforts might make the difference when they seek their party’s nomination for the upcoming presidential election.

Why is Brandeis a Haven for Anti-Israel Rhetoric?

Just as a new conflict breaks out between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, the professoriate’s bias against Israel is resurfacing in novel, ugly ways. The Washington Free Beacon has exposed an anti-Israel listserv at Brandeis University, where faculty members expressed concerns about Israelis harvesting organs, referred to the President of Brandeis and his wife as “Mein Leader und Frau,” and described “humanly decent” Israelis as “self-hating, Arab-loving Jews.” Though Brandeis’ communications director insisted that the viewpoints expressed on the listserv do not reflect the University’s views, she affirmed that “members of the community may hold many different opinions on a variety of topics and express them in ways that do not reflect the university’s official position on a given issue.”

But the listserv isn’t Brandeis’ only source of anti-Israel rhetoric. Brandeis’ Ethics Center has recently had a string of incidents revealing a systemic bias against Israel. The Center’s International Advisory Board chairman accused Israel in 2009 of crimes against humanity. A member of the Center’s board was removed because of ties to demonstrations praising suicide bombers. The Center also hosted Nelson Mandela’s grandsons at the school’s annual celebration of social justice, an event that featured one of them insisting, “When the American government supports the Israeli army in disputes over the land against Palestine. That is discrimination.” (sic)

This anti-Israel rhetoric is curious, given Brandeis’ historical identity as a haven for American Jews. Of course, Brandeis has the prerogative to allow the circulation of unpopular opinions, however loathsome, in the name of academic freedom. But the very real consequence of the anti-Israel bias in higher education is students’ adoption and expression of those same attitudes. This past Saturday, Boston police had to rescue pro-Israel counter-demonstrators from Palestinian sympathizers who shoved them while shouting “Jews back to Birkenau” and “Drop dead, you Zionazi whores.” A Boston Globe photo of the event featured many young people – many of them no doubt students – holding a “die-in” in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. I wonder how many of them attend one of the many liberal arts schools in the Boston area, and how many are taught by professors who aren’t too different from those frequenting the listserv at Brandeis.

Accreditors Are Now Enforcing Political Orthodoxy

Since the 19th century, regionally-based accrediting bodies that use peer-based evaluation have determined which colleges and universities can stay open. Knowing the power that these agencies hold, schools usually march in lockstep to accommodate them. After all, the consequence of losing accreditation means a loss of federal funds (most commonly, student loan dollars). The mission of most accreditation agencies is firmly concerned with issues of academic and financial quality. But what happens if an accreditation agency decides to impose an ideological standard on a school as well?

This is effectively the question that Gordon College, an evangelical school in Massachusetts, now confronts. The Boston Globe reports that New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ (NEASC) has decided to review GC’s accreditation after examining the school’s longstanding practice on not hiring gays and lesbians. The move comes after GC President D. Michael Lindsay, along with 14 other religious leaders, sent a letter to the White House requesting a religious exemption to a forthcoming executive order barring federal contractors from hiring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

A school in Canada has also encountered a similar conflict. Trinity Western University, a school in British Columbia devoted to “Christ-centered higher education,” recently opened a new law school that requires students and staff to abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage.” The Law Society of Upper Canada, Canada’s largest professional organization for lawyers, refused to grant accreditation to Trinity Western, with one voter on the matter saying “I cannot vote to accredit a law school which seeks to control students in their bedrooms.”

These cases have enormous implications for religiously-affiliated institutions of higher education. If an accreditation agency adopts adherence to a regnant cultural attitude as a criteria for accreditation, what happens in 10, 15, or 20 years, as the culture becomes continually more tolerant of homosexuality, but orthodox Christians in higher education do not? Juwan Campbell, a senior at Gordon, believes some kind of accommodation is possible: “I think it can hold to its Christian roots while still having a neutral standpoint on homosexual activity and behavior.” But Campbell misses the point. Under the current cultural trajectory, there will be no neutral standpoint on the issue of gay rights vs. religious liberty. The seemingly unstoppable force of gay rights and the immovable object of Christian conviction are in direct conflict. If accreditation agencies decide to dispense legitimacy on the basis of a school’s view of homosexuality, Christian schools will have to sacrifice more than the use of a town hall. They may find themselves out of the higher education business altogether.

When Is College Worth It?

It’s important to remember that though college makes good financial sense, not all college degrees are created equal.  A new paper by Temple economics professor Douglas Webber makes this point by highlighting a few factors which determine whether college is worth it. The first, major choice, surprised him. As he told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “even after controlling for as wide a range of selection biases as possible, there were still such big differences in lifetime earnings across majors.” That’s right, kids. You’re going to make a lot more money if you study petroleum engineering over elementary education.

The second, says Webber, is which college you attend: “There’s a big piece of the puzzle that many studies and many articles in the popular press miss. Not all colleges are created equal. There’s a big difference if you’re talking about going to Harvard or to a random college no one’s ever heard of.” Contrary to what elite schools would have the public believe, it’s not some knowledge obtained only at Harvard that gives them an advantage. Rather, it’s the Harvard imprimatur on an applicant’s résumé that helps them get the job at Goldman Sachs, Google, or ExxonMobil.

Third, and very important, is the fact that “people also miss that less than 60 percent of 18-year-olds starting college full time are actually going to earn a degree within six years.” A huge number of people leaving school with lots of debt and no degree should be incentive enough for policymakers to refrain from the “college for all” chorus.

Still, says Webber, earnings aren’t everything: “They shouldn’t make all of their decisions based solely on which major has the highest potential earnings. They have to take into account things like what they enjoy, what they’re good at. Those all matter a lot in terms of lifetime satisfaction. Money isn’t everything. But money is important.”

The “money is important” line could be taken as a cynical assessment of the human condition. But Webber has a point. Many college students who find the academic value of social science and liberal arts majors (less challenging, in my experience, than STEM majors) alluring in college fail to account for the fact that these subjects produce a lesser rate of return than virtually all STEM subjects. In turn, when the parties fade and age thirty approaches, more graduates than ever are less advantaged toward buying homes, getting married, or having kids. (Just this Sunday, the Wall Street Journal ran a strong piece on student loan debt holding back the housing market). Academics who insist that college is uniformly worth it may be right in the aggregate, but they also ought to present their findings with a greater degree of nuance.

Will Starbucks Save Higher Education?

Will working as a barista reduce your college tuition? Starbucks thinks it should. Yesterday, Starbucks CEO and chairman Howard Schultz announced that his company will pay for a portion of its employees’ college educations at the online arm of Arizona State University, provided they work up to 20 hours a week for the company. It is unsurprising that Starbucks partnered with ASU, whose president, Michael Crow, is a genuine reformer in the world of higher ed. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is on board too, telling Starbucks employees, “I urge you to take advantage of this.”

Duncan was so supportive, I believe, because Shultz and Crow have honed in on one of the biggest problems plaguing higher ed today: incompletion rates. As the company said in a press release, “Starbucks [sic] investment is designed to support the nearly 50 percent of college students in the U.S. today who fail to complete their degrees due to mounting debt, a tenuous work-life balance and a lack of support.” My guess is that a great number of Starbucks employees fall into the category of students who borrow heavily, have job responsibilities compromise study time, and receive little financial support. Kudos to Starbucks for trying to address this problem.

Continue reading Will Starbucks Save Higher Education?

A Low Point at High Point University

Out of North Carolina come some disturbing new details about a death on the campus of High Point University. In March 2012, Robert Eugene Tipton, Jr., a student at the school, died while in the company of several brothers of his Delta Sigma Phi fraternity. Tipton’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit which claims that violent hazing contributed to his death. What makes this death especially heinous is that the “pledge master” for the fraternity was Michael Qubein, the son of High Point’s President, Nido Qubein.

You might recall High Point as “Bubble U” – the title of a 2012 piece about High Point which emphasized how the school was spending itself silly in hopes of attracting wealthy students. who can President Qubein, by all accounts a charismatic individual, frequently caps presentations to prospective parents by holding out a bag of Hershey Kisses in one hand and a box of Godiva chocolates in the other. “Both are good,” he says, “but only one resides in the extraordinary…Isn’t that what you want for your child?”

But no parent would approve of the conduct of one of Godiva University’s administrators in the months prior to Tipton’s was. According to sworn affidavits from two security guards at the school, director of security Jeffrey Karpovich (a co-defendant in the lawsuit), instructed them that Michael Qubein was “to be treated differently than other students.”  Security guard Tony Williams swore in his affidavit that Karpovich also told him, “If there is a problem with Michael Qubein, tell me, and I will deal with it.” This doesn’t quite square with Qubein’s single, disgracefully tepid comment in the aftermath of the situation: “Every student at HPU is treated with equal respect and responsibility.”

Instead of curbing Qubein, Karpovich turned a blind eye to an environment of wildness that, if the suit is to be believed, contributed to Tipton’s death. To quote security guard Elliot Crawford’s testimony, “Mr. Qubein and the Delta Sigs had this attitude that they were above the rules, and they knew full well that there was nothing we could do about it.” To that point, Crawford claims that the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity frequently had kegs at their party, despite the fact that kegs are banned from High Point’s campus. He consistently passed complaints about the fraternity onto the appropriate authorities, but was “specifically told not to go anywhere near the Delta Sigs.”

One of the guards’ affidavits is even more explicit about Quebein’s gross misconduct:

“On two occasions, I witnessed a physical fight involving Qubein. One occurred out front of the Delta Sig fraternity house during my employment. On that occasion there were several Delta Sig beating up a young man in the street out front. … I informed Student Life and my supervisors of this incident. Nothing was done to my knowledge. At times I tried to reason with some of the fraternity members who were more sober in an effort to keep the violence down. I was later told by Mr. Karpovich that I should not do this and should not even get out of the car.” A third security supervisor at the school claims in an affidavit of his own that he once saw Qubein drop a woman he was carrying on his shoulders down a flight of stairs.

On the night of his death, says the lawsuit, Tipton was “hazed viciously by members of Delta Sig at the direction of (Michael) Qubein.” Qubein and another fraternity brother, Marshall Jefferson, are also named as co-defendants in the suit. The suit alleges that Jefferson “violently assaulted and battered” Tipton. Tipton’s lifeless body was discovered in Jefferson’s apartment the morning after the alleged hazing.

We must insert a cautionary point here. At this time, the suit against Qubein et al. is just a set of allegations. No criminal charges were ever filed in the matter, and Tipton’s cause of death is formally listed as oxymorphone poisoning. Oxymorphone is a powerful opioid for pain, and it’s hard to believe that alcohol and/or recreational drug didn’t somehow contribute to Tipton’s death. Williams says he witnessed “problems with alcohol and drugs from Michael Qubein and his friends” over the years. For their part, the family alleges “aspiration of gastrointestinal contents,” in tandem with a concussion. Whatever happened that night, Michael Qubein failed to live up to his father’s modest standard of “equal respect and responsibility.”

It appears that Tipton’s death is the natural, if rare, outcome of the kind of “extreme behavior” that new Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon recently lamented. In a speech to his school, Hanlon was referring to the Bacchanalian bouts of drinking, racist and sexist party themes, the hookup culture (and attendant sexual assault), and fraternity hazing that have taken over the culture one of the most prestigious schools in the country, one that helps seed the nation’s elite institutions. In 2012, a former Dartmouth fraternity brother published an article in Rolling Stone detailing his experience there, which included being made to “swim in a kiddie pool of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen and rotten food products; eat omelets made of vomit; [and] chug cups of vinegar.” Both elite schools like Dartmouth and ordinary schools like High Point promise their applicants the experience of a lifetime. But too often, the moral atmosphere of the American college campus contributes to degrading or even fatal experiences. Hanlon has pledged to lead a change in the culture at Dartmouth. Would that High Point, and other schools, follow suit.

NYU’s New Graduate Student Union

As Judah mentioned on Thursday, graduate students at NYU have voted 620-10 in favor of unionization. This is not the first time that grad students at NYU have voted to do so. In 2002, grad students there became the first graduate student union to negotiate a contract with a private university, before the National Labor Relations Board reversed their decision in 2005. Graduate student unions already exist at a few dozen public universities across the country, but are actually banned by the NLRB at private colleges. Thus, it remains to be seen how the Obama administration will respond.

Supporters of unionization consistently proffer the same argument: that students are merely wage-earners whom the university employs to save costs.  But what advocates of unionization don’t seem to realize is that they were admitted to a university as students, not hired as workers. In 2012, a group of university professional associations filed a brief with the NLRB which reaffirmed that “Students enroll in graduate school to complete their higher education, not to work for wages. Their relationship with the university is fundamentally one of a student and teacher, not master-servant.”

Secondly, many unionization advocates seem to speak with an outsized sense of entitlement. Check out these quotes from a cinema studies Ph.D. student at NYU:

“We should be a major investment for the school,” said Gharabaghi, whose son will soon be turning one. According to the agreement, NYU and union are supposed to immediately begin negotiating–they hope to have a completed contract by the end of the academic year–and one major priority for Gharabaghi is family healthcare benefits. He’s currently on a state-subsidized plan because NYU charges graduate students a 33 percent increase in dependent premiums. “I shouldn’t have to choose between my son and my PhD,” Gharabaghi said.

I can’t understand why Gharabaghi believes that a Ph.D. student in cinema studies – a field already glutted with pseudo-literary hacks – is an “investment” for the school. The school loses money on a Ph.D. student like Gharabaghi, and it’s not always clear what value graduate students bring to a school, besides their teaching workload. Additionally, having a baby is an expensive prospect, and a rare one for people in graduate school. Virtually every health insurance plan in America charges an extra amount for dependent coverage. Why should a graduate student’s health plan be any different?

Lastly, the argument that graduate students are compensated unfairly for their work is, in this case, just plain wrong. Let’s examine the financial aid package for a Cinema Studies graduate student at NYU: he already gets 36 credits of tuition remission (a value of tens of thousands of dollars at pricey NYU), and $20,000 stipend each of his first four years in the program. In reality, this is a pretty sweetheart deal to watch and write about movies. While many adjunct and grad students do work huge hours for next to nothing, it is not incumbent on universities to provide them with increasingly cushy benefit packages.

The Tuition Is Too Damn High (…Because of Government Subsidies)

The Washington Post is currently running a series of research pieces on the economics of higher ed entitled “The Tuition Is Too Damn High.”  Last week, I criticized Washington Post blogger Dylan Matthews’ assertion that paying for a college education is uniformly worth it, arguing that although aggregate data on employment and wages suggests that an investment in higher education is absolutely worth it, multiple factors make the proposition more complicated (and risky) than many observers think. Those observers include parents, many of whom feel like they have forked over thousands of dollars for nothing, especially if they see their kids back in the basement or working at CVS.

Today, the Post ran a piece with the headline “Is Government Aid Making Tuition More Expensive?” Bill Bennett decisively said yes in 1987, writing an op-ed for the New York Times entitled “Our Greedy Colleges.” Essentially, the Bennett hypothesis suggests that a steady supply of federal money (in the form of student loans and grants) has allowed institutions to push tuition prices higher.

Matthews interprets multiple reports on the subject over the years to arrive at a fair conclusion: “what may be most important is the form the aid takes, rather than it exists at all.” In general, private colleges are the schools which have taken advantage of the student loan monster to pump up tuition; public four-year colleges and community colleges are suffering from hard times in state budgets. The most important work done on the Bennett Hypothesis is by Andrew Gillen, who released the report “Bennett Hypothesis 2.0” last year. Gillen rightly noticed that aid affects students in different ways. Pell Grants for a poor student is a much more productive investment than Pell Grants for a middle-class kid, who will often take the money to a more expensive school which doesn’t really need it.

Matthews’ take is just another example that the Bennett Hypothesis is very much a mainstream policy idea. As I noted in a previous post, Slate’s Matt Yglesias, Derek Thompson at the Atlantic, and Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi have all recently written pieces acknowledging that the federal government has been mightily complicit in the rising costs of college. Matthews seems to agree, writing, “All but one study I’ve seen found some evidence of a price response to increases in aid, for some section of the higher ed market.” The liberal consideration, if not embrace, of the Bennett hypothesis mirrors the shift on school vouchers, for which Bennett was also an early advocate. In recent years, this was largely the product of the popularity of Teach for America and the production of the movie “Waiting for Superman.” I recall Bennett talking about “Waiting” for Superman some time after it came out: “I’ve been saying this for thirty years, but it takes a Democrat for people to listen to it.” The same can be said for the Bennett hypothesis.

The Washington Post Oversimplifies The Value of College

Mark Twain once commented that Richard Wagner’s music “isn’t as bad as it sounds.” Despite daily sob stories of student debt, joblessness, and emotional disappointment, many defenders of higher education insist that college is absolutely worth it, for everyone.

This is a simple reduction of the argument that deceives many. Nobody disputes that college graduates earn more money over the course of a lifetime, enjoy higher rates of employment, and report higher levels of incidental benefits associated with a college degree, like healthcare coverage and personal fulfillment in the workplace. Fine.

But when writers like the Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews insist that college is a vital public good that nobody should miss out on, the question of “is college worth it?” gets wrongly conflated with “should everybody go to college?” Matthews writes:

So does college raise incomes? Is it an investment good enough to make widely accessible?

Yes, it is. Period. Usually, this would be the part of the article where I note that there’s disagreement and perhaps a slight weighting of evidence to one side or the other. I won’t.

Let me suggest a hypothetical scenario. Would anyone suggest that a mediocre student of no financial means borrow $32,000 per year to attend the University of Phoenix as a philosophy major? After all, the numbers suggest that the average college graduate will earn $600,000 more over the course of a lifetime. But wait: A graduate of a for-profit college barely earns more than a high school graduate. If we believe in regression to the mean, then our University of Phoenix student (if he graduates) will be poorer than if he just kept working directly out of high school. What about this religious studies major from Northeastern University? She’s $70,000 in debt with no job prospects attractive enough to let her pay down her debt and live on her own. At a minimum, even with a salary above the average median income, she’s probably 10 years away from any financial peace.

Saying that college is always worth it is a gross oversimplification of the question. It depends on if you graduate, what you study, and where you go. Not everyone is cut out academically for college. And the price is prohibitively high for most students, independent of financial support from parents. This is why it is so important that employers behind to honor educational credentials other than the bachelor’s degree.

For too long, colleges have set their own value, knowing that degree-holders fare better in life. But more people are seeing through the monopoly on learning. Higher ed reforms should be glad that 200 schools are now adopting the College Learning Assessment, a post-collegiate exit exam that measures cognitive ability, like the SAT. Employers, fed up with GPA as a proxy for intelligence, can now more accurately judge what students know. This will increase accountability on colleges to deliver students who have made quantifiable cognitive gains. And it will help clarify the fact that every college isn’t always worth it.

A Closer Look at President Obama’s Higher-Ed Plan

Obama speech.jpg

As I wrote last week on National Review Online, President Obama’s higher education reform agenda  acknowledges that decades of increasing government subsidies aren’t lowering the price of college. In fact, they have pushed prices to astronomical levels. This theory is known as the Bennett Hypothesis, after former Secretary of Education (and my boss) Bill Bennett, who first noticed the link in the 1980s. For 30 years, Bennett and others have been criticized by many liberals for noticing what President Obama explicitly stated yesterday: “It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results, and reward schools that deliver for American students and our future.”

Obama’s tacit acknowledgment of the failures of federal money in higher education is quietly a watershed moment for higher ed reform: the Bennett Hypothesis has become a mainstream policy idea. Left of center writers like Slate’s Matt Yglesias, Derek Thompson at the Atlantic, and Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi have all recently written pieces acknowledging that the federal government has been mightily complicit in the rising costs of college.

But Obama’s political philosophy views government spending on public goods as an essential instrument for middle-class prosperity. So he stopped short of calling for a diminution of federal subsidies. He instead seems to believe that shifting federal money to the best performing schools will incentivize good behavior.

The centerpiece of his agenda is a new federal system of ranking colleges, which will rate schools according to access, affordability, and outcomes. Such a move upsets the professoriate and the university apparatchik class, who for years have been insulated from being accountable for their performance. Former Harvard President Derek Bok speculated, “I have to be somewhat apprehensive when any force as powerful as the federal government undertakes the task.” Rudy Fitchbaum, President of the American Association of University Professors, seemed to sneer at the fact that colleges ought to compete with one another: “I think that colleges will be looking at ratings – looking at who’s getting the highest rating – and that will begin to drive [where they invest] their money.” And Inside Higher Ed quoted Aaron Bady, a doctoral student in African literature at the University of California at Berkeley and a higher education blogger: “The idea that ranking universities according to new metrics will do anything to lower costs seems delusional; a lack of information is simply not the problem.”

If the President’s calls for accountability are already this unpopular among the higher education establishment, then credit must be given to him for trying to set the tone of reform and accountability. But in practice, I’m not optimistic about the prospect of a federal rankings system. First, the best schools will always be the ones with the students from the best academic and socio-economic backgrounds. This means that the rankings will always be preponderantly determined by economic inputs, not outputs. Secondly, there are so many differences in variables like size, mission, and resources among the nation’s thousands of higher education institutions that it is hard to rank them appropriately. Hall of Fame Pitcher Cy Young won 511 games, but played in an era when teams had three starting pitchers, and each pitcher was expected to throw a complete game every time out. Does that make Cy Young a “better” pitcher than Sandy Koufax, or Randy Johnson? Lastly, trying federal money to graduates’ salary outcomes neglects the importance of the liberal arts and social sciences. A school might turn out  a lot of smart, employed liberal arts grads (like Hillsdale or Amherst), but be eligible for less federal money. Cynically, we also might see a heavy emphasis on ranking schools by outcomes as a backdoor way of hurting for-profit colleges and universities (which deservedly ought to be criticized, but not to the exclusion of non-profits).

The shortcomings of the rankings system in turn exposes the shortcomings of the President’s plan for Pell Grants. He proposes financial incentives for schools which enroll large numbers of Pell Grant students, but Pell Grant students are the ones most vulnerable to never completing a degree. If the new federal college rankings system is built upon successful outcomes, what incentives does a school have to enroll these students? For them, the question becomes one of short-term (capturing Pell Grant dollars) vs. long-term (an attractive ranking) interests. This totally plays to the disadvantage of community colleges, which have high attrition rates and depend heavily on public money, but are still essential to educating many Americans.

Obama also called on states to stop cutting funding for higher education. On this point he’s correct; state schools have seen a decline in public money. But his calls for maintaining higher education budgets need to be accompanied by calls for responsible stewardship of money that public schools already get. While the University of California turns away thousands of students amidst a budget crunch, it still finds $194,000 to retain a vice-chancellor for diversity, plus a staff of underlings, which pushes the total line item to over $1 million.

Additionally, the President proposed a mish-mash of higher education reform ideas that most reformers can get behind. MOOCs, competency-based education, and three-year B.A.s all made it into the conversation. All of these measures in some way threaten the bottom line for many schools, but make perfect sense in view of lowering costs. Three cheers here.

Many of Obama’s proposals have to be considered in view of the Higher Education Reauthorization Act that Congress will take up sometime next year. While he can institute many of his reforms on his own, like the rankings system, Congress will have to take a hard look at how America keeps paying for school, and what we’re getting for our money. If the recent fight over student loans is any indication, it will be a contentious process. Obama’s plans might rely too heavily on big-government schemes to produce accountability, but kudos for him for setting a reformist tone that observers of higher education can get behind.

(Photo: President Obama discusses higher-ed. Credit: AP/Politico.)

Harkin Hamstrings Higher-Ed Reform

After weeks of squabbling on whether rates on federally subsidized Stafford loans would be tied to market-based interest rates or not, President Obama signed the long-awaited student loan interest rate bill on August 9th, 39 days after the old student loan rate expired. For students preparing to go back to school in August, many of which were probably making hard decisions about how to pay for it, those were 39 precious days of indecision. Thankfully, the bill’s provisions apply retroactively, making those weeks of concern irrelevant.

But this should have been a much easier process. Aside from on whether interest rates would be capped or not, the House GOP’s starting point on solving the issue was essentially identical to President Obama’s. Both from the outset, favored the solution that was ultimately signed into law – market-based rates. So why did it take so long to hammer out an agreement?

The answer lies in the misguided approach of progressive Democrats on the Senate Education Committee. And by most accounts, nobody was throwing more sand in the gears of the process than Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

First, there is this Roll Call story from July 17th, which essentially blames Harkin for the holdup:

Continue reading Harkin Hamstrings Higher-Ed Reform

Can Oregon Save Higher-Ed?

The state of Oregon has announced a new pilot program for funding higher education. Per the Wall Street Journal:

As lawmakers in Washington remain at loggerheads over the student-debt crisis, Oregon’s legislature is moving ahead with a plan to enable students to attend state schools with no money down. In return, under one proposal, the students would agree to pay into a special fund 3% of their salaries annually for 24 years.

The plan, called “Pay it Forward, Pay it Back,” would create a fund that students would draw from and eventually pay into–potentially bypassing traditional education lenders and the interest rates they charge. The state would likely borrow for the fund’s seed money, which could exceed $9 billion, but the program’s designers intend it to become self-sustaining.

This is not an idea without merit. In the first place, indebted recent graduates increasingly burdened with debt, and as a result are foregoing personally and economically entrepreneurial activities like buying homes and cars, getting married, or working the jobs they want. But is Oregon’s plan a superior alternative than the system currently in place?

My primary concern is one of perverse incentives. We already know that students whose parents pay more for college tend to perform worse in class. Why is this? Much like how welfare benefits can act as a disincentive for the recipient to find a job, students getting mom and dad’s help are not as dependent on their academic performance to secure future funds – the money will usually come, whether they perform well or not. The same study found that the same is not true for scholarship students, probably because they have a character disposed toward hard work, regardless of whether the money is coming or not. If someone else, especially the government, is paying the whole bill up front, there is less incentive to take learning seriously. I know this because my parents paid for most of my undergraduate schooling and I underperformed those peers whose parents I knew did not.

Moreover, a college education fully paid for up front could produce less incentive for students to major in in-demand subjects like STEM. If repayment is indexed to income, then a graduate might feel more comfortable taking up political science than chemistry. In 2013, personal “authenticity” in career choices is often much more of a consideration than earnings. He or she might be more willing to learn about Hegel but take up a career as a handcrafted canoe maker.

This is despite the fact that America needs more chemists. From 2000 to 2010, the number of American jobs in science and engineering declined from 5.3 to 4.9%. Considering the unchallenging and politicized nature of the humanities and social sciences these days, a swell of students into those disciplines might produce even more undereducated and ideologically misguided young people than ever.

Lastly, as the economist Tyler Cowen has noticed, there’s no defined measure of how to handle college dropouts under the plan. And Oregon’s plan also suggests to me an increase in enrollment that the system perhaps could not handle. And what happens in a budget crunch, when tax revenues decline?

All in all, however, I think the Oregon experiment is worth trying out. Its best for young people to start out without loads of debt, even if they don’t consider the implications of making higher payments years down the line. And as much as the plan has the potential to induce fewer people to major in economically necessary disciplines, one benefit could be a swinging of the pendulum back toward a view of higher education that sees it less as career preparation and more as the transmission of knowledge. That would be the real game changer in all of this.

How Elite Colleges Drive Income Inequality


In the last few months, there’s been a flurry of articles in the mainstream press acknowledging the same problem: a paucity of high-achieving, low-income students at elite colleges. “Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor,” says the New York Times. ABC tells us “Colleges Struggle to Connect With High-Achieving Poor Students.” Likewise, NPR is concerned that “Elite Colleges Struggle To Recruit Smart, Low-Income Kids.”

Why does it matter that top-performing low-income students aren’t making it into the best schools? After all, many other above-average schools would be happy to accept them and even give them adequate grant or scholarship money. And its likely that a worthy degree from a competitive institution would give these students at least a decent shot at moving up the income ladder.  Harvard grad Ross Douthat has an answer that Ivy-leaguers knew long ago: “…elite universities are about connecting more than learning… the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates.” The absence of low-income students in elite higher education underscores its failure to facilitate social advancement. 

Higher education in general hasn’t done a good job of serving low-income people. As Richard Vedder has noticed: “In 1970, 12 percent of recent college graduates came from the bottom quartile of the income distribution; 40 years later, the percentage was 7.3 percent.” Jeffrey Selingo, a writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, has pointed out in his terrific new book College Unbound that just 8% of the lowest income group gets a B.A. vs. 82% from the highest income group.

The picture is similar at America’s top colleges. The 200 most selective colleges take only 15% of applicants from in bottom half of income distribution. 7 in 10 students at those colleges come from top income groups. And the Harvard Crimson, summarizing an important NBER paper by Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery, reported that “only 34 percent of high-achieving high school seniors from the bottom quartile of the income distribution went on to attend one of the country’s highly-ranked selective schools.”

Of course, lower-income students have fewer resources for accessing top colleges: less money for application and test fees, fewer role models, fewer guidance counselors. These persistent inequalities cannot be mitigated by elite colleges alone. But assuming that the elite colleges feel some obligation to enroll low-income students, their own recruiting efforts are currently subpar. A recent op-ed in the New York Times captured well the pessimism of students from rural, poor backgrounds with high aspirations. The writer, who grew up impoverished in Nevada but is now an English professor, noticed that more selective schools didn’t appear in conversations about college:

By the time they’re ready to apply to colleges, most kids from families like mine — poor, rural, no college grads in sight — know of and apply to only those few universities to which they’ve incidentally been exposed. Your J.V. basketball team goes to a clinic at University of Nevada, Las Vegas; you apply to U.N.L.V. Your Amtrak train rolls through San Luis Obispo, Calif.; you go to Cal Poly. I took a Greyhound bus to visit high school friends at the University of Nevada, Reno, and ended up at U.N.R. a year later, in 2003.

If top colleges are looking for a more comprehensive tutorial in recruiting the talented rural poor, they might take a cue from one institution doing a truly stellar job: the military.

Of course, the U.S. military can recruit on a much larger scale than elite collegess due to their greater personnel demands and budgetary allowances. But their success should still inspire our elite schools.  To that end, perhaps our top schools should create regional cooperatives that establish contacts with and assist top students in the admissions process.

Even if schools did a better job of recruiting these students, it is increasingly not in their financial interest to do so. The current financial model of private colleges is to keep tuition prices high so as to capture a great amount of money from students who can afford to pay top dollar. This money then funds fanciful construction projects and superfluous creature comforts for students, which, as this essay in the Atlantic pointed out, do wonders to attract more of the same students.

Furthermore, when they do accept low-income students, many fairly prestigious colleges are comfortable loading up students with loans and shortchanging them on grants. A remarkable new report from the New America Foundation exposes some well-regarded schools’ practice of enrolling a low percentage of low-income students and sticking them with a high tuition bill. In fact, “nearly two-thirds of private nonprofit institutions charge students from the lowest income families a net price of more than $15,000.” At Boston University, for instance, only 15% of students accept Pell Grants (given to financially needy students), but the net price for those students is still around $24,000 per year. Similar statistics reflect the reality at Carnegie Mellon and American University. At Santa Clara University, 15% of the students take Pell Grants, but still are expected to contribute $46, 347 per year.

In fairness, many of the elite schools, most notably Harvard and Princeton, have a de facto policy of not letting any student whose family makes less than $30,000 per year pay anything. MIT, Stanford, and Rice are among the best schools on the New America Foundation’s chart, with Amherst being the very best (Pell Grant students there have an annual expected contribution of only $448 per year). I have written that an education at the most elite institutions is worth a high amount of debt, but at many schools, like the ones above, that becomes much less of a value proposition. The author of the report noted that colleges could enroll and support low-income students if they wanted to, but that the “relentless pursuit of prestige” deters them. Truly elite schools (with massive endowments and operating budgets) can offer more money than second-tier private schools that are grasping for elite status. They will always have a high demand of people willing to pay their tuition rates. Conversely, second-tier private schools have to compete harder for an ever-shrinking pool of the most moneyed clients. They will never capture the revenues that the Ivies do, and will eventually become forced to offer less money to their needier students. Alas, this is another unfortunate consequence of private schools trying to emulate the economic model of their elite counterparts.

Lastly, there is a fundamental disagreement between collegiate leadership and students on the reason for college. Only 39% of college presidents in a recent survey said that the price of a university or college degree was a “very important” consideration. 65% said it was a “very important” consideration whether the percentage of students from their university are able to get a good job. And these are college presidents.  Conversely, a survey of 192,000 freshmen revealed that students had many motives for going to college, but the answer that got the highest percentage of affirmative answers (88%) was “to get a better job.” In an age when most students care about credentialization over learning, the presidents are tone deaf. The proliferation of novelty and unrenumerative academic programs, combined with the polyannish sales pitches of admissions and financial departments, has produced at least two generations of college students who think they can major in anything, take on debt, and still be secure in their economic future.

Ironically, the abandonment of poor students by so many prestigious schools directly contradicts their core leitmotif: social justice. For all their rhetoric about “fairness,” and “empowerment,” the private university’s business model usually depends on enrolling an abundance of rich students and burdening the poor ones. Higher-ed watchers often scold the university from abrogating its role of in loco parentis, especially on sexual matters. Letting the poor absorb crushing financial weight is just as pernicious.

Let’s Listen to Those Scary Tales about Student Loans

Writer Christopher Shea argued in the Washington Post that the problems associated with student loans – and by extension, the cost of college – are overstated. Contrary to many of the sob stories in the media, says Shea,

“…it’s almost always well worth what it does cost — assuming that you graduate and, if your  loans are largish, study something that actually helps lead to a job. Perhaps the biggest  problem: All the dire talk about debt overload can scare off young people for whom  education debt can have huge long-term payoffs.”

Shea’s argument largely rests on research conducted by two professors, Robert Avery of Harvard and Sarah Turner of UVA. Their recent study found that the financial returns on a college investment are greater than ever – $600,000 over the course of a lifetime more than a high school education. This figure is actually lower than the $1 million number that is usually reported. Turner and Avery show that the median debt burden for students at four-year public schools is only about $7500, much higher than the usually reported number of $25,000 per student. By extension, then, taking out student loans for school is usually worth it, right?

Sometimes. But there are a few caveats to this claim.

Shea is right to point out that one (usually) must graduate for your loans to be worth it. But 46% of all students who enroll in a four-year college drop out within six years. Undoubtedly, all of those students entered college with every intention of completing their degree, and perhaps took loans to that effect. But sans the accelerating force of a college degree to earn additional income, this group gets bogged down financially. And as Avery and Turner themselves note, “For those who attend college and do not receive a degree, outcomes are notably stagnant, particularly in the lowest two-thirds of the distribution.” So Shea is right to encourage loan-taking, provided that students graduate. The problem is that they increasingly don’t. 

Continue reading Let’s Listen to Those Scary Tales about Student Loans

CNN Notices the Value of An Associate’s Degree

A recent piece from CNNMoney has noted the deflating value of a bachelor’s degree. Although community college degrees are frequently perceived as less “prestigious” than a four-year B.A., it turns out that nearly 30% of Americans with Associate’s degrees now make more than those with Bachelor’s degrees, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. And some data is suggesting that community college grads are outearning bachelor’s degree holders altogether in certain states. Notes CNN: “The average wage for graduates of community colleges in Tennessee, for instance, is $38,948 — more than $1,300 higher than the average salaries for graduates of the state’s four-year institutions.”

The data cuts against many Americans’ assumption that the value of a bachelor’s degree is superior to an associate’s degree. The truth is that, in the aggregate, the value of a B.A. is shrinking because a greater percentage of bachelor degree holders are majoring in subjects for which there is little demand. The economist Alex Tabarrok, for instance, has found that in the field of mathematics and statistics there were only 15,496 graduates in 2009, slightly more than the 15,009 graduates of 1985. This despite the fact that college enrollment has increased nearly 50% since that time. The economy rewards middle and high-paying STEM degrees more bountifully than it does those in the liberal arts and social sciences.

Conversely, notes Georgetown’s report, students who obtain Associate’s degrees are generally studying subjects for which there is actual employer demand: In 2009, “Roughly half of the Associate’s degrees were in career-oriented fields such as nursing, business, building trades, and information technology (IT).” The CNN piece featured a 24-year old making $50,000 per year as an IT tech at a TV station. He described the benefits to an Associate’s Degree well: “You come out with skills that people want immediately and not just theory.”

The best part of an Associate’s degree is that it can be a valuable springboard to a full-fledged B.A. Bachelor’s degree holders generally have a higher earnings ceiling than people with an Associate’s degree, but usually wind up paying far, far more for their education. In a fairly common situation, an Associate’s holder will have paid little for the first two years of postsecondary schooling, and then, as is often the case, may find their employer paying them to complete a B.A. It is something the 17-year old who wants to study anthropology should keep in mind. 

A New Model for Higher Ed?

fantastic New York Times piece
yesterday shed light on Thomas Edison State College, an accredited state
college in New Jersey. The article highlights TESC’s model of awarding credits
to students based on demonstrating competency, not earning credits in situ, as
is the norm at many schools. Many TESC students, earn credits by cobbling
together credits from myriad sources such as other schools, military training
programs, passage of competency examinations, corporate training certificates,
and open source online courses. Many graduates of the school have never set
foot on TESC’s campus, including a 39-year old mother of 10 who racked up 54
credits in 14 weeks via college equivalency exams, and one man who was accepted
to Cornell’s M.B.A. Program. “I’ve never been there, but I did buy a
sweatshirt,” he said of TESC.

like TESC and Western Governor’s University perform a great service to their
students. As the value of a college degree gets revised downward and online
education reshapes higher ed, more schools should realize that the premium they
once had on instruction and credentialing is vanishing. Awarding credits for
merely exhibiting competency might diminish a school’s “brand” in the
short-term, but has terrific potential to lure more students over the long run
who cannot or do not want to pay many thousands of dollars more than the $5300
it took for a 39-year old mother of ten to get her degree from TESC. “We don’t
care how or where the student learned, whether it was from spending three years
in a monastery,” George A. Pruitt, the college’s president, told the Times,
“as long as that learning is documented by some reliable assessment technique.”
Pruitt’s words affirm what many employers think, that the prestige associated
with a four-year degree from a “name” school is often wildly overstated. Mark
Cuban, billionaire entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, got it right
in 2012 when he blogged
that “As an employer I want the best prepared and qualified employees. I could
care less if the source of their education was accredited by a bunch of old men
and women who think they know what is best for the world. I want people who can
do the job. I want the best and brightest. Not a piece of paper.”

universities aren’t rushing to embrace this model. A representative from the
Institute for Higher Education Policy summarized the flip side of the TESC
model: “With these nomad students in higher education, whose students are they?
There are questions of ownership and ethical responsibility.” We might easily
respond: when have universities scrutinized their complicity in allowing
students to be encumbered by staggering amounts of debt? 

campuses have in our time have declared themselves cultural watchdogs against
societal ills like exploitative capitalism, social injustice, and income
inequality. But by not embracing credit-for-competency arrangements, schools
are unwittingly impeding economic advancement for people like Mercedes Foy, a
31-year old, first-generation TESC grad who earned her degree “without a penny
in student debt.” Foy applied credits she earned through her employer’s evening
classes offered at work, classes at Union County College, and 12 credits from
the CLEP Spanish exam. By not offering such arrangements, universities
undermine their own rhetoric on income inequality and economic “injustice.”
Would that their actions match their words.

But Will the Campaign for New Accountability Work?

push to make public the earnings of new college graduates and President
Obama’s “College Scorecard,” which he touted in his State of the Union Speech
last night, are promising tools to assist graduates in making the best
choices of school and major. Several states have also set up similar methods of
evaluating the “bang for the buck” criteria that is on the mind of virtually
every undergraduate.

can be thankful that public officials are starting to take meaningful steps to
avoid more of what is, perhaps, the signature financial problem of the
Millennial generation: student loan debt. Companies like and
College Measures have already made available similar metrics to inform students
about the expected returns from College A or B, but their audience is more
limited than what will one day be available in statewide databases. As the
states and the federal government mandate wider access to this information,
more students will increasingly make better educational choices.

there is a counter-narrative: increasing consumer access to data means a new
layer of accountability to which colleges are not historically subject.
Colleges, like the University of North Carolina, fear
such accountability, since has the potential to disrupt their business model.
The Journal profiled a 23-year old graduate of Goucher College
re-examining his choice to accrue $100,000 in debt as a political science
major. “Was college worth getting in the amount of debt I’m in?” he
asks. “At this point, I can’t answer that.”  For Goucher, a
blemish like this is ugly enough. A publicly accessible dataset of them will
force Goucher’s financial aid administrators, professors, and development staff
alike to change how they do business. For many colleges, that business depends
on sucking up huge amounts of federal student loan dollars. Conservatives, and
many liberals (as this essay
by Kevin Carey makes clear), know that colleges take advantage of easy federal
loan dollars to furnish an expensive product of questionable quality, and want
it to stop.

it will take some time to work out kinks over sample sizes, privacy concerns,
and whether or not data-based tools like this wrongly encourage students to
think about college in purely financial terms. Still, making students more
aware of likely outcomes is an essential piece of the puzzle in solving the
problems of student loan debt and high youth unemployment.


David Wilezol is the
co-author of the forthcoming book “Is College Worth It?” with former U.S.
Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. Follow him on Twitter:

Pleasure Island


The kids! The boys! They’re all donkeys! – Jiminy Cricket

Beloit College recently released its annual “Mindset List,” the findings of a yearly survey which attempts to take stock of the cultural touchstones that each generation of college freshman is, or is not, familiar with. Most of the observations are benign: “They can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it,” for instance. But, predictably, at least one of the observations on the list is distressing to those of us carrying the fire of the Western intellectual tradition. The List claims that “The Biblical sources of terms such as “forbidden fruit,” ”the writing on the wall,” ”good Samaritan,” and “the promised land” are unknown to most of them.”

Why does it matter if the Class of 2016 is ignorant of the source of these references? Educationally, such unfamiliarity is symptomatic of higher education’s drift, nay, dog-paddle, away from tradition of the Great Books, the time-honored mechanisms for defining and explaining Western thought and virtue, what the 19th century poet Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.”  In earlier times, we might have taken hope in the university’s liberal arts tradition to remedy this sort of deficit. Currently, however, there is little hope that the American post-secondary system is doing much to stem the tide of ignorance. 

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Some Hope for Higher Ed Reform

The current conversation on higher ed reform coming is unusually platitudinous even for an election year. This was clearest earlier this year during the battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on the proposed federal student loan interest rate, a subject fairly inconsequential in larger problem of sky-high college costs. In his Democratic nomination acceptance speech, President Obama claimed he would work to “cut college tuition in half” in the next ten years. How he would do this, or if he truly grasped what he was saying, is anyone’s guess.

But Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) have shown a great deal of care in crafting the “Know Before You Go Act.” The bill, currently under consideration in the Senate, will “support statewide individual-level integrated postsecondary education data systems.” More specifically, under the proposed bill the federal government will help states coordinate student educational and postgraduate employment data. The bill’s aim is to help consumers make better choices about the products they are considering. Per a press release from Wyden’s office, the bill focuses on making the following metrics more accessible to consumers:

  1. Post-graduation average annual earning;
  2. Rates of remedial enrollment, credit accumulation, and graduation;
  3. Average cost (both before and after financial aid) of the program and average debt accumulated;
  4. The effects of remedial education and financial aid on credential attainment and a greater understanding of what student success can mean.

We should praise the Know Before You Go Act for several reasons. First, instead of trying to instituting IPAB style price-control to help reform educational choices and costs, it respects the consumer’s volition to make his or her own determinations as to what is best for their particular circumstance. As Rubio said, “We want people to know what the new jobs, skills, careers in the 21st century are. The reason you need to know what your professional prospects are is that you have to weigh that against how much you will borrow.” He continued, “I graduated with $125,000 in student loans. That’s nobody’s fault – it was an investment for me. We want kids to have access to information before they make this investment.”

Secondly, the bill does not create a new federal database to obtain data by tracking students. Instead, its coordinates already extant data gathering mechanisms in the states. In describing this aspect of the bill, Wyden sounded like a Republican. “The new database is state-based and individually considered. The states can do this on their own but there’s a problem. There’s no uniform standards. If there’s no standards…then the system is failing families.”

Lastly, of concern to many conservatives, Wyden emphasized that the bill would produce a glut of computer science or accounting majors, to the neglect of the liberal arts. “This legislation is about empowering students to make their own choices. Are we going to miss out on opportunities for rich liberal arts education? I reject the either/or choice. A lot of universities are starting to pick up on labor trends – after 9/11 and Arabic for instance. Is it liberal arts or an education for a high paying job? That’s a false choice.”

Granted, it still seems Congress is far from addressing the main driver of college cost inflation – federal subsidies in the form of loans for anyone who wants them. Said Wyden, “Federal education policy is at a fork in the road. Historically it is about access. I want to keep that focus – support Pell grants, Stafford Loans, and all of the assistance that ensures access.” Nonetheless, a respected Democratic policy thinker is supporting a bill that is conservative in its temperament. By supplying greater amounts of data to consumers, the Wyden-Rubio bill is the right move in reforming an industry badly in need of more transparency and accountability.