All posts by Peter Sacks

Peter Sacks is an author, economist, essayist and social critic.

Are 3-Year Bachelors Programs Worth It?

Three-year bachelor’s degrees are back in the news mostly because colleges and universities are coming under heavy pressure to make higher education more affordable.

Last month New York University, one of the most expensive schools, launched its “NYU Accelerate,” which officials called “a new program that outlines pathways to make it easier for some students to graduate in less than four years.” Some 20 percent of NYU students are already on the three-year plan.

Three-year bachelor’s programs are far from new.  Harvard created one in the early 1900’s.  Bates College has run a continuous three-year bachelor’s program since the 1960’s But the question lingers, is the apparent resurgence of three-year BA degree programs part of the solution or a symptom of an intractable problem?

True, three-year degree BA programs attempt to reduce the average time to graduation with various institutional reforms that make fast-track education more feasible. But institutions may well discover that their three-year degree programs, however well-intended, will barely touch the underlying constraints that hinder many students from staying in college and graduating in a timely fashion.

Tantalizing Payoffs

The potential payoffs of three-year bachelor’s programs are tantalizing. Less time to a degree means students and families would pay less tuition, fees, and other costs of attendance.  In turn, colleges’ total spending per student would be substantially reduced, allowing institutions to educate more students for a given amount of spending on teachers, staff, administrators, and so on.

What’s more, such productivity gains would also enable states and the federal government to advance long-held educational policy agendas, focused primarily on producing more college graduates while lessening cost pressures on government-sponsored financial aid programs.

Daniel J. Hurley and Thomas L. Harnisch concluded in a 2012 report by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) that such programs “can help students by lowering opportunity costs, reducing tuition costs, encouraging better utilization of high school, expediting the path to graduate school, and providing a predictable, structured degree program.” While the theoretical benefits of the three-year solution are widely touted, most accounts of the trend are anecdotal, and actual economic data on the trend is scarce.

Since 2009, when the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities started tracking the trend, roughly two dozen of its members had launched three-year degree tracks. Also, many public universities have created or plan to launch three-year programs, including the University of California system, the University of Wisconsin campuses, and the University of Texas.

Consider Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated that a student at the Madison campus would save more than $6,400 graduating in three years instead of four.

The AASCU study cites the University of Houston-Victoria’s Degree in Three, which “can save students $1,400 on tuition.”  At the University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG), students   in its accelerated program “can realize up to $9,000 in tuition savings.”

At the University of California, officials suggest that its accelerated bachelor’s program will enhance system-wide efficiency. If 5 percent to 10 percent of students to graduate just one term earlier, that alone would open scarce admissions slots to an additional 2,000 to 4,000 students.

Who’s graduation problem?      

But for three-year degree programs to realize these promised efficiencies and savings, students actually have to graduate in – surprise, surprise – three years.  According to the most recent full-cohort data from the National Center for Education Statistics, just 41 percent undergraduates who began college in 2007-08, earned a bachelor’s degree in four years or less; 45.9 percent took up to 10 years to graduate; and 13.1 percent took 10 years or more to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Those are just averages.  The actual time it takes individuals to earn a bachelor’s degree depends on various demographic, economic, and individual characteristics.

For example, parent income plays an outsized role on one’s ability to complete college in a timely fashion, according to data provided by the 2008-2012 Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study.  Fully 63 percent of students whose parents were among the top fifth of income earners graduated in four years or less. By contrast, just 34 percent of students from families in the middle-income tier graduated within four years.

Total financial aid from all private and public sources is also a prominent predictor of the time students take to graduate. More than 65 percent of students receiving aid totaling  $17,800 or higher earned degrees in four years, while just a third of students receiving $10,399 or less in total financial aid graduated in four years.

Research has also shown that timely graduation depends a lot on one’s intensity of attendance.  Stopping college for a single term just once can add significantly to the time one takes to complete a bachelor’s degree and stopping more than once vastly reduces the chances of earning a degree at all.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the college-completion problem in the United States rarely applies to top-tier schools and the students who attend such schools.  Most all the determinants of timely completion of a bachelor’s degree are in ample supply at colleges with big endowments and wealthier students.

Given the extraordinarily large student subsidies at wealthy institutions and their ability to meet most if not all student financial need, students at top-tier schools have little financial incentive to accelerate their time at college.  Of course, that’s unless students want to enter the job market after three years instead of four years, but few such students are so financially strapped that early entry into the labor market seems desirable.

In fact, for students at top-tier schools, absorbing the opportunity costs of remaining in school can lead to substantial economic returns in the long run with the added social capital that comes from a traditional college experience.

Red Herring?

That picture is far different for less advantaged students at schools with modest endowments and far lower student subsidies. Clearly, the three-year solution would be of great benefit to students who now take more than four years to complete a bachelor’s degree.  But if too many students have a hard time graduating in four or five years now, then what’s the magic bullet that helps them graduate in even less time?

Indeed, the very reasons poorer students stop going to school or take five years or longer to finish school are often related to financial pressures and the ever-pressing opportunity costs of staying in school.

For many financially strapped students, it seems rational to drop college for a relatively good-paying job now — that doesn’t require a four-year-degree — instead of adding onto personal debt by staying in school.  Although such students are statistically likely to earn far more over a lifetime having the four-year degree than not having it, an individual student can never take that probable outcome for granted.

“For populations that most need to increase college success—such as older adults, lower-income and minority students—the three-year degree can be arguably construed as largely a nonstarter due to financial realities, college preparation issues and family obligations,” write Hurley and Harnisch.

So a three-year bachelor’s program might sound like found money.  But don’t look to this particular non-innovation innovation as a meaningful answer to making college more affordable to the very students who can least afford it.  For many students, institutions’ touting of accelerated bachelor’s degrees as a solution to the affordability problem amounts to little more than the marketing hype.

That’s why the Washington Square News, NYU’s student newspaper, called the university’s newly minted three-year bachelor’s program not a program at all, but “a gimmicky slap in the face,” by putting a fancy label on efforts students already are making to graduate in less than four years.

Noting that some 20 percent of cash-strapped undergrads already have maneuvered in the system to graduate early, the paper’s editorial board said, “the proposal is taking an unfortunate reality of NYU’s unaffordability crisis and passing it off as a solution.”

Don’t Look for Marxists or Keynesians in Economics Depts.

“It just isn’t the case that university economics departments are heavily stacked with libertarians and free market advocates. By roughly two to one, economics profs are of the interventionist persuasion, ranging from Keynesians to Marxists.” – George Leef.

Conservative critics of academia will tell you that socialism and Marxism are pervasive in such fields as history, English, and sociology.  The charges are frequent and pervasive, and not news. But the conservative critique of leftist homogeneity in academe now extends to economics. Not so. Economics is a generally conservative field that many observers would say is far less inclined toward radical ideology than other humanities and social sciences.

The allegation that the economics profession is dominated by big-government interventionists is perplexing, especially in light of the history of economic thought during the past several decades.

Libertarian Dominance

The Marxism allegation strikes me as completely off the wall. When I completed graduate school in economics in the late 1970s, the so-called Chicago School had already revolutionized economic thought in the United States, and it was not uncommon at most economics graduate departments to jump on the Chicago bandwagon.

That was especially true of the so-called Freshwater schools in the interior of the country.  My department was, in fact, dominated by libertarian-minded economists who believed that free markets and limited government were keys to building and sustaining private wealth and public welfare.  We had one closeted Marxist economist, a fish completely out of (fresh) water, and as one might expect, he was denied tenure after two years.

That was then.  Nowadays, consider what Brian Underwood said about Marxist economists in The Mendenhall in 2012:

“While the university system itself has not yet cycled out its old Marxist influences, Marxism has become so disreputable in several fields that it largely no longer exists within them…. Marxism has become so discredited within the economic field that it is an extremely rare occurrence.”

I put this question to Joshua Dunn, co-author with fellow conservative John Shields of Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University: what did his research show about the influence of Marxist economists at American colleges and universities?

His answer: “Almost none.”

No Keynesian Control

The claim that modern economics departments are populated with old-school Keynesian interventionists requires a more complicated answer, but the answer is essentially the same: almost none.

Invisible Hand Beats Hidden

Lawrence Summers was once asked to name the “the single most important thing to learn from an economics course today.” Summers replied, “What I leave my students with is the view that the invisible hand is more powerful than the hidden hand. Things will happen in well-organized efforts without direction, control, plans. That’s the consensus among economists.” (emphasis added.)

Prior to the Great Depression, the so-called “classical” economists held strongly to the conviction that free markets — including profit-maximizing firms and utility-maximizing individuals — yielded prices and quantities that always cleared markets to an equilibrium state. Supply created its own demand, according one of the favorite postulates of classical economics

The Great Depression

Then, of course, came the Great Depression and the “Keynesian Revolution.” Macroeconomics was born as a separate field of study from classical microeconomics. Keynes attacked classical theory, however elegant its solutions to microeconomic problems, as being dangerously out of touch with the economic realities of the economy in aggregate. That was especially so when tepid aggregate demand led inexorably to price deflation and then, depression.

Only governments, as the third leg of the macroeconomic triad that included consumption and private investment, had the power to circumvent the slow process of market adjustments in prices and interest rates. As Keynes famously said, “In the long run, we’re all dead.”

The Counter-Revolutions

But to claim that academic economists nowadays are cut from the same cloth as Keynes is contradicted by the subsequent counter-revolutions in economic theory since Keynes.

In fact, classical and neo-classical economists who  seized center stage from the Keynesian drama argued that Keynes’ General Theory was, in fact, a solution to a special case, and not a theory that would hold at all times in all cases.

Alfred S. Eichnerand and J. A. Kregel wrote in the Journal of Economic Literature in 1975: “Yet, to those who were most closely associated with Keynes at Cambridge during that period, the revolution proved largely abortive.” In the thirty years after Keynes, there was “little fundamental change in the way economists see the world.” In other words, Keynesianism proved to be but a minor interruption in the classical theory’s continued march to dominance of the economics profession.

The Neo-Classicals

Paul Samuelson coined the term neoclassical economics to mark the separation between Keynesianism and the new generation of neoclassical economists. He wrote in 1955: “In recent years 90 percent of American economists have stopped being ‘Keynesian economists’ or ‘anti-Keynesian economists’. Instead they have worked toward a synthesis of whatever is valuable in older economics and in modern theories of income determination. The result might be called neo-classical economics and is accepted in its broad outlines by all but about 5 per cent of extreme left-wing and right-wing writers.”

‘Sticky’ Prices and Wages

The essence of neoclassical economics was to relax some classical assumptions in order to capture the realities of “sticky” prices and wages in the aggregate economy. The neoclassical revision produced a happy crew of modestly active economic stabilizers (fine-tuners) but who were still attached to classical roots.

That period of relative calm – not only in the economy but also in the economics profession – lasted until the 1970s when the economy got caught in the rather unhappy situation of high inflation and a stagnant economy. This, of course, defied the common belief that low unemployment came at the cost of high inflation and visa versa.

Stagflation became the premise for a full-on classical attack against any government intervention in the macro economy. That effort produced the New Classical Macroeconomics, otherwise known as the new Neoclassical Synthesis. Economists from the University of Chicago, including Milton Friedman and Robert Lucas, led anti-interventionist attack, arguing that government intervention was useless when economic agents were guided by “rational expectations.”

Drawing on History

In other words, firms and individuals not only understood how the economy worked, but they drew upon knowledge of past economic history as a gauge of future economic activity.  Rational actors factored in the results of anticipated policy interventions, which might lead to nominal changes in economic activity, but not real changes (after inflation adjustments.)

Thus, only unanticipated intervention would produce any real economic change. Based upon this theory, any government countercyclical policy in the macro economy would be thwarted by the actions of the private economy anticipating the government interventions.

Economist Oliver Landmann praised the intellectual breakthrough of the New Classical Macroeconomics, which he says has dominated all “serious” discussion about macroeconomics since the 1980s.

Whispers and Giggles

“If the government was to intervene in any way, it must first have identified the particular market failure it wished to correct. But since the New Classical models consisted of perfectly rational agents interacting on perfectly competitive markets, the role for active stabilization policy was virtually ruled out by assumption.”

Lucas himself has been quite blunt about this. A political libertarian himself, Lucas was once asked in 1982 if there was such a thing as social injustice. Lucas replied, “Well, sure. Government intervention vs. laissez-faire and free markets.”

In a 1980 article, The Death of Keynesian Economics, Lucas wrote: “One cannot find good, under-forty economists who identify themselves or their work as ‘Keynesian’. Indeed, people even take offense if referred to as ‘Keynesians’. At research seminars, people don’t take Keynesian theorizing seriously anymore; the audience starts to whisper and giggle to one another.”

Depression Prevention

Lucas and the Chicago School had become supremely confident. In 2003, Lucas stated that that the new classical macroeconomics had finally solved the “central problem of depression prevention.”

Not only was the period a convergence in the widespread belief in limited intervention, but, at last, the new classical synthesis included the rejoining of macroeconomics with its classical “micro-foundations.” The classical project of renormalization was, at last, complete.

As Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw has observed, the economic theoreticians, the “scientists,” with their elegant mathematical models, largely proved victorious. Not exactly so for the economic “engineers,” who were more inclined to trade mathematical elegance for “realism” in basic assumptions.

Still, there remained an underlying tension between the scientists and the engineers.  Minor cracks in the new classical edifice surfaced. Robert Solow, a Keynesian, who won the Nobel Prize in 1987 for his earlier work on economic growth, cautioned that the (anti-Keynesian) new classical synthesis was “foolishly restrictive” by assuming markets always clear and ruling out short-term price rigidities.

The Minor Players

Even as the new classical macroeconomics was gaining dominance in the economics profession, a small minority of economists was raising doubts. These minor players were dubbed the neo-Keynesians, and guardians of the new classical synthesis were quick to dismiss the upstarts.

In a 1989 article titled, “New Classicals and Keynesians, or the Good Guys and the Bad Guys,” Robert J. Barro of Harvard and Stanford’s Hoover Institution opined, “Although some of these ideas may prove helpful as elements in real business cycle models, my main conclusion is that the new Keynesian economics has not been successful in rehabilitating the Keynesian approach.”

Failures Demand a Retreat

Willem H. Buiter, wrote in a 1980 article, The Role of Economic Policy After the New Classical Macroeconomics, that he agreed that policy failures demanded a retreat from the neoclassical (or sometimes called the neo-Keynesian) paradigm that had ruled mainstream economics since the 1940’s, but he questioned the new classical movement’s return to pre-1930’s economic theory.

“What is harder to understand is how, for so many, this retreat from the neo-Keynesian mainstream and from policy optimism has taken the form of a return to the neoclassical dogmas and modes of analysis that received such a battering in the thirties.”

And, presciently, it turns out, Buiter, cautioned that the new neoclassical models of Lucas and others remained oblivious to potential “departures from ideal economic behavior in good, factor and financial markets during cyclical upswings or downturns.” (emphasis added)

History Repeats Itself         

I mention Buiter’s prescient reservations about the new classical synthesis, especially its failure to include financial instability, only because history would again repeat itself in 2008.

That, of course, is when the mortgage-backed securities bubble led to big trouble. The financial crisis had been scoffed at by most economists as indicative of pending macroeconomic trouble. But, in fact, the collapse of the financial sector did lead to the Great Recession, now regarded as worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Thus, the “New Convergence,” as Woodford called it, when academic economists were largely as peace with the anti-Keynesian view that government intervention in the macro-economy would always prove futile due to rational expectations, suddenly faced crisis of its own that corresponded to crisis in larger economy.

Posner Weighs In

Indeed, writing in the Atlantic in 2009, Richard Posner of the University of Chicago law school, stated that Lucas and most mainstream new classical economists “contributed to the economics profession’s, and the government’s, complacency about the vulnerability of the economy to severe crashes, and contributed also to deflecting economists from improving their understanding of the risks of economic instability.”

No, We’re Not All Keynesians

Richard Nixon once said something to the effect that the whole world had become Keynesian.  That was, perhaps, true at that moment of time. But the post-Depression history of macroeconomics has been nothing if not an inexorable retreat from Keynesian ideas. Time after time, the classical view fended off challenges to its historic dominance of economic theory, either despite economic shocks or, in the case of stagflation, because of them.

Predictably, calm waters are followed by the next great exogenous “shock” –whether technical, financial or something else that no rational expectations theory is equipped to handle. The neoclassical model and the larger philosophical assumptions that undergird the model are rarely abandoned and not forgotten.

The pull of intervention is always opposed by a push toward non-intervention and the belief that markets will clear in the long run, and that all disequilibria (such as labor surplus) is simply the result of rational actors making rational decisions based on the best available evidence.  It remains to be seen how academic economists will ultimately respond to the lessons of the Great Recession. 

‘Regular’ Economics

Even in the wake of the Great Recession, the new classical economists have already begun to dig in their heels. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, Robert Barro contended there existed two types of economics: Keynesian economics and “Regular” economics. Barro continued to insist “that there is no meaningful theoretical or empirical support for the Keynesian position.”

But what about the recent work on wealth inequality by the French economist Thomas Piketty? Hasn’t his work moved economics departments even farther to the left? In his 2014 book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” Piketty concluded that the long-run rate of return on capital exceeded long-run growth rates in GDP, which created and sustained a sort of permanent income inequality in capitalist economies. Only state intervention and a permanent tax on capital could alleviate this tendency generation after generation.

In some circles, Piketty’s book was widely praised as a monumental breakthrough in the understanding of advanced capitalist economies. But it’s not clear what real impact his ideas will have on mainstream economic thinking at American universities.  I suspect Piketty’s influence in that respect will be far smaller than what anti-interventionists might fear.  First, neoclassical critics have already challenged the core concepts of Piketty’s assumptions, specifically relatively fixed rates of substitution between capital and labor in his model, contradicting decades of evidence that the capital/labor substitution rates are substantial.

Second, there’s little evidence that Piketty’s work has influenced the professional practices and standards of mainstream economists. Consider, for example, citation rankings of articles and papers in the economics literature. According to one such ranking maintained by the St. Louis Fed, just one 1995 paper by Piketty was cited 299 times, which ranked 1550 on the list — near the bottom.

The most frequently cited paper was Manuel Arellano’s and Stephen Bond’s 1991 paper, “Some Tests of Specification for Panel Data: Monte Carlo Evidence and an Application to Employment Equations,” which was cited 4,846 times.

Nixon Got It Wrong

Even if a new push for Keynesianesque interventionism comes, it will not last. Despite “exogenous” critiques from outside the profession, as we economists might call it, as a whole we’ve never abandoned our classical roots.

When I was in graduate school, the belief in the free market struck me as more of an ideology, a quasi-religious belief, than a science.  Generations of economics graduate students have experienced something similar.  The study of economic history or exposure to non-orthodox thinking is non-existent compared to the larger mission of reproducing economists with similar beliefs in the classical foundations, generation after generation.

Nixon got it wrong. We’re not all Keynesians now, not in 1971 and not in 2016. The profession’s classical identity has, on occasion, merely been stored in the closet, temporarily, only to rise again, attack the unbelievers and restore its seemingly timeless foundations.

Why that happens is another story altogether. But, meanwhile, almost every economist knows in his or her heart of hearts what he or she is supposed to know.  We’re all Smithians. Always were, always will be.

Affirmative Action for Conservative Faculty?

According to many critics, the case is shut. Higher education — the one American institution that should make intellectual diversity a first priority — actually appears to do just the opposite. In fact, some critics suggest that universities have made it a top priority to create an environment of intellectual homogeneity – to an extent that is rarely found in most other areas of American life.

A series of studies beginning in 1995 were conducted by The American Enterprise Institute and are often cited as persuasive evidence of the exceedingly narrow bounds of intellectual discourse at American universities. The initial study relied on the political party affiliation of professors in a handful of academic disciplines at Cornell and Stanford, using voting records of two counties, Tompkins County for Cornell and Santa Clara County for Stanford. That study discovered 171 registered Democrats and just seven Republicans at Cornell. In the Stanford sample, they found 163 Democrats, 17 Republicans, and six independents.

Related: Social psychology, a Field with Only 8 Conservatives

In answer to critics on the left who claimed The American Enterprise methodology was both overly narrow and politically biased, a far more comprehensive academic study was led by Daniel Klein, an economist at Santa Clara University. That study was published by the National Association of Scholars in its journal, Academic Questions. Klein’s methodology was essentially the same but the study covered many dozens of universities and academic disciplines across the country.

In his 2005 essay in The American Enterprise, “Case Closed: There’s No Longer Any Way to Deny It: College Campuses Are the Most Politically Undiverse Places in America,” TAE editor Karl Zinsmeister said. “Perhaps universities should recruit intellectually conservative professors with the same zeal they display for balancing flesh tones,” Zinsmeister’s essay said, quoting TAE reporter Ken Lee. “Political lopsidedness does not bode well for the educational process. While today’s students are taught by professors of diverse skin colors, they are not exposed to a diversity of ideas. The university, once dubbed the free marketplace of ideas, has been transformed into a gray one-party state where only one set of views thrive.”

Even some liberals agreed. In a 2012 commentary in the Christian Science Monitor, historian Jonathan Zimmerman, a self-described “devout” Democrat, based his pro-affirmative action argument by following the money flowing from college campuses to political campaigns.

Related: How the Leftist Monoculture Took over the Campus

Zimmerman found, for example, that at Columbia University some 650 professors and staff members gave money to the Obama campaign compared to just 21 who donated to Mitt Romney’s campaign. At the eight Ivy League schools, some 96 percent of staff and professors contributing gave to Obama. “Race-based affirmative action has made our universities much more interesting and truly educational places, adding a range of voices and experiences that hadn’t been heard before,” Zimmerman writes. “Hiring more conservative faculty would do the same thing.”)

Affirmative action based on political ideology seems a rather drastic step. In their forthcoming book, Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University, Jon A. Shields and Joshua Dunn Sr., have written what they describe as a glimpse into the “hidden world of right-wing professors.” While clearly sympathetic to the arguments that much of higher education is populated with faculty on the political left, Shields and Dunn (who do not disclose their own political preferences) also suggest that most of the conservative professors they interviewed for their study had managed to survive and even thrive in academe.

Related: Don’t Beat Up on the Faculty

Shields, who teaches government at Claremont McKenna College, and Dunn, a political scientist at the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, did extensive interviews of 153 “right-wing” professors in six academic disciplines at 84 universities. A quarter of their sample of 153 included political science professors, followed by economics (22 percent), history (19 percent), and so on. The sample of conservatives included just 9 percent who worked in departments of sociology. More than half the sample included full professors and fully 60 percent of the sample worked at Ph.D. granting research institutions.

“Such professors,” Shields and Dunn write, “tend to regard themselves as political scientists or economists who happen to be conservatives, rather than conservative political scientists or economists.” They go on, “And this means that conservatives are often tolerated by their progressive peers not because they are repressing their politics in a sharply ideological work environment or even because of the broad-mindedness of liberal academics — they are tolerated because large swaths of the academy itself is not very politicized to begin with.”

Indeed, at its core, American higher education is a centrist — and arguably a largely conservative enterprise — despite the personal political preferences of faculty or even the presence of a very small percentage of radicals on the left or right who are employed at universities.

To assess just how ideologically slanted higher education is in American society, it’s instructive to follow the money. The vast majority of institutions are publicly funded, as state legislatures, with majorities of Democrats or Republicans, have signed on to a social compact that has remained remarkably steady over several generations.

What Can Be Done about Campus Decline?

States have agreed that colleges and universities remain a pretty good bet to meet the economic demand for human capital, by educating and training new generations of Americans who will get decent jobs, have families, go to church, vote, stay out of jail and off welfare, purchase goods and services, and invest in the future for oneself and family. This production cycle works, in part, because the public and private sectors have decided to invest in future economic growth and political and social stability.  In fact, American universities have followed social movements, not led them. African Americans won their civil rights in black churches and on the streets of Selma and Montgomery, not because a cabal of leftist professors thought it was a radical idea.

Clearly, American higher education does not exist to promote or execute a radical leftist (or right wing) political or economic agenda. The very existence of mainstream colleges and universities depends on behavior that, ultimately, answers to other mainstream institutions that hold the purse strings. And that includes billions of dollars in private money that alumni, corporations and other big-money donors give to both public and private universities — especially private universities.

In 2015, Stanford University raised a total of $1.63 billion in charitable contributions, the most ever recorded in in a single year, according to Council for Aid to Education in its annual report.  Harvard, the nation’s wealthiest university, raised $1.1 billion from private donors.  In total, charitable contributions to universities increased 7.6 percent to $40.3 billion from the prior year — “the highest recorded since the inception of the survey in 1957.” More than 55 percent of that record amount came from private foundations and alumni. Except for UCLA and UC-San Francisco, the top ten universities receiving the most charity were all elite private institutions, including Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania. What’s more, private gifts of $100 million or higher totaled almost $1.5 billion, and went to just four universities.

It’s inconceivable that either the public or private sectors of the U.S. economy would provide so many billions to higher education institutions if corporations, foundations, legislatures and other aspects of mainstream society believed for one minute that universities would fail to serve the interests of mainstream society. Case in point: The Associated Press recently reported that a major donor to the Harvard Law School, the law firm Milbank, yanked its $1 million commitment to pay for scholarly conferences at the law school after learning its donation “helped pay for a discussion supporting an independent Palestine.”

A Conversation with Jonathan Haidt

Don’t be fooled. Despite the “charitable” moniker that exists to satisfy IRS rules for charitable organizations, individuals and other private sector donors give billions to American universities out of self-interest. Often, that interest is to promote an agenda that serves private financial interests and/or preserves the very social arrangements that have allowed major donors to mass great wealth.  Follow the money and then assess just how the professoriate’s political affiliation really matters to the real work of the modern university — which is the preservation and growth of mainstream society.

There’s another equally significant reason why universities themselves mitigate the academic effects of the political affiliation of individual professors in the humanities and social sciences. Unlike the hard sciences, where ideology rarely comes into play, the humanities and social sciences are the fields in which questions of intellectual conformity matter most.

A social science professor’s political beliefs undoubtedly influence the intellectual framework with which one poses academic questions and approaches scientific problems. But fears of abuse of personal ideology are probably overstated. Increasingly in the social sciences — and in some cases almost pervasively — the effects of personal ideology occur at the margins of far more dominant methods of inquiry and proof. Quantitative analysis based on math, statistics, and theory is now the dominant methodology to prove or disprove truth claims in many of the social sciences, particularly in economics, political science and, increasingly, in sociology.

Shields and Dunn emphasize this phenomenon frequently in their book.  Nowhere is method more pronounced than in the field of economics, which is also where the authors found the highest percentages of conservatives in the social sciences and humanities. In the authors’ sample, fully 77 percent of the economists surveyed identified themselves as libertarian scholars of the Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” variety, who believe that unfettered markets and limited government oversight most efficiently allocate resources and create wealth. But even that core believe is overshadowed by quantitative methods in economics, a field that since the second world war has come to resemble physics and other hard sciences in its reliance on data and quantitative analysis to prove or disprove causal relationships in economic and even social behavior.

The dominance of method in economics means that scholars from diverse ideological perspectives can meet on the same playing field of research — and get along quite nicely. The National Bureau of Economic Research is a case in point.  Economists from a wide range of ideological viewpoints participate in NBER’s research program, all unified in a common believe that scientific rigor is the most critical underlying ideology in their work.  Left-leaning economists from UC Berkeley get along with libertarians from the University of Chicago because economic science almost religiously adheres to that value. The economists’ personal views about human nature take a back seat to method — the data set and what the commonly accepted tools of analysis can permit one to prove from the data.  .

“Many conservative economists we interviewed emphasized a commitment to scientific rigor,” Dunn and Shields write. “As an economist at a prestigious university put it, ‘[politics is] just not what we’re focused on that much. We’re more focused on, ‘Did you ask interesting questions? Did you do the model well? Did you understand the method? It’s a science thing. People’s views of the science may be affected by their own underlying values but there is a common language, a common framework, a common methodology.’”

Even in sociology, which has long been identified as a bastion of true believers for leftist causes and impervious to scientific rigor, is being infiltrated by more by quantitative methods than by radical ideologues. The authors interviewed one conservative sociologist who had successfully presented a paper about the fluidity of homosexual identity. The sociologist argued that homosexual identity was not simply hardwired by biology but was also shaped by “’some element of social construction.’”

This sociologist commented on the reception his paper drew from other sociologists. “Sociologists, as a rule, if you’ve got an argument and a data set, are willing to listen.” This is not to suggest that many conservative professors do not suffer from genuine bias that comes from their minority status.  But one economist at a prestigious university said a lot of the bitter complaints from conservatives stemmed from professional jealousy. He noted a tendency for some conservatives to blame failures on liberal bias if their accomplishments or research activity did not receive the respect they believed was deserved.

Thus, two major influences have led universities to restrict the influence of liberal politics on the intellectual output of higher education: First, universities do not exist in a vacuum segregated from the demands of the larger society. In fact, it’s just the opposite.  American universities are completely dependent on the financial resources of its constituents in the public and private sectors.   Universities and the professors who are employed by them are largely servants to the larger society —  hardly institutions who employ an army of leftist scholars who have a secret agenda of subversion or revolution.  Second, in the interest of truth-seeking based on the science and method, political differences between conservatives and liberals are increasingly irrelevant.

Still, the charge remains: political liberals remain dominant in terms of percentage of total faculty on most college and university campuses, creating an imbalance of power that inevitably leads to the intentional or even unintentional indoctrination of students.

For their part, Dunn and Shields suggest that this concern comes mainly from outside of academe. Within the academy, according to their interviews with professors, even conservatives say the fear of indoctrination is not nearly the threat that outsiders believe. “Unlike some right-wing thinkers outside the academy, conservative professors do not believe that their leftist colleagues convert many students to Marxism, postmodernism, radical feminism, or other popular varieties of left-wing thought,” the authors conclude.

But even when faculty treat students with respect and professionalism, leftist tendencies among the faculty can often skew their teaching, Shields and Dunn suggest. Other scholars disagree. The sociologist Kyle Dobson, for example, argues the university experience often moderates the attitudes of left-leaning students by the time they graduate.  This suggests that students are properly exposed to a wide range of viewpoints at most American universities.  They key factor is whether students are academically engaged.

Whither Affirmative Action?

Nevertheless, fears about the disease of intellectual conformity at universities has prompted a genuinely action-oriented movement.  At the center of this movement is the Heterodox Academy, founded last year by a number of scholars who’ve made it their mission to promote more intellectual diversity on campuses, led by Jonathan Haidt of NYU’s Stern School of Business. The Academy is a self-described “mix of liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and centrists.” Haidt writes, “Scholars have been calling attention to this problem for decades… and nothing has been done. This time will be different.”)

Really? Besides teach-ins, conferences, websites, and calls to arms, exactly what can be done to simply create intellectual diversity? Besides the passage of time and slowly shifting viewpoints in the academy, what legal remedies are there?

Zimmerman suggests hiring preferences for conservative professors are justified in light of the Supreme Court’s Bakke decision. “I am not suggesting schools should have any kind of numerical quota for conservative professors, which every department or institution would have to reach,” Zimmerman says.  “We should simply take political leanings into consideration, just as we do with racial background, when reviewing candidates for academic positions.”

The rub, however, is that political ideology hardly ranks with race, age, religion and gender as a constitutionally protected category, and it would be inordinately difficult to make a legal case for hiring preferences of any kind for the largely white, male population of conservative professors.  For example, in the interest of diversity, hiring conservatives should be a priority for sociology departments. But, by the same token, shouldn’t economics departments, most of which are stacked with libertarians and conservatives, also be required to give hiring preferences for Marxists?

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine conservative professors suddenly being in favor of affirmative action for themselves while arguing against the same preference based on race. For that reason, Shields and Dunn say, most of the conservative professors they interviewed thought special hiring preferences for themselves would be a bad idea. One conservative sociologist told the authors: “I personally think that the only way we should bring up affirmative action for conservatives is the reductio ad absurdum of the diversity rationale, but not as a serious proposal. It’s just a f….. nightmare kind of scenario, a cure worse than the disease.”


The conventional meritocratic recipe for success is simple enough: study hard in school, get good grades, be involved in one’s community, find an appropriate college, apply for jobs in your field of study, and everything else falls in place. But that’s not how it really works says Lauren A. Rivera, author of Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs.

The path to success she sees is this:  Be born to upper-middle-class or wealthy parents. Know what academic tracks to be on by the end of middle school — knowledge that one acquires from well-educated parents and school counselors with low caseloads. Get involved early in the competitive sports favored by elites, such as lacrosse, tennis, sailing, skiing, golf, cycling, climbing, soccer, and running. Test well enough to get into an elite university.

Apply for a first job in an Elite Professional Services Firm (EPS), the “finishing school” for American elites. They include Wall Street, top management consulting, and exclusive law firms. After you’ve demonstrated that you’re “one of us” in the interview get on the EPS launching pad, which eventually leads to a high-status career in corporate America, politics, or the nonprofit world. Eventually, have children with a spouse of a similar class background, raise them in fine neighborhoods with top schools, sent them to elite universities, and the “virtuous” cycle of elite reproduction continues.

The book offers a rare glimpse into the hiring practices of EPS firms and how they differ from “the dominant theory of hiring” in the United States. The dominant model holds that employers hiring decisions are based largely on “estimates of human capital, social capital, gender and race. But that model is inadequate, she argues, because it fails to account for the increasingly powerful role that one’s class background plays in the recruiting and hiring practices firms that prepare one for leadership roles in society.

Rivera, a management professor at Northwestern University, acknowledges these trends with alarm. Her book goes further than most in that she looks beyond elite college admissions to how elite students find high-status jobs. As a direct observer and participant in the hiring process at an unnamed EPS firm, Rivera shows that elite education is a virtual prerequisite for entry into high-status jobs — jobs that according to the commonly viewed ideal of meritocracy should be available to any competitor on the basis of ability and experience. She demonstrates, convincingly, that’s not the case.

Raised working class in Los Angeles by an immigrant single mom while her father was in prison, Rivera says she was able to penetrate this rarified atmosphere due to her own experiences attending elite prep schools, colleges and graduate school.  She describes being “checked out” by the insiders of the firm in which she carried out her case study, who determined that she was “one of us,” before agreeing to be interviewed for her study.

The author says she did not set out to prove any particular theory, but allowed the data to drive her interpretations.  She concludes that the hiring practices of certain employers — ones that are pivotal in shaping the nation’s future leaders — are driven by considerations of class status. Class, she argues — and the social capital associated with class, is more important than virtually any other factor in whether certain high-statues employers will even consider an applicant for a job.

The key word is pedigree: the array of background traits, including the cultural, social, and educational capital passed from one generation to the next, which EPS candidates bring to the competition for elite jobs. But it’s a closed competition.  One must get through the gates first.  A candidate’s pedigree determines whether his or her application to an EPS firm is legitimately considered in the competition, or tossed in a slush pile of candidates who have no realistic chance to even compete for such jobs.

Of course, pedigree has always been influential in hiring decisions for first jobs at elite professional service firms.  While Rivera acknowledges this, she contends that the rules surrounding pedigree have changed over the generations.  Although elite employers have always hired on the basis of pedigree, the mechanism is now far more indirect. Finding young talent to fill society’s most important and highly paid jobs once was based on descent, the handing over of familial economic power from one generation to the next.

Today, elites have modernized the rules of entry. Rather than explicit bloodlines being the determining factor, the outcome biased toward elites is interpreted as just the rational outcome of the “meritocracy” at work.  Now, just as elite colleges contend that they admit students on the basis of cognitive talent, elite employers claim their highly competitive hiring practices lead to finding the best and brightest young employees.

But the way elites choose talent is hardly an open competition, Rivera argues. Rather, EPS hiring is a “sponsored contest.” While any college graduate is free to apply for a position, only those who are pre-qualified are actually permitted to compete.  The most important pre-qualification is earning a degree from one of two types of schools.  Generally, EPS firms maintain two lists of colleges from which they draw the applicant pool.  First is small list of so-called “core” schools that have fed firms’ talent requirements for decades.  The relationships are historic, steadfast, and habitual. Think Ivy League, especially colleges that are within a few hours drive from power centers of finance, banking and law.

Next is a list of “target” schools that firms have relied on for talent, but to a far lesser extent than core schools.  The pivotal difference between a sponsored and an open competition is the behavior of gatekeepers in seeking talent.  EPS firms go to great efforts to seek out the kinds of college graduates that fit the firm’s culture.  The firms go to the students, spending valuable time and money traveling to the listed campuses and recruiting for their applicant pool.

There is one noteworthy exception, Rivera says.  If a highly regarded EPS firm happens to occupy a booth at a “diversity” job fair, that’s likely no more than a show and tell, serving the firms’ needs to convey itself as an equal opportunity employer, which enables them to compete for federal contracts.  An open competition for jobs is far different: in almost no instance does a gatekeeper for an open contest seek out applicants. In this sense, then, a competition for jobs at the post office is far more competitive than hiring the chosen candidates for any EPS firm.

Then comes the sorting of resumes and the interview process.  At these stages, evaluators at EPS firms, often busy staffers and analysts who work with high workloads, are pretty much left to their own preferences without any firm guidelines from lowly valued human resource departments.  A typical evaluator will spend no more than 60 seconds per resume. In that brief moment, the evaluator scans resumes for positive signals of fit with the firm or red flags that suggest a bad fit.  These decisions are often based on personal biases, reflecting the evaluators’ own background.  Rivera calls this “looking glass” merit: evaluators choose candidates like themselves, with similar family backgrounds and cultural habits, down to the sorts of recreational activities and sports they might share in common.

For example, in the off-chance that a candidate at this stage had graduated with high honors at, say, the University of North Carolina, that would be considered a red flag.  “State schools,” as public universities are called in this competition, would be considered a sign of “intellectual failure.”   Candidates who’ve graduated form a core school are presumed to have the cognitive ability to do the job — although no actual evidence of this presumption exists, Rivera says.

One example stands out.  Rivera interviewed a hiring consultant named Natalie, who examined an application from Sarah, a graduate of New York University’s Stern School of Business.  Natalie noted that Stern was a top ten business school, but not a top three school. “She’s there either because her husband is in New York or she applied to business schools and she didn’t get into Harvard or Stanford.”  For Natalie, Sarah’s graduating from NYU’s Stern School of Business was a red flag, indicating some kind of intellectual failure.

Another red flag is whether the candidate happened to participate in the wrong types of sports in school. Evaluators often looked for similarities in recreational activities as a signal for shared interests and comfort level. One evaluator told Rivera he always asked a job candidate what he or she did for “fun.” The answer wasn’t acceptable if the activity were not something that was fun to him.  One candidate told the evaluator that he liked reading the Wall Street Journal for fun. An EPS evaluator told Rivera, “Nobody reads the Wall Street Journal for fun. And if they are unable to come up with something they do for fun, they are done.”

The classed-based hiring practices of EPS firms might not be so unsettling if such firms had not achieved the level of status, economic power, and influence that they currently enjoy in American life, Rivera contends.  Owing to the high pay and high status that EPS firms use to tantalize graduates, significant numbers of elite college graduates have turned to EPS firms for their first jobs out of college, ignoring opportunities at other types of employers such as manufacturing and educational institutions.  At Harvard alone, more than 70 percent “of each senior class typically applies to investment banks or consulting firms,” Rivera says.  In addition to the highly skewed demand for EPS jobs, this “holy trinity,” has become a well-traveled springboard to leadership positions in all aspects the United States.

Rivera cites research that America is unique among other advanced nations in the extent that people care about the reputation and prestige of one’s alma mater. In few other countries has one’s potential for leadership been so closely tied to where one attended college. As Rivera demonstrates, that has become a self-fulfilling prophesy of the new meritocracy. Exceedingly influential firms have uniquely positioned themselves as “finishing schools” for America’s elites, and yet there is virtually no evidence to suggest whether the system selects for the best, or simply the more well-positioned and well-polished.

For the most part, Rivera’s analysis is believable and compelling. We’ve always known such discrimination along class lines exists at elite professional firms, but she may be the first to inspect the detailed mechanisms that perpetuate the practice.  She fails, however, to address other types of superficially open, but actually closed competitions in which insiders are known to have unfair access to certain jobs in the United States.  The practice is not uncommon. These jobs would include children of police officers, firefighters, union tradesman and similar careers.  Remember?  “It’s who you know, not what you know.”

What’s more, one could argue that EPS firms are selecting candidates most equipped — intellectually, socially and behaviorally — to succeed in jobs that require an unusual ability to communicate and be comfortable with high-status clients in the corporate world.  Evaluators would naturally doubt, for example, whether a first generation college or professional school graduate attending a modestly selective university would have the polish to succeed.

Still, the classed-based hiring practices of EPS firms is unsettling, compared to the semi-open competitions for, say, police or union jobs.  EPS firms are unique in that they occupy far greater status, economic power, and influence than many careers. Owing to the high pay and high status that EPS firms use to tantalize graduates, significant numbers of elite college graduates have turned to EPS firms for their first jobs out of college, ignoring opportunities at other types of employers such as manufacturing and educational institutions.  At Harvard alone, more than 70 percent of each senior class typically applies to investment banks or consulting firms, says Rivera, quoting Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker.

In addition Americans love a competition that’s open to all comers, like the “Open Championship” in Great Britain and the U.S. Open here. The purpose of these tournaments is to identify the best golfer on the planet during a week’s competition, based strictly on performance.   The opportunity is open to any golfer, not just to those from private country clubs. Indeed, a competition rigged to pick the privileged few is abhorrent to our collective sensibilities. Exclusion based on the conceit that graduates of certain American colleges and universities are intellectually deficient is reminiscent of the days when the U.S. Army rated recruits on the basis of IQ tests.  Those tests purportedly demonstrated the intellectual superiority of immigrants from Arian nations over cognitively deficient immigrants like Jews and Italians.

“Because of the way they hire,” Rivera writes, “these employers end up systematically excluding smart, driven, and socially skilled students from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds from the highest-paying entry-level jobs in the United States, positions that serve as gateways to the country’s economic elite.”

‘Testocracy’ Is Here to Stay–Alas

In her new book, Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier attacks “testocracy,” the over-reliance on standardized tests in deciding who gets into college, who has the chance to attend America’s premier institutions, and who is relegated to the cheap seats of community colleges and for-profit schooling.

Unfortunately, Guinier’s “Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America,”” contains a number of unexamined assumptions or logical flaws that critics of the prevailing meritocracy (myself included) have been making for years.  For example, Guinier claims that colleges ought to select students on the basis of democratic merit because doing so would be good for the society — as opposed to over-relying on academic merit that can detract from social and economic welfare.

By what authority can Guinier make such a claim?  Who determines that colleges and universities are responsible for deciding what educational policies or admissions systems are in the public interest? State legislatures? Boards of Trustees?  If so, then we can agree that policymakers are free to assign colleges and universities with the mission of selecting students on the basis of “democratic merit” or any type of merit they choose.

Why Reform Pleas Fail

The bigger question: Why have institutions largely ignored pleas to reform the “meritocracy” as we know it? Like some other critics, Guinier asserts that colleges and universities “ought” to be reforming admissions to include democratic merit for the sake of the “public interest.” But perhaps she ought to ask why the testocracy remains so intractable, and why efforts to upend it have largely failed to fundamentally change the way Americans look at merit.

To appreciate how entrenched is the “testocracy,” consider some history.  The story basically starts in France at the turn of the 20th century, when Alfred Binet invented the first intelligence scale for school children.  His intention was to create a modest tool for placing French school children in their proper grade. American psychologists got hold of Binet’s scale and commercialized it for widespread use. Thus was born an IQ test known as the Stanford-Binet.  Certain American psychologists convinced the United States Army to use the test on Army recruits during World War I.  That fiasco produced the dubious notion that certain recruits whose families had immigrated to the United States decades prior — Germans, Norwegians and other Nordic immigrants — were deemed to have superior intelligence. By contrast, more recent immigrants, such as Italians, Poles and Jews, were often labeled as mentally defective due to poor performance on the Stanford-Binet.

Nevertheless, “visionaries” at Harvard University believed that such intelligence testing could identify students who would find their natural place as future leaders in society. From that vision, the Educational Testing Service was created, and the ETS adapted the Stanford-Binet to produce the first Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Binet himself had observed that doctors’ and professors’ sons outperformed the children of carpenters and bricklayers on his school placement scale.  Decades later, SAT scores largely demonstrated that America’s future leaders would also come from the very established, well-educated families who already dominated the ranks of Harvard, Princeton and Yale. If, before the SAT, the privilege to attend Harvard was passed down on the basis of blood heritage, after the SAT such privilege was reproduced by means of the “scientific” veracity of an objective test.  The test proved that the established order was also the properly deserved order.

And so the much-maligned “testocracy” ship sailed long ago, and it has never wavered from its course. This, despite its psychometric flaws, which can lead to wrong or incomplete assessments of human ability.  We know that the SAT and tests like it have a limited ability to predict future performance in school or other real-world endeavors.  We know that such tests tend to select for people who excel in logical-mathematical ability, as opposed to creative ability and deeper thinking styles. We know that such tests correlate to parental income and education–the “Volvo Effect,” as it were–to a far greater degree than other measures of academic performance, such as grades or portfolio assessments. We know all these things. And, yet they do not matter.

A Permanent Fixture?

Instead of arguing ad infinitum that colleges and universities “ought” to revolutionize the way we understand and measure merit, perhaps it’s time to concede that, realistically, that debate is settled, and that continuing to recycle the same arguments decade after decade is, at last, a completely useless exercise.

Admissions committees at selective colleges and universities — the theatre in which these issues actually matter — don’t care about the SAT’s predictive validity or lack thereof.  Parents do not care how well the SAT predicts academic success.  Students don’t care either.

The SAT’s capacity as both a fair and accurate tool does not matter.  And few people beyond the usual critics care because it’s in nobody’s interest to care — except perhaps to those disenfranchised students and families who might, by some democratic measures of achievement, deserve to be chosen, but aren’t.

Forget about predictive validity and forget that some children from economically and culturally well-endowed families start the meritocracy game far ahead of other children born with fewer economic and cultural advantages.  Higher education authorities largely give lip service to these inequities. Even affirmative action policies tinker with the prevailing merit system on the margins, affecting a relatively small number of students at selective colleges and universities.   And, as Guinier herself concedes, the racial or ethnic minorities who benefit from affirmative action, are people of color who often come from relatively well- educated and affluent families.

The SAT as a Market Signal

From an economist’s perspective, the real reason the “testocracy” will not disappear is that the SAT and tests like it serve an important market signaling device in the higher education marketplace.  While most markets depend on price and value as the primary market signals for consumers and producers, higher education is a special case. Like it or not, higher education in the United States does operate under the glare of the “public interest.”  But the parameters the public interest are often vague and undefined, leaving colleges and universities free to enact business models they believe will maximize their own private interests while taking heed of some vague social contract.

Because of this vaguely defined public interest, educational authorities don’t allow price and value alone to determine who attends their institutions.  Were colleges to rely on strictly on price and value, the real prices that consumers would pay for elite higher education would most likely climb to unaffordable levels for all but the top 10 percent of households.

To be sure, elite education is already approaching this level of exclusivity, but it’s moderated by institutional aid, allocated on the basis of financial need.  Rich schools — like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, or Yale — can subsidize capable students to such a degree that families need only pay a fraction of the true price, as determined by supply and demand.

Insanely Intense Competition

The role of the SAT is peculiar indeed.  Because institutions can’t rely strictly on a true market price, their allocation of subsidies is easily determined by a second-best solution: SAT scores.   It goes without saying that, in recent years, the competition for obtaining high SAT scores — sufficient to obtain access to richly endowed colleges and universities — has become insanely intense.

An SAT score is a simple market signal that correlates almost perfectly with the degree of selectivity of a given college or university.  Without the SAT or an equivalent clear market signal to partially substitute for price, the market would become insanely complex, involving transactions costs that would push up the price of higher education even higher, begging the question of who or what would bear the burden of these extra costs.

But the SAT avoids all that.  Owned by the College Board, a not-for-profit organization, the SAT serves some vague “public interest” in that it purports to measure merit of some sort, however flawed.  At the same time, the SAT easily sorts students into classes of student consumers who are most likely to “fit” the business model of a particular institution.  An SAT score in the 95th to 99th percentile easily identifies a pool of students from which a highly selective college or university choses which individuals to subsidize to one degree or another.  With highly sophisticated market segmentation techniques, risk-averse institutions know that for a given geographic location, a certain SAT score range will yield low-risk students who are “worth” subsidizing.

Low-risk students typically come from certain geographic locations and demographic markers, including income, wealth, home prices, education levels, and so on.   Low-risk students eventually graduate, find lucrative careers and join alumni organizations.   Alumni are called upon to donate back to institutions to build and maintain the very endowments that helped subsidize their education in the first place.  Alumni have children and grandchildren who become legacies who are provided generous admissions advantages. Thus the virtually self-perpetuating cycle goes on.

 Excluded from the Pool

To be sure, this highly competitive environment results in the exclusion of untold numbers of students.  This includes those who are essentially not allowed to even enter the competition because their unacceptable SAT scores exclude them from the viable application pool in the first place; and this competition also excludes the vast majority of students who, despite impressive credentials, are not selected from the viable applicant pool.

Yes, this competition yields results that might justifiably be called “unfair.” But the market seems to work with a fair degree of clarity and predictability.  That surely is worth a ton of value for both institutions and the larger society, and needs to be factored in any equation for reforming the meritocracy as we know it.

In order to compensate for these inequalities, Guinier argues that colleges and universities ought to employ selection methods that take into account “democratic” merit, including the many sorts of non-cognitive intelligences that help individuals function in groups and maximize the effectiveness of groups.  She believes that replacing “testocratic” merit with “democratic” merit would ultimately, be in the best interest of democratic society.

But I believe she discounts the degree to which existing admissions systems already take into account talents and skills that are not necessarily captured by classroom grades and test scores.  For the relatively high-scoring students who do make the pool of viable candidates, colleges do look carefully at non-cognitive factors and experiences that might tip the scales.

What’s more, a number of colleges and universities have in recent years become “SAT optional,” meaning that students can chose to submit test scores or not.  Obviously, those who choose not to submit scores must demonstrate merit in a variety of other ways that include Guinier’s “democratic” merit.  At some major universities, such as the University of California, academic measures still predominate, but lower-scoring students do have the opportunity to demonstrate how they have overcome barriers of poverty and disadvantage, providing a larger context in which to interpret their modest SAT score.

In the end, there is good news and bad for Guinier.  The bad news is that history, habit, and the nature of the higher education marketplace have made her book largely irrelevant.  Testocracy is here to stay and will continue to play a decisive role in American higher education. But, the good news for Guinier is that the enterprise is flexible.  Exactly what the public interest really is remains sufficiently vague. That means that colleges and universities are free to modify testocracy on their campuses as they choose. There will be ample opportunity for experimentation and discovering new and interesting ways to tap into the nation’s vast pool of undiscovered talent.  There’s no doubt the country cannot afford to waste human talent.  But, unless and until the courts or legislatures or boards of trustees settle once and for good exactly what “merit” should mean — a certainty never likely to be achieved — we would do well to stop pushing this particular boulder. For better or worse, it has become unmovable.


As a former journalist who joined academe, I was often struck by the obscurity of administration-faculty communication. Murkiness prevailed, along with the absence of clear subjects and verbs, and worse: the absence of clear meaning and intention. “Say what you mean and mean what you say” was more like “say it sort of like you mean and maybe mean what you say more or less without really saying anything.”

Why the need for obfuscation in running American colleges and universities? That higher education in a democratic society isn’t an isolated priesthood should be obvious, but it’s apparently not obvious to the academic culture that perpetuates these language crimes. The rest of us have too much at stake to permit higher education to get away with murkiness.

In a business as complicated as higher education, with several layers of authority often competing for power and control, communicative incompetence leads inexorably to a breakdown of the system itself — hence the need for books such as “Locus of Authority,” by William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton, and Eugene M.Tobin, former president of Hamilton College.

Vagueness and Doubt

Higher education’s problems with “shared governance,” particularly the appropriate roles and responsibilities of faculty, is the subject of Bowen and Tobin’s book. The phrase itself is emblematic of higher education’s language problem. The authors themselves question whether the phrase is even helpful in public discussion — its vagueness the very reason for their doubts. The authors are leading figures in higher education and are clearly aware that, ultimately, the public must understand why this seemingly obscure subject is important. Indeed, it’s evident that the authors struggle to convey their argument with the forceful clarity required for public understanding.

“At one point in our research were were inclined to drop references to shared governance altogether and to argue for avoiding use of the phrase,” the authors write. “We were troubled by the vagueness of the concept, the lack of even rough agreement as to what it meant, and the inclinations to use the phrase in sloganeering efforts of various kinds.”

Although the authors chose, in the end, to accept the term shared governance as “here to stay,” in the same breath they add that the phrase “cannot, however, be expected to settle most issues of consequence having to do with the precise definition of faculty roles (the subject of their book!) — it remains too amorphous, and subject to too many interpretations, to serve that purpose.”

Hence, Bowen and Tobin reluctantly chose obscurity over clarity, apparently for the sake of habit in the higher education priesthood. It’s no wonder, then, that American higher education is often viewed as undecipherable and out of touch with the American mainstream.

Hard and Soft Power

Whether a symptom or cause of its ongoing language problem, modern higher education is in the throes of a power struggle. The conflict is between longstanding, legally designated authority — what I would call the “hard” power of trustees and their appointed administrators — and the “soft power” of the faculty. Undeniably, faculty are the heart of the academic enterprise. If higher education’s central public purpose is the discovery, creation and dissemination of knowledge, that purpose alone bestows the faculty with an undeniable claim to power — despite the absence of explicit ownership rights provided under state laws.

Historically, Bowen and Tobin point out, faculty power within higher education has ebbed and flowed, largely depending on their market power at the time. In Colonial times, for example, the earliest American colleges struggled merely to find capable teachers. Course offerings were minimal and faculty were treated as lowly tutors and hired hands.

Eventually higher education grew up, fueled by population, demography and national wealth. By the early 20th Century, the fundamental power structure of colleges and universities, which would last for the next 100 years, solidified. The so-called “Golden Age” of American higher education emerged after World War II, characterized by phenomenal surge in high school graduates (the Baby Boom) and the revolutionary shift in national education policy, holding that equal opportunity to higher education should be available to all U.S. citizens, regardless of economic or social background. That policy shift produced the GI Bill and unprecedented percentages of high school graduates seeking higher education.

‘Absolutely Blunt’

Bowen and Tobin argue that those halcyon days of the Golden Age are over, a result of diminished market power of the Ph.D. class, the rise in adjunct and non-tenured academic labor and last, but not least, the Digital Age itself.

And that brings us to the title that actually describes this book: “Rethinking Faculty Power in the Age of Online Learning.” Of course, Bowen and Tobin, could never get away with such a blunt description of their work, however more apt than the politically correct, milquetoast language of their peerage. To their credit, recognizing that a moment of clarity was necessary for their argument to be actually heard, the authors become admittedly more direct 173 pages into the book, in the penultimate chapter.

“To be absolutely blunt, it is time for individual faculty to give up, cheerfully and not grudgingly, any claim to sole authority over teaching methods of all kinds,” they write.

Through the Golden Age, academic standards, content, teaching methods and so on became the uncontested terrain of the professoriate and their academic departments. But “Locus of Authority” argues that the digital age has altered this landscape to such a profound degree that universities can no longer cede to faculty the ultimate authority on the methods used to convey knowledge.

They cite numerous examples of institutions in which long-held assumptions and habits of faculty control over teaching methods thwarted systemwide efforts to create online programs of a sufficient scale. This list includes the University of California’s failed effort at adding a virtual eleventh “Global Campus” to the existing brick and mortar ten campus system. On the other hand, the authors praise CUNY’s “Pathways Initiative,” which overcame “paralyzing” local campus rules to establish system-wide reforms that increased completion rates and lessened the amount of time students took to earn their degrees.

With the tools of digital technology at hand, it’s no longer feasible to separate teaching methods from such vexing issues as college costs, productivity, efficiency, student access, equity, stratification and even graduation rates, Bowen and Tobin argue.

“Our purpose right now is simply to emphasize that the technological advances underpinning online learning argue against compartmentalized decision-making and lead inexorably to the need for collaborative approaches,” they write. “In short, these technological advances compel us to argue for a form of ‘shared governance’ that blends multiple perspectives and takes full advantage of faculty expertise — but that leaves final authority for most of these complex matters with administration and trustees.” (my emphasis.)

Administrative Hordes

“Locus of Authority” falls short in offering some realistic scenarios and mechanisms for just how their vision of a more “horizontal” decision-making structure would work, claiming that specific ingredients of this modernized view of shared governance need working out on a case by case basis. But the devil is in the details, isn’t it? Indeed, some critics would argue that the authors’ modernized vision of faculties’ rights and responsibilities amounts to just one more shot across the bow in a battle to diminish the faculty’s value in the whole enterprise.

In his recent book, “The Fall of the Faculty,” Benjamin Ginsberg argues, for instance, that administrative hordes are overrunning universities with useless layers of bureaucracy that have scant bearing on the higher education’s main job of teaching and learning. In an interview with Inside Higher Education, Ginsberg said this “administrative blight” was the result of “ambitious presidents and provosts” seeking ways of “enhancing their own power.”

I doubt that personal ambition and power grabbing account for even a small share of the large growth in administrative personnel in recent years. Other more fundamental factors are at play, including institutional ambitions to enhance prestige in the academic arms race, resulting in excessive spending on all the (non-instructional) elements that are perceived to be prestigious, including star faculty and big-budget capital programs. I should note that governing bodies themselves, not administrators per se, often endorse and encourage these costly efforts at prestige building.

Nevertheless, faculty’s fear of administrative excess is real, and unfortunately, “Locus of Authority” does not adequately address these fears — except to broadly suggest that faculty should always have a place at the table. The “proverbial bottom line,” the authors contend, is that faculty shouldn’t have the authority to veto system-wide efforts that might infringe on professors’ traditional roles as experts in the production and dissemination of knowledge.

And yet, they suggest, higher education’s teaching and knowledge experts should be present and accounted for while trustees and administrators devalue faculty expertise before the faculty’s very eyes. Faculty do have reason to fear that their fundamental role in higher education, as experts in teaching and learning, is being devalued. And talk of encroaching even further on the faculty’s role, such as what we find in “Locus of Authority,” is likely to inflame their distrust in governing boards and administrators.

Although “Locus of Authority” addresses the difficult issues of power and control within the university, I wonder if their perspective is skewed by an overemphasis on online teaching. The authors have a special stake in this topic. Bowen is author of the recent book, “Higher Education in the Digital Age,” which, like “Locus of Authority,” was sponsored in part by ITHAKA, a non-profit organization devoted to exploring how digital technologies can be blended into higher education to address such larger problems as access, equity and educational outcomes.

A Third Way

I would suggest that “Locus of Authority” is emblematic a technocratic mindset that begins with a technological solution — online learning — and then tries to find ways to employ the technological solution to reform higher education, with or without faculty support. That’s exactly the kind of mindset that leads to mistrust, messy communication and to, ultimately, systems that seem incapable of true reform.

But perhaps there is a third way. I’m referring to a way that starts with real leadership at the top of the food chain, in this case, the duly appointed governing boards.

In a 2013 essay in Trusteeship, a magazine published the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, former Harvard president Derek Bok argues for exactly this approach. Bok, who collaborated with Bowen on “The Shape of the River,” one of the most noteworthy books on higher education in recent years, suggests that higher education institutions must first accept responsibility for making little or no progress in addressing the two most pressing problems of higher education in the larger society: persistently low rates of college completion and disturbing inconsistencies in the quality of undergraduate education.

While these failures are well known and understood, the behavior of both faculty and administrators suggest that they are either blissfully ignorant of these problems or that they function in a broken system that seems inherently incapable of addressing them. The crux of the problem, Bok suggests, is an absence of leadership at the top, resulting in an ineffectual system of shared neglect, not in a purposeful system of “shared governance.”

“The persistent failure of so many institutions to do more to address the major problems facing higher education today seems to suggest a weakness in the governance of many colleges and universities,” Bok writes. “While responsibility for this neglect rests primarily with academic leaders and their faculties, boards must surely accept some of the blame.”

Too often, he suggests, trustees have relinquished their authority and responsibility to ambitious presidents and administrators who define their jobs as maximizing institutional reputation and prestige.

“Few boards have been notably successful in helping to shape the goals and priorities of their institution,” he writes. “All too often, board members have acquiesced in a vision of the future that concentrates on expansion, on tangible objectives such as new buildings and new degree programs. Above all, they have focused on a conventional view of progress that attaches more importance to raising the SAT scores of entering students than to increasing what they learn after they enroll—a view that pays less attention to improving the quality of what their institution already does than it does to climbing the ladder of conventional prestige.”

Thus, the real problem of “shared governance” isn’t that colleges and universities have a cornucopia of fantastic new teaching technology going to waste because of faculty naysayers. The failure of governance starts with boards of trustees, not with intransigent professors.

If colleges and universities were to seriously focus on the most pressing problems of higher education that would actually serve some public interest, then active, better informed boards of trustees must convey that message to administrators and faculty. Trustees must hire and fire presidents according to how well they execute their jobs in solving the problems that they’ve been appointed to solve.

Bok suggests than when publicly accountable trustees clearly convey the university’s mission to solving problems that matter to their communities, then administrators and faculty are likely to overcome turf battles and institutional inertia. It’s not the trustees’ job to solve the problems of higher education, but to employ the right people who can and will do so.

Administrators and faculty might find, for example, that online learning is not a panacea, but one of several important elements in addressing the problems of deteriorating academic quality, grade inflation, and low graduation rates. As another example, trustees of a regional research university might find that solving the most pressing problems would mean to stop trying to compete with large national universities for research funding, and devote more resources to teaching and learning.

“Once board members decide that genuine shortcomings exist,” Bok writes, “there is much that they can and should do, consistent with their limited role, to ensure that the administration and the faculty devote careful attention to the issues.”

When viewed through the lens of leadership, of real people communicating clearly and sincerely in an attempt solve real problems, higher education’s language problem will go away. And with that, silly academic speak and terms like “shared governance” will be seen for what they are–a useless annoyance to the job at hand.


How Colleges Fail Their Students—and Society

American higher education has seriously misguided priorities. Across the country, schools are lowering their academic standards while increasing amenities. Indeed, given the proliferation of luxurious dorms, world-class student exercise facilities, and gourmet dining halls, one might say that American colleges and universities emphasize recreation over education.

Unsurprisingly, students are losing out. In their new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa show that college graduates pay for the decline in academic rigor in low labor market success and unsatisfied employers. Also, poorly trained graduates are delaying their transition into productive adulthood.

Continue reading How Colleges Fail Their Students—and Society

What STEM Crisis? There Isn’t One

Hardly a day goes by that policymakers, educational leaders and corporate executives don’t lament the “STEM crisis,” the alleged shortage of American workers trained in science, technology, engineering and math.

These warnings come so often that the “crisis” is now perceived as an uncontested fact. Tapping America’s Potential (TAP), for instance, a group of some fifteen leading business associations from the Business Roundtable to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wants to increase the supply of STEM graduates by 400,000 each year.

Continue reading What STEM Crisis? There Isn’t One

Can Philology Save the Humanities?

In his new book, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, James Turner has written a rich intellectual history of what many American scholars would describe as the long lost art and science of philology.  A rebirth of philology is also long overdue, says Turner, who is the Cavanaugh Professor of Humanities at the University of Notre Dame. The book offers a compelling solution to the splintered, increasingly irrelevant state of the humanities at modern universities.  A return to philological thinking, Turner agues, would be an antidote to the loss of erudition, depth, breadth, and other maladies that plague the humanities in higher learning.

“The humanities today face a crisis of relevance,” the book’s jacket states. “Understanding their common origins — and what they still share — has never been more urgent.”

Continue reading Can Philology Save the Humanities?

The Liberal Arts Are Good For Your Career

Is majoring in the liberal arts a bad economic decision? Debra Humphreys and Patrick Kelly don’t think so. In their recent study for the Association for American College and Universities (AACU), they show that liberal arts majors enjoy comparable long-term career prospects as students who obtain degrees in more “useful” fields. Students who study the liberal arts do about as well as most college graduates in terms of annual salaries and employment rates. Furthermore, more than 21 percent of liberal arts and humanities graduates work in the top five professions in terms of annual salaries.

The authors also point to recent surveys showing that employers place a high value on the critical thinking and learning skills that the liberal arts cultivates. Eight in ten employers agreed that “all students should acquire broad knowledge in liberal arts and sciences.” In fact, almost 30 percent of employers surveyed said they wanted employees to have a range of knowledge and skills applicable to a wide range of jobs.

Recently, however, liberal arts graduates pay for their brain candy when it comes time to look for a job. Even those who value the liberal arts would have to agree that these are not the best of times for advocating a liberal arts education to the parents and students having to make big decisions investing in college and what to study.  The Great Recession exposed the vulnerability of a liberal arts education to a remarkable degree.

The “worthless” image of the liberal arts is not entirely without foundation. Fully 9.4 percent of recent graduates in the liberal arts and humanities (22 to 26 years old) were unemployed during the recession, according to a Georgetown University study last May. The average salary of recent liberal arts graduates was just $31,000.  Faring not much better were recent graduates in Biology, nearly 8 percent of whom were unemployed. Like liberal arts majors, the employed biology grads also earned an average of just $31,000.

Another important reason that liberal arts degrees might be considered worthless is that you need a graduate degree to make them less worthless.  In fact, graduate degrees make all majors far more useful in the job market. Turns out that if one plans on going to graduate school, studying the liberal arts and sciences as an undergraduate is actually useful. Compared to a 9.4 percent unemployment rate for recent liberal arts graduates, just 3.9 percent of those with graduate degrees in the liberal arts are unemployed, which compares favorably to most other graduate degree majors, including accounting, mathematics, and engineering, according to the Georgetown University study.

Still, the annual earnings for those with advanced degrees in the liberal arts are a comparatively low $65,000. By contrast, an advanced degree in engineering yields an average salary of $106,000, accounting MBA’s earn an average of $90,000, and an advanced degree in math will earn someone about $20,000 a graduate degree in the liberal arts.

Clearly, the Association of American Colleges and Universities and other advocates of a broad liberal education are putting the best face on such economic realities. If one is willing look beyond immediate employment prospects and considerable salary differences, and consider the lifetime value to individuals, employers and communities, then even the most ardent critics would probably concede that the liberal arts aren’t completely worthless.

How to Make MOOCs Work

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The ongoing hype over MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) parallels the cold fusion debacle of 1989. The technology sounded like a panacea, a cheap and endless source of energy.  Then it flopped. Another great notion down the drain.

Similarly, educational entrepreneurs once believed that massive online courses would revolutionize higher education. MOOC providers, partnering with some of the nation’s best universities, such as Stanford, Harvard and MIT, would offer free or cheap online lectures and courses taught by the nation’s most talented college professors.  Subsequently, virtually anybody with a computer and an internet connection could receive a first-rate education.

A widely discussed University of Pennsylvania study of MOOCs, however, dampened those hopes. Analyzing some 1 million users of 16 courses Penn offered via the MOOC provider Coursera, researchers found that an average of just 4 percent of MOOC users actually completed the courses. The completion rate ranged from 2 percent to 14 percent, depending on the type of course, the intended audience, and so on.  “Emerging data…. show that massive open online courses (MOOCs) have relatively few active users, that user “engagement” falls off dramatically–especially after the first 1-2 weeks of a course–and that few users persist to the course end,” the study said.

This is not good news for the great MOOC hope.  Indeed, the innovation offered by MOOCs is meaningless if their providers cannot concretely how they will address the biggest problems higher education faces today, including ever-growing institutional costs, administrative inefficiency, rising student debt, and limited access for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The last problem is of particular concern. The gaps between wealthy, elite universities and lower-tiered institutions has led to even greater stratification. One consequence of this trend is a growing concentration of knowledge and innovation among the “cognitive elite” trained at top-tiered institutions.  Meanwhile, low-ranked institutions have been designated as the gates of opportunity for lower-income and first generation students, without benefiting from sufficient resources to actually do that job well. The result has been a growing concentration of poor quality and mediocrity at the bottom.

Misunderstanding MOOCs

Unfortunately, much of the hype over MOOCs as a seductive, come-hither innovation was fueled by the media’s fascination with, and overemphasis on, elite universities and star professors.  But most of the online learning world has nothing to do with MOOCs. With or without MOOCs, online learning has become an essential part of higher education instruction over the past 15 years, either as complete courses or supplements to existing face-to-face courses.

In contrast to the Penn study’s grim findings, hundreds of “micro” level online offerings at all types of institutions have actually enhanced students’ engagement and persistence.  For example, the National Survey of Student Engagement — the annual go-to source for trends in student engagement and institutional effectiveness in higher education — has identified several key “learning strategies” that lead to more engaged students.  These include the seemingly simple and obvious, such as taking notes when reading, summarizing and organizing new information, and creating a study friendly environment.  In other words, students who are taught to use these methods become active learners, who also teach themselves to learn. As opposed to passive learning, in which students expect professors to hand feed them information only to be regurgitated later, active learning leads to better-prepared students and more satisfying educational experiences.

Contrary to popular belief, online learning appears to enhance active learning even more than in most traditional settings. Scores of yeoman-like online courses, geared toward matriculating students at colleges and universities of all shapes and sizes, have proven to be surprisingly effective.

For first-year students whose entire workload is online, fully 80 percent said they had ongoing opportunities to summarize what they’ve learned while taking the course. Just 63 percent of first-years taking no online classes were encouraged to summarize their learning milestones along the way.

What’s more, compared to taking traditional courses, online learning promotes greater engagement in learning by college seniors. Compared to 62 percent of seniors taking all traditional courses who summarized their notes after class, fully 73 percent of seniors enrolled only in online classes did so.  Another key outcome in college work is the ability to identify the most important aspects of a given reading assignment.  Some 92 percent of seniors taking all courses online had learned this skill — almost 10 percentage points higher than students having no online courses.

So it’s not the technology of online learning via MOOCs that’s the problem. The technology appears to be sound — and in some aspects even superior. The issue is how MOOCs have been deployed in higher education. Without being rationally integrated into the existing higher education system, MOOCs will continue to founder.

As matters stand, MOOCs come in all shapes, sizes and types geared to a huge variety of users.  In the Penn study, for instance, researchers classified MOOCs in terms of their apparent target audience.  The largest number of MOOCs was “enrichment” courses that anyone might take for the pure pleasure of learning.  These had titles such as “Growing Old Around the Globe,” “Listening to World Music,” and “Greek and Roman Mythology.”  MOOC’s aimed at learners in specific occupations were the next largest category, with offerings such as “Introduction to Operations Management” and “Fundamentals of Pharmacology.”  At the bottom of the list in terms of the number of courses were those geared toward college students, such as Principles of Microeconomics and Calculus.

In other words, the MOOC landscape is a hodgepodge. MOOC providers have built it, and “they” are showing up, intrigued by the novelty and the unusual opportunity to learn from prominent professors at top schools. But, students aren’t hanging around long enough to get any lasting benefit from the courses.  And the reason they aren’t hanging around is that the lion’s share of MOOC students doesn’t have enough skin in the game.  For example, according to the Penn study, the most common demographic group enrolled in MOOCs were well-educated “wealthy” males from the United States, whose participation in a given course declined rapidly after just a few weeks.

Making MOOCs Work

For MOOCs to work, a couple of things need to happen. First, MOOC providers must figure out how they can package their products for credential-granting institutions. In turn, a given institution must determine how, where — and if — MOOCs fit into an institution’s general competitive advantage.  That will depend on the nature of the institution.  A top-tiered research institution employing renowned faculty of its own would probably have no place for MOOCs. In fact, such institutions are the very ones exporting their products to institutions on lower tiers of the higher education hierarchy.

On the other hand, a public community college system, confronted with limited capacity and resources to meet student demand for key courses, might determine that a few strategically placed MOOCs would make economic sense if the price is right.  In the future, educational offerings at colleges and universities are going to look like a wheel, with MOOCs being only one spoke.  The instructional wheel will look very different from institution to institution.

The notion that MOOC providers must “package” their products for specific types of institutions was surely not the initial inspiration for MOOCs. Their founders envisioned MOOCs as a high-quality, low-cost alternative to formal degree programs, available globally to any learner with a computer and Internet connection.

But for MOOCs to be more than entertainment for mostly affluent, well-educated hobbyists, they will also require a more direct and trustworthy connection to the employment market. For that to happen, the job market would need to change in ways analogous to how military strategy has been revolutionized in recent years, shedding the vestiges of slow and massive deployments, replaced by smaller, faster and highly targeted ones.

Instead of burdensome and time-consuming recruitment of individuals with degrees and credentials obtained through institutions, some employers might find that, in some instances, they can quickly hire MOOC-trained individuals as short-term experts for specific high-level tasks and projects. This would require a dependable credentialing system that employers have designed individually or perhaps collectively.

The matching system between employers and workers needs to allow for less costly production of new, highly skilled workers. This suggests a hiring system less focused on degrees and credentials and more focused on individual knowledge, talents and creativity.  In other words, MOOCs might have an important role in a true meritocracy, in which motivated individuals can learn to become experts for particular tasks and be recognized for their excellence in the employment market.

The market will eventually sort out these things out. Despite mediocre results so far, it’s highly likely that MOOCs will succeed on some level and will claim an important piece of territory in higher education.  But MOOCs will never be the be-and-end all of higher education, or a panacea that will solve its many problems, despite the waxing and waning media hype. Realizing this is the first step to making MOOCs work.

Derek Bok’s Magnum Opus


Americans expect the impossible of their higher education system. We demand that it serve dozens of different constituencies; the political and public agendas of left and right; national economic imperatives; and contribute to the world’s scientific progress. Moreover, we require that the system perform these tasks equitably, maximizing the welfare of well-off and poor alike.

It’s no wonder, then, that criticisms of higher education have mounted in recent years. From the right, critics have charged that American higher education, fueled by excessive government subsidies, is bloated by wasteful overspending and overreaching. Critics on the left allege that higher education has lost sight of the American ideal of equal educational opportunity, promoting agendas that systematically enrich the wealthy and punish the disadvantaged.

 Now comes former Harvard president Derek Bok, weighing in on these controversies with a middle-of-the-road analysis of higher education’s present condition and prognosis for its future.  As its weighty title suggests, Higher Education in America is an exhaustive treatise on the subject, what the book’s promoters call the Bok’s “magnum opus.”

 An Encyclopedic Approach

At almost 500 pages, the book covers a great deal of ground, including the state of undergraduate education; professional education, including medicine and law; and, finally, the scientific research efforts of higher education system. At times, the book feels like a mis-titled Encyclopedia of America Higher Education, with prose as uninspired as an encyclopedia entry. Nonetheless, Bok has given patient readers a thought-provoking book that defies political stereotypes.  Because of its nuances, the book is a refreshing change from the openly hostile diatribes attacking higher education in recent years.

One might expect a former president of Harvard to be a staunch defender of, an apologist for, the status quo, but that is not the case. Bok does have an argument here, and he builds his critique slowly and without undue alarm.  He suggests that the higher education system as we know it, given the larger context and constraints that we place on it, is perhaps unsustainable. Indeed, he argues that the very nature of the higher education enterprise may be the root of its own demise.

Similar to other knowledge-intensive enterprises, the value of higher education’s output is tough to measure — even if we were to agree on what exactly its output is.  As an enterprise that intensively employs knowledge workers, who produce knowledge and train others how to work with knowledge, the paucity of performance measures leads to outcomes that threaten the whole enterprise, Bok argues.

Consider this scenario. Policymakers want to hold public colleges and universities accountable for any state subsidies they are provided. Legislatures want answers to their questions about productivity of colleges and universities.

What Legislators Say

“Tell us what you are doing to deserve all this spending,” legislators demand.

“Well, we are doing ground-breaking research and training the next generation of lawyers, accountants and engineers,” the university shouts back.

“But what are taxpayers getting for their money? You should be operating like any business,” says the Legislature.

To which the university answers, “Sorry, you can’t apply standard business measurements to higher education.”

And around this dance goes until legislators start withdrawing from the higher-education business by reducing state subsidies. “Since you can’t show us what good you’re doing this state, you’ll have to find your own money.”

Hence, the university starts jacking up tuition and fees it charges students.  In fact, state subsidies as a percent of public college and university revenues declined from 32 percent in 1980 to just 18 percent in 2009 — resulting in large tuition hikes to make up the losses. As a result, students borrow far more to meet higher costs. Other students decide the price is too high to even pursue a degree.

The inherent financial vulnerabilities of higher education lead to more unintended consequences. The scarcity of state resources intensifies the competition among colleges for private donations and funding. Overzealous alumni groups and boosterism threaten to weaken academic standards, as university backers lobby for relaxed standards and admissions policies for recruited athletes and other students favored by donors and alumni.

Activities Unrelated to Learning

Indeed, greater competition among colleges for funding leads to activities that have little or no bearing on teaching, learning and other core aspects of higher education.  The increasingly intense race for prestige and reputation in higher education is but one example. The prestige race has led colleges and universities to place undue emphasis on SAT scores of entering freshman and other pseudo-indicators of quality that have virtually no relationship to what students actually learn and achieve on campus.  These measures, do, however, enhance reputation, as measured U.S. News & World Report.

The prestige race also leads to empire building, as universities get caught up in building bigger and better facilities, launching multitudes of various enterprises in health care, entertainment, etc., while striving to move the college or university to bigger and “better” place in the higher education hierarchy.  Although greater prestige produces more private donations and bigger campuses, it also raises costs and effort to keep the largess going.  But for all this, the prestige race creates little value in terms of serving the public good.

To all this, Bok says American colleges and universities need to refocus on their core missions, asking themselves what is in the public’s interest, not necessarily in the interests of politically motivated university presidents and wealthy donors. “The public will often benefit more if four-year colleges concentrate on finding ways to lower dropout rates and improve the quality of the education they provide, instead of devoting their energies and resources to creating new master’s and professional doctorate programs in an attempt to become comprehensive universities,” Bok writes. “A metropolitan university that excels in teaching students is likely to add more value than it would by becoming medium-quality research institution.”

He continues, “Even so, because the contributions from first-rate teaching are hard to evaluate and seldom win public acclaim or achieve much prestige, they tend to be overshadowed by more tangible, measurable gains, such as higher SAT scores, new programs, and successful fund drives.”

The Good, Bad and Ugly

In the end, Bok’s effort amounts to a catalog of pluses and minuses, costs and benefits, and a rather complete list of the good, bad and ugly in American higher education. But despite all the problems, he invokes that often heard refrain about our system, that, all things considered, Americans still have the best system of higher education in the world.

But, he cautions, two of the many problems with higher education deserve immediate attention. As has been repeated by many experts and observers, Bok says that dwindling college completion rates must be dealt with sooner rather than later. Failing to make headway on this problem will not only lead to diminished economic growth for all Americans, but will make inequality even worse between the nation’s haves and have-nots.

The second most pressing issue is related to the first: higher education’s evolution over the last 50 years from a privilege of elites to what is now effectively a system of universal post-secondary education has been accompanied by a hazardous decline in academic standards and excellence.

Disturbingly larger numbers of high-school graduates now pursuing college degrees are not well prepared for college-level work. Add to that the dubious efforts of many colleges, striving to climb the higher education hierarchy,  creating more doctoral programs to create “research” that few scholars cite or care about. As a result, the quality of undergraduate education has suffered.  In fact, the combination of empire building at comprehensive universities and ill-prepared students being admitted to these schools has been a poisonous mixture for academic quality.

What is to be done? The answers might be found by examining higher education’s intrinsic flaw — the paucity of guideposts, standards and measures that allow consumers and policymakers to evaluate whether colleges and universities are serving the public well or not well.  Unless higher education can find ways to monitor progress in teaching and learning, institutions will continue to compete in non-productive ways, leading to overspending on efforts that matter little for teaching, learning and research that actually matters for the scientific community at large.

The ‘Calculator’ That Gets You Into College


Sophisticated consumers of higher education always understood that unless they were very wealthy they would rarely have to pay the full sticker price of college. By contrast, information-poor students, often from lower income families, were often unaware that a college’s stated price was not really the price. Believing that high-priced schools were clearly unaffordable, many high-achieving students from lower-income families would rule out even applying to such colleges, unaware of the relationship — peculiar to American colleges and universities — between sticker price and net price. 

An amendment to the Higher Education Act that went into effect on Oct. 29, 2011 was supposed to alleviate these uncertainties. It required every institution participating in federal financial aid programs to install and display “net price calculators” that would allow families to estimate the net price unique to their circumstances. Congress intended this requirement to increase transparency, and hoped the calculator would be easy to find and relatively simple for students and parents to use. Many experts thought the calculator would be a game-changer.  Continue reading The ‘Calculator’ That Gets You Into College

Average Tuition Discount for Freshman: 45%


The higher-education story of the week is about cost: colleges and universities are cutting prices. At least that’s the impression one gets from media coverage of the annual report from the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO). “Colleges Cut Prices by Providing More Financial Aid,” states the Wall Street Journal. “Private U.S. colleges, worried they could be pricing themselves out of the market after years of relentless tuition increases, are offering record financial assistance to keep classrooms full.”

Many colleges are “lowering” prices, but not because they’re messing with their hefty sticker prices. In fact, American colleges and universities engage in a massive system of price discrimination, offering students varying discounts from the sticker price depending on family income and assets, number of children in college, and other family financial factors. While the amount of the discount largely depends on a family’s ability to pay for college, many colleges also offer price breaks to students based on “merit,” as measured by SAT scores and high school GPA. 

Continue reading Average Tuition Discount for Freshman: 45%

Is Online Learning for Steerage?


In my 1996 book Generation X Goes to College, I predicted that virtually anyone
with a computer and a modem would have access to the storehouse of human
knowledge. As a result, higher education as we know would become an
anachronism, if not obsolete. The university’s status would diminish because it
would lose its competitive advantage in disseminating information. 

The recent emergence of MOOCs (Massive Open
Online Courses), however, raises obvious questions.  Are these new teaching methods as effective,
in terms of student performance, as real-life classrooms? Can these new
technologies bring down higher education costs? Former Princeton president
William G. Bowen takes on these questions and others in his new book Higher-Ed in the Digital Age. Once a
skeptic, Bowen now concludes that online learning programs will reduce the cost
of higher education without harming student learning outcomes.  

Continue reading Is Online Learning for Steerage?

Consumer Deals Coming to College Pricing

The end of higher education as we know it is no myth. Say you have three children and they’ll come of college age about two years apart. That’s a lot of money. But what if the college were to make you a deal? Buy one college education at full price, get the next college education for half off; and finally get the third four-year degree free. Or purchase two full-pay college degrees for the kids and, if they stay and graduate, you get a cash-back reward of $2,500.

This and similar deals are not farfetched. As The the Wall Street Journal recently reported, some private liberal arts colleges are experimenting with just such arrangements. The Journal cited Alma College in Alma, Mich., for its innovative pricing.  “We’re 127 years old, but doing business the same way as we always have isn’t going to work for the next 127 years,” Alma President Jeff Abernathy said.

Traditionally, colleges package a tuition/financial aid offer, which includes the sticker price less institutional aid, grants and loans.  Colleges engage in a system of price discrimination by extracting the greatest revenue possible from each student, priced individually. Some students pay relatively low net prices and others pay much higher net prices, depending on the student’s academic attractiveness, family income, and so on.  It’s a highly complex pricing system that would make the intricate market for wholesale electrical power seem like child’s play.  Complex, but also quaint, weird, and highly localized. Compared to most industries, the tradition-bound higher education market is antiquated in terms of providing consumers with easily understood information on pricing versus value.

But the higher education industry is starting to mirror other industries. Take ski resorts, which traditionally charged customers hundreds if not thousands of dollars for a season pass. Then, about 10 years ago, a local ski area called Bogus Basin near Boise, Idaho, struggling with unpredictable snow and an unsteady customer base, decided to slash season passes to $199. But customers had to act quickly, because the sale price was limited to just a few weeks prior to the start of the ski season. Thousands of locals responded to the price cut, and Bogus solved its cash flow problem in one bold powder dump. The seemingly radical notion — that consumers do in fact respond vigorously to prices — caught fire and spread to other resorts.

Similarly, the higher education industry could borrow from an impending revolution in golf course pricing. Ryan Moore, the PGA touring pro, recently launched a new golf club management company in Washington state, consisting of a handful of older Tacoma area courses that were struggling to stay afloat due to inflexible prices, weak demand, and stiff competition.

Sound familiar? Moore’s big idea was to offer customers three monthly pricing packages, ranging from around $49 per month to $99 per month.  Moore found a way for the pricing to better match customer demand.  Now resembling the business model of a health club, golfers agree to pay the monthly fee for a year or two. As a result, rounds have picked up, course restaurants and bars are busy, and steadier cash flow has replaced periods of slack demand and fair weather golfers.

Like golf courses and ski resorts, higher education pricing is steeped in tradition — tradition that will inevitably lead to extinction unless colleges and universities find more economical ways to meet customer needs.  Higher education is ripe for innovations in pricing, facing familiar conditions of under-used capacity and inconsistent cash flow. What’s more, these problems are is likely to worsen as the growth of high school graduates is expected to slow over the next several years.

Without a pricing revolution, many higher education institutions will fail sooner rather than later. When colleges are willing to shed vestiges of the past and adopt pricing schemes that better meet the needs of families and students, the happy result will be steadier business, more predictable enrollments, higher graduation rates, and more satisfied customers.

Stop Dumping on Student Loans

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Some critics have called for a near-total rollback of the government’s involvement with higher education, including the end of subsidies to low-income students.  Last month, for instance, Jarrett Skorup of Michigan Capitol suggested that state and federal governments should  quit subsidizing higher education altogether because the aid fails to improve individual economic prospects or the nation’s economic vitality. 

Similarly, Richard Vedder argued here that even liberals should support eliminating public financial aid for low-income students because “on balance (it) has increased income inequality in the United States.”  And, of course, there is Ron Paul, who once told NBC News that federal financial aid for needy students should eventually be terminated “because there’s no authority to do this…they’re a trillion dollars in debt, we don’t have any jobs for them, the quality of education has gone down. So, it’s a failed program.” Continue reading Stop Dumping on Student Loans

Let’s Expand Pell Grants Now

Twenty three billion more. That’s what it would cost taxpayers over the next 10 years to restore the federal Pell Grant to its purchasing power 40 years ago.  

The early 1970’s were the heyday of the Pell Grant, the federal program targeted to low-income students.  But now the maximum Pell Grant of $5,500 is woefully insufficient in today’s higher education market, having risen just $1,400 in the last 10 years. Even while the total program appropriation in FY 2012 was more than $41 billion, a relatively small 8 million undergraduates from low-income families received Federal Pell Grants with an average award of just $3,706.  Fully 76 percent of the grant awards go to students whose families earn less than $30,000 a year. 

To remedy this bleak situation, the Institute for College Access and Success advocates doubling the maximum Pell Grant award to $11,000. Their proposal will require the government to raise an additional $23 billion; accordingly, they have come up with a list of new revenue sources, such as levying a small tax on financial securities trades, increasing alcohol taxes, and eliminating certain tax deductions for college. Taking these steps would generate around $462 billion in additional revenue.

The ICAS’s calculations indicate that the United States has more than sufficient resources to make college affordable to millions of students who cannot obtain degrees because college costs are out of reach. As such, it’s conceivable that the Obama administration and Congress will trade middle-class tax breaks for more resources dedicated  to low-income students.  What the report fails to address, however, is that our politicians are slavishly devoted to the middle-class while low-income students and families have no political power. Unfortunately, well-meaning reports won’t change that. 

A Response on Cutting College Funding

Richard Vedder made the breathtaking assertion here yesterday that “public support of American higher education, on balance, has increased income inequality in the United States.” He claims we must “drastically” reduce government subsidies for education in order to attack income inequality.

He calls his view “non-orthodox.” I would just call it wrong.

Vedder states, for example, that income inequality between 1970 and today has increased “in tandem” with the growth in the percentage of adults with Bachelor’s Degrees. He suggests the relationship is causal: Because more adults have college degrees, the income gaps between everybody else and the rich are getting worse.

This is his proof that a more highly educated workforce leads to more economic inequality, not less. Similarly, we might also say that “in tandem” with the growth of income inequality in America has seen a steep rise in the number of double-car garages in American households. Therefore more double-car garages have caused more income inequality.

To follow Vedder’s logic further down the rabbit hole, in order to make income inequality not worse, it follows that the nation must reduce the numbers of double-car garages, i.e. the numbers of college-educated adults. That means government must tighten up on educational spending, financial aid, and other subsidies.

In short, government must drastically reduce or eliminate demand-side tools that effectively increase consumers’ wealth — and their ability to invest in education – or anything else, for that matter. And, while he singles out public investment in higher education as the problem, why leave it at that? Human capital investment is human capital investment, regardless of when it occurs. Why not attack the problem of income inequality by gutting government subsidies to first graders? According to every shred of evidence I know, in the long run Vedder’s “fix” would decimate wages and salaries, personal income and general spending and investment in the economy. In this bizarre world, sounds like a sure-fire way to exacerbate inequality, not cure it.

A little un-orthodoxy is often a good thing, a creative thing we need to help us solve serious problems. I regret to say that Vedder’s sort of un-orthodoxy is sadly wasted, and is no solution to income inequality or anything else.

A Liberal View of ‘Becoming Right’


a staffer with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the early 1970’s, would-be
Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. penned his historic, if awkwardly
titled, memo, “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.”  In that August
1971 “confidential memorandum,” to the Chamber’s board of directors, Powell
called for an unprecedented effort on behalf of corporate America to fight back
against the dark forces of Communism and socialism — and their agents in
government, universities and the mass media — in order to save and preserve
conservative ideals and American capitalism.

Continue reading A Liberal View of ‘Becoming Right’

Let’s Be Serious About Higher-Ed

The naysayers started their nitpicking the day after
President Obama, in his State of the Union Speech, presented his plan to
kick-start America’s sputtering system of higher education.  George
Leef of the Pope Center said “Obama’s talk about getting tough with
colleges over tuition is pure political blather.”  Hans Bader and others offer
another off-center objection: we don’t need a higher education policy.
Rather, we must reduce bloat!  There is too much frivolous spending on
higher education’s darling programs, such as campus diversity
offices.  There is merit to closely examining the spending side of higher
education institutions.  No doubt many programs do not find the real
target.  But one can shut all the campus diversity offices at every
American college and university, and doing so would do nothing to raise
college completion rates.  In fact, targeting diversity offices for
elimination could well compound the completion problem because many of
the beneficiaries of those programs are the very sort of students who
need to feel more welcome on college campuses, long dominated by
relatively well-off white students, white administrators, and white

Continue reading Let’s Be Serious About Higher-Ed

More College Aid for Low-Income Families, Please

college campus.pngWhen individuals seek higher education, why should all of us have to pay? After all, individuals decide whether to seek a college degree based on their own calculations of expected costs and benefits. That taxpayers must bear the burden of financial aid to these individuals seems unfair.

Given the billions of dollars governments pay individuals to help finance their college expenses, taxpayers must be assured that their investment is not wasted.

In short, we would rather not be sucked dry to pay for C students — whose weak academic preparation makes them unsuited for higher education — just so they can party hard for four or five years.

In a policy paper released this week, Andrew Gillen, the research director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, says he has the solution to creating rationality in our messy and unaccountable financial aid system.
Continue reading More College Aid for Low-Income Families, Please

A Dubious Move by the University of Texas

If college and university officials finally want to solve
the longstanding problems ofmediocre
retention rates and pitiful graduation rates, then a magic, off-the-shelf
solution awaits them.

It’s called MyEdu, a private company that claims its website
will help colleges solve the problem of disappearing students. How? By
allowing students to see such titillating facts as professors’ official student
evaluations and the grade distributions for courses they teach.

Continue reading A Dubious Move by the University of Texas

Are Student Debt Levels Ridiculous?

Megan McArdle of the Atlantic, with a few strokes of her blog pen, has just solved the problem of too much student debt and the college affordability dilemma — all while ensuring access to higher education for those who truly deserve it. That is, for folks like herself.

First, bowing to the widely circulated claim that student debt levels are out of control, McArdle would severely tighten access to credit markets for students and families. With tightened access to credit, that would force universities to tone down their greediness. As of now, McArdle argues, we should blame the rising costs of higher education on easy loan money, which fills student budgets only to be siphoned off by money-hungry institutions.

Continue reading Are Student Debt Levels Ridiculous?

Does Student Debt Really Matter?

IOU.jpgIn a recent essay in The Atlantic, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus lament that most students have to take out college loans. They write: “At colleges lacking rich endowments, budgeting is based on turning a generation of young people into debtors.”

While Hacker and Dreifus blame the universities for encouraging students to take on more debt to pay for lavish facilities and other non-educational amenities, others focus on student debt itself as perhaps the key barrier to college facing millions of students from families with low and modest incomes. Indeed, entire organizations have been founded on that very notion, such as the Project On Student Debt.

Analysts who belong to the debt-is-bad school of financial aid policy are correct in noting that student borrowing increased dramatically in the past decade, ballooning 128 percent to more than $96 billion, according to the College Board’s annual survey of financial aid trends. On the other hand, federal grants and institutional grants mitigated the rising student debt. From 2000 to 2010, federal financial aid shot up 136 percent to more than $146 billion; and institutional grants rose 69 percent to more than $33 billion.

Continue reading Does Student Debt Really Matter?