22.7.09

DOING MORE? My position on the state of education in the United States is that primary and secondary schools render too many people unemployable by way of an inclusive (read insufficiently challenging) preparation while higher education enables those failures by offering a no-penalty redo of high school, often for credit, and sugar-coating it as a mix of access and retention. Now comes Our President, proposing to augment enrollment, particularly in the community colleges, as a way of building human capital. In the Boston Globe, Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun sees an opportunity to expand that model.

Much of the concern has focused on whether high schools are adequately preparing students for college. (A survey of professors by the Chronicle of Higher Education showed that 84 percent believe their students are “unprepared’’ or only “somewhat prepared’’ to pursue a college degree.)

There has been little discussion about the inverse challenge: Is higher education ready to accommodate - and graduate - millions of additional students?

He sees in the proposal an opportunity to expand all the current management fads: for-profits, no-frills, flexible degree programs, online courses. Perhaps there aren't enough column inches available to make the case that any of these fads will be of any benefit to people who can't manage basic spelling and arithmetic or whose life management skills are weak. (Implicitly, I'm arguing that anyone who can manage these things is already in some kind of college. Correct me if I'm wrong.)

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne has a more realistic view.

It was good to hear a president say that community colleges are "an undervalued asset in our country . . . treated like the stepchild of the higher education system." He was also correct to emphasize how much upward mobility still depends on education, since "jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience."

But his proposal should be seen only as a first step. It's a $1.2 billion annual down payment to solve an enormous problem. The community colleges are in crisis because they are being flooded with students who cannot afford four-year schools, as well as unemployed workers seeking training for new jobs.

Moreover, many Americans will find secure and well-paying employment not by way of a college degree but by receiving training after high school for what economists Harry Holzer and Robert Lerman call "middle-skill jobs."

The high schools used to equip people with at least those middling skills. As long as the community colleges become the default backstop option for policy makers, there will be no reason to fix K-12.

The dean at Anonymous Community (somewhere in the northeast) elaborates on that community college crisis.

The major funding crunch at cc's is in the operating budgets, which covers salaries and ongoing expenses. Amazingly, none of the $12 billion headline number is aimed at shoring up the very operating budgets that are being gutted by the states. None. Not one dollar. This, while announcing the aim of nearly doubling the number of graduates produced. How we're supposed to double the number of students who make it all the way through without any additional operating funding isn't addressed. Basic math suggests three possibilities. One, it won't happen. Two, we'll find efficiencies of such staggering magnitude that we'll be able to double outputs with no new inputs. (I call this the Purple Unicorn theory.) Three, we'll get it from the students. My money is on three.

Expect to see much larger percentages of cc budgets to be covered by tuition than is currently the case. For full-time students getting the increased financial aid, that may not matter much. But for part-time students, or for students whose income is over the aid thresholds, this will bring real costs.

There's more, but I want to focus on allocating the resources. First up, via Phi Beta Cons, David Brooks in the New York Times, with a backhanded endorsement of Mr Aoun's position.

Real reform takes advantage of community colleges’ most elemental feature. These colleges educate students with wildly divergent interests, goals and abilities. They host students with radically different learning styles, many of whom have floundered in traditional classrooms.

Therefore, successful reform has to blow up the standard model. You can’t measure progress by how many hours a student spends with her butt in a classroom chair. You have to incorporate online tutoring, as the military does. You have to experiment with programs like Digital Bridge Academy that are tailored to individual learning styles. You have to track student outcomes, as the Lumina Foundation is doing. You have to build in accountability measures for teachers and administrators.

It's backhanded, because Mr Brooks notes the failure upstream.
I’ve had this discussion with my liberal friends a thousand times, and I have come to accept that they will never wrap their minds around the truth: lack of student aid is not the major reason students drop out of college. They drop out because they are academically unprepared or emotionally disengaged or because they lack self-discipline or because bad things are happening at home.
That prompts Phi Beta Cons' George Leef to note,
As for the academic and emotional problems that keep students from succeeding, they're rooted in our abominable K-12 system that excuses dismal results and inculcates false beliefs among students that they're doing very well. Trying to deal with those educational and attitudinal problems after high school is awfully late in the game — like trying to make up a four-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter. There's nothing the federal government can do to fix the problems of K-12, but Obama could give a speech pointing out that parents concerned about their children's education should look for ways of escaping the public school trap.
We had that housing bubble in part because parents who sought to escape have done so, by buying the house that comes bundled with the better school. The children of the ones who didn't escape have been rendered unemployable by the inclusive education they receive, but I repeat myself.

Also left unaddressed: will additional financial assistance do anything about completion rates, or will it be dissipated by rent-seekers? At Anonymous Community, larger Pell grants don't matter.
I was puzzled to see an increase in Pell grants in a discussion of increased aid to cc's. Most cc's tuition and fees come nowhere close to the maximum existing Pell grant. Raising the ceiling even higher won't help cc's one bit, unless we raise our tuition and fees pretty dramatically to capture some of the increase.
No rent-seekers there, unless that college adds four-year programs and improves the rec center. Mr Dionne sees reason to increase Pell grants, but perhaps there aren't column inches to address the rent seeking.
In 1976, the year Sotomayor graduated from Princeton, federal Pell Grants for low-income students covered 72 percent of the average cost of a four-year state institution. An excellent education (if not necessarily at Princeton) was, in principle, within reach of most Americans. But by 2003, Pell Grants covered only 38 percent of the cost of attending a state university. Her mother's quest to better her own and her family's lot through more schooling was also classic, and we're falling behind when it comes to opportunities of that sort, too.
The Pope Center is all over the rent seeking.

Americans have been complaining about the fact that college expenses go up faster than the rate of inflation for decades. All that complaining has had precisely zero effect.

Zero effect on controlling costs, that is. Politicians have tried to placate voters by increasing government student aid so the rising cost is more affordable, but that seems just to cause further increases.

They have a companion piece with more of the same.

A Christian Science Monitor column by Patrick Fleenor of the Tax Foundation addresses the regressive transfer implicit in Mr Dionne's column. Yes, it's great that a Pell grant covers 72 percent of a low-income student's costs at a state university in 1976. A few years previously, a not-necessarily-low-income student could swing 100 percent with a school year commissary job and a summer factory job. The effect, though, is to create future rich people.

Most American college students attend public institutions where tuition and fees typically cover less than half of the operating costs. Moreover, students at both public and private schools frequently receive generous government grants. As for those much-maligned student loans, the interest payments on them are often heavily subsidized.

Higher education subsidies are paid for with tax dollars collected in part from people who didn't go to college. This has created a scandalous situation where low- and moderate-income individuals with no college are forced to subsidize the process that helps others have high incomes.

That deprives them of resources they could use to make similar investments in themselves. Imagine the frustration of a mechanic who can't buy the latest tool that will boost his productivity and raise his wage because he is forced to subsidize someone else's pursuit of an MBA.

These unfair policies are sold as helping people move up but they unwittingly exacerbate income inequality, an issue that President Obama professes to be greatly concerned about. Yet the centerpieces of his higher education plan are boosting the American Opportunity Tax Credit and increasing college grants. These policies will only shift more college costs to those who did not attend college.

The Monitor ends up endorsing greater reliance on student loans. Tradeoffs everywhere. Loans get dissipated by rent-seekers.

Left for future research: any effort to make K-12 do its job so higher education, including the community colleges, don't have to redo it.

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