25.5.11

IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO DROP THE HAMMER.  Professors might earn tenure by investigating questions that others, including referees and editors, find recondite, and they might treat their classroom as a substitute for the live-comedy gig they really aspired to.  But they get paid to say no and to uphold standards.  Sometimes that's hard, as Professor X discovers In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.  I read through it quickly, and offer an even quicker Book Review No. 11.  The subtitle is Confessions of an Accidental Academic, and the book includes some of the factors contributing to that accident.  He first lands an evening appointment at a private liberal arts college, and then with a community college, teaching composition and other writing courses.  He has a day job, a working wife, and a bit too much mortgage for his own good.  His perspective, thus, is different from that of the mal-employed humanities Ph.D. kitbashing an academic career out of assorted adjuncting gigs while waiting for that Great Novel to go to press or that tenure-track appointment to open up.  We are accordingly spared the lamentations peculiar to individuals who stay in that situation, although we get a feel for the disconnect between the temporary faculty who come in at shift-changing time, as the tenured faculty and office staff head for the parking lot.

In the Basement began as an Atlantic essay that took some stick from assorted academicians, and some of the book is a response to those criticisms.  The book, however, is not another Generation X Goes to College, a genuinely angry description of the work, or lack thereof, of Californian community-college journalism majors.  It's not Clayton Cramer in Pajamas Media.
There are, however, a disturbingly large number of students who are wasting resources. Not surprisingly, there are students who lack the emotional maturity to be in college. They are unable to focus their time and energy on studying for tests and completing assignments. Many of these students have the skills; a few years at minimum wage asking “Would you like fries with that?” will probably fix this. (If not, there really is no hope.)

Some students are suffering from family or employment problems that make you want to go slap someone around: emotional wreckage from divorces, kids under pressure to work so many hours in family businesses that they don’t have time for their studies, employers who refuse to work around class schedules, and insecure men who resent “the little woman” trying to make anything of herself. These students may be wasting resources this semester, but perhaps nextsemester, they will have straightened out their complicated personal lives.

Then there are students who lack some very basic skills. In a recent discussion of the Pell Grant program, one commenter who described herself as an instructor at a community college suggested that Pell Grants should only be available to“those students who can write a complete sentence.” I have not seen many students who are that deficient. I have seen quite a few who lack the skills that used to be learned in junior high school: correct use of “their” not “there”; the distinction between “it’s” and “its”; that a possessive (“parliament’s”) is not the same as a plural (“parliaments”).  Trying to teach college level skills to students with such serious educational deficiencies is rather like trying to teach calculus to students who have not yet mastered algebra.

Ignorance can be fixed. This is one of our jobs at a community college: to help students who were not at the top of their high school graduating class reach a skill level that makes a four-year school at least possible.
Professor X has the commuters and the returning students and the non-traditionals, the usual gondola-load of Distressed Material, but he doesn't get down on them.  Page 37: "My students were unskilled and unpracticed writers, but they weren't stupid; they knew what the point of the comparison essay was.  The devil was in the doing."  So it is.  Professor X does not use his book to develop a coherent evaluation of the forces that left so many of his charges unprepared to do the writing.  He has an opportunity, page 79, to question the constructivist nonsense that I maintain is a fundamental cause of academic decline, but passes on it.  "No one would expect to pass a calculus class if he had not yet mastered basic arithmetic.  Why, then, are most attempts to adhere to basic standards in the use of the English language in college courses heaped with scorn?"  Perhaps the answer comes at page 144.  "Our American unwillingness to count even the most hopeless of us out in the educational marathon may be one of the most debilitating ideas in contemporary culture, a jagged gash through which vitality and truthfulness and quality slowly drain away."  That's because all decisions involve trade-offs.  Page 242.
I have had no choice but to recognize that many of my students have no business being in college.  Putting an end to their participation without sentencing them to a life in the aisles of Wal-Mart would require that Americans relinquish their ill-thought-out love affair with higher education.  Which would require an abandonment of the cockeyed optimism that has taken over our educational discourse.
Ultimately, that cockeyed optimism is about the optimal allocation of resources to second, or third chances.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
BECAUSE GOLD-DIGGERS ENABLE THEM? A Time cover story investigates What Makes Powerful Men Act Like Pigs.
When her husband Dominique Strauss-Kahn was preparing to run for President of France five years ago, Anne Sinclair told a Paris newspaper that she was "rather proud" of his reputation as a ladies' man, a chaud lapin (hot rabbit) nicknamed the Great Seducer.

"It's important," she said, "for a man in politics to be able to seduce."
The article continues, but further reading isn't necessary.
FREQUENCY MATTERS.  Destination: Freedom compares train timings of The New Haven Railroad with Amtrak's Acela Express.  The regional trains, no longer hampered by the engine change at New Haven, match the best timings of the Merchants Limited and Yankee Clipper (albeit without broiled scrod in Dreadnought or martinis served at your rotating seat in Flying Fish) and riders have ten through trains daily to Philadelphia and beyond.
CARNIVAL CALL.  A brief, but intelligently edited, Carnival of Education is available from Bellringers.

19.5.11

MARKING OFF.  Thanks for looking in over the past year.



There will be posts during the summer.  By all means look back in when the new academic year starts.
THANK THE LORD FOR MINE ENEMIES.  Robert E. Lee took command of the Confederate armies seemingly pinned and about to be defeated in front of Richmond in June of 1862, and bought the rebellion almost three more years, which might or might not have contributed to the way the United States became whole again after April of 1865.  (Richmond occupied, but the nearest army to Charleston being in Virginia, rather than at Charleston's suburbs with Columbia sacked, sounds like material for all sorts of counterfactuals.)  Jeffry Wert's A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee's Triumph 1862-1863 rates a positive Book Review No. 10.  One can argue that Genl McClellan acted unwisely from the commencement of the Seven Days Campaign to his failure to exploit the situation at Antietam, and that Gens Burnside and Hooker did almost everything badly ... and yet rebel general Johnston allowed the cautious McClellan to advance to the gates of Richmond itself, while Lee was able to push the Army of the Potomac away and mount more than one threat to Washington itself.  The book is as good a survey of the eastern campaign as I have encountered, and likely to be instructive to anyone seeking information about the unpleasantness whose sesquicentennial we are currently observing.  The book effectively ends with the last day at Gettysburg, but not before giving reason to doubt those scenarios in which the Army of Northern Virginia gets between the Army of the Potomac and Washington D. C.  It says very little about the Overland Campaign of 1864, but what it says at page 286 is sufficient.  "With their crossing Grant seized the strategic initiative in Virginia and, unlike his predecessors, never relinquished the grip on Lee's army."  And thus was Old Dixie driven down.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
THE CASE FOR SELF-ORGANIZATION.  Walter Russell Mead compares and contrasts the masses and the elites.
The American people have never been as religiously tolerant as they are today, as concerned about the environment, or more willing to make sacrifices around the world to promote the peace and well being of humanity as a whole.

By contrast, we have never had an Establishment that was so ill-equipped to lead.  It is the Establishment, not the people, that is falling down on the job.

Here in the early years of the twenty-first century, the American elite is a walking disaster and is in every way less capable than its predecessors.  It is less in touch with American history and culture, less personally honest, less productive, less forward looking, less effective at and less committed to child rearing, less freedom loving, less sacrificially patriotic and less entrepreneurial than predecessor generations.  Its sense of entitlement and snobbery is greater than at any time since the American Revolution; its addiction to privilege is greater than during the Gilded Age and its ability to raise its young to be productive and courageous leaders of society has largely collapsed.
Do your own thing might be the morality of the hippie commune, but it's not a morality conducive to sustaining trust among people whose prosperity depends on sufficient trust to sustain a complex division of labor.
Take Wall Street.  (Please!)  Our corrupt financial and corporate establishment has by and large lost its concern for the well being of the American state and the American people.  Raj Rajaratnam’s conviction on 14 counts of insider trading is only the latest of a string of scandals, blunders and crimes that demonstrate the moral vacuity of the best and the brightest in the United States.  Matt Taibbi’s article in Rolling Stone may be a little over the top for some tastes, but even if the Goldman Sachs executives he describes did nothing illegal, it is painfully clear that a great American financial institution has lost its moral compass. There is a dangerous moral vacuum at the heart of the American Financial Establishment.

We have had financial scandals before and we have had waves of corporate crime.  We have had pirates and robber barons.  But we have never seen a collapse of ordinary morality in the corporate suites on the scale of the last twenty years.  We have never seen naked money grubbing among our politicians akin to the way some recent figures in both parties have cashed in.  Human nature hasn’t changed, but a kind of moral grade inflation has set in and key segments of the American Establishment are increasingly accepting the unacceptable as OK.  Investment banks betray their clients; robo-signers essentially forge mortgage documents day after day and month after month; insider traders are lionized.   Free markets actually require a certain basic level of honesty to work; if we can’t be more honest than this neither our markets nor we ourselves will remain free for very long.

Many problems troubling America today are rooted in the poor performance of our elite educational institutions, the moral and social collapse of our ‘best’ families and the culture of narcissism and entitlement that has transformed the American elite into a flabby minded, strategically inept and morally confused parody of itself.  Probably the best depiction of our elite in popular culture is the petulantly narcissistic Prince Charming in Shrek 2; our educational institutions are like the Fairy Godmother, weaving shoddy, cheap, feel-good illusions into a gossamer tissue of flattering lies.
Professor Mead expands on the gains and losses from entrusting meritocracy to improve the institutional structure for that division of labor.

The deeper problem, however, is that the gatekeepers for the meritocracy decided to question the notion of meritocracy itself.
Steven Knapp, president of George Washington, outlined a lingering tension between the things academics say about cultural objects and the way people admire those objects.

“What matters to the public is Shakespeare,” he observed, “not ‘the logic of theatrical representation.’ What matters is the story of America, not ‘the ideological structure of American essentialism.’ ” He went so far as to chide the high-cachet schools of deconstruction, Marxism, feminism, and anticolonialism because they “took a critical turn against culturally prestigious objects.” Knapp left the implication unstated: Humanities professors disrespected great works, so naturally the public turned around and disrespected them.
It's not yet the end of the world, and yet we can see it.
Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah regretted the threat to “works of the past” in a utilitarian, scientistic culture, adding, “I don’t think that our civilization is so degraded that we have to defend giving attention to what is excellent.”
Higher education is failing the market test all the same.
The economics of the university have raised the stakes to actual survival, making provocative and radical positions look irresponsible. A new sobriety and realism have set in, and if more meetings repeat the tenor and content of the [symposium], the humanities might regain some prestige and climb back to their proper, essential place in higher education.
That is, if the vocationalism doesn't turn the universities into residential high schools first.
HOW CONNECTED IS TOM CLANCY?  Last fall, I reviewed his Dead or Alive, a novel in which a terrorist mastermind leaves a cave in Afghanistan to hide in an urban mansion.  In light of recent developments, two things stand out.  First, two paragraphs from the epilogue.
With an inept and reactionary Edward Kealty at the country's helm, the FBI and CIA would in due course unravel the identities of those responsible for the attacks, only to find carefully constructed and fully backstopped legends that would eventually lead directly to the doorstep of Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence and radicalized elements of the Pakistan Army General Staff, both long suspected to be less-than-enthusiastic supporters of the war on terror. 
Where the United States rightly invaded Afghanistan following 9/11, she would again react swiftly and overtly, expanding military operations east across the Safed Koh and Hindu Kush mountains.  The inevitable destabilization of Pakistan, already a near-failed state, would, according to the Emir, create a power vacuum into which the Umayyad Revolutionary Council would step and take control of Pakistan's substantial nuclear arsenal.
And a Soviet space laser.  But you have to know your Clancy canon to figure out why.  (I'm still waiting for John Clark's conversation with Robert Holtzman, which would be the easiest way to clear up several plot teases from recent books.)

What really intrigues, though, is the role of the cryptographers, who found one-time pads (and the pad-generating algorithms) embedded in racy pictures.  Perhaps it was no accident that Seal Team Six took the triple-x back to base with them.
Hours after the news of the porn stash, Christine Fair, a Georgetown University terrorism expert, wrote on her Facebook page, “Of course they found porn! Every damned jihadi loves porn.” Indeed, the “USG,” or U.S. government has become so accustomed to finding porn, she said, it has “media analysts” designated to analyze the porn looking for “messages.” They work on “document exploitation.”
Document exploitation is not the same thing as animal exploitation, or child exploitation.
Fair said the U.S. government has had to hire counselors to minimize the trauma to the many young twentysomething analysts poring over the porn.
If you say so.
LOWERING HIGHER EDUCATION.  It happens north of the 49th Parallel, too.
[Professors James] Côté and [Anton] Allahar believe that the responsibility of colleges and universities is to provide students with a liberal education that helps to make them informed citizens. Sadly, they write, “This responsibility is being eschewed as universities drift toward a vocational—or worse, pseudo-vocational—mission.” And instead of engaging the minds of students with challenging coursework, much of what Canadian universities do now is simply compensating for the deficiencies of lower education.
Their work is a sequel to a previous book, Ivory Tower Blues, both of which are now candidates for the Cold Spring Shops reading list, and they're offering reinforcement to several favorite Cold Spring Shops themes.
The Ontario Ministry of Education’s “no student must fail” policies not only leave many students woefully unprepared academically, but also lacking “self-management standards expected of responsible adults.”
Where no child is left behind, no child gets ahead. Logic is logic.  But calculus is not special ed, erm, developmental, arithmetic, and urban studies is not economic geography.
The authors have many intellectual opponents and devote many pages to jousting with them. For example, they tackle the proponents of “human capital theory” who believe that taking college courses augments a person’s thinking skills and knowledge. They argue that the courses that go into BA-lite degrees don’t build human capital any more than Twinkies build muscle.
It gets better. "Nontraditional" is not an excuse for nonprepared.
They also fire back at people who say that the status quo is fine and college professors should just make their peace with inflated grades, low academic expectations, and a degraded curriculum to accommodate students (especially minorities) who have poor educational backgrounds and complicated lives. “Those who champion students from disadvantaged backgrounds, for whom they see a university education as an opportunity for upward mobility, need to take stock at this point. Simply handing someone a credential, without the personal and intellectual resources to back it, is to shortchange that person,” they write.

Most of all, they argue with individuals who say that college would really connect with the typical student if only schools and professors would adjust to their “learning styles,” which means using computers, the internet, and other modern technologies rather than antiquated things like books and lectures. Côté and Allahar are highly skeptical that disengaged students will catch fire just because professors adopt the new digital media and use them to supplement or even replace the traditional pedagogical methods.

One author whose work they find particularly galling wrote that professors should abandon lecturing in favor of “collaborative techniques that have been made possible by the Internet, and platforms like Facebook and wikis.” The trouble with that notion, Côté and Allahar respond, is that none of that is of any use unless students first have knowledge of the subject matter:

Even if all of the relevant information were on the Internet, which is not the case, how many students would spend the enormous amount of time it would take to learn the history of educational philosophy by surfing it? And without this knowledge, how are they going to know what to look for?
Getting good at anything takes work, and getting good at anything more quickly takes structure. Both of those are missing from the expectation that the students will collaboratively put together a coherent educational philosophy, let alone the methodology of philosophy, from Facebook and wikis. A Cub Scout pack with a good-sized box of snap track has a better chance of putting John Allen's Gorre and Daphetid back together than a fraternity house full of Tweeters does of putting an education together.
Lowering Higher Education is a sharp defense of the university as a place for higher learning rather than a glorified high school offering a thin gruel of pseudo-vocational training. My only quibble with the book is that the authors don’t go far enough in showing that the training students often get is in fact pseudo-vocational.
Ouch. But reinforced by the authors of Academically Adrift, again in the house organ of the Eastern Liberal Establishment.
While some colleges are starved for resources, for many others it’s not for lack of money. Even at those colleges where for the past several decades tuition has far outpaced the rate of inflation, students are taught by fewer full-time tenured faculty members while being looked after by a greatly expanded number of counselors who serve an array of social and personal needs. At the same time, many schools are investing in deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers and expensive gyms. Simply put: academic investments are a lower priority.

The situation reflects a larger cultural change in the relationship between students and colleges. The authority of educators has diminished, and students are increasingly thought of, by themselves and their colleges, as “clients” or “consumers.” When 18-year-olds are emboldened to see themselves in this manner, many look for ways to attain an educational credential effortlessly and comfortably. And they are catered to accordingly.
Recession or no, employers are still searching for people of ability. Partisan bickering or no, voting requires thought.  A higher education that develops neither human capital nor critical thinking skills is neither higher nor education.  It's a damned expensive re-run of high school.
INELEGANT TOMBSTONES.  The Northern Illinois University branding initiative has already come up with a tagline, something catchy to go with a trademark.  Forty-five people labored mightily to come up with "Learning today, leading tomorrow."  Don't all applaud at once, folks.  That's more optimistic than "Over Half Finish Within Six Years" and more academic than "Invented Homecoming, perfected Tuesday Night Tailgating."

First the tagline, now the redesigned trademark.  Maybe.  Students, faculty, staff, and alumni are offered a choice.


Choice A



Choice B


The university asked for reactions on a Facebook page.  A sampling: "Terrible."  "Represents the staff and president ... not the student body." "Over-priced community college."  "Altgeld itself doesn't define." "Visual Communication department's opinions of the logos: they are brutal."

The current logo, adopted for our centennial, also incorporates the tower of Altgeld Hall.


Choice B is a more accurate rendition of the tower, but it reminds me of a Stratego piece.

14.5.11

GETTING THE MODEL RIGHT.  In a tulipmania, there are still gardeners who want to plant flowers.  So, too, might be the case with higher education, where a bubble in the subprime sector coexists with genuine demand for something.  That something, however, has not developed in a market environment.
I do observe that education and medical care are the two large sectors in which the private market did not have a strong presence a century ago and are also the two large sectors where market competition does not seem to produce lower prices. And I feel that there must be some connection.
Has there ever been market competition, or has market competition always been tamed by accreditation and licensing? (There's a summer project ... what would a higher education Staggers Act look like?)  There are consequences for writing the wrong policy prescription.
American universities really are the best in the world, and the European model of taxpayer financing of higher education really is going through a massive and inevitable restructuring. This makes figuring out what to do about higher-education cost inflation harder, to my mind, than figuring out what to do about health insurance. There don't seem to be alternative models that sustainably deliver equivalent value at lower cost.
Somewhere, the parallel to railroading breaks down.  In the years before Amtrak, the western and southern carriers that were more successful at ridding themselves of passenger trains fared better than the carriers that continued to serve passengers.  These carriers, however, sought commercial freedom to deliver premium services at prices that were mutually beneficial to carrier and to shipper.  (The old Interstate Commerce Commission had all sorts of powers to obstruct shipper-specific contracts for unit trains or intermodal service.)  There were no bottom-feeding carriers going after the low value traffic the way the proprietary universities are going after unprepared students.  Lexington's Notebook reports an intriguing observation by Berkeley's W. Norton Grubb.
Now, it may be that higher education has become too expensive for  some people - working-class/moderate income - and they will not be able to afford it. Many of these potential students now go to community colleges, but they may be squeezed out when regional universities cut back on their slots, and community colleges can't expand to accept more students. But this is a problem of undercapacity, not overcapacity. It may be that fly-by-night privates have over-expanded - the U of Phoenixes of the world - but it would be a good thing to get rid of them. In California ... everyone is worried about how to accommodate all those who want/need higher ed, and I haven't heard any fears of over-capacity. Look at the Pubic Policy Institute of CA - they have been screaming about under-capacity for a long time. So the over-capacity argument in general is absurd, though it might apply to specific niches.
Shorter form: the excess capacity is in access-assessment-remediation-retention, and community colleges and regional universities are in the same business as Harvard or Berkeley and ought to be guided accordingly.  And supply curves slope upward, the pessimisim of Howard Hotson in the London Review of Books notwithstanding.
Wherever a small and strictly limited supply of a highly desirable commodity – such as places at Harvard – is introduced into a genuinely open market, the wealthiest cohort in society will drive its price up to levels only they can afford. This is essentially what has been happening at the upper levels of the US university league since the income gap began to open up in the 1980s. For several decades, tuition fees have been rising at double, triple and even quadruple the rate of cost-of-living inflation, first at the most exclusive universities, and then throughout the private sector, so that there are now more than a hundred private colleges and universities in the US charging students at least $50,000 annually for fees, room and board.
That's Richard Vedder's create-excess demand hypothesis, but where dollars or pounds chase goods, there are opportunities to provide the goods.  The applicant rejected by Harvard or Berkeley or Madison isn't presumptively not good enough for that university; likewise the professor interviewed but not hired by such a place isn't presumptively incapable of competing for the same journal space or grant money.
Oxford and Cambridge have a 600-year head start on their English rivals. Many of the advantages they enjoy are the product of their long histories: their architectural settings, their libraries and archives; their unique systems of tutorial teaching, collegiate organisation and self-government; and the academic prestige accumulated by two dozen generations of scholars, philosophers, scientists, poets and prime ministers. Their competitors cannot produce these things at any price, much less one that undercuts theirs. And because the ‘student experience’ they offer is one that many find uniquely attractive, they could, if freed from the constraints of government legislation, charge as high a price for this experience as the market would bear, without the risk of being undercut by anyone but each other.
Once upon a time Harvard and Yale and Princeton thought of Duke and Chicago and Stanford (the horror: heavy industry money) as the upstarts.  I'd be surprised if the emergence of UCLA (motto: On! Wisconsin) and San Diego didn't prompt some hand-wringing in the Bay Area.  And Urbana is just not secure enough in its prairie for any of the cardinal compass point universities in Illinois to get too good.  But we persevere in spite of those difficulties.

He's on sounder ground arguing about competition in student amenities and big time sports rather than on academics.
To judge from the American experience, comfortable accommodation, a rich programme of social events and state of the art athletic facilities are what most 18-year-olds want when they choose their ‘student experience’; and when student choice becomes the engine for driving up standards, these are the standards that are going to be driven up.
I fear, though, that Mr Hotson is drawing inferences from too small a sample.
What they forget is that the dilapidated state of so many English university buildings is the product, not of a lack of academic competitiveness, but of deliberate government policy these last 20 years. By holding university income firmly down, raising student numbers and prioritising research through the RAE, they have attempted to push up academic performance at the expense of teaching and the maintenance of existing buildings, not to mention the construction of new ones.
Sounds like the misnamed Priorities, Quality and Productivity initiative in Illinois, in which the classroom buildings are crumbling and the few sections downsized departments can offer are oversubscribed.

On the other hand, there is material for a more careful investigation.
The wealthiest private universities at the top of the league table – including the whole of the Ivy League – are concentrated on the northeastern seaboard of the United States, from Massachusetts in the north to North Carolina in the south. If proximity to the energising influence of private universities drives up standards, as [British education tsar David] Willetts seemed to imply, we would expect to find the great public universities clustered in this same area. But the opposite is the case: the more distance between them and the rich private universities, it seems, the higher their level of achievement. Overwhelmingly, the best-represented state university system is California’s, with two universities in the top ten and a total of nine in the top 100. This seems impressive, but we should bear in mind that California’s GDP is almost as large as that of the UK, which boasts 14 public universities in the top 100. A striking contrast is provided by New York, California’s economic and intellectual counterweight. One might imagine it would benefit from market competition with Columbia, Cornell, NYU and the Ivy League institutions to its north and south, yet although New York State’s economy is fully half the size of the UK’s, its top-ranked public university – the State University of New York at Stony Brook – slots in at a humble 78 in the global rankings. Of the 14 other US public universities in the top 100, ten are located in southern, midwestern and western states that don’t have large private universities: Michigan (joint 15th), Washington (23rd), Georgia Tech (27th), Wisconsin-Madison (joint 43rd), Minnesota (52nd), Ohio State (66th), Colorado-Boulder (67th), Virginia (72nd), Utah (joint 83rd) and Arizona (joint 95th).
New York imports human capital: upper-middle-class Coasties enroll at Wisconsin or Michigan at a smaller cash outlay than Columbia or Harvard involves, and the state university system there is relatively recent.  Michigan or Wisconsin, however, recognize that they are in the same business as Harvard or Columbia, and in both states there is a political conflict over appropriating tax money for a university that admits relatively few students from in-state.  Michigan State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee admit more state residents than Michigan or Wisconsin do.
The great private universities in the US do not provide the competition needed to energise lethargic public institutions. Instead, they hoover up a hugely disproportionate share of the resources in the system, thereby impoverishing their neighbours. They have the money to build the best labs, stock the best libraries and buy up the most high-profile professors. Their facilities attract the best and the wealthiest students, cornering the market in social as well as intellectual prestige. They drain the area around them of all the resources needed to sustain good public universities. Most of the public universities that break into the top 100 operate as far away from the Ivy League as America’s vast landmass allows. Outside the top 100, American performance falls sharply to a low level.
The lethargy of the public institutions, as Mr Hotson puts it, is the consequence of several things:  legislatures that view higher education as a source of waste, abuse, and fraud, administrators that have differing views about what the mission of a public institution is, faculty that balance their career aspirations against their loyalty to the institution's mission, whatever that might be this week, and students sometimes sold on the institution's attributes as a party school and sometimes disappointed that the thick envelope from their first choice didn't come.  Tellingly, though, the columnist suggests that there's a fixed stock of resources available to higher education.  Supply curves slope upward.  Otherwise, gas stations would have never been able to displace watering troughs and collieries.
NO APPLICATION FOR THAT YET.  A virtual frog, for virtual dissection, yes.  A virtual Aristotle or Ademainchus, not yet.
"If you want to read Plato you can't do it on a cellphone," says Barmak Nassirian, of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "You've got to have a little focus."
Online college: where don't know much about history, don't know much biology, don't know much at all is a feature.

11.5.11

PAYING FOR HIGH SCHOOL TWICE.  Is $5.6 billion a year a reasonable price to pay for second chances?
“Remediation is paying for the same education twice,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “It is a wasteful use of public and private dollars and an unrealistic solution to closing the preparation gap between high school and college. Doing it right the first time by delivering a high-quality high school education improves the chances of long-term success for students and for communities.”

“Saving Now and Saving Later: How High School Reform Can Reduce the Nation’s Wasted Remediation Dollars” finds that about one out of every three students entering postsecondary education will have to take at least one remedial course. In 2008, reports show that 44 percent of students under the age of twenty-five had been enrolled in one or more remedial courses at public two-year institutions and 27 percent at public four-year institutions. The brief points out that while remediation is a problem for all students, students of color are disproportionally affected.

Saving Now and Saving Later finds that students shoulder a significant portion of the financial burden for the nation’s remediation problem. On average, students pay 42 percent of total postsecondary costs at public four-year colleges and 14 percent at two-year colleges. Because remedial courses often do not contribute credits towards a degree, students lose money and time that could have been spent on credit-bearing courses.

“The very concept is a direct admission that many high schools are not adequately preparing these students,” said Wise. “At a time when states are searching for deficit cutting tools and businesses are requiring a well-educated workforce, the nation must work together to align secondary school standards to postsecondary demands so every student can graduate from high school ready to succeed in college or careers. The potential cost-savings of eliminating the need for remediation are too great to ignore.”
Once upon a time, high schools did that work as a matter of course.

Joanne Jacobs extends, with observations from a disenchanted toiler in the retention pond.
X wonders how to grade “a college student who progresses from a 6th- to a 10th-grade level of achievement?” He gives F’s.

At best, X’s students will earn low-prestige, low-value degrees. At worst, they’ll be discouraged, degree-less, debt-ridden, uneducated and unemployable.
More discouraged, for having the hope of something they're not yet up to dangled in front of them, then yanked away?
THE TRAINS WE RODE.  Greater Greater Washington notes the continued parlous state of Amtrak funding, offering readers a series of maps showing the intercity passenger train network over the past fifty years.  Start with the 1962 map.


Train service to Chattanooga from the Great Lakes or from the east coast, multiple routes to New Orleans, the stub of the Olympian Hiawatha still serving Butte, Montana, the North Shore Line still offering hourly service between Chicago and Milwaukee, and look at that Twin Cities to Winnipeg corridor.

Fast Company (via Trains for America) have animated the maps, showing readers the Incredible Shrinking Intercity Train Network.  There are a few bright spots.  Los Angeles - San Diego is now a red line, and New Haven - Boston has been electrified and speeded up.

If I had the right kind of programming skills, perhaps I could put together a map of the evolution of commuter rail service since 1962.  Most of the big cities have seen extensions of their traditional commuter routes, with Chicago and North Western's Overland Route coming to Elburn, the old Soo Line becoming a commuter line almost to the Wisconsin border, and short extensions to other Chicago area routes opening in the past few years.  And a number of cities that never previously had commuter train service, including several in California and the trans-Mississippi region, now have them.

These lines do not yet connect, but that, too, is a possibility.
TAX BREAKS FOR BUSINESS.  Wisconsin and Michigan appear to be lowering corporate tax rates for all businesses, whether currently located in-state or not.

Illinois prefers targeted tax breaks for businesses that are considering a move.
Gov. Pat Quinn proferred more than $100 million in financial incentives to convince Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. to keep its corporate headquarters in Libertyville, touting the deal as essential to preventing a move to a high-tech hub in California or Texas.

To woo the longtime maker of mobile devices and cable TV set-top boxes, state lawmakers sweetened the terms of its tax-credit program, just as it has done in the past for automakers and truck- and engine-manufacturers.

Typically, the Economic Development for a Growing Economy (EDGE) tax-credit program allows companies to use the credits against their corporate income tax liability. But many companies already pay no state corporate income taxes, partly due to difficult economic times and partly because of an earlier revision in the tax structure that slashed bills for multinational corporations.
No lack of material here for researchers into the effect of taxes on business location.

10.5.11

THE FOLLY OF UNIVERSAL COLLEGE.  In a world of costly information, a credential that has no information content is potentially inefficient.
Lastly, it would be an imprudent use of scarce resources to direct them towards an unreasonable goal that would, if achieved, hopefully bring us to a pooling equilibrium in the labor market in which everyone has a degree and employers can’t decipher good prospective employees from bad ones. My intuition suggests that this would be a short lived equilibrium, as employers would just up the ante by requiring more advanced degrees for jobs that already don’t require special skills. We may already be near this state anyhow, so why continue to pour money down the drain and make matters worse?  The real question is: Has the welfare of society improved as a result of increased government intervention in postsecondary education? The line of research discussed above appears to suggest that the answer is no.
Economics, however, is about tradeoffs, and a provision of higher education in such a way that more productive workers self-identify has costs of its own.
 One economic theory – education as a signaling device – suggests that increased subsidization of college may actually increase income inequality, an effect that is opposite that typically preached by proponents for greater college subsidization.
This conclusion sounds counter-intuitive, but it's analogous to the lemons principle.  (Your car does not lose a third of its value the minute you drive it off the lot.  Prices of relatively new used cars reflect the preponderance of defective cars being traded in.)
[E]mployers use college education as a screening mechanism to signal the ability or productivity level of a prospective employee, arguing that as more workers attend and complete college, there are fewer high ability workers in the non-educated pool. This results in downward wage pressure on the low-educated pool, as such workers have little chance of gaining employment in middle income jobs since a larger percentage of workers attend college. Meanwhile, those receiving a college education gain employment (hopefully) in middle income jobs, many of which do not require college level training. Many of these jobs were previously staffed by non college graduates, but the employers are now able to hire someone with college education due to an increase in the supply. 
The analogue to the preponderance of lemons in the relatively-new used-car pool is the preponderance of completely unprepared individuals among the never-college-educated.
[G]overnment policies (i.e. – federal financial aid) have reduced the financial constraints of attending college, thereby boosting the supply of college educated workers while simultaneously reducing the average ability level of the non-college educated worker pool. They conclude that this has increased the wage gap between the college and non-college educated workforces, increasing income inequality.  Paul Krugman reached a similar conclusion in a paper using signaling theory, suggesting that “anything that encourages good workers to get educated can set in motion a cumulative process of growing inequality.”
This body of research suggests another unintended consequence of government intervention. Policy designed with the intention of encouraging college participation among the relatively less well-to-do may actually have deleterious effects on the lower end of the income stratum. Those who fail to gain any college education (whether it due to ability, preference or other circumstance) are relegated to the lowest paying jobs in society, as they are systematically screened out of consideration for better paying jobs via the mechanism described above. Meanwhile, the number of workers obtaining some college education (and accumulating debt along the way) continues to grow, increasing the supply and resulting in lower wages for jobs that use college education as a screening device, but may not require special skills. This theory may help explain why more “than one-third of current working graduates are in jobs that do not require a degree, and the proportion appears to be rising rapidly.”
That modeling suggests a relatively simple model, in which there is one type of college and one dimension of skill.  Reality, however, gives more than one type of college, more than one dimension of skill, and a different kind of separating equilibrium.
Where once the university was a brief haven from the pressures of economic competition, it now puts itself in service to those imperatives. Job training is what [the California State Universities] do now—only we do it less efficiently, and more expensively, than vocational schools like National UniversityDeVry, and the University of Phoenix.
The separating equilibrium arises as the individuals who aren't even up to California State's standards get screened out, but screened out more expensively.  (If that sounds like employers looking for masters' degrees or graduates willing to do an unpaid internship as an alternative, it is.)
Colleges and universities have skillfully promoted the seductive notion that everybody should go to college—indeed, that all have a right to go to college. For decades, the number of students taking remedial courses has been rising; in the CSU system, it is now more than half the entire student body. These courses were once prerequisites for attending a university.
Money mis-spent, first on the high schools, then on remediation (I understand the new term of art is developmental.  Pig.  Lipstick.  Lipstick. Pig.)  That's what's seen.  A commenter at Phi Beta Cons points out that, where there is excess demand for the Ivies that turns into excess demand for the state flagships, there will be individuals in the California State University system who, while rejected by Berkeley or UCLA (motto: On! Wisconsin!) ought not be viewed as Berkeley's rejects.
Many students who could succeed at UC, or even more elite places, do not get in for a variety of reasons. Remember, elitist schools want to know much more than one's intellectual accomplishments (or performance, in performance disciplines). Or, one could be admitted, but not be able to go.

Now imagine how it feels for such a student to go to a lesser place, where many of the students are remedial and have conduct to match it. For this, the good student studied hard? And, in this grade-inflated college culture, excellence is lost, perhaps even degraded if the instructors have their own agendas that reward conforming mediocrity. The difference in experience is a lifetime penalty.
The land grants and the mid-majors are in the same business as the Ivies and the flagships, and they ought act accordingly.  "Excellence is lost" summarizes in three words what "exile to an academic gulag" does.
FREE SPEECH RESTORED, SLOWLY.  The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has persuaded the Northern Illinois University Student Association to provide money for political and religious organizations.
After months of delay and pressure from FIRE, Northern Illinois University (NIU) has finally given political and religious organizations access to student activity fee funding. In 2010, NIU's Student Association brazenly flouted Supreme Court precedent by discriminating against all such groups, maintaining extensive double standards, and denying recognition altogether to NIU Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) on two separate occasions.
The university's latest response shows progress from the partial victory of December last, but there is more work to do.
No student government at a public university may reduce or deny student activity fee funding to a student group because its expression might trouble, offend, or embarrass the student government. Nor may the student government base recognition or funding decisions on a group's political or religious views.

NIU now needs to edit its Budget Training Workshop PowerPoint presentation (.PPT) and other documents accordingly. Slide 11 of the PowerPoint still states that religious and political organizations will not be funded.
FIRE will be watching to ensure that NIU maintains viewpoint neutrality and meets its constitutional obligations.
Examinations are in progress, and grades are due soon. Updates on this case will be provided all the same.
PAYBACK?  The Hiawatha service will not receive any of the latest round of federal rail improvement grants.  The money sought is for additional trains, locomotives, and a maintenance base.
The money Wisconsin was seeking in Monday's round of funding would have been a step toward high-speed rail but would not have covered track improvements needed to speed up the Hiawatha from 79 mph to 110 mph.
The track in question was quite capable of supporting 110 mph train operation, without special tilting trains, or, for that matter, diesel locomotives.  The national government, however, was directing money toward states where faster conventional trains could act as the next step toward something more like an electric bullet train, or perhaps the next generation of High Speed Trains in the British style.
Other Midwestern states shared $672.3 million, or one-third of the dollars handed out Monday. In addition to the $268.2 million for train sets and locomotives for Illinois, Michigan and Missouri, the grants included $196.5 million to Michigan to upgrade tracks for 110-mph service between Chicago and Detroit, and $186.3 million to Illinois to upgrade tracks for 110-mph service between Chicago and St. Louis, plus smaller amounts to plan a 110-mph Minneapolis-to-Duluth line, a Michigan train station and a Missouri railroad bridge.
The Alton Route is a logical candidate for faster trains, and it's time for a progress report on that service, once grading is finished. A faster train from the Cities to the Head of the Lakes intrigues, although there's little by way of a network for the rail traveller into or out of the Cities.  (Minnesotans once enjoyed a Passenger Rail network with multiple frequencies to Winona or Fargo or Winnipeg.)  The article suggests that contemporary passengers still value frequency and connectivity.
Helen Wiedeman would have liked to see more round trips. Wiedeman lives in rural Missouri and drives to Quincy, Ill., to catch the train to Chicago before transferring to the line to Milwaukee.

"I think Amtrak is important. It would be nice to get some more trains," Wiedeman said. "The last train to Chicago is 3 p.m. My daughter and future son-in-law often take it to Chicago, and an improvement of equipment would make a big difference."
The last train from Milwaukee that connects to the Illinois Zephyr, into Quincy in the late evening, is the 3 pm departure.  Right up to Amtrak Day, Burlington Northern offered a late evening departure from Chicago, overnight to Kansas City, which once upon a time was the American Royal Zephyr.  Ms Wiedeman would arrive in eastern Missouri at an hour more suitable for a special-forces operation on that routing.  And Amtrak, and its Congressional paymasters, remain ambivalent about first-class and overnight accommodations.

Editorial writers at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel claim the state "deserved better" and also suggest the Obama Administration is paying Wisconsin Governor Walker out for returning the money to extend the Milwaukee train to Madison.  Enjoy the four-buck-a-gallon gasoline and the work zone that is Interstate 94.
GOOD HELP IS HARD TO FIND.  Michael Walsh notes, even here.
Since 9/11, most of the plots have been amateurish or inept, severely hampered by the Middle Easterners' technological incapability. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to find Arabs who are any good at this work?" the Saudi terrorist Abu Zubayda, captured in Pakistan in 2002, is said to have asked his US interrogators.
Imagine what a little Rousseauvian reform could do for the madrassas.  Objectives.  Rubrics.  Assessment.  Send a few experts in multicultural education to the North West Frontier posthaste.

4.5.11

TEMPERING PRINCIPLE WITH PRACTICALITY.  China's bullet trains are subject to slow orders.
Chinese bullet trains will be slowed from 220mph to 190mph as of July 1st. The reduced speed will allow for safer travel as well as a possibility of greater variation in ticket prices for travelers. Cheaper tickets will be issued for trains running at speeds from 125mph – 155mph and run on existing trucking rails rather than on main high speed commuter rails.
I wish that transportation journalists would understand something about railroad technology.  Presumably "existing trucking rails" means a track structure capable of carrying freight and passenger trains dependably at safe speeds.  The Providence to Boston stretch of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, for instance, is capable of  supporting 150 mph Acela Expresses as well as a few freight trains hauling that part of New England's gross regional product that doesn't get exported in an electronic format or a lobster barrel.  There's all kind of trackage in the Midwest currently capable of carrying proper freight trains that, at relatively little expense, could carry diesel passenger trains cruising at up to 125 mph.  The ability of a railroad network to safely mix passenger and freight trains permits a level of cost recovery no dedicated passenger line (which I think "high speed commuter rails" refers to) can achieve.  China has inadequate freight railroads, which leads to monstrous highway traffic jams, often as a consequence of attempting to move coal loads.

Meanwhile, the new Chinese dedicated high speed train lines might not be constructed to the standards of the North Shore Line's Skokie Valley Route, let alone The Pennsylvania Railroad's electrified Broad Way.
While held in extreme prestige, the Chinese rail system does have its critics. Chinese engineers have said that the operation of such high speed bullet trains is risky and there are fears that the fast and continuing expansion of the railroads is more due to local Chinese politics rather than an actual social need for high speed rail transportation. The high price of train tickets and the multibillion dollar price tag for rail expansion projects has also raised eyebrows in a country where millions of families live in poverty.
Gotta like that social justice argument: when the Interstates went into the cities, the associated urban renewal had the effect of uprooting the poor to allow the suits five more minutes to savor their breakfast, something that understandably contributed to urban rage.  But the urban poor of the United States had access to beater cars, and the poor of all races had access to all the available seats on the bus.  The poor of China have no cars, and sold-out local trains can mean waits much longer than your worst nightmare about the Chicago Transit Authority.
During the Lunar New Year holiday many Chinese working class travelers complained they could not afford high speed train tickets and that tickets for regular trains were sold out. A migrant worker became an internet sensation when he stripped to his underwear to protest outside a train ticket office after he waited 14 hours in line but could not get train tickets for himself and his family.
And Illinois riders have faster trains on the old Gulf Mobile and Ohio in their future.  Florida's governor turned down stimulus money for a probably ill-conceived demonstration project.  That money will be used to expedite improvement of the St. Louis service.  Additional track capacity for double-stack trains, to take some of the pressure off the Overland Route, will be beneficial to Union Pacific, the freight railroad that owns much of the trackage.  That double-stacking business has become lucrative enough for the Heart of Georgia Railroad (yes, its reporting marks are HOG) to undertake their own march to the sea.
But it still seems strange, akin in my thinking to a southern barbecue shack offering filet mignon along with pulled pork. Southern short lines are about hauling the basics: pulpwood, sand, and coal. I guess I still have trouble envisioning a set of TTX well cars with blue “China Shipping” containers rolling through the likes of Vidallia, Ga. But roll they will.
Same basics, new boxes. Most of the containers will be hauling cotton (imagine the Christmas gift that would have made) and kaolin (the stuff that makes coated paper shiny).  More traffic, though, to cover the common and joint costs of the major railroads, who do the contracting with Amtrak and the commuter rail authorities to run the passenger trains.  Encouragingly, container trains are engineered to run at higher speeds than trains of tank cars, something that reduces the friction of scheduling passenger trains.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR.  Running the college of business like a business is bad business.
In an earlier age, professors took their knowledge certification role seriously (with the fail rates to prove it). Today, many faculty view their role as educating everyone admitted to the program, passing them through, and leaving it to the recruiters to sort things out on the back end. Incentives encourage faculty to conform to this behavior as administrators naturally prefer more tuition revenue to less. Yet, with the earlier check on quality removed, the low end of the student distribution gets fatter as less qualified students are admitted under the Growth Model, professors of required courses struggle to get everyone through by adjusting the material downward, everyone learns less, and over time the knowledge value of the MBA is significantly diminished.
(Via Newmark's Door.  Master the fundamentals of economics.  Skip the MBA.)
DESTROYING THE HUMAN CAPITAL.  Nearly Half of Detroiters Can't Read.  The comments on the story are more depressing than the news.
DOUBLE ENTENDRE.  Words mean things.  Look closely at this news report about Osama bin Laden's blind buyer.
Pakistan stepped up its attempt to convince the world that it didn't know where bin Laden was located. They maintain that the al-Qaida leader's ability to hide in Abbottabad, an army town just two hours drive from the capital, was the result of government oversight, not double dealing.
Pakistan's government is fortunate that the United States is a republic, not an empire.  The proper imperial reaction would be to take out the terrorist, extract the special forces, and convert the nearby military academy into a landfill.

Despite my carpings about the parlous state of education in the United States, some inquisitive students can still puzzle out problems that escape our Best and Brightest.
“The theory was basically that if you’re going to try and survive, you’re going to a region with a low extinction rate: a large town,” [UCLA geographer Thomas] Gillespie says. “We hypothesized he wouldn’t be in a small town where people could report on him.”

“It’s not my thing to do this type of [terrorism] stuff,” he says. “But the same theories we use to study endangered birds can be used to do this.”

In the end, they zeroed in on a Pakistani border town called Parachinar which has, among other things, access to medical care. Then they predicted the exact building he would be in by making assumptions as to the characteristics of the building itself, such as high enough ceilings to accommodate bin Laden’s 6’4” frame, a fence, privacy, and electricity.
The paper was finished in 2009 and published in the February 17, 2009 electronic edition of MIT International Review.

3.5.11

I ALONE HAVE ESCAPED TO TELL YOU.  Chil Rajchman, who testified at John Demjanjuk's trial in Germany, wrote (in Yiddish) a memoir now available in English as The Last Jew of Treblinka.  It's a short book, spare in its language, and it's difficult to conceive of the author being able to write down what he saw, let alone to proofread or edit it.  It's this year's Book Review No. 9, and we have it because Mr Rajchman appeared fit enough to be selected for a work detail upon arrival at Treblinka, persevered on work details where to lag was to be killed, and survived an escape from that camp.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
INTERSTATE 41.  Wisconsin's new governor, who turned down federal money to provide train service to Madison, thereby relegating travellers to the deteriorating and congested Interstate 94, now seeks federal money to upgrade U.S. 41 (it begins in Florida, but at the Wisconsin end conveniently runs west of Interstate 43 and east of Interstate 39) to an Interstate Highway itself.

Large stretches of the existing road are grade separated and limited access, and I've referred to it as one of Wisconsin's Cheddarbahns, the non-Interstate roads with 65 mph speed limits.

James Rowen's Political Environment suggests that the project will divert money the state doesn't have from repairs elsewhere in the state's road network.

With gasoline prices pushing past $4 per gallon (reflecting crude oil prices, not corrective taxes or user fees), the opportunity to go a little faster on Interstate 41 might not be worth it.  Until May of 1971, there was a vestige of a fast, frequent passenger train service paralleling Highway 41.  Restoration of that service (the Milwaukee to Wiscona Junction section is slow trackage now, and the Wiscona to Fond du Lac section has been torn up) might be a better use of the money.
WHATEVER REMAINS, NO MATTER HOW IMPROBABLE, MUST BE THE TRUTH.  The dean at Anonymous Community contemplates the triune nature of dual enrollment (in the name of the gifted, and the bored, and the holy crap!)
Community colleges are colleges. I understand the temptation to try to be everything to everyone, but at the end of the day, they serve the community best by being colleges. If the high schools need fixing, then the high schools need fixing.
For that matter, colleges or universities with other modifiers also serve the community best by being colleges. A New York article titled "The University Has No Clothes" explains how higher education has struck out.
But the data gathered in recent years on the value of college has been mixed at best, blunting the moral edge of “college for all” and turning some higher-ed advocates into skeptics like [venture capitalist James] Altucher and [Pay Pal founder Peter] Thiel.

This new criticism of higher education comes from three main sources. The first is the reality that, while all parents want their kids to complete college, little more than half of those millions who haul their laptops to campus each fall actually end up with a bachelor’s degree. The United States now has the highest college-­dropout rate in the industrialized world, and in terms of 25-to-34-year-olds with college degrees, it has fallen from first to twelfth.
The high schools need fixing.  Strike one.
The second source is the quality of the education available on campus. Nearly half of all students demonstrate “exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent” gains in the skills measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, even after two years of full-time schooling, according to a study begun in 2005 by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. (Many education reformers have focused their attention to gains from investments on the other end of the spectrum, in pre-K schooling.) In 1961, the average undergraduate spent 25 hours a week hitting the books; by 2003, economists Mindy Marks and Philip Babcock recently found, that average had plummeted to thirteen hours. In a typical semester, one third of the students Arum and Roksa followed for their recent book, Academically Adrift, did not take “any courses that required more than forty pages of reading per week” and half did not take “a single course that required more than twenty pages of writing.”
Academically Adrift, which I have finished but have yet to compile some information for a review, is incompletely persuasive. But content-free and coreless curricula recentered for unprepared, uninterested, or disengaged students in pursuit of retention, completion, and favorable course evaluations does nobody any favors.  Strike two.
But it is the data on the economics of college that is most disturbing. It’s bad enough that our colleges are under­performing, one can’t help thinking—but do they have to charge so damned much? In the past 30 years, private-­college tuition and fees have increased, in constant 2010 dollars, from $9,500 a year to more than $27,000. Public-college tuition has increased from $2,100 to $7,600. Fifteen years ago, the average student debt at graduation was around $12,700; in 2009, it was $24,000. Over the past quarter-century, the total cost of higher education has grown by 440 percent. “Like many situations too good to be true,” Louis Lataif, the dean emeritus of Boston University’s School of Management, wrote in February for Forbes, “like the dot-com boom, the Enron bubble, the housing boom or the health-care-cost explosion—the ever-­increasing cost of university education is not sustainable.”
Among the public universities, the administrators blame the legislatures for breaking the social contract by cutting funding and the legislatures blame the universities for breaking the social contract by not teaching anybody. The presence of government-guaranteed student loans has the same effect as any other third-party payment on prices (just for grins, look at any detailed statement from your clinic and ask yourself how the price of a venipuncture, or a sampling tube, is determined). The flight to perceived quality, which allows administrators to quote high sticker prices and then discount individually in a way that would make a car dealer jealous, leads to a perceived demand curve that sustains those charges.  Strike three.

And the defenders of higher education defend a tradition that is more often honored in the breach.
This analysis, of course, takes a purely utilitarian view of college—higher education, as its many defenders hasten to point out, has a significance for students that defies the cost-benefit ratio. Last year, in response to a Times article titled “Plan B: Skip College,” The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead published a rousing defense of college’s ability to, among other things, “expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind.” In an essay published in March in The New York Review of Books, critic and professor Peter Brooks dismissed the swelling discontent with college as cranky and ­narrow-minded. The university is, he wrote, “one of the best things we’ve got, and at times—as when reading these books—it almost seems to me better than what we deserve.”
Yes, students have the opportunity to grapple with those signal accomplishments -- or with the long and winding road there -- should they choose to do so, but there's that annoying problem of retention or completion or Do We Have To Learn This?  (Yes, if you wish to call yourself educated.  But it takes a curriculum committee with a backbone and an administration free of faddishness to uphold that standard.  Beer 'n circus is an easier sell.)