Category Archives: Higher Ed

Jonathan Haidt on the decline of liberal arts education

Jonathan Haidt:

Today’s identity politics . . . teaches the exact opposite of what we think a liberal arts education should be. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a utilitarian or as a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or as a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any given question or problem.

But what do we do now? Many students are given just one lens—power. Here’s your lens, kid. Look at everything through this lens. Everything is about power. Every situation is analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult. It’s a fundamentalist religion. It’s a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety and intellectual impotence. . . .

Is moving to free college good for the health of higher education?

There is much talk about moving to free college in the US. What impact would that have? Some evidence of possible consequences is provided in The End of Free College in England: Implications for Quality, Enrolments, and Equity by Richard Murphy, Judith Scott-Clayton, and Gillian Wyness:

This paper examines the consequences of charging tuition fees on university quality, enrolments, and equity. To do so, we study the English higher education system which has, in just two decades, moved from a free college system to one in which tuition fees are among the highest in the world. Our findings suggest that England’s shift has resulted in increased funding per head, rising enrolments, and a narrowing of the participation gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. In contrast to other systems with high tuition fees, the English system is distinct in that its income-contingent loan system keeps university free at the point of entry, and provides students with comparatively generous assistance for living expenses. We conclude that tuition fees, at least in the English case supported their goals of increasing quality, quantity, and equity in higher education.

WSJ reports that Americans losing faith in the value of college

Josh Mitchell and Douglas Belkin of the Wall Street Journal report that Americans are losing faith in the value of college, as represented in these survey results:
The most shocking results to me are that 30% of college degree holders do not think a college degree is worth it, as do over half of men and over half of 18-34 year olds.

More on whether state disinvestment is causing rising tuition

The Times Higher Education (UK) ran a short piece based off this recent post. From the Times Higher Education piece:

over the past 26 years, average real state funding per student has fallen by $780, while tuition revenue has increased by more than $3,500. This means that cuts in state funding can only explain about 22 per cent of the increase in tuition over the past quarter century.

But there is a second empirical problem… when you plot tuition rises against changes in state funding, for every year since 1992, a $1 change in state funding per student is rarely associated with a $1 increase in tuition…



When looking at the past quarter century, on average, a $1 change in state funding is associated with only an $0.08 change in tuition…

Check out the full piece here.

New Record High Revenue per Student for Public Colleges in Fiscal Year 2016

Reanalysis of SHEEO data reveal that public college revenue per student reached a new record high for the second year in a row. For the most recent year (fiscal year 2016), revenues increased by $140 to set the new record of $13,259.

(Previous posts describe why reanalysis of SHEEO data is necessary – to adjust for inflation rather than costs.)

Three points stand out from this reanalysis.

  1. There is a small upward trend in revenue per student at public colleges.

As the chart below shows, there is a slight upward trend in revenue per student at public colleges. Revenue in 2016, was $2,789 higher than in 1991, an average increase of $107 per year.

  1. There is no long-term trend of state disinvestment. State funding is cyclical while tuition revenue steadily increases.

The second chart unstacks the bars by revenue source which makes it easier to see two things.

First, despite numerous assertions to the contrary, there is no long-term trend of state disinvestment in higher education. While educational appropriations in 2016 were $780 less than in 1991, the pattern is driven by the business cycle rather than showing a consistent long run trend. Indeed, appropriations are up $885 from the recession low of 2012.

Second, in contrast to changes in state funding, which swing from positive to negative with the business cycle, tuition almost always increases. Only two years saw decreases in tuition revenue (2000 and 2008). In 2016, tuition revenue per student was $3,569 higher than in 1991, an average annual increase of $137.

  1. Increases in tuition are not driven by changes in state funding.

Declines in state funding are the most common explanation for why tuition keeps increasing. But as the chart below shows, there is little relationship between the two. Each year label illustrates the change in state funding and the change in tuition revenue for that year. For example, the 2012 in the upper left corner indicates that between 2011 and 2012, state funding per student fell by $645 and tuition revenue per student increased by $391.

If tuition increased to offset declines in state funding, then each of the years should fall along the red line, which simply plots a $1 for $1 relationship. But statistical analysis does not support the idea that changes in tuition are driven by changes in state funding. In fact, historically, tuition only changes by 8 cents when state funding changes by $1, as shown in the blue line, a relationship that is not even statistically significant at conventional levels (p = 0.27). A more promising avenue for exploration is hinted at by the intercept term ($140, p < 0.01), which indicates that even if there is no change in state funding, tuition revenue would still increase by $140. Figuring out what’s driving this result is more likely to yield solutions to the problem of rising tuition than continuing to believe in the myth that tuition increases are driven by cuts in state funding.

The College Transparency Act would be the best thing to happen to higher education in years

Melissa Korn of the WSJ reports that

legislation that would overturn a decade-old ban on collecting individual student data that track enrollment, completion and graduate success…

The bill, the College Transparency Act…

The legislation is backed by a number of higher-education industry groups, including the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the American Association of Community Colleges and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators…

This would be a huge improvement for higher education. As I wrote in Minding the Campus a few years ago:

The fact that we spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on higher education and can’t determine something as basic as a national graduation rate is a dereliction of duty. The solution to this problem is deceptively simple: turn to Student Unit Records. SURs are straightforward – they are databases that assign each student an individual number so that their educational history can be tracked. With a SUR, the pace of part-time students could be accounted for, and transfer students would no longer vanish, making it possible to calculate an accurate and meaningful graduation rate.

There’s a second advantage from having a SUR: it would allow a better understanding of each college’s and even each program’s performance. For example, while post-college earnings are certainly not the only thing that matters, they are an important consideration for many students. Matching educational records from a SUR with earnings data from the IRS would allow for accurate employment outcomes to be published for each college and program. Such information would help students make better decisions which would in turn help discipline and focus colleges. This can’t be done without a SUR.

There are two main groups opposed to SUR. The first are colleges. In an unusual alliance, both the best and the worst colleges fear SURs. The bad colleges like being able to say things like “Our 9% official graduation rate ignores transfer students and is therefore not an accurate depiction of the quality of our college.” The fact that they oppose a SUR system which would allow for accurate graduation rates to be calculated tells us that they are more interested in maintaining plausible excuses than in actually finding an accurate number. Meanwhile, the best colleges are terrified of being compared to other schools on something like value added earnings. At best, such a comparison would confirm that they are indeed the best. But a comparison might show that they do not deserve to be on top, and they are terrified that some no name college will be shown to be just as good or better. Thus, for top colleges, there is nothing to gain, and potentially everything to lose from such comparisons. While colleges’ opposition to SURs are understandable, there is absolutely no reason for policymakers to indulge them.

The second group opposed to SURs are Republicans concerned about privacy violations. To an extent these were legitimate concerns as any database has potential privacy issues. But recently, convincing methods of safeguarding privacy while implementing a SUR have been developed. Republican Governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell has done great work in this area, as has Democratic U.S. Senator Ron Wyden and Republican U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter. The Republicans that have opposed SURs to date deserve credit for ensuring that privacy was taken into account, but it is now time to acknowledge that their concerns have been addressed.

America has some great colleges that are the envy of the world. But we also have some terrible colleges that waste student and taxpayer money. A SUR would help us separate the wheat from the chaff.

William A. McEachern on effective teaching

William A. McEachern:

Finding # 1: Students are much more likely to recall information that relates somehow to what they already know or have experienced…

Finding # 2: The key to long-term learning is practicing retrieval. Many experiments have found that learning improves when students actively retrieve information from memory rather than passively reread class notes or textbooks…

Finding # 3: Raise key ideas again and again over time. Retrieval and testing sessions that are spaced out over time are effective for long-term retention and transfer… Teachers should align their presentations, assignments, and tests so that key ideas are recalled frequently throughout the term. And students should space their retrieval sessions over time.

Finding # 4: “Desirable difficulties” foster engagement, which helps students learnDesirable difficulties are challenges introduced during instruction that seem to benefit long-term learning, challenges such as presenting material in different contexts and in different formats. Desirable difficulties may seem to slow the apparent rate of learning in the short run, but they boost long-term retention and transfer…

Myths# 1: The mind works like a memory machine… Instead, new information enters long-term memory only if linked to what’s already known, then retrieved repeatedly over time.

Myth# 2: Testing is not learning but is a mere yardstick to measure how much has been learned… Tests, however, are forced retrieval, and this helps students learn and remember… Frequent, low-stakes, classroom quizzes may be one of the best ways you can help students learn new material.

Myth# 3: Learning depends on a student’s learning stylethere is no evidence that customizing instruction to match a student’s preferred learning style leads to better achievement…

Myth # 4: Your classroom presentation determines how much students learn. What you do in class matters less than what you ask and expect students to do in your course… Remember, it’s less what you teach and more what students do for themselves to learn.

Alex Usher on lessons from Soviet higher education

Alex Usher

2)  The middle-class will pull whatever strings necessary to maintain their kids’ class position.

Khrushchev was not especially happy about the development of a hereditary intelligentsia, which made itself out to morally superior because of its extra years of education. Basically, he felt students were putting on airs and needed to be reminded that all that training they were receiving was in order to serve the working class, not to stand above it. And so, in 1958, he tried to shake things up by slapping a requirement on university admissions that reserved 80 per cent of places to individuals who has spent two years in gainful employment. This, he felt, would transform the student body and make it more at one with the toiling masses.

This has some predictably disastrous effects on admissions, as making people spend two years out of school before taking entrance exams tends to have fairly calamitous effects on exam results. But while the measure did give a big leg up to the children of workers and peasants (their numbers at universities doubled after the change, though many dropped out soon afterwards due to inadequate preparation), what was interesting was how far the Moscow/Leningrad elites would go to try to rig the system in their children’s favour. Some would try to get their children into two year “mental labor” jobs such as working as a lab assistant; others would find ways to falsify their children’s “production records”. Eventually the policy was reversed because the hard science disciplines argued the new system was undermining their ability to recruit the best and brightest. But in the meantime, the intelligentsia managed to keep their share of enrolments above 50%, which was definitely not what Khrushchev wanted.

3) Institutional prestige is not a function of neo-liberalism.

We sometimes hear about how rankings and institutional prestige are all a product of induced competition, neo-liberalism, yadda yadda. Take one look at the accounts of Soviet students and you’ll know that’s nonsense. Prestige hierarchies exist everywhere…

Marguerite Roza on K12 school finance coming out of the dark ages

Marguerite Roza:

Want to know what’s spent per student at a public school near you? Or whether it’s more or less than what’s spent at another school up the road? While it may seem crazy, in most communities you’d need to be a forensic accountant to get answers to such seemingly straightforward questions. That’s because what typically gets tracked and reported in this country is district-level spending. (And even that can take several years to be released to the public.)

But that’s all about to change.

A sleeper provision in the Every Student Succeeds Act—come December 2018—will serve up a motherlode of never-before-available school-level financial data…

Backed with bipartisan support, ESSA’s financial transparency clause calls on states to publicly report spending by school starting in the 2017-18 school year—and do so just six months after the school year ends…The intent was to make spending data public and accessible to communities and school systems, unmasking systemic fiscal inequities among schools in the same district and making it much easier to investigate (and understand) the relationship between school outcomes and school spending…