Monthly Archives: October 2015

Mike Masnick on how the Bayh-Dole Act turns universities into patent trolls

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to highlight a piece that hits on two of my topic areas: higher ed and Intellectual Property/Privilege.

Mike Masnick:

Apple lost a patent lawsuit filed by the University of Wisconsin, and may be on the hook for up to $862.4 million in damages. This news should serve as a reminder that universities are some of the nation’s worst patent trolls, actively ignoring their own stated missions to widely spread academic research and knowledge…

Notice how much of [the UW mission statement] is about sharing knowledge and improving the world. But, of course, when UW had a chance to say “pay me!” it didn’t skip a beat. And many universities are doing the same thing. It’s a massive problem and it’s one caused almost entirely by Congress. We’ve discussed this a few times before, but in 1980, Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which was supposed to incentivize more research at universities by allowing those universities to patent that research…

What really happened in the wake of the Bayh-Dole Act, was that many universities thought that they’d (1) patent all their professors’ research (2) license it and (3) profit like crazy. The reality was that they did the first part — and then many universities set up “tech transfer offices” to try to license it. And then they ran smack dab into reality, which is that most of their patents sucked and no one wanted to license them. Making matters worse, even when they had a legitimate or interesting patent, the universities massively overvalued those patents, demanding licensing fees that were ridiculous…

The end result was a near total disaster for most universities. Rather than make money, most universities lost a ton of money between all the patent filing and the expensive tech transfer offices that were supposed to be a revenue generator, but turned out to be massive losses for the vast majority of universities that set them up (there are very few exceptions). On top of that, this rush to patent and license resulted in a secondary problem: it actually decreased research and information sharing. Historically, professors would often share research with colleagues and work together on projects. But universities started pushing them not to do that as much, because of the patents. And on top of that, it became riskier to do follow on research over fears around the patents. So the entire intent of the bill backfired drastically…

As a result, many university tech transfer offices followed one of two paths to try to justify their existence: they sold off patent portfolios to patent trolls directly (Intellectual Ventures’ big initial portfolio of patents was mostly them buying junk patent portfolios from desperate universities, who needed to show some sort of return), or they started patent trolling themselves. The University of California at Berkeley became a major patent troll. As did the University of Southern California. And Carnegie Mellon. And, apparently, the University of Wisconsin as well.

This recent ruling is just the latest example of how far we’ve come and just how much damage the Bayh-Dole Act has done. It’s not only diminished university research and important information sharing, it’s now leading these universities to actively attack actual innovators and shake them down for money. If Congress really wants to fix patent trolling, it really needs to roll back the Bayh-Dole Act.

Alexander Holt on how federal financial aid could ruin coding bootcamps

Alexander Holt:

bootcamps where students enroll in relatively short programs (often three to six months) to learn coding skills and gain high paying jobs. These boot camps, and other programs like them, are arguably the most exciting type of postsecondary education to emerge in the last decade. If the federal government gets its way, it will likely suck most of the innovation out…

as soon as federal dollars touch these programs, they will become hopelessly distorted. Instead of students selecting educational programs for high job placement rates and schools accordingly tying their price to students’ post-graduate outcomes (as they do now), federal financial aid dictates that providers will get money as long as the student enrolls–an input model, not an output model…

There once was another highly innovative industry that federal aid ruined. For-profit companies using online distance learning tools were seen as a brand new way to educate students at lower costs… What we failed to understand was that online programs were only innovative when they had to survive in a real market. In 2006, schools were no longer required to teach at least 50% of the program on campus, thus opening up the crazy online degrees we have now… with little or no evidence they lead to positive outcomes for students…

what starts as expanding access ends with bad actors taking advantage of federal dollars with no strings attached…

Republicans should be against forcing taxpayer money in and thus distorting a now functioning market. Democrats should be opposed to the next “for-profit” disaster…

Holt makes a good point. While we should provide aid to students wanting to enroll in these programs, if we rely on the same input monitoring process we currently use for aid, it will likely just open the floodgates to fly-by-night providers. The solution, of course, is to start making aid available based on outcomes (e.g., value-added measures of learning and earning), not inputs (e.g., enrollment and provider credentials).

Macro Rubio offers two worthwhile higher ed reforms

Marco Rubio offers two worthwhile higher ed reforms:

reform our accreditation system to welcome low-cost, innovative higher education providers, which are currently being blocked by the existing institutions that control accreditation. This will transform higher education by exposing it to the market forces of choice and competition…

help students and families earn the right degree at the right price from the right institution for them. I’ll require schools to tell students how much they can expect to earn with a given degree before they take out the loans to pay for it…

Rubio consistently offers some of the best thought-out plans for fixing higher ed, frequently with a Democratic co-sponsor for bills (e.g., Wyden and Bennett). One suggestion to make the second proposal even better: In addition to providing students with information on graduates’ earnings, inform students of say the top 10 most frequently taken jobs (by the BLS’s Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system).

Eric Hanushek on No Child Left Behind

Eric Hanushek via Chad Aldeman:


No Child Left Behind is in some sense backwards—what No Child Left Behind says is that states decide what should be done, what the standards and the testing should be, and the federal government decides how it’s going to be done, because if the school is failing there are written regulations about how the education system should change to do better. This is just about 180 degrees backwards. The federal government is in a better position to make broad statements about what we expect to achieve and how it should be measured, and the local districts and local schools should be the ones making the decisions about how to adjust and what to adjust if they’re not achieving he results they want.

In other words, I believe in having a lot more autonomy for schools but holding them responsible for outcomes…

Jon Boeckenstedt on the new college application “Coalition”

Jon Boeckenstedt

eighty of the country’s top colleges have formed a “Coalition,”… to create a new application as well as a new portfolio system for students, who can start as early as the 9th grade, to assemble documents and other resources, not unlike my suggestion about Google managing the application process.  The goal, ostensibly, is to get more low-income and first generation students interested and ready to go to college, and to apply to these mostly-selective institutions…

The standards for membership are fairly arbitrary: A 70% graduation rate for all members; for privates, a pledge to meet “demonstrated need,” (a patently ridiculous term both in definition and in the way it’s practiced) and for publics, “affordable tuition for and need-based aid for in-state students.”

Does that seem backwards to you?  Shouldn’t public institutions, which I believe were generally founded by the public for the public, be held to a higher standard of serving, you know, the public they’re supposed to serve?  And of course, remember my frequent rant that high graduation rates are an input, not an output.  Even as blunt an instrument as US News and World report recognizes that if you enroll more Pell grant recipients, your graduation rate will drop.

Which brings me to the last point.  These institutions are, for the most part, selected from the institutions that a) have the most resources, b) charge the most, and c) enroll the fewest Pell grant kids.  Is this new application, which fragments the process even further, and clearly–not even possibly, but clearly–favors wealthier kids really the answer?

Or is the name–The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success–just a political ploy…

And this is case where a picture is worth a thousand words. Coalition members have been remarkably effective at minimizing the number of Pell students that enroll on their campuses. coalition chart

Scott Alexander on the deterioration of science

Scott Alexander

Dutch study shows rampant sexism in scientific community. Dutch establishment promises reforms, says they will push “gender awareness” on everyone involved. Outside observers point out basic statistical error, actual results show no gender bias at all. Original authors say it doesn’t matter and the Dutch scientific community is still sexist because grant review forms use “gendered language” like the word “excellent” which is apparently “male-coded”. Dutch establishment says reform and gender awareness programs are “still a good idea, regardless of the paper’s quality”, and vow to push ahead. Why are we even bothering to do science anymore? Why don’t we just write the only acceptable conclusion on a piece of paper beforehand and save however much it cost to do the study?

Senators Bennett and Rubio have a great idea to help fix accreditation

The Higher Education Innovation Act… would also allow higher education providers that currently are ineligible to receive federal student aid to access federal financial aid if they demonstrate high student outcomes, including student learning, completion, and return on investment…
Currently, only students attending accredited institutions of higher education can receive federal student aid funds. The current process for accreditation can be complex and focus too heavily on inputs and process. This bill creates an alternative outcomes-based process that would allow students to use their federal aid at new providers and existing colleges and universities that demonstrate successful student outcomes and offer innovative and effective programs.
Accreditation is currently awarded for the use of prescribed inputs, processes and governance structures. As I’ve noted before
It would be one thing if there was one set of inputs, one set of processes, and one
governance structure that was known to produce strong educational outcomes. In
that case, basing accreditation on those inputs, processes and governance would
be acceptable. But there is no one set of inputs, processes, and governance
structure that are guaranteed to produce the best educational outcomes, so it
is inappropriate to base accreditation decisions on them. Bluntly stated,
WASC’s (and other accreditors’) standards on inputs, processes and governance
structure are neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure adequate educational
The proposal from Senators Bennett and Rubio would avoid these problems by focusing on outcomes, which is a huge step in the right direction.

New Paper and Op-ed

I have a new paper at SSRN – Why Does Tuition Keep Increasing? The abstract is:

Tuition at American colleges has increased significantly over the years. Three common explanations for these increases are 1) declines in state funding, 2) increases in faculty salaries (Baumol’s cost disease), and 3) increases in college funded financial aid. Analysis of recent data shows these explanations for rising tuition to be inadequate. Even imposing the assumption of a $1 for $1 effect on tuition, an average of 18-33% of the change in tuition at four-year colleges is left unexplained by these three factors. More importantly, regression analysis provides overwhelming evidence that these three factors do not have a $1 for $1 effect on tuition. Using their estimated impacts implies that 66-91% of the increase in tuition at four-year colleges is left unexplained after accounting for changes in state funding, faculty compensation, and college-funded financial aid. The most likely explanation for the statistical inadequacy of these three factors as well as the most plausible explanation for the larger question of why tuition increases is that colleges are engaged in an academic arms race (Bowen’s Laws). Simply put, tuition keeps increasing because colleges are rewarded for spending more and raising tuition allows them to spend more.

If the full paper is a bit long for your tastes, there is a summary op-ed at Minding the Campus. I was even able to squeeze in one of the key charts from the paper: All.pub4.bargraph