Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What the British can remind us about higher education funding

I've argued before that one of the ironies of American education is that K-12 and higher education work under assumptions that are both radically different and uninformed by each other.

One of the most obvious focuses on per-student funding.  In public K-12 education, per student funding is a major point of discussion.  And while there is debate about exactly how important increasing per-student spending is for student learning, it goes without saying that schools that have more funding per student are able to invest in more learning opportunities, better quality resources, and higher paid teachers than those with lower funding levels.  In short, at the K-12 level, per-student funding is about fairness and access to resources.

In American higher education, though, we rarely talk about per-student income as an important indicator of fairness.  It is true that representatives from public institutions express concern about declining state subsidies for higher education. But key rankings of colleges and universities are uncritical about the wealth amassed by major universities (public and private).  And measures of student learning--the value-added scales of the CLA for example--don't directly take into consideration per student income as a factor.  Instead, they predict performance based on student test scores.  Indeed, the main discussion that touches on per-student funding is about the cost of higher education.  Concern about rising cost is spot-on as far as it goes.  But to imagine that financial resources are unimportant for student learning (one implication of the call to reduce the cost of higher education) is to live in a fantasy world.

Enter Professor Roger Brown from Liverpool Hope University. He has calculated an index of the per-student incomes of British universities.  The disparity is huge.  Cambridge has the highest per-student income, at 65,840 pounds.  In comparison, Edge Hill's per-student income is 7,050 pounds.  (The disparity in per student net assets is even larger).

Brown makes two points about this disparity.  First, he wonders whether it is good for the nation to have such a massive range of institutional wealth, given that the well-being of the nation as a whole depends on having relatively healthy educational opportunities for all of its students.

 Second, he notes:

"...there is a basic question of fairness. The better-resourced universities generally recruit students from better-off backgrounds, including many educated at private, taxpayer-subsidised, fee-charging schools. So students who have already had the most spent on them up to the age of 18 continue to have the most spent on them, reinforcing their social and educational capital. By the same token, many of their less favoured state school-educated brethren will continue to have less available to them."

Of course British higher education differs from American higher ed in significant ways.  But certainly the range of per-student income at American colleges and universities would be wider than that at British institutions, given the larger number and more diverse missions of American institutions. But our politics contain no policy recommendations related to that disparity.  Instead, the presidential discussions about higher education share naive calls for reducing the cost of higher education and a tempest in a teapot argument about whether private banks or the federal government ought to fund federal student loans.  All the while, sources of funding flow to institutions who can bring in major philanthropic donations and research support, or who can catch the eye of venture capitalists.  

Nowhere is there a call to shift subsidies from those institutions to institutions whose missions, faculties, and student bodies guarantee that neither the philanthropic rich nor the federal-corporate research nexus will fund them in the future.  But if we hope that education will be a way for people to lift themselves out of poverty and unemployment, we should consider such a move.

Monday, September 17, 2012

What does the history of newspapers suggest about the future of higher education?

Worriers about the future of higher education sometimes suggest that American colleges and universities will follow newspapers in their rapid fall from great prominence to insignificance.  They extend the analogy one step further, arguing that it is technology that will make brick-and-mortar colleges as irrelevant as the newspaper itself.  The proof  is the rise of online course content, which has supposedly made learning free in the same way that social media has made information free.

As analogies go, this one has provoked relatively little discussion, by which I mean it is taken as an absolute falsehood or an absolute inevitability rather than an opportunity to think.  This is too bad, because a fuller look at the history of newspapers suggests a far more interesting set of opportunities for higher education than for newspapers.

Let me start with a thumbnail sketch of the history of newspapers in the US, dating back to the 19th century  (rather than the 2000s where most of these stories start).

In the 19th century, the United States was  a newspaper nation. By this I mean four things:

  •  first, that the nation was awash in newspapers, with hundreds circulating in New York City alone; 
  • second, that newspapers reflected the nation's political and ethnic diversity in that they spoke for particular groups or viewpoints rather than trying to objectively report news; 
  •  third, that most newspapers were local or parochial in outlook, and 
  • fourth that their parochialism and ideology formed a key component of the American democratic system, in the same way that local bosses, ethnic networks, and civil society did. 

Several things weakened the position of newspapers in American society and civic life in the 20th century.  The availability of information via other media (radio, TV) was one.  Another was the rise of national newspapers, both that handful of newspapers with national influence (the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and much later USA Today) and in the national perspective of local papers, whose lead stories increasingly focused on the national rather than the local.  A third was the emergence of objectivity as the goal of reporting, replacing as it did ideology.  And a fourth was the decline of major American cities, which had been home to the majority of newspapers.

The industry's response was consolidation, as represented by the emergence of investor-held major newspaper chains, and by the sharing of operations between ostensibly competing papers.  So, by the end of the 20th century and before the attack of the internet, the newspaper industry was centralized, profit-focused, homogeneous, and already in decline.

Contrary to the regular narrative, then, newspapers weren't toppled by the internet. They were toppled by consolidation, by nationalizing their viewpoint, by seeking profits for investors rather than for owners, and by failing to respond to media who had copied them. If anything, the internet re-created in electronic form the model of news that existed in the 19th and early 20th centuries--hyper-local, ideological, biased, parochial, and democratic. Radio has done the same. And TV is on the same path.

So what might this history of newspapers suggest about the future of higher education?

 First, that if higher ed is in decline, it is in decline on a path that is wildly different from that of newspapers.  Newspapers were in decline in number and readership long before the internet.  Both the number of institutions of higher education, and enrollment in college, is on the rise, and has been for some time.

Second, that organizations that sponsor colleges and universities--states, churches, donors, etc.--ought to oppose consolidation and homogenization, preferring instead diversity, localism, and ideology as the basis of colleges and universities.  We will certainly see declines in enrollment at some schools--rural liberal arts colleges, church schools closely tied to declining denominations, decent small schools with curricula pretty much like dozens of others.  But we will also see the emergence of new institutions, only some of which have the internet as their sole delivery model.  Witness, for example, the emergence of health and wellness-affiliated colleges and universities, set up to respond to the needs of particular industries; and sustainability-focused schools, intent on responding to our environmental crises. My guess is that the next wave of institutions will focus wholly on the new college-going demographics.  A few schools will emerge entirely online, but those who survive will find an online niche, rather than becoming the facebook of online education, particularly since there is yet to be a good business model for such types of schools.

(If I am right and that the future of higher ed is more diversity in institution type, in ideology, in content area, and in delivery, then we will also need to see a greater diversity in pricing.  Colleges tend to price themselves in narrow bands, with most state institutions of a particular type offering similar tuition charges to students, and most private institutions offering tuition in alignment with their peers.  Older schools are close to locked into this pricing model; but new schools will be free to charge what their markets bear--most of them probably less than today's norms, but some much more.)

In short, I am arguing for a decentralized, localist, less-regulated, less-objective future for higher education, both as a means of keeping the system as a whole healthy, as a way of ensuring that people who want an education can get one, and as a way of ensuring that higher education can provide the sort of civic spark that newspapers once did.

This, more than the warning that place-based schools will die in an online onslaught, is the lesson that the history of newspapers has for the future of higher education.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Early admit for regular students

Most colleges that offer early admission programs do it to attract top students.  It is a way both to ensure that top students enroll, and to indicate to them that they are, in fact, top students.  In the logic of enrollment management, these purposes, and the early admit process itself, make perfect sense.

But in the logic of student success, the students who need early admission most are not top students, who know how to do school, and who are likely to succeed wherever they enroll.  Instead, the students who need early admission are regular students--those who are at the median or below academically, and who have little experience with higher education.

The reason is this--the later a moderate or weak student is admitted and enrolls, the less the likelihood that they will be successful.  And if admission takes place after registration begins, the likelihood of success drops even more.  In short, students with a marginal academic background need more advising, more access to the right classes, and more time to integrate into college.

(And for those focused on revenue, since marginal students receive smaller merit scholarships, admitting and enrolling them early is a way of ensuring decent revenue.)

So if enrollment management has as its purpose student success in addition to prestige, building a class,  and revenue, then early admit programs ought to target students who will benefit most from it--not the stars, but the regular students.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Sharing the right data on student loans

Public discussion about student indebtedness is composed of three less than useful strands.  The first frets about the overall amount of student indebtedness, which has now topped 1 trillion dollars and surpassed the amount of credit card debt in the US. The second points to extreme cases of student debt, particularly for students in fields where salaries are low or uncertain. And the third tries to respond to the first two by reporting average amounts of student indebtedness.

Mixed together, the three fail to help families make good decisions because they are all true, but taken together provide an incomplete view of student indebtedness--one that is unlikely to apply at all to an individual student.  Let me propose that to help round out the picture of student debt, financial aid offices should provide these two pieces of data for students at their institutions:

  • The range of student indebtedness. It should be a simple thing for schools to make a chart showing the range of student indebtedness, rather than just reporting the average amount of debt.  I suspect such a chart will be sobering both for those fretting about the student debt crisis (since a perishingly small proportion of students rack up huge amounts of debt), and for admissions officers at schools, since the median and the mode of indebtedness may in fact be higher than the average.
  • Student debt by major. It is almost certainly the case that there are students in low-paying fields (history, for example), who have high student debt.  But the most common location of highly indebted students are graduate students in professional fields--law, business, healthcare.  At the undergraduate level, debt is closely related to time in school, so majors with high indebtedness are likely to be majors where it takes a long time to graduate.  Such data would help families make informed choices about borrowing in anticipation of future earning power.  And it would force institutions to reform the curricula of programs where student debt is higher because graduation is slower.