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Winds of Change Blow Through Higher Ed

There’s a short list of issues on which Via Meadia and OWS agree; one is our mutual feeling that students today are too often stuck with excessive debt and that something needs to be done.

Change may be coming to higher ed faster than many people understand.  The New York Times reports that Education Secretary Arne Duncan is talking about sweeping reforms.  In a recent speech, Duncan (who has encountered fierce opposition from teacher unions for his support of charter schools) praised some genuinely innovative programs at colleges around the country:

He named, for example, Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, which is offering a 50 percent discount on tuition and fees for freshmen who enroll in the school of education; the University of Oregon’s PathwayOregon, guaranteeing a tuition-free education to qualified Oregonians from low-income families, and, in West Virginia, the University of Charleston’s plan to cut tuition 22 percent for next year’s incoming freshmen and transfer students.

Mr. Duncan also mentioned Western Governors University, a lower-cost online nonprofit institution whose students earn degrees not by putting in a set number of hours but through demonstrated mastery of their field.

Up until now, government policy has been to feed more and more money into a dysfunctional system.  As colleges raised tuition faster than the rate of inflation, government loans allowed students to pay up.  That kept colleges happy, but left graduates and drop outs stuck with hundreds of billions in debt as they struggled to start careers.

OWS types want government to forgive existing loans and replace future loans with grant, but unless the Money Fairy turns the Capitol building into platinum there isn’t enough money for that. One suspects that the Obama administration would prefer to ‘solve’ the problem simply by increasing federal payments to (and federal control over) American colleges, but Secretary Duncan seems to grasp that this can’t work.

The system has reached a crisis point, and it is clear that change, planned or unplanned, benign or destructive, must come. The scattershot nature of Secretary Duncan’s comments suggests that nobody quite knows what will come next — but now is the perfect time to try new ideas. Many will fail, but a few will work. Hopefully, these can become the basis of an educational system that gives our children the education they will need at a price they can pay.

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  • WigWag

    There is one aspect of the incredible inflation in higher education that Professor Mead has not commented on yet; the exorbitant price of college textbooks. The idea that a student, already burdened by usurious tuition payments, should have to pay $500-$1,000 every semester for textbooks is criminal.

    What textbook publishers charge for the typical text is nothing less than extortion. Prices for hard cover texts can easily reach $100-$250 per book; prices for soft cover texts are often as high as $50-$100. The few texts available in e-book form are also incredibly expensive.

    Most of this is the fault of clueless college faculty, who despite making annual incomes in the high five figures or low six figures for teaching at most 6 hours per week, are totally indifferent to the financial plight of their students. Like physicians who order a MRI when a simple X-Ray will do just as well, college faculty who insist on requiring students to buy these overpriced texts are complicit in making college unaffordable.

    The information students obtain from the textbook should instead be provided by the teacher in his or her lectures and, if necessary, in non-copyrighted printed material distributed by the Professor or his academic department. Course work should be supplemented by regular books, not textbooks that are available at reasonable prices.

    Few things are more outrageous than when a faculty member insists that his/her students purchase the most recent edition of a text making it impossible for the student to buy a far less expensive used edition of the book. It is equally outrageous when a college or university permits a Professor to require students to purchase a text that he has written or has been written by a colleague in his department. When this occurs, the financial conflict of interest is palpable. Unfortunately, it happens all the time.

    The marketing of textbooks to students who have no choice but to submit to extortion is truly scandalous. It is also a problem that could easily be solved if faculty members were less lazy and less oblivious.

  • Luke Lea

    As wages continue to fall ordinary people will be able to afford less and less: education, healthcare, housing, retirement, law enforcement . . . If we aren’t careful we will get to the point where where we were a century ago, when only about 2% of the population could afford a quality liberal-arts college education. Not that it’s offered anymore.

    Trade, immigration, automation, libertarianism, inequality, where does it end?

  • Toni

    WigWag wrote, “Like physicians who order a MRI when a simple X-Ray will do just as well, college faculty who insist on requiring students to buy these overpriced texts are complicit in making college unaffordable.”

    Alas, physicians are often justified in ordering an MRI instead of an X-ray. It’s called defensive medicine. When a physician gets sued for malpractice, a battery of sophisticated tests can convince a jury that she or he took every possible step to optimize the patient’s care.

    Too bad no victim can sue for education malpractice.

  • Toni

    Thank you again, Professor Mead, for addressing a vital topic.

    Did you note that the Times said not a word about the high cost of private colleges, particularly the Ivies and other prestigious institutions? It reported a protest at CUNY, but evidently there were none at Columbia. Funny about that, huh?

  • dearieme

    Dissolution of the Monasteries.

  • Steve Goodman

    Let’s see. If crap costs $1.00 today and it goes on sale next week for $.50 and I rush out to buy it, it’s still crap. As soon as the real worth of a particular university’s degrees are worth, in there real world, then and only then will that university begin to offer a real education and a degree that will be recognized as of value in the market.

  • Kenny

    It’s absurd that Duquesne University in Pittsburgh is offering a 50 percent discount on tuition and fees for freshmen who enroll in the school of education.

    There is already a glut of education majors out there. If anything, discounts should be offered for useful majors like sicence & engineering.

    But better yet, colleges and universities should lower overhead by reducing staff, get rid of gender studies, black studies, etc. and deemphazing sports. The kiddies are in college to learn, not to be entertained.

  • Mike Anderson

    Sweeping Reform from the Feds will be yet another Blue Social Program that spends billions and accomplishes nothing. There are thousands of things that can be done to reduce the cost of higher education, and it will require thousands of innovators at thousands of universities to find and develop them. The Feds will just erect another bureaucratic fiefdom of do-nothing know-it-alls; Secretary Duncan would best serve students by sitting down and shutting up.

    Textbooks are a perfect example. I teach a statistics course which currently uses a $180 textbook, which is next to worthless (I didn’t get to pick it). In the past month, I’ve found THREE textbooks online that are good candidates for a replacement, and they’re all ABSOLUTELY FREE. What the heck, maybe I’ll use them all. Oh, and I didn’t need Arne Duncan to help me find them.

  • Frank Pickles

    Here’s an innovative way, via FrumForum:

  • Jim.

    I think it’s only a matter of time before students decide to hold textbook-burnings as a protest against this racket. That would get their attention, eh?

    @Mike Anderson:

    What would be the consequences if you emailed students who enrolled for your class and told them, “I’m going to be assigning all problem sets out of the following online textbooks. Don’t bother buying the book assigned with the class”?

  • A

    Education majors don’t learn. Further, degrees from online institutions are, in the eyes of employers, not worth the paper they are printed on.

  • Kenny

    You’re right about the text books being a bloody rip off.

    I was in a college book store at the beginning of the Fall 2010 semester. The kid in front of me had a basket of stuff — four or five text books and a few note pads.

    When I hear the cashier say to her, “$635,” I almost fell over.

    And how about the game the publishers play by changing the editions along with the poblems, questions and exercises in the books so the kids are really pressured into buying new. I mean, how much has math, Spanish, physics, chemistry, history, etc. changed from one edition to the next.

    The kids know it’s a rip off, but what can they do? They can cut expenses at the margin by buying used, sharing books, etc. But basically they’re stuck.

    The colleges know that the text book publishers are ripping the kids off but they don’t seem to care.

    Wonderful situAtion.

  • Bruno Behrend

    WigWag is right about text books, but they pale in comparison to the greedy employment engine of academia.

    Every new round of aid is met with an increase in tuition, calls for greater state funding, and a new round of needless administration.

    K-12 and Higher Ed need a hurricane (there is you “wind of change”) to blow through their bloated employment model.

    If k-12 did the job it did 30 years ago, most companies could take a decent high school grad and give them all the necessary technical skills to do their job, all at a lower cost than their current education tax bill.

    As people talk about bursting the “education bubble,” they don’t seem to conceptualize what that entails.

    Less brick and mortar institutions, more content coming into phones and tablets, and a massive cut in the number of useless (but highly paid) positions at Universities.

    The key is that we demand that money be returned to the taxpayer, and not churned in ever greater numbers of productivity-free public jobs.

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