Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What We're Reading: New Thinking on Financial Aid

Welcome to another new miniseries of the Education Optimists. Once in awhile we get a chance to sit and read-- it's rare, but when it happens it's crazy fun. Here's a taste of what we've liked lately.

For those pondering the reform of financial aid programs, I want to draw your attention to two papers--one very new, and one a year old.

In Postmortem for the Current Era: Change in American Higher Education, 1980-2010, Penn State historian Roger Geiger cogently tackles the many dismal trends of the last several decades. Among my most favorite of his observations is the following:

"The four vectors of the current era—-the financial aid revolution, selectivity sweepstakes, vocationalism, and research intensification—all bear an underlying signature by invoking private, as opposed to public or social, interests. They do not necessarily contradict public interests. On the contrary, to significant degrees, financial aid has allowed students with limited means to pursue postsecondary education; the selectivity sweepstakes has sorted students by academic ability so that the most able benefit from the most ample educational resources; vocationalism has prepared students for productive employment; and academic research has helped to revive and sustain the competitiveness of U.S. industry. Rather, these worthy social purposes have operated through incentives to private advantage. Thus, although public policies are involved to a greater or lesser extent, these vectors have derived their force from the market preferences of individual actors. But market relations can bring unplanned and sometimes unwelcome consequences."


Second, a new paper from a young economist just entering the job market, who tackles a critical question: how much Pell are students REALLY getting? In other words, to what degree are Pell dollars being supplanted and/or supplemented by institutions through a kind of crowding out? Leslie Turner tackles these questions, and more, in The Incidence of Student Financial Aid: Evidence from the Pell Grant Program

On average, Turner finds that colleges and universities reap the benefits of about 17% of Pell grants--but that the institutional variation is wide, and some schools are actually supplementing Pell with additional dollars, seemingly to attract more low-income students.

Both papers are worth a read in full. Enjoy!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Jeffrey Sachs, The Stanford on line AI course point to why it is so difficult to reform education

My attention was drawn to this blog post:


which was written by a very well respected professor at Columbia University, named Jeffrey Sachs. In it, he asserts that productivity is improving in our society and he cites the following as evidence of this in education:

1. At eight on Tuesday mornings, we turn on a computer at Columbia University and join in a “global classroom” with 20 other campuses around the world. A professor or a development expert somewhere gives a talk, and many hundreds of students listen in through videoconferencing.

2. At Stanford University this fall, two computer-science professors put their courses online for students anywhere in the world; now they have an enrollment of 58,000.

I found these pieces of evidence of hopefulness astonishing in their naïveté. Of course the man is an economist and not someone who thinks much about education one would assume. But still.

I have often said the that the main problem in fixing education is professors. “We have met the enemy and it is us” applies very well to why education is so hard to reform.

Really Professor Sachs? You are excited by that fact that more people can listen to your lectures? Ask any college students what he can recall from a lecture an hour after he has listened to it and see how much he remembers and how much he simply remembers wrong. Lecturing is a completely archaic way of teaching. It exists today at top universities only people because hot shot professors at top universities (of which I was one) think that their time is better spent doing almost anything else except teaching. Talking 3 hours a week seems like a pretty good deal enabling them to go back to doing what they really like. No one learns in a lecture. If you cared about education you would stop lecturing. But you care more about research which is fine, so did I when I was a professor. But recognize that you are the problem in education and video conferencing is the solution to nothing.

Sachs makes the same point twice when he cites the Stanford course. The Stanford on line AI course has gotten a lot of media attention. AI is my field (and one of the instructors was a PhD student of a PhD student of mine.) I don’t know what is in the course and I don’t care. The media doesn’t care either, nor does Sachs. They just like the 50,000 number. What if I said that a former student of mine was a great parent and so he was now raising 50,000 children on line? Would anyone think that was a good idea? This may seems like a silly analogy unless you really think about it.

Teaching, as I point out in my new book:


is basically a one on one affair and is about opening new worlds to students and then helping them do things in that world. This will not happen in a 50,000 person course any more than it happens in a 100 person course. Lecture courses are just rites of passage that we force students to endure so they can eventually start working with a good professor in a closer relationship (at least this what happens at in a good university.) A book would do as well for this, better would be a well constructed learning by doing on line course.

But what is happening in today’s world is that the action in educational change is all about getting bigger numbers on line without trying to improve quality. Stanford is making a lot of noise with this course but nothing good can come form this.

Professors need to stop and really think about education. Of course, the problem is that they have no motivation to do so. They are well paid and having a good time. Only the students suffer.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Students Occupy Colleges

In a sense, this movement was inevitable.

Higher education has been transformed over the last 50 years, reshaped in many ways that bring into question what it's for, how it works, who should lead it, and most importantly who it is serving. It is the failure of colleges and universities to sufficiently grapple with and address those key questions that led students to Occupy Colleges, and faculty to stand with them, and set up college administrators to be largely inept in response.

The experience of postsecondary education today is highly polarized. Among those attending college are the kinds of students who have always attended college--those who parents and grandparents have degrees, who expected them to go, and ensured they were financially, academically, and otherwise prepared. These are the students who dominate enrollment at the private colleges, take advantage of liberal arts institutions, and who not only earn bachelor's degrees in large numbers but also graduate and professional degrees. But in addition, there is a wide swath of students for whom college was not entirely planned-- it may have felt expected of them, and they did work hard to get ready, but they were unaware of how unprepared college would be to meet their needs. Little did they know that most colleges and universities act as if it's the students' job to get "college-ready," rather than the colleges' job to be prepared to meet the needs of all who enter.

These are the students stunned by the high and rising costs of attendance, and the lack of grant aid available to them. These are the students willing to work long hours to make ends meet, but continually surprised that the faculty and administrators don't respond in turn to accomodate their needs with flexible scheduling, remote advising, and timetables for timely degree completion that don't require full-time enrollment. These are the students who attend the vast majority of our public colleges and universities, and our community colleges, and these are the students at the heart of Occupy Colleges.

Higher education is not sure about these students. Sure, the initial shots were fired long ago, during the Free Speech Movement. But that was about far more than how higher education would work; it was about how society would work. And since that time, colleges and universities have become less--not more-- hospitable to what they like to call "nontraditional" students. Those that some have labeled "tenants" rather than "landowners," decried as "academically adrift," and said to care far less about the hard work of studying. Serving these students has evolved as a speciality, rather than the primary function it ought to be when they comprise at least half of the undergraduate population.

The evidence is everywhere. The growth of the student services industry has segregated the job of meeting students' needs to administrators, letting faculty off the hook. The shift to part-time, contingent labor has lessened the ability of professors to spend the kind of time required to really get to know and address their students' needs--thus creating a stronger rationale for relying on administrators. It would be far better for people to serve dual roles, as teacher and administrator, rather than to continue to pretend the two can be effectively performed in isolation from one another. States have disinvested in public higher education at the same time that the children of the nation's leaders are more likely than ever to opt for private higher education. Public colleges and universities point to those declines in state support and rationalize that since they must have money, they should move to a more "efficient" model of high tuition/high aid, a model that works only in theory. In practical, political life, real world families take sticker prices as real, and mistrust discounting. Politicians and university administrators rarely have the appetite to tie their own hands and fully commit to increasing aid whenever tuition rises. And almost none consider the sharp hypocrisy in their support for free public k-12 education, juxtaposed against their refusal to demand free higher education.

Many, but not all, students are catching on. And therein lies the rub. The move to Occupy Colleges is not a unified front: for every student supporter, there is a student who thinks it's stupid. The students I observe decrying the effort are those who have been well-treated by the current system. Same goes for faculty: those who interact all the time with the so-called nontraditional student and know intimately how we are failing them much more often support this movement. The others, especially those who put research first, often do not.

It's clear who has long been most successful. After all, there is now a move to slash a federal financial aid program (Pell) whose costs have risen (a) because it is doing its job in serving the needs of many students from low-income families and (b) because powerful interests have ensured that government considers to subsidize private and for-profit higher education. If Occupy Colleges could end (b) then the costs of the Pell program would fall dramatically. It won't happen--because higher education refuses to even consider being more about the economically disadvantaged student.

Students are laying these issues at the feet of college administrators and they are stumbling and mumbling in response. Their power-hungry allies, including their overly-compensated athletic directors and boosters and police forces, are doing everything they can to stop it.

It should not be stopped. Students should Occupy Colleges. Let's try that again. Students should occupy colleges. Not administrators. Students, and their educators, should occupy colleges.

NOTE: This post was amended on November 23 in response to a very cogent comment submitted to the blog.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


It is a proud day for Wisconsin. Nearly 30,000 people turned out at the state's Capital for the kickoff Recall Walker rally. I had the distinct honor of being invited to speak twice today--first at the rally in front of Wisconsin Manufacturer's and Commerce, and then at the BIG rally, on behalf of Jobs Not Cuts. It was honestly one of the most awe-inspiring experiences--what a motivated, impassioned crowd. Below, I have pasted both of my speeches.


Speech at Jobs Not Cuts Rally

It's my great honor to be a professor of higher education policy at UW-Madison. I’ve worked and made my home here in Wisconsin for the last 8 years, raising two small children, paying my taxes, and educating your children.

I am a hard-working teacher, and a researcher who has created more than 2 dozen jobs for the people of Wisconsin over the last 4 years. And this year Scott Walker decided I deserved a pay cut. In September, as I earned my tenure, instead of getting a raise, his policies cut my family’s income. He cut the budget of my employer substantially, and even as we went about teaching the state’s undergraduates this fall, he cut us again.

Apparently, for Scott Walker, a college education is something to fear.

We are here today to send a strong message to the 1% of Wisconsin and the nation that intends to block educational opportunities for our kids by laying off our teachers, demoralizing our schools, privatizing every public institution in sight, and systematically ensuring that all we have access to is narrow job-training that will make us into the company yes-men that don’t think or act when they are repeatedly crapped on.

Scott Walker doesn’t believe in college—he just believes in training. Training people in the skills he and his business friends need so that they don’t have to do any dirty, hard work; training us to accept minimum wage and horrible working conditions and worse yet be GRATEFUL for it. Training us that protest and response is unacceptable, and that we should bow down to the almighty dollar.

The WMC has a clear plan: starve the public colleges and universities so that they will beg for help. In return the business community will offer them a prescribed curriculum, and pay them to train automatons. No more critical thinking skills, they want you to do what you are told—nothing more, nothing less. And they want to enlist us teachers in their service, as cheap labor.

Look I’m not saying everyone should go to college. But there is NO WAY it is good economic policy for the state of Wisconsin to ensure that the opportunity is blocked. A new report shows that within a few years, 63% of American jobs will be totally unavailable to people who don’t have college degrees. If you only have a high school education, just ONE-THIRD of the jobs you will be able to get will pay a living wage. And the vast majority of those will continue to be open mainly to men, not to women.

So by slashing and burning down our colleges and universities with $250 million budget cuts $66 million “lapses” in judgment Scott Walker is taking away job opportunities and chances for economic stability from us and from our kids.

Enough is enough. We need JOBS not CUTS. We need higher education not ‘corporate training.” We need career prospects not minimum wage.

It’s time, now more than ever, to INVEST in our people, grow our skills, and create jobs. Say Yes to Education, and NO NO NO to Scott Walker and his friends-the WMC.


Speech at Recall Walker rally

Thank you for coming out today to MAKE HISTORY! I'm Sara Goldrick-Rab from Jobs Not Cuts, a coalition that called for a national week of action in which we tell the Congressional "Super Committee" that enough is enough, no more cuts!

Earlier today we gathered at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce to raise our voices alongside similar protests in Boston, Seattle, New York and many other cities around the country.

We all know what the face of austerity looks like here in Wisconsin. In March, Scott Walker destroyed collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin's public workers –including our children’s teachers-- and drained millions from their paychecks when he slashed their pensions and health care benefits.

But there is an even bigger axe coming down from Washington in just a few short days. At a time of record unemployment and poverty, the politicians in Washington D.C. are threatening historic cuts to the country's social safety net. Soon that so-called “Super Committee” will decide the fate of trillions in funding for federal programs that seniors, the sick, the poor, students, workers, middle-class people, women, and others depend on. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education funding, and other social services are all on the chopping block. Make no mistake people-- they are rolling back the New Deal.

The politicians tell us that we need to "tighten our belts" and learn to live with "the new normal." They tell us that the government of the richest country in the world is broke. But for decades, these same politicians have bailed out banks, slashed taxes for corporations and millionaires, and wasted trillions on wars carried out to protect profits of Exxon and BP. Those are the same policies that led to massive government debts. Now they want to gut our programs to pay for an economic crisis that Wall Street created.

The wealth harbored by the top 1% could pay off all student loan debt, all credit card debt, buy every home foreclosed upon in 2007 and 2008, finance every current mortgage for two years, triple the number of teachers, pay the annual salary of 19 million families and then some! The financial sector is sitting on $2 trillion of idle cash that could be creating jobs. Keep that in mind the next time a politician tells you that our state, or our country, is broke and that ordinary working people have to pay the price.

That is why today, all across the country, activists are taking to the streets to demand jobs, not cuts.

We're telling Washington hands off Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid! We won't tolerate any cuts to education or social services!

We need jobs, not cuts! Congress should fund a federal public works program to create millions of jobs for the unemployed. We need it now!

We want Wall St to pay for the crisis they created, not working people.

We know where Scott Walker and his cronies in the Capitol stand on the question of who has to pay for the crisis. But this fight is much bigger than Walker, much bigger than just Wisconsin. Earlier this year Wisconsin showed the country that we won't stand for these cuts, and now the rest of the country is waking up. We are rising up to say "we won't pay for your crisis!"

It's time to...

Recall Walker! Recall Walker! Recall Walker!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Get Smart About Student Loans

First, apologies for the long silence. My workload has increased tremendously post-tenure (sorry to disillusion anyone) and I'm having trouble keeping up with the blog. (This is why this post, so deserving of embedded links to sources, lacks them.)

Second, let me go on record as a supporter of the Occupy movement. Protest is powerful, period. The denigration of protest and attempts to make it look irresponsible, violent, and evil is a power tactic leveraged by elites. Ignore them.

Third, this post is a few thoughts for the OccupyCollege movement in particular. The battle cry against student loans is worthwhile but needs a more informed perspective. Yes, there is now more student loan debt than credit card debt. Yes, tuition and fees are high, and it's one reason for the growth in debt. And some schools leave students with more debt than others. Yes, Obama's recent plans will help, but only a little. Yes, this is problem that needs to be addressed.

But too little knowledge is dangerous. Protesters need to know and address the following in formulating their counter-proposals:

(1) Rising tuition is outstripped by a massive expansion of costs of room and board and student fees-- they are now the bulk of "cost of attendance." These costs are growing because colleges and universities think students are demanding them. They say you want climbing gyms, organic foods, and dorms at 2-year colleges. Do you--or don't you? Are you willing to get less in order to pay less?

(2) The growing reliance on loans is reflective of a turn away from grants, and it's not only a fiscal decision but a philosophical one. There has been push back against aid you don't have to repay, supported by a new claim that students benefit by having "skin in the game." There are accusations about the misuse of aid dollars, and discussion that states aren't getting much for their money since many students-- even middle-class ones--aren't completing college degrees. So why, they ask, shouldn't students foot the bill themselves?

(3) Colleges and universities and policymakers are loathe to rethink what being a student means, and adapt college requirements and scheduling accordingly. Large fractions of students now work, and must fit that work into their schedules. Work comes with benefits, sometimes-- which aid does not. So many students are going to work, no matter what. The fact that college doesn't accomodate work means that working students take even longer to finish college and that increases overall debt.

(4) Rising time to degree is likely a good part of the story about the ballooning debt. So those who oppose debt should join forces with those who seek to get more students to a degree in a timely fashion.

(5) Student debt, in and of itself, is not evil. When you borrow to buy a car, having that car does nothing to help you pay back the loan. But when you buy college, having the degree does help you pay off the debt. Moreover, unless you forsee some massive lottery winnings for the nation in the near future, we are never going to have enough money to meet the full financial need of everyone attending college-- and evidence suggests that grant dollars are most important and effective for students from lower-income families. So loans are likely to continue to be part of how students finance college -- the question is what fraction of the strategy should they be? By no means should students borrow to meet their entire costs of attendance, and by no means should they borrow to finance an overly expensive institution with low graduation rates. But a no-loans platform will not succeed.

(6) Yes some colleges have graduates with less debt than others. But be careful of conflating correlation with causation. Colleges enrolling wealthier students, those with larger endowments, and more investment from the state tends to graduate students with less debt. It's not like they are BETTER colleges because of that. And it doesn't mean that if you have less money and attend that school that you are guaranteed to graduate with less debt than you otherwise would-- you can't use averages to make decisions for individuals.

The biggest underlying problem facing our nation's college students is that many showed up to college totally unprepared for how to pay for it. They had next to no plan. They had no 'game' and neither did their parents. They went to college because they thought they were supposed to, and the colleges assumed they knew what they were getting into. That was wrong. There are dozens of different ways to pay for college and it requires research and education to make it work out for your own family. The goal should be to help all kids and parents get informed, and to help ensure that all colleges and universities do their due diligence in making that happen.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The King of Spain, classrooms and subjects

Last week I was interviewed by phone from Spain. I was talking to authorities who were preparing a report for the King of Spain on how education might be improved in Spain. I am well known in Spain so it is not odd that they were calling me. They were certainly calling many others as well.

I started by saying that I am really radical and they said they already knew that. I then talked with them for about a half an hour about the kinds of improvements to education that I have been writing about for years in my columns and of course in my latest book:


They seemed to be enjoying talking to me and hearing what I had to say. Then, they asked one final question: “if you could just say one thing that need to be changed, what would it be?”

It is easy to imagine that they wanted a one liner for an executive summary here. I don’t think I gave them what they wanted, judging from their reaction.

I said “just eliminate classrooms.”

They audibly gasped.


First why did I say it?

Because if you eliminate classrooms everything else follows. No teacher talking to kids who aren’t listening. No tests to see if they were listening. No kids distracting other kids who are bored by what is going one. No subjects that in no way relate to the interests of the child. Instead, without a classroom you can re-invent. We can think about how individuals can learn and while doing that we would need to confront the fact that not all individuals want to learn the same things. We would have to eliminate the the “one size fits all” curriculum. We would need to create curricula that met kids interests. We would be able to let kids learn by doing instead of vainly attempting to have them learn by listening. We could eliminate academic subjects. We could make learning fun. Classrooms are never fun.

Why did they gasp?

Because they can’t do it. They knew it and I knew it. They don’t really want to fix education. They want to make schools function better. And schools have classrooms. And that my friends is the beginning and end of the problem.