The Weekly Blab
Volume 6, Issue 5—September 12, 2011
A Very Good Man
My next door neighbor, Bill Franklin Hendrick, passed away last week. He had been battling cancer and getting weaker for some time, but his death was still a surprise. Bill was a wonderful neighbor. I remember when we first moved into our house, we had some trouble with the garage door. Bill came by almost instantly, offering help. In another of many instances, when one of our pipes burst in the room in which I had my comic book collection, Bill came rushing over, and was hauling out boxes of comics that were heavier than he should have been trying to lift. He kept at it until I had to tell him to stop. He loved Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, and we enjoyed watching concerts together on DVD’s, and talking about politics. He was a rabid UNC fan and readily forgave me for being a graduate of the University of South Carolina. His wake was on Friday, and his funeral was on Saturday, at Kennesaw Memorial Park Cemetery. Bill is survived by his son Franklin, who was the apple of his eye. Franklin is in the process of getting his doctorate in Pharmaceutical Economics, and recently married a very sweet girl named Caitlin. We’ll all miss you, Bill—the world’s a poorer place without you.
9-11 + 10
I hope everyone and their families had a safe weekend as we commemorated the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center. I know I’m not the first to say this, but it’s interesting to reflect on how unified people were immediately after the attack, and how divided we all seem to be now. Inevitably, politics has even intruded into the lessons people claim to have learned from the tragedy. So for one day, at least, let’s remember we’re supposed to be one nation, INDIVISIBLE, and pull together for the common good. Here’s a cartoon that I saw online in THE WEEK (which has a very good iPhone app for those who are interested) that moved me.
The High Cost of College
Ronny Richardson forwarded me an article CNN Money ran on Friday called “Stop the Tuition Madness”, one of a long line I’ve seen lately arguing that college tuition is too high. The article made a few good points, but most of it seemed to miss the point entirely about what is actually going on in Universities, and the solutions it proposed were (for the most part) questionable.
The article begins by setting up a juxtaposition between the poor economy (lower house prices, lower 401K values) and the rising cost of tuition, as if these have any relationship to each other. The cost at a private college, it says, is up to $42,000 on average, while in-state costs at public colleges are up to $21,000 on average. These totals include room and board and books, but the article doesn’t mention that—it would take away from the extreme headline. That tuition at public colleges is rising so fast because of state budget cuts is not mentioned.
It doesn’t have to be that way, the CNN article goes on. Colleges need to refocus on academics, instead of student services and operations where spending has gone up faster. Of course, it is students and their families who demand those greater services and operations—see how many freshmen you’ll attract without them—but the article doesn’t mention that either.
The article then brings up Richard Vedder (author of Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much, and who writes articles in the Chronicle every so often, links to which can be found here), head of the nonprofit Center for College Affordability and Productivity, who opines that the average public research university (note the subtle shift from public university to public research university) could reduce its costs by 25% by requiring professors to teach one or two more courses a year. This was summarized in an article that appeared in the Chronicle last October entitled “A Tale of 40 Professors at Texas A&M University”, that used the following research methodology (and I quote from Vedder himself):
“I went to my Chief Whiz Kid (student research assistant) Chris Matgouranis and told him to pick, more or less at random, 20 departments at the university’s main campus at College Station. I told him to find one highly paid professor with very little teaching load in each department, but also the opposite, one instructor who is modestly paid but has many students.”
Hopefully, the data in the book was gathered more objectively than this. Amazingly enough, the results indicated that highly paid professors were indeed paid more than modestly paid instructors; and that instructors with many students had more students than research professors. The 20 professors sampled taught 125 total students for the year, so about 6 students a year—surely a typical faculty load at research universities. That non-research state universities have much higher teaching loads was not mentioned. Trying to be fair, Vedder noted:
“There are many retorts to all of this. It is probable a full investigation of all A&M instructors would suggest the differential costs between the teachers with heavy loads and the research oriented faculty would be less. And, of course, the high paid professors are relatively well known nationally and producing lots of research. But is even that necessarily true? … Who knows? But I have my suspicions. For example, I examined the vita of the high paid professor chosen in the Department of Educational Psychology as posted on the department’s web site. It shows in the five year period from 2006 through 2010, he published four articles in journals or books accumulating to just over 60 pages, had three papers “in press” and serves on the editorial boards of a couple of academic journals and is an associate editor of a third. The cost per student for him was $97,272 (he had two students last year). His lower cost counterpart in his department, almost certainly an adjunct or graduate student, cost $72 per student. Is it worth the nearly $200,000 extra per year spent on the high price professor in order to get roughly one academic paper a year? Some of the high price faculty were far more prolific (e.g., Michael Hitt, a management professor who apparently from what I can ascertain is near the pinnacle of his profession), and some may also have significant administrative responsibilities. Nonetheless, the implied cost of these services is very, very high.”
That graduate students are taught by research professors (if indeed it was a graduate student), and wouldn’t be there if there weren’t any research professors was not mentioned. Now, it is perfectly fair to ask if so much state money should go to support research, and reasonable people might argue that the answer should be “no”. To actually try to answer the question, though, one might want to know what fraction of the costs the state actually pays, what fraction is paid for through research grants, and what effect the research has on the state economy. Does the article address these questions? No.
Other suggestions in the CNN article were to cut athletics costs, to leverage technology, and to cut textbook costs by up to 97% by reducing the number of lectures and replacing them by skills drills at tutor-staffed computer centers (the Center for Academic Transformation and the college algebra course I mentioned in a previous BLAB was alluded to here). The article goes on: "You only learn math by doing it, not by watching it being done," says Ray Purdom, who runs a learning center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Similar results have been shown for science, language, and psychology classes.
Where did the 97% reduction in textbook costs come from? The article doesn’t say, but one would have to guess that the courses have complete materials available online, donated and updated by generous faculty who don’t want to be compensated for their efforts. No, wait—the article then clarifies: “One sticking point: the capital needed for course redesigns and computer labs at a time when budgets are being slashed. Leaders like William Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, are instead tapping private donors for funding.” So, the solution is to get someone else to pay for it.
The article then segues into the “how can we prove that college is worth it” argument, and that more colleges are participating in CLAP and related assessment programs. There have been articles lately with questions about their methods and what the results show, but this was not mentioned. The CNN article then tells an interesting story about how Clarkson University gave a teen entrepreneur a full-tuition scholarship in return for 10% of the teen’s web business. Since the teen had to sign away a fraction of his profits, in what sense is that a scholarship? The article doesn’t say. Next year, they may do this with five students. Lest you think that Clarkson President Tony Collins is too radical, the article does state: “Even boosters such as Collins acknowledge that colleges need dollars upfront to run their operations. He suggests phasing in these plans as one payment option; colleges would collect tuition from some students right away while waiting for the long-term investments to pay off.” How shifting costs to being paid from profits later in a student’s career results in lower costs is not explained, but last I looked, the model of spending now and paying later seems to be causing an economic problem or two around the world.
I did check to see if the aforementioned Center for College Affordability and Productivity had any ideas about how to lower college costs. Why yes, they did. An article was posted on September 6 by a Jonathan Robe entitled “Rick Perry and Higher Ed Reform” that talked about Governor Perry’s goal of having his state universities offer a $10,000 bachelors degree (note the switch again—this is tuition and books only). Robe notes that Perry’s ideas are gaining support, even from those of different political persuasions. This includes comments in the (of course liberal) New York Times’ “Room for Debate” forum, which brings us full circle by saying:
“… if two feasible things were to happen, the $10,000 degree is doable. First, state governments would have to maintain subsidies that typically average over $5,000 a student. Second, universities would need to reallocate resources and reorder priorities. Given the intransigence and power of existing colleges, the solution may be to move to create new institutions blending electronic and traditional teaching approaches to offer a high-quality affordable degree.”
Of course, the point is that the state governments aren’t maintaining their subsidies for students. What are examples of the intransigence and power of existing colleges? Nothing is mentioned. The basis for saying that costs could be cut to make a $10,000 degree doable? The very same research at Texas A&M I mentioned above. And who made this supposedly liberal statement of support for Governor Perry’s plan? Why Richard Vedder, of course.
All in all, the arguments seem to come down to: “college is too expensive”, “I want/need a high quality education”, and “the student and taxpayer and state shouldn’t have to pay much for it”. None of this illogic means that we don’t have a responsibility to look at lowering the cost per degree. We’ll be doing that over the course of the year. It would be nice, at least, to be able to begin the process with a fair statement about the current situation, and the recognition that high quality education costs money.
Last Week’s Winner
Last week’s questions were on songs with something astronomical (other than the moon) in their titles, or in the singer’s name. First with all five correct answers, winning a Paul McCartney DVD of the PETA Concert was Alan Gabrielli, beating out the next contestant with all correct by a scant 3 minutes. Bonus points (a CD) go to Steve Edwards (Math), who got all five right and also knew what Sun Ra’s birth name was.
This Week’s Challenge
Several of last week’s entrants claimed that the quiz was too easy, so we’ll try to ramp it up a bit this week, on our topic of the Addams Family. First with the most correct takes the prize, a DVD of the 1943 Movie Serial “Batman”. No looking up the answers now!