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Jordan Weissmann at The Atlantic has a story on the revelations that George Washington University rejected applicants on the grounds that they would have required financial aid. Apparently the university had advertised itself as “need-blind” in its admissions policies, but in fact the admissions office ended up rejecting marginal needy applicants in favor of marginal tuition-paying applicants in order to balance the books.

I have a couple of problems with the way Weissmann editorializes on this story. First, he tries to put GWU’s practices in a better light:

Some schools have openly defended this approach by arguing that it allows them to offer fuller financial-aid packages to the lower-income students they do admit. That’s the line GW is adopting now, and it may or may not be true. At the very least, their approach is less ethically disturbing than the widespread practice of “gapping,” where schools admit students on a need blind basis, but frequently award them a financial aid package that’s too small, sometimes with the express purpose of discouraging them from attending. Kids who fail to take the hint just sink deeper into debt.

And just why is GWU’s lying about its admissions policy less “ethically disturbing” than otherGWU schools’ practices of letting needy students themselves decide whether to come or not? One practice is a fraud or very near a fraud; the other practice “discriminates against” non-paying customers in the same way that a Jaguar dealer is likely to “discriminate against” me. In Weissmann’s view, policies that refrain from engaging in paternalism toward needy applicants (“you really shouldn’t take on this much debt, and so we won’t give the choice to”) are ethically more “disturbing” than fraudulent policies.

Then there’s this:

Finally, this incident is also symptomatic of a wider sickness in higher education: the mania for prestige. Even while it’s freezing out poorer qualified applicants, the university continues using “merit aid” to recruit desirable students who might be able to pay their own way. GW isn’t alone in that practice. It just got caught covering it up.

Wait, what’s wrong with merit aid again? I’ve seen proggy types crusading against it here and there, but I haven’t seen anyone even bother to make a real case against it — to them anything that doesn’t overtly maximize the well-being of the poor is wrong, I suppose. Let’s remember that we live in a world of resource constraints. Universities operate in a competitive environment and have to at least break even in order to finance facilities, faculty, and staff. It’s wishful thinking to suppose that they will be completely blind to the ability and willingness of their customers to pay. There’s every reason to think that if a university did operate on a completely need-blind basis, unless a generous benefactor insisted on such a policy, it would enjoy fewer resources, fewer faculty, smaller facilities, and be able to admit fewer students. How do poor students benefit from that outcome?

In my own case, I was from a poor family and qualified for full financial aid: a 100% free ride, work-study, Pell grants, and all the rest. However, for the last three years of my undergraduate education, I actually got a merit scholarship that covered everything. If you’re a student from a poor – or perhaps, especially, a middle-income – family, and you want to go to a private college, you need to count on going to a college that is a little bit below your ability level. You’ll be one of the big fish in the little pond helping to drive up the college’s scores and attracting the applicants. That’s what you’re giving them in exchange for their ignoring your inability to pay. You can still get a great education and have plenty of opportunities ahead of you, if you have the right attitude about it.

If you think the poor in America don’t get a fair shake, (more…)

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An article on the plight of adjunct professors in higher education, “Labor of Love or Cheap Labor? The Plight of Adjunct Professors,” was brought to my attention by its author, Celine James. Ms. James kindly asked me for my thoughts about her article. I thought Pileus readers might be interested in what I sent her. Here it is in full:

Dear Celine,

I have had a chance to read your article. I empathize with the plight of adjunct instructors that you describe. It is, or can be, a terribly difficult life. I am afraid, however, that I cannot endorse the solution you suggest, namely unionization.

Higher education is operated like a medieval guild, with special protections for the lucky few who make it in and special benefits to them that come at the expense of all those who were not lucky enough to get in. The problem is the rigidity in the labor market that this creates: once a person is in, he or she cannot be fired, regardless of performance, for life.That is a great deal for those who get in, and it explains why so many try so desperately hard to get in, but it is a model for maintaining an unjust, and slowly dying, status quo rather than responding to changing economic realities we actually face.

The solution would be not to extend the guild system to a slightly larger cohort, but, rather, to abandon it altogether. In other words, we should abolish the tenure system. In a world with thousands of institutions of higher education, along with now an almost unlimited upper bound of educational opportunities online, there can be no justification for the economically stifling and restricting system of guild benefits for a privileged elite.

In earlier times, the guild system was so detrimental to those not lucky enough to enter one that it often prevented people from finding gainful employment of any kind. That led to obvious and predictable disastrous results for the unlucky, even while it enriched and protected the lucky. Exactly that same dynamic is being played out now with the lucky few members of the restrictive guild (i.e., tenure-stream professors) and the unlucky many who are locked out (i.e., the adjuncts).

The one saving grace for today’s unlucky adjuncts is that we now live in an economy that is, compared with earlier eras, extraordinarily dynamic, diverse, and productive. So they have other options if they don’t land a winning lottery ticket admitting them into the guild. But until the core of the problem—restrictive guild membership rules—is recognized and addressed, the other suggestions you make in your article will, unfortunately, have only marginal effect at best. And recommending unionizing would merely contribute to the problem—especially when we are probably on the cusp of a bursting educational bubble.

With best wishes,

Jim

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Reason has a symposium on the future of higher education in its latest issue. For my money, the best contribution comes from Reason.com editor Nick Gillespie, who sounds remarkably Oakeshottian in this passage:

The real existential threat to higher ed comes from folks who conceive of college as a sort of high-end vocational-tech program. Right-leaning critics such as Naomi Schaefer Riley, Richard Vedder, and Charles Murray complain about feel-good majors that don’t help fill the nation’s need for STEM-related graduates. Left-leaning commentators such as Richard Arum, Josipa Roska, and Christopher Newfield fear that college is becoming more expensive for students even as it teaches them little or nothing of value.

These sorts of critiques are wrong for two reasons. First, they assume that education, especially college, should somehow be related to employment. While that has always been an expectation—most of America’s colonial colleges started as seminaries—it long ago stopped being the rule. In a 2011 Pew Research survey, 74 percent of college graduates called the experience “very useful” for their “knowledge and intellectual growth” and 69 percent said it facilitated their “personal growth and maturity.” A relatively puny 55 percent said college was very useful as “preparation for a job or career.”

As the proud possessor of no fewer than four English degrees (a B.A., two M.A.s, and a Ph.D.) who paid my own way through every stage, I think these graduates have it exactly right.

What troglodytes like Florida governor Rick Scott, who wants to subsidize STEM majors, fail to understand is that STEM degrees are private goods if any majors are: they are their own reward. Humanities and social sciences courses, if taught rigorously and well, provide public benefit beyond that to the individual; if anything should be subsidized, it is those courses. (Here I go beyond Nick’s argument, who expressly rejects the view that humanities education creates a better citizen.)

To be sure, liberal arts and social sciences are not necessarily taught well at many universities. But the places that do the best at teaching students how to think and write are the highly selective, challenging liberal arts colleges — places that tend to come in for lots of scorn from conservatives.

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Apropos my “Don’t Go to Grad School” post from a couple of weeks ago, here are some hard data on the employment difficulties of new PhD’s in the hard sciences and humanities.

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Don’t Go to Grad School

It’s that time of year again: sending in the last of the grad-school reference letters. Over time, my answers to students who request grad school reference letters, particularly for PhD programs, have become more and more emphatic: don’t do it. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how good your grades have been.

The job market for political science PhD’s is abysmal. It has long been pretty poor, though nowhere near as bad as that for historians and philosophers. But following the 2008 recession, the market has simply collapsed. At this point, there is such a backlog of underplaced and unemployed political science PhD’s that even a strong economic recovery, with its concomitant benefits for state budgets, can never clear it. Speaking from personal experience, you now need to have a better record (in an “annual average productivity” sense) to get an entry-level assistant professor job in political science at a directional state college than to get tenure at a Carnegie Very High Research institution.

If you get a political science PhD, you should be aware that you are buying a lottery ticket. If your number manages to come up — but it probably won’t — you can get a tenure-track job — eventually. Otherwise, you should see your five, six, or seven years of postgraduate education as a consumption good, and prepare your resume for entry-level private industry jobs. Then, if you’re one of the few lucky ones to get a tenure-track job, you might not get tenure. That used to mean that you dropped down to a lower-ranked institution and started over. Now it means that you have to change careers.

It’s not just PhD programs that aren’t worth it any more. Law school applications have plummeted. Full-time MBA’s in the United States are of doubtful value at best, especially when opportunity cost is considered. Even medical degrees are now a huge financial risk.

Instead of going to graduate school, students would be better advised to do more with their undergraduate degrees. The value of studying (more…)

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Tyler Cowen makes the case that a large, inefficient public sector can be a good thing:

we should not be trying to squeeze the entire economy into the shoebox of the dynamic but risky “Economy I.” For public choice reasons, as well understood by Karl Polanyi (an underrated public choice theorist if there ever was one), the polity requires some respite from Economy I, whether we like that or not… Furthermore the more “sluggish” Economy II, by operating under different principles, often serves as a useful R&D lab for Economy I. Think MIT and Stanford, or note that Adam Smith ended up as a customs commissioner, as his father had been. Goethe and Bach worked for governments for much of their lives. It’s about balance and synergy, though it is perfectly fair to see contemporary Western Europe, especially in the periphery, as a region which has far too much Economy II and too little Economy I.

The first point in particular reminds me of Dani Rodrik’s argument for the welfare state under conditions of globalization: the government sector is relatively “safe” and can buffer dislocations due to global markets. Cowen isn’t referring exclusively to the public sector as “Economy II,” since the latter also includes labor-intensive, service-sector occupations, but he does imply here that the university system is a desirable public subsidy in part because it is inefficient and gives researchers respite from the private market.

I never really grasped that argument from Rodrik, and I still don’t. It seems to me that if you want inefficiency as a risk hedge, you could just bury some boxes of money and set fire to some of it in good times, then dig up what’s left in bad times. Less facetious: why not invest in a global equities index? Even better: why not push for globalization as a solution to its own problems? After all, there’s nothing about the economies we live and work in that’s inherently national. I live and work in the Erie County, New York economy. It’s a highly open economy. Why doesn’t Erie County, New York have an even bigger welfare state than the U.S.? Because we can buffer risk by investing in or, in the limit, moving to other parts of the country. So labor mobility and capital mobility are themselves solutions to the very risks posed by globalization of the merchandise trade combined with volatility in the terms of trade.

And you don’t have to set fire to any money.

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For those of you who are trying to supplement your child’s schooling or wish to buck the entire public/private school system altogether, I’d like to recommend the Khan Academy.  Started by former hedge fund manager Sal Khan, the Khan Academy is essentially a free on-line school that teaches everything from basic addition to the French Revolution to statistics.  Here is a profile on the PBS Newshour:

This might very well be the greatest thing since sliced bread – at least for parents like me who are unhappy with the educational establishment and the local school.  The Khan Academy is a bit lacking so far in the humanities and social sciences, but the math and science offerings are deep.  I haven’t looked at the lessons on the more advanced subjects like the Geithner Plan or the Paulson Bailout - so my enthusiasm could decline as I start to explore the more politically charged lessons.  However, I’m sold so far on the basics and look forward to participating in this very liberating experiment in free on-line education.  I’ve been skeptical of the power of on-line education in the past, but I wonder if we are in for a revolution in education delivery at the K-12 level (and maybe in the realm of higher education as well….gulp!).

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