Monday, March 26, 2012

Trayvon Martin and "Making It About Race"

cross-posted from Dagblog

Whenever an unarmed black person gets shot to death, the way Trayvon Martin was, you'll hear some people defend the shooter by claiming that the shooting wasn't racist, and how dare you judge what's in the shooter's heart? The shooter would have killed any unarmed person for walking down the street in a sweatshirt, or walking down the street with a wallet, or performing whatever "suspicious" everyday activity prompted the homicide. The defense is that the killer is not a racist, but a universal menace to society. This is supposed to be reassuring somehow. It's a thoroughly illogical defense. It even suggests that no matter what the person making the argument says, and no matter what they tell themselves, they know in their hearts that racism was the motive for the violence. In fact, their own sense of safety is based on their rock-bottom belief that the killing was racist.

Anyone who sincerely believed that George Zimmerman was equally likely to kill a white teenager, or a teenager of any other race, who happened down the street with a packet of Skittles would want Zimmerman disarmed and off the streets yesterday. They certainly wouldn't be talking about being reasonable and making sure Zimmerman wasn't judged in the media and casting about for anything that could be twisted into "reasonable doubt." If you really thought Zimmerman was just as likely to kill your son, your grandson, your nephew, as he was to kill Trayvon Martin, for exactly the same reasons, you would demand that Zimmerman be held without bail.

In the same way, if you really believed that the New York City Police (for example), were likely to shoot any unarmed civilian in the city 41 times over a minor misunderstanding (for example), you would want massive firings and new leadership from outside the force. You wouldn't feel safe walking the streets until you'd been convinced that the whole department had been shaken up and radically changed its ways. You wouldn't get all mealy-mouthed about the thin blue line or how cops "need to do whatever they have to to be safe." You'd know that until things changed in the police force you would not be safe. And that would be intolerable.

No. When someone defends a killing like Trayvon Martin's or tries to find a way to justify it, they are admitting that they do not believe themselves to be in any danger. They believe themselves, and their loved ones, to be safe because they believe that only an African-American could be killed for such little reason. They not only believe that black men and black teenagers are in special danger of being shot and killed but count on that danger being racially biased, count on the danger hovering over another part of the population and not over their own. They are sure that the "Stand Your Ground" law will not permit someone to shoot them or theirs, are sure that quick-triggered police will never shoot them or their sons. Anyone who says that these capricious homicides aren't about race is only saying that because they know it is about race, and because they're okay with that. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Why College Costs So Much, Part 2

cross-posted from Dagblog

In my previous post about college prices, I focused on the massive state spending cuts that have driven up tuition at public school universities and also made it easier to raise private tuition, because private universities no longer face serious price competition from the public sector. (See also tmmccarthy's excellent post on tuition and budget cuts.) In this post, I'd like to focus on the cost side of the question, and start with the private universities instead of the public ones.

The costs of providing a college education to students have actually risen, even as government support for public education has all but disappeared and the most important check on rising tuition prices vanished with it. No matter how exorbitant the annual tuition seems, the schools are not charging more than they're spending per student. In fact, in almost every case they are taking at least a small loss; even the students whose parents pay the full freight aren't paying enough to defray the full cost of educating those students. And the richer the school, the bigger the loss it takes on tuition.

The thing to remember is that private colleges and universities are non-profit institutions that live and grow primarily by charitable donations and by the investment income on those donations. As I've blogged elsewhere, this means that it's a mistake to think of universities' business model as selling classes to the students. They do have a business model (as even non-profit foundations do), but it's not about charging students for classes. It's about fund-raising. It's like the newspaper business, which isn't really in the business of selling papers but in business selling advertising in papers. College tuition, like the price of the daily paper, helps defray operating costs. Fund-raising, like a newspaper's ad revenue, brings in the money that helps the enterprise grow and thrive: the big donors who give a new building or an endowed professorship; the larger group of alumni who contribute regularly to the annual fund or the capital drive; the bequests that leave the school a piece of real estate, or money to establish a student prize, or a special scholarship for kids who come from the donor's home town. Fund-raising is where a college gets its economic capital. Many college administrators spend more than half their time raising funds.

When your economic life-blood comes from fund-raising, the two most important things are prestige and successful alumni. These two things are interrelated in complicated ways. Prestige is not an abstract concern, but part of the bottom line. The better the school's reputation, the more willing people will generally be to give money to it. The relationship is indirect; having a faculty member win the Nobel Prize doesn't translate into X amount of dollars in donations next week. But the relationship is also real, and over time the places that amass the most prestigious reputations also amass the fattest endowments. A few extremely famous places have so much prestige that they can even occasionally attract large donations from people who didn't actually go to the school.

But the most important source of donations has always been a college's own alumni. They are the people who do the annual giving. They are the group from which the large donors usually come.  They are the people who remember the school in their wills. When a school's former students thrive, as a group, so does the school. Prestige and alumni success tend to feed each other; successful and prominent alumni definitely increase a school's reputation, and the strength of a school's reputation helps it attract more of the talented students who are likely to become successful later.

I'm describing this as a business model, because it is, but that doesn't mean that the people involved in the system don't have altruistic motives. There aren't many business models more selfless than "Set promising young people on the road to success," especially when the only returns come from old students' voluntary gratitude. And the main way that universities seek prestige is advancing human knowledge, which is not a bad thing. But even when universities seem to be putting ideals ahead of the bottom line, they are following their long-term economic self-interest. Giving scholarships to bright poor kids turns out to be a good long-term investment, because a good percentage of them go on to be successful and a good percentage of the successful ones are grateful to the school.

(And it usually turns out that the people who execute the underlying economic strategy most effectively are people who aren't thinking about the economic aspect at all, but focusing on the university's official values. It's hard to find the faculty who will build a school's reputation without being genuinely interested in advancing scholarship. And picking students out of naked self-interest, looking for the future million-dollar donors, doesn't work nearly as well as evaluating a bunch of kids for things like "intellectual potential" and "leadership" and "character." You get the successful ones by choosing the "best." It's not a choice between believing in the values and playing the game;  believing in the values is one of the keys to the game.)

How do you get successful alumni? Do you try to attract the students most likely to succeed as adults? Do you put your money into educating the students you have, to maximize their potential and increase their chances of success? Obviously, you do both. You pick the most promising students that you can afford, you educate them as well as you can afford to do, you provide them with career development services on the way out the door, and you help them network with your other alumni. You do everything your school can afford, and look for ways that you can afford more. This is the school's long-term future.

Some critics of higher education complain that universities, unlike businesses, tend to spend every cent of their budgets. This is true; they do. They do this, first, because they are non-profits. Like all non-profits, they spend everything they can on their non-profit goals. But universities have perfectly sensible and compelling economic reasons to spend as much as they can possibly manage on the three things that maximize their long-term fund-raising: 1) attracting the students most likely to become successful later in life, 2) increasing those students' odds of success, and 3) strengthening the overall reputation of the university.

Since I picked on Harvard as one of my examples in my last post, I'll do the fair thing and pick on Harvard again. They can take it: they're the richest and most famous school in America because they play the academic prestige game as well as anyone. They spend enormous amounts on educating their hand-picked students, and on the apparent luxury of research and all that entails: rare books, new lab space, sabbaticals for faculty, hiring raids on other universities, you name it. But the more they spend on these things, the wealthier they grow. They're spending money on goals that may seem "pure" rather than practical, but the reputation they build in that unselfish enterprise is the key to building their endowment.

For the last fifty years or so, their financial resources have grown so great that they are can choose their students without worrying about those students' ability to pay. Not only does Harvard's endowment allow them to spend much more per student than any student pays in tuition, it allows them to admit students "need-blind," and take the kids they think most likely to become successful alumni rather than kids whose parents can afford full tuition. (And as the school gets richer, they seem to discount tuition more and more sharply.) They're not just looking for the few individuals who'll be filthy rich someday; it's the financial success of the the group as a whole that will end up reflected in annual giving. And it's not just financial success they're hoping for; they also want the students who will end up as high-profile successes in one field or another, and thereby add to the school's reputation. That list of incoming students, in a lot of ways, is Harvard's long-range investment portfolio, and they invest time and money into choosing and attracting the most promising.

But with Harvard's budget the pressure must be off, right? The richest school in America can't be a good example for discussing cost pressures, can it? You bet it can, and the pressure at Harvard is definitely not off. The more they spend, the richer they get, but the richer they get, the more pressure they feel to spend. It's pretty clear that Harvard feels intense competitive pressure from Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and whatever other schools currently makes their rivals list. If that sounds silly, think of the way it looks to Harvard's administrators. Do you want to be the admissions dean that tells the university president that you've started losing the best students to Yale? Do you want to be the university president who tells the trustees that you've fallen behind another school in fund-raising, or reputation, or number of applicants? If a college stops trying to compete with its peer institutions, it falls behind them, and once it falls behind it becomes harder to raise the funds it would need to catch back up. So the elite schools are constantly struggling to maintain their position, and that creates a constant, insistent pressure to spend more. The good news is that the spending doesn't get passed on to the students, because the competition between schools demands that they spend as much as they can on financial aid for the students they want.

But once you get out of that rarefied Ivy-League air, there's less financial-aid money to cushion the blow for students. And the competition for students and prestige remains intense, as does the competitive pressure to spend. A good, normal private university isn't trying to compete with Harvard and Yale, but it is almost certainly trying to raise its reputation a notch, and to attract a stronger student body. (Most university presidents are hired with the goal of taking the university, wherever it is in the food chain, "to the next level.") And the schools outside that top handful have more than a handful of rival schools to compete with. The more other schools there are at your level of reputation and funding, the more competitors you have, and all of those schools are trying to climb ahead of yours and to scoop up the best students left in the applicant pool after the rich and famous schools have taken their pick.

What makes this competition especially treacherous is that schools outside the top handful can't just ignore students' ability to pay the way Harvard or Yale can. They have some money for financial aid, and some scholarships for especially talented students without a lot of money, but they still need a solid majority of their students to pay a solid majority of the tuition price. Now you need to put together the best class of students you can afford to accept, which is not the same as the best class of students that applied to you. That already involves a bunch of compromises, and forces you to trade off some long-term value for short-term necessity. And it creates a powerful incentive to make your school more attractive to students, so that you can improve the quality of your student body. In the worst case scenario, if you start getting fewer (or weaker) applications, or if you start losing more of your accepted students to offers from other places, you can find yourself with an ugly problem. Do you leave those places in your first-year class unfilled, and take a major hit to your budget? Do you lower your standards and let in less-qualified students who can pay, setting back the reputation for quality that you've been trying to build? Do you let in bright students that you don't have any financial aid money for? None of the choices is good.

(At the very poorest end of the private-college spectrum, of course, are schools that never have to make these choices because they need all or nearly all of their students to pay full price. These schools, with only local or marginal reputations and very small endowments, can't afford serious admissions standards. They are not academically exclusive, but are socially and economically exclusive.)

But if you're a private university with a mid-major reputation, competing for the same pool of reasonably bright and reasonably affluent students that all of the other mid-major universities are going after, you need to spend money to make your school attractive to the students you want. That means spending on academic programming, and it means spending on the "student experience." You need your campus to seem to be an attractive place: athletic programs, renovated dorms, a new student center, you name it. This may not seem like part of the core academic mission, but you won't be able to fund the academic mission if you neglect it, and because so many schools are competing for the same students, spending on these kinds of amenities becomes part of a competitive arms race. You can't afford to spend less on these things (or on many more important things) than comparable schools do, or you will fall behind them and eventually be able to afford even less. In fact, you can't afford to spend less than you can afford. That's market pressure at work.

Schools with shallower pockets for financial aid have a smaller field of potential students to attract, and more competitors for those students. The shorter a school is of funds, the smaller the pool of attractive recruits gets, and the more important it becomes to allocate the money the school does have to attracting as many of those students as possible. That by itself would cause university spending to spiral upwards, but over the past thirty years the competitive pressure has been intensified by three factors:

1) Major state universities entering the market for out-of-state students. When public education began losing its public funding, one of the first moves state universities made was to try to attract more out-of-state students, who can be charged a higher tuition. (If this seems like it gets the state university mission backwards, I agree. But college administrators were forced into this strategy, bit by bit, as they tried to keep quality as high and in-state tuition as low as they could.) This meant the private schools with pretty good reputations suddenly had a whole new pool of competitors fighting over the same group of students: the out-of-state students that Michigan and Texas and Cal started looking for are in exactly the same pool that the private colleges are fighting over.

2) The rise of popular national rankings, especially the U.S. News and World Report rankings. In 1983, the U.S. News and World Report began publishing its annual college rankings, using a combination of statistics about each school and surveys that measured schools' reputations inside the academic world. These rankings are a long way from scientific, and most academic leaders will tell you that the rankings are inaccurate or even misleading. But that doesn't mean anyone can afford to ignore them, and nobody ever complains that they've been ranked too high. Schools take the rankings seriously because applicants and applicants' parents do.

It is not really possible to distinguish the 6th-best school in American from the 5th- or 7th-best, or the 42d-best from the 43rd-best. It's definitely not the case that a school is 6th best in the country one year, 9th best the next year, and 4th best the year after that, or that a school goes from 42d one year to 36th or 50th the next. That's just silly. It often is the case that a school ranked 8th is significantly different from one ranked 58th, and one ranked 58th is different from a school ranked 258th. What these rankings do is quantify and nationalize reputations that had previously been fuzzy and regional. (The fuzzier approach was more accurate; it's more helpful to think of schools in general groups or tiers than it is to think of numerical rankings.) Real reputations rise and decline slowly, but the ranking go up and down every year, and the pressure to keep a school's ranking high and push it higher is intense. And the things that raise your ranking cost money: better student/faculty ratios, bigger endowments, better reputations with the leaders of other schools. Meanwhile, the national rankings forced schools that once competed primarily within one region, where their reputation among potential applicants was especially strong, to compete in a nation-wide field of schools. This wider market is more expensive for everyone. A school like Vanderbilt, for example, loses some measure of his power to attract top students from the South (because more students in that pool are applying outside the South) and is forced to do more national recruiting. Meanwhile, private colleges outside the South suddenly have to compete with Vanderbilt, and a bunch of other formerly-regional powerhouses, in a way they've never had to before. More competition for everyone. More money spent just to keep from falling behind.

3) The admissions arms race. Since the 1980s, college admissions has been part of a vicious cycle in which college admissions rates get lower and lower, so that nearly every selective college is always statistically harder to get into than it was three years earlier, and students apply to many more colleges. When I was a high school student in the 1980s, things were already crazy in a new and unprecedented way. Back then kids like me were encouraged to apply to between 5 and 8 schools, and the most selective colleges' admissions rates had dipped under 20%. Today, students are encouraged to apply to 15 or 20 schools, and the most selective admissions rates are well under 10%.

How can nearly every school's acceptance rate keep getting lower and lower? Because the number of applications they get keeps getting higher and higher. Where do all these applications come from? From high school kids applying to two or three times as many schools. Why do kids apply to more schools? Because with acceptance rates dropping, you need to apply to more schools to maximize your chances of getting in somewhere you'd like to go. You see how the cycle works. There's no reason to believe it won't keep building on itself for the foreseeable future.

This, on paper, at least, is good for the colleges. They get a much larger applicant pool to select from, and the lower and lower acceptance rates help their national rankings, which helps future applicant pools. (But since everyone else's acceptance rates keep falling, yours has to keep falling just so your college doesn't drop in the rankings.) One could even argue that more participants in a wider application-seasons market makes the market more rational in some ways; a kid applying to twenty schools is more likely to get the best possible result than a kid who applies to three schools. And the colleges get a broader, more national pool of applicants to choose from.

But again, this only intensifies the competition for students. Sure, you get more applicants and you can pick more selectively, but you have so many applicants because they all applied to ten other schools. So you're competing against those ten schools for the most desirable students, and that competition ultimately demands more spending.

All of this competition for students and rankings drives costs up for private colleges and universities, but public universities get caught in the same upward cost spiral. Part of this is simply the normal market effect on prices: things get more expensive when some people are willing to pay a lot for them, and a big-spending 25% of the market makes things pricier for other 75%. If private colleges, for example, are willing to spend more to hire a leading neuroscientist away from a public campus, it becomes more expensive for the public schools to keep their neuroscientists. But more importantly, the public colleges are caught up in the private colleges' expensive bidding war for students, because the public universities now also depend on a sizable number of tuition-paying out-of-state students. Since their mission is certainly not the education of other states' unpromising  students, they're chasing the same pool of affluent and reasonably talented students that everyone else is, and have to spend the way everyone else does to land those kids.

What to take away from this long run-down? A few things:

The upward cost spiral is driven by market forces, and is therefore difficult to change. Sermonizing about how colleges ought to change their values, and that things ought to be different, is pointless. These decisions are being made by private institutions, and everyone involved is legitimately pursuing the best interests of the institutions they serve. Those institutional goals are tightly bound up with genuinely altruistic motives: the pursuit of excellence, the advancement of knowledge, the life of the mind. But even if they were not, telling college administrators not to compete won't do any good. The competition won't stop because one college, or a handful of colleges, stops competing. That would only mean that the college that stopped competing would lose. No one wants to risk their school's intellectual decline or its financial bankruptcy. The upward spiral is bad for everyone, but an individual school can easily get caught in a downward spiral, too: fewer students leading to budget cuts leading to a weaker reputation leading to fewer students and so on. It's very, very hard to stop that downward spiral once you get caught in it, and almost impossible to reverse it. A school that starts losing the competition for students ends up a much diminished place, or has to shut down entirely. If you've never heard of a college or university shutting its doors, believe me, everyone who runs a college or university has. And none of them are going to risk damaging their schools. They'd be crazy if they did.

Many of the typical solutions proposed to rein in spending focus on creating new efficiencies in some way or another (like through more instructional technology), or by cutting spending in some area that the proposer doesn't value (student-life amenities, research funding, fine arts departments, whatever). But while some specific cost-saving proposals are good ideas on their own, none of them are long-term solutions. Given the competitive market pressures, money saved in any one area is ultimately only freed to be spent somewhere else. Schools will still spend all the money they can in pursuit of the students and reputation they need in order to keep making money.

The competitive pressure will only diminish if something fundamental changes in the pool of students, such as a very large increase in the percentage of 18-year-olds with the mixture of ability and family income that schools are looking for, or in the buying power of the schools, such as a general increase in endowment funds that allowed many more schools to rely less on tuition for income. Neither change is around the corner.

The only intervention in the academic market that's been proven to work is the old-fashioned one that we've quietly given up on: publicly funded higher education. I'd like to have a hipper and snazzier TED-conference-style recommendation, but I don't. The model we've abandoned worked pretty well.
Private higher education, alone, is not sufficient to drive class mobility, and in many ways retards it.  The good news is that individual private universities (to go back to the Harvard example), admit more poor students than they did fifty years ago, and support them better. Harvard, taken in isolation, is much better at promoting social mobility through its admissions process than it was in 1962, and vastly better than it was in 1932. It takes many middle-class kids, and it takes more outright poor students than it used to. (It always had some bright, poor scholarship boys, but it can afford more now.) But that's only a lucky few. It's like Willy Wonka's golden ticket. It's not a broad-based response to questions of class and upward mobility, and it never could be. The school's too small. All the elite colleges together are too small.

And once you get out of Harvard's price range, the prospects for working-class students dry up fast. The other private colleges have some money for scholarships for talented poor kids, but not as many scholarships as Harvard has. And taken as a group, all of the private universities together are reinforcing inherited class privilege through their admissions process, because most of them need a lot of well-heeled students, or students whose parents qualify for loans, to stay in business. No matter how high-minded any particular school is, or how committed to opportunity for all, private institutions need to choose the students who are best for the school's long-term survival and prosperity. For a few poor kids, private college admissions is a way up in the world. But it's a lottery economy. For a very lucky handful who can get into Harvard or Yale, the system will be very generous. For another not-quite-as-lucky group gets the smaller pool of scholarships at schools with smaller endowments. But the majority of perfectly capable poor students are locked out of private college admissions; there's no money for them. The lucky handful will always be pointed out as examples to prove how well the system works, but that's like pointing to lottery winners to prove that the recession is over. A lot of talent and potential goes wasted.

But the private colleges were never designed to bear the whole weight of American class mobility. Hell, they were originally designed to prevent class mobility, and I'm grateful that they no longer do it as thoroughly as they did in the bad old days. That 25% of the higher-education system could never be the main engine of the American dream (academic version). The bulk of that job has always gone to the public universities, who do the job of educating three-quarters of America's college students, and whose mission is to make quality education affordable and accessible. They can't do that mission the way they used to, because the taxpayers no longer support it, and so even a public-college education has become much too expensive. College education, which was part of building America's great post-war middle class, has now turned into one more barrier to entering the middle class. But this is exactly the outcome we should have expected when we stopped paying for public universities. We should never have expected Harvard and Yale to pick up our slack.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why College Costs So Much, Part 1

cross-posted at Dagblog

Mitt Romney recently told an aspiring college student that if he had trouble affording college, he should just shop around for the best price, which proves that Romney has no idea how college prices work:
“Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And hopefully you’ll find that."
Romney also made sure to point out that the student should get no government assistance of any kind to go to college, which proves that Romney has no idea how America's post-war prosperity worked.

Meanwhile, the White House is holding another meeting about college affordability and productivity. The phrase "productivity" suggests that the White House already has a solution in mind, which is that colleges have to become more "productive" and "accountable." You can find this idea echoed by the economist Robert Frank. The idea is that college teaching is antiquated and therefore unproductive and inefficient, and needs to be transformed, through technmology and neoliberal management, to become more productive.

This is a superficially convincing idea. Tuition keeps going up because faculty pay keeps going up. Sounds totally logical, until you look at the numbers. But the numbers don't bear this out at all.

The price of college tuition has vastly outpaced inflation over the past few decades, growing almost three times as fast as the inflation rate. The average pay for full-time faculty, on the other hand, tends to do slightly better and occasionally slightly worse than inflation. So for faculty pay to be the main driver of these cost increases, the number of faculty on campuses would nearly have to triple. This is not what has happened, however. As I've mentioned before, colleges everywhere have been reducing the number of permanent faculty (the kind with salaries) and shifting the teaching burden to a small army of ill-paid "part-timers," who often string together gigs at three or four different schools each semester.  The inflation in college costs are not primarily being driven by the cost of paying teacher's salaries.

The real story, as Catherine Rampell recently pointed out is that public education is no longer publicly funded.:
But at least at public colleges and universities — which enroll three out of every four American college students — the main cause of tuition growth has been huge state funding cuts.

While the Baby Boomers were in college, state governments picked up the majority of the educational tab for students in state schools. Now they pay a very small amount of those school's budget; even at some flagship schools, the state's percentage of the budget is now sometimes 10% or lower. This has been done by massively off-loading the expense onto students, even while putting less money into their education. This is why University of California students now pay three or four times the tuition that they paid in 2000-2001. This is why, when you factor in financial aid policies, Harvard is now cheaper than Cal State, even for families with six-figure incomes. If that's shocking, it should be. But that fact isn't a freaky exception. It's an illustration of how things work these days.

This is actually the story of American education over the past thirty years. Public education has been privatized. It is the main story.  Everything else is a sideshow or a smoke screen.

The price of college has skyrocketed at the state schools that 75% of students actually go to because their government funds have been taken away. Period. And that's more than 75% of the problem.

What about the other 25% of colleges, the private schools whose tuition continues to skyrocket? It's a complicated question, but here's a beginning.

The first thing that you will notice about college prices is that there is relatively little differentiation between them. Most private schools charge very similar tuitions, although they each vary a bit from year to year. If you checked prices for all the private universities in Boston, you would find that the tuition at Harvard and MIT was pretty much the same as the tuition at Boston College, Boston University, Tufts, Northeastern, and what have you. (Apologies to the 63 fine institutions of higher learning I've left out.)  Similarly, private schools that have only local reputations and generally weaker programs than Tufts, Northeastern, BU, etc., also charge the same sticker price as Tufts, BU, or Harvard. What to make of this?

First of all, it suggests that the private schools exert a limited kind of market discipline on each other's prices. No one sets their tuition price too high above the competitors'. But similarly, very few private schools make any serious effort to undercut each other with sticker-price tuition. No school is going to ask 15% or 20% more in tuition than other private schools do, and no one decides to slash tuition by 15% to scoop up more students. (The reasons for this behavior require a second post.) Imagine that all luxury cars, Porsches and Jaguars and whatnot, sell for equivalent prices. Now imagine that mid-level cars, the Ford Tauruses for example, sell for basically the same price as the Jaguars, or even for $200 more.

Second, it becomes very clear that tuition prices do not respond to demand for a particular school. Harvard has its 7 or 8% admissions rate, or whatever shocking percentage it's fallen to, but charges the same tuition as other area schools for which there is much less demand. In fact, many of the schools which are in less demand might ask more in tuition, in any given year, than the most in-demand schools do. Harvard might decide that with demand from prospective students so high, it could jack up its top tuition price by 50%, or 100%, and still have more than enough good applicants. But (for perfectly sensible economic reasons) it does not.

In fact, the real cost of attending the wealthiest and most famous colleges, the ones usually in most demand, is actually lower than the price of going to less prestigious schools with smaller endowments and saner rates of admission. College tuition, especially at the powerhouse schools, is famously on a sliding scale based on the student's ability to pay and the depth of the school's pockets. Not only does Harvard keep its top sticker-price tuition the same as the sticker-price for its academic neighbors, but it discounts that tuition more deeply, and for more students, than its local competitors do. Harvard is the same price as BU or Tufts for the very richest students, and for most of its students it is actually far cheaper than BU or Tufts or similar schools. This is because private colleges' economic strategy revolves around producing successful alumni and raising funds from them, rather than around making money off tuition per se. Imagine that Jaguars and Ford Tauruses have the same sticker price, and the Jaguar dealers actually make customers better deals than Ford dealers so that in practice the Jaguars are cheaper than the Fords. That's the basic situation.

(If you're keeping track, Mitt Romney's "shop around" advice is ridiculous because there is no serious price competition in the market, and also because the only significantly cheaper option, public education, is no longer cheap.)

Now, the private colleges do restrain the growth of each other's tuition prices to a limited degree. But that restraint is not enough to keep tuition prices from rising much faster than inflation. The reason for this is that since World War II, the real check upon price growth at private universities has been the low price and high quality of public education.

Harvard will never raise its tuition much higher than that of the schools it deems competitors (Yale, Princeton, Stanford, etc.), but is content to rise at the same speed that they do. Other private colleges are likewise happy to raise rates at the same pace as other private schools. The only real price discipline has come from the existence of a much cheaper high-quality option. When the Universities of California, Michigan, Indiana, etc., were educating students for something like a quarter of the tuition at private institutions, or less, there was a genuine downward pressure restraining the prices of private schools. You could get a much, much cheaper education at a public school than a private one. In many states, the subsidized public education was well-funded and genuinely very good: "Ivy-League education at one-tenth the price." The Universities of California and Michigan are world-famous for reasons. So for private schools the question of tuition rates wasn't just what the private competitors were charging, but what premium students and their parents would pay for the superior prestige and perceived quality of a private college education.

Now that lower-priced alternative is not much lower-priced, and its price rises faster every year. Meanwhile, because shifting the economic burden onto students still doesn't make up for all the lost state revenue, even the premier state schools have to keep cutting back on the resources that they put into educating students. It used to be that the Jaguars and Fords were priced the same, but you could get a perfectly nice Volkswagen Jetta for a much lower price, and that Jetta would run reliably and well. It might even perform better, over time, than the Ford, and be less expensive to keep up than the Jag. The Jaguar had better ratings in car magazines and was more likely to impress people, of course, and Jag dealers could charge a premium for those things. But that premium was added to the low baseline market price that the Jettas set for good underlying quality.

There are still plenty of Jettas in the educational market, but they now cost 75% or 80% of what a Jaguar costs. And they no longer always come with a warranty. That obviously does not lower the demand for Jaguars or Fords. Now that the Jaguar and Ford schools' cheap, reliable competitors are no longer especially cheap or reliable, it's natural that the Jaguar and Ford prices rise at a faster rate.

In 1972, Ivy League schools competed with each other, but also with excellent and extremely cheap state universities. An Ivy League education was only marginally superior to the Cal or Michigan education, but Cal and Michigan charged a fraction of Ivy tuition. Today, Cal and Michigan are only marginally cheaper than the Ivies, and are forced to provide significantly diminished educational quality. The natural result is that the Ivy League prices go up, and the prices of less famous private colleges are effectively pegged to the Ivies' prices.

There are other issues that require a second post, but public support for higher education didn't just make college affordable for the 75% of America's college students who went to public schools. It also indirectly subsidized students at private universities, by placing market curbs on what private schools could charge. This will not be brought up at high-level policy meetings. But it's the truth.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Barack Obama, Warlord of the 21st Century

cross-posted from Dagblog

You know who I really, really wouldn't run against on a national-security platform? A Nobel Peace Prize winner who killed Osama bin Laden.

But that's just me. Last week Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, in an extended and generally thoughtful interview with President Obama, asked the following question:

GOLDBERG: One of the aspects of this is the question of whether it's plausible that Barack Obama would ever use military power to stop Iran. The Republicans are trying to make this an issue -- and not only the Republicans -- saying that this man, by his disposition, by his character, by his party, by his center-left outlook, is not going to do that.
Three days after Goldberg published that interview, Obama's Attorney General gave a speech declaring that the Executive Branch could target American citizens for assassination whenever it liked, because (wait for it), the "due process" demanded in the Constitution is not the same as judicial process. By Holder's standard, as long as the President and his aides use a process when they're deciding who to kill, it's all good with the Founders. Which leads us to the question: how could someone with the disposition, the character, and the center-left outlook to order unreviewed drone strikes on American citizens ever bring himself to use military force?

Not seeing Obama as he really is has become one of our national pastimes, and both the Left and the Right play it at championship level. Some people on the Left cannot forgive Obama for not being the peacenik we (and I include myself in that "we") wanted to think we were electing. And I'm certainly not happy about the stands he's taken on targeted killings, or on executive detention. But to give Obama his due, he was absolutely up front with the voters about his military plans if elected. He wanted to get out of Iraq, but recommit to Afghanistan, and he's done that. He explicitly told the American voters, on TV, that he would hunt and kill Osama bin Laden. He didn't say capture or apprehend. He didn't even go with Bush's swaggering "dead or alive." Obama said "kill," full stop. And that's what he did. He also said, in both the primary and general-election debates, that we was willing to breach Pakistani sovereignty if that's what it took to get Bin Laden. Even if some of us don't have the President that we thought or hoped we were electing, on military questions we definitely have the President that the candidate told us he would be.

Right wing critics, on the other hand, fervently insist that Obama somehow is the peacenik that the Left thought he was, and that he's coddling America's military enemies. This coddling generally takes the form of relentless attacks with predator drones, and I suspect our enemies get tired of it pretty quickly. The idea of Obama as weakling is a strange but resilient fantasy, impossible to disprove because it's never been even remotely based on military reality.

So let's review what we, as voters, actually did in the 2008 general election:

We replaced George W. Bush with a better and more effective war leader.

This is not the story anybody tells. It is not what anybody believes happened. But it is what obviously did happen. Barack Obama has been a very effective war leader, given the mess he inherited. In fact, he's been much, much better at coping with the gigantic military mess that Bush II left behind than he has been at coping with the gigantic economic mess Bush left behind. (This only makes sense: Obama could start thinking about military strategies before he even started campaigning, but when the economic crisis hit we were already in the countdown to Election Day.) Obama succeeds because, unlike George W. Bush, he keeps his eye on the ball: achieving goals and taking out enemies while risking as few American troops as possible.

This is what we voted for, and when it comes down to it, what the average middle-of-the-road voter wants: more victories, fewer casualties. This country didn't turn away from George W. Bush and sour on the Iraq war because they had developed philosophical objections to warmongering or were worried about erosion of habeas corpus. They turned against Bush and his wars because those wars brought casualties instead of victories. Most American voters don't like Americans getting killed. And most voters like presidents who get things done. That's Barack Obama as Commander-in-Chief: soldiers come home and jobs get done.

So Obama gets behind the bombing campaign in Libya, and Qaddhafi gets toppled without American boots on the ground. Obama authorizes predator drone strikes and special forces raids and more predator drone strikes, targeted attacks with calculate risk against reward. He signs off on the Bin Laden raid deep inside Pakistan but insists on a backup helicopter. Which takes us back to Goldberg's question:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Look, if people want to say about me that I have a profound preference for peace over war, that every time I order young men and women into a combat theater and then see the consequences on some of them, if they're lucky enough to come back, that this weighs on me -- I make no apologies for that. Because anybody who is sitting in my chair who isn't mindful of the costs of war shouldn't be here, because it's serious business. These aren't video games that we're playing here.

Now, having said that, I think it's fair to say that the last three years, I've shown myself pretty clearly willing, when I believe it is in the core national interest of the United States, to direct military actions, even when they entail enormous risks.
Since Barack Obama used most of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech lecturing about Just-War Theory and when he felt justified launching military attacks, I'd think that's much more than fair to say. But here's the truth: that preference for peace over war, that refusal to risk people without a compelling reason, is part of why he is good at this. Weighing risk and reward is a virtue in almost any enterprise, but it's especially important as a military virtue. Good commanders don't take pointless risks. This is why George H. W. Bush, mocked on national television for using the word "prudent," won a war in Iraq and why his swaggering son did not. This is why John McCain, whose solution to seemingly every problem is to send more troops, never became an admiral like his father and grandfather, and why he did not become president.

The fantasy that Obama is weak on defense is deeply and dearly held by Republicans, and the three Republican presidential candidates who've managed to carry states have all begun, to various degrees, attacking that presumed weakness. But by "being stronger," the Obama-is-weak crowd mean "acting tougher, in a loud theatrical way." They mistake swagger for strength. They think George W. Bush was "strong" because he'd say dumb stuff like "Bring it on," and fearlessly send lots of other people into unnecessary danger. They think John McCain, who was angry at Obama for not sending American ground troops to Libya and who during the 2008 campaign urged a military intervention against Russia, is "strong," because he's an impetuous hothead who always wants more boys in harm's way. And this kind of tough-on-TV thing can pass for strength for a little while, because most of our country is so insulated from the sacrifices that our military make. But given time, and we've been at war for more than a decade, voters figure this out. In peace time, the guy who makes the biggest show of toughness in the bar gets treated as the tough guy. In war, people learn the difference and don't forget it. Sonny Corleone acts tougher than Michael Corleone, but that's no reason to get in the car with him.

The leading Republican candidates don't seem to have grasped this yet. And they (or their base) seem fixated on the idea that Obama's weakness as a war leader will make him vulnerable to attack. Attacking one of your opponent's strongest points because you've mistaken it for a weak one is pretty much the opposite of strategy. Ask Custer.

Let's remember what that naive peacenik state senator from Illinois said all those years ago when he opposed the second Iraq war:
I'm not against all wars. I'm against dumb wars.
If that's a platform you want to campaign against, good luck. You were never going to make a good commander-in-chief anyway.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Teaching by the Numbers

cross-posted from Dagblog

Last week, New York City released Teacher Data Reports for every teacher in its system. This week, I got my own teaching numbers: last semester's teaching evaluation scores. Getting my numbers was a good thing for me personally; they were very high, and my bosses tend to reward that. Releasing the New York City numbers was a bad thing generally, which can only set education in the city back. But both sets of numbers are largely bullshit.

Teaching quality is very difficult to quantify, and no method that currently exists comes anywhere close to doing it accurately. It's not impossible. But it is impossible with the current tools. It's like going to Mars: a good thing to do that is impossible this week but can be possible someday if we keep working.  In fact, getting quantifiable teacher assessment right is probably a bigger technical challenge, in terms of how far the existing technology is from the ultimate goal, than a Mars mission. Measuring teacher quality accurately is something that we should do, and which will have important benefits for K-12 and university teaching alike. But it's important to be realistic about what we can actually achieve right now. And relying too quickly on the flawed early technology, like launching a mission to Mars in a rocket that can't make it, will only set back progress and cause real people pointless harm.

These aren't sour grapes. The current method of quantifying university teaching treats me very favorably, and if more weight were given to those numbers it could only be to my benefit. My evaluation scores are reliably high, and last semester's were close to perfect. But that's no reason for me to believe them. Student evaluations, which are the only widespread quantitative measure of university teaching and by which some numbers-minded administrators set great store, measure student satisfaction, not student learning. These are obviously not the same thing. My numbers don't prove I'm effective. They prove that I'm well-liked. And the students have no way to know how much, or how little, they would have learned with a different teacher, because mine is the only version of that class they've taken. If, for example, I did not cover material that students at other universities would routinely learn in that course, my students would have no idea. And if my students learned significantly more than students in a similar course somewhere else, if they covered more material, understood it better, and developed stronger intellectual skills than students elsewhere, they couldn't know that either. They do have an intuitive sense of whether they're learning or not, and that intuitive sense is part of their satisfaction with the course and the teacher, but it's only part. These numbers are correlated with effective teaching, but the correlation isn't strong and (even worse) the correlation itself varies widely from class to class. Some popular teachers are very effective. Some are simply easy. Still others are merely likeable. Which am I? The numbers don't tell me.

There are other ways to evaluate university teaching: peer observations, teaching portfolios, testimonial letters from former students, and so on. All of these methods are also imperfect. They work best when several methods are combined, which gives you a fuzzy but reasonably adequate picture of how someone is doing in the classroom. The fuzziness of those measures has fundamental consequences for the entire profession of college teaching. They're good enough to weed out flagrant incompetence, or at least to reassure the school that the flagrantly incompetent have been weeded out. But they're not focused enough to make fine distinctions between good teachers and very good ones, let alone distinctions between the very good and the truly excellent. This is why professors ultimately advance their careers either as researchers or as administrators; research talent and administrative skill are easier to measure, and make it easier to distinguish the excellent from the merely good and the very best from the merely excellent. There isn't a career path that rewards superb teachers for their teaching, because the available measurements can't reliably tell those people from the teachers who are only above-average.

If college administrators tried to use the existing measurements to reward the best teachers by, say, promoting people whose teaching scores were 10% better than their colleagues', they'd be prospecting for fool's gold. Was I really 5% or 10% better last semester than I was the semester before? Hell, no. In fact, I was badly distracted last semester: I had an especially laborious and high-stakes administrative role to perform, I was making an inter-state commute almost every weekend, I got terrible medical news about people dear to me, and halfway through the semester I got married. I never slacked on my course prep, but I guarantee you that there was no extra time to put into it. The numbers, taken at face value, suggest that I should strive for that level of stress and distraction every semester, but the numbers should shut their damn mouths. And when this semester's numbers "show" that my effectiveness has "declined" 10% or 15% (because last semester's scores can only decline), that won't mean that I've actually become less effective. It will mean that the scores fluctuate widely from semester to semester because they are extremely imprecise.

But my bullshit evaluation numbers are a masterpiece of statistical rigor compared to the numbers that New York City just published. That data is related to students' performance on a standardized test, which is already imperfectly correlated with how much students have learned. So from the start you've got a shaky correlation with a shaky correlation. Then the numbers are adjusted in various ways to make them more "meaningful," but considering how small the sample sizes are  all the extra variables and sub-tabs, and the addition of new correlation problems with each new variable, actually make the numbers murkier and more volatile. Even if you ignore all those problems, and you shouldn't, there's the problem of sample size itself. In some instances the number crunchers themselves admit that the margin of error for particular teachers hits 53%. This means that a teacher ranked in the 50th percentile might actually belong in the 103rd percentile and be a miracle worker, or belong in the -3rd percentile and have been dead since the 1990s.

When I call these numbers bullshit, I don't mean that they serve no purpose at all. We will only get meaningful techniques of measurement by experimenting with different approaches. The numbers we have are not useful as actual measurements. They are useful as steps in the project of devising better measurements. Bullshit, put to the right use in your garden and combined with the right mix of water, seeds, and sunlight, will eventually yield a nutritious salad. But that doesn't mean you put the bullshit on a plate and call it lettuce. The New York City numbers are pretty obviously not ready for public consumption. Serving them up represents a health hazard.

Bill Gates, a champion of number-driven education reform, published an op-ed in the Times opposing the release of the teacher numbers. By and large, Gates gets it: the numbers aren't ready for prime-time and using them to publicly shame teachers will only cause harm. And Gates is right that using numbers punitively, especially when the numbers themselves aren't even half-baked, will only make teachers resist the whole project of numerical assessment. Of course it will.

Finding ways to measure teaching quality would eventually benefit teachers enormously. Teachers don't oppose measurement and numerical assessment because they fear change, or don't want to be held accountable, or because they're union thugs. Teachers oppose these "reform" initiatives because the "reformers," sometimes with the best of intentions, often use badly flawed measurements as if they were self-evident facts. No one in their right mind would want to be evaluated that way, especially when "education reform" in its current form has no suggestions for helping "underperforming" teachers except firing them. Gates understands that education reform should ultimately aim to help teachers improve, rather than simply replacing them, but many "reformers" take a much cruder approach. Claiming that the teachers are just looking out for their self-interest doesn't cut it; you can ask teachers to put their own interests aside for the sake of the kids' education, but you can't ask them to put their interests aside for the sake of number-driven policies that don't help the kids' education and likely hurt it. Turning over K-12 education to a set of statistics that don't actually measure learning is not a worthwhile goal, period, let alone a goal worth getting fired for.

People with the best intentions can do enormous damage to our education system by naively relying on numbers that are a long way from becoming reliable. These people are perfectly sincere. They really think that the bullshit is lettuce, and they will tell you at length how important leafy greens are to a good diet. If someone tells you that identifying the best teachers is perfectly simple, you're likely talking to one of these naive and disastrously well-meaning souls. They not only do damage to the current education system, but they set back reform, because peddling bullshit and calling it lettuce has the long-term effect of making teachers oppose lettuce on principle, and moves us further from the day that we can actually produce a healthy salad.

And what Bill Gates does not get is that not everyone who advocates these number-driven policies is naive or well-intentioned. There are a number of people supporting numerical assessment who are not interested in improving education at all, but who are simply anti-teacher or even anti-education. Some are union-busters, some have ideological problems with public schools, some have other motives. But they are not interested in producing lettuce. They just want to see some teachers eating shit. This can be difficult for well-meaning "reformers" to see; when you understand yourself as crusading for the public good, you tend to see anyone who joins you as one of the good guys. But it is transparently and intuitively obvious to teachers. When the same politicians and interest groups who were down on teachers last year are suddenly talking about "assessment" and "reform" this year, it's obvious that those politicians and activists are just adopting a new name for the same old ends. And that leads many teachers to see all advocates of reform, no matter how well-intentioned, as part of an older anti-education agenda. When reformers talk about reform leading to higher pay for the best teachers while the "underperformers" are fired, it is very obvious to people who actually teach that no one is going to get much of a raise, but that the firings are at the top of the agenda. (Even when school systems follow through with merit pay, the increases are small, and in many systems the "best" teachers don't do any better financially under the "reformed" system.) The sincere reformers, such as Arne Duncan or Barack Obama, generally don't grasp this. Their opportunistic allies do.

The genuine reformers damage their cause through their careless choice of allies, and by working with people who are operating in bad faith. They not only create resistance from the very people who should be their most important allies, the teachers themselves, but they ensure that any "reforms" enacted will be implemented abusively rather than productively: that flawed numbers will be treated as hard data, that results will be used to punish teachers and not to help them, that the promised raises never come but the threatened firings do. "School reform" will be a thin disguise for teacher-bashing as long as the "reformers" include education-bashers in their political coalition. That alliance will always provide enough political backing for new punishments, but not enough for the promised rewards. Bill Gates should be applauded for reminding the well-meaning readers of the New York Times what education reform is supposed to be. But his plans will never bear fruit until he comes to grips with what "education reform" actually is.