Commentary Magazine


Topic: Education

On Competency-Based Transcripts

Increasingly frustrated at the high cost and uncertain returns of traditional higher education, the federal government and some states, like Wisconsin, are taking a hard look at competency-based education. Competency-based education focuses on the attainment of skills rather than hours spent sitting in a classroom seat. The attainment of skills can be measured by performance on exams, papers, and other assignments, as in a traditional course, but once students have demonstrated competency in an area, they can receive credit and move on, rather than waiting for the end of an artificial semester. The competency-based model promises drastically to reduce cost and time to degree for students, and to help employers identify skilled employees.

Northern Arizona University, an early adopter of competency-based education, has just put out a sample competency-based transcript to demonstrate the latter’s benefit. By naming the skills that students have learned in their courses, NAU hopes to provide useful information to employers, who probably do not care whether a student earned a B+ in the Sociology of Religion but probably do care whether students can write. Unfortunately, NAU’s sample transcript is at best a marketing tool, and suggests that competency-based education has a way to go if it is to fulfill its promise of rendering the connection between education and job skills more transparent.

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Increasingly frustrated at the high cost and uncertain returns of traditional higher education, the federal government and some states, like Wisconsin, are taking a hard look at competency-based education. Competency-based education focuses on the attainment of skills rather than hours spent sitting in a classroom seat. The attainment of skills can be measured by performance on exams, papers, and other assignments, as in a traditional course, but once students have demonstrated competency in an area, they can receive credit and move on, rather than waiting for the end of an artificial semester. The competency-based model promises drastically to reduce cost and time to degree for students, and to help employers identify skilled employees.

Northern Arizona University, an early adopter of competency-based education, has just put out a sample competency-based transcript to demonstrate the latter’s benefit. By naming the skills that students have learned in their courses, NAU hopes to provide useful information to employers, who probably do not care whether a student earned a B+ in the Sociology of Religion but probably do care whether students can write. Unfortunately, NAU’s sample transcript is at best a marketing tool, and suggests that competency-based education has a way to go if it is to fulfill its promise of rendering the connection between education and job skills more transparent.

Imagine you are an employer looking at such a transcript. You see the heading “Works in a Team Structure.” This sounds promising. You need people who know how to work in a team structure.

But read on, if you have time to analyze this verbose transcript while sifting through 400 other applications. “Works in a Team Structure” means that the student knows how to “identify key concepts and theories in Group Dynamics, identify key concepts and theories in intercultural communication and engage in intelligent, rational discussion about contemporary issues concerning work.” Why can you be confident the student knows all that? Because he or she has mastered two of the three lessons available that cover those competencies.

What does mastery mean? That the student has elected to show “high level comprehension of the material” through an “additional test, presentation, paper, case study, or other form of assessment.” So you know that the student has performed satisfactorily on one test or another of the ability to identify and discuss ideas about group dynamics and intercultural communication. What do you know about the student’s ability to work “in a team structure”? Apparently nothing.

But perhaps the transcript can tell you something about whether the student has learned to “Analyze Complicated Materials.” Can you make sense of, and do you even care about, what it means for the student to have mastered two of five available lessons in analyzing “paintings and literature, along with major themes in Marx, Spenser, Durkheim, and Simmel,” in discussing “emerging narrative and ideological components of postwar film and world literature,” and in demonstrating an “understanding and knowledge of Film Noir,” “Nations at War in the Middle East,” and of “the Cold War and its aftermath”?

It is as if a competency-based transcript differs from a traditional one because it omits the grade a student received in Film Noir, or the Cold War and its Aftermath, and inserts a sentence or two from the catalog descriptions of those courses. Certainly, it gives an employer no more, and perhaps rather less, confidence that a student can analyze complicated materials, than a traditional transcript that says a student earned an A in Shakespeare.

There is real promise in competency-based education, especially for adult students who already have most of the knowledge and skill a degree holder is expected to have. But it is important to distinguish between the rigorous evaluation of competence, and the mere appearance of such an evaluation.

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Low Student Loan Rates Not the Point

Republicans, candidates and the party alike, have a serious problem with young voters. The national party has conducted extensive research into how to solve the problem and it has already taken some promising steps in the right direction on several fronts, including digital strategy. The latest messaging meant for young donors coming from the RNC and Republicans in congressional leadership positions on student loan rates, however, is not only antithetical to the principles of conservatism, but will also prove ineffective in appealing to young voters.

Senate Republicans are justifiably frustrated at their Democratic colleagues’ inability to come to an agreement on student loan rates, which are poised to double on July 1 if a deal isn’t reached. Inexplicably, Senate Democrats have even rejected a proposal that President Obama set forth in his budget earlier this year.

Today the RNC gathered a small well-dressed group of young people that consisted of what their own official Twitter account described as interns, with handmade signs that appeared made with the same posterboard and markers, to protest the likely scenario of student loan rates doubling this summer. The protest may have been designed to appear organic, but the picture that emerged instead came across as quite staged. It seems Republicans believe that messaging on this Democratic failure will somehow endear them to young voters struggling under the weight of ballooning student debt.

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Republicans, candidates and the party alike, have a serious problem with young voters. The national party has conducted extensive research into how to solve the problem and it has already taken some promising steps in the right direction on several fronts, including digital strategy. The latest messaging meant for young donors coming from the RNC and Republicans in congressional leadership positions on student loan rates, however, is not only antithetical to the principles of conservatism, but will also prove ineffective in appealing to young voters.

Senate Republicans are justifiably frustrated at their Democratic colleagues’ inability to come to an agreement on student loan rates, which are poised to double on July 1 if a deal isn’t reached. Inexplicably, Senate Democrats have even rejected a proposal that President Obama set forth in his budget earlier this year.

Today the RNC gathered a small well-dressed group of young people that consisted of what their own official Twitter account described as interns, with handmade signs that appeared made with the same posterboard and markers, to protest the likely scenario of student loan rates doubling this summer. The protest may have been designed to appear organic, but the picture that emerged instead came across as quite staged. It seems Republicans believe that messaging on this Democratic failure will somehow endear them to young voters struggling under the weight of ballooning student debt.

Unfortunately for both the RNC and students, stopping a raise in rates wouldn’t solve the problem for the majority of students struggling not with the interest payments on their loans, but the principal. The ease with which students have taken out more loans than they can conceivably pay back after graduation is at the heart of the crisis. Making more money available at less cost would actually make the crisis worse for students and for an already bankrupt federal government, which has no business in the student loan business in the first place. Today the Wall Street Journal explained

The skyrocketing cost of a college education is a classic unintended consequence of government intervention. Colleges have responded to the availability of easy federal money by doing what subsidized industries generally do: Raising prices to capture the subsidy. Sold as a tool to help students cope with rising college costs, student loans have instead been a major contributor to the problem

In truth, America’s student loan problem won’t be solved by low interest rates—for many students, the debt would be crippling even if the interest rate were zero.

If we want to solve the very real problem of excessive student-loan debt, college costs need to be brought under control. A 2010 study by the Goldwater Institute identified “administrative bloat” as a leading reason for higher costs. The study found that many American universities now have more salaried administrators than teaching faculty.

The RNC’s populist message, which would do nothing to solve the student loan crisis, is unlikely to even register with most young voters. Few are even aware of the rates on their student loans, both when they take them out and when they graduate. The information isn’t even that easy to obtain: I spent over half an hour myself today figuring out the rates on each of my four federal loans to see how they compared to the rates currently being discussed.

The Republican Party has the right idea in trying to craft a message that appeals to young voters. What would not only resonate more, but also actually help them would be a plan to bring down costs, much like what Texas Governor Rick Perry has proposed with a $10,000 degree. Innovative solutions to bring down costs like Perry’s, not partisan demagoguery, is the future of the GOP’s outreach to younger voters. 

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Kagan on the Future of Liberal Education

This April, the historian Donald Kagan gave a farewell lecture on liberal education, after 44 years of service at Yale. Kagan is the author of a marvelous four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War and a National Humanities Medal recipient. The New Criterion has published a revised version of the lecture. People who care about the future of liberal education should read it.

Calls for liberal education can sound hollow when institutions that profess it offer a “chaotic cafeteria” to students, rather than a curriculum informed by an account of what liberal education is and what it is for. But it is hard to give such an account. The idea of liberal education has “suffered from vagueness, confusion, and contradiction.”

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This April, the historian Donald Kagan gave a farewell lecture on liberal education, after 44 years of service at Yale. Kagan is the author of a marvelous four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War and a National Humanities Medal recipient. The New Criterion has published a revised version of the lecture. People who care about the future of liberal education should read it.

Calls for liberal education can sound hollow when institutions that profess it offer a “chaotic cafeteria” to students, rather than a curriculum informed by an account of what liberal education is and what it is for. But it is hard to give such an account. The idea of liberal education has “suffered from vagueness, confusion, and contradiction.”

Liberal education is education for freedom. For Italian humanists that meant the study of grammar, rhetoric, and “a canon of classical authors,” with a view to  “public service.” Freedom “meant putting aside concern for gain . . . for the sake of higher things.” But in 18th century England, liberal education was more easygoing. The well-born and well-to-do should also be well-rounded. A gentleman’s education required no “fixed canon of authors,” and “prized sociability above . . . study.” The goal of liberal education was not “active public service” but rather acceptance into the best circles.

After the rise of the research university, liberal education consists less in mastering an existing body of knowledge than in preparing to generate new knowledge. The liberally educated person is an adherent of the scientific method, trained to contribute to or at least accept the truths that method produces. Because scientific research demands specialization, and every field produces “new knowledge and truth,” there is no strong reason to insist that every student experience a common core. The “distinction between a liberal and a professional education becomes ever more vague.”

Kagan’s capsule history shows that what we mean by liberal education depends in part on what we mean by freedom. Here is one liberal democratic possibility: if the “special character” of our society is “to encourage doubt and questioning of its own values and assumptions,” then liberal education can mean education for reflective citizenship. While American civilization, like other civilizations, depends on certain “basic values,” those values, like the ones embodied in the Declaration, are in fruitful tension with “our tradition of free critical inquiry,” which prevents “received moral and civil teachings from becoming ethnocentric complacency.”

Kagan fears, however, that another possibility has won out. Here, he channels my teacher, Allan Bloom, in Closing of the American Mind. Our love of equality and freedom, which can attach us to “natural rights” and interest us in “the historical origins of our regime,” can cause us to deny even the “special claim of reason,” let alone the special claims of received moral and civic teachings. Kagan thinks that “today’s liberal arts students come to college . . . bearing a kind of relativism.” Their unexamined belief that reason cannot judge different claims concerning the best life “extinguishes,” in Bloom’s words, “the true motive of education.” Moreover, Kagan says, it immunizes students against rational scrutiny. If no one view is better than any other, their own beliefs are “entirely valid.”

Kagan argues that what’s left of liberal education resembles the 18th century English model. Elite students are expected to become well rounded, and the function of residential colleges is otherwise to ease a student’s way into adult elite society, to teach students the “style, manner, political opinions and prejudices” that will “make them comfortable in a similarly educated society.” Liberal education is a mere “social distinction.”

What can we do? Kagan thinks that liberal education in our time needs to “include a common core of studies for all its students,” thereby affirming that “some questions are of fundamental importance to everyone.” Kagan’s core would include “the study of the literature, philosophy, and history . . . of our culture from its origins.”

Interesting students in such a core requires superb teachers. Bloom half-joked in Closing that he tried to “teach [his] students prejudices.” I think he meant that when students come to school convinced that no belief can be true, the first step is to draw them, even at the cost of exaggeration, to powerful visions of the way things are or should be, the kinds of visions articulated in Kagan’s core.

The prospects for a robust common core are in many ways poor. But they are also better than they have been in some time. Colleges today are under great pressure to prove their worth amid doubts, pressed in books like Academically Adrift, that their students are learning anything. In this atmosphere, the demands of branding and the demands of liberal education may meet.

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Could Weiner Win on Education? Maybe if He Tried.

With the introduction of Anthony Weiner into the New York City mayoral race, things in the Big Apple have definitely become more interesting (and that’s not just in the form of suggestive New York Post headlines). As Jonathan mentioned last week, the race for Gracie Mansion, as far as Weiner is concerned, is dependent upon the middle class. With that in mind, Weiner came out swinging (albeit wildly) at his debate debut on an issue on the minds of many middle-class voters in New York: education.

The New York Daily News reported on Weiner’s controversy-sparking comments on education, which were directly addressed to New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo. Weiner and Cuomo had a public spat last week when it was widely reported that Cuomo told the editorial board of the the Post-Standard and Syracuse Media Group “Shame on us” if Weiner is elected mayor. By couching his comments on education within the spat with Cuomo, Weiner guaranteed that his comments would make the papers. 

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With the introduction of Anthony Weiner into the New York City mayoral race, things in the Big Apple have definitely become more interesting (and that’s not just in the form of suggestive New York Post headlines). As Jonathan mentioned last week, the race for Gracie Mansion, as far as Weiner is concerned, is dependent upon the middle class. With that in mind, Weiner came out swinging (albeit wildly) at his debate debut on an issue on the minds of many middle-class voters in New York: education.

The New York Daily News reported on Weiner’s controversy-sparking comments on education, which were directly addressed to New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo. Weiner and Cuomo had a public spat last week when it was widely reported that Cuomo told the editorial board of the the Post-Standard and Syracuse Media Group “Shame on us” if Weiner is elected mayor. By couching his comments on education within the spat with Cuomo, Weiner guaranteed that his comments would make the papers. 

During the debate Weiner took what would be considered a somewhat conservative approach to education by promising to take on local teachers’ unions in order to reward top performing teachers. Weiner blasted high-stakes testing originating in Albany but did not join his fellow Democratic candidates in criticizing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s focus on the expansion of charter schools. Many of these education stances have support from middle-class parents who are increasingly overwhelmed by struggling schools and admissions processes that rival that of most Ivy League universities. Recently, the city’s parents have become obsessed by two scandals involving testing for students wishing to enter the coveted gifted and talented program. Access to quality and affordable education is an important issue to parents and students across the country, but for those in New York City, it is one fraught with an incredible amount of confusion, anxiety and cost.

If Weiner had come off during the debate as well-informed and passionate about the issue, it could have been a game changing debate for his young and highly mocked campaign. However, according to the New York Times roundup of the debate, Weiner came off incredibly flippant and ill-informed on a crucial issue to a constituency his campaign has hinged its success on. Late in the debate, the candidates were all asked about an influential founder of a charter-school network in the city and whether she received special treatment from city hall, as her detractors allege, and Weiner didn’t seem to have any idea who she was. There are few issues more important to middle-class voters in New York City right now than education. Weiner’s disregard for voters and their concerns doesn’t bode well for his chances. 

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Don’t Believe Everything You Read About Higher Education

On my Twitter feed one morning last week, this story made the rounds. One-third of Millennials (aged 22-32) regret having gone to college. We can expect this finding to become a part of the “higher education bubble” story, which goes like this. Thanks to increasing worries about student loan debt, high tuition, and the difficulty even college graduates have on the job market, students and parents are seeing more and more that college isn’t worth it. As a result, we can expect to see a radical transformation of the higher education sector, which will be conquered by nimbler, cheaper, online alternatives. I have written about the bubble argument here.

The pressures on brick-and-mortar colleges that bubble enthusiasts identify are real. But they have been sensationalized. It is simply not true that one-third of Millennial graduates regret having gone to college.

That number comes from a survey, commissioned by Wells Fargo, and conducted by Market Pro, Inc., comparing the views of Millennials and Baby Boomers (aged 48-66). Alas, the survey is not available online, but I was able to obtain a copy from Wells Fargo.

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On my Twitter feed one morning last week, this story made the rounds. One-third of Millennials (aged 22-32) regret having gone to college. We can expect this finding to become a part of the “higher education bubble” story, which goes like this. Thanks to increasing worries about student loan debt, high tuition, and the difficulty even college graduates have on the job market, students and parents are seeing more and more that college isn’t worth it. As a result, we can expect to see a radical transformation of the higher education sector, which will be conquered by nimbler, cheaper, online alternatives. I have written about the bubble argument here.

The pressures on brick-and-mortar colleges that bubble enthusiasts identify are real. But they have been sensationalized. It is simply not true that one-third of Millennial graduates regret having gone to college.

That number comes from a survey, commissioned by Wells Fargo, and conducted by Market Pro, Inc., comparing the views of Millennials and Baby Boomers (aged 48-66). Alas, the survey is not available online, but I was able to obtain a copy from Wells Fargo.

Millennial college graduates were asked to respond to this statement: “I would probably be better off financially in the long run if instead of going to college and paying tuition, I had spent those years working and starting my career.” Eleven percent strongly agreed with that statement, and 19 percent somewhat agreed with it. While agreeing “somewhat” that one would probably have been financially better off skipping college is hardly the same as regretting you have gone to college, one can, allowing for the loose way in which journalists often report surveys, accept that one-third of Millennials at least doubt that college was worth it from a financial perspective. But there are two other survey findings that have gone unreported.

There is no excuse for not reporting the first, because the Wells Fargo report blares it: “Virtually all Millennials and Boomers believe their college education to be a good value.” “Thinking about the cost of a college education and the opportunities it provides, would you rate the value of your education a great value, somewhat of a value, not much of a value, or no value at all?” Eighty-eight percent of Millennials and 90 percent of Boomers selected one of the first two options. I think the Wells Fargo report exaggerates this finding; thinking that your college education is “somewhat of a value” does not mean that you think your college education is a good value. Still, Wells Fargo’s exaggeration is no worse that “one-third of Millennials regret having gone to college.”

Only 43 percent of Millennials, compared to 53 percent of Boomers, say that their college education was a great financial value. But if you had asked me, even in a good economy, even in a period when graduates carried less loan debt, whether older people would appreciate their college educations more than younger ones, I would have answered “yes” and expected a difference of at least the magnitude Wells Fargo found. What is surprising is that there is no significant difference when the “somewhat of a value” and “great value” categories are put together. Given the growing popularity of the story that more and more young people think that college isn’t worth it, that finding is arguably the real headline news.

Also left out is that Millennials without college degrees were asked to respond to this statement: “I would probably be better off in the long run if I had attended/received a college education, even considering the cost of education.” Notice that this statement, the flip side of the one about working instead of going to college, is, unlike that one, worded to put the respondent in mind of costs, while saying nothing about “opportunities.” Nonetheless, 75 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that they would probably have been better off going to college.

I do not mean to suggest that everything, or much of anything, is rosy for colleges and universities at the moment, nor do I mean to suggest that every graduate or potential student should consider higher education a great value. But people who are concerned about the future of higher education, whatever they think that future may bring, should be able to agree that our reflections on it need to be founded in careful interpretations of the data we have.

Everyone needs to calm down.

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Another Question for Education Reformers

In a 2010 essay for National Affairs, Frederick Hess tackled a very difficult question: does school choice work? It’s not so easy to answer, for a few reasons: long-term studies are fewer and farther between; there are different kinds of “school choice” and different ways to offer and administer such opportunities; and most considerations of school choice effects don’t really measure, say, the difference in safety and security for students who may be performing about average in their new environment but do not fear for their lives going to and from school each day.

But the simple fact that we’re still asking the question–or using alternative methods to grade progress–suggests at the very least that the fledgling school choice movement has not met its expectations. Those in favor of school choice respond, correctly, that the evidence shows plenty of encouraging signs for properly designed school choice programs, and that efforts by school choice opponents to limit and obstruct the process plays its own part in obscuring the efficacy of school choice. There is also the simple element of fairness and equality of opportunity: why should poor Americans have fewer educational opportunities than others? But the mixed results on school choice also shine a light on one very important–and often overlooked–aspect of education reform: curriculum matters a great deal. Conservatives worried about the state of American education have to be prepared to tackle the question of not only where the students should learn, but what they should learn.

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In a 2010 essay for National Affairs, Frederick Hess tackled a very difficult question: does school choice work? It’s not so easy to answer, for a few reasons: long-term studies are fewer and farther between; there are different kinds of “school choice” and different ways to offer and administer such opportunities; and most considerations of school choice effects don’t really measure, say, the difference in safety and security for students who may be performing about average in their new environment but do not fear for their lives going to and from school each day.

But the simple fact that we’re still asking the question–or using alternative methods to grade progress–suggests at the very least that the fledgling school choice movement has not met its expectations. Those in favor of school choice respond, correctly, that the evidence shows plenty of encouraging signs for properly designed school choice programs, and that efforts by school choice opponents to limit and obstruct the process plays its own part in obscuring the efficacy of school choice. There is also the simple element of fairness and equality of opportunity: why should poor Americans have fewer educational opportunities than others? But the mixed results on school choice also shine a light on one very important–and often overlooked–aspect of education reform: curriculum matters a great deal. Conservatives worried about the state of American education have to be prepared to tackle the question of not only where the students should learn, but what they should learn.

Though it wasn’t intended as such, an intriguing idea comes today from Naomi Schaefer Riley’s review of a posthumously published memoir of Earl Shorris, a different kind of education reformer. Shorris, Riley writes, wanted to tackle the problem of poverty, and figured out a unique approach while interviewing inmates at a prison. Riley recounts the conversation:

He asked one of the women at New York’s Bedford Hills maximum-security prison why she thought the poor were poor. “Because they don’t have the moral life of downtown,” she replied. “What do you mean by the moral life?” Shorris asked. “You got to begin with the children . . . ,” she said. “You’ve got to teach the moral life of downtown to the children. And the way you do that, Earl, is by taking them downtown to plays, museums, concerts, lectures.” He asked whether she meant the humanities. Looking at him as if he were, as he puts it, “the stupidest man on earth,” she replied: “Yes, Earl, the humanities.”

That provided the spark that eventually became the Clemente Course in the Humanities, which Shorris designed and which is available to the poor in many cities in the U.S. as well as a few countries abroad. Riley continues:

The Clemente Course differs from life at universities in other ways—for instance, by taking the Western classics seriously. How many college graduates have read Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides and Mill? It also differs in its sense of what the texts can do. Much of the liberal-arts curriculum in universities today is devoted to learning about oppression of one sort or another, but Shorris argued that the study of the humanities is a fundamentally optimistic endeavor. Not that Clemente texts are routinely cheery or anodyne. Shorris himself taught Dostoevsky, “the brilliant archeologist who dared to make us look deep into our dark sides.” But Shorris did feel that, by reading and discussing classic texts, life was better or richer in some fundamental sense: more valued, more hopeful, more free.

Though Riley specifically mentions universities, there’s no reason this idea couldn’t be integrated into high school curriculum too. In the culmination of his life’s work, a 1,200-page history of political thought, Alan Ryan discusses the fact that political theorists must grapple with the thoughts and ideas of their long-dead predecessors. “There is no way to do this,” Ryan admits, “without running the risk of foisting our own views on the unresisting dead. It is the obvious danger of attempting to have a conversation with great, but absent, thinkers who cannot tell us we are talking nonsense.”

Yet as students who study the classics could attest, it matters less that they cannot tell us we are talking nonsense than that we are attempting the conversation. When students grapple with the great thinkers and writers, they permit themselves to elevate their own intellectual stature in order to “get in the ring” in the first place.

When Shorris says that studying the classics can make a life more hopeful, more free, he knew what he was talking about. One of the last chapters in Shorris’s book, The Art of Freedom, describes a reunion of sorts in Salt Lake City of graduates of the course. They describe it alternately as “life-altering,” a rebirth, a way to tap into hidden strengths and talents. “They read the Allegory of the Cave as if it were the story of their own experience before they came to the course,” he writes. But you get the feeling that although he was pleased, he wasn’t surprised. Unlike real estate, when it comes to education it isn’t only about location, location, location. Education reformers would do well to keep that in mind.

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It’s Not Only the Colleges that Weren’t Honest with Suzy Weiss

Michael Rubin is probably right that the schools that rejected Suzy Lee Weiss made the wrong call, though it says something about the admissions process on the whole that the esteemed colleges are only finding out about her poise, sharp wit and independent mind after having rejected her applications. I was also struck by one sentence early on in the op-ed in which she writes: “For years, they—we—were lied to” by the college administrators who told applicants to just be themselves.

Years ago, when I was a local newspaper reporter, we did a story series on getting into college. We covered every aspect of the process, and that included talking to admissions officers and college guidance counselors. University deans may not be honest about what it takes to get admitted to their school, but guidance counselors were certainly honest–at least with us. I don’t know what high school juniors and seniors are being told today, but the guidance counselors and admissions officers were crystal clear: if the school needs a goalie for its lacrosse team, that goalie is getting in instead of hundreds, maybe thousands, of applicants with better grades and test scores. We were told the schools keep track of everything, right down to the opening at tuba player on the marching band. You didn’t just need extracurriculars, in other words–you needed to match your extracurriculars with the schools’ needs. That introduces a great deal of luck into a process already low on meritocratic prioritization, and breeds even more frustration on the part of some high-schoolers.

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Michael Rubin is probably right that the schools that rejected Suzy Lee Weiss made the wrong call, though it says something about the admissions process on the whole that the esteemed colleges are only finding out about her poise, sharp wit and independent mind after having rejected her applications. I was also struck by one sentence early on in the op-ed in which she writes: “For years, they—we—were lied to” by the college administrators who told applicants to just be themselves.

Years ago, when I was a local newspaper reporter, we did a story series on getting into college. We covered every aspect of the process, and that included talking to admissions officers and college guidance counselors. University deans may not be honest about what it takes to get admitted to their school, but guidance counselors were certainly honest–at least with us. I don’t know what high school juniors and seniors are being told today, but the guidance counselors and admissions officers were crystal clear: if the school needs a goalie for its lacrosse team, that goalie is getting in instead of hundreds, maybe thousands, of applicants with better grades and test scores. We were told the schools keep track of everything, right down to the opening at tuba player on the marching band. You didn’t just need extracurriculars, in other words–you needed to match your extracurriculars with the schools’ needs. That introduces a great deal of luck into a process already low on meritocratic prioritization, and breeds even more frustration on the part of some high-schoolers.

It isn’t just the high-profile sports, in other words, that receive colleges’ targeted recruitment, though they get most of the scholarships. (I was captain of my high school chess team and received chess-related mailings from schools. I was also captain of our basketball team, but somehow eluded the scouts on that one.) Again, speaking to reporters on the record, guidance counselors and other officials were very clear about all this–and it was infuriating to some parents who quite understandably didn’t relish the suggestion that their burden wasn’t enough, and they had to add to it a reverse-recruitment microtargeting campaign to find a suitable college for their child.

If Weiss wasn’t told any of this, she has reason to feel aggrieved. What were her school’s college guidance counselors telling the kids? That their winning smile and the right attitude were sure to get them into Stanford?

The best part of Weiss’s appearance on the “Today Show,” by far, was when host Savannah Guthrie reads back the diversity part of Weiss’s op-ed to her and waits for a reaction that isn’t coming. Weiss wrote:

had I known two years ago what I know now, I would have gladly worn a headdress to school. Show me to any closet, and I would’ve happily come out of it….

I should’ve done what I knew was best—go to Africa, scoop up some suffering child, take a few pictures, and write my essays about how spending that afternoon with Kinto changed my life.

Guthrie then looks at Weiss and says: “I mean, for one thing, some people read this and they say you are being very cavalier about the importance of diversity.” Weiss dismisses the attempted shaming by saying the piece was satire. But here Weiss isn’t giving herself enough credit. The problem with the section of Weiss’s op-ed about diversity was that it wasn’t an exaggeration: had Weiss followed her joking suggestions, she very well might have been accepted by any number of universities whose admissions officers probably cringed at the op-ed because Weiss was describing actual applicants they happily accepted over Weiss.

Guthrie may have seen Weiss’s words as cartoonish, but here’s the point: they accurately describe the attitudes of the deans at America’s top universities. Weiss didn’t lampoon them so much as expose them to a wider audience.

As Michael notes, there is a lack of intellectual diversity at these universities–but not only intellectual diversity. When we did that story series, it became quite clear that schools’ desire to accept more minorities did not result in nearly enough increased opportunity. The schools merely accepted suburban, middle-class high-achieving minority teenagers from decent schools and stable homes instead of white teenagers that fit the exact same profile. Minorities from crime-ridden inner-city neighborhoods and broken homes and failing schools had the door shut on them just as quickly as the door shut on Weiss.

Liberals talk a lot about inequality. It’s a shame they do so much to perpetuate it.

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Danger Sign on the Student Loan Bubble

Who could have possibly predicted that extending a practically unlimited line of credit to 18-year-old college students could have turned out so poorly? Yesterday, student debt levels reached a new milestone: “The proportion of U.S. student loan balances that are in delinquency — that is, unpaid for 90 days or more — surpassed that of credit-card balances in the third quarter for the first time, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.” 

The student loan bubble, largely financed by federal tax dollars, is an entirely predictable and avoidable financial catastrophe. Students, in spite of their estimated future earning potential, are given the ability to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to attend any institution of higher education in the country, regardless of that institution’s ability to produce degrees of equal or higher value. According to CBS Moneywatch, “for all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000.” That’s an incredible statistic when you consider that two-thirds of students currently pursuing a bachelors degree are borrowing in order to do so — over 6 percent of students attending college right now will walk away with more than $54,000 in loans. The average amount of debt for a bachelors degree is $23,300; for students that went on to obtain medical, law or other specialized degrees, that average skyrockets.

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Who could have possibly predicted that extending a practically unlimited line of credit to 18-year-old college students could have turned out so poorly? Yesterday, student debt levels reached a new milestone: “The proportion of U.S. student loan balances that are in delinquency — that is, unpaid for 90 days or more — surpassed that of credit-card balances in the third quarter for the first time, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.” 

The student loan bubble, largely financed by federal tax dollars, is an entirely predictable and avoidable financial catastrophe. Students, in spite of their estimated future earning potential, are given the ability to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to attend any institution of higher education in the country, regardless of that institution’s ability to produce degrees of equal or higher value. According to CBS Moneywatch, “for all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000.” That’s an incredible statistic when you consider that two-thirds of students currently pursuing a bachelors degree are borrowing in order to do so — over 6 percent of students attending college right now will walk away with more than $54,000 in loans. The average amount of debt for a bachelors degree is $23,300; for students that went on to obtain medical, law or other specialized degrees, that average skyrockets.

The average graduating law school student at the California Western School of Law owes more than $153,000 and over 89 percent of students graduate with debt of some kind. Students graduating from Columbia University and Georgetown University graduate with an average of more than $132,000 in debt. The average amount of debt of all graduating medical students is more than $160,000 and students graduating from seven schools in the U.S. walk away with at least $200,000 in debt on average. 

There is no easy fix to the student debt crisis. American students already owe over $950 billion and the president’s solution only limits how much students are required to pay back according to their income levels without limiting how much they are able to borrow or how much schools are reimbursed. The president’s plan would make it possible, starting in 2014, for payments to be capped at 10 percent of a borrower’s “disposable” income for 20 years, at which point the debt will be forgiven (10 years for public-service employees). Under this plan, schools can continue raising tuition far beyond inflation rates with no consequences to their bottom lines and students can continue to borrow knowing they have the option of a governmental safety net down the line. This leaves taxpayers on the hook for the remainder, an amount that is increasing at a remarkable rate (student borrowing increased 20 percent from the third quarter of this fiscal year to the fourth).

These reforms will do nothing but grow the student loan bubble to an even more unmanageable size and force students to pay up to 10 percent of their income for up to 20 years of their lives, hampering their ability to obtain financial independence from their parents, buy homes and have children. Instead of changing how students pay back their loans, why not change the way they take them out? Given that there are estimated income projections for college majors, why not limit the amount of federal loans given to students based on their projected ability to pay them back in ten years’ time? If colleges and universities produce students unable to find employment sufficient enough to stop their graduates from going into default, why not give the government the ability to obtain a refund for the cost of degrees of those who go into default?

For the sake of the American economy and a generation of students graduating college in the last 10 years, the student loan bubble cannot be ignored for much longer. If Obama were serious about solving the problem and earning the votes of the 67 percent of young people who voted for him, these reforms would only be step one. Yesterday’s news of soaring and record-setting delinquency rates is just one sign of many that the student loan bubble isn’t going anywhere. 

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Obama’s Education Fear-Mongering

The Obama campaign’s theme this week is education. President Obama wants voters to believe that as president, Mitt Romney would be bad for education in every context: in public schools, in colleges, and for teachers.

So far, he’s not having nearly as easy a time convincing voters he’s the better candidate as he had in 2008. The Huffington Post tries to explain why:

Despite the attacks, a new poll finds Romney trails Obama by a small margin on education and holds a slight edge on the issue among independents.

The annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the “public’s attitudes toward the public schools” asked registered independents to choose a candidate if they “were voting solely on the basis of a desire to strengthen public schools.” Overall, 49 percent supported Obama, compared with 44 percent for Romney. But Romney had 46 percent of independent voters’ support, compared with Obama’s 41 percent.

The findings make sense because Romney “was governor of an educationally successful state” that transitioned from mediocre performance to star status, said Chester Finn, who presides over the right-leaning Washington think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and who worked in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Finn noted that in 2008, Obama led John McCain in education by 17 percentage points, which “suggests that Romney is far better positioned on this issue.”

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The Obama campaign’s theme this week is education. President Obama wants voters to believe that as president, Mitt Romney would be bad for education in every context: in public schools, in colleges, and for teachers.

So far, he’s not having nearly as easy a time convincing voters he’s the better candidate as he had in 2008. The Huffington Post tries to explain why:

Despite the attacks, a new poll finds Romney trails Obama by a small margin on education and holds a slight edge on the issue among independents.

The annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the “public’s attitudes toward the public schools” asked registered independents to choose a candidate if they “were voting solely on the basis of a desire to strengthen public schools.” Overall, 49 percent supported Obama, compared with 44 percent for Romney. But Romney had 46 percent of independent voters’ support, compared with Obama’s 41 percent.

The findings make sense because Romney “was governor of an educationally successful state” that transitioned from mediocre performance to star status, said Chester Finn, who presides over the right-leaning Washington think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and who worked in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Finn noted that in 2008, Obama led John McCain in education by 17 percentage points, which “suggests that Romney is far better positioned on this issue.”

While HuffPo may be onto something with Romney’s previous success in Massachusetts, I suspect that the vast majority of Americans are unaware of any successes (or failures) Romney may have faced during his time as governor. Romney’s campaign has been playing on a theme in its opposition to ObamaCare that may be resonating with Americans outside of the debate over healthcare policy.

This morning Conn Carroll discussed the war on “free stuff” that the Romney campaign has been waging, with Romney explaining to Americans,

When I mentioned I am going to get rid of Obamacare [at the NAACP] they weren’t happy… That’s OK, I want people to know what I stand for and if I don’t stand for what they want, go vote for someone else, that’s just fine. But I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more free stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy. But don’t forget nothing is really free.

The Romney campaign is out with a new ad on the topic that is sure to resonate with anyone whose parents told them that money doesn’t grow on trees (that was one of my mother’s favorite lines). The Obama campaign is trying to stir outrage against Romney following these remarks made March 5 in Youngstown, Ohio during a question-and-answer portion of his appearance:

QUESTION: I’m a senior in high school right now. I’m going to be going to college next year and it’s not very cheap. I was curious, if elected, what would you do to, um, with regards to college tuition, whether making it easier for me and my classmates, in regards to that?

GOV. ROMNEY: The best thing I can do for you, is to tell you to shop around. And to compare tuitions in different places and make sure you are getting the education you want for the cost you want.  Make sure you can get your degree in four years. Or less…. Recognize that college is expensive; you don’t want to have huge debts. And I’m not, and I know that it would be popular for me to stand here and tell you that I’m going to give you government money, to make sure to pay for your college but I’m not going to promise that. What I’m going to tell you is to shop around, get a good price and I do feel this, if you’re willing to serve your country in the military, for instance, that’s a place where we’re going to say “yeah were going to give you help.” In my state, the legislator and I came together, in my state, to say that anyone who has served in the national guard, we will provide for tuition and fees for four years of college to make sure that you will get that start. So if you’re willing to serve we can be of more help. But my best advice is; find a great institution of higher learning, find one that has the right price, shop around. In America this idea of competition, it works and don’t just go to the one that has the highest price, go to the one that has a little lower price where you can get an education and hopefully you’ll find that and don’t take on too much debt and don’t expect the government to forgive the debt you take on. And, I want to make sure that every kid in this country that wants to go to college gets the change to go to college. If you can’t afford it, scholarships are available, shop around for loans, make sure that you go to a place that’s reasonably priced and if you can, think about serving the country because that’s away to get all the education for free. Thank you.

From that speech, President Obama tweeted this last night:

I wonder what President Obama finds so offensive about “shopping around.” Americans never pay full sticker price for comparably sized purchases like cars or homes. Why would students take out on average over $20,000 in loans before first making sure they are getting the best price a school can offer with the most financial aid possible? Governor Romney’s advice, even when taken out of context by the Obama campaign, is sound financial counsel.

Obama added a dose of fear-mongering, by telling young voters about the possibility that they will pay more on their loans and receive less in Pell Grants. With his rhetoric on college education costs, it seems Obama is attempting to shore up youth support that, while all but guaranteed last election, seems very much more precarious this time around. What President Obama seems to misunderstand is what young people in the beginning stages of their careers need from his administration. Most Americans don’t need free bachelor’s degrees in liberal arts. They want a way to pay back their student loans; they want jobs. They want an economy that is ready, willing and able to absorb them post-graduation so that they can become independent adults in need of no governmental or parental handouts. They’ll take a job as a fisherman before settling for a free fish.

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Obama’s Weak on the Real Civil Rights Issue

President Obama may be planning to run for re-election in part by touting his schemes to create more “fairness” by raising the taxes of the wealthy, but his Republican opponent is wisely choosing to try to trump him by focusing on the most important factor behind inequality in America: education. Mitt Romney used his appearance yesterday before the Latino Coalition at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to not just pay lip service to the issue of education but to announce his support for a step that could actually be the beginning of a sea change in governmental thinking about funding. Romney stated that if elected he would ensure that federal education funds will follow the students rather than merely being poured into the public schools in the areas where they live. If he follows through on this promise he would take the United States a significant way down the road toward a genuine system of school choice that would enable all parents, and not just the wealthy, to choose the best schools for their children rather than being stuck in what Romney rightly called failing institutions.

In an account of the speech that seemed cribbed from the Democratic campaign talking points, the New York Times tried to portray Romney’s stance as just a faint echo of Obama’s efforts on education that they claim have co-opted some traditional Republican positions. That is a gross exaggeration, because the president remains firmly in the pocket of the teacher unions and other supporters of the educational status quo. But whatever common ground may exist between the two on charter schools, Romney’s pledge on choice provides a stark contrast to the Democrat’s and one that can work to his advantage as a campaign issue. For all of his talk about equality, Obama is vulnerable here because of his ideological opposition to empowering parents rather than the government educational monopoly.

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President Obama may be planning to run for re-election in part by touting his schemes to create more “fairness” by raising the taxes of the wealthy, but his Republican opponent is wisely choosing to try to trump him by focusing on the most important factor behind inequality in America: education. Mitt Romney used his appearance yesterday before the Latino Coalition at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to not just pay lip service to the issue of education but to announce his support for a step that could actually be the beginning of a sea change in governmental thinking about funding. Romney stated that if elected he would ensure that federal education funds will follow the students rather than merely being poured into the public schools in the areas where they live. If he follows through on this promise he would take the United States a significant way down the road toward a genuine system of school choice that would enable all parents, and not just the wealthy, to choose the best schools for their children rather than being stuck in what Romney rightly called failing institutions.

In an account of the speech that seemed cribbed from the Democratic campaign talking points, the New York Times tried to portray Romney’s stance as just a faint echo of Obama’s efforts on education that they claim have co-opted some traditional Republican positions. That is a gross exaggeration, because the president remains firmly in the pocket of the teacher unions and other supporters of the educational status quo. But whatever common ground may exist between the two on charter schools, Romney’s pledge on choice provides a stark contrast to the Democrat’s and one that can work to his advantage as a campaign issue. For all of his talk about equality, Obama is vulnerable here because of his ideological opposition to empowering parents rather than the government educational monopoly.

By treating federal education funds as the equivalent of vouchers that would be transferred to any school a child attends — be it public, charter or private — Romney is opening the door to a national re-examination of school choice measures that could revolutionize the educational system. Many states currently allow education funds to follow students, especially on items that are required by all schools, such as standard text books or busing. But the rigid opposition of both the unions and liberal ideologues has served as an impassable obstacle to changing the system so as to recognize the principle that all schools that serve the children of the nation, including those that are private or religious, are in effect public schools. That would mean the local as well as federal education funding should be distributed to all accredited schools rather than just those with the public label.

Doing so would advance the cause of education. It would create the competitive pressure for excellence that has often been lacking in the public system.

This is a critical issue for all Americans but even more so for minorities and the poor. While the wealthy have the ability to choose the best schools for their kids, those without the same resources are stuck in failed public schools where children don’t have much of a chance. The president played a prominent role in ending a successful experiment in school choice in the District of Columbia that allowed poor children to attend the elite Sidwell Friends School (where his own two daughters go) rather than a Washington public school. The glaring hypocrisy of his position that effectively closes out a quality option for the people he claims to represent is one that ought not to be forgotten.

Though the movement of federal education funds is more of a symbolic move than anything else, Romney has still thrown down the gauntlet to Obama on an issue where it is the Republican and not the president who is defending the interests of minorities and the poor. If this is to be an election fought on the question of equality, Romney has found a good place to stand his ground.

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Re: Laboring for Obama

Obama’s nominee to the National Labor Relations Board, Harold Craig Becker, came under fire in his senate confirmation hearing yesterday. As controversial nominee are wont to do, he tried to distance himself from his past writings:

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.) expressed concern that Becker’s writings “have indicated a belief that the NLRB has the power to make some of the dramatic changes in the card-check bill.” The so-called card-check legislation, supported by Obama and Democrats in Congress, would allow unions to bypass secret-ballot elections and instead organize in workplaces by collecting signed cards from workers.

Becker on Tuesday suggested that he now doesn’t believe the board could take such a step, distancing himself from the writings.

“The law is clear that the decision…(of) an alternative route to certification rests with Congress and not the board,” Becker said, adding that the writings were “intended to be provocative and to ask fundamental questions in order for scholars and others to re-evaluate.”

Now, he’s all about implementing the will of Congress, you see. (“‘If confirmed, my decisions, unlike the views of a scholar, will have practical, concrete and important consequences,’ he told members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. ‘I will have a duty to implement the intent of Congress.’”) That, of course, marks a stark reversal from his 1993 law review article, in which he claimed just the opposite, namely that election rules should be redrafted to favor unions and that the NLRB could do this all on its own without Congressional authorization.

Then the issue of his association with the SEIU surfaced:

Becker saw tough questioning from Sen. John McCain (R. Ariz.) over whether he would recuse himself from cases before the NLRB involving the Service Employees International Union, where Becker most recently worked. Becker said he would recuse himself from cases involving the Service Employees International Union for two years but stopped short of saying what he would do so in a case mentioned by McCain involving a local chapter of the union.

“If any other matter arises in which any questions can be raised or might be raised about my impartiality, I will take that very seriously,” Becker said.

McCain told Becker “that’s not good enough.”

The real question is whether Harry Reid will try to jam this nomination through before Scott Brown is seated next week and Republicans can mount a successful filibuster. If Reid decides to force the vote with Sen. Paul Kirk still casting votes nearly a month after the Massachusetts election, it will be one more example of the excesses of one-party rule – in which a president beholden to political patrons can put up a nominee with obvious bias and ethical problems, knowing that his dutiful senate allies will rubber stamp his choice. And what of those Red State senators who swear to their constituents that they exercise independent judgment? They keep assuring their constituents that they don’t simply do the bidding of their ultra-liberal leadership. Oh well, another time perhaps. Now, one suspects it is time to ram through a favor for Big Labor.

Obama’s nominee to the National Labor Relations Board, Harold Craig Becker, came under fire in his senate confirmation hearing yesterday. As controversial nominee are wont to do, he tried to distance himself from his past writings:

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.) expressed concern that Becker’s writings “have indicated a belief that the NLRB has the power to make some of the dramatic changes in the card-check bill.” The so-called card-check legislation, supported by Obama and Democrats in Congress, would allow unions to bypass secret-ballot elections and instead organize in workplaces by collecting signed cards from workers.

Becker on Tuesday suggested that he now doesn’t believe the board could take such a step, distancing himself from the writings.

“The law is clear that the decision…(of) an alternative route to certification rests with Congress and not the board,” Becker said, adding that the writings were “intended to be provocative and to ask fundamental questions in order for scholars and others to re-evaluate.”

Now, he’s all about implementing the will of Congress, you see. (“‘If confirmed, my decisions, unlike the views of a scholar, will have practical, concrete and important consequences,’ he told members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. ‘I will have a duty to implement the intent of Congress.’”) That, of course, marks a stark reversal from his 1993 law review article, in which he claimed just the opposite, namely that election rules should be redrafted to favor unions and that the NLRB could do this all on its own without Congressional authorization.

Then the issue of his association with the SEIU surfaced:

Becker saw tough questioning from Sen. John McCain (R. Ariz.) over whether he would recuse himself from cases before the NLRB involving the Service Employees International Union, where Becker most recently worked. Becker said he would recuse himself from cases involving the Service Employees International Union for two years but stopped short of saying what he would do so in a case mentioned by McCain involving a local chapter of the union.

“If any other matter arises in which any questions can be raised or might be raised about my impartiality, I will take that very seriously,” Becker said.

McCain told Becker “that’s not good enough.”

The real question is whether Harry Reid will try to jam this nomination through before Scott Brown is seated next week and Republicans can mount a successful filibuster. If Reid decides to force the vote with Sen. Paul Kirk still casting votes nearly a month after the Massachusetts election, it will be one more example of the excesses of one-party rule – in which a president beholden to political patrons can put up a nominee with obvious bias and ethical problems, knowing that his dutiful senate allies will rubber stamp his choice. And what of those Red State senators who swear to their constituents that they exercise independent judgment? They keep assuring their constituents that they don’t simply do the bidding of their ultra-liberal leadership. Oh well, another time perhaps. Now, one suspects it is time to ram through a favor for Big Labor.

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