Commentary Magazine


Topic: student loan bubble

When Conservative School Reforms Work

Conservative education reformers are at several distinct disadvantages: union control of public education, the government’s broad power to protect its market dominance, restrictions on leveling the playing field between public and parochial schools, etc. Yet sometimes favored conservative policies succeed despite the institutional road blocks, and other times those road blocks inspire creative alternatives. Readers of today’s New York Times will find important examples of both.

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Conservative education reformers are at several distinct disadvantages: union control of public education, the government’s broad power to protect its market dominance, restrictions on leveling the playing field between public and parochial schools, etc. Yet sometimes favored conservative policies succeed despite the institutional road blocks, and other times those road blocks inspire creative alternatives. Readers of today’s New York Times will find important examples of both.

The first is a very long, but quite worthwhile feature on Eva Moskowitz’s New York charter-school phenomenon, the Success Academy schools. But conservatives should pay special attention to it because it’s not just about the concept of choice; it actually addresses a great weakness of conservative education reform as well.

Reformers on the right correctly note the unfairness and immoral nature of the current government-mandated segregation in the public-school system. They are also correct when they say that while school choice does tend to improve test scores in many cases, the case for school choice rests on more than just grades. Conservatives are dedicated proponents of equality of opportunity, and school choice, thanks to liberal policies, is one area where such equality is close to nonexistent.

But a crucial component of reform, and arguably the most challenging, is to change the actual classroom educational experience. The Times gives us a glimpse at one way Success tackles this issue:

In a rare look inside the network, including visits to several schools and interviews with dozens of current and former employees, The New York Times chronicled a system driven by the relentless pursuit of better results, one that can be exhilarating for teachers and students who keep up with its demands and agonizing for those who do not.

Rules are explicit and expectations precise. Students must sit with hands clasped and eyes following the speaker; reading passages must be neatly annotated with a main idea.

Incentives are offered, such as candy for good behavior, and Nerf guns and basketballs for high scores on practice tests. For those deemed not trying hard enough, there is “effort academy,” which is part detention, part study hall.

For teachers, who are not unionized and usually just out of college, 11-hour days are the norm, and each one is under constant monitoring, by principals who make frequent visits, and by databases that record quiz scores. Teachers who do well can expect quick promotions, with some becoming principals while still in their 20s. Teachers who struggle can expect coaching or, if that does not help, possible demotion.

Accountability for students and teachers–what a novel idea! And it gets results:

Though it serves primarily poor, mostly black and Hispanic students, Success is a testing dynamo, outscoring schools in many wealthy suburbs, let alone their urban counterparts. In New York City last year, 29 percent of public school students passed the state reading tests, and 35 percent passed the math tests. At Success schools, the corresponding percentages were 64 and 94 percent.

For disadvantaged students, throwing money at them isn’t what helps them succeed. Moskowitz may be a “self-proclaimed liberal,” but at this rate she may one day have a seat next to Milton Friedman in the conservative pantheon.

The Success Academy schools combine school choice with real classroom reform. And the schools live up to their name.

The other story in today’s Times about education is easier to miss because it’s less controversial. But it could have a meaningful impact if it catches on.

Some of the right’s frustration with race-based admissions is not only that they think college admissions should be colorblind but also that the left’s definition of “diversity” is entirely skin-deep. If you want to help struggling inner-city students, conservatives argue, wouldn’t you do better to base affirmative action policies around socioeconomic factors instead of skin color?

The political obstacles to such reform are obvious. So instead of waiting for government to take the lead, the market is moving in. Here’s the Times:

Top colleges have many reasons to avoid enrolling a lot of low-income students.

The students need financial aid, which can strain a university’s budget. Although many of the students have stellar grades, they often have somewhat lower SAT scores than affluent students, which can hurt a university’s ranking. Low-income students also tend to lack the campus sway of other groups, like athletes or children of alumni, in lobbying for admission slots.

In an effort to push back against these incentives — even just a little — a foundation in Northern Virginia on Tuesday is announcing a new no-strings-attached $1 million prize. It will be awarded each year to a college that excels in enrolling and graduating low-income high achievers. The inaugural winner of the money — from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which also runs a large scholarship program — is Vassar College.

This strikes me as a very good idea, even if its effects will be marginal for now. And its focus not just on enrolling but on “graduating low-income high achievers” is important as well. One weakness of affirmative action, as proponents of the “mismatch” theory argue, is that enrolling students should not be treated as a stand-in for educating them, and in many cases bringing in students through affirmative action does them more harm than good.

Yet even if you don’t believe the mismatch theory, the genius of the Jack Kent Cooke program is that it doesn’t reallocate public resources. No one would object to incentivizing low-income students’ college graduation.

“Rather than spend the money to enroll lower-income students,” the Times’s David Leonhardt writes, “many colleges have instead built student bodies that are diverse in many other ways — geography, religion, ethnicity — but still overwhelmingly affluent.”

Indeed. The best of the American education system is too often off-limits to those who can’t afford it, and the government-inflated loan bubble, liberal opposition to school choice, and an admissions process that judges students on the color of their skin won’t change that. Conservatives are not the only ones advancing conservative education reforms, in yet another sign that the tide might be turning in favor of the disadvantaged students so ill-served by the existing educational order.

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Should Scott Walker Get His Degree? Should We Care?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked–again–yesterday about whether his lack of a college degree is an impediment to his (presumptive) presidential hopes. He responded, according to CNN: “I don’t think I needed a college degree to be in the state assembly or to be county executive or to be governor. I don’t know about any other position. But in the end I think most people, for example [as] governor, judge me based on performance and what we’re able to do.”

That’s a fine answer, but it almost certainly won’t put an end to such questions. And that might just be a good thing–not for Walker, certainly, but because it’s a discussion quite relevant to the current higher education bubble and also because it can be revealing about those asking the question. Walker has already somewhat undermined his own defense by claiming he might go ahead and finish up his degree–a suggestion that is unobjectionable but which is difficult to separate from the current discussion about that degree and his presidential hopes.

It’s also logistically problematic to get that degree while running for reelection as governor and then for the Republican presidential nomination. Who would want to grade his papers under such circumstances? Only, one would think, people who shouldn’t be grading his papers. Taking classes in person would be a security nightmare, not to mention a media zoo making it a less than ideal environment for other students. Which raises the possibility, hinted at by Walker himself, that he would participate in a program like the University of Wisconsin’s “flexible option,” which would enable him to study on his own, remotely.

That might take the media circus off campus, but it wouldn’t cure all the headaches involved in Walker getting his degree while also a candidate for high office. The flexible option, for example, allows students to set their own pace. Were Walker’s pace noticeably slow, he would be subject to endless speculation about his intelligence. Were his pace suspiciously brisk, he would be accused of dodging his governing responsibilities or cheating.

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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked–again–yesterday about whether his lack of a college degree is an impediment to his (presumptive) presidential hopes. He responded, according to CNN: “I don’t think I needed a college degree to be in the state assembly or to be county executive or to be governor. I don’t know about any other position. But in the end I think most people, for example [as] governor, judge me based on performance and what we’re able to do.”

That’s a fine answer, but it almost certainly won’t put an end to such questions. And that might just be a good thing–not for Walker, certainly, but because it’s a discussion quite relevant to the current higher education bubble and also because it can be revealing about those asking the question. Walker has already somewhat undermined his own defense by claiming he might go ahead and finish up his degree–a suggestion that is unobjectionable but which is difficult to separate from the current discussion about that degree and his presidential hopes.

It’s also logistically problematic to get that degree while running for reelection as governor and then for the Republican presidential nomination. Who would want to grade his papers under such circumstances? Only, one would think, people who shouldn’t be grading his papers. Taking classes in person would be a security nightmare, not to mention a media zoo making it a less than ideal environment for other students. Which raises the possibility, hinted at by Walker himself, that he would participate in a program like the University of Wisconsin’s “flexible option,” which would enable him to study on his own, remotely.

That might take the media circus off campus, but it wouldn’t cure all the headaches involved in Walker getting his degree while also a candidate for high office. The flexible option, for example, allows students to set their own pace. Were Walker’s pace noticeably slow, he would be subject to endless speculation about his intelligence. Were his pace suspiciously brisk, he would be accused of dodging his governing responsibilities or cheating.

So if he isn’t going to get his degree before running for president, does the debate over his education help or hinder his candidacy? That would depend a great deal on the extent to which the affliction of credentialism has infected the general public. You can sense the conversation shifting as a four-year degree becomes increasingly expensive and the federal government’s loan program continues to inflate the bubble, saddling students with ever more debt even as the job market constricts. But there is still a gulf in earning power between those with and those without a college degree, a fact which understandably causes people to hesitate to discourage Americans from attending college.

There is also a partisan aspect to this. Republicans are aware that the modern American university has become a stultifying atmosphere of intellectual conformity, and so it often confers a degree but not much of an education. (There are exceptions, of course.) Liberals think this actually is an education. Hence you find the strain of anti-elitist populism running stronger on the right than the left.

Last month, Charles Cooke found the liberal website PoliticusUSA using the term “college dropout” as a pejorative description of Walker. After Cooke pointed out just how silly this was, the headline was changed. But this week PoliticusUSA was at it again. On the topic of Walker considering finishing his degree, Sarah Jones wrote that “His lack of a bachelors degree is a selling point among Republican voters,” because “Nothing says winning like hating on education and claiming that you don’t need to know anything to be President.”

Jones was quick to add a caveat to this otherwise fiercely clownish statement by noting that “While it’s true that a bachelor’s degree is not required, nor does it determine in any sense the intelligence or lack thereof of the holder, it is important that a President has a solid grasp of history and civics.” In other words, while not everyone needs a college degree, Walker does, because he is in need of a liberal reprogramming. Jones helpfully adds: “This is a the (sic) Republican Party, where the more misinformed and uneducated one is or seems to be, the more they are liked.”

Jones isn’t wrong that Walker might relish the opportunity to portray such attacks as elite condescension. But it also indicates why a productive conversation about the state of American higher education and preparing American students for the modern job market is probably not, alas, in the cards for the next presidential election.

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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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