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So…We’re the problem?

Ben Sasse, Republican Senator from Nebraska, has written a lengthy essay for The Atlantic on higher education, mainly railing against debt forgiveness and accreditation while contending universities are not meeting student needs. Much of what he says is fair–for instance, relieving doctors and lawyers of debt makes little sense. But then he calls for more profound change:

Debt forgiveness would pour gasoline on the bonfire of education costs. According to the Education Data Initiative, “the average cost of college tuition and fees at public 4-year institutions has climbed 179.2% over the last 20 years for an average annual increase of 9.0%.” (For comparison, personal health-care costs—another disproportionately inflationary sector—have increased 58 percent over the same period.) The universities that take in federal dollars without useful tools to measure student outcomes have had too little motivation to resist price hikes. 

Ben Sasse, The Atlantic, June 2022

This is profoundly dishonest, and Sasse is smart enough to know it, too. So tuition has shot up because of the greed of public four-year schools? And just exactly what “federal dollars” are we talking about? GG hasn’t noticed “payment from federal government” in the pie charts showing where university educational funds are coming from. And why are we using that specific subset of colleges? Oh right, it’s because the main force behind the rise of tuition at public four year colleges has been state legislators deciding to cease supporting their four year colleges, which means schools turn to the only other funding source available, namely student tuition. A lot of that increase came in the Great Recession. Perhaps a good question might be, why put out lots of money for loans–maybe this would make more sense by directly supporting the public universities? Just how did that transition occur from olden days of cheap public schools and no loans to where we sit today? Who thinks that it is better to make loans to students to pay higher tuitions than to fund the education directly? And, just wondering, how much of that student debt is owed because of private, predatory schools? Exactly why are we picking on public schools?

So what does Sasse want to do, seeing as the current system is broken?

Most colleges today underinvest in student advising and mentoring, and in intensive internships and career development. Our standard testing practices encourage mindless cramming and dumping, rather than critical engagement. All students would benefit from more frequent, low-stakes, real-time, individualized assessments….Why can’t we have more travel options, more service options, more intensive internships, more work opportunities? 

Um, simple answer: it costs a lot of money. Who is taking weeks of the school year to give those frequent individualized assessments? What are they getting paid? Or do you think that magic computer software fills that needs? You think travel is cheap? Maybe Sasse hasn’t noticed, but the widespread replacement of teaching faculty by instructors is in large part an attempt to save money–which, you know, seemed to matter to Sasse a lot a few sentences back. (The curious want to know: was there an increase in instructors when Sasse headed a small religious college in financial turmoil?) This is right up there with teaching small classes (which is another way to give individualized feedback). Yes, absolutely, it would be better for students…but there is a price tag. And as for work and internships…er, they exist but are created by, um, employers, not the schools. Are we suggesting that schools need to come up with make-work opportunities? Or is this a call to action by the private sector to make more internships? If so, it was cleverly camouflaged.

Certainly some of the suggestions Sen. Sasse makes are worthy of consideration, but to frame this first as “college is too expensive” (but don’t throw money at it!) and then prescribe far more expensive changes as a solution is dishonest. And the appeal to technology as the magic way to reduce costs just begs for some real experience with such systems–one thing we’ve learned the past two years is that sitting in front of a computer (aka, the magic technology that allows students to learn at their own pace) is not something that appeals to most students. MOOCs have a niche, but it is becoming clearer that a niche is probably their limit. They work really well for things like professional advancement, but not so well for the typical undergraduate.

Some of what he promotes is actually already there. He decries “sage on the stage” without seeming to recognize that lots of large courses utilize means other than the big lecture to help students learn. And he encourages flexibility but then decries the 5.5 years an average student might take to get a degree–not seeming to recognize that that is as often a measure of flexibility as students take a semester or year off or take a lower load while working, or as students discover that the original major they thought they wanted was not the one they really want to pursue (we in earth science see this frequently). Travel and study? Yeah, those programs are there and are pretty popular.

Sasse asks for colleges to have skin in the game. Presumably this means that he’d like to see universities act as guarantors for student loans. Which, universities being pretty conservative places, would probably result in them declining to take a chance on non-traditional or lower class students. Is this the desired outcome?

Look, there is a lot of room for improvement in higher ed, and it is nice that a US Senator is giving it some thought. GG agrees that we need to shift the post-high school focus from “you must go to college” to something much broader. All faculty see students in college who really don’t belong–that kind of education isn’t their cup of tea, but other models (including some Sasse promotes) are ones that can appeal to such individuals at a far lower cost. Too many schools are trying to build themselves as tier I research universities while marginalizing their teaching missions. (Senator, perhaps you’d like to examine the programs like EPSCORE that reward building research schools in states that historically have lacked them? States like…Nebraska? Think that might be playing a role in more expensive undergraduate instruction?). GG is an absolute luddite when it comes to new educational philosophies, but even he was engaged with the Science Education Initiative that sought to improve student success in science classes, so it isn’t like there has been no efforts from faculty.

So here’s the challenge Senator: you’ve been a college president and you have access to lots of skilled budget crunchers. Show us a university budget that recognizes the smaller funds from a state’s general fund, the lower tuition you think is reasonable, that has all the kinds of flexibility you envision with the personal individualized feedback, that can hire the accountants to help with the means testing you propose, and we’ll talk.

Math Elites

Recently some school districts, seeing that their gifted programs were populated largely by white or Asian students, have considered or tried to eliminate such programs as effectively rewarding those already having a leg up in education. This has led to a blowback, arguing that removing such programs basically hobbles the brightest students–and given how poorly the US does in comparison with other countries, adding some additional restraints seems unwise. But there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye. One aspect is how math is taught, another is how gifted programs are set up, and another is what math is taught. Let’s run through these backwards.

First, there is no question in GG’s mind that some students are simply really bad at quantitative reasoning. Tell them a city is 120 miles away and you want to get there in 2 hours, then ask “how fast do you have to drive?” and you get a blank stare. Of course by the time they reach college they’ve probably been told a million times they are bad at math, but still, it seems a fair evaluation. But what math are they bad at? This is algebra, and while you can make a pretty solid argument that everybody should be able to handle basic algebra, it isn’t the only piece of mathematics of use. Does geometry resonate with poor algebra students? Trig? Statistics? Not all math is the same. GG does not solve much if anything using traditional geometry; had the barrier to entry into math been geometry instead of algebra, GG might well have gone a different direction. You wonder if a better approach would be to have a bit of a math carousel and let students first engage in material that appeals to them. With some success under their belt, maybe they could return to the math they don’t like so much.

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Are PhDs Too Cheap?

GG suspects some of you might have gotten a PhD and thought back to days of eating ramen for the four to eight years and felt like, too cheap? Hah! But as many public universities are being pushed more and more to get their income mainly from tuition, light might be cast on the doctoral programs as sources of savings.

Here’s the simple deal: classes taken in order to get a PhD are typically small and virtually always taught by faculty and not instructors or TAs, yet the preparation for the instructor is unlikely to be less than for a lower division class (indeed, as these advanced classes are closer to the cutting edge in a field, preparation can be harder). So having faculty teaching classes with, say 5 or 10 students versus 50 or 200 is a financial loser. On top of that, a graduate student conducting research will be counseled by an advisor who will also be tenure-track faculty. It doesn’t take a lot of math to see that this is a losing proposition.

So why are there so many places to get a PhD? And why might this come crashing down in the near future?

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Post-COVID College

There have been a number of essays on what is changing permanently in academia. Many advocates of things like MOOCs and remote learning are claiming that their day has come and traditional college life is a thing of the past. Many parents and students would argue the opposite: that Zoom classrooms are a disaster, and that the money they are paying for “the college experience” is not giving sufficient payback. While these are actually two different facets of college (the first delivery of an education, the second a more complex collection of education with peer interactions, social development and personal redefinition), they overlap enough to suggest that we really don’t know what the future holds. So GG, being grumpy enough to be willing to weigh in, offers these bon mots.

First off, it is immensely transparent that the in-person university will continue to be the standard for traditional (post-high school) students. The demand is strong and the social isolation of Remote U deeply unpleasant. Universities will be wanting their faculty there in the classroom to make that experience as compelling as possible. While there might be a few upper division courses taught with some of this technology (e.g., roping in important colleagues for a special lecture) and some aspects of classroom work may well change (homework returned on paper might well end with greater familiarity with tools permitting the submission of electronic versions of work), crowded lecture halls with a human at the front of the room are nearly certain to remain.

It might be a different story at other levels of the college.

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COVID killed which learning?

Last spring the word was that because of the coronavirus, remote teaching would finally be the killer app that would make good on the promise of MOOCs and other efforts to liberate colleges from the hidebound methods of teaching that date back to the Middle Ages. College presidents looking at budgets heavy on old professors’ salaries were rubbing their hands with some glee; this could finally make colleges more financially secure. Then students weighed in with “ick.” Over the summer the institutional response was, well of course the old farts couldn’t teach online that well, you had to do it right with preparation and tools and workshops. Universities spent money on IT resources and the various teaching improvement groups held workshops and faculty played with Zoom breakout rooms and such not. So here in the fall, we were to see the conquering of education by remote teaching after the slap-dash failure in the spring.

What did we get? Um, lawsuits demanding refunds for lower than expected teaching quality. Schools cutting programs because students were not flocking to get an education through a somewhat small TV screen. So where are we going?

Right now, of course, there will be more of the same for the spring. But let’s skip past that. What will things look like in the fall of 2021?

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Pointing Fingers

Recently CNN counted over 25,000 COVID-19 cases associated with colleges and universities, and six schools (at least) have over 1000 cases among their students. For perspective, the Sturgis Rally (unofficial slogan: “Rally to Preserve the Coronavirus”) has only managed to sicken hundreds despite nearly a half million attending (and only 26 of over 600 tested in Sturgis have proven positive). So colleges and universities are proving to be some of the most fertile breeding grounds for this pandemic. It seems fair to ask, just who is to blame for this?

Certainly listening to college administrators, the students are the problem. A CU email to students is typical (and if anything, somewhat understated): “To those of you who are choosing to disregard health and safety guidelines, this is a formal notice. This reckless behavior is putting the campus experience and everyone’s health at risk.” Some schools are taking no prisoners: the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana is suspending students immediately if they have a party or broken isolation. So it’s the students’ fault, right?

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Why Open Colleges?

There’s been an exceptional amount of attention paid to college and university opening the past couple of weeks. Curiously, most of the discussion has focused on the how and when and much less on the why. Although this has come up a bit before, let’s reexamine this as college chaos descends on the nation.

Let’s start with some arguments supporting reopening colleges that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Oftentimes people think of college as an extension of K-12 education, but there are some huge differences. While K-12 also acts as a form of child care, college students are not in need of supervision if left home alone (well, OK, there might be some poor judgement calls, but they should be capable of being home during the day without adult supervision). So one motivation present for K-12 is not present for college students.

How about the quality of education? In terms of what professors can deliver to a class, for many courses there is little quantitative difference. Some colleagues have noted that in some classes, students are actually far more likely to be active participants than if the class was in a classroom. Everybody sees the same stuff; distractions from a student the row ahead playing Doom on a laptop or a student behind telling jokes is absent in virtual space. And in some ways it is easier to break a class into smaller discussion groups in Zoom than in a physical classroom with chairs bolted to the floor. While in K-12 there is little doubt that physical presence in the classroom is a big help, this is far less clear in a college environment: college students are more capable of navigating the tools used in online education and are generally more motivated to make the effort to master material. Now, there certainly are classes that require physical presence (you probably don’t want to mail students a chem lab and have them work with materials that require a hood at home), but those are a small fraction of the courses students would have to take. Is there a hit in overall education? Well, right now with faculty struggling to master these toys, probably some, but it is unlikely to be as great as K-12, and it is probably focused in a small subset of course offerings.

Now there are of course reasons why you wouldn’t reopen colleges; the biggest is obviously personal safety. Even allowing for the lower mortality rate among young adults, that rate is not zero and so letting COVID-19 run free through a college will produce a few deaths. Given how the loss of any college student is often a great trauma for the community, even a couple of deaths would be bad news. Toss in the possibility of infecting faculty and staff or people in the broader community, and it is clear that from a health safety standpoint, reopening colleges is not a good move.

So why reopen at all? There are two kind of interdependent reasons: social growth and financial stability. By “social growth” GG is referring to the kinds of interactions students have outside the classroom, both related to education (e.g., study groups, bull sessions) and socialization (e.g., parties, dating). It has been quite clear that students are not satisfied to just be communicating with peers over the internet. And as far as campus leaders are concerned, it is far less likely that students will be loyal alums to Big State U if BSU is little more than a URL in their browser. Of course, this very aspect of college (one many alums recall fondly) is the one most likely to lead to the spread of coronavirus.

This brings us to financial stability. There are two pieces to this puzzle. The obvious one is tuition money. Virtually all private and increasing numbers of public universities rely on tuition money to pay the bills. Many students and their families have objected to paying full freight for, as they sometimes put it, just another online university. This is of course unfair to the faculty and staff of these schools, who are still working as hard to teach at a high level, but it is understandable. After all, some of that tuition is going to upgrade classrooms and build some buildings and such not; certain to raise hackles are attempts to capture student fees for things like football tickets for games that aren’t happening and access to recreation centers and other amenities that are inaccessible–and yes, some schools have tried to collect such fees. So particularly for schools like CU with a large out-of-state contingent, losing tuition is a potential disaster that might have to be met with elimination of some programs.

The second half is less obvious, but a surprisingly high portion of the overall budget of residential universities is often in housing students. We are, in a sense, a school attached to a resort. Here at CU, all first year students are required to live in campus dorms. It turns out that we have to maintain those dorms even when empty, and pay the bonds used to build or refurbish those dorms. If the students are all home, it is really hard to get parents to pay for these facilities (though again, many schools tried that at one point). So pushing students home is often more financially damaging than just the move to virtual education.

Now campuses have spent a lot of time and money trying to make the academic part of college safe. Classrooms allow social distancing, air handling is changed, schedules altered to permit less crowding in halls, outdoor tents for eating and studying are in place, etc. Far less effort has gone into figuring out how to allow the social side of campus life to proceed more safely. This is the nut that needs to be cracked for this to really work. The armed forces’ academies have decided that testing 15% of faculty, staff and students each week is enough to catch any spike before it happens. Most colleges cannot match that level of testing (let alone the necessary speed of results), so other tacts should be explored. Encouraging students to limit social gatherings to smaller numbers and outside? Providing some kinds of meeting spaces that would be relatively healthy? A lot of the effort in this direction is like the old “Just say no” campaign from the 1980s–don’t do this, don’t do that or bad things will happen. It didn’t go well back then, it won’t go well this time either.

So at the end of the line, we see administrators watching red ink pour out like a scene from The Shining while faculty and surrounding communities see the risk of real blood being shed if campuses are reopened. While some have compared teaching at K-12 as similar frontline service to grocery workers and nurses and doctors, the case isn’t nearly as strong for university faculty and staff to similarly put themselves at risk. Given that the federal government isn’t interested in even covering the massive revenue declines that are crippling state and local governments, the odds of any support to higher ed are very long. And so campus administrators throw the dice and hope they can somehow sneak through enough of a term to collect enough money to get to the other side.

It would be an easier sacrifice to accept were they too in the classrooms with students who were at that big mixer the previous weekend…

What WILL Change

There’s been a run of “here are the things that coronavirus will change forever” essays, many of which frankly don’t convince GG. For instance, there have been a string of “remote education will now be important” pieces that frankly are flying in the face of widespread disgust at sitting in front of a computer for hours watching what arguably might be some of the most boring material to appear on a screen ever created. If anything, what higher education has thrown out there as distance learning for their regular students has increased the hunger for regular learning.

Does that mean nothing changes? Well, no. There are several things in academia that look very robust and likely to last. One of the striking changes GG has seen has involved thesis presentations. While defenses were usually announced and open to the public, rooms would only hold so many and in any event you had to be able to physically get to campus, park, get in the building and then be in the room. But defenses over the past month have attracted far larger audiences from all across the globe. While in the past there have been occasional remote members of the examining committee (often on the phone), this kind of widespread access to a defense is fairly new and kind of exciting. GG suspects that we will see a Zoom option accompanying physical defenses once we return to “normal”.

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Higher Ed or Wi-Fi Ed?

Obviously the abandonment of the physical classroom has led many to propose that tele-education is here to stay. But in what form? What is it really? While the New York Times had a nice piece exploring this (confirming that students and faculty are pretty unhappy with what did in fact emerge to replace in-person teaching), one paragraph kind of stands out as potentially highlighting the misunderstandings and mistaken motives that might push this along:

Universities should consider this semester an experiment to see which classes were most effectively delivered online, he [Dr. Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business] said — big introductory courses better taught through video-recorded lectures by faculty stars and with online textbooks, for example, which could be shared among institutions to lower the cost.

OK, class, reread that paragraph. What appears to be the primary motivation? Is it high quality education? Is it a cheaper education? What criteria might be applied? You might consider the affiliation of the expert quoted.

Aside from motivation, do we know if superstar lectures actually produce better learning results? Consider a more prosaic change in teaching style, so-called flipped classrooms where, in a sense, lectures are viewed as homework and actual student work is done in the classroom. Studies have shown these result in a greater mastery of material than traditional classrooms–but they also show that students feel they learned more from the traditional lecture. Could it be that superstar lectures are seeing the same effect on steroids?

Earlier in the story, a VP of online education points out that ‘real’ “online education lets students move at their own pace and includes such features as continual assessments so they can jump ahead as soon as they’ve mastered a skill.” This is certainly NOT what was going on on college IT networks the past month and a half. Indeed, it isn’t really a good fit for the traditional term of lectures/homeworks/labs punctuated by exams. So to the degree that faculty have been shoved (many with a lot of screaming) into the “online education” pool, arguably they landed on the steps to the shallow end, not really the deep end at all. So what might we have learned?

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Will All Learning be Distant?

One of the late night hosts joked a week or two ago that students from Harvard would now be receiving degrees from “just another online university.” There are articles out there claiming that the novel coronavirus will finally push all us dinosaurs from the physical classroom and bring on the age of online education. Oddly enough, GG has some opinions on this.

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