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The Arrival of Free Online Education
For the second time in as many weeks, I find myself taking content cues from Kirsten Winkler over at Disrupt Education. This time, however, Kirsten’s posting merely gave me the budge I needed to publish, rather than being the basis for my entire post. (Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography comes to mind here…I seem to recall there being a passage in which he discusses learning to write simply by copying passages from the classics.) Kirsten’s Thursday post is about the various purveyors of free online education, including Coursera and edX (the Harvard-MIT partnership that was formally announced earlier this week). Wednesday, Kevin Carey over at The Quick & The Ed wrote a piece about the edX announcement.
As I intend to do with most things related to education technology, I’m going to leave the heavy lifting to people who know a thing or two about the sector. My contribution will be asking more questions than I can answer about how this will impact the issues that I follow most closely. I happened to be emailing with Casey Jennings (COO at 13th Avenue Funding) today and we were discussing just such questions. To what extent will free online classes make expensive brick and mortar learning obsolete? As Casey says, “Free is easy to finance.” Are there certain types of learning that can’t be “webified”? Kevin Carey takes a stab at the first question in his conclusion:
Harvardx won’t compete with Harvard University in the business of running admissions tournaments for aspiring members of the ruling class or assembling great minds in a single place to conduct world-class scholarship and reseach. Harvardx will be competing with everyone who isn’t Harvard University, or its general equivalent. Expensive, newly-arrived, brand-deficient for-profit online colleges probably have the most to fear, followed by over-priced private non-profits and then lower-quality non-selective public institutions. It’s going to be interesting to watch.
To the extent that he’s right, I think this can definitely be considered progress. “Expensive, newly arrived, brand-deficient for-profit online colleges” are, in my opinion, some of the biggest offenders when it comes to driving up overall student debt. Their costs are high and their product quality is generally lower. They make promises to students they can’t keep and then proceed to laugh all the way to the bank, taking tax-payer dollars and the financial futures of sadly gullible students with them. (See Senator Tom Harkin’s quote on one such online-education operator, Bridgepoint: “In the world of for-profit higher education, spectacular business success is possible despite an equally spectacular record of student failure. Bridgepoint is a private company, but it is almost entirely dependent on public funds…I think this is a scam, an absolute scam.”)
I really didn’t intend for this to become an invective against for-profit higher education. Afterall, Udacity is for-profit. The difference between Udacity and Bridgepoint, however, is night and day. Cost, quality and most importantly, the promises made to students are vastly divergent. I predict that the arrival of free online education will do more to “tighten” the nonprofit higher education industry. As the labor market wizens to what is and isn’t replaceable with respect to a traditional brick and mortar college degree and experience, both online and offline providers will adjust their services accordingly.
The Uncertain Future of American Colleges: A Roundup of Articles from Around the Internet
A quick run-down of a few recent posts from around the internet raise some interesting questions.
1. Frank Bruni’s Sunday NYT column entitled The Imperiled Promise of College. Without getting into specifics, Bruni laments the rising cost, declining benefit, and social stratification of American colleges and universities. It’s a well-told tale, but worth of repetition to be sure. Towards the end of his monologue, Bruni raises the idea of using incentives to nudge students towards “fields of studies that will serve them and society best.”
I don’t always try and bring it back to human capital contracts, but when they’re relevant, why not? One of the possible benefits of widely using HCCs is an alignment of incentives so the students who are interested in studying subjects which tend to lead to more lucrative careers (though certainly not a perfect indicator, one way to measure a profession’s utility to society is by its relative compensation) not only do so but also do so at the colleges and universities which are able to provide the best valuefor the dollar. For instance, if two students earn degrees in computer science, one from MIT (total tuition: $160,000) and one from University of Maryland, Baltimore County (total in-state tuition: $80,000; total out-of-state tuition: $120,000), and get jobs paying $80,000 and $70,000, respectively, right out of school, investors will see the latter student as earning a better ROI and will prefer to invest in her over the Harvard graduate. In effect, this will signal to Harvard that they must either lower their tuition (at least for computer science majors) or their CS graduates must earn higher salaries if they are to be competitive in a HCC finance market. (Side bar: If you aren’t familiar with Freeman Hrabowski, the President of UMBC, check out these profiles at 60 minutes and Time.)
People Capital is another peer-to-peer lender like SoFi that offers a way for students to secure loans outside of the traditional lending market. People Capital’s innovation is to use personal information such as school, major, GPA, SAT scores and length-of-time to graduation, rather than a student’s credit score like commercial lenders, to measure risk and determine interest rates.
(Side bar #2: Business Week has, to my knowledge, the most comprehensive measurement of college ROI data to date. Click here for analysis, data table, and methodology. I hope to write a future post on this topic as well, so do check back if you’re interested.)
Naturally, this leads to the question of whether colleges and universities should charge differential tuition rates based on a students course of study. Complications abound, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid question. I predict we’ll start hearing much more about this in the coming years as the higher education industry gets increasing amounts of push back about rising tuition and decreasing benefits.
2. For another high-profile inquisition into the benefits of college, see Richard Vedder’s Why College Isn’t for Everyone in Business Week. My first reaction: I worry about the implications of Vedder’s not-for-everyone mindset on education reform efforts that are predicated on a belief that everyone should be able to go to college (a belief that I share), especially in light of the absence of any widely available alternatives to a college degree that allow for even the hint of possibility for upwards social mobility. My second reaction: My first reaction still stands, but Vedder’s commentary on the necessity of understanding the limitation of statistical averages in telling a story is incredibly important.
Third, not everyone is average. A non-swimmer trying to cross a stream that on average is three feet deep might drown because part of the stream is seven feet in depth. The same kind of thing sometimes happens to college graduates too entranced by statistics on averages. Earnings vary considerably between the graduates of different schools, and within schools, earnings differ a great deal between majors. Accounting, computer science, and engineering majors, for example, almost always make more than those majoring in education, social work, or ethnic studies.
The phenomenon he’s referencing here is that although lifetime incomes averages of college graduates are vastly greater than lifetime income averages of non-college graduates, the variability in lifetime incomes is significant and too-often ignored. In fact, it is this variability in individual lifetime incomes that make equity instruments (such as human capital contracts) far more appropriate than debt instruments (such as loans) for financing education.
(Side bar #3: I recently came across two more interesting equity-based proposals for financing education which I will profile in more depth soon. For now, though, check out this article on CNN that focuses on a early-stage proposal for an alternative to traditional higher education finance at Clarkson University in Upstate New York. The article also briefly mentions an organization called Fix UC which advocates for an entire overhaul of the tuition system throughout the University of California system by very directly utilizing a human capital contract set-up.)
3. Planet Money produced a succinct infographic/text combo entitled What America Owes in Student Loans as a part of its ongoing What America (not sure if this is the official name or not) series. With the caveat that the Planet Money piece relies heavily on averages (see #2 for forewarning), author Lam Thuy Vo presents an interesting counter-conclusion to Vedder’s:
But it turns out that the rise in total student debt is not primarily the result of each student borrowing more money. It’s the result of more students going to college.
"The main force pushing up the total amount of outstanding student debt is growth in the number of people going to college," said Sandy Baum, an analyst at the College Board.
Average debt per college graduate is rising — but not nearly as fast as total student debt.
Now, it may very well be that both Vo and Vedder are correct, but I wonder what it says about each of them that they choose to interpret the data the way the do?
4. I don’t make a habit of trolling the pages of the American Enterprise Institute website, but when a Google search or an article I’m reading points me in that direction, I’m not opposed to exercising my open mind. So, with that introduction, I give you Lights, Camera, Crazy!, a book review of Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U, by Michael Rosen. The book blends, as Rosen writes, “broader cultural, political and economic insights into higher education trends with a deeply person, and surprisingly moving, account of Ferguson’s and his son’s own experience visiting, applying to, and ultimately enrolling in college.” Topics in the book range from skyrocketing tuition, college rankings (I’m getting tired of saying this, but rankings are also a planned topic for a future post), standardized testing and the blogs, brochures, websites, fellow parents and admissions officers that make up the rest of the hellish admissions process.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years of being involved in education in various capacities, thought, it’s that no other sector of life leads to stranger bedfellows. Somewhat confusedly, I found myself nodding in agreement (though I’m going to tell myself it was only in acknowledgement) during a few passages of the review. Namely:
Much of this obscene acceleration in prices can be laid at the feet of the federal government, which, in a vicious cycle, subsidizes loans, makes direct grants, and offers loan forgiveness, all of which in turn spur higher education institutions to hike tuition further, which in turn necessitates further government aid.
“It’s the same problem that afflicts health care,” Ferguson posits. “A large portion of the people consuming the services aren’t paying for the services out of their own pocket. The costs are picked up by third parties.” One massive, 10-year study Ferguson quotes found that “each increase in Pell aid is matched nearly one for one by tuition increases” among private schools.
I don’t know that I completely agree with Rosen’s paraphrasing of Ferguson’s conclusion that much of the blame “can be laid at the feet of the federal government,” and I certainly am not on board with where Rosen seems to be heading that the federal government should stay out of education finance, but I do agree that the mechanism which he describes of increasing amounts of aid being eaten up by tuition increases leading to increasing amounts of aid and so on is alive and well. The single biggest problem is the lack (or extreme delay) of feedback signalling and the use of debt in the first place. One problem is easier to fix than the other and while I have made no secret of being a huge fan of human capital contracts and other equity instruments, I think efforts by companies like SoFi and People Capital to inject some humanity and accountability back into the process are huge steps in the right direction.
Also, the comparison of health care to education with respect to out-of-control costs and using HCCs as a possible solution reminded me of an article I stumbled across recently which proposes to use human capital contracts as a way of reining in medical school debt. This proposal is much more education than health care related, but it’s another interesting area of overlap that was worth sharing.
Note to self: get to work on posts about People Capital, college ranking system, The Clarkson Proposal (sounds like the title of a spy thriller, right?), Fix UC, Business Week’s College ROI series.
Teaching Tolerance in Crown Heights
Crown Heights is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in all of New York City. Just take a stroll down Eastern Parkway or Utica Ave and the sights and smells are beautiful, vibrant, and strikingly unique. It is also a neighborhood that has a history of racial and religious tension. I spend 2-3 days each week in this community and have always wanted to learn more about how the African-American and Jewish communities coexist, especially after the riots that took place in 1991. Outside of trolling the internet and brief conversations with Crown Heights residents, I’m still not 100% sure.
This video doesn’t answer all of the questions that might arise, but it is great to know that young scholars and community members are interested in learning more, too. These young women came into this neighborhood with no knowledge of the existing conditions, they were able to ask serious questions about each of the communities and learn more about how they came to be. Through the lens of their upbringing in the Caribbean, they questioned the division of the two communities and the stereotypes that came along with it. This type of project based learning helps teach tolerance in a way that resonates not only with these four scholars, but for each of the people that they were able to interact with. I hope that they are able to continue this conversation throughout Crown Heights and share their experiences with others. In this case, a little knowledge can go a long way.
Is Eating Meat Like Being Racist?
I spent the latter half of last week in Los Angeles seeing the city and scoping out potential nesting places should I decide to go to USC Business School next year. Unsurprisingly, my time spent in a stationary car on I-10 was not the most interesting event of the weekend. Surprisingly, however, neither was meeting my potential future classmates. Instead, a routine meet-the-girlfriend’s-cousins afternoon ended up capturing my conscious and subconscious thought well after the day was over, and not just because of the insights it provided into Laura’s various
Laura’s cousin, Ruby Roth (author’s website), has made headlines over the last few weeks for her new book, Vegan is Love (click here to buy it). Appearances on Fox & Friends and NBC’s Today Show have stimulated endless blogosphere chatter and generated a deluge of mail for Ruby, from supporters, detractors and the occasional psychopath alike. Just google “Vegan is Love” and you’ll see what I mean.
My personal food journey: There are myriad reasons why people go vegetarian or vegan and I won’t attempt to enumerate them all. I first experimented with vegetarianism as a senior in college when awareness about the environmental impact of modern meat-industry practices led me to give up meat. I started strong but eventually relapsed after a few months. My struggle was ongoing and although I wouldn’t say I was ever a true vegetarian again, I certainly cut down the amount of meat I ate significantly. Soon thereafter, I found myself living in New Orleans and the idea of being a vegetarian was a joke.
Fast forward two years and after 3 months of living in a tent and on a sail boat in the Pacific Northwest, I was ready to try again. I moved to Boston and started dating Laura, who was a vegetarian herself. For anyone who has ever dated a vegetarian, you know there’s little difference between that and being one yourself. Luckily, that was my goal, so the added support was welcome. Over the last year and change, I have cracked on numerous occasions and eaten meat, but I am much more comfortable presenting myself as a vegetarian than I had been before because 95% of the time, that’s what I am.
On the way home from a walk to the neighborhood coffee joint, I asked Ruby’s longtime boyfriend and devout vegan, Justin Bua, about the source of his vegan ethic. (Side bar: Roth and Bua co-edit a website about their experience as vegans: We Be Vegan.) Having had the experience of trying to explain to my unsympathetic college roommates why I would no longer be eating the turkey in the fridge that I had purchased the previous week and been immediately and unceasingly subjected to their ridicule and ire, I know how hard it can be to explain why one makes the food choices they do. But I asked anyway. I felt like playing the devil’s advocate.
As Justin went down the list of health problems, environmental problems, economic problems and moral failings associated with eating meat, I listened and nodded in tentative yet tacit agreement. His fundamentalism seemed like a weakness so I made that my target. I asked him whether eating less meat was better than eating more meat and he said no. I asked him whether eating less meat that was raised ethically was better and he again said no. I asked whether eating one deer a year that lived off undisturbed land that you tracked for days and hunted with a bow and arrow was better and he said no once more. At some point in the discussion, Ruby finished the radio interview she had been conducting in another room and joined us. She, too, agreed with Justin on each point.
I knew that each of these cascading scenarios was better than eating wheelbarrow-fulls of pork shoulders purchased at WalMart. They had to be. But Justin and Ruby wouldn’t budge. They just kept repeating that people who concoct these quasi-restrictive diets that still included meat were only lying to themselves about meat and how it was raised, produced and delivered to our tables. And by extension, they were equally guilty in perpetrating all the evils of our meat-filled culture.
Their argument rested on 2 points that when taken together provided a stout defense of pure vegetarianism that I found hard to argue with.
1) We just don’t need to eat meat, so why do we?
2) The reality of the conditions in which the vast majority of meat is raised is completely abhorrent. (Even my word choice is indicative of our ingrained meat-eating culture: I talk about meat being raised as if it wasn’t at one point part of an animal.)
In what I understood at the time as a bit of hyperbole, Justin kept comparing eating a little meat to only keeping a few slaves. The next day, though, a friend sent me the article that appeared on Jezebel over the weekend, A Complete Guide to ‘Hipster Racism’ and all of a sudden, Justin and Ruby’s arguments clicked into place, rather uncomfortably. Could Justin have been right on some level? Was eating any amount of meat alright when it was so clearly unnecessary and so frequently cruel? There’s no amount of acceptable racism, so why is it OK to murder a small number of animals to eat their meat? Before you get up in arms about the difference between people and animals, let me cut you off. I get it. But philosophically, can we be alright with a small amount of something that we recognize is terrible? (See #2 “Recreational Slumming” in Hipster Racism article.) And the more uncomfortable questions: what should I think about my friends who eat meat? Is that like having racist friends?