Tag Archives: education

Free Market Reflexes

By James Kwak

I’ve been reading a lot about education recently, for reasons that are not worth going into here. I don’t know that much about the area, so I’ve been reading some background stuff and review articles, including a Hamilton Project white paper by Michael Greenstone, Adam Looney, and Paige Shevlin.

It’s pretty mainstream, self-professed “third way” stuff, with a heavy dose of measurement and performance evaluation. Basically they repeat over and over again that educational policies should be based on evidence and new programs should go through rigorous assessments. There are a fairly strong tilt toward market mechanisms and some idealistic naivete about practical problems (e.g., “One way to [improve accountability systems] is to develop tests that measure the skills children should learn”), but nothing too outrageous in substance.

The white paper, however, betrays a certain conceptual bias that I find disturbing, even in topical areas where it seems otherwise reasonable.

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Are Subsidized Student Loans Worth the Price?

By James Kwak

Previous guest blogger Anastasia Wilson has written a post on her own blog comparing the student loan racket (for-profit colleges help people take out lots of federally guaranteed student loans to pay for their tuition, then do a lousy job educating them, walking away with the money and leaving students to default) to the subprime loan racket. The flagbearer for this parallel is Steve Eisman, who has gone from shorting subprime mortgages to now shorting for-profit colleges.

In theory, for-profit colleges should not be able to do this. If too many of their former students go into default, the Department of Education is supposed to prevent their new students from taking out federally subsidized loans. (Since the government is ultimately underwriting these loans, it should have the power to make sure that the loans are being used to buy an education that will help borrowers pay back those loans.) But colleges have so far been able to get around the rules by pushing defaults outside the time period that matters for regulatory purposes, as described by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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For Profit or For Students?

This guest post is contributed by Mark Paul and Anastasia Wilson. Both are members of the class of 2011 at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

For-profit colleges are expanding enrollments at a rapid pace, but it is questionable whether these revenue-seeking universities give adequate consideration to students’ welfare, retention/graduation rates, and overall economic well-being alongside their bottom line profits.

A new post by Judith Scott-Clayton, a professor at Columbia Teachers College and new weekly contributor to the New York Times Economix blog, explores the merits of for-profit colleges, arguing that in many ways these schools are more efficient at seeking funding opportunities for students and adopting new teaching technologies. These schools procure more Federal dollars per student and employ more cost-saving technologies, in the classroom and online, than their non-profit public and private competitors.

However, the real question is not a matter of efficiency, but instead concerns students and the taxpayers funding Federal loans and grants consumed by for-profits. Are the relative merits of profit-oriented schools, including their comparative advantage in securing Federal funding, being used to improve the return on investment for students or for their shareholders? On the macro level, does the growth of for-profit higher education promote new risks in the economy, as drop-out and loan default rates continue to increase?

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Bad Data

By James Kwak

To make a vast generalization, we live in a society where quantitative data are becoming more and more important. Some of this is because of the vast increase in the availability of data, which is itself largely due to computers. Some is because of the vast increase in the capacity to process data, which is also largely due to computers. Think about Hans Rosling’s TED Talks, or the rise of sabermetrics (the “Moneyball” phenomenon) not only in baseball but in many other sports, or the importance of standardized testing scores in K-12 education, or Karl Rove’s usage of data mining to identify likely supporters, or the FiveThirtyEight revolution in electoral forecasting, or the quantification of the financial markets, or zillions of other examples. I believe one of my professors has written a book about this phenomenon.

But this comes with a problem. The problem is that we do not currently collect and scrub good enough data to support this recent fascination with numbers, and on top of that our brains are not wired to understand data. And if you have a lot riding on bad data that is poorly understood, then people will distort the data or find other ways to game the system to their advantage.

Readers of this blog will all be familiar with the phenomenon of rating subprime mortgage-backed securities and their structured offspring using data exclusively from a period of rising house prices — because those were the only data that were available. But the same issue crops up in many different stories covering different aspects of society.

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How Are the Kids? Unemployed, Underwater, and Sinking

This guest post is contributed by Mark Paul and Anastasia Wilson. Both are members of the class of 2011 at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

In some cultures asking how the kids are doing is a colloquial way of asking how the individual is faring, acknowledging that the vitality of the younger generation is a good metric for the well-being of society as a whole. In the United States, the state of the kids should be an important indicator. Young workers bear the significant burden of funding intergenerational transfer programs and maintaining the structure of payments that flow in the economy. Today, the kids’ outlook is almost as bleak as the housing market; they are unemployed, underwater on student debt, and out of luck from a reluctant political system.

Currently, even after a slight boost in jobs growth, unemployment for 18-24 year olds [correction: should be 18-19 year olds] stands at 24.7%. For 20-24 year olds, it hovers at 15.2%. These conservative estimates, using the Bureau of Labor Statistics U3 measure, do not reflect the number of marginally attached or discouraged young workers feeling the lag from a nearly moribund job market.

The U3 measure also does not count underemployment, yet with only 50% of B.A. holders able to find jobs requiring such a degree, underemployment rates are a telling index of the squeezing of the 18-30 year old Millennial generation. While it appears everyone is hurting since the financial collapse, young adults bear a disproportionate burden, constituting just 13.5% of the workforce while accounting for 26.4% of those unemployed. Even with good credentials, it is difficult for young people to find work and keep themselves afloat.

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Beyond Crazy

By James Kwak

Daniel Hamermesh points out a Wall Street Journal article on how colleges and universities are trying to increase accountability and productivity by measuring costs and benefits quantitatively. The “star” example is Texas A&M, which created a report showing a profit-and-loss summary for each professor or lecturer, where revenues are defined as external grants plus a share of tuition (if you teach one hundred students, you are credited with ten times as much revenues as someone who teaches ten students).

Let’s not argue about whether our colleges and universities are doing a good job. Let’s not even argue about whether we need more transparency and accountability in higher education. Assuming we do, this is just about the most idiotic way of doing it that I could imagine. No, wait; there’s no way I could have imagined something this stupid.

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Why the Education Gap?

By James Kwak

Probably the most important and intractable economic problem we face is not restarting the economy after the financial crisis, but the decades-old problem of stagnant wages for the lower and middle classes and the consequent massive increase in income inequality. This is something that Raghuram Rajan brings up in the first chapter of Fault Lines, and, like many people, he points the finger at education. Citing (like everyone else) Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, he writes (pp. 22-23),

“As agriculture gave way to manufacturing in the mid-1800s, the elementary school movement in the United States created the most highly educated population in the world. . . . The high school movement took off in the early part of the twentieth century and provided the flexible, trained workers who would staff America’s factories and offices. . . .

“Recent technological advances now require many workers to have a college degree to carry out their tasks. But the supply of college-educated workers has not kept pace with demand–indeed, the fraction of high school graduates in every age cohort has stopped rising, having fallen slightly since the 1970s.”

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