Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Learning Priorities

Reading Simon Winchester's The Map that Changed the World (about which I'll be writing more when I've finished) this afternoon, I noticed an interesting passage about higher education in the England in the late eighteenth century. The book's hero is William Smith, a man of modest means who managed essentially to found the modern discipline of geology.

At the time Smith was born in 1769, it was often considered inappropriate for working-class people to pursue higher  education. Winchester cites this passage from an issue of The Grub-Street Journal at that time:
Nineteen in twenty of the species were designed by nature for trade and manufacture. To take them off to read books is the way to do them harm, to make them not wiser or better, but impertinent, troublesome, and factious.
Winchester goes on to explain that this "kind of thinking was rabidly to become outmoded during the eyars when Smith was growing up." (p. 23) The story of Smith's own success validates Winchester's claim, but even two centuries later, it is not entirely the case.

It may be common to think that working- and middle-class people are capable of higher education, but support for making it a reality has rapidly waned in recent decades. A generation of political leaders who benefited from the assumption that higher education is a public good -- so that most of them went to universities that were heavily subsidized -- have now pulled up the proverbial ladder, leaving a generation to shift for themselves.

Students protesting in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
describe the problem.
Pundits and politicians -- such as President Obama -- who have belatedly taken notice are placing the blame on higher education itself, rather than on the ecosystem in which public universities historically thrived. A case in point is the Boston Globe, whose May 20 editorial on the subject I have copied in its entirety below, because it is very difficult to find online. My own reply -- which was submitted but not yet published -- is copied below that.

Boston Globe editorial May 20, 2012
To help students choose wisely, colleges need standard price tag

HOW MUCH does college cost? To the surprise of many students and their families, that question is often hard to answer precisely. Information in college brochures and admissions letters comes swaddled in fine print and euphemisms, and it takes a crystal ball to translate student loan terms into the per-month payment graduates will eventually face.

As policymakers confront the rising cost of college, though, ensuring that students and families have clear and accurate information on costs ought to be an obvious first step. Right now, there is no standard way colleges report their price tags, something that would make comparison shopping easier. And virtually no colleges provide admitted students with an estimate of their future loan payments — a number many will ruefully know by heart as graduates.

The result is that there is far more disclosure for a $500 credit card statement than there is for a $200,000 college education. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has created a useful cost comparision tool on its website, but that’s not a substitute for thorough disclosure by colleges in advance.

The bureau has published a sample form that could serve as a template for a standard disclosure. President Obama also called for a “college scorecard” in his State of the Union address.

But it shouldn’t need to come to that. Higher education institutions can take the lead in creating a form that discloses how much students can actually expect to pay, and how much their monthly loan payments will total after they graduate. Since colleges already collect significant financial data from families, they ought to be able to provide customized information relatively easily. Some projections would necessarily be estimates — some students may take more than four years to graduate, for instance — but as long as colleges make projections based on the same criteria, the data still would allow for meaningful comparisons.

Armed with such information, students won’t necessarily choose the cheaper option. But for families that do want to consider the costs, comparisons ought to be less bewildering than they are now. And if having to publish their actual prices in black and white puts pressure on colleges to bring down tuition, so much the better.

LETTER in Response by James Hayes-Bohanan

Regarding your recent editorial about clarity in higher-education billing (To help students choose wisely, colleges need standard price tag, May 20), the suggestion itself is a good one, but the critique does not go far enough.

In Massachusetts public institutions, for example, most of the confusion arises from the way state funds are allocated. Public colleges and universities are not allowed to set tuition rates that reflect the true cost of instruction, because tuition levels are dictated centrally. This provides a fig leaf of price control, leaving the institutions to take responsibility for passing the real costs of education along to students.

A decade ago, Massachusetts trailed almost every other state in its support for public higher education. Since then, while demand for the excellent education provided by its 26 public colleges and universities has increased, that support has actually been reduced. The resulting financial burden on each student has nearly doubled at some schools, and nearly tripled at others.

Your editorial ends with a suggestion that clarity in billing would put pressure on colleges and universities to limit what they charge students. The clarity would be a welcome reform of course, but most institutions already feel that pressure intensely. In the case of public colleges and universities – in Massachusetts and nationally – true reform would bring back the social contract in which the public supports higher education in proportion to its value. Currently, too much of the cost is borne directly by students – a burden far greater than those borne by our current political leaders when they were young adults.

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