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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Book Review: Hope Against Hope by Sarah Carr

A couple of months ago, I tweeted an inquiry to find out who was doing thoughtful, critical research on the transformations in education taking place in New Orleans.  After reading Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine and getting a better picture of the grander aims some people have for New Orleans as a "great experiment," I wanted to gain insights into the lived experiences of parents and children going through it.

As usual, Twitter was incredibly helpful: multiple sources directed me to the work of Adrienne Dixson and Sarah Carr.  After reading some of their work, I immediately invited them to participate in Ed Talks Wisconsin, and the Educational Policy Studies conference that followed it.

I then began carving out time each evening to work my way through Sarah's new book Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America's Children.  After two nights, I found myself genuinely looking forward to reading more, rushing through my evening activities to get back to the book. This is a rare experience for me; I found Carr's writing at least as engrossing as Rebecca Skloot's and Jason DeParle's, and think that's high praise.

There are many distinctive features of Hope Against Hope and some of them are clearly attributable to Carr's experiences as a Spencer Foundation-supported fellow and part of the Hechinger Institute collective. Her writing on school choice is well-informed by academic research on all sides and she clearly sampled her cases of schools, teachers, and families to provide substantial opportunity for both proponents and opponents of school choice--and those caught in the middle--to share their stories.  Carr is also comfortable with conflict and tension; the arc of her narratives lead us to no easy conclusions and much uncertainty about placing any normative judgements on what's "right" or "wrong" about school choice.

That attribute proved most helpful to me.  After reading the book and listening to Carr speak about it on a panel moderated by Gloria Ladson-Billings, and having a rich discussion with my colleague Michael Fultz, I found myself rethinking the way in which Progressives, myself included, talk about the choices made by African-Americans in contexts like New Orleans. In a nutshell, until reading Carr, my arguments gave Black families very little agency and White public school proponents too little responsibility.  Essentially, knowing the ways in which market-based regimes were capitalizing on the inequities in the public school system to promote alternative, distinctly non-public, non-democratic solutions, solutions that I strongly suspect will worsen the conditions of Black schooling over time, I wanted everyone to flat out reject them.  Engaging in school choice was tantamount to endorsing the work of the neoliberal project, and thus should be avoided.

What the book makes clear is that this is a bit much to expect, and is even inappropriate because it manages to romanticize a public school system that is undeserving of such treatment. While I reject the idea that the public schools are "broken" or "failing" I also reject the idea that they are achieving their mission at this point, especially for marginalized families and students.  I've come to think that it's not only idealistic and naive but also arrogant for me, a wealthy, well-educated White woman, to demand that anyone persist in that system while we work to improve it.  We can wish they would, we can beg and plead, we can explain the long-term consequences of moving outside it in the near term, but we denigrate the decisions of Black and Latino families to seek school choice right now at our peril.  Not only will we perpetuate the worst parts of the public system, but we will lose valuable allies and voters.

Hope Against Hope helped me understand the depth of the rut in which we're stuck.  The school choice options provided by schools like KIPP are clearly stratified, intended for some peoples' children and not others.  It seems highly unlikely that the leaders of KIPP schools will send their own kids to them.  That's not to put down the hard work of the KIPP teachers-- boy are they impressive, and how angry was I to read about how exploited and overworked they are!  Why are we burning out these people, instead of building their capacity for long-term good.  But no matter how good they are, the way they run schools, teaching conformity and obedience, will never be the way that middle and upper-class children are schooled. It's thus no more equitable an option than our current system, and with its undemocratic managerial practices, ultimately a worse one.

On the other hand, the public schools, while full of amazing hard-working teachers and staff who give their everything to kids, are hard-pressed to bring their best practices to scale.  Carr's portrait of a public school principal is heart-breaking.  The only way in which she fails is in her efforts to garner more financial support. That's obviously not a personal failure but one facilitated by the Progressives, who haven't engaged in systematic developments of strategy and narratives in any way akin to what the Right has achieved. As Mike Apple reminds us, we simply must begin doing this. It's already practically too late.

In her writing, Carr strikes me as incredibly balanced. I honestly wasn't sure where she stood politically on school choice until I heard her speak at Madison.  There, she made some beautiful statements about the grey spaces in the debate that will stay with me for a long time. Corporations are occupying spaces meant for teachers and parents in education conversations, but teachers and parents must not only join but find clear things to demand.  She noted that the narrative of "ceaseless unending change" is allowing charter schools to try whatever they see fit with Black children.  Where is "change" in the public school narrative?

These are important questions, and I urge you to pick up this book and engage.  You can also check out Carr with Barbara Miner and Gloria Ladson-Billings in Ed Talks here:

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How Sticker Shock Happens

A colleague who is skeptical of my argument that students and families are susceptible to sticker shock, and that this particularly affects the choices of those without financial strength, raising a good question: If these students and families don't know about financial aid (or changes in financial aid), why would they know about institutional sticker price (or changes in institutional stick price)?

The answer appeared during a trip I took on the New York City subway today. Look at this ad and you tell me-- isn't the message quite clear?  If this is the number you see as you stare at subways ads for an hour commute to work, don't you think it will sink in?  With so many ads all the time telling the buyer "Trust us, big discount! Just file papers!" why would anyone believe another one, let alone one that comes with a long complex set of forms.

It's a mistake to focus merely on the question of whether a net price intervention can move the dial a bit, helping some students overcome sticker shock. That's just a tiny chip at the iceberg. Instead, consider the massive iceberg we're created, allowing sticker prize to escalate, and begin to melt it.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Cautions for Chancellor Blank

It seems UW-Madison's system of shared governance may be a new act for Chancellor Rebecca Blank to learn.  An interview conducted with journalists today shows her on the record weighing in on both tuition strategies and the composition of the student body.

A word to the wise:  This year the University Committee charged two committees to work on these exact issues.  The tuition committee has been meeting and working hard all year long -- hiking out-of-state tuition and differentiating tuition further by school or college are strategies that come with significant potential consequences.  Reciprocity with Minnesota is costing the university a great deal of money and ending it should not be dismissed out of hand.  Regardless, these are not choices made simply by the chancellor, but by the shared governance system.  In addition, the Committee on Undergraduate Recruitment, Admissions, and Financial Aid was tasked with developing a profile of the ideal freshman class and working on ways to achieve it.  Chancellor Blank does not decide where students "should" come from-- we all do.

Hopefully these are just initial missteps on her part. Hopefully the next time she is asked about these things, she'll inform reporters that it's impossible at this stage to say what will come next, since she hasn't spent time on campus in decades.  And hopefully she will schedule a "telebriefing" with shared governance groups soon, seeing as how the one with reporters is now over.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What Have We Done to the Talented Poor?

Sunday's New York Times carried a front page story on a crisis in American higher education. I think that's excellent, and I'm thrilled for Caroline Hoxby and Chris Avery, whose research is featured. These economists managed to draw national attention to a major problem-- despite decades of public and private investment, barely 1 in 10 children from low-income families earns a bachelor's degree. And this isn't because they aren't smart, or aren't taking college admissions exams-- plenty of them taking many of the right steps towards college.  But they are not ending up there.

Hoxby and Avery begin to help us understand why by evaluating the merits of several urban legends, two of which are repeated by seemingly every elite college admissions officer in the country:

(1) "We don't have more Pell recipients on campus because there are simply too few students from low-income families academically qualified to get in here."  In other words, bright poor kids just don't exist in large numbers.

(2) "We don't have more Pell recipients on campus because every qualified student from a low-income family is already taken by another great college." This is just a twist on the first claim.

As I've long suspected, and have argued at my own institution for many years, the data prove both of these statements wrong.  First, there are plenty of very bright students from low-income families graduating from high school.  In fact, very high-achieving, high-income students only outnumber high-achieving, low-income students by 2.5:1.  According to the authors, "there are at least 25,000 and probably something like 35,000 low-income high achievers in the U.S."  Second, many of these amazing students aren't attending any great college. In fact, they aren't even applying.

So there's the main punchline of their new paper: high-ability low-income students do exist, and they aren't in college because they haven't applied.

Moving on from there, Hoxby and Avery stroll onto shakier ground.  The title of the New York Times article  their hypothesis about why these students aren't applying to top colleges:  "Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor."   The authors  suggest that problem resides with admissions officers who aren't using appropriate methods to recruit these students.  They go through many analyses to show why this is likely a problem, and their arguments are compelling.  Every enrollment manager needs to consider them.

But this is hardly a full accounting of every possible explanation.  I'd like to offer this headline instead: "Better Colleges Charge a Lot of Money and Scare Off the Talented Poor."

Everyone knows that a top college comes with a high sticker price.  Hoxby and Avery dismiss this by noting that the net price is often lower at top colleges because they also provide more financial aid.  But assuming that net price matters more than sticker price is a major assumption; it is guided by economic theory but rarely ever tested.  My own work suggests that one reason it may not bear out in practice is that responding to sticker price, rather than net price, is not merely a reflection of information asymmetries (e.g. lower-income families are less likely to know about the availability of financial aid), but also a reflection of differences in the extent to which families trust the major social institutions to actually help them.

Hoxby and Avery do not acknowledge this.  They frame the decision not to attend a top college as  irrational, writing that "added to the puzzle is the fact that very selective institutions not only offer students much richer instructional, extracurricular, and other resources, they also offer high-achieving, low-income students so much financial aid that the students would often pay less to attend a selective institution than the far less selective or nonselective post-secondary institutions that most of them do attend....[the students'] choices are odd because although the private match colleges might offer fewer scholarships that are explicitly merit-based, they offer much more generous need-based aid so that the student would pay less to attend and would enjoy substantially more resources. Furthermore, it is almost never sensible for a low-income student to apply to a single private, selective college: he may be able to use competing aid offers to improve the aid package he gets from his most preferred college."  Clearly, if only students from low-income families used the net price calculator, they'd opt to apply-- right?  How do we know this?

Hoxby and Avery also dismiss the idea that sticker shock explains the lack of low-income students at expensive colleges because they observe few income differences in the behaviors of college applicants.  As in other studies, among students who apply to college, low and high income students behave similarly.

So what? This simply means that the effects of sticker shock may affect the application decision but not the enrollment decision, and this makes utter sense.  Trust in schools plays a major role in families' educational decisions.  The fact that over the last 30 years the sticker price at most top colleges and universities has skyrocketed, rising more rapidly than inflation, and making headlines, leaves little reason for people with little financial strength to trust in them.  Moreover, those sticker prices rise even after their kids enroll, their financial aid packages change from year to year, the FAFSA must be refiled again and again, and grants are often replaced with loans once a school has lured the student in the door.  Why would anyone trust these places?  Why would smart students who've watched their families suffer in an exceedingly wealthy society like this one trust the system to give them the money required to make attendance at an elite college possible?  Especially when they won't be "shown the money" until after they have applied, been accepted, and are on the brink of enrollment?  Furthermore, we have the gall to expect them not only to trust these schools but to believe that it's possible to negotiate with them?  The act of applying is an act of trust and faith in what's widely understood to be a highly rigged system, so looking at the behaviors of applicants post-application makes little sense.

The Hoxby and Avery view of the world is pervasive among researchers, and leads many economists to suggest that raising tuition is no big deal if you can simply "hold students harmless" with financial aid. We suffered through a regime of that leadership here at UW-Madison several years ago, and while many departments are enjoying the extra revenue from the tuition, the representation of first generation students on campus is falling.  None of our institutional reports examines the impacts of our tuition hikes on applicant behavior.  By solely comparing our figures to college applicants, or worse yet enrolled students, you can convince yourself that tuition hikes do no harm. But when you see such clear evidence that talented poor students stay out of the applicant pool, you really have to wonder.  Do they simply not know that your college exists, or how to apply?  Or might they actually believe that they cannot afford it?

They aren't wrong to feel this way. Let's take the case of UW-Madison, where most professors and students on campus suggest that our price is still affordable because we distribute financial aid.  Consider the net price of college attendance, taking the sticker price and subtracting all grant aid. (My team's research in Wisconsin reveals that students do not think of loans as financial aid, do not feel they are 'help' and endure quite a bit of stress from them.):

My graduate student Robert Kelchen produced these figures for the 3,487 first-time, full-time, degree-seeking freshmen who are in-state students. The first thing to note that we can only calculate net price  for the 1,983 students receiving Title IV aid. This means that just under half of all in-state Madison freshmen do not file the FAFSA.  Is that because they aren't qualified for aid, or because they do not know they can or should? Second, look at the net price faced by students according to their family income:

$0-$30k:          $6,363 (n=212)
$30L-$48k:    $10,098 (n=232)
$48K-$75k:    $15,286 (n=406)
$75-$110k:     $19,482 (n=542)
$110+k:          $20,442 (n=591)

Ok, so now you look at these numbers and think, hmm. Is $6,363 a good deal for a year of college?
Well, let's consider that relative to their family income. Here is the cost burden relative to the midpoint income in each bracket:

0-30k:  42%
30-48k: 26%
48-75k: 25%
75-110k: 21%
110+k: 18% or less

There you have it.  At UW-Madison we expect the poorest families to contribute far more of their family income to attend college than we expect from the richest families.  Yes, the poorest folks get more aid, but it's far from proportional to their need.  Why would we expect them to buy into such a system?

Researchers, and especially economists, need to get out in the world and talk to real families and students who do not enjoy the benefits of tenure and stable incomes. Only 16% of parents nationwide will ignore the cost of tuition when helping their kids choose a college, according to a new survey, and I'm betting this is even less common among poorer families. The survey also shows that one in five parents refuses to take on any debt for their kids to go to college, and among families earning less than $3,000 a month, 25% aren't sure if they'd take on any debt, and only 28% are willing to borrow $20,000 or more. Barely one in five of these poor families think it's reasonable for their child to accumulate even $20,000 in debt over four years.

Yes, there is a fair bit of financial aid out there, but it increasingly comes in the form of loans or scholarships with strings attached which can be easily lost, creating financial instability.   An alternative interpretation of Avery and Hoxby's results is that rather than taking a chance on expensive institutions they can't trust, many high ability low-income students are revealing a preference for lower-priced institutions.  They might occasionally apply to one pricey dream school, but it's more likely reflecting a quick momentary aspiration, rather than an actual plan.   They live in the 21st century where affordability is an indicator of quality, not the 1980s where the pricier the college or restaurant, the better it must be.  They know they are living proof that the nation isn't a meritocracy; they see their families work hard every day and get nowhere.  Ignoring their savvy and discounting it as irrational, providing them with net price calculators rather than investing in high-quality free public options-- well, it's actually sort of insulting.  It's time to consider the possibility that getting smart striving young people in search of upward mobility to apply to and attend good colleges will require transforming our system to focus public investments on ensuring real access and opportunity for all Americans, rather than subsidizing the choices of the middle class.  The current system of voucher-provided financial aid is now decades old and according to this study, it may be failing. It's time to consider a restart.

Note: I thank Zakiya Smith for a helpful clarifying Twitter conversation that led to some revision.

Postscript.  As it turns out, Hoxby and Sarah Turner have been conducting a very important randomized trial on the effectiveness of several intervention strategies aimed at helping more talented poor students enroll in college, and I've finally gotten a look at the forthcoming results.  They show that a combination of better information about college graduation rates, information on the net price of various colleges, and fee waivers for applications is effective at boosting application and enrollment rates of the talented poor substantially. Moreover, their strategy is cheap!  This is wonderful news. But what does it tell us about the importance of sticker shock-- the topic of this blog? Unfortunately, not much.  In this case, the intervention most clearly aimed at addressing sticker shock is a net price calculator.  That sort of intervention assumes that the "problem" of sticker shock is mainly informational.  As I said above, I think that the issue of sticker shock involves more than information, it also involves trust.   Being told that a college is likely to give you aid is not the same thing as getting the aid.  In their trial, the authors find that the impacts of the net price calculator are significant but not as important as the other interventions.  Again, it would be wrong to interpret this to mean that sticker shock is unimportant, since this is not a test of sticker shock.  It is a test of a net price calculator.  In contrast, the fee waiver information they provide is real money, on the table, with a high probability of receipt. They find that this has larger effects than the net price calculator, and I think that supports the idea that a real concern about money actually being available is inhibiting the actions of these talented poor students.  For sure, it's not the only factor affecting their behavior, but it's worth attending to since even with this entire package of Hoxby/Turner interventions, a substantial fraction of the income gap in college behaviors remains among talented students.  Moreover, a large income gap persists among less-talented, but nonetheless very important, students who aim to attend and graduate from college.

On Process

Paul Fanlund's column today on the process through which Rebecca Blank was selected as chancellor raises some very important questions.  These strike me as the sorts of questions that one should ask regardless of whether or not they agree with the choice of Blank.  After all, these process issues go to the heart of how we select a chancellor at a shared governance institution.

1. How are we to know whom the campus "unanimously" supports?

The current practice is that the process of official input from shared governance bodies ends when the search and screen committee names its four finalists.

When that committee meets with the Regents special committee, it is to provide input on what people on campus said about all of the candidates.  At no point in the Blank search did the search and screen committee have the opportunity to tell the Regent committee whom the campus "unanimously" chose. Moreover, the search and screen committee did not have a clear selection of a candidate-- there was widespread disagreement.

This should be changed to allow the shared governance search and screen the chance to officially vote on a candidate after campus visits, just as they do when hiring a faculty member.  At the very least, that official vote could be conveyed to the Regents.

2. Why is the campus asked to write in with their comments about candidates if there is no official process through which that information is compiled and shared?

Comments were received through 5 pm Thursday evening. The shared governance committee met with the Regents Friday morning, and the decision was made that same day.  What was done with all of those submitted emails in the meantime? Were they counted?  Did they reflect "unanimous" support from campus groups?

This has the potential to greatly reduce campus involvement in the process.  There should be a transparent process through which feedback is collected and the information systematically made available to decision-makers well before the decision is made.

3. Which campus groups are prioritized in the selection of a chancellor?

Fanlund's article says that Blank was unanimously supported "by the various campus constituencies that include campus deans, the University Committee, which is the executive committee of the Faculty Senate, as well as affiliated entities such as the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and the Wisconsin Alumni Association."

What about the Associated Students of Madison?  Academic Staff? These are two of the three shared governance bodies and yet are not mentioned, while WARF and WAA, not part of shared governance, are.  Who are Fanlund's "not for attribution sources" and what does this set of priorities reflect?

The shared governance bodies should have clear priority in this effort.

4.  Is it appropriate for the shared governance Search and Screen Committee to be forbidden by the search firm from exploring the candidate's background (aka conducting "due diligence") other than through their written materials?  Why does that committee's last vote come without full information?

Again, this is a recipe for disaster. It should not be allowed in future searches. Frankly, the search firm should not be allowed to do anything more than recruit candidates.  Members should not attend interviews or create rules for a shared governance committee.

Finally, as someone who appreciates empirical evidence, I have just two last remarks.  I am struck by the fact that Fanlund opens his article by noting that Blank met with the Regents "without seeming to survey eyes around the room to gauge what interviewers wanted to hear" and finished 20 minutes early, and yet was judged to be an "effective listener.""Her ability to communicate" was judged of key importance.  How is this possible?  Not only do these observations stand at odds with the characteristics of good listeners, but many people, including Professor Chad Goldberg, student committees, and I all observed a pattern of not listening and not answering questions in a straightforward manner.  Since we all entered the process very excited to have a liberal social scientist become chancellor, it seems unlikely that we ignored strong communication skills. How can we make sense of this?

In a similar vein, what information did the Regents use to conclude that Blank was comfortable with shared governance?  The only available statements from shared governance members indicate significant concerns with her interactions with those members.  What assessment protocol did they use to determine this was incorrect?

Given that, as Fanlund notes, "there seemed to be much focus during this process on not repeating what was now regarded as a mistake in having hired Martin in 2008" and given that the known mistake was in the Regents' selection of Biddy Martin over Rebecca Blank (the campus pick)-- and that fast forward several years it seems we may be here yet again, with Rebecca Blank chosen over Michael Schill (whom I'm told by my 'sources' was the pick of many, many people on the search & screen, and the students), well...this is all quite odd.  What's also amazing is the amount of attention the media has devoted to covering the outcome of the search, rather than doing the kind of investigative reporting needed to ensure that major social institutions are accountable and responsive to their publics.  I imagine that when you know no one will ask questions, it's awfully easy to act as if you'll never have to provide answers.

UFAS Reaction to Appointment of Rebecca Blank as Chancellor

This post is by Chad Goldberg, Professor of Sociology at UW-Madison and Vice President of United Faculty and Staff, the campus unit of the American Federation of Teachers. As a card-carrying member, I am proud to provide this outlet to Chad to share his thoughts.

Chad and Rebecca meet, 2013

Monday, March 18, 2013

Welcome, Chancellor Rebecca Blank

This blog is called the Education Optimists and so it's with great hope and the strong desire to be pleasantly surprised that I am responding to the announcement that Dr. Rebecca Blank is the next chancellor of UW-Madison.

First, the good news.  With Blank at the helm, we can expect that the thoughtful scholars of the Institute for Research on Poverty and the La Follette School of Public Affairs will play an important role in the direction of our institution in coming years.  I suspect policy formation on affordability and tuition will be guided by Bob Haveman, Chris Taber, and Karl Scholz, efforts on diversity and access will be led by Bobbi Wolfe, and our interactions with social policies throughout the state will be shaped by Tim Smeeding. These labor economists are experts in their field, and will undoubtedly constitute a vocal cabinet for Blank.  

Second, the Social Sciences will flourish under Blank's direction. As a sociologist, that's nice to know.

Third, I expect Blank will surprise me by being an entirely different leader than Biddy Martin, stunning us all with her commitments to widening access to UW-Madison and keeping it affordable.  Her expertise is in poverty studies, and so I hope that under her policies, we will see far more students from low-income Wisconsin families take their places in our classrooms.   Twenty percent or more of our student body should receive Pell Grants, and the percent of students from first generation families must begin to rise.  If she can accomplish this, I will loudly applaud.

So- I'm pleased as punch to be putting the word Chancellor next to Rebecca Blank's name, especially given that the apparent alternative was Kim Wilcox.  I suspect Blank was the campus "pick," if that matters.  As for me, I hope that some day I will get to work with Michael Schill-- and at minimum I won't soon forget how sincerely he tried to serve Wisconsin by taking the helm. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to my coming sabbatical and the next many years freed from campus service;  with so many existing campus friends and experts in the relevant areas, Dr. Blank is well-equipped to decide how to achieve her goals. Godspeed, and On Wisconsin!

Friday, March 15, 2013

What's the Story? All Women Out of the Eau-Claire Search

This is an important week for UW System and not only because of the UW-Madison chancellor search but also because the search for a new chancellor of Eau-Claire has also been wrapped up. The media indicates an announcement naming that new leader will come Monday.

With sincerest apologies to our sister school, I've been focusing on Madison while apparently fires are burning over at Eau-Claire.  Contrary to the media account just referenced,  5 candidates were not under consideration this week-- instead, there were just 2.  All three female candidates for chancellor of UW-Eau Claire pulled out of the search. 

Where there's smoke like that, there's usual fire.  Why in the world did these three women withdraw their applications?

1. Pam Benoit, executive vice president and provost at Ohio University
2. Kathryn Cruz-Uribe, provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State University, Monterey Bay
3. Anne E. Huot, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the College at Brockport, State University of New York

Cruz-Uribe withdrew February 23, Huot on March 10, and Benoit on March 11.  The Regents met to pick the finalist on March 13.  They had to choose between:

4. Kent Neely, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Western Oregon University
5. James C. Schmidt, vice president for university advancement and executive director of the WSU Foundation Board of Trustees at Winona State University.

The media reports offer little explanation for the withdrawals. All I can find is that Cruz-Uribe went on to be named chancellor at the Indiana University East campus.

Benoit interviewed at Eau Claire on March 3-5.  She told the media that women are “significantly underrepresented” in the ranks of public university presidents, which is one of the reasons why she is exploring the possibility of becoming chancellor.  A few days later, she withdrew her name from consideration.

What else do you know? Do share.

UW-Madison Students Weigh in on Chancellor Candidates

Two letters from students are circulating on campus this morning. Here they are.

The Real Problem with the College Scorecard

There is an ongoing and reasonably interesting debate about the Obama Administration's College Scorecard that I'd like to weigh in on, in order to draw out what's gone unsaid.

On one side of the debate are a set of elite college presidents who think the Scorecard's narrow focus on economic returns to the degree miss the mark; the college-going decision should be about more than getting a job. For example, Harvard President Drew Faust writes that "the focus in federal policy making and rhetoric on earnings data as the indicator of the value of higher education will further the growing perception that a college degree should be simply a ticket to a first job, rather than a passport to a lifetime of citizenship, opportunity, growth and change...Equating the value of education with the size of a first paycheck badly distorts broader principles and commitments essential to our society and our future."

On the other side are people like the Brookings Institution's Beth Akers, who argue that financial returns are critical to the assessment of whether college is worthwhile, especially for people without substantial family wealth, and that providing more information on economic returns is therefore important to influencing the college-going decision.

Both camps are partially right, in my view, and yet both are missing some critical points as well.

First, it is clear that college has multiple meanings and purposes for all students -- students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds seek access to a "lifetime of citizenship, opportunity, growth, and change" just as other students do.  They are not aiming merely at a "first paycheck" -- in fact, if we present them with information on returns from the first paycheck, we won't be showing much economic return at all, since the payback to a bachelor's degree accrues over a lifetime, with the real value often not readily apparent until one's 30s or even 40s.  The economic returns come mainly from job stability and retention, not the initial paychecks. 

But try telling that to an 18 year old who simply wants a better life for herself, and sees college as the way to do it.  The first step in that process, from her angle, is to get a degree that gets her employed.  The upward path to social mobility, wherein she is employed longer and more consistently, and also has the knowledge and desire to bring her own children into postsecondary education--that's far down the road.  And that's why Akers is right that this sort of information is valuable.

However, the main problem with the College Scorecard approach lies in its deceptively simple approach to the challenge.  Even though the people creating it probably know that it's just a teeny tiny part of the fix, its mention in the President's State of the Union and attention it is getting reinforces a common perception that the college cost problem is mainly informational.  Informational problems are fundamentally attributed to individual deficiencies rather than institutional or structural actions, and they are addressed in that manner.  The College Scorecard equips the "student-consumer" so that they can make a "rational choice" in the face of a rich competitive marketplace.   This framework is deeply problematic.  Education is not a good like a car or a home.  It means far more to people, and has transformative powers that other goods do not provide.   The fundamental problem is that colleges and universities have been given strong incentives to act like businesses instead of sites of education, and this is magnified by the Scorecard.

A college education is a social good that actualizes the potential of all who enjoy it.  I think President Obama knows this.  He knows that a community comprised of college-educated parents feels and acts differently than one with less education.  Given this, we cannot and should not address the college attainment problem in this country one person at a time by providing scorecards of information.  We need our leadership to insist on a national conversation about social priorities, and insist on approaches to education that are fundamentally democratic-- and therefore public--and are socially just.   We have to insist that a focus on equity is not only required but is more important than a focus on efficiency, since cost is not the only way to assess value, and when we say that it is, we prioritize efforts that keep the poor poor.

I am not naive-- the schooling system we have today reflects the state of our economic life, and the College Scorecard is merely a symptom of that status quo.  But with each policy decision comes a set of choices, and in his last term, President Obama has the opportunity to initiate important changes in our economic life by rejecting the notion that the advantages held by the 1% trickle down to the rest of us, that the consumerism which suits them so well serves our interests too, and that our college opportunities should be guided by the same approach that their families embrace.   Helping college opportunities achieve their potentially liberating ends requires leveraging governmental resources to pursue the provision of a free public education in which the value of college is clearly stated, provided by society to all of its membership.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

On What Matters: Blank vs. Schill

My email inbox has been filled today with notes from upset colleagues who seem to feel I've misjudged Rebecca Blank's capacity for leading UW-Madison.  They don't understand, I'm told, how I can overlook her clear talents, deep commitments to social justice, and great scholarship.

I don't think I am.  I don't doubt any of those things.  This isn't about whether I like her or think she can do the job. The question is for which candidate -- Michael Schill or Rebecca Blank-- do we have the best evidence of success at UW-Madison.

I'd like to lay out more data for your consideration.  These are the types of things that led to my assessment, and so I encourage you to look for yourself, and then provide your input by tonight! (The committee will vote in the morning). Write to:

The Badger Herald posed direct questions to the candidates. Here is how they responded.

Michael Schill:  "There is nothing inconsistent with being a great educational institution and socioeconomic diversity. One of the things I was most proud of from my days at UCLA was that I was part of a great public university that led the nation in the percentage of students with Pell grants. Accessibility need not come at the cost of either student or faculty quality or of diversity. Low tuition and generous financial aid are two strategies to maintain accessibility. Excellence in education and research can be funded through increased state support, aggressive corporate and government grantsmanship, tech transfer, and a turbo-charged effort to promote philanthropic contributions."

Rebecca Blank:  "Public universities in the United States have long provided both accessibility and excellence.   That said, the reduced state support for these institutions in recent decades has resulted in greater pressure for tuition increases.  UW faces these financial issues, as do almost all other big public universities.  Dealing with these issues and continuing to provide both excellence and access is one of the major challenges in front of a new chancellor.  There are several ways to deal with this, although none of these responses will fully alleviate the budget pressures that UW is currently facing.  First, UW needs to work hard at expanding its funding sources other than tuition and state funding.  While UW has been very successful in raising research dollars, I believe that it can do more in soliciting private donations to endowment.   The Chancellor has to be the leader in this effort.  Second, UW has to continue to make sure that children from low-income families in Wisconsin who are admitted to UW can afford to attend.   This means providing financial aid to these students, so that higher tuition doesn’t make UW unaffordable.   Third, the deans of UW’s different schools and colleges need to have the flexibility to attract an appropriate share of higher-tuition out-of-state students into their graduate, professional and undergraduate programs…and the ‘appropriate share’ should differ by school and by degree level."   

Commentary: Blank talks about equity and excellence as distinct, while Schill frames them as one and the same.  Blank talks about higher tuition and holding students harmless via financial aid (Biddy Martin's strategy), while Schill talks about "low tuition and generous financial aid."  Blank says we need to work on things "other than tuition and state funding" while Schill begins with a focus on "increased state support."  

Michael Schill:  "The University of Wisconsin, as well as students throughout the state, can derive important benefits from being part of a great system. Shared resources, economies of scale, and seamless transfer practices are just a few of the ways that a close relationship with the UW system can achieve a win-win situation for all. Some level of flexibility for the campuses in certain areas is important, particularly when there is a need for speed of action or when the circumstances, market situations, and/or issues facing a particular campus are idiosyncratic. On the whole, I think many of the flexibilities included in the recent biennial budget as well as the recommendations of the recent Special Task Force on UW Restructuring and Operational Flexibilities make a great deal of sense and will benefit all of the schools in the University. Based upon my experience at UCLA, I believe that the best way to make the relationship between the Legislature, the central university system, and the individual campuses productive is to develop relationships of trust and good will. UW-Madison has a particular advantage in this vein since the system is headquartered in Van Hise Hall, just a few hundred yards from Bascom Hall. I anticipate that if I ever had a problem that required central assistance I would just get myself out of my chair and take a walk over to the President’s office and work things out."

Rebecca Blank:  "Universities have certain unique organizational characteristics and I believe that it would be beneficial for the UW System to have greater flexibility in some key management decisions.   For instance, faculty and many staff compete in a national academic marketplace, and retaining them often requires salary flexibility that government pay systems are not designed to provide.  So I’m pleased that this discussion about administrative flexibility is ongoing within the state.  The University of Michigan, where I served as dean, has much greater autonomy and UM staff and faculty are not state employees, so these issues did not arise in the same way at that institution."

Commentary : It is not clear that Blank knows that Biddy Martin's efforts to gain "administrative flexibility" ended her tenure. Schill is evidently aware of it, and emphasizing the benefits of a close relationship with system.  Blank mentions that Michigan, where she has experience, is unlike Madison in important ways-- and she's right.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Rebecca Blank: Not Quite Right for UW-Madison Chancellor

As a social scientist engaged in poverty research, I wanted very much to like and welcome Rebecca Blank to campus. When the list was announced, I immediately expressed positive feelings-- she was well-liked the last time she came to campus. Her colleagues and friends adore her, and came out in droves to meet with her today. People whom I respect immensely, including Bobbi Wolfe, Bob Haveman, Chris Taber, Karl Scholz and Tim Smeeding, are very supportive of her. Should she come, she'd join them as economists and colleagues at the Institute for Research on Poverty, and undoubtedly help to grow that part of the university.

Unfortunately, given that my first priority is not my corner of campus but rather helping to ensure that Wisconsin's great public flagship university is led by someone who wants it to serve all of the people of Wisconsin, I cannot support the candidacy of this undoubtedly outstanding researcher and public servant.  I gave her the same litmus test I used with Mike Schill last week, and not only did she fail, but she failed in the same exact manner that Biddy Martin did several years ago.

Frankly, when it comes to higher education affordability, I can't tell these two women apart.

Here's how our conversation went:

SGR: "Hi, It's so nice to finally meet you! We have many friends and colleagues in common. I'm Sara Goldrick-Rab."

RB: "Nice to meet you too. Are you a professor here?"

SGR: "Yes, in Educational Policy and Sociology.  So, I know we have just a moment but I want to ask you about affordability."

RB: "Affordability? What kind, housing, or...?"

SGR: "Education. How to help students afford college.  When you were here several years ago, you expressed the opinion that our tuition at Madison was too low, and should be raised at least to be on par with our peers. I'm curious, since time has passed and you've been in Washington, how are you currently thinking about this issue?"

RB: "Well, it's not about tuition. That's the first thing-- we shouldn't talk about the sticker price. It doesn't matter. What we need to focus on is the redistribution-- we need to get the resources from the wealthy families and be sure that the poor ones pay a low price.  Sticker price doesn't matter at all."

SGR: "Oh. So you think our sticker price could be higher than it is now?"

RB: "Well, I don't know about Wisconsin. I have no idea what the situation is here, maybe having moderate in-state tuition is about right. But I'm an economist, and so I think about redistribution.  We can redistribute money and make college affordable. And we have to think about all of the tuition-- we should be charging what our peers do for out-of-state students, no less. And the Business school tuition, that should be high.  We can play with lots of kinds of tuition before dealing with the in-state one, but that all depends on what peoples' tolerance is."

SGR: "Hm. Do you think that strategy works? What's the evidence on that?"

RB: "Well, we see it in North Carolina, with the Carolina Covenant.  That's a very important symbolic policy, promising students they can afford it."

SGR: "Is it effective?"

RB: "Well, I think so. Maybe not in Wisconsin, I don't know. Well, thanks, I enjoyed meeting you!"

SGR: "You too."

I believe this conversation holds two lessons:

1. Blank did not do her homework.  She is unaware of the major debates around affordability and how it is achieved both nationally and locally. She has not taken the time to read about the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates or discussions about tuition caps.  She has not spent time googling to read about local politics.  She isn't up to speed.

2. On affordability, yes, Blank sounds like many economists (though not all).  Her conclusions are based evidence mainly from the late 1980s, when college tuition was much lower and the student composition was much less diverse. In fact there is no evidence that the Carolina Covenant (at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I suspect Blank is already a candidate for chancellor) has been effective (there's been just one, non-rigorous evaluation and UNC retains its reputation as a gated community).  Reasonable people disagree on the effectiveness of this redistribution approach-- it is far from a resolved debate, as she implies. Her rejection of "sticker shock" as an important consideration is out of step with the Obama Administration, which is taking it quite seriously.   And the latest evidence from Wisconsin and elsewhere suggests that program complexity, which is not easily resolved, is rendering the impacts of redistribution nearly meaningless--and just as importantly may be providing little incentive for colleges and universities to keep costs down.

These are precisely the issues on which I tangled with Biddy Martin.  Again, reasonable people can disagree on these issues, so what alarms me is that, like Biddy, Becky speaks with great confidence on this issue. Moreover, she went so far as to invoke her status and perspective as an economist, which for many people "settles" the debate (Biddy did the same by telling me she'd talked with Ron Ehrenberg, her friend the economist, and welcoming support from the Econ department in her debates with me). She responded like an expert, yet she obviously hasn't studied the issue. Why not simply admit that and note that it needs to be studied? Why not ask about how things are going here? In fact, four years after Martin's arrival and her initiative to raise tuition, the enrollment rates of first generation students and students of color are dropping, and we are shifting to an ever-elite student body.  While we can't pin that on our rising prices with certainty, we also can't reject the reasonableness of that hypothesis.

Moreover, since I was her conversational partner, and she isn't an expert, why didn't she ask what I thought?  That would have been an alternative, reasonable response.  But unlike Mike Schill, Rebecca Blank did not spend much time with her visitors today. She leaned slightly back with most, and rocked back and forth on her heels a bit. Her eye contact was limited, and each person moved on after about 90 seconds.  Much as I think it would be nice for the social sciences here to have her, I'm ready to move on too.  

With that, I am expressing great hope that Michael Schill will be the next chancellor of UW-Madison. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

March Madness: When Learning Time Meets Athletics

I like my son's public school. I really do.

He's in kindergarten this year. I find his school to be a nurturing environment with a solid focus on learning and a similar focus on community and respect for others. His school was recently recognized by the state for its overall academic achievement and for being in the top 10% of state Title I schools for achievement growth in math and reading.

But his school - and the entire school district - made a curious decision last Friday. As a result of the high school boys' basketball team making it into the state tournament, school was released early (just after lunch), eliminating about 150 minutes of academic time. Parents were given four days notice that this was going to happen.

I think it this was an attempt to encourage community pride. A note came home in my son's folder and an email was circulated encouraging families to support the high school athletes by attending the state championship game mid-afternoon on Friday. But it fell flat on me. And it actually deeply disappointed me. Maybe I'm just no fun.

Learning time is precious and it should be foregone sparingly. I don't find a state high school basketball game to be a convincing reason. I attribute this decision to the seldom questioned athletic culture, alive and well in Wisconsin and America, that seems to take precedence. Why don't we ever cancel classes in this way on Election Day (to allow students to observe the voting process and see their parents participate)? Something like that, for me, rises to a similar level of importance as class time.

Now, a sense of community is important, too. And athletics is part of that fabric. But, in this case, unlike Super Bowl parties or Packers games that take place during most folks' non-working hours and allow families and neighbors to come together and "support the team" (and drink beer and eat brats), I bet that few elementary school students and their families - especially with four days notice - took off a half day of work to attend a basketball game on a Friday afternoon in March. I know that my wife and I did not. We paid $15 extra to the after-school program to have my son for extra hours so we could work. For some less well-off families, this last-minute schedule change may have presented an unwelcome inconvenience and an unfair financial burden.

I think a more preferable decision might have been to encourage families who wished to or had older siblings enrolled in the high school to attend the game and to offer excused absences for their children.

Now, why are some state boys basketball tournament games even played during school hours, forcing the hand of school districts in this way? That's a question for the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association and its membership -- public and private high schools and middle schools across the Badger State.

Let's get our priorities straight, folks.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Enrollment Management at UW-Madison: What Story Do the Numbers Tell?

Working on some shared governance tasks this evening, and time with this data really got me thinking.

For the first time, probably in UW-Madison's history, we are enrolling more legacy students than first-generation students.  

Enrollment of Wisconsin residents is at an historic low, while enrollment of international students is at an historic high.

Enrollment is a function of applications, admit rates, and yield. Arguably, changes in policies around cost and campus climate (e.g. the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates-- see below) most often affect the yield. So let's look at the yield rates-- the percent of students who accept the admissions offer and choose to attend Madison.  They are quite stable for some groups, but declining for others.

By the numbers, of the 6,279 new freshmen who enrolled at UW-Madison in 2012:

1,119 are children of parents who attended UW-Madison
1,033 do not have a college-educated parent
   609 are not from the United States
   269  are Hispanic
   143  are African American
  101   are Southeast Asian
   51   are American Indian

Of note:

Biddy Martin became chancellor of Madison on June 5, 2008. Her Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, which increased campus tuition, began in 2009.  She explicitly targeted enrollment growth among first generation and international students.  She left the university in June 2011 but her enrollment policies remain intact to this day. What do these numbers have to say about her legacy?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Make College Free

It is long past time to make college free, and thankfully the Atlantic writer Jordan Weissman just laid out the case very nicely.

Jordan points out that the money invested in our financial aid system could instead be invested in appropriations to public colleges and universities to drive down costs.  Yes, aid to private colleges would end. Oh well!  Why do we pay for private colleges when we don't pay for private high schools? (Well, we are starting too but we should stop.)  And yes, we need to cover costs of attendance for the poorest students too and we can do that by charging very low tuition to rich kids to give to poor kids (for whom tuition is free)-- and that's a progressive tuition structure rather than this incredibly deceptive price discounting scheme we now have in place.

As I've been pointing out in talks around the country on the subject "When America Goes to College," our current system of affordability was developed at a time when the college-going population largely had advantaged parents who understood and had faith in the system, and when costs of attendance were much lower, and thus sticker shock wasn't so rampant.  That approach recognizes that colleges costs are a barrier to attendance but allows those costs of attendance to be determined by colleges and universities, with some input from states. Those costs of attendance are then discounted with financial aid and that aid is distributed directly to students, not to colleges.  Therefore, accessing aid requires substantial action and responsibility on part of the student.

That model makes several assumptions:

  • Equitable access to postsecondary education will be achieved via price discrimination and redistribution
  • Some students will pay more than others, and the extra money will go to needy students via financial aid
  • Needy students will respond to the discounted price –the lowered cost of attendance will make the benefits more evidently attractive
Well, those assumptions could be blown for many reasons and my research on the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study-- which will be documented in a forthcoming book--suggests that they are.

For example, discounting college costs with financial aid is far more complicated than discounting the price of a movie ticket with a student ID (a classic example of price discounting).  For one, you have to file a FAFSA to get the discount-- and until you do it, you have no idea what discount you'll get. For another, you have to trust the government and the school to give you the discount. And with all the mistreatment of low-income families in this country, why would they?

Another issue is that the discount itself has changed over time.  We moved from aid in the form of grants to aid in the form of loans, and those do not mean equal things to students or have equal effects.  In addition, we have witnessed a proliferation of grants and scholarships with a multitude of requirements (which can conflict in unproductive ways), and from an array of sources, such that students have no idea who's helping them go to college and why, or how long they can count on the support.  Aid shifts from year to year, seemingly without warning, and often declines unexpectedly. Students from poor families have little ability to smooth their consumption and adjust to these shocks, and this perpetuates the feeling that aid is untrustworthy.

Perhaps even more importantly, in our effort to ensure that the discount is well-targeted, we've create a monster of program complexity. An industry has grown in order to help students process the FAFSA and yet it's still not working.  The formula penalizes students for temporary improvements in their parents' income, even when they will not realize those gains (e.g. when dad finally gets a job after 5 years, it's not likely he can share that new money with you as he struggles to pay off bills, and yet you lose your Pell).  And it assumes monetary exchanges between family members that are based on a 2-parent household with middle-class norms-- e.g. parents provide money to kids and expect nothing in return.

What an absolute mess.

If we really wanted to make college affordable, we would direct all dollars towards providing one good affordable option for everyone.  We would focus less on choice and more on access to a real outcome- a degree. We wouldn't let aid flow to private or for-profit schools, and by funding public institutions we'd hold them accountable for keeping costs low and campus-climates reasonable so that everyone can fully participate in the experiences.

I thank people like Jordan for putting big bold ideas like free college on the table and making it possible to surface the real issue:  most Americans want college to be a privilege and not a right because they care more about "getting ahead" then creating an equitable society in which we live as a community.  To get ahead requires leaving someone else behind, and higher education has come to be a major way in which Americans work on doing just that.