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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sunday, January 27, 2008
The Times of London - of all papers - had a good piece by Alexi Mostrous on Martin Amis's 80,000 pounds a year from the U of Manchester, in exchange for which he performs a "distinctly achievable" 28 hours of work - per year. What was good was that Mostrous did not make Amis's featherbedding into a metaphor for all UK professors. "His salary is more than 240 times that of an average full-time academic, who earns £38,933 a year for 59 hours a week." There it is - the real story for college teachers everywhere in the known world - paid not much for doing a lot.

The piece also explains why they'd pay this big salary for almost no effort: Amis isn't getting paid to work, but paid to endorse the Manchester university brand. His celebrity endorsement sends the brand value up, which sends applications up, which improves fee revenues, while also raising the university's status, which increases its power to hire high-powered professors, who will in turn contribute more publications to the university's list for the Research Assessment Exercise that apportions future funding - just as Amis's many publications will too. Their world rank might eventually go up. Then will then be able to hire more lecturers for 38k pounds (or 2500 pounds per course) to do the actual work.

In buying the Amis name, Manchester's administrators were behaving like completely rational businesspeople running a market-oriented business. Unfortunately, they're actually running a university. Once you go down this path, it's almost impossible to get off it. It's not obvious that anyone thinks there's a reason to have a university that isn't divided between stars and labor.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Friday, January 18, 2008
Inside Higher Ed has a report on university endowment growth last year. If you follow this topic the data won't surprise you. The rich got richer faster - Harvard and Yale, the two biggest, grew 23 percent and 28 percent respectively. The report includes a table showing that the smaller you are, the slower you grow, which of course is a familiar rule to those of us living in eagerly Darwinist America. It's worth noting that the lowest average growth figure is 13.6 percent, which is very high.

The report does not note three other important things.

First, endowment growth has been decoupled from the growth of the overall economy, of state budgets, and of general educational support for public universities. 13.6 percent is 2-4 times higher than average state increases, faculty salary increases, and the like. As I've noted before, the universities that educate 90 percent of higher ed students have little or no endowment income and are barely keeping ahead of inflation - and only in the last couple of years. Endowments index higher ed health about as well as Brad Pitt's income indexes the health of yours and mine.

Secondly, coverage of "creativity" in finding "alternative" investment strategies for university endowments lags behind coverage of the financial sector in general. There, creativity has become a facetious proxy word for blind faith in structured investment vehicles whose risk "beta" is obscure and which have been starting to blow up. Universities will not be getting these kinds of endowment returns this year or the next or the next. Some may lose money just like the pros at Merrill Lynch and Citigroup have managed to do.

Third, this is a good time to think about restoring stable, broad-based funding for majoritarian higher ed. This means taxes seen as a public investment, and not the transient miracles of the financial loaves and fishes that in any case are lavished not on the general followers but on the few.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Thursday, January 17, 2008
Everybody hates the incessantly rising costs of medical care. Commenting on the latest inflation numbers, the economist Dean Baker puts the cost of higher education in the same category.
The major forces pushing the rate of inflation higher continue to be medical care and education. Medical care costs rose by 0.3 percent in December. They have risen at a 5.1 percent annual rate over the last quarter and 5.2 percent for the last year. Education costs rose 0.5 percent in December, bringing the rate of increase over the last quarter to 7.7 percent, up from the 5.6 percent rate over the last year.
The fact that higher ed costs constantly rise faster than the rest of the consumer price index never gets a decent public explanation. It has hurt higher ed with the public even more than have the culture wars and TV coverage of the everyday beer binges and drug orgies on campuses everywhere. It also helps explain the fact that when states cut public higher ed, most people really don't care.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Business Week has published a piece with an excellent array of accessible statistics on the inequality boom in higher ed. It has a good first line too: "It's only fitting that Whitman College, Princeton's new student residence, is named for eBay (EBAY) CEO Meg Whitman, because it's a billionaire's mansion in the form of a dorm."

The "Ivy League plus" educates 1 percent of university students and now lives on a different financial planet from the rest of us. The implication is that higher ed no longer spreads prosperity, but simply reflects the widening class gaps in the United States, with Ivy-league college being just another luxury good solidifying and symbolizing elite status.

In the three decades after World War II, higher ed spread prosperity because it massively increased college enrollments at a fairly decent level of quality. Academic ambitions soared as enrollments did, and quality steadily improved for the broad middle classes. The BW piece points out that in contrast, the Ivies Plus have actually reduced their undergrad enrollments by about six percent over the last ten years.

At one point, the article asks, will the "benefits to society outweigh the damage to the public universities [the Ivies] are stripping of star professors, who tend to take their outside research money with them when they go?" The obvious answer is no: public benefits are mass benefits, not benefits to the top 1 percent.

The heads of some huge public research universities replied with a good description of their lives with continuous public funding cuts, and an eloquent appeal for proper public funding.

Let's hope this kind of letter starts to work better now than it has over the last twenty-five yers. If the public research universities don't get the public funding they need, most will become regional schools for students tracked into 2nd, 3rd, and 4th-rung salaries, while both economic and research productivity decline for the country as a whole.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Monday, January 7, 2008
The American Association of Medical Colleges has published a study on "Diversity of U.S. Medical Students by Family Income" which shows that the majority of med students come from the top fifth of the population by family income. In addition, this number is actually growing, in spite of much official concern. The report concludes this way:
A real concern is a possible increase in
the systemic skewing toward children
of upper-income families. From 2000,
when 50.8 percent of matriculants
came from the top quintile, to 2005,
when 55.2 percent came from that
quintile, there may be the beginning
of an undesirable trend. As reported
elsewhere,6 the debt incurred by
medical students continues to increase
with every passing year; 2007 graduates
reported a median educational
debt of $140,000. With debt
increasing much more rapidly than
physician incomes, a continued
increase in the fifth quintile
percentage would be a warning that
medical education is becoming
increasingly out of reach for applicants
of modest means.
This is not good. But medical schools are in fact doing better than very selective colleges, which is not good either.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Saturday, January 5, 2008
No group helps itself by always favoring its fortunate few - or by using them as the index of its condition.

College language and literature departments are a case in point. The Modern Languages Association devoted some discussion at its convention this year to the plight of the adjunct faculty member. When the plight of adjuncts initially surfaced ten or fifteen years ago, they were considered an unfortunately minority - "freeway flyers" on their way to something better later on. By the middle of this decade, faculty began to realize that adjuncts had become a majority. Inside Higher Ed covers some of the statistics the MLA panel presented. Overall, well over half, and perhaps as many as two-third of higher education instructors are temporary and/or untenurable.

Education hasn't abolished tenure: it's just downsized it and hollowed it out. This degrades tenure into a minority privilege. It makes it easier for society to ignore the knowledge that comes from those who have it, and to discredit their ideas as the fruit of a pampered elite.

In fact, there is a direct correlation between reducing faculty security and reducing quality of instruction. One measure is graduation rates: According to a Chronicle of Higher Education summary (October 27, 2006) of a study by Daniel Jacoby, "colleges where nearly 80 percent of the instructors worked part time had graduation rates of only about 20 percent. As the proportion of instructors who worked part time declined, graduate rates rose."

There are two crises here. The first is that literary and cultural study is being slowly and steadily unravelled. It can no longer reproduce itself. It is losing the working conditions that allow the research that would help a world riven by cultural crises of every possible kind.

The second is the quality of the education received by the vast majority of the public. We are reducing it in the period when higher ed is supposed to be the foundation of prosperity and even survival. Why?

The MLA should declare a professional emergency and start creating concrete programs for reversing this 35-year-old decline.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Thursday, January 3, 2008
It's a question of numbers. All sorts of great people are part of the Duke community - no disrespect to them - but Duke's annual enrollment is a bit under 13,000 total, about half of whom are undergraduates.

If you are interested in putting those numbers in perspective, this article about selective college admissions is a good place to start. The authors looked at the country's "top" 146 schools, defined as those that are "most" or "highly" competitive in their admissions. There core finding was this:
74 percent of the students at the top 146 highly selective colleges came from families in the top quarter of the SES scale (as measured by combining family income and the education and occupations of the parents), just 3 percent came from the bottom SES quartile, and roughly 10 percent came from the bottom half of the SES scale.
This news shocked a lot of people when it was announced in 2003. It means that the great majority of the college-age population never goes near a highly selective college. It means that the country's "good schools" don't serve American society so much as they serve the top slice of it. It means that the people who could benefit the most from college - who don't have a parent who went to college (or finished high school), or who have low family incomes - are the least likely to get the most intensive college instruction (small classes with senior faculty as happens most often in the wealthy privates).

I have some experience on this last point. I went to Reed College in the late 1970s, where my largest class, a required organic chemistry course, had 40 students. My first job was at Rice University, where the largest course I taught was a British lit survey that had, again, 40 students. My second job was and is at UC Santa Barbara, where every year I teach 200-300 students in Detective Fiction and/or Global California - each. A UCSB English major has a senior seminar with 15 students - once in his or her college career. Many UC departments - at Santa Barbara and elsewhere - offer no courses that small, especially after the latest round of state funding cuts in the early 2000s. I regularly write letters of recommendation from students whom I have never met personally because they took one of my lecture courses, but who feel somehow like they know me better than any other of their professors. And UCSB is a very good public university with a faculty and administration that is trying very hard, day and day out, to deliver a high-quality undergraduate education.

The vast majority of American college students attend what we can call "factory schools" - the staff and students care a lot, and yet they all work under the conditions of mass production. Under the past 20-30 years of quasi-austerity for public higher education, everyone has shifted when they can towards factory-style savings, including standardized material, mechanized grading, and temporary faculty that teach more for less. 70 percent of college courses are taught by non-permanent instructors, which saves money and reduces quality at the same time.

But let's get clearer about the size of this "vast majority." The 2003 study notes that fewer than 10 percent of college students attend one of the most selective 146 schools. 90 percent go somewhere else. And only a handful of the 146 are actually "elite" schools like Duke: the 146 are those that accept fewer than half of their applicants, and includes students who were in the top 35 percent of their high school classes. For some perspective, remember that UC campuses limit their intake to the top 15 percent or so of high school classes. Cal State takes around the top 35%, so on this count (though not on others), Cal State resembles the very good colleges in the 146. In 2006, it enrolled 417,000 students. Since 1961, it has produced 2 million graduates. The top 146 may be selective, but they are not elite.

Each year, 1.2 million students are enrolled in 4 year colleges of all types nationwide. About 900,000 of those are in colleges that are essentially non-selective. That means that 3/4 of all college students exist outside the selection system. 3/4 of all college students study and graduate with no contact with schools like Duke and Stanford or, equally, with UC and Cal State Dominguez Hills. (Three UC campuses are in one selectivity list's top-20; two are above Duke, which comes in at 14. This whole ranking business, as an index of educational experience and output, is a crock.) Each year, Duke teaches 0.5 percent of all 4-year college students. It teaches about 3.5% of each year's students at the 146 most selective (about 170,000).

If your educational world consists entirely of highly selective colleges, or top-50 or top-25 schools, Duke matters - somewhat. If you think about the college population as a whole, Duke is a speck on the horizon, one tree in the forest. It hardly matters at all.

Things have only gotten worse since 2003: see a new study of Pell Grants that shows the same pattern of selective schools serving the already-affluent. Meanwhile, we distract ourselves with Harvard's tuition forgiveness program, Stanford's latest billion-dollar fundraising drive, or Duke's previously free iPods for new students.

In this context, the fixation on three falsely-indicted student athletes at one elite college is a case of terminal narcissism that illustrates why this country is having so much trouble addressing its basic problems.