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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tuesday, March 26, 2013
(From The New Yorker April 1, 2013)

Chris here--followed by Jenna Joo below.

The current flurry of online legislation in Sacramento includes the following: (h/t Berkeley Faculty Association):

Assembly Bill 386 (Marc Levine, D-San Rafael) – Allows any student within the CSU System to take an online course on any other campus, with some restrictions.
Assembly Bill 387 (Levine) – Mandates 10% of courses at the three higher education segments be placed online.
Assembly Bill 1306 (Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita) – Would establishes a New University of California as the fourth higher education segment. The New University will provide no instruction, but shall issue college credit, baccalaureate and associate degrees to any person capable of passing examinations.
Senate Bill 520 (Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento ) – Directs the three higher education segments to identify the 50 most “bottlenecked” courses, creates a statewide pool of these classes, after a standardized review and approval process allows private vendors to offer these classes for credit.   
Senate Bill 547 (Marty Block, D-San Diego) - requires the 3 segments "to jointly develop and identify online courses that would be made available to students of each of the 3 segments for enrollment by the fall of 2014. The bill would require the online courses to be in areas defined as high demand transferable lower division courses under the Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum and to be deemed to meet the lower division transfer and degree requirements for the 3 segments."

ABs 386 and 387 force conversion to online. SB 1306 is the absurdity degree zero of online panacea hallucination: it creates a "New University of California" that must offer credentials but that may not offer instruction.  Unless this is the Senate's answer to Animal House, I don't get the joke.

SB 520 removes the creation and approval of some college and university courses from the segments' various faculty.  SB 547 requires an as yet undetermined number of courses to be offered online, but it appears as though the creation and the approval of these courses would remain with the faculty.  Unlike SB 520, SB 547 does not concoct an artificial market for MOOCs, but given UC online's small number of offerings, MOOCs would lead the charge of the content providers.

SB 547 would also affect the community colleges and Cal State campuses more than UC, which has fewer completely unavailable courses.  It  probably won't inspire the unified opposition that SB 520 has in the past two weeks, which promoted a strong UC Academic Senate leadership letter that attracted press coverage for its accusation of legislative complicity in forced privatization; the Berkeley Faculty Association's petition, which has so far attracted nearly 1500 signatures; talking points from UCSB's Faculty Association, among others.

UC Berkeley's conference, Learning Mode: Critical Issues in Online Education, took place as the state was processing the news (particularly Tamar Lewin's New York Times article) that the legislature might thrust MOOCs upon public colleges to cure the terrible enrollment bottlenecks that the legislature had itself created with its habitual budget cuts.  I gave one of the papers for our Online Study Group, whose research has relied in large part on the tireless efforts of UCSB's Jenna Joo, a PhD student in Education.

Jenna attended the conference with me, and her report is as follows:

The conference held a total of six panel discussions where speakers from a variety of backgrounds.  Scholars, educational media developers, students, and commercial employers came together to discuss the pros and cons of online education and to raise important questions and concerns.

The conference moved between excitement (about the potential of digital technology for higher education) and caution (about the implementation and potential impact of online education I for students, teachers, and communities). The issue of online education is a hot one, but it is also complex, given the intersection of various factors of political economy that underlies its growth and development.

Personally, I moved between feelings of anxiety, hope, resentment, and optimism. By the end of the conference, I was overwhelmed—partly by the large amount of information thrown at me to digest, but mostly by the burdens placed on education in the 21st century. 

The first half of the discussion focused primarily on the vast possibilities technology may have for improving student learning and increasing research opportunities. Improving student learning broadly involves changing teachers’ roles; reformers demand that they stay away from a “sage on the stage” model and instead become collaborators who will promote active interactions. As Sooinn Lee, CEO of LocoMotive Labs, pointed out, learning can be fun and not so painful and there are many tools available to make it more enjoyable for students.  Professor Ryokai of UCB’s School of Information argued that technology, specifically mobile devices, could help enable out- of-class learning. The Chief Scientist at edX, Piotr Mitros, pointed to possibilities of a distributed classroom model in which large numbers of teachers and students collaborate and network to promote community-based educational attainment. Finally, John Rinderle, the Associate Director of Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, emphasized the opportunities for “engineering learning,” with broader goals and contextualized student and classroom data including not only the outcome data but also the learning data across the spectrum (i.e., student progress and engagement). He also believed that such data should be open for communities to use and assess together.

I have to admit that open data is one of the most exciting promises of online education to me as a graduate student in Education, where obtaining a large amount of student data on my own is literally impossible. It sounds like technology can achieve things that we couldn't achieve before. We are imagining education both inside and outside of classrooms that is fun, interactive, collaborative, large-scale, and open for access and advancement.
The second half of the discussion focused on the contradictions of online education.  To take only one obvious example, Coursera, which was launched in April 2012, has attracted over 2.9 million students from 196 countries with a broad range of backgrounds.  However, the retention rates are low and the very nature of online education calls for the need for strict authentification of the student's identity if courses are to be taken for credit. Coursera's representative assured the audience that they are working with their analytics team to further understand low retention rates and how student diversity affects them.  But they have not made any of that data available. 

Professor Pieter Abbeel taught an online version of UCB’s CS 1881.1x course to a large number students (Spring 2013 version here), but only about 5% of them actually completed the course. Professor Abbeel praised the potentially democratic nature of online courses that avoid improving completion by deselecting most  students in advance, via rejection letters in the admissions process. But he also pointed out that designing and performing an online course takes enormous time and effort. He pointed out the need for “flexibility” to keep developing the courses and enhancing student learning.

What I found to be innovative about CS 188.1x was the feedback-based teaching/learning system in which students were given the chance to revise and resubmit their homework after receiving feedback on it. The feedback-based approach could allow students to reflect on their mistakes and better understand their strengths and weaknesses on the subject matter. However, it should be noted that such an approach could require a lot of time and manpower, contradicting
the idea of online education being faster and cheaper. 

One thing is clear— we still need more research and practice in order to assess feasibility of our goals for online education. So far, the MOOC providers seem busy with their own analytics teams in an attempt to understand outcomes on their own. For the moment, open access to educational data is a long way off. An alternative vision appeared in a talk by Professor Jacqueline Shea Murphy, a Professor of Dance at UC Riverside and one of the first UC Online course developers.  She suggested the need for effective systems of training that communities of practice.  Online courses need to maintain the instructional and research ecosystem for future generations of teachers and scholars.

Finally the conference addressed the question: what exactly we would like to achieve with online education? Proponents highlight  “easy access,” but “easy access” is itself not meaningful without “great outcomes.” Education attainment in the US has always been stratified by race and class, so that individuals from families of underrepresented background tend to be lower attaining students.  Christopher Newfield presented our group's research, starting with the inequalities of investment that have historically underwritten inequality in educational attainment. Our team proposed as a normative goal for online education that it reduce the inequality of educational outcomes across differences of race and income  We argued that order to achieve this goal, we need to help lower performing students become high performing-- to make everyday people special, rather than providing access as such.   

MOOC's social contexts were raised by the other speakers on this panel - Victoria Robbins on existing and future uses of digital modes for examining social injustice, Jen Schradie on the persisting digital divide, Christian Simm on the Americanism of MOOCs, Enrique Tames on the uncertain impacts of smartphones in Mexican classrooms.  Such discussions might serve to alter the “online is better” mindset and reconfigure the definition of high quality education by reflecting on the findings of open educational research. For example, the meta-analysis released by the Department of Education in 2010, did not find online education to be superior so much as it identified value in active and interactive learning modes, including greater possibililties for self-pacing and self-reflection. These are teaching and learning strategies that will require careful design and implementation, whether online or off.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Wednesday, March 20, 2013
As part of their passage of legislation to keep the Government running, the Senate voted unanimously to support an amendment offered by Tom Coburn to limit NSF funding for Political Science grants to projects that develop "national security or the economic interests of the United States."   Coburn's hostility to Political Science research can be found here.  The text of the amendment itself is provided here.

Although everyone recognizes that topics go in and out of favor for funding by granting agencies, Coburn's amendment and its voice vote approval is a terrible development.  It is another example of politicians effectively limiting the freedom of inquiry under the guise of fiscal restraint.  In this case, it is particularly striking because if you read Coburn's statement above you will see that he objects in quite fundamental fashion to research that helps clarify how American politics actually operates.  I wonder why.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Monday, March 18, 2013
This period in the MOOC lifecycle is reminding me of a couple of years I spent in the late 1990s as a consultant to a water-treatment start-up company.

The company was pitching a promising but unproven technology to some of the worst non-point-source polluters in California.  These operators couldn't control stockyard waste runoff, chemical drainage from olive packing, and many other kinds of dispersed pollutants that didn't come out of a pipe and that thus were impossible to filter.  Our company was pitching something new to a conservative tightfisted industry--agriculture--and it had limited money and not very good connections in that industry.  So how could they find customers while they were improving the actual technology?

The answer had several parts.

(1) Carefully select technical results for the sales pitch to potential customers.  The chemists looked for results from streams that were "most like" the one they were being asked to treat, but this also meant exaggerating positive results with the best of intentions, based on the commercial chemist or engineer's "we'll fix that tomorrow" optimism that really does solve a lot of hard problems sooner rather than later.

 (2) Claim a finished product for a work in progress.  The phrase was "this machine can be dropped off the truck" and was "plug and play."  That this was not true was an open secret. The customers knew that the machines had to be monitored and tweaked with enormous human input during every day of operation.  But "plug and play" was a validating fiction that reassured all parties that everything was moving in the right direction.

(3) Use (1) and (2) to obtain a steady series of trial installations of the new technology at problem sites.  To do this, the company bid below cost to get in the door, both to get upfront market share and to accumulate technical experience that could improve the product.  The company lost money doing this, but gained visibility, reputation, and know-how that brought its exaggerated claims onto a glide-path toward reality.

(1) plus (2) plus (3) equaled ongoing financial losses.  This was a start-up company with a high burn rate of mostly angel funding.  In the two years during which I was associated with this particular firm, they never achieved accurate estimates of "normal" long-term operating costs.  This wasn't because they were dishonest, but because there were no "normal" operations in this entry / development / sales / start-up mode.

The most important part of the process was (4), moving regulation towards the existing technology.

The company hired Washington and Sacramento lawyers with personal ties to legislators, including a couple of pro-green Senators, and to officials in organizations like the EPA.  At the time, non-point-source pollution was a growing regulatory concern--a major hurricane had just spread hog farm waste over much of eastern North Carolina--so many politicians and senior agency managers were interested in this company's work.  On one trip, the company also met with representatives of large engineering firms. Their project VP laid out the market penetration process: we get you further installations, we collect results together, we validate your results, we explain the results to officials, and we help insert the results into the details of a policy's enactment.  Getting into a market meant creating a market of which you the company were already the center.

Until I attended several meetings like this, I had assumed a difference process, which might be called "how a finding becomes a rule."   I thought regulators tracked findings of scientists that were studying an important pollution problem, and then wrote pollution standards that used formal study findings to define correct health and environmental goals.  Science and regulatory standards would come first, and then the public and private sectors would partner to meet regulatory standards.

I learned in 1999 that the reality was the reverse. Technology of commercial interest to a firm was presented to regulators via brokerage through lawyer-lobbyists.  The technology would help define the scientific parameters of the pollution problem.  Since all of the firm's capital had been raised by promising angels and other investors a major share of a "trillion dollar market" in global water treatment, the company presented only those technological solutions which offered the company potential market share, meaning technology over which they had a monopoly via a combination of patents and trade secrets, mostly the latter.

The private firm's business plan was blended with appraisals from third parties and regulatory intentions from public agencies. The agencies, ideally, would recognize the company's results as valid and then write the standards to fit the company's technology.  The explicit and sanctioned goal is sometimes called "regulatory capture" -- regulations would conform to the strengths of a potentially important technology, which was also the technology controlled by the company in question.

Today, MOOC leaders clearly understand the process of adapting state regulation and social needs to the technology they happen to control. They are proceeding systematically through the steps above:

(1) Sales momentum has to stay ahead of the accumulation of negative product results.  Sometimes results are misstated.  Coursera's page about its "pedagogical foundations" links to the famous Department of Education meta-analysis of about 45 studies of online education's effectiveness. Coursera says, "This analysis demonstrates very convincingly that online learning methods are, on average, at least as effective as face-to-face learning."

In reality, the study comes to different conclusions. It finds that "the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium" (52). It suggests that the benefits of "blended" online / face to face techniques may flow not from the technology but from the fact that they "involve more learning time, additional instructional resources, and course elements that encourage interactions among learners." The most cited online study to date raises the intriguing possibility that the benefits of the only good kind of online--relatively expensive "blended" modes--don't actually come from "online" (p. xiv), but from instructors and students having more time and money.

Sometimes results are simply ignored. For example, a new, high-quality study of 500,000 online courses in the state of Washington (Xu and Jaggars 2013) found,
Overall, the online format had a significantly negative relationship with both course persistence and course grade, indicating that the typical student had difficulty adapting to online courses. While this negative sign remained consistent across all subgroups, the size of the negative coefficient varied significantly across subgroups. Specifically, we found that males, Black students, and students with lower levels of academic preparation experienced significantly stronger negative coefficients for online learning compared with their counterparts, in terms of both course persistence and course grade. . . . These patterns also suggest that performance gaps between key demographic groups already observed in face-to-face classrooms (e.g., gaps between male and female students, and gaps between White and ethnic minority students) are exacerbated in online courses. This is troubling from an equity perspective. (23)
Online may not only not improve educational outcomes. It may worsen them. It may take a higher ed system that has for years been worsening race and class inequalities and make them more terrible still. But in a start-up sales regime, momentum depends on minimizing or ignoring findings that contradict the company line.

(2) The distinctive feature of MOOC marketing in 2013 is the shift from being an exciting experiment to being offered as a working solution to budgetary and access crises.  Hence the legislation proposed last week by the California State Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg simply presumes that online courses  could put "quality first" and offer expanded access with no real loss of educational value.  MOOC leaders will themselves note various weaknesses and unrested assumptions in their approach, as several did at UC Berkeley's Learning Mode conference this weekend (#learningmode).  The flaws in MOOC quality are open secrets, but they are subsumed by plug-and-play claims embedded in the rhetoric of Big Data and related tropes of inevitable technological progress.  This powerful combination swamps both the history and the current reality of on-line limitations, some of which harken back to the correspondence schools of the late 19th century, which 130 years ago also promised increased individual attention and the bypassing of the "sage on the stage."

The Steinberg legislation marks the synthesis of MOOC steps (3) and (4), in which large scale trials are being insured through a state-created artifical product market revolving around Udacity and Coursera in particular.  The business problem is this: Large-scale trials must be had at any cost, or the product momentum will die, investors will have doubts, money will dry up, market penetration will fail.  MOOCs have shown that lots of people will sign up for a free online course--and that a tiny proportion actually persist.  If students are required to pay tuition, as with UC online, they currently don't sign up in the first place.

Thus 2013 may not be Year of the MOOC II, in that it may reveal that MOOCs may have no large natural market of tuition-paying students.  To head off this possibility, the firms have shifted focus to regulatory capture.  This is what happened when Udacity was hired by San Jose State University to run 3 remedial courses.  The formal signing ceremony put founder Sebastian Thrun on the same level as the governor of the state and the chancellor of the Cal State University system.

The bigger payout of this regulatory lobbying strategy appeared last week, when California's public college and university community learned in The New York Times that state legislation "would force colleges to honor online classes" ("force" has been altered to "seeks" in the current online title, h/t Wendy).  The article appeared a few hours after I happened to hear a report about Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun leaving the capitol offices of State Senate Pro Tem President Darrell Steinberg, the author of the legislation.  There are other signs of the kind of regulatory capture I witnessed in my corner of 1990s start-up culture.  Ry Rivard reports on the secrecy that surrounded the writing of SB 520's amendments, which do force all three higher education segments to accept online courses approved for credit by a separate state-established panel.  The fact sheet calls for "a thoughtful and strategic harnessing of Silicon Valley's innovations in online education"--signalling the skewed history typical of lobby capture.

MOOC momentum is being driven not by educational need or proven technological achievement but by a business lobby with connections and resources as good as Wall Street's, and with a better social cause.  The movement's systematic exaggerations, the lack of concern for impacts on public university ecosystem, the staged benevolence towards a hostile customer--all are hallmarks not of technical or pegagodical progress but of a carefully designed business strategy.  We won't be able to assess the technology correctly unless we see this.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Friday, March 15, 2013
The Chair and Vice-Chair of the System-wide Academic Senate have responded to SB520.  You can find their letter here.

The Berkeley Division has also sent out a letter (co-signed by their EVC).  You can find it here

For those of you who may have been wondering how this bill may fit in with UCOP's continuing desire to promote UCOE you may want to read the fascinating Senate Report on the Continuing failures and false promises of UCOE.  It came out in December.  I am sorry I missed it.  But you can find the link here.


You can find the text of the proposed legislation here.   Senator Steinberg's office has offered a "fact sheet" to persuade everyone it is a good idea.   Steinberg's proposal is actually an amendment to his earlier proposed legislation to create a California Virtual Campus.


Bob Samuels has dissected the strategy towards outsourcing embedded in SB520.

Both Angus Johnston and Jon Wiener have noticed how it is predicated on the continuing privatization and defunding of public education.

Kevin Carey offers some fawning praise of the idea.


The NYT story that first highlighted the bill.

The LAT "reporting" can be found here.

Some context from the SacBee.

And some more context from Insider Higher Ed

The Chronicle of Higher Education has coverage here.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Thursday, March 14, 2013
March 13, 2013

AS Chair Christina Maslach
AS Vice Chair Elizabeth Deakin
Academic Senate
320 Stephens Hall, #5842
Berkeley, CA 94720

Dear Chair Maslach and Vice Chair Deakin:

The Berkeley Faculty Association is gravely concerned about the proposed California legislation to mandate acceptance of online courses for UC, CSU and CC credit.  In view of President Yudof's general endorsement of this proposal, cited in yesterday's New York Times article on the proposed legislation, we are especially concerned about whether the UC Academic Senate leadership was consulted about this proposal, and if so, whether they gave it their approval. Would you find out and let us know? There are many complex issues here, of course, but of immediate concern is where the Senate leadership is on this extremely important development. As I am sure you are aware, the proposal has profound implications for shared governance, educational quality, faculty control of curriculum, standards for degrees, and much more.

We look forward to your speedy response. 

Many thanks.

Sincerely yours,

Louise Fortmann and Christine Rosen
Chair and Vice Chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association
For the Board of the Berkeley Faculty Association

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Wednesday, March 13, 2013
As those of you who have read the New York Times are aware, Senator Steinberg is introducing a bill into the California Legislature that will mandate the UC, CSU, and the CCC accept for credit a list of specific online courses--no matter who is the provider.  I am waiting to read the actual language of the bill (more analysis to come) but the heart of the bill apparently is to give to Steinberg's California Open Education Resources Council the authority to determine which 50 courses in the three systems were most oversubscribed and also to determine which online courses CCC, CSU, and UC would be required to accept for credit.  Put simply, the bill would remove from the different faculties control over their own curriculum and with it faculty authority over the education offered at their institutions.

There is a lot to say about this idea: that despite the hype on MOOCs the actual studies on their effectiveness are quite mixed; if you look at their extraordinary dropout rates you wonder why they would be seized upon as an avenue to help people complete their schooling; the inability to scale the commenting that goes in a classroom with faculty and teaching assistants engaged in actual human contact; and that more assessment is needed before quality concerns can be allayed.  Or someone might be given pause by the fact that the Steinberg bill is an example of providing private capital with state funds rather than investing it in public education; that the usual venture capitalists are out in force insisting that this is all about access without mentioning their financial interests in this proposal, and that ACE is helping to streamline access for private corporations to capture markets with public authority. 

Sadly, so far these are all things that could be said but are not being said by the System-wide Academic Senate Leadership.  One of the striking things about the NYT article is that whereas there are faculty statements from both CCC and CSU there are none from UC.

Mark Yudof does indicate his support for online as he shows a cavalier disregard for the Constitutional autonomy of the UC system. In case Yudof and the Regents have forgotten, UC through article 9 of the California Constitution does have constitutional autonomy that has not, unfortunately, been extended to the other segments.  It is precisely to prevent political intrusion of this sort that the protection is there.  In case the University leadership has forgotten, Article 9 of the Constitution states:

The University of California shall constitute a public
trust, to be administered by the existing corporation known as "The
Regents of the University of California," with full powers of
organization and government, subject only to such legislative control
as may be necessary to insure the security of its funds and
compliance with the terms of the endowments of the university and
such competitive bidding procedures as may be made applicable to the
university by statute for the letting of construction contracts,
sales of real property, and purchasing of materials, goods, and
None of these items give the Legislature the power to demand that certain courses be given credit.  Does anyone in Oakland remember this?

The Senate must not fail to oppose this move.  At stake is both educational quality and the authority of the Faculty.  In case the system-wide Senate leaders have forgotten, Regents Standing Order 105.2 declares that:

The Academic Senate shall authorize and supervise all courses and curricula offered under the sole or joint jurisdiction of the departments, colleges, schools, graduate divisions, or other University academic agencies approved by the Board, except that the Senate shall have no authority over courses in the Hastings College of the Law, San Francisco Art Institute, in professional schools offering work at the graduate level only, or over non-degree courses in the University Extension. No change in the curriculum of a college or professional school shall be made by the Academic Senate until such change shall have been submitted to the formal consideration of the faculty concerned. 
Last time I checked the California Open Resources Council was not a part of the Academic Senate and neither Coursera, nor Udacity, nor Straighterline were parts of any UC faculty.  If the Academic Senate does not oppose this plan, and oppose it forcefully and with arguments, they will not only be endangering the educational quality of UC curriculum but willingly conceding their unwillingness to perform their basic function: to represent and hold in trust the duties and authority of the faculty.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Monday, March 11, 2013
By Hannah Tompkins
For some time now, educational "reformers" have been demanding a new type of university and college president.  As we saw last spring at Virginia this demand often means a president who aims to impose a vision on his institution rather than leading through more consensual means.  Modeled too often on the idea of the ruthless corporate or financial leader, the Presidents who would meet this demand would be centralizers, determined to bring staff and faculty to heel in order to align the activities of a university or college with the wishes of economic and political elites.

There has been, on the other hand, little in the way of Faculty re-imagining of the role of the university or college president.  It is true that faculty critics have pointed to the growth in administration and inequality within higher education.  But we have done less in terms of proposing new approaches to leading higher education institutions in a period of great challenge.

Interestingly, the CUCFA at UC and the AAUP at NYU have recently stepped forward to start filling that gap.  Although both respond to local circumstances--CUCFA the search for Mark Yudof's replacement, and NYU AAUP John Sexton's vision of a his own academic Xanadu--they each demand a new perspective of president's and are well worth reading beyond their local implications.

You can find the CUCFA letter here

The NYU AAUP Letter can be found here.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Monday, March 4, 2013
Next year's tuition increases are coming in, and the average seems to be between 3 and 4 percent  at elite private colleges and universities (Stanford, Bryn Mawr, PrincetonDartmouth, MIT, Ithaca College Marquette). Tuition will be up across a wider range at publics (9 percent in Colorado, 10 percent in the Louisiana and North Carolina systems, but no increases at Purdue, the University of California or Cal State).  The Consumer Price Index is forecast to rise around 2.3% for 2013.

The national outcry against the tuition and student debt escalation has had no obvious effect on the sector's longstanding tendency to raise tuition at 2-4 the rate of CPI. See the gruesome visual below.

The public has an obvious right to be upset about absent college affordability at a time when college remains the necessary condition for a decent stable income while at the same being no longer sufficient.  Students are taking on debt to buy a high-priced ticket to "Intern Nation," nicely covered in the New York Times piece over the weekend on the "No-Limits Job" that college grads are now heir to.

What's bad for students has been good for Wall Street.  The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that "Student-Loan Securities Stay Hot" even as student default rates climb.  "Demand for the riskiest bunch" of student-loan backed securities sold last week by SLM Corp, formerly known as Sallie Mae, "was 15 times greater than the supply."  The riskiest securities have the highest yields, but investors don't have to care, given the special impossibility of defaulting or erasing student loan debt.  Meanwhile, the New York Fed reports that 90-day delinquency rates have risen from 24 to 31 percent since 2008, and that student debt nearly tripled in the last eight years.  When the Fed breaks out the numbers for Intern Nation--graduates of the past eight years--they found that "the delinquency rate jumped to 35% last quarter from 26% in 2008."

The only remedy for current debtors would be widespread debt relief.  Movements led by Strike Debt are seeking exactly this (see a discussion in Dissent, an interview with a leading organizer, NYU professor Andrew Ross, and a Forbes view with some good links).  But I know of no support from university administrators for student debt relief, even as tuition hikes continue to inflate the debt bubble.

For future students, budgeteers and their political bosses are looking in the wrong place to cut costs--namely, in undergraduate instruction. Good evidence for this came last week from retired UC Berkeley physics professor and independent UC budget maven Charles Schwartz, who has published an important update of his estimates of the cost of instruction at UC.

The basic problem is that universities have always bundled various costs together, so that the costs of instruction are hard to define.  The mainline higher ed accounting body, the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), continues to support this bundling.  Other organizations, the Delta Project most notably, have separated  instructional from research costs (e.g. Figure 9), but methodological complexities remain.  Public universities like UC do estimate the per-student "cost of education," but research and other non-educational expenses appear to inflate the alleged instructional cost.

To take Prof. Schwartz's example, the University of California, UC's Office of the President estimates educational cost per student as $17,400 (2011-12). Average tuition is a bit over $13,000 per year, and up to a third of that is returned to financial aid, so UCOP estimates that net student tuition covers just under half of instructional cost. Prof. Schwartz, in contrast, estimates that average cost per student is actually $6910.  This is 40% of UCOP's estimate.

Prof. Schwartz concludes as follows:

  • From the perspective of UCOP’s Budget Office, looking at the cost to UC: UCOP says Student Fees (net) cover 49% of their cost and I say it is 127%.
  • From the perspective of students and their families, looking at the sticker price: UCOP says Student Fees (gross) cover 74% of their cost and I say it is 191%.

These low instructional cost estimates should lead to two things:

First, analyses and critiques of Prof. Schwartz's methodology and findings.  His many budget reports, extending back at least two decades, are works of scholarship in the sense that they define their methods, identify and publish their data, and explain each calculation on the way to the conclusion.  They deserve to be treated with the academic standard of rigorous peer review.

For example, Prof. Schwartz uses Activity Based Costing, and his estimate of instructional cost depends in part on a time-use survey that suggests that UC faculty devote 21% of their time to teaching.    I think this estimate is low as a UC average: it may be two or even three times higher for ladder faculty outside of the natural sciences and engineering fields that have lower teaching loads to reflect their obligations to their sponsored research.  A recalculation using higher teaching share estimates would raise the per-student instructional cost somewhat--though the adjusted figure would remain far closer to Prof. Schwartz's than to UCOP's.

Unfortunately, this series of reports has been ignored rather than critiqued by budget officials.  The Academic Senate has been part of this syndrome--and I include myself in this observation during the period when I chaired Planning and Budget committees on my campus and at systemwide.  Research faculty correctly believe that teaching and research are intertwined, meaning that research expenditures wind up back in the classroom and should be counted in part as instructional expenses.  I believe this too--as does Prof. Schwartz, as far as I know--but this would lead to a further adjustment of his cost estimates.  If we kept his methodology and make these two adjustments, instructional costs might get up to around $9500 / per student. (I'm eyeballing here, not re-running all the details).

This is still well below UCOP estimates and below in-state tuition.  So Prof. Schwartz's basic argument would remain intact.  We should be having this debate about actual instructional costs, starting with the Schwartz calculations: it is a major national policy and political issue.  And if students are racking up life-damaging debt to pay far more in tuition than they get in teaching (broadly defined)?  This is exactly the impression senior managers hope to block by avoiding debate, but this strategy stopped working long ago.

Second, bloated teaching cost estimates have fueled the national bid to fix colleges with technology. Bob Samuels has made this point in so-far futile efforts to instill realism in state agencies about real university costs. Are MOOCs supposed to save UC 15% at a $17,400 per-student instructional cost? What percentage of courses need to be removed from faculty and grad students to close UC's looming $1.5 Billion structural deficit? What if UC spends half of what UCOP says on teaching?  So far, these questions aren't being addressed at all by MOOC advocates like Coursera's Daphne Koller, whose presentation to the Little Hoover Commission was financially data-free.  The items on Prof. Samuels' list of real cost drivers have far more political clout and cultural capital than teaching does, and  it is largely for that bad reason that they aren't being seriously addressed.

Online boosters need to be held accountable to actual current teaching costs, not to ones that have stayed inflated for political reasons.  At the moment, the debate based on opaque teaching costs is offering students the worst of both worlds--no meaningful containment of the real costs that drive tuition hikes, and more austerity for their instruction.