Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Wee Bit on Higher Education

Tucson, Arizona. I posted Tuition Rising earlier this month. Up in Phoenix, Espresso Pundit’s influential blogger Greg Patterson recently posted a story coming from another angle about the same subject, rising tuition. Greg is less than enthusiastic about the Solutions for Higher Education effort to increase participation in higher education in Arizona, correctly noting the substantial tuition increases and their negative impact on enrollment. As in many situations, the reality requires a deeper cut.

Greg makes an innocent slip when he asserts that the value of a college education has declined relative to its cost. Disaggregated by field it is true for some, but in the aggregate the return on a college education has increased, higher tuition noted, as the country splits between high wage knowledge positions and low wage everything else. The importance of a college education is growing because the value of a high school degree alone is plummeting.

Tuition matters, but higher education involves far more sophisticated dynamics than buying a cheeseburger. "Sticker shock" scares away lower SES populations who do not understand the game. While a little dated, the situation described here has changed little. The reality of financial aid including Pell Grants and institutional support dramatically reduces the net cost of attendance for students with families of modest incomes. Still the poor kids are very loan averse, and as Greg correctly notes, will forgo higher education if it means incurring $40,000 in debt. Is the system turning poor students away? Absolutely, but it is complicated along a stratification of schools from top privates to community colleges.

The fundamental shift towards a higher tuition model reflects cultural changes set in motion by the Reagan administration that framed a college education as a personal benefit for the individual student instead of the societal benefit of a higher educated population. The reality is that both student and society benefit, but the two views offer different perspectives on who should pay. The Reagan view prevailed and has shifted the burden to the student and the student’s family. State appropriations have fallen significantly as a share of university budgets as tuition has increased dramatically to make up the difference. We now have a multi-faceted and complex revenue system and a complex cost system with many pieces of need based aid (Pell), scholarships and non-need institutional aid, federal loans, and now tax breaks.

In the specifics, he slips, but in principle, Greg points to a truth. Higher Education benefits society and we desperately need it. Our elected officials are complete hypocrites when they shift the financial burden dramatically to students and their families via tuition hikes and then hold meetings to discuss why we aren't producing more graduates.

Speaking of higher education, Daniel Scarpinato had a piece in the Arizona Daily Star last Friday indicating the stupidity gets even worse. Our enlightened state legislators are considering tying university funding to performance measures such as the graduation rate. Daniel quotes the Chair of the House Committee on Higher Education, Tucsonan Jennifer Burns-R, as claiming we need to produce more graduates in science and engineering.

How does one produce more graduates in science and engineering? What actions result in more high school graduates enrolling at the University of Arizona (or ASU or NAU) in these fields? Having no idea, our legislature (most lacking college degrees themselves) is considering withholding 25 percent of the state funding for each student (universities receive state support per student) until the student graduates. Holding back funds will graduate more students.

The sheer stupidity of the idea defies comprehension by failing to recognize that universities are already doing virtually all they can to retain and graduate every student that enrolls. Ever run a business? Is it good to lose a customer? Consider how much is invested to put that student into that seat as an incoming freshman, recruited, evaluated, admitted, financial aid package, scheduled, dorm arrangements, oriented, safe, and then have the person drop out? The investment is bi-directional in powerful ways. Universities hate to lose an enrolled student.

I know names and faces of people who pour their hearts into retaining every incoming freshman through a successful graduation and placement, and our legislators think withholding the resources required to support retention efforts is going to improve graduation rates?

Withhold funds and you create pressure to do what? RAISE TUITION, which as Greg points out, is problematic for enrollment and (I will add) for retention as well (but of course I am wrong as students never drop for financial reasons). Rising tuition hurts graduation rates.

What we need to attract and retain graduates in science and engineering fields are science and engineering jobs for those who graduate. For that, you need to have effective economic development programs that can create these kinds of jobs for the graduating seniors.

That’s right. EFFECTIVE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT. We need gay bohemians and a cool coffee shop.

I could run an institute that facilitated the workforce development training of over 10,000 employed Tucsonans per year on less than the public support given to a coffee shop.

I left in May. Gutted, betrayed, and abandoned by dishonest and dishonorable people, SAIAT shuts down next month. I wish staff the best of luck in finding employment.

Perhaps the coffee shop is hiring.


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11/29/2007 6:31 AM  
Blogger Dustin said...

Good post x.

11/29/2007 7:27 AM  
Blogger Sirocco said...

As a technical quibble, those science and engineering jobs don't need to exist in Tucson, or Arizona even. As you have noted elsewhere, plenty of students get their degree, then leave for where the jobs are.

Of course, what that means is Tucson doesn't receive the benefit of these students working within the local economy ... which seems a shame after investing so much time, energy and money in educating them.

Some number of people aren't going to stay regardless - they don't like the heat, they want a "bigger" city, whatever. Still, I could cite a number of people I have known who graduated with Comp Sci degrees who said something along the lines of "I'd like to stay, but the job options are better in X".

11/29/2007 7:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sirocco is correct of course, and it only reinforces the stupidity that x4mr is pointing to.

If there are no jobs in town of course the graduates leave, which is what happens.

They shut down a workforce institute that was conducting employee training and use the money to fund a coffee shop.

Stupid. Certified Stupid. What a collection of idiots.

11/29/2007 9:55 AM  
Anonymous The Navigator said...

One could become very angry thinking about this. Our country has lost it. We have sold out to the short term profits of companies. We slash taxes of the rich and pay for it by cutting support for education and other items.

Now we are falling behind the world. Everyday, massive amounts of wealth transfers from this country to others.

I saw a bumper sticker this morning that read, "Billionaires for Bush. Government by and for Corporations."

Unfortunately, I am very pessimistic. I do not foresee any means of reversing course. I fear the current administration and this horrible war has taken the country over the cliff.

11/29/2007 12:00 PM  
Blogger Dustin said...

I agree nav. I must say that I'm not convinced that bush is the cause quite yet, rather I get the feeling that bush is actually a symptom of a deeper problem.

Investing in your population (health, education, safety) is a no-brainer. Failing to do so is either profoundly negligent, or intentional.

Our society, and by extension our government, have failed to adapt to a changing world, and we are reaping the results. For a country so wrapped up in personal accountability, we sure have very little, especially where it counts.

11/29/2007 1:14 PM  
Blogger roger said...

Great post and comments. As a person who is intimately acquainted with higher education, I can say that the plan some legislators is really missing the mark.

The erroneous assumption for this new plan is that the higher education is the problem and that it isn't working. What a sad, sad statement by so many who had to, in fact, be educated by our universities about what we actually do.

There is one reason why tuition keeps going up. It is because our state has done a very poor job funding our universities. Other state's get it. We are 2nd to last in state aid to students (HA HA to Wyoming who is in last!).

What pisses me off is that folks like TREO talk and talk about how the business community is so concerned about the lack of skilled labor in our state. The gist of this is why we don't attract industry and is why places like Raytheon can't seem to get enough workers here in Arizona. Instead of pushing to fund our universities, they continue to make the tired argument that cutting taxes will lead us to the promised land.

The people in this state might want to consult the people who run our universities before making these plans. Freakin talk to us! We actually know what the hell we are doing. Their best laid political plans to hold us accountable, as if we are some failure, is nothing but crap. It smacks of some kind of arrogance that they know better about what we should do and how we should do it. What makes this so offensive is that they have starved our system and now they lay the blame on us.

I am VERY disappointed in Jennifer Burns if this is her plan. It is stupid. It ignores a host of factors that contribute to this problem.

By the way, I have been talking about the brain drain quite a bit. You folks are right on. Many of our students want to stay here...and they have absolutely nothing to do.

By the way, watch what happens to our universities when we reconcile the $800 million deficit crunch. We can't raise taxes, we will be cut mid-year...again...and I will leave our state.

11/29/2007 6:11 PM  
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11/30/2007 1:31 AM  
Blogger Dustin said...


I thought that myself. It does seem like no matter what, academia will bear the brunt of the blame. I don't understand how you can cut funding, and then expect things to improve. asinine. It follows for k-12 as well. I find the difference between educational quality in oro valley and south tucson striking. Money makes a difference.

11/30/2007 7:30 AM  
Blogger roger said...

I completely agree with you about K-12 Dustin. I know it is not the "only" factor (money) as some conservatives say, but I bet it is a massive amount of the R-square if we did an equation.

K-12 is still funded predominantly through property taxes. Areas with massive property tax revenues tend to have better schools. I would also say that social class matters a ton apart from that.

Look at District 16? It is the richest part of our city, probably the white-est, and the high property values there contribute to a very rich school district.

If I am wrong then why in the heck does every realtor in this town talk about the benefits of a district 16 home in their ads? Why is it that these are also the most expensive homes?

It is typically the "upper upper upper" middle class that can afford 16...and the circle continues.

11/30/2007 8:59 AM  
Blogger Dustin said...

"It is typically the "upper upper upper" middle class that can afford 16...and the circle continues."

Damn staight. I would like to see education uncoupled from property tax, as I think that would go a long way. Sadly I lack the financial and legal expertise to come up with an adequate solution.

It's not that I want to see "rich kids" worse off, I would just like to see other kids do better. Who knows where the next innovator and problem solver will come from? I like to see families recieve the fruits of success, but I think that funding education this way really helps to solidify social stratification. Education really is the great equalizer.

I have to wonder if the state of k-12 is a big factor in helping to stack the deck when it comes to college admissions. Not overtly, but subtly, through test scores etc. In any case, I see the need for a degree for many positions, but it seems like jobs that a high school education were suitable for now require a degree, is that really necessary? anyone know how that happened?

11/30/2007 9:37 AM  
Blogger x4mr said...

Good remarks, all.

Dustin, the single greatest predictor of college attainment (successful degree completion) is socio-economic status, period. SES completely dominates the statistics and it permeates through everything.

Of course there are individual stories of outlying exceptions like the poverty stricken minority genius that gets into Harvard, but in general it's those born wealthy that have it made. Look at Eggplant.

Regarding the need for a degree, some of the literature suggests that employers use a bachelor's degree as a proxy for ability and productivity. Many employers require various certifications or degrees (CPA, MBA, etc) even though the position may require almost none of the material taught.

They want the less tangible "sophistication" and "talent" suggested by the success of getting the degree.

Yeah, Roger, Arizona's leadership (excepting our fantastic Governor, for whom I have the utmost respect) is horrible regarding education. I don't get it. This state just doesn't get education or economic development.

Pima is worse than Maricopa. TREO is distilled stupid. Bohemians?! They shut down a workforce institute and then the city gives the money to a coffee shop.

I don't think you'll have to leave, Roger, but I'm pretty much gone already. I have a house and very modest consumption, but my work and pay is now national. My job search as the degree approaches will be national.

I have one word for this town when it comes to economic development and decent jobs.


11/30/2007 1:19 PM  
Blogger Dustin said...

"They want the less tangible "sophistication" and "talent" suggested by the success of getting the degree."

By this measure, Bush is sophisticated and talented. I think the B in MBA must stand for "bullshit"

11/30/2007 2:15 PM  

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