Friday, March 9, 2012

Back on the higher ed beat

Paul Krugman weighs in on recent comments from GOP candidates on the subject of higher education:
About that hostility: Mr. Santorum made headlines by declaring that President Obama wants to expand college enrollment because colleges are “indoctrination mills” that destroy religious faith. But Mr. Romney’s response to a high school senior worried about college costs is arguably even more significant, because what he said points the way to actual policy choices that will further undermine American education.

Here’s what the candidate told the student: “Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And, hopefully, you’ll find that. And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.”

Wow. So much for America’s tradition of providing student aid. And Mr. Romney’s remarks were even more callous and destructive than you may be aware, given what’s been happening lately to American higher education.

For the past couple of generations, choosing a less expensive school has generally meant going to a public university rather than a private university. But these days, public higher education is very much under siege, facing even harsher budget cuts than the rest of the public sector. Adjusted for inflation, state support for higher education has fallen 12 percent over the past five years, even as the number of students has continued to rise; in California, support is down by 20 percent.
The choice of California is sadly apt. The state's three-tiered UC/CS/community college system is, even after these devastating cuts, a remarkable achievement. Residents have access to an impressive spectrum of educational options, ranging from inexpensive schools designed to be friendly to disadvantaged and non-traditional students to some of the world's best public universities (with surprisingly reasonable tuition).

In case you think I'm exaggerating, check out this post from Joseph:

From the Academic rankings of world universities:
1. Harvard University (private)
2. Stanford University (private)
3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (private)
4. University of California, Berkeley (public)
5. University of Cambridge (British)
6. California Institute of Technology (private)
7. Princeton University (private)
8. Columbia University (private)
9. University of Chicago (private)
10. University of Oxford (British)
11. Yale University (private)
12. University of California, Los Angeles (public)
13. Cornell University (private)
14. University of Pennsylvania (private)
15. University of California, San Diego (public)
16. University of Washington (public)
17. University of California, San Francisco (public)
18. The Johns Hopkins University (private)
19. University of Wisconsin - Madison (public)
20. University College London (British)

Some interesting patterns immediately jump out. Of the top 20 schools, 17 are American, which is pretty impressive given the share of the world population held by the United States. Of the 17 American schools, six of them are public (which is amazing given how many resources the private schools have). Of the public schools, 4 of them are in California.
If you check out the rest of the list you'll find all of the UC schools have respectable rankings. Given their caliber, they are also quite affordable. I took a grad course in Bayesian networks a couple of years ago at UC Riverside. It cost me eight hundred dollars and was an extraordinary bargain.

It should be noted that some pundits don't think much of California's commitment to great universities. Here's Kevin Carey:

If Berkeley’s star professors are lured away to Stanford, it’s bad for the university but not necessarily bad for America, particularly if (as is frequently the case) those professors teach few if any undergraduates. They’ll be the same people doing the same thing at another university an hour away.

Of course, Carey also believes Rick Perry Is a Higher-Education Visionary.


  1. Romney's comments would make more sense if there were a widely available option of not going to college. The business sector has become as degree crazy as the educational field is. The Machinists post, , highlights the expectations of employers. They expect employees to come prepackaged. There are entry level positions which now prefer candidates to have Master's degree (and preferred usually means required). It was interesting to hear a candidate talk about how companies no longer invest in their employees.

    As for Perry's plan, he is not completely off-base. The teaching capabilities of university professors is mixed. Though he is barking the wrong cat up the wrong tree when he talks about costs. A major factor driving up tuition costs is shrinking payments from the states. States simply do not pay the same share of university (and community college) budgets that they used to. The costs have to passed on to the buyer (the student), and the buyer will pay because they feel they have to get that degree because of the crazy demands of employers.

    1. Yes, there were some valid points from Perry -- having spent a few years as an instructor in a large state schools, I've witnessed the problems first hand. That said, Perry's proposals were minor and old-hat. Carey's article was another example of a long standing tendency to grossly overestimate the effectiveness of proposed reforms.

  2. One of the key issues surrounding the university system is its purpose. Education and jobs-training, while not mutually exclusive, often become lumped together when discussing universities.

    For instance, the percentage of graduates who find jobs in xx months might be a worthy performance indicator of a training program, but it's not a particularly good measure of education.

  3. I just wanted to add about Carey's words:

    If Berkeley’s star professors are lured away to Stanford, it’s bad for the university but not necessarily bad for America

    In the same light, how is a professor being lured from one university to the next necessarily good for America?