Monday, April 29, 2013

A break from the Felix-bashing

I realize I've been hard on him lately, but it's worth taking a moment to remember that Felix Salmon is one of the best financial journalists out there, especially on the philanthropy beat:
While the Cooper Union ethos never left the students or the faculty, however, it did seem to desert a significant chunk of the Board of Trustees and the administration. Starting as long ago as the early 1970s, the board started selling off the land bequeathed by Cooper, not to invest the proceeds in higher-yielding assets, but rather just to cover accumulated deficits. Cooper hated debt and deficits, but that hatred was not shared by later administrators, who would allow debts to accumulate — bad enough — until the only solution was to sell off the college’s patrimony, thereby reducing the resources available for future generations of students. If you visit Astor Place today, the intersection once dominated by the handsome Cooper Union building, the main thing you notice are two gleaming new glass-curtain-walled luxury buildings, one residential and one commercial, both constructed on land bought from Cooper Union.

Then, when you turn the corner and look at what hulks across the street from the main Cooper Union building, you can see where a huge amount of the money went: into a gratuitously glamorous and expensive New Academic Building, built at vast expense, with the aid of a $175 million mortgage which Cooper Union has no ability to repay.
I started to quote more, but as startling and depressing as the details are, you really need to read the whole thing to get the full impact. It's an extraordinary story with particular significance to those following the tuition debates. While it would be a mistake to assume Cooper Union is completely representative, it is an enormously instructive example that seems to give us one more reason to question the cost disease theory.

A word of warning, I would not advise reading past the phrase "vision process" on a full stomach.

1 comment:

  1. The cost disease is a truly baseless proposal based purely in theory and a catchy counter-intuitivity 'advanced learning is stuck in the dark ages!'

    It's just colleges getting used to, taking for granted, and abusing being the gatekeepers to economic success -- today modestly reduced to any work that can actually support a family.

    Chasing prestige as though it's virtue... To get prestige, one simply needs a selective enough program. The best way to get a selective program is to weed out as many students as possible -- the less easy you make it for them to succeed, the less you need to teach or make effort for them, well, the more selective your school.

    More selective schools are prestigious in themselves. They can also charge more, the better to afford prestigious research professors... who also conveniently care less for teaching or students.

    You want to figure out why people are willing to buy into crap like MOOCs, stop looking for counter-intuitive cutesy theories and just open your eyes.

    As an information driven pursuit, teaching should have benefited most clearly and cleanly from computerization. Why then are textbooks still vastly overpriced dead trees? Why is learning software developed by profit driven third parties, rather than a collaboration of the top minds in the educational system?

    Because the educational system barely rates education as worth the time of day. Universities are finally making the attempt, but it's so late and haphazard -- Oh maybe one of these years we might be able to post the slides!

    Anyway, maybe things are changed from when I was in school 10 years ago. Doesn't seem much like it -- like you point out, if schools really cared about teaching students, you'd see higher wages, more teachers, etc.

    This downfall has been a long time coming. If colleges can't figure out the problems and solutions with their current track, well, they deserve their fate.