Why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college?

As the title asks, why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college? Or, if they have, what school is out there and has tried this?

It seems like a ripe strategy because virtually every (even slightly) selective school is pursing the same prestige strategy. Yet even as they do so, news about outrageous student loan burdens is everywhere and probably affecting the choices made by students. At the same time, college tuition has been outpacing inflation for decades—and everyone knows it. Education is a component of the “cost disease” that is afflicting other sectors too. The number of college administrators has grown enormously (though that may not be the prime factor behind public-school cost increases). Still, it used to be possible to work summer jobs and graduate with little or no debt; schools in the 1960s or 1970s don’t appear to have been dramatically worse at education than schools today, and in some ways they may have been better, yet today colleges are many times more expensive.

College costs and debts have soared, and at the same time the number of PhDs granted far outstrips the number of tenure-track and teaching jobs. Most universities and even many colleges care far more about research, much of which is bogus anyway, than teaching. Many universities don’t care about teaching at all, as long as the professor shows up to lecture, isn’t drunk, and doesn’t trade sex for grades. I hear many, many grad students and early professors lament the way their schools don’t care about teaching. So there’s a surplus of cheap PhDs out there who would desperately like to be professors. While professors who only teach two or three classes per semester complain relentlessly about all the “work” they supposedly have and how “busy” they allegedly are, it could be very easy to get professors to teach far more than they currently do at most schools, further reducing costs.

In short, the supply of faculty is there, and the supply of students ought to be there. So, with the setup above, let me repeat: why hasn’t anyone attempted to start a teaching-focused college with low tuition and extremely high-quality academics? I’m thinking of a school with a mandate to minimize the number of administrators and sports teams. One could even eliminate tenure, and thus ensure that PhDs hired today won’t still be on the payroll in 40 years.

This situation sounds like a community college, but I’m imagining a school that still draws from a national applicant pool and still maintains or attempts to maintain an elite or comprehensive academic character. Think of a liberal arts school but scaled up somewhat and with fewer administrators. If I were a billionaire I might try to do this; stupendously rich people loved endowing schools in the 19th Century, but that seems to have fallen out of fashion. Still, it worked then, so perhaps it could work now.

It may be that schools are really selling prestige and status, and consequently a low-cost, high-quality teaching school would be too low prestige and low status to attract students.

Still, and again as noted previously, pretty much every school, public or private, is pursuing the exact same prestige, admissions, and marketing strategy. With one or two exceptions (CalTech, University of Chicago—okay, there are a few others, but not many), they don’t even try (really or seriously) to distinguish themselves, and almost every school competes for the same BS college rankings. Such a uniform market seems ripe for alternate approaches, yet none are being tried or have taken off (so far as I know).

What am I missing?

* Maybe it was easier to start colleges in the 19th Century, when regulation was nonexistent and complex subsidies of various kinds weren’t available. In the 19th Century, many colleges were also founded with the explicit intent of saving students’ souls, so perhaps the lack of religiosity in today’s billionaires and/or most of today’s students is a factor.

* Current schools might just be too damn good at marketing for others to break in.

* Maybe there are efforts afoot and they’ve either failed or are too small for me to have noticed.

* Current schools are pursuing a complex price discrimination strategy, in which the sticker price is paid by a relatively small number of students, and much of the study body receives “scholarships” that are really tuition discounts. Maybe this system is more appealing to students and possibly schools than a transparent, everyone-pays-$5,000-per-year strategy.

* Students by and large pay with their parents’ money or pay with loans, so many an unbundled version of a school really is less attractive than one with lots of administrators, feel-good projects, fancy gyms, etc.

* Billionaires who might fund this are busy doing other things with their money.

* The number of “good” or at least weird and different students who would try such a school is not great enough (given the current cost of college and the number of students out there, I find this one hard to believe, but it isn’t impossible).

I’m guess that number four is most likely, but maybe there are other features I’m missing.

“Uber [or Airbnb] for Private Tutors”—I’d sign up

Tyler Cowen suggests “Uber for Private Tutors,” which sounds like a great idea, but I’m not sure Uber is the right comparison group. Rather, the better comparison is to Airbnb: I’d want to be the penthouse of tutors, so to speak, and charge appropriate superstar fees. The best tutors are probably worth orders of magnitude more than average tutors.

Uber by contrast dictates fees to drivers, which drivers can take or leave. I’d rather see the opportunity for markets to decide how much I’m worth. Rides are also probably more similar to each other than tutors are to each other, so Airbnb is the comparison choice I prefer. One could also begin to imagine a combination of MOOCs, things like Coursera, tutor matching, and the like nibbling away at the current school experience.

I have the academic credentials and experience necessary to sign up for Airbnb for private tutors, and I live in New York City, which probably has a lot of pent-up demand for tutors-on-demand. I’m working as an adjunct professor at Marymount Manhattan College, and while I enjoy and appreciate the work it isn’t hard for me to imagine a better-paid situation arising. Uber for private tutors could supplement the large, existing adjunct workforce or even supplant some people who are currently adjuncting.

That being said it isn’t clear to me that people hiring tutors would care about credentials so much as they’d care about personality, though maybe both are important.

Why can’t we solve poverty, or solve it through schools?

I’m not that old, and I’ve already seen a lot of proposals for solving “poverty” come and go. Many—think Head Start—are tied up in education. The current debate around education tends to run in two directions: one group wants to improve parenting, or ameliorate poverty, or something along those lines, having seen innumerable correlative studies demonstrating that rich kids on average do better than poor kids at school. The other group—the one I belong to—tends to think that we could do a lot for schools, and especially big urban schools, through some combination of charters, vouchers, and/or weakening the power of teachers’s unions. For more on why the latter group thinks as we do, see the many links in this post.

The first group—the one that wants to attack poverty and what not—tends to say things like cjensen’s: “Statistical studies have long shown that (1) education outcomes strongly correlate with parenting,” to which I replied:

Citations are needed on this: “Statistical studies have long shown that…”

“We”—schools, society, etc.—can’t really control parenting. But we can control schools, and it is probably possible to get substantially better outcomes than the ones we’re getting now, chiefly through better teachers. At the moment, most public school teachers are paid in lockstep based on seniority—CS teachers and PE teachers get the same pay—and can’t be fired after their second or third year of teaching, and that creates a lot of perverse incentives.

Ceras replied with another fairly common sentiment: “Programs exist for this with some positive results. Here’s one from a quick Google search,” and he linked to “Nurse-Family Partnership – Top Tier.”

But innumerable small-scale programs that show limited positive results, but almost none of them scale up, for the reasons Megan McArdle describes at the link:

That pilot program has a huge administrative staff whose sole incentive is to ensure that it is meticulously carried out. In the real world, that curriculum will be put into place by an administrator whose priority list is crowded with everything from mollifying the latest lunatic on the school board[. . . ]

That pilot program is staffed with a narrow band of extremely highly qualified teachers, sifted from the best the environment has to offer. In the real world, whoever happens to be standing in front of the classroom come September 5th has to do it, even if they flunked Remedial Math four times and only got this job because the school board needed a body.

McArdle’s book The Up Side of Down is also good on this subject. Lots of small-scale Head Start programs show promise too, but the program’s effects fade out after a couple years, and on a large scale it hasn’t done anything except provide daycare and jobs. Despite the 40-year failure of Head Start to do what it was intended to do—improve life outcomes for poor, minority kids—there’s a press for it in liberal cities, only now it goes by the phrase “Universal Pre-Kindergarten” (UPK). New York City has a UPK program. Seattle mayor Ed Murray wants one, and he wants to spend a lot of money creating it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALet me return to Ceras’s example. Programs like “Nurse-Family Partnership – Top Tier” (NFP) already operate. I know because I’ve written numerous Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Healthy Start Initiative (HSI) proposals that attempt to do just what NFP proposes. For my real, work-for-money job, I do grant writing for nonprofit and public agencies, so I see citations like the one to NFP all the time. Next time I write an HSI or similar program, I might cite NFP. Doing so isn’t going to make the specific program any better—HSI has been operating for a couple decades, under different names, and hasn’t accomplished much on a large scale, in part because of the scale-up problems described a few paragraphs ago.

Ideas like NFP sound good in the abstract, but the gap between the real world and the proposal world is quite wide. Virtually every idea for improving health, welfare, and education has been funded through some grant program or another, but most people proposing new programs aren’t aware of the old ones—and they aren’t aware of the gap between the real and proposal world. After his $100 million donation to the Newark Public Schools, Zuckerberg has evidently learned this.

So what can “we” do? The people who want to keep the existing structure of education in place usually say they want to fight poverty first. On some level who doesn’t? There are some challenges, however. Poverty is a moving target. It’s usually calculated as a percentage of income, which means that it will always be with us (barring some unforeseen technology, or extinction). In addition, from the perspective of someone in 1800 or 1700 or really anytime before about 1950, we have solved poverty, at least in a material sense. Virtually no one in the United States lacks running water, plumbing, or refrigeration. Almost no one starves to death, and the real problem among the poor is obesity. TV penetration is hovering around 98% of households, and the households without TVs are more likely to be like mine—that is, relatively well-off people who choose not to have a TV.

I’m not saying it’s great to be poor in the U.S., but it’s still better to be poor in the U.S. than to be poor in, say, Nigeria, or Brazil. Globally, there have been innumerable people trying to improve life in the developing world, and many books about why those efforts haven’t been totally effective: Why Nations Fail is good. Dead Aid is good. There are others; you’ll see them at the Amazon links. Developmental economics is an entire field devoted to this question. There aren’t easy answers, because if there were, they already would’ve been found and implemented. To quote Megan McArdle again, “The very existence of a policy issue tells you that it is difficult to solve, either politically or technically.”

Beyond measurement and definitional issues around what one means by “poverty,” consider the history of fighting it. Johnson launched the “War on Poverty” 50 years ago, and even the New York Times (at the link) calls it “a mixed bag,” which sounds charitable to me. There is a large poverty-fighting infrastructure that does some really good things (like Food Stamps, now called TANF), and some less good things. Nonetheless, if poverty could be “fought” successfully, I think it would have already been defeated. That it hasn’t should make us question our approach.

There has also been some regression in terms of culture and behaviors: that’s one important message of Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Most women, for example, are better off having children with a dedicated and ideally married partner, but around 40% of all births are currently to unmarried women. There’s a political argument about why that is and what if anything should be done about it, but the behavioral and sociological changes of the last 50 years are still real.

This has a lot to do with education because, as I noted in the first paragraph, people who are relatively okay with the educational status quo tend to want to address things outside of school first. Diane Ravitch is a great leader for this group. I’ve read two of Ravitch’s books on education—Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform and The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education—and to read her work is to respect her knowledge and erudition. She moved from a strong educational reformer who favored charter schools to someone who… I don’t know how to characterize her current position other than to say she doesn’t favor charters or vouchers. She does observe the many ways particular charter schools haven’t done very well, but in my view they haven’t been worse than the urban schools they competed with, and some have done much better.

Overall, Ravitch wants to reduce poverty, but as noted above I’m skeptical of social or government forces to do so. In Reign of Error, her most recent book—I’m not all the way through it—she says that public schools are better than they’re commonly depicted. She’s somewhat right: relatively wealthy suburban schools are okay. But that pretty much leaves urban schools (L.A., Chicago, New York, Newark) to languish, and those are the areas and schools that are most promising for vouchers.

The final thing I’ll note is that a lot of people favor “more” money for schools. Overall, inflation-adjusted funding has roughly doubled on a per-pupil basis, per the New Yorker article, and overall funding is quite high—including in screwed up districts like Washington D.C.’s. The Great Stagnation also discusses this dynamic. So while “more” money for school districts may or may not be a good thing, it’s apparent that more money does not automatically lead to better results.

This has turned into a much longer post than I meant it to be, but, to reiterate a point made above, there are no simple answers. Though this post is long it is shorter than many of the books it cites, and it is much shorter and more fun to read than many of the proposals I’ve written. The number of people who are genuinely interested in this kind of social policy minutia is probably small, as the popular support for programs like UPK shows.

Links: Schools, TSA voyeurs, parenting, and more

* “The end of higher education’s golden age” (maybe; if the problems Shirky discusses have existed since 1975, why can’t they exist for another 40 years?)

* In “Hit ’Em Where It Hurts: The solution to the higher-ed adjunct crisis lies in the U.S. News rankings,” Rebecca Schuman proposes that colleges be discouraged from hiring adjuncts by having U.S. News and similar college raters penalize colleges for hiring adjuncts. But I see two big problems: I haven’t seen any conclusive evidence that adjuncts are worse teachers than full-time faculty; yeah, we can provide a lot of anecdotes for either side, and, based on a very minor study, the answer so far appears to be “no.”

The second problem: how many colleges care about rankings, or play rankings games? Maybe 300 or 400 out of 3,000. Matthew Reed over at Confessions of a Community College Dean is fond of pointing out that everyone in the media focuses obsessively on those 300 or 400 colleges and especially on the ones perceived as elite, despite them representing a tiny portion of the college population or market.

* “TSA Agent Confessions;” these are the people “keeping you safe.”

* “Fight Over Effective Teachers Shifts to Courtroom.” Brilliant maneuver.

* “How the left’s embrace of busing hurt the cause of integration;” file under “unintended consequences.”

* “Is Parenting Really All Joy and No Fun? A Happily Childless Reviewer Investigates Jennifer Senior’s Book.” I read the book and find the behavior of many of the women in it bizarre. There is an interesting long-form magazine article to be written about All Joy and No Fun, Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity, Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and a few other of the baby-crazy-backlash books (perhaps the one about French parenting). It does seem that the more children are objectively safer, the more parents and especially mothers worry.

* Humans of New York: The Dating Coach. Fiction has for the most part not written about individuals like John Keegan.

* The terrifying surveillance case of Brandon Mayfield.

* “Mooconomics,” a terrible title for a fascinating piece about how we might get to online education works (or it may already be here).

Links: Sprawl, short stories, climate, schools, suicide, and more

* The Nefarious Ways Sprawl Begets Sprawl.

* The short story survives because of its utility to the MFA.

* We are in denial about catastrophic risks.

* “Why Haven’t Humanities Ph.D. Programs Collapsed? The job prospects for new Ph.D.’s in fields like history and English are miserable, yet students keep signing up for their shot at the ivory tower. Readers, tell us what you think is going on.”

* A follow-up to the previous link: “Why Haven’t Humanities Ph.D. Programs Collapsed? 21 Answers From Readers,” including one from yours truly.

* “Sexting, Shame and Suicide: A shocking tale of sexual assault in the Digital Age.”

* NASA’s Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration.

* A geek’s tour of Sigma’s Aizu lens factory: Precision production from the inside out.

* Why It’s Never Mattered That America’s Schools ‘Lag’ Behind Other Countries.

* Magical thinking about death.

* Ocean acidification, the lesser-known twin of climate change, threatens to scramble marine life on a scale almost too big to fathom.

Links: Teachers, strippers, self-publishing, In the Realm of the Senses, Fundrise, and more

* The Case for a Teacher Bar Exam. I’m skeptical: teaching is one of the skills that is least captured by standardized tests. See also “How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?

_MG_8427* The Uses of Difficulty. Maybe.

* “Uncovering Union Violence,” which “is an under-reported story.”

* “The North Dakota Stripper Boom,” which is a tale about unexpected expected consequences: “North Dakota [. . .] is experiencing an oil boom, which is leading to an overwhelmingly male population boom, which has some strange spillover consequences.”

* “The Early Education Racket: If you are reading this article, your kid probably doesn’t need to go to preschool.” Having written Head Start proposals and read a lot of studies on Head Start and similar programs, I’m not surprised, although this article focuses on the effects of relatively wealthy people (hilarious quote: “research suggests that if you have the time and money to argue over the merits of a Waldorf preschool versus a Montessori one, little Emma isn’t going to suffer either way.”)

* Thorium Reactors, by Peter Reinhardt, which explains one aspect of why thorium-powered power plants might be the future of energy.

* Tips for a successful book launch. This is interesting for its own sake and because Roosh never mentions the word “self-published.” That’s simply assumed.

* Fremen Stillsuit soon to be manufactured? Are the Bene Gesserit up next?

* “Going All the Way: The late Nagisa Oshima’s erotic, transgressive In the Realm of the Senses isn’t about sex. It is sex.

* Fundrise has a new project in the pipeline.

* Copy Of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ Can’t Believe The Notes High Schooler Writing In Margins.

Links: “Turn Me On, Dammit!”, nude body scanners, MPAA problems, housing, copyright problems, academia, the war against youth and more

* Sounds like fun: “With its sex-obsessed young heroine, “Turn Me On, Dammit!” goes where few movies have gone,” and it sounds like the rare movie that actually goes where other movies haven’t. See also Slate’s coverage.

* Hot, crowded, and running out of fuel: Earth of 2050 a scary place. And we’re highly unlikely to do anything about that.

* I’ve long wondered about a book I remember reading around age 12 or 13, in which people above a certain age are capped by a mind-control device, but I’ve never been able to remember anything else about it until I read this, From The New Yorker: “John Christopher’s ‘The White Mountains,’ in which alien overlords install mind-control caps on the heads of all those over the age of thirteen, tore through my own sixth-grade classroom like a wicked strain of the flu.” That’s it.

* $1B of TSA Nude Body Scanners Made Worthless By Blog — How Anyone Can Get Anything Past The Scanners. Wow.

* Maybe we can get rid of the MPAA, which will, I suspect, be viewed one day with the same caustic eye as the Hays Code.

* “As Julie Berebitsky points out in Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire, sexual relationships—consensual or not—have long been considered a threat to productivity and morale . . .” I sure hope so.

* Affordable housing and hilarious cognitive dissonance.

* The Missing 20th Century: How Copyright Protection Makes Books Vanish.

* Tyler Cowen: “I’m a blogger.”

* Roosh “can’t help but notice a lot of changes in how our beliefs are being perceived.”

* America’s schools are being crushed under decades of legislative and union mandates. They can never succeed until we cast off the bureaucracy and unleash individual inspiration and willpower.

* The War Against Youth:

Cynicism rises to fill the emptied space of exaggerated and failed hope. It’s all simple math. If you follow the money rather than the blather, it’s clear that the American system is a bipartisan fusion of economic models broken down along generational lines: unaffordable Greek-style socialism for the old, virulently purified capitalism for the young. Both political parties have agreed to this arrangement: The Boomers and older will be taken care of. Everybody younger will be on their own. The German philosopher Hermann Lotze wrote in the 1870s: “One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future.” It is exactly that envy toward the future that is new in our own time.

The major advantage that young people retain, however, is that they (we?) have more vibrant sex lives, which is still a pretty sweet deal.

One can also see this in academia: the gap between professors who got tenure before 1975 and people graduating in the last ten years is medieval.

* Tyler Cowen: “What Export-Oriented America Means.” See also “Tyler Cowen on America’s Export-Oriented Future.”

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