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Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Causing the College Credentials Craze



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While a few die-hards in the higher ed establishment keep saying that we must put more and more young Americans through college because the labor force needs more brainpower, it’s well established that much of the demand for people who’ve graduated from college is just screening. There are so many people who have degrees that nothing is lost by screening out all of the presumably less capable people who don’t. How we got on that track is the topic of a piece I have posted on Forbes.

Quite a bit of the blame, although not all, should go to the Supreme Court for its 1971 Griggs v. Duke Power decision. That case, which mangled the meaning of the 1964 Civil Rights Act so as to let the zealots at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have their way, turned ability testing into a legal minefield for employers by importing the “disparate impact” notion into the law. As a result, companies started turning toward college credentials as a proxy for ability, a way of screening out lower ability workers that wouldn’t cause any legal trouble.

We probably would have had something of a higher ed bubble just from the way the government has subsidized it and pushed the notion that more education is always worth it, but Griggs helped inflate the bubble too.

Here’s a question I would like to know the answer to: has anyone ever challenged a company’s college requirement on the same logic as prevailed in Griggs?

 

Community Colleges Not the Be-All and End-All



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When it comes to community colleges, one of the concerns always lurking in the back of my mind has been how good a job they do. Of course, their success is uneven—the Pope Center has written about the tremendously talented community college teacher Kelly Markson and about a North Carolina college in turmoil, with claims of racial discrimination and mismanagement of funds.

In spite of this variation (and also a certain lethargy that seems to crop up in community college governance), I have generally felt that because community colleges are close to businesses in their areas, they are practical and down-to-earth and can prepare students for useful jobs.

But a new study says that when it comes to short-term certificates, which are proliferating at community colleges, there is no solid evidence that they help recipients get jobs. The study was conducted by researchers from Columbia University and the California Community Colleges’ Board of Governors.

The Chronicle of Higher Education quotes from the study: “Although we would not go as far as to say that short-term certificates never have any value, the evidence is suggestive that they tend to have minimal value over and above attending college and earning some credits.”

The fact that these colleges are public entities, sometimes run with little oversight, may mean that they, like other institutions of higher education are subject to educational fads, whether successful or not.

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Evaluating Course Evaluations



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In this week’s Pope Center Clarion Call article, George Leef examines student course evaluations and concludes that they are at best unreliable. Unsatisfied with their grades or upset about the amount of work required in a course, students, at the end of the semester, can blast professors via low ratings and negative reviews. Leef points out that such evaluations encourage non-tenured faculty whose jobs are on the line to water down their courses and appease students at the expense of academic rigor. 

A couple of UC-Berkeley professors are challenging the current course evaluation paradigm. Philip Stark and Richard Freishtat argue that student evaluations have a response bias that motivates angry students to respond with greater frequency than satisfied students, and that department heads should take such reviews with a heavy grain of salt.

The professors provide another path forward: in Berkeley’s statistics department, faculty members create portfolios with information about their teaching methods, syllabi, and class assignments, which are then reviewed by department heads. Perhaps more important, a senior faculty member attends professors’ classes and then offers comments and critiques. 

Leef says that that close oversight, which is common in fields such as medicine and law, is absent in academia, particularly in disciplines outside of science and math. “I don’t expect UC-Berkeley’s statistics department’s strong system for ensuring that courses are taught well to spread into ’soft’ fields where there are no wrong answers and it hardly matters how much students have learned. But at least there is a good model available for any department that sees the importance of going beyond unreliable student course evaluations,” he writes. 

So That’s What “Leisure Studies” is All About!



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From time to time, PBC posters like to poke fun at college courses that seem to be Seinfeldian — that is, about nothing. Among those are “leisure studies” courses, which you’d think were content-free credits. Earlier this year, a flap erupted when a professor of leisure studies wrote a piece pushing back against the criticism of Obamacare that it was pushing people out of full-time work. Perhaps you’ll remember that — the prof opined that less work was something to celebrate and only unfeeling, nose-to-the-grindstone conservatives could gripe about this good development.

A recent issue of Chronicle Review revisited that flap. We read in Nathan Schneider’s piece The Labors of Leisure that the professor in question was Benjamin Hunnicutt of the University of Iowa. The piece is completely sympathetic to Hunnicutt and his academic discipline. Schneider writes, “Today the very idea of leisure sounds absurd to the ears of such cultural bellwethers as O’Reilly and Hannity, and like a personal insult to hardworking politicians like (Paul) Ryan. The corresponding decline of academic discourse on leisure is particularly ironic.”

First, what conservatives and libertarians find offensive about Obamacare is that it compels people to adjust to its onerous regulations by working less than they probably want to. Schneider evidently doesn’t grasp that economics is about making trade-offs, such as between work and leisure. It’s best to let each individual figure out for himself how to make such decisions. Nobody is saying that work is inherently good, only that making people work less when they’d prefer to earn more is a bad thing.

But second, what is this “academic discourse”? Schneider writes, “Fifty or sixty years ago, many sociologists saw leisure as an urgent challenge for their field; with more free time surely to come, how would people use it? Leisure-studies departments were one result.”

Good grief. This is much ado about nothing. Labor saving devices have been gradually liberating people from having to work to survive for centuries, and people have had no trouble deciding for themselves how to use that time. It varies from person to person depending on his unique set of likes and dislikes. What useful knowledge could possibly come from studying that?

Think Twice Before Giving to a College



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Many American college grads like to give to colleges and universities, usually but not always the dear old alma mater. And sometimes they have particular uses in mind for the money. They assume that school officials will honor their desires, but unfortunately that is often not the case. In this SeeThru post, Rich Vedder takes us through the difficulties.

His suggested remedy is for schools that dishonor donor intent to lose their tax exemption for some period of time. I’d like to see the income tax abolished entirely, but until such time, that solution would no doubt cause college officials to be extremely careful not to violate the donor’s intentions.

For a thorough examination of the donor intent problem in colleges, check out Martin Morse Wooster’s Pope Center paper on the subject.

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Wasting Time on the Internet



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Next semester, English and creative writing majors at the University of Pennsylvania will be able to enroll in a seminar titled “Wasting Time on the Internet.” From the course description:

We spend our lives in front of screens, mostly wasting time: checking social media, watching cat videos, chatting, and shopping. What if these activities – clicking, SMSing, status-updating, and random surfing – were used as raw material for creating compelling and emotional works of literature? Could we reconstruct our autobiography using only Facebook? Could we write a great novella by plundering our Twitter feed? Could we reframe the Internet as the greatest poem ever written? Using our laptops and a wifi connection as our only materials, this class will focus on the alchemical recuperation of aimless surfing into substantial works of literature. Students will be required to stare at the screen for three hours, only interacting through chat rooms, bots, social media and listservs. 

Reform-minded higher education observers may view this course as just another sign of the dismal academic times, another trendy course with no substance.

But the goals of the seminar – to challenge the technophobia possessed by many writers and to use social media as fodder for creating a work of literature - are in my view legitimate ones. I just don’t think creative writing majors should spend an entire semester focusing on “alchemical recuperation of aimless surfing” before they’ve paid sufficient attention to writing’s nuts and bolts.

Instead, they should read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. (In the opening pages, Prose makes a strong argument against traditional writing courses.) And their professors should read that book, too. And then those professors should design courses in which students read classic fiction and modern literature with an eye not toward the sociological or economic or cultural background of authors and storylines, but rather toward those authors’ word choices and sentence construction.

In other words, students need to study the artful science of fiction writing before they jump head-first into an avant-garde creative process like the one outlined in the above course description. “Wasting Time on the Internet” could be justified if students first had to painstakingly dissect the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kafka, and other literary masters over the course of multiple semesters.

Good writing requires good reading, but that’s a skill given short shrift by many English departments.

NYT Writer Says We Must Put More Kids Through College; Tax on the Rich Way to Do It



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Ah, the predictable New York Times. Economics writer Eduardo Porter recently penned a column lamenting that too few young Americans are getting their college degrees, which he naturally assumes is a serious problem. His solution to this imaginary problem is just what you’d expect — higher taxes on the rich! That will provide the money needed for kids from poor families to go to college. If that sounds like the usual brand of statist problem solving, i.e., coercion that will prove to be counterproductive, you’ll like today’s Pope Center piece by Professor Michael Stroup of Stephen F. Austin University.

Stroup tears big holes in Porter’s argument, including his weak assumption that the reason why these young people don’t get their college degrees is just a shortage of funds. There are lots of low-cost options for postsecondary education, but Porter overlooks entirely the well-known deficiencies in K-12 which leaves many students unprepared for anything like real college work, Stroup notes.

Furthermore, what effect would a check from the federal government have on the families Porter means to help? If we know anything about welfare programs it’s that ladling out cash only enables recipients to afford more of what they want, which probably does not include better education. (Bear in mind that the education establishment is dead set against people opting out of public schools, which is how some of those families might choose to spend their windfall.)

And of course Porter pays no attention to the opportunity costs of taking more away from “the rich.” There would be less capital to invest, less money to donate to charitable organizations. Couldn’t the NYT find an economics writer who understands trade-offs and opportunity costs? Guess not.

“Academic Science Isn’t Sexist”



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So says an op-ed in the New York Times, of all places, so it must be true.  A key paragraph:  “So if alleged hiring and promotion biases don’t explain the underrepresentation of women in math-intensive fields, what does? According to our research, the biggest culprits are rooted in women’s earlier educational choices, and in women’s occupational and lifestyle preferences.”  Gee, fancy that.  What’s more, a piece in The New Yorker re-explains that social psychology academia is biased against conservatives.  Wow.  Must be the time change — I better have another cup of coffee.

UNC System Allows Three Schools to Lower Admission Standards



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There is an on-going tug of war in the University of North Carolina system (and, I’m sure, many other state systems) between the desire of some administrators to have such low admission standards that they’ll be able to admit almost any applicant, and the desire of the board of governors to keep standards high enough that students who don’t seem to have the academic ability to do real college work will either go to a community college or pursue some other option. In today’s Pope Center piece, Jesse Saffron examines a recent decision to allow three institutions, North Carolina Central, Elizabeth City State, and Fayetteville State, all HBCUs, to admit applicants with SAT scores as low as 750 — down from 800.

An argument in favor of this change is that high school records are better predictors of academic success than are SAT scores. Supposedly, a substantial number of students who score poorly on the SAT (and a combined score below 800 is very poor indeed) can nevertheless do well enough in college courses that they can remain in school and eventually graduate. Putting aside the obvious rejoinder that today a large percentage of college grads who had much better SAT scores are unemployed or underemployed and therefore just making it through college is a questionable benefit, is it true that students who have low SAT (or ACT) scores but high school GPAs that are “good enough” can handle university work, even as easy as it often is these days?

I doubt that. We’re talking about students whose K-12 education has left them with pitiably weak basic skills. High schools will try to make their best students look like college material (as in the case of Kashawn Campbell, which I wrote about here), but that simply masks their academic deficiencies. Enrolling such students in 4-year universities puts those schools in the remedial education business, even if it isn’t acknowledged to be that. Of course some of them will make it through to their BA degrees, but we know that having a degree these days isn’t necessarily worth anything.

UNC’s Big PR Tab



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According to this piece in the Raleigh News & Observer, UNC has run up a tab of $782,000 for the services of Edelman, the big public relations firm.

Defensively, the university’s spokesman tells us that it isn’t state money being used and that many universities buy PR expertise. Where the funds come from, it seems to me, is not as important as recognizing that there is an opportunity cost. Spending money on PR stuff means less to spend on things that might have something to do with education for the students.

Not all of that 782K relates to the big athletics scandal, but apparently a large chunk does. For $7.82 I’d have gladly written the memo saying what the university needs to say: This was a disgrace and it will not happen again.”

Why Bother With the Humanities?



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Some people say that it’s a waste of time to study the humanities because what young Americans need is job skills. Others say it’s a waste of time (or worse) because the humanities mostly involves the thinking of dead white males, some of whom owned slaves, and none of that can help young Americans understand our modern, multicultural world.

So, should we yawn as these courses gradually disappear or are taken over by multiculturalists? In this Pope Center piece, Jane Shaw states her case in favor of the humanities as traditionally taught. Her reasons are “modest” and Hayekian in nature. The humanities are part of our cultural heritage, which consists, Hayek observed, “of a complex of practices or rules of conduct which have prevailed because they made a group of men successful.” Therefore, Jane writes, “understanding, preserving, and sharing the great ideas of the past may be more important than we think, since we have profound ignorance of what made societies successful.”

She also maintains that universities should preserve the humanities because they’re a key part of the “great debate” between those who believe they can design society to perfection and those, like Hayek, who argue that such efforts will inevitably lead to poor if not disastrous results for humanity.

“It seems reckless to discard the intellectual traditions that have supported us for so long,” she concludes. I agree. While the percentage of students who have an interest in the humanities is no doubt rather small, it’s nevertheless important to keep this intellectual tradition alive for those who do.

OBAMACARE: 122 colleges slash and cap student, faculty hours



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The Affordable Care Act is a misnomer if ever there was one. The bottom line is Obamacare shrinks student and faculty paychecks.

At least 122 colleges and universities across the nation have cut student and faculty work hours to skirt the federal law’s pending mandate requiring employers to provide healthcare to people who work 30 hours or more per week, according to a compilation of anecdotal evidence published Tuesday at The College Fix. That tally will only grow larger when the mandate kicks in in 2015/16.

Taking a cue from the Investors Business Daily’s list of 450-plus public and private companies, school districts, colleges and institutions that have slashed and capped work hours to comply with the employer mandate, The College Fix began its own list focusing on colleges and universities exclusively, and will add to it each time we learn of a new group of students or educators hit by the law.

But if the model holds out, the list will grow exponentially over the next two years.

Tags: Obamacare

Disinvitation Season Now a Year-Round Affair



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The term “disinvitation season” just doesn’t mean much anymore. It implies that there is a specific time of year when disinvitations peak. But we are quickly learning that every season is ripe for intellectual intolerance at America’s colleges and universities.

In September, there was the illiberal push to disinvite Ayaan Hirsi Ali from addressing a group at Yale (courageously resisted by Yale’s administration and President Peter Salovey). Then, we had the disinvitation of George Will from Scripps College (thankfully not mimicked by the leadership at Miami University). Now, not even comedian Bill Maher is safe from the mob. From Politico:

A student petition at University of California, Berkeley, aims to prevent Bill Maher from speaking on campus following his recent comments on Islam. 

The petition, which now has more than 2,200 signatures and is circulated on change.org, demands that the university revoke its invitation for the liberal comedian to speak at a December commencement ceremony.

“Bill Maher is a blatant bigot and racist who has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for,” the petition reads. “Bill Maher’s public statements on various religions and cultures are offensive and his dangerous rhetoric has found its way into our campus communities.”

Of course, as is the case in almost all of these instances, the issue is not whether Maher’s statements or values are worthy of defense. Maher may be a buffoon, and his ideas may be wrongheaded. The issue is the now-prevalent attitude that the right to speech is subservient to the “right” to never be offended—a notion reinforced by UC-Berkeley’s own Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, earlier this year.

As defenders of free speech have long noted, once we begin to build walls protecting us from those with “offensive” ideas and words, those walls will only grow higher and higher, until hardly anyone can surmount them. 

The College-Educated American Terrorist



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The maniac who used an ax against New York City cops in the name of jihad last week had roughly six years of college under his belt. The college-educated American terrorist not only had a bachelor’s degree but spent at least a year at Columbia University as a grad student. It remains to be seen what, if any, effect his education had on his world views. But one thing is clear: somehow Zale Thompson – a U.S. Navy veteran – turned against his country.

A Few Links of Note



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Accountability and Accuracy



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Graduation rates that only track first-time, full-time freshmen provide only a partial measure of schools’ success. This widely cited metric leaves out large cohorts of students who transfer or attend part time, but do, in fact, graduate.

Now, a group of six organizations has launched a project aimed at getting the graduation rate right. The Student Achievement Measure (SAM) gets past outdated assumptions about how students move through college to provide a clearer idea of which schools are putting students on a path to success and which are not.    

SAM provides two major innovations: it tracks students after they’ve gone on to another institution and it allows schools to differentiate between different patterns of enrollment. Two models are used—one for bachelor’s degree seekers and one for associate’s degree or certificate seekers. These are further broken down into part-time and full-time students, a procedure that addresses a crucial flaw in the current model by allowing us to measure each group against an appropriate standard.

This is a timely innovation. With as many as 35% of first-time students transferring at least once during their college career, our methods for measuring graduation rates must improve or they will rapidly lose accuracy and therefore value.

While it must be noted that merely graduating is no assurance a student has been well-served by her institution, it is a sensible place to start. Graduation may not be a sufficient condition for future success, but it is almost always a necessary one. We know, for instance, that students who start college but don’t graduate are among those who struggle the most financially and socially.

It is crucial that we do more to ensure those who begin a degree, and invest substantial time and resources therein, actually attain it. Comparing graduation rates can help us find what works, but only if those rates are constructed in a way that allows for meaningful comparison.

Peter Wood’s Latest, Nicest Letter



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In earlier posts I linked to National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood’s fine letters to Scripps College’s trustees and president, criticizing the school’s decision to disinvite George Will from speaking there. But Miami University has recently defied the gods of political correctness and allowed Mr. Will to speak there, and Peter has eloquently congratulated the school’s president for that.

Sorting Wheat from Chaff in Education Schools



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In order to obtain the necessary license to teach in public schools, future teachers must in most cases go through a state approved education school program. Education schools have justifiably taken a lot of criticism over the last few decades, going back to Rita Kramer’s Ed School Follies (1991) and earlier. Are there better, more effective, less costly ways of preparing an individual for the important job of teaching? Without doubt, but due to government interference, we don’t allow marketplace discovery to work here. Therefore, programs that do little to properly train teachers (or even “miseducate” them, as Kramer argued) remain perfectly viable. There is no feedback loop.

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has been trying to improve that situation. It can’t change the fundamental problem of licensing that ensures ed schools a captive market, but it can and has endeavored to rate education schools, with the idea that if those who hire teachers have information that indicates which ed school programs and good and which ones aren’t, that will generate pressure on the poor schools to improve.

In today’s Pope Center piece, Jesse Saffron examines the new NCTQ report. Few ed school programs get high marks from NCTQ. At a great many, admission standards are very low and the work is easy. Education is a major that appeals to many students simply because it doesn’t demand much effort to get high grades. Worse yet, many ed school programs take an “anything goes” approach to the important subject of reading. At the Pope Center event where NCTQ president Kate Walsh spoke last Friday, she stated that one program told students to come up with their own philosophy on how to teach reading. Instead of relying on knowledge about what works best in teaching reading, ed schools often go with approaches that don’t work, or no approach at all.

Several years ago, an inside critic of ed schools, Professor George Cunningham, observed in this Pope Center paper, that ed schools often are more interested in promoting “progressive” theories about education than in ensuring that their grads know how to instruct students in the knowledge and skills they will need. Little has changed, apparently.

Catholic universities reject Catholic principles



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By reading the headlines over the last few years, it is clear many Catholic universities across the nation not only reject Catholic beliefs, but actively foster campus cultures that promote values antithetical to the region’s teachings.

Today The College Fix reported that Loyola University Chicago has approved a pagan student club for students to seek and find Gods other than the one of the Bible. But that type of story is commonplace when it comes to reporting on institutions that call themselves Catholic.

Earlier this month, DePaul University in Chicago, the country’s largest Catholic school, launched a mentorship program for LGBT students called “Queer Peers.”

And in recent years, the University of San Diego hosted a drag show that featured a devil-inspired costume; the University of Notre Dame welcomed and celebrated homosexuality with a coming-out day; and Georgetown University hosted a pro-abortion week on campus and offered a class on how to lobby for abortion rights. Both Georgetown and Notre Dame also covered up religious artifacts to cater to visits by President Obama.

When a Catholic institution chooses honoring Obama over Jesus, something is very wrong.

But the list goes on and on. Santa Clara University hosts a “Rainbow Prom” every year in support of same-sex marriage. Creighton University gave away concert tickets to a Seattle-based hip-hop duo known for their Bible-bashing song “Same Love.” The University of San Francisco touted a job as director at a Planned Parenthood clinic to students. Marquette University offered a radical FemSex workshop on “what it means to take ownership of one’s own sexuality.” Catholic universities often host controversial guest speakers who have no love for Catholic principles. 

Catholic college officials often say they’re doing this to foster diversity, show respect for others, and add it’s not a requirement to be Catholic to attend a Catholic university.

Why call yourself a Catholic institution at all, then?

Jane Shaw on the UNC Scandal



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The biggest higher education news this week was the release of the report on the UNC athletic/academic scandal by Kenneth Wainstein. In today’s Pope Center piece, Jane Shaw looks at the report and also the bigger question: will the university take the measures necessary to prevent any repetition of academic scams that helped top athletes stay eligible to play (and non-athletes to get some easy credits)? This has been a gigantic embarrassment for UNC, but will the administration now just take cosmetic steps and hope that is will be soon forgotten? The incentive for winning basketball and football teams remains strong and it seems to me that without steady vigilance, the university will slowly slide back into creative ways of admitting athletes who are not capable of doing anything approaching college-level work and keeping them eligible with fluffy courses.

Chancellor Carol Folt’s statement ‘I actually believe that academics and athletics can coexist” is undoubtedly true. The problem, of course, is that it’s very hard for winning teams in the two big sports and academic rigor to coexist. Without vigilant oversight from the chancellor, it won’t be many years before the athletic tail is again wagging the academic dog.

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