Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Boost for Greensboro -- or Another Urban Revitalization Program that Will Flop?


In today’s Pope Center article, Harry Painter examines a public/private partnership that would build a “shared space for all seven postsecondary institutions in Greensboro.” Proponents say that the project would give downtown Greensboro (North Carolina, that is) a big lift and more “college town” feel.

Perhaps, but as Harry writes, the site has long been vacant and despite quite a lot of traffic, has never attracted investment by people or institutions with money at risk.

Will this project recover its costs? We might recall that the famous (infamous, rather) New London redevelopment project that led to the eminent domain seizure of Suzette Kelo’s house, was also supposed to revitalize an urban area. After the land was taken, the project fell through. Given that higher education is in such a state of flux, I’m skeptical that this project will work nearly as well as envisioned.

“Unique” College Courses or Puerile Nonsense?


Nina Friend, writing for the Huffington Post’s education section, has compiled a list titled “The 12 Most Unique College Courses.” While perusing descriptions of classes such as Tree Climbing (Cornell University), The Art of Walking (Centre University), and Stupidity (Occidental College), some readers may find that they object to the author’s use of “unique” in the compilation’s title. 

Faculty, who are often in control of curricula, create half-baked, trendy courses to lure students to their departments and satisfy their penchant for “scholarly” esotericism. Friend’s compilation places the spotlight on that degenerative academic trend. Read the full list here


Get Rid of All Higher Ed Tax Breaks


The Internal Revenue Code is a hopeless jungle of provisions meant to encourage this and discourage that, including at least twelve preferences targeted at higher education. So writes Joseph Thorndike in this Forbes piece. He says, “those tax breaks don’t work very well. As a group, they are poorly targeted and needlessly complex. Many deliver benefits to students who would attend college even without tax assistance — yet they still fail to provide adequate help for those in real need.”

We may have here one of those issues where people from different points on the political spectrum can come together. Thorndike notes that the Center for American Progress has recently attacked higher ed preferences in the tax code.

I can’t agree entirely with his piece — he repeats the old canard that “college is still a good deal” and does not want to just extract the feds from higher education entirely as I favor. Nevertheless, tax preferences seem like an easy target as we begin to un-do decades of faulty federal policy.

Pecksniffian Pundits Pan Koch Scholarship Money


When I first read University of Pennsylvania professor Marybeth Gasman’s June 12 Inside Higher Education op-ed titled “Give the Money Back,” I was baffled by the author’s strong, hyper-political opposition to the Koch brothers’ recent $25 million donation to the United Negro College Fund. Because the money will be used to fund college scholarships for qualified black students, it seemed odd that Gasman, who staunchly supports historically black colleges and universities, wants the UNCF to return the money. In her view, the donation is “tainted” because the Koch brothers have, in the past, donated “huge amounts of money to Tea Party candidates who oppose many policies, initiatives, and laws that empower African Americans.” 

George Leef, writing in today’s Pope Center feature, argues that critics of the scholarship fund, such as Professor Gasman, are misguided:

Money is fungible. Any dollar has exactly the same worth as any other dollar. Money is also sterile – it does not magically transmit whatever real or imaginary evil the person who earned it may have done to the next person who takes the dollar in trade or as a gift. Quite a few people who have done horrible things during their lives make bequests to their churches. Those churches are not contaminated with crimes of the givers.

Don’t take that quote as a concession by Leef that the Koch brothers have “done horrible things.” On the contrary, Leef says that, had the Koch brothers’ limited government philosophy been adopted decades ago, blacks would be much better off today. He also points out that the brothers’ gift and high expectations for scholarship recipients will benefit future black students and that, instead of attempting to score political points, supporters of the UNCF and HBCUs should look for more ways to collaborate along charitable, voluntary lines with organizations and people like the Kochs. 

Live by the Goverment, Die by the Government


It may be too early to predict the demise of Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit online school with 72,000 students, but the company is in extremely difficult straits, thanks to the Department of Education. The problem is not the threat of “gainful employment,” the rules that the department is about to impose selectively on for-profits, but a direct attack on this particular school.

For the past six months the department and Corinthian have been going at it, according to Inside Higher Education. Now the department is delaying its payment of student loans to the school by 21 days, which, it appears, will severely hurt the cash position of the school, forcing it to borrow–but it’s having trouble doing that,  especially since its stock price has dropped to 28 cents.

IHE reports that the department claims that Corinthian has not answered questions about “its practices, including questions about job placement data, marketing claims and allegations about altered student grades and attendance records.” Corinthian responded to IHE that it had 100 people working on replying to the department’s queries and that the inquiry keeps expanding.

This contretemps–which, with the education of 72,000 students in play, is serious indeed–illustrates how far this nation has gone down the path of selective use of government power. (The IRS scandals are an even more spectacular example.) How does a federal bureaucracy have the power to destroy a company without benefit of judge or jury?

But it also illustrates that companies that live by the sword can die by the sword. For-profit companies rely on government-backed and government-provided student loans. Eighty percent of Corinthian’s revenues come from such loans. Without them, the for-profit sector in education would be small indeed or entirely different. And the government is fickle.


The Educational Equivalent of Bleeding a Sick Patient


As we read in this IHE story, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the approved federal accreditor for schools in the southeast, has just placed several schools on probation.The common thread is that the institutions show “financial instability.” Of course the administrators know when they’re in financial difficulty and don’t need an accreditor to tell them that the problem needs attention. Placing a school on probation might weaken it further, if some prospective students shy away from an institution once they hear about the accreditation problem. It’s rather like the old practice of bleeding sick people in the belief that bad blood was the cause. All that bleeding did was to make the person weaker and less apt to recover. That’s the case here as well.

Warning! Severe Outbreak of Koch Derangement Syndrome


When the Koch brothers gave $25 million to the United Negro College Fund recently, Koch Derangement Syndrome immediately broke out in academic quarters. I comment on the furor and praise UNCF president Michael Lomax for not caving in to pressure (unlike many college presidents regarding invited speakers) in my latest Forbes piece.


Cynical about Starbucks


The announcement of Starbucks’ program for helping expand the glut of young Americans with college degrees — oops, I mean program of helping young Americans complete their degrees so they can rake in the great benefits of having college credentials — has met with some cynicism. Is it mainly a PR move or a political coziness move? Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey thinks so and explains why in this SeeThruEdu piece.

UNC Poo-poos the Extent of its Athletics Scandal


The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill suffered severe embarrassment a couple of years ago when it was revealed that some of its prize student-athletes in the big revenue sports (football and basketball) had gotten credit for courses where they did hardly any work and the classes did not actually meet. Since then, the story has deepened. A researcher has said that a rather large number of the school’s athletes have woefully poor reading ability. The University has countered with its own experts who say that the problem is de minimis.

Today’s Pope Center Clarion Call by Jenna Ashley Robinson examines this ongoing controversy. Her piece also points to other probative evidence, such as the low SAT scores and high school GPAs of most of the athletes.  A particularly telling quotation comes from a UNC reading specialist who says there have been, “many student-athletes who were specially admitted whose academic preparedness is so low they cannot succeed here.” Of course, when students are “too important to fail” because winning or losing basketball or football seasons depend on them, the result is shenanigans to keep them eligible.

The exact number of student-athletes who read at a grade-school level is beside the point. Universities shouldn’t admit such students at all.



Replacing Race


Here are two thematically similar pieces, both worth a read:  from the New York Times, “If Affirmative Action Is Doomed, What Next?” by David Leonhardt; and, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, “What Sotomayor Gets Wrong about Affirmative Action” by Richard D. Kahlenberg.  Both talk about income/locale-based alternatives to racial preferences in university admissions, since both believe that such preferences are dying, and both discuss two new books on the alternatives, Place Not Race by Sheryll Cashin and The Future of Affirmative Action by Anthony Carnevale, Stephen J. Rose, and Jeff Strohl.

Calling All Life-Long Learners


I’ve taken five online courses at five different institutions over the years. Only one of them has been an enjoyable experience. That was at Libertas U., a new “virtual” online school that, for the time being, offers non-credit courses for adults who wish to learn history, political theory, or high culture (my course was a close reading of Machiavelli’s The Prince, for whom I have a new appreciation). Plans are afoot to move to credit-bearing courses in the near future.

One of the problems I had with other online adventures was that the explanation of difficult concepts (as well as forming accurate questions about them) is very difficult and time-consuming for both student and teacher when both have to write them out instead of talking. In order for the schools to make the courses economically feasible, the teachers have to work only limited hours in exchange for low salaries. Since answering students’ questions is extremely time-consuming, if done properly, teachers tend to farm such matters out to the student discussion boards—where you are more likely to get bad info (or no info) than a good explanation. The experience can be quite frustrating.

Not so at Libertas U. It is as close to being in a real classroom as possible. Students get their own avatars to represent them. The avatars can move around and speak in real time, just like real students. Libertas students are not merely passive observers of videos, as they are at some of the more-heralded MOOC-style schools. They are active participants; the classes are discussion-laden seminars with lots of give and take—the “online explanation problem” doesn’t exist.

And instead of the untenured and desperate, as is the case with teachers at some of the popular for-credit institutions are, Libertas has world-class scholars, such as Roger Scruton and Tom Lindsay (Lindsay taught my Machiavelli course). If you’re looking for a place to learn the Great Books and great ideas with no pressure and great teachers, give Libertas U a shot.  (Tom’s next course, starting in July, is “What is Love; Plato’s Symposium.”)

Common Sense Economics from a Porn Star


Do you remember “Belle Knox,” the Duke University student (real name Miriam Weeks) who made headlines earlier this year when a classmate revealed that she works in the adult film industry? After Weeks’s porn background became part of the public record, some left-wingers and sex-positive feminists used her story as a springboard for debating what they consider to be the evils of “patriarchy” and society’s backwards and hypocritical stances on sexuality. Other, more conservative voices criticized Duke University officials for ignoring the case and for failing to take a moral stand against Weeks. 

Regardless of what you may think about Weeks, her recent opinion piece on Time’s website is worth reading. She possesses a solid understanding of higher education’s landscape and the catastrophes that have resulted from a “federal spigot” that primes the pump with an endless stream of subsidies and grants:

Everyone is focused on my decision to perform in porn to pay my tuition. Let’s start paying attention to what got me here. Sky-high tuition bills result from a culture, from our President on down, telling every kid to go to college, regardless of their future plans or ability to graduate.

Weeks also points out that administrative bloat and the rise of collegiate bureaucracies are negative consequences of the government’s flawed postsecondary policies. 

Some have accused “Belle” of uncouthly exploiting her newfound fame to become a popular pundit. That may be the case, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Her latest article displays more common sense and economics understanding than I see from many policymakers and politicians. But maybe that’s not saying much. 

The Faculty Teaching “Load” in the UNC System


In an old, perhaps apocryphal joke, a state legislator is talking to a professor and asks how much teaching he does. “Eight hours,” replies the prof. “Well, that’s a pretty full day, but at least the work is interesting,” replies the politician, not realizing what the prof means by eight hours.

It is important for higher ed authorities to keep up the perception that faculty members put in a lot of time in the classroom. In today’s Pope Center piece, Jay Schalin takes a critical look at data in the UNC system that seems pretty hard to believe — data that make it appear that profs teach substantially more than they actually do. His analysis suggests that the system is trying to fudge the figures so as to keep state funding up: “With so much money riding on state officials’ perceptions of UNC faculty workloads, there is an incentive for UNC officials to inflate their averages.”

From Jay’s analysis, it seems that UNC is trying to game the system by overstating the average teaching loads of faculty members. That sort of behavior is perfectly consistent with public choice theory, which holds that public officials will do all they can to maximize their revenues.

Let’s Get Serious about Sex, cont’d.


The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault claims that one in five women has been sexually assaulted in college. Granted, the one in five figure is the result of surveys that are aimed at constructing a broad conception of what constitutes assault. (The words rape, assault, harassment, misconduct, violence, battery, abuse, victimization, stalking, and coercion tend to elide into each other as you peruse the literature overall). We certainly don’t have to believe that these claims all involve actual rape or even serious violence, and we may suspect that many involve miscalculation, disappointment, and regret on the part of the woman. And we may even surmise that after several decades of the feminist ascendancy, women have been soundly tutored to think any questionable interchange with a male of the species is a form of assault.

Yes, the figure is being challenged as outlandish, and the definitions are slippery, but suppose we accept it as a sign that in the eyes of college women, a lot of discomfiting and unpleasant things are happening between the boys and the girls on campus these days. Isn’t it possible that the proximity of men and women in sleeping and sometimes even in bathroom arrangements in coed dormitories might, might, have something to do with that? Isn’t it worth looking into? To my knowledge, no one has investigated this aspect specifically (I wonder why), but one can glean some hints from other work. According to the Campus Sexual Assault Study, for the period 2005-2007, commissioned by the Department of Justice, assaults usually occur with someone the woman knows, and usually in her freshman and sophomore years; these are the years when students are most likely to live in dorms before many decamp to off-campus apartments. The CSA study also shows some figures that indicate a significant number of assaults occurred in the victim’s own dormitory. We might conjecture also that the familiarity of the coed dorm could lead to blurring of boundaries and unwelcome presumptions of intimacy outside of the dorms as well. In the feminist-sponsored imperative to believe that men and women are the same and so can cohabit easily together, authorities ironically find themselves confronting the fact that men and women are different in sexual attitudes and behavior. The literature mentions the need to be alert to risk factors. Well here is one—an arrangement which only yesterday would have been considered scandalous, irresponsible, dangerous, and a guarantee of trouble.

Another risk factor is drinking. According to the CSA report, “the majority of sexual assaults occur when women are incapacitated due to their use of substances, primarily alcohol.” So wouldn’t it be wise to prohibit alcohol in the dorms and to tell women to watch their drinking overall? The CSA study strongly advises that women be apprised of this risk factor, but it is not stressed in the current White House campaign. Of course, it is still wrong for a man to take advantage of an inebriated woman, and a gentleman would never do so, but to prevent trouble, women should take responsibility for their own behavior.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous


College students might dream about one day enjoying the lifestyle of the rich and famous, but some can do more than that. They can enroll in a program on Global Luxury Management and, for a while at least, cavort in pricey boutiques while learning how to appear cool and sophisticated. In today’s Pope Center piece, Jesse Saffron writes about the Global Luxury Management program at North Carolina State.

I would like to see this program (and so many others that colleges offer) put to the test of the market. If students had to pay the full cost of their education, would the program survive? I doubt it.

Mixed-Race Student Victimized by University’s Diversity Mania


The “diversity” mindset that dominates in higher education insists on pigeon-holing people into groups they supposedly “represent.” The University of Connecticut recently did that with a grad student in English, very much to her detriment. The student, a woman who is mixed black and white, won a prestigious and valuable award on her merit, only to later discover that she had been given a less valuable award based on “diversity” because the university needed someone for it. Read about this case in this press release by the Center for Individual Rights.

I seem to recall hearing a line about evaluating people on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

Read and Weep, If You Love Literature


English professors have nearly killed English departments, as evidenced by the University of Arizona’s moving English from the Humanities to the College of Social Behavior, as well as the hectoring of “hidebound faculty members” who believe that “Web comics” and “hip-hop discourses” are not appropriate for study in English classes.  I write about the trend at Minding the Campus in “Goodbye to English Departments.”

Recording Classes on Cell Phones: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?


Technological changes almost always breed unexpected controversies. When the cell phone first came on the market, no one thought that students might one day use them to make recordings of what goes on in their classes, but we now know that they are do exactly that. Should it be allowed? Or banned? Or restricted in some way? And who should make the decision?

Those are issues I discuss in this week’s Pope Center Clarion Call.

Some people argue that beneficial classroom interactions might be deterred if students or the professor think that they are being recorded. Statements might be taken out of context or edited so as to make the speaker look bad to anyone who clicks on a posted link, thus causing a loss of robust presentation and discussion. On the other hand, the suspicion that a student might be making a recording could deter bad things from happening, such as useless harangues by professors or guest speakers.

It isn’t an easy call and I suggest that the best course is to avoid centralized decisions in favor of a more flexible “spontaneous order” approach relying on decisions at the micro level.


More on Needless Teaching Credentials


Teachers, in my opinion, are born, not made. The good ones have a servant’s heart. But how they hone the skills of becoming effective is a valid point to discuss. Rick Hess used to write about the added cost of a college experience that the extra year getting a credential meant. It raises the college cost to 125% more than necessary.

I witnessed firsthand the quality of the to-be-teachers when I was in college. As an English major, I was scrambling around for classes after completing all the core requirements and enrolled in “Kiddie” lit. The education majors couldn’t write papers. It was astounding. (I loved that course and its illumination of the major themes in children’s stories.)

This advanced degree stuff all started in the late 1950s with California’s Fisher bill. The idea that a master’s degree gets you more money is ludicrous. Learning should be for learning’s sake. That’s what we want the kids to believe, isn’t it?

During my experience with Catholic school education, one of the saddest occurrences was when a valued, effective teacher was let go because he or she hadn’t a credential and lacked the energy to go back to school. Such an incredible waste of a person’s talent.

The same errors of judgment occurred when parents of Catholic schools demanded that class size be reduced because the public schools were doing it. This in a parochial system that had based its model on 30-35 per class, and had seen that regimen graduate the most prepared and headed-to-success students in our country.


President Obama Misses the Target


Starting with his 2012 State of the Union Address, President Obama has properly taken aim at high college costs. But when it comes to policy implementation, his administration is not taking the measures that are essential for true reform.

The latest salvo from the White House is an executive order extending income-based caps on loan repayment to millions of new borrowers. According to Inside Higher Ed, the order allows “all federal loan borrowers, regardless of when they borrowed, to cap their monthly loan payments at 10 percent of their discretionary income and to have any remaining loan debt forgiven after 20 years.”

This will undeniably provide relief to many struggling under the burden student loan debt. But, as the editors here at NRO note, “The open-ended nature of many federal subsidies for higher-ed borrowing is a big contributor to college costs in the first place.” Making it easier for students to take on debt will assuredly fuel higher education’s voracious appetite for tuition revenue (the administration itself does not yet know the how much expanding the loan program will cost), but will do little to address the underlying cause of the student debt crisis—the unconscionable, ever growing cost of a college education.

Transparent, accessible measures of college quality, outcomes, and cost are the only solution to that problem. If the federal government wants to help, it could start by breaking the college accreditation cartel, which has for decades provided an illusion of higher education quality control, while increasing, rather than controlling, higher education operating costs. The Higher Education Opportunity Act is up for renewal this year, and it is an opportunity for urgently needed reform. The president can lay the groundwork for Congress to replace this broken system with the information that empowers consumer choice. Ultimately, it is students, parents, and state taxpayers who will have to hold colleges accountable directly. It’s long past time for schools to pare back bloated administrations, cut outsized presidential salaries, make more and better teaching a priority, and end unnecessary building sprees.

Higher ed doesn’t need a Band-Aid—it needs surgery. It’s time to tackle the root of the problem.


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