Saturday, June 14, 2014

Tuition Inflation in #HigherEd & why @SenWarren 's Proposal Won't Fix It

College tuition has been inflating severely since the early 1990s, at a rate far exceeding the CPI. This alarming trend defies simple explanation... and there is no simple cure.

Without question, tuition inflation is one of the most severe challenges for American millennials. Although the data assure impressive long-term (~30 year) return on college investment for most students, tuition inflation has made it almost impossible for students and their families to make that investment without long-term loans. And unfortunately, much student debt is serviced at interest rates far exceeding reasonable benchmarks e.g. the 30-year bond yield or the 30-year mortgage rates.

It is important to note that little of the cumulative student debt is served by the Federal assistance programs such as the Stafford program. This is well known to families with students in college today.

In the most cynical analysis, it appears that some parts of Higher Ed and the loan industry are in collusion, baiting students with promises of remunerative careers while luring them into loans they may never repay. Indeed this analysis seems particularly apt for certain for-profit programs, which have been the target of recent Congressional attention.

Highlighting the impending increase on Stafford loans from 3.4% to 6.8%, Senator Elizabeth Warren recently brought some much-needed attention to the problem of loan repayment; she summarizes her program in this PDF:

One of Senator Warren's most compelling arguments is the following:

"This year, the federal government will make $34 billion on student loans. The government even makes money on its loans to low-income students – 36 cents, on average, for every student loan dollar it puts out. If Congress allows the interest rate on these loans to double, the federal government will bring in even more revenue – money that comes straight from the pockets of college students."

However, as noted before, only a fraction of student loan debt is served by the Stafford program.

Also, it important to note that a very simple market principle: in the debt markets, the demand for loans is inversely proportional to the loan rate. In other words, if the loan rates are depressed, more students will take on debt. Is that really what we want? or do we want to find ways to make it possible for stduents to complete college without a mountain of debt?

Of course, Sen. Warren intends to migrate student debt away from predatory loans to less expensive loans, and is one way to help today's students in debt crisis. But the larger issue -much larger than Sen. Warren's well-intended vision of debt relief- is ongoing tuition inflation in higher ed, which will continue to hit tomorrow's students very hard. And that inflation arises from complicated institutional effects that aren't easily distilled into political sound bites. The uncomfortable truth is that I and many of my colleagues were able to complete college with ~zero debt only a few decades ago, and that is almost impossible today. Why?

In the coming weeks, I'll visit the various sources of tuition inflation in an informal way, and suggest reasonable ways to address them. and I pledge that nothng will be sacred. So stay tuned!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Education Market Enriches Apple and Microsoft

In this letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education, I express my concern about the huge profits taken by companies like Apple and Microsoft in the education market:

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Looking forward to meeting @jackandraka...

Inspiring and energetic young inventor Jack Andraka will visit me and the students at #UVa next week. First he'll visit my nanoelectronics class, ECE 4140, and then he'll give talk and do some Q&A on Monday at noon in the dome room of the UVa Rotunda. It'll be a lot of fun, and I am expecting a lot of other young inventors to attend.

Biomedical engineer Alex Zorychta, himself a clever inventor whose team recently won a UVa Entrepreneurship Cup and secured substantial funding, has set up a FaceBook Event to help me publicize this event.

Given the source of Jack's inspiration, the topic of his research, and the venue for his talk, I thought it'd be appropriate to comment about Randy Pausch, the brilliant computer scientist who inspired so many people with his "Last Lecture" and "Time Management" during his final days here in Virginia. Here are the introductory ppt slides that I will present on Monday:

Keith Williams' intro slides for Jack Andraka's visit on Monday April 21st


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Is #CNN wagging the dog over #MH370?

CNN has given me the motivation to blog again… and unfortunately not for a positive reason.

By now, almost everyone on the planet is familiar with the sad mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, lost for more than two weeks after departing Kuala Lumpur. Certainly, this is a tragic event and the families and friends of the passengers deserve our ongoing support and consolation.

There are two tragedies here: foremost, or course, the loss of the passengers. The second tragedy is the inexplicable and sudden loss of CNN’s credibility as a news organization. The network has been parroting wild speculation, and repeating the same news ad nauseum. Worst still, CNN appears to be manufacturing or at least repurposing old news, to give viewers the impression that they are delivering something significant... when in fact the story has barely advanced in weeks. And some details, presented as sufficient grounds for wild speculation, have been revealed incorrect, e.g. the famous "alright goodnight," now refuted. The truth is that this could be an approximate repeat of the Helios Airways Flight 522 tragedy... we simply don't know yet, and we may not know for months or years.

The tactics that CNN has used to boost ratings are rather obvious. At regular intervals, we see “Breaking News” splashed across the screen. This is accompanied, of course, by the familiar theme reinforcing the urgency. We see a checkerboard of ‘experts’ who, instead of clearly delineating what is known from what is not, as any responsible expert should do, often appear to attempt to outdo each others’ gut feelings. We see two “pilots” installed in a flight simulator, where they game all manner of scenarios, with no apparent relationship to evidence. CNN has entertained virtually (pun intended) every possible scenario… and a few impossible ones too. Anchors of several CNN shows have been pulled into the ratings frenzy, shoving aside many stories for which far more substantive information exists, e.g. the tragedy in Washington, and the annexation of Ukraine and subsequent massing of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border.

It’s not CNN shouldn’t report on MH370- of course they should. But shouldn’t the amount of coverage be proportional to the availability of newsworthy content? That this isn’t the case opens the door to the frightening proposition that CNN is manufacturing a story… wagging the dog, so to speak. Meanwhile, CNN’s ratings have indeed improved. But at what cost?

There is news, there are newsmakers... and then there are journalists. Does anyone at CNN know the difference?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How Many of our Students are Adequately Prepped for Maximum Return on a College Investment?

The subject of how to prepare a student for college continues to be on my mind...

Recently, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education that describes many of the issues associated with computing return on the college investment:

As I consider the viewpoints expressed in this article, I again wonder if the role of preparation is given sufficient attention.

A common assumption made by students and their families is that college will illuminate a clear career path and guarantee a certain salary. In other words, college is a ticket to the good life; you simply buy that ticket, and off you go.

My feeling is that we need to communicate much more clearly to the students that college is an enabling experience... not an entitling experience. If a student doesn't understand that key difference and realize that this is in fact a good thing, then that student probably isn't ready for college.

A transformative college experience is something in which students must truly participate- i.e. it's not a movie that they can sit through, passively view, and exit with more than they arrived. College should not be viewed as mere credentialing. Our students should be better prepared to engage and expected to engage; this is the "collegium" of college- it's not just some high-priced theatre that you watch. When students are ready to come and participate with the faculty and with each other, then the outcome is far greater for all.

And on this overarching topic of preparation to engage... what I think is most obviously missing from so many discussions of college's return on investment is how to gauge preparedness. Pre-college preparation is not measured simply by points on an ACT or SAT! The important question is whether the student has the academic and social maturity to get the most out of their experience. Many parents seem unaware that their students simply aren't ready to dive in... in which case, all the points and counterpoints about the college return on investment are fairly moot. Even the very best programs will do little for an underprepared student. 

I first wrote about the 'prep problem' on this blog around a year ago.... and I'm even more convinced of its importance today.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Campus Counseling Visits on the Rise.. Why?

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that "The number of college students with severe psychological problems continues to increase, while anxiety, depression, and relationship issues most commonly send students to seek help at their campus counseling centers, according to a report released last month."

Here's the article link; you probably need a Chronicle subscription to read it:

First, I have to say that it's very sad to read this today, on the anniversary of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, which took place six years ago. Have we made any progress toward prevention of such events? It doesn't seem to me that we have. There are so many distressed young people, and our discussions about these issues are still so superficial.

Interestingly, the study cited in the Chronicle reports an inverse correlation between the number of counseling visits per student, and school size:

"Centers at small, private colleges typically draw a greater percentage of students than do those at large, public institutions. At private four-year colleges with enrollments between 1,500 and 2,500, roughly 18 percent of students visited the counseling center, the report says. At public universities of more than 30,000, only 7 percent of students did."

On this topic, I suspect that financial issues are one of the main drivers behind the anxiety that students feel. If that's the case, then there may be a correlation between counseling visits and sticker price. Also, based on recent discussions with several sets of parents, I'd say too many parents make an incorrect assumption that a small school is necessarily more socially welcoming and supportive than a larger one. Usually, those making this assumption cite the student-teacher ratio, which is very limited metric, in my opinion. Parents often assume that smaller is better, but it's really not that simple. I have worked with a number of students who really loved and took great advantage of the more diverse student population that they found in a large public university. They like the social options and, perhaps to some extent, the anonymity. 

One young fellow I've worked with on career goals for a few years told me that a small college he visited felt too much like high school... cliquey and full of the same kinds of kids. This is consistent with my own experience. I don't know about you but for me, high school was a rather awful social experience, where it was very hard to find kids with whom I could identify. My transition into a fairly large public college brought tremendous relief!

Overall, it seems to me that many of our schools have become places of great stress, with too many students believing that every test is make-or-break... and too many faculty teaching to the tests, rather than really connecting with the students. Grade inflation has made it so hard to distinguish oneself that the students are scratching and clawing over every plus or minus. And we now have a quarter or more of our students resorting to amphetamine-based prescription medications to assist with cramming... 

...not to mention the anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants. It seems that college has become a fabulously profitable pharmaceutical enterprise. Is anyone really surprised? Is today's college environment where students want to come and feel inspired to take those first, tentative steps toward finding themselves?

Far too many discussions I have with students now revolve around finances and related anxieties, e.g. whether there will be a job for them, whether they can cram it all into three years, etc. In addition to that direct financial stress, several other factors seem to elevate the anxiety in our colleges. The enrollment surge is something many of our colleges were ill-equipped to handle, and that surge led to larger and less personal classes and now perhaps even acceptance of courses that students won't even attend in person, because that's how the system thinks it can pare instructional costs. And this is "college"... collegium... a social environment.

Monday, March 25, 2013

"Robots Aren't the Problem" in our economy, but what about our schools?

In an essay on the topic of technology entitled "Robots Aren't the Problem" in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Florida writes:"we should look at how [technology] affects our social and economic arrangements—and how we have failed to adapt [it] to our circumstances."

This raises deep concerns about higher ed in general and the STEM disciplines in particular. Surely I am not alone with my concerns about the widening disconnect between the economy surrounding the highly integrated consumer technology... and the faltering economy of learning. 

Full disclosure: I am a nano / device physics guy; I and students built lovely nanotube-based transistors and whatnot together over the years before I left academia, so I'm about as close to the most hyped tech directions as you can find on a typical college campus. Even as a very tech-friendly academic, I have real questions about what exactly I am teaching for. I know that I can't simply break open an iPhone and fish out some parts and teach classes about those. Many of these devices that surround us are so integrated that their operating principles are obscure even to experts.

Okay... I could teach courses on this material... but those classes would be nothing at all like what most of our students take now, and very few students would be sufficiently prepared to delve into the black boxes that fill our lives. Within our current curriculum, frankly, we're doing well to bring students up to speed on technology a full decade (or two) prior. The tech fields have gone into so many different directions of late, it's very hard to keep students abreast without diluting the core curriculum. Do our institutions of learning really have any idea just how big the gap has become, between what we teach and what a student would need to thrive in the tech sector?

After completing the lectures and proceeding into the research labs, our students typically do very basic research sponsored by the likes of NSF, i.e. with very little tie-in to companies like Apple ($AAPL) and Google ($GOOG) and other tech leaders. And those tech leaders aren't really investing in next-generation talent; in fact, they aren't really investing in much of anything- they have huge amounts of cash on hand. Where do we go from here... Apple University? Google University? And do those companies have a faculty job for me... ;)

In summary: what economic growth we do have in this nation right now is very much about consumer tech designed by a few specialists and manufactured abroad, and ed is almost totally disconnected from that. This is a very worrisome trend, in my view. 

N.b. I am certainly not criticizing the underlying technology and I am no Luddite.... but I do question how consumer technology comports with ideas about a liberal higher education as a means of career advancement beyond academia.

P.S. Just for Mr. Coburn: my work to teach nanotechnology to undergraduates was partially supported by NSF Nanoscience Undergraduate Education (NUE) Grant 0532515, entitled "'We're Not in Kansas Anymore' - A Hands-On Introduction to the New World of Nanoscience and Technology."