2010 November 13 Saturday
Retreat From Universal Higher Education Decried

Michael Konczal decries the collapsing support for public higher education. Is he saying we should support universal higher education with tax-subsidized low tuitions? He's not clear on what lost ideal he's defending.

One striking thing about the current global recession, a crisis that has hit those in the United States with weaker education backgrounds much harder than others, is that one response has been the massive retrenchment, austerity and abandonment of the promise and ideal of public college education.

That's a conventional liberal interpretation. But it leaves out causes. So let me offer some: First, institutions of higher education ran up their costs of operation so high that they've become a huge (and still growing) burden on the middle class. Too many administrators, too many very expensive buildings, higher salaries. Well, the middle class is pushing back. I'm only surprised by how long it took for the camel's back to start to break.

On top of that, liberals have promoted college educations as a universal inoculation against low wages, poverty, and social pathology. But in doing so they ignored why college students of previous generations went on to such success: They were smart going in to college. They were the brightest kids. Now kids with much lower IQs are pushed to go to college and their apparent return on investment is, not surprisingly, extremely low or negative (at least not surprisingly to anyone who accepts there's a Bell Curve for IQ distribution).

Is education a public good? Well, it depends very much on who you are educating and what you are teaching them. For example, how can anyone (not seriously deluded by a secular ideology) think there's a return on investment to society from teaching 100 IQ people in colleges?

The battle isn't really over the humanities anymore (though the humanities are going to take the brunt of this), but the actual idea of education as a public good, the idea that someone can develop their full capabilities in the wealthiest nation on Earth without entering debt peonage.

If going to college puts one into debt peonage then why doesn't the resulting degree give one enough earning power to pay off the debt fairly quickly? I can see a few reasons: First, the degree costs too much because colleges are too inefficient and bloated. Second, what's being taught (e.g. ethnic grievance studies) does not raise earning power or ability to produce real wealth. Third, some of the people being taught are unsuited for college-level material and ought to be getting taught skills they are actually capability of mastering. That might be plumbing, masonry, or auto repair. But for some of even lower ability it might be burger-flipping or broom-pushing. The liberal writings on education are notable for ignoring the lower IQ people and their real needs.

Supposedly the sciences are expensive to teach. But one could learn organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, or even nucleic acid chemistry from recorded video lectures. Virtual labs controllable with GUIs could enable students to try basic chemistry experiments and physics experiments.

That said, Aaron Brady has argued (here and here) the clear case the problem proposed is usually one of bad faith, that humanities tend to cross-subsidize the sciences, as sciences like medicine are expensive to teach (labs, chemicals, machinery) and humanities like English are less so (a book).

Rather than embrace the need for automation to make education more affordable Konczal quotes Wendy Brown on high online course drop-out rates.

The drop-out rate for students taking on-line courses is persistently and consistently high, paralleling the drop-out rate of for-profit colleges. It is routinely 20% higher than drop-out rates from on campus courses and runs as high as 70% for some courses and programs. Moreover, the high rate, much studied, seems impossible to fix. … Why do drop out rates matter? Because students pay for courses and programs they don’t complete. ... Millions of former students are now “under water” with debt from on-line courses of study they never completed and/or whose benefit they never reaped.

But what are the causes of the higher online drop-out rates? The camaraderie of going off to college courses with dorm roommates might lower drop-out rates. But other causes seem plausible and even more likely. For example, if it easier to do something (e.g. start taking a college course) and it takes less change in one's life to start doing it then it is also easier to stop doing it. But lower barriers to entry also mean more people will try to do something in the first place.

Another cause: People taking courses at heavily marketed online course sites are, on average, far less intellectually able than those who go to elite colleges. They are being oversold about their ability to take the courses and the value of taking the courses. But there's a parallel to this in the traditional non-profit bricks-and-mortar institutions: very high drop-out rates at lower ranked colleges due to students who clearly in high school were already lower intellectually ranked, most of whom dropped out of college. About half of those who enroll in college do not have a degree 6 years later. How's that for a drop-out rate? Again, same cause: people who should not even be trying to learn college-level material are giving up out of lack of curiosity and ability. Unless comparisons of drop-out rates control for intellectual ability using IQ tests (or at least SAT tests as moderately strong IQ test proxies) claims that online courses deliver lower value can not be trusted.

Pre-recorded lecture courses, online standardized tests, and teaching software (e.g. virtual lab and interactive training software) must grow because higher education costs too much, offers too low a return on investment for most students, and it is too inconvenient. Higher education does not fit the needs for a large fraction of the population. Its benefits have been oversold (much like the for-profit universities) and the public has reached its limits on its willingness to pay thru the nose for it. For many people higher education does not boost income enough to justify it and for some higher education does not boost income at all.

The arguments put forth by the education sector to promote its added value are incredibly weak. A recent report pointed out the higher incomes of college-educated as proof that college education offers a high ROI. But a far more likely explanation is that the ROI on brains has risen.

Workers with a college degree earned much more and were much less likely to be unemployed than those with only a high school diploma, according to the report, “Education Pays: the Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society.”

According to the report, the median earnings of full-time workers with bachelor’s degrees were $55,700 in 2008 — $21,900 more than those of workers who finished only high school.

What's the IQ difference between the average college graduate and the average high school graduate and average high school drop-out? 15, 20, 25 points? Does anyone honestly not expect that smarter people will do better on average than people who are intellectually unable to even master algebra?

Update: Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt: How Our Future Was Sold Out for Student Loans, Bad Jobs, No Benefits, and Tax Cuts for Rich Geezers--And How to Fight Back and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education argues that online education learning software can incorporate findings from cognitive research to provide a superior learning experience. Hear, hear!

The modern era of research-based learning software began with the work of John R. Anderson at Carnegie Mellon, who published “The Architecture of Cognition” in 1983, detailing how learners master a cognitive skill as a system of procedural rules. Today’s best-of-breed learning programs draw on cognitive science, developmental psychology and artificial intelligence to teach math, reading, physics, computer science, foreign languages and a host of other subjects faster, more thoroughly, and more engagingly than traditional classroom instruction. They do this by allowing students to move at their own pace and prompting them to spend more time on task, reflect on what they learn and collaborate.

The Department of Education released a meta-analysis of more than 1,000 studies of online learning last fall, and concluded that in most cases, online learning actually produces significantly better outcomes than classroom-based learning. Hybrid approaches, which combined some face-to-face time with online practice and assessments, scored better than both all-online and all-classroom approaches.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2010 November 13 10:13 AM  Education Returns On Investment

James Bowery said at November 13, 2010 11:34 AM:

What is the essential difference between a degree and a life title? If there is no essential difference then they are illegal in the US.

Mercer said at November 13, 2010 5:16 PM:

" higher education ran up their costs of operation so high that they've become a huge (and still growing) burden on the middle class. Too many administrators, too many very expensive buildings, higher salaries. Well, the middle class is pushing back. I'm only surprised by how long it took for the camel's back to start to break."

They did this because they thought that was what students wanted. Here is an example:

"The university didn’t need a new student union, arguably, but Trachtenberg thought it was important enough for the school to spend a lot of money to build it. Why? According to the conventional wisdom in student recruitment, statistics about job placement and department quality often seem impossibly remote to high school seniors. Instead they respond to soaring student unions, fitness centers worthy of the Olympics, and dormitories with a kitchen in every suite. GW aimed to oblige: the American Institute of Architects gave the Marvin Center its highest award, the Excellence in Architecture prize, in 2003."


Randall Parker said at November 13, 2010 5:48 PM:


Thanks for posting that URL. Yes, I read that article a month ago and wanted to find it again for this post. For everyone else: Universities made themselves more expensive in part to pose like they were Ivy League caliber. Great article.

Fake but Accurate said at November 14, 2010 12:48 PM:

The fact remains, the number of people who can learn to be rocket scientists, brain surgeons, kernel coders, etc, is not large. Likely less than 10% of the population has the required intelligence, perhaps less than about 3% if it requires 2 SDs above the mean.

All those humanities degrees are wasted, by the way.

Escapist said at November 14, 2010 1:20 PM:

A good start may be ceasing to subsidize the liberal arts/fluffy courses, and to change the romanticized notion of "study what you enjoy" to "study something that is profitable, which you are good at, and which you do not dislike".

There's also this bogus idea that if an organization is not explicitly "for profit", that it is genuinely non-profit. In academia, the profit goes to massive salaries and perks for the connected upper admin.

A good meme for the right may be to decry the greed of the educational system (admin, faculty etc) with their cushy salaries (especially the upper admin) and tenure, while they hike prices at massive rates. The right could go on the attack with this one, thus splitting some of the left's coalition (youth vs. academia) and introducing measures which reduce academia's wealth.

Randall Parker said at November 14, 2010 8:15 PM:


The way to reduce academia's power is to:

1) Reduce the amount of time people spend there.

2) Make academic services far more a competitive marketplace. Instead of choosing a college one should be able to choose each course online. One should have hundreds or thousands of choices for each course.

Online accelerated education can cut costs, speed entry into the labor market, reduce the cost of child-raising, reduce debts of young adults and deliver many other benefits.

Equal Opportunity said at November 15, 2010 6:21 AM:

>2) Make academic services far more a competitive marketplace.
>Instead of choosing a college one should be able to choose each course online.
>One should have hundreds or thousands of choices for each course

Within a decade this will happen, but more money is needed to make it efficient. The complexity of interactive software is a barrier, but once it becomes established and standardizes, many of the features will be cut and paste, and the software development costs will decline.

In the future, a lot more young PhDs who are independent minded, will discover that they can create their own academic empires online. The trouble is that so far the top academic institutions are able to absorb the best and the brightest minds for teaching and research, and there are very few leading academicians who have the time to create a top notch online curriculum. For the moment, to protect their own status and income, the top tenured professors may not be inclined to create an online system that would debase their institutions. However, with money, online universities can recruit top professors or the brightest young PhDs, but this will take more funding. Google surely has the money to do that, and Silicon Valley is in a position to invest $20 billion per year to get this project off the ground.

Florida resident said at November 15, 2010 6:23 AM:

Dear Mr. Parker !
I read rather regularly your blog.
I mostly agree with your opinions.
It was the more so of my disappointment,
that you failed to mention
the remarkable book by nobody less than Charles Murray,
"Real Education:
Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality",
already in paperback edition;
hardcover ed. was published on August 19, 2008.
See also comments by J. Derbyshire:
and the review of that book:
Respectfully yours, Florida resident.

Florida resident said at November 16, 2010 9:34 AM:

Dear Mr. Parker !
I just read several introductory pages from
"DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education"
by Anya Kamenetz, mentioned by you in your update.
Here are her words:
"President [of the United States] is clear on the problem. In his first address to the Congress,
he promised: "We will provide the support necessary for all young Americans to complete college and meet a new goal: By 2020 America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

Those are exactly the ideas of "Educational romanticism", which were so clearly refuted by Dr. Charles Murray
in his recent (2 years old) book "Real Education. ..."
Whom do you, Mr. Parker, agree with: with Anya Kamenetz, or with Charles Murray ?

Respectfully yours, Florida resident.

Randall Parker said at November 16, 2010 7:00 PM:

Florida resident,

I put HTML "a href" tags around your links so that people can click on them.

I agree with Murray that too many people to go college. Kamenetz is wrong about that. But she's right about the need for educational software and reform that lowers costs and makes learning faster and easier.

I write about educational reform mostly from the perspective of wanting better, cheaper, faster education for the most bright. I'm not going to refrain from promoting some ideas of a writer just because they are wrong on other of their ideas.

I've taken issue with Murray on a number of arguments he's made over the years. See my posts Charles Murray Wants To Replace SAT and Charles Murray: You Are What You Tax. However, in a previous post I linked to his book Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality.

Florida resident said at November 16, 2010 7:17 PM:

Thank you very much, dear Mr. Parker, for clear statement of your position.
I am (humbly) glad to see that it coincides with my point of view.
Your truly, Florida resident

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