Some interesting links on post secondary schooling

A Conservative Defense of Tenure

This article raises the important point that tenure is a form of compensation, and one that can reduce budget pressure. It also raises the point that tenure allows a more open-ended approach to schooling which, in my mind, frees teachers and students to engage in genuinely educational but non-measurable activities. At the end the author writes, “we conservatives are especially alive to what is lost when we transform all of our institutions according to the logic of the market.” I agree that conservatives (properly understood) are not pro-market, but as a pro-market libertarian, I also agree with him on the value of tenure. Really what it boils down to is that education (the result we hope students will attain in schools) really is unmeasurable and so can’t be neatly provided in a market or a bureaucracy; schools can be provided on a market, but there is an important civil-society element to them.

From Tennessee, a Solution for Mission Creep

One of the core insights of economics, simple though it appears, is apparently not understood by schools (or even economics departments): everyone doing the same thing is unproductive. Diversity (no, not diversity of melanin content) is the basis of gains from trade, and product differentiation is the way to advance oneself. But what schools tend to do is try to imitate “better” schools by doing a worse version of the same thing. Imagine if restaurants did this; McDonald’s would sell budget foie gras, Applebee’s would sell slightly better foie gras in a kitschy atmosphere, and the only places you’d actually want to eat foie gras would (still) be the same restaurants that sell it in the world we actually live in.

The state of Tennessee has set up an incentive structure that ties funding to measurable outcomes, but makes that funding contingent on a school’s Carnegie rating. The effect is that trying to move up the prestige ladder will result in reduced funding unless a school is actually able to deliver results. “Take one of the state’s regional colleges, Austin Peay State University. If it tried to become more like Middle Tennessee State University by awarding doctorates, Austin Peay would very likely lose 4 percent of its state funds.”

Competency-Based Degrees: Coming Soon to a Campus Near You

If more institutions gravitate toward competency-based models, more and more students will earn degrees from institutions at which they take few courses and perhaps interact minimally with professors. Then what will a college degree mean?

It may no longer mean that a student has taken predetermined required and elective courses taught by approved faculty members. Rather, it would mean that a student has demonstrated a defined set of proficiencies and mastery of knowledge and content.

Sounds good to me! Although, as the author points out, we’re still left with the problem of how to evaluate students. It makes sense to allow someone to test out of an accounting class, but certification of competency isn’t the whole story for a liberal arts program.

If you want to learn skills, then a technical college with a competency-based degree makes a lot of sense. If you’re looking for an immersive environment  that expands your appreciation for philosophy, art, and deep thought then you’re dealing with something unmeasurable. A BA from Wesleyan should communicate that you’ve experienced something like that, but that’s a different product than what most students are looking for (a piece of paper to help them get a good job). This goes back to the conflation of education and schooling. I’m not sure that credentials for liberal arts even makes sense; a better measure of a student’s success in lib arts would be the books and essays they write.

Betting on Vetting

The author is concerned with the current state of affairs in social sciences where hiring and tenure decisions are based on a cumbersome publication process resulting in new research being kept unavailable until it has finally survived the publication process. But there’s an unexploited opportunity: have outside experts evaluate unpublished manuscripts and assign grades. These grades can be used for faculty evaluation, but they can also reduce transaction costs on the publishing end. Instead of a round robin, manuscripts (or articles) are evaluated once, and publishers compete for publishing rights. “The new slogan for upward academic mobility would be ‘produce or perish.’… Publishing was yesterday’s problem, vetting is tomorrow’s.”

Subsidy and accreditation

I’m working on a paper on subsidy and accreditation of post-secondary schooling and the Chronicle of Higher Ed, conveniently, posted an article on the City College of San Francisco’s upcoming loss of accreditation. This article highlights a few key thoughts from my paper. But let me start with a general statement of my argument, and the key insight driving that argument.

In my paper (Accreditation: Introspection Turned to Incapacitation), I argue that call for college subsidies overlook important costs that reduce the educational effectiveness of those subsidies. This is because public discourse confuses the distinct concepts of “education” and “schooling”. A school is an organization with certain features that we hope will advance the education of students. Education is a nebulous concept, a sort of general intellectual improvement and growth, that is inherently unmeasurable and comes from many sources besides schooling. For this reason, I refuse to use the term “higher education”, instead opting for “post secondary schooling” (PSS).

Accreditation of some form or another is inescapable as long as there is subsidy. A subsidy for schools requires a definition of what a school is, and the voluntary accreditation system that already existed in the U.S. was designed to do just that. The original accreditation agencies (now the Big 6 regional accreditors) arose to define what exactly PSS was, how it related to secondary schooling, and set general guidelines defining what sort of schools could be accredited members of these organizations. This created some standardization as well as minimal quality assurances that helped students to understand what to expect from these schools. This standardization and quality assurance prompted the commissioner of education to leave eligibility for federal aid up to the Big 6 when the second GI Bill was instituted in 1952. This was considered necessary when the first GI Bill (of 1944) lead to a proliferation of low quality schools intent on profiting from the sudden availability of free money.

The current accreditation standards set requirements such as including certain types of courses in the curriculum, academic standards (to be evaluated by the institution in question!), and availability of certain resources to students (such as a professionally staffed library). For the most part, there is a focus on inputs rather than outputs. And as the CCSF incident makes clear, “institutions must meet standards in areas that include financial solvency, and that student achievement alone is not a sufficient means of retaining accreditation.” It’s rare for a school to lose accreditation, but when it happens it’s usually for financial reasons rather than quality or standards. Obviously this leads schools to be more conservative and less entrepreneurial than they might otherwise have been. Schools can only change as the accrediting standards change. That is, innovation must beat the system level for any schools intent on maintaining access to subsidies that make up around half of the industry.

There’s a lot to talk about here so I’ll leave the rest for another post.