Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The business and ethical dilemmas of undergraduate education at public R1s

I will begin this exercise with some arithmetic, the type economists are prone to perform, not because that is a way to establish reader interest, surely it isn't, but to develop some initial sense of relative price changes over long periods of time. I will compare the situation when I started at Illinois, 1980-81, with the situation now, and compare Northwestern and Illinois tuition at the time I started to Illinois tuition now.

Historical tuition rates at Illinois are available from the Public Affairs division as a spreadsheet for download.   For a newly entering Freshman  in fall 1980, the annual tuition rate was $682.  At the time, all entering students paid this rate, irrespective of the College they entered.  And there doesn't appear there were any fees then.  Now there are both fees (such as a Library and Information Technology fee) and surcharges by certain Colleges (such as Engineering and Business).  This 1980-81 number should strike people as incredibly low, by current standards.  It is.  Some sidebar ways of looking at this rate are to consider the U.S. News College Ratings historically and see what they said about Illinois.  I recall reading one year that we were considered a great "deal."  I believe that was true from when I started and stayed that way at least through the mid 1990s and maybe even later.   Note that it is possible that students with need or merit also got scholarships, so paid even less.  I don't have any information on scholarships as financial aid, so I'm going to use the full tuition number only and not be concerned much about scholarships in this piece.  

To get at the Northwestern tuition rates, instead of relying on a published table I will rely on memory.  I was a doctoral student at Northwestern from 1976-80, came to Illinois as AbD in 1980 and got my PhD in 1981.  During my four years at Northwestern, I was on fellowship each year.  I believe that my fellowship rate more or less coincided with the tuition rate.  Those fellowship rates as I remember them were:

1976-77  $2,700
1977-78  $3,000
1978-79  $3,300
1979-80  $3,500

Also note that during that time there was "Stagflation."  The real economy was hardly growing at all, but nominal GDP was growing quite quickly because inflation was rampant.  So those increases didn't measure increased generosity by Northwestern in paying graduate students but rather tried to keep what they did pay constant in real terms.  Using the above and the conjecture of parity between the fellowship rate and tuition rate, and noting that inflation was still high in 1980-81 (it did come down a couple of years later via Paul Volker's tight money policy), my guess at Northwestern tuition for 1980-81 was $3800.   The relative tuition rates between Northwestern and Illinois in 1980-81 were therefore a bit more than 5.5.

The next bit is to control for inflation.  What would those rates look like today?  Asking this sort of thing one can get different answers depending on how inflation is measured.  We don't experience "pure inflation" where all goods and services experience price growth at the same rate, so relative prices between them don't change.  Some goods and services experience rapid price growth.  Others might actually experience price decreases.  And inflation measures typically don't account for well the results of innovation and new products substituting for old ones.  So all the usual caveats apply when looking at any one inflation measure.  With that I'm going to do a quick and dirty computation based  on the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator.  Plug in $1,000 in 1980 and ask for the equivalent in 2012.  It should spit out $2,786.33.  This gives a false sense of precision - too many significant figures.  For my purposes, which are to do a ballpark calculation only, I will round the ratio to three, meaning a tripling of prices in those 32 years.

College education is an area where tuition has been hyper-inflationary, tuition has grown much faster than the normal inflation rate.  There are multiple causes - Baumol's cost disease, the rising inequality of society at large putting upward price pressure on goods and services viewed as "luxuries," increasing regulation that imposes costs on institutions, and for public universities in particular that tax revenues have been declining as a share of the revenue base. There may be other factors as well.  The consequence is that the hyperinflation has persisted for essentially the entire 32 year period.  The results of that mount up.  Tuition at Illinois (base rate) for entering Freshmen this academic year is $11,636.  That is the in-state rate.  In other words, in real terms Illinois now is more expensive than Northwestern was when I started.  Price-wise, public education at R1s has become like what private education used to be, focusing only on in-state students. (Illinois is now at the upper end of the tuition scale across peer institutions.  But one gets a similar message looking at comparable places such as Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin.)

So far there isn't much that is news here. The only value add I've provided above relative to how these issue are discussed in The Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed is to give the historical reference points and a little more drill down on the the actual tuition numbers.  One can argue that the public R1s are still great bargains, certainly as compared with private R1s, though now the relative tuition price of the latter as compared to the former is closer to 4 to 1 and nowadays the privates might be offering a substantial amount of scholarship aid on a need basis, which makes the effective ratio even lower than 4 to 1.   Nevertheless, I want to argue that these historical reference points matter, a lot, particularly in addressing the question: what quality of experience should the public R1s be offering now to their students?  What principles can be articulated beyond budget balance (expenditure on that education can't be too different from tuition revenue collected) that determine how that quality of experience is shaped?  The dilemmas I refer to in the title of my post come from attempting to answer these questions.

If my experience over those 32 years is at all representative, public R1s traditionally have taken what might be called a "grab the brass ring" approach to undergraduate education.  Those students who grab the brass ring are the vivacious or very diligent students.  They are the ones who get the opportunities - they get into the honors classes, they develop a personal relationship with a professor they like, they get to work with a faculty member in the faculty member's lab, etc.  For these students the academic side of college is a very rich experience.  For the rest at public R1s, perhaps not so much.  They maintain anonymity from the faculty, may skip classes quite frequently, don't go to office hours and don't put themselves at risk with regard to their own learning.  For these students the academic side of college is not a particularly transformative experience.

In the grab-the-brass-ring approach the elite students, the uppermost decile more or less, consume a disproportionate amount of the faculty's attention. To the extent that membership in the elite group is not predetermined on admission to the university but rests instead on the students prior performance in college, there is a tournament (grading on a curve) aspect to the approach.  It is meritocratic, or so it seems, and in an ex ante sense may be the efficient way to provide an education, given the high student/faculty ratio as compared to private R1s or ritzy liberal arts colleges.  In a more cynical view, it may also be the way to maximize alumni contributions, especially if those graduates who become very rich and therefore are candidates to make big contributions to the university are apt to come from this elite student population.  Even with those benefits when viewed ex ante, however, the grab-the-brass-ring approach is far from democratic ex post.  It certainly does not do as much as might be possible for the median student.

An alternative to the grab the brass ring approach might be termed the "nurturing" approach.  In the Declining By Degrees documentary, the nurturing approach is represented by Amherst College, one of the most elite private colleges in the country.  With nurturing, all students command substantial faculty attention once they begin to matriculate.  Nurture is a condition of enrollment, not of student performance having enrolled.  No doubt an Amherst education is wonderful.  Yet it is very expensive and doesn't scale well.

Private R1s may be somewhere between the public R1s and the ritzy private colleges on the grab-the-brass-ring versus nurture approach, have more nurture than the public R1s and more opportunities for elite students to grab than the ritzy private colleges.  With these caricatures in hand we can now proceed to the business and ethical issues.  With both the business and ethical issues the key question is: should public R1s maintain the grab-the-brass-ring-approach or instead move in the direction of more nurture?  There is a practical aspect to this question, how well do the students who don't grab the brass ring do?  What quality of education do they receive?  There is a further question that is both practical and philosophical.  Does the quality of education these students get matter?  If it does matter, why is that?

It would be very good if we could look at quality of education measures across the 32 years in the same way that we considered tuition.  I don't believe there is any good way to do this.  There are certainly beans that could be counted, e.g., credit hours taken with tenured and tenure track faculty versus credit hours taken with adjuncts.  One can also look at retention rates in classes, and grade distributions and that sort of thing.  At least one can do this in principle.  Much of this information tends to be locked down and hence not available for analysis.  There is also a question of what historical data of this sort exists from the pre-ERP world.  Even if you have the data, however, I'm not sure what picture you can draw from it.

So instead here I'm only going to use anecdotal information based on my experience teaching upper level undergraduate courses.  I will contrast the 1980s, when I would teach a Math Econ class on occasion, with the last couple of years where I've taught courses at the same level on Behavioral Economics (once) and Economics of Organizations (twice).  Let's note before reporting what I've observed that there can be selection bias in I report.  Students with math aptitude usually perform well in economics classes and the Math Econ class, in particular, would typically attract one or two students wanting to continue studying economics to the PhD.  With those caveats, the more recent classes have had senioritis problems with students not coming to class and not doing the assigned work that I never experienced in the 1980s.  The better students in the most recent Econ of Organizations class could have done well in the Math Econ class from 30 years earlier.  But the poorer students didn't seem like they belonged in the course at all.  There was, of course, variation in student performance in the Math Econ class, but I don't have any memory of students not being fit to take the class.  This population is small in total so one must be wary of drawing strong conclusions from it.  But I've come to the opinion that the middle students I'm seeing and those performing below the middle are significantly worse than their counterparts from 30 years ago.   That is one big reason for writing this post.

The U of I is selective in it's admissions.  The Colleges vary in their selectivity, with Engineering and Business more selective than Arts and Sciences.  (It's this increased selectivity of Engineering and Business that provide the economic rationale for the college-specific fees.)  To an economist, selectivity implies excess demand.  So, even with the current downturn in the economy, the business dilemmas I'm speaking about shouldn't manifest any time soon.  But the concern should be that the excess demand won't persist, even after the economy rebounds fully.  And the obvious reason why is that a degree from the U of I stops being a strong credential in the labor market, particularly for kids in Arts and Sciences.

Economists have two different views of how college might impact the labor market.  One is the human capital view, which coincides more or less with how non-economists view college.  Students learn.  What they learn, viewed as an asset, is general human capital.  (General human capital means the knowledge should be valuable throughout the labor market.  In contrast, specific human capital matters for a particular job, but no other.)  The other view regards signaling, as articulated by Mike Spence.  In this view, it doesn't matter one whit what students learn in college.  What matters is that the student got through and others of less ability wouldn't or couldn't get through, so the potential employer interprets the degree as an indicator of ability and therefore is willing to hire the grad but wouldn't be willing to hire the non-grad at the same wage.  Note that the human capital view and the signaling view are not mutually exclusive, so one can speak of the relative importance of one or the other. 

In the human capital view, then, the demand for college could dry up if the perception I articulated above becomes the market perception - many of the graduates haven't acquired the human capital that their degrees suggest they have obtained.  In the signaling view, the demand could dry up if those of lesser ability, having been admitted, can also get through. Put a bit differently, with enough grade inflation college stops being a signal.  Did I flunk the kids below the median in my Econ of Organizations class?  No, I did not.  Should I have done that?  Scale up that question to the campus as a whole and you begin to get at the business issues.

This is a good juncture to point out that nurture and grade inflation are two quite different things.  Nurture is providing help for the student to perform well for a given performance standard.  Grade inflation is a lowering of the performance bar.

I haven't looked at graduation rates recently, but when I did look private R1s like Northwestern had very high graduation rates (over 90%).  At the time the U of I was something like 83%, tied for third in the Big Ten with Penn State.  Michigan held second place.  A few Provosts ago, the then Provost articulated a goal of raising the graduation rates.  If grade inflation could be controlled for, that would be a worthy goal.  With ifs you can put Paris in a bottle.  Engineering courses are typically fairly tough on grades and that college has a high washout rate. Many of the students who drop out of Engineering typically end up transferring to another college, often Arts and Sciences.  If Arts and Sciences also were tough on grades and had a high washout rate, those student's would likely drop out of the university rather than transfer to another college.  So it's not the same consequence.  Students who fail to graduate are black marks on the campus.  Nevertheless, letting students through who are not qualified should be viewed equally as a black mark.  The business issue then is that if that is happening a lot the market will assign the black mark, discount the value of the degree accordingly, and the demand for the education will dry up. 

Let me turn to the ethical dilemmas.  It is my opinion that the rhetoric we use biases how we view the answer to the maintain the grab-the-brass-ring approach or move to a nurture approach question.  At Illinois, the rhetoric focuses on excellence and innovation.  This rhetoric favors the best students and therefore encourages the grab-the-brass-ring approach.  A different rhetoric would focus on the in loco parentis function, not just as it pertains to student drinking, but to the classroom as well.  Parents nurture their children not out of excellence but out of love.  (The issue here is which is cause and which is effect.)  When it is not your children, "love" may be too strong a term.  A more appropriate term is decency.  Nurture is the decent thing to do, even for middling students. We admitted them.  We should care for them and ensure their academic success.

To this a response might be, that's all well and good but the U of I is not Amherst College.  There is no affordable way for the U of I to do nurture at scale.  This gives a second and quite different reason for writing this post.  I'm seeing hardly any attempt at innovation that, were it to succeed, could counter this response.  (A couple of possibilities are mentioned below.)  Instead, we're seeing innovation in the form of new and better brass rings.

Last week I attended the plenary sessions at what used to be called the Active Learning Retreat.  This time around the focus was on undergraduate research.   I thought that Paul Diehl, Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research at the U of I and the first plenary speaker, showed some sensitivity on the question of how scarce the brass rings are by discussing where the bar should be for defining what counts as undergraduate research.  The main speaker, Allison Snow, Paul's counterpart at Ohio State, made the point that undergraduate research can both be transformative in itself and provide strong complementarities for student learning in courses unrelated to the research.  I don't doubt the benefit of undergraduate research to those students who do it.  But if impact is measured by the number of students who present at the undergraduate research conference on campus, that magnitude is on the order of  2% of the undergraduate student population, so in my jargon counts as a brass ring.

Prior to my very recent teaching, when I had my full time administrative position I would teach on occasion as an overload.  If your business is educational technology, touching students once in a while is a good thing to do.  The last three times of doing that it was with CHP classes (Campus Honors Program).  It's fun to teach CHP students.  The classes are small and taught as a seminar.  The students do the reading they are assigned, motivation is much less of a concern, and they are more likely to "get it" the first time through, regardless of what "it" is.   But so far since I've retired I've not attempted to teach a CHP class, because I've been vexed by the ethical questions.   Does the elitism that is inherent in CHP make sense at a university that calls itself public?

Yet I've also become distraught with the regular classes - too many students don't have enough on the ball.  Then there are a few students who do, but some are so alienated by what I gather has been their prior experience, anti-nurture if you will, that they've tuned out.  My little corner of the world may be just that and the rest of the world may be quite different.  But if not, somebody in the know should be screaming about this.  That's what I'm trying to do with this post.

Let me close with a couple of suggestions of possible movement in the direction of nurture.  Others have talked about proper professional development activities for adjuncts, but that suggestion doesn't go far enough.  Both the grade inflation issue and the teach to the test mindset that becomes a consequence needs to be tackled.  I've written quite a longish post recently, Why does memorization persist at the primary way college students prepare for exams?  It gives an analysis of the issues and suggests a solution based on the analysis.  People might find the recommendations extreme.  I meant the piece to be provocative.

The other idea is to heavily rely on students to nurture other students.  Nurture that is fully dependent on the instructor will fail at the U of I because, indeed, we are not Amherst.  The issue is whether peer mentoring of this sort (upperclassmen mentoring freshmen and sophomores) can actually be effective or if it would merely be the blind leading the blind.  Soon after I started this blog I wrote a series of posts on Inward Looking Service Learning that explored this idea.  A good chunk of the thinking is that the mentors learn too and if we understood that better we could then appropriately look at the activity as both service for the mentees and learning for the mentor and give rewards appropriately.  I have wanted to see campus level experiments of this sort since back when Dave Liu was as Associate Provost.  I used something akin to this in a large intermediate microeconomics course I taught in the late 1990s.  The results were quite promising.  I know that Michael Loui uses peer mentors now in his ECE classes.  Undoubtedly the approach requires a dedicated instructor to mentor the mentors.  Whether it works with early adopters but not with majority faculty is something to test.  Yet that sort of test doesn't seem to be on anyone's agenda.

It may be that the grab-the-the-brass-ring approach is the best that public R1s can pull off and hence that much of the responsibility for the student's learning must rest with the student.  However, I can't let go of the thought that we should at least be giving a try to be more nurturing of all our students.  At the tuition rates currently being charged, there should be enough revenue in the system to be serious about the effort.

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