Showing posts with label COVID-19. Show all posts
Showing posts with label COVID-19. Show all posts

Saturday, August 29, 2020

COVID-19 is disrupting American higher education: That's a good thing

The coronavirus pandemic hit American higher education like a Cat 5 hurricane.   Virtually all colleges and universities shut their campuses down and switched from face-to-face instruction to a distance-learning format.

Many students didn't like the change and didn't like paying full tuition for a watered-down learning experience.  Lawsuits were filed. I myself was skeptical about the quality of online instruction.

However, I am teaching my second class as an adjunct professor using Zoom, and Zoom works great for me.   I can see my students on my computer screen and can talk to them directly, just as if we all were in the same room. To my surprise, I can teach via Zoom with no loss of quality.

In fact, I am beginning to think COVID-19 may be a blessing in disguise for American higher education. Here's why I take that view.

First, the latest generation of distance-learning technology (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.) closes the gap between distance learning and live instruction. Colleges now have a good strategy for dealing with this pandemic and any future pandemic.

Second, COVID-19 has caused many college students to skip the dorm experience, and this shift has been a wakeup call to colleges that went on dormitory-building sprees. The change also put the brake on privately-financed, so-called luxury student housing. Privately and publicly financed student housing was out of control. All across the United States, universities are now surrounded by massive, block-housing units, which are a dispiriting blight on the landscape.

 Now that students are shying away from multiple-occupancy apartments and dorms, this speculative overbuilding has slowed down.  That is a very good thing.

Third, the massive shift of public universities to online learning has undercut the for-profit college industry, and that is also a good thing. The for-profits distinguished themselves by offering online education for working adults who could not attend classes on college campuses.  Often the quality of for-profit instruction was inferior, and for-profit colleges were almost always a lot more expensive than public colleges.

Now that the public colleges and universities have embraced distance learning, there is absolutely no reason for someone to enroll in the University of Phoenix or any other for-profit school that offers online instruction.  The for-profits are losing students and revenues, which (I hope) will force them to shut down. 

Finally, COVID-19 will stop the arms race among colleges to offer expensive recreational facilities, which have become a public embarrassment. LSU's "Lazy River" seemed like a cutting-edge innovation when it was built, but what college would install one now?

COVID-19 will force many small liberal arts colleges to close, which is unfortunate. But this country has too many colleges, and we are long overdue for a pruning process.

American universities are discovering that they can offer instruction in a distance-learning format, and those fancy recreational facilities and "luxury" student dorms are not essential. Maybe high-quality online learning will help higher education can get back to its real mission--which is to offer worthwhile educational experiences that prepare young people to become intelligent, civic-minded, productive citizens.  Wouldn't that be a good thing?


What? No Lazy River?


Thursday, August 27, 2020

Colleges urged to go test optional: We don't need no stinkin' standardized admission tests!

More and more colleges are admitting new students without requiring them to take a traditional standardized admissions test: the ACT or SAT. According to the National Associaton for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), 55 percent of colleges nationwide have waived those tests for this academic year--that's more than 1,600 colleges.

Why? Some colleges have waived the tests because of the coronavirus pandemic. Taking those tests during the COVID-19 outbreak is a health risk, they say, and an additional burden on college-goers during an already stressful time.

Now the NACAC wants colleges to waive those tests for the 2021-22 admission cycle. According to this organization, requiring such tests makes colleges "appear to send the signal that college admission exams take priority over students' health . . . " The NACAC also maintains that some high schools now prohibit colleges that require applicants to take a standardized test "from engaging with their students through school channels." Really?

The NACAC goes on to make a couple of arguments against standardized test scores, which I view as nearly hysterical:
Should public institutions maintain that these test requirements, US Department of Education data suggest that they stand to lose tens of thousands of students (and correlated tuition)--both from within and outside the state--to institutions not requiring the tests.
In other words, NACAC claims that a college that requires standardized tests will lose students to institutions that don't, which will cost them tuition revenue. 

Moreover, the NACAC hints darkly, a college that requires applicants to take the SAT or the ACT could get sued for a civil rights violation!
They also risk [says NACAC] creating a disparate impact due to prohibitive costs of sitting for an exam, particularly among low-income and minority communities, which could expose state institutions, systems, and administration to civil rights actions.
Implicit in that statement is a warning that a college that requires applicants to take the ACT could be accused of racism.


Personally, I think the NACAC is sputtering pure bullshit. In my opinion, the reason hundreds of colleges have tossed out their standardized admissions test has nothing to do with students' health or their civil rights.

Colleges all over the country are in a jungle battle for students, as the demand for higher education ebbs. Schools must reach their enrollment targets to survive because they are dependent on tuition money--which means they are dependent on federal student loans.

By throwing out the ACT and the SAT, colleges make it easier for them to admit unqualified students.  Hey--these colleges are saying--just show up, fill out your financial aid application, and you are good to go. No need to take a stressful standardized test--a test that might document just how unprepared for college you really are.

But this trend, which is snowballing, is eroding the integrity of higher education.  As admission standards fall, more and more colleges are admitting students who are not capable of passing their courses under traditional academic standards. 

But the colleges need the tuition revenue, so weak students are not washed out. Instead, grading standards are lowered so that almost no student fails a course or even makes a D.

This trend is bad for nearly everyone. Many students who were not prepared for college-level study eventually get degrees, which deceives them into thinking they accomplished something. 

Students who are qualified to be enrolled--as evidenced by high scores on the ACT or SAT--get a watered-down educational experience as they sit in dumbed-down courses.

And jettisoning academic standards undermines the morale of faculty members--especially those who believe that students who come to college should have a basic grasp of grammar and diction. I myself have taught graduate students who had 18 years of formal education and still didn't know where to put a quotation mark.

But trash-canning the SAT and ACT is a good thing for colleges that have virtually become open-enrollment institutions(or at least nonselective institutions) but don't want anyone to know it.  It is so much easier just to admit nearly everyone who applies because even an unqualified student can get a federal student loan to pay tuition.

Already, we see the wreckage produced by a higher education industry that lowered academic standards to keep their enrollments up. Hundreds of thousands of people who were not prepared for college and incapable of completing a rigorous degree program are finding that their college experience did not equip them to get a job. Yet, they are saddled with student loans they will never repay and can't discharge in bankruptcy.





Thursday, August 20, 2020

Google says you can skip college: Uh-oh!

Universities have been whistling past the graveyard for years, Ignoring the signs of rot in their industry, they just rolled along through the decades, charging obscene prices for educational experiences that were obsolete. 

Overall, college enrollment dropped ten percent over the past decade, but the universities did not reduce their costs. Instead, they hired recruiters who flew around the country trying to raid students from competing universities in other states.

In a desperate search for paying customers, colleges "rebranded" themselves with catchy slogans pasted on highway billboards--slogans like "Change Your Life. Start Hear, Life's Calling. It's Your Life."

Then they whipped up "cutting edge" college majors, upgraded their recreation facilities, and constructed "luxury" student dorms. They rolled out romantic study-abroad experiences in England, Spain, and Italy. 

To pay for this nonsense, colleges raised tuition. When sticker shock set in, they switched tactics and slashed tuition--slashed it by half for incoming freshmen. But neither tactic stabilized their revenues.
Last spring, the universities were hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which is forcing them to spend lavishly to keep their campuses safe. Many are closing their dorms in response to the crisis--another revenue loss.

Meanwhile, Americans accumulated $1.7 trillion in student debt--debt they incurred in the often vain hope that a college education (and perhaps a graduate degree) would lead to a good job.

And now, Google has launched an inexpensive professional certification program that can be completed in six months. As reported by David Leibowitz, Google "signaled to jobseekers that they would treat these certificates, which require no prior experience of undergraduate credentials, as the equivalent of four-year degrees by their hiring managers."

Or, as Google put it, "In our hiring, we will now treat these new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related roles."

What! Can a young person actually get a good job after taking a six-month training program without having to sit through four years of bullshit to get a bachelor's degree--or six years of bullshit to get a master's degree?

Can people really earn a living wage, marry, buy a house, have children, and save for retirement without taking a course in transnational sexuality? Without taking out $50,000 in student loans that can never be paid back? Without having a professor teach them that Mom and Pop, by staying in a traditional marriage, were participating in the structured exploitation of women and people of color?

Can that be true?

By God, we better hope it's true because the lazy, dysfunctional, anti-intellectual, toxic, and often racist cocktail that we call American higher education ain't working for us.

And I use the word "ain't" advisedly, because Rutgers University says that mastery of standard English grammar is not absolutely necessary to communicate as an educated person. 




"Learning. Leading," at the University of Houston. Yuh think?












Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, has 444 students. Roughly ten percent tested positive for COVID-19. Think about it

 When I was four years old, my father told me the most harrowing story of my childhood--perhaps the most harrowing story of my life.
In the spring of 1942, my father was an Army Air Corps fighter pilot stationed in the Philippines. He was captured by the Japanese when the American Army surrendered after the Battle of Bataan.
The Japanese imprisoned the Americans in Manilla but later transported them by ship to Japan. The vessels weren't marked as prison ships, and American Navy dive bombers spotted them steaming out of Manilla harbor. The Americans bombed the ships, and the Japanese locked down the hatches so that the prisoners would drown below deck if the ship were sunk.
American planes sunk at least one ship, killing all the American prisoners. My father's vessel was more fortunate. An American bomb blew a hole in its side, and the prisoners scrambled up on deck. My father started swimming and was recaptured by the Japanese, who were retrieving prisoners in small boats.
But, my father told me, some American prisoners could not swim. They stood on the deck of the sinking ship, crying and begging their comrades to save them.
"Did you help them," I asked? My father said no. He said he knew he could only save himself.
Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, has about 440 students, and roughly 10 percent have tested positive for COVID-19. Those students are being quarantined, but life must go on. Bethel is not closing.
What does it cost to attend Bethel College? About $43,000 a year, including room, board, tuition, and fees.  Most students pay less because they get some form of financial aid. But even with financial aid, students will pay about $25,000 a year to study at Bethel.
Does that make sense to you? Does it make sense to take out student loans to attend Bethel College during a pandemic? It doesn't make sense to me.
A lot of small, private liberal-arts colleges are going to close within the next couple of years. You do not want to get a degree from a college that will be extinct before you pay off your student loans.
These ships are going down, and you don't want to go down with them. Take a lesson from my father-- save yourself.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

One in four young Americans contemplated suicide in June: Will they feel better if they take out student loans and go to college?

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirms what Americans already know: The coronavirus pandemic is harmful to our mental health.  And young people are particularly vulnerable.

According to the CDC, one out of four Americans ages 18 through 24 contemplated suicide in June. The CDC's study did not break down that age group between college students and other young Americans. Still, everyone knows (often from personal experience) that going to college can be depressing.

Experts worry that the financial downturn will be hard on college budgets, forcing schools to cut back on counseling services for students.  But maybe not. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2018 that colleges have at least a limited duty to prevent their students from committing suicide. That decision is likely to prompt higher education to invest more resources in their students' mental health.

Personally, I think now might be the wrong time for young people to go to college. The job market is terrible, and no one knows for sure which industries will thrive after we conquer COVID-19. I think the financial turmoil will make it harder for undergraduates to pick a college major that will prepare them for a post-pandemic job.

The universities themselves are agitated by social unrest, with some institutions thinking about defunding their campus police.  Depending on how that goes, students may find themselves vulnerable to crime when they stroll across the quad on their way to Psychology 101.

And a college education has become incredibly expensive.  The National Center for Educational Statistics reported that tuition and expenses to attend a four-year college went from $5,504 a year in 1985-1986 to $$27,357 in 2017-2018 (in constant dollars). (My thanks to Steve Rhode for alerting me to those figures.)

That's a four-fold increase in college costs over 32 years. When prices are adjusted for inflation, the increase is less dramatic but not reassuring. Whose wages have kept up with inflation over the last 10 years? I know mine haven't.

If you are one of the millions of young people who graduated from high school and have no clue about what you are going to do for a living, don't take out student loans to find out. If you stumble into one of the flaky liberal arts or social studies majors (sociology, psychology, international relations, gender studies, etc.), you may well wind up with $50,000 or more in student debt and no idea how you will pay it back.

You think you are depressed now, how will you feel when your first student loan payment comes due?

If you decide to go to college anyway, do what you can to reduce the risk of depression. If you've read anything by J.D. Salinger, forget it and throw his books away. By writing Catcher in the Rye, Salinger has done more to depress young people than anyone with the possible exception of Bob Dylan.






Monday, August 17, 2020

Coronavirus alert: Mama, don't let your baby live in a college dorm this fall

I went to college during the Vietnam War. Men registered for the draft at age 18 and could be swept into the Army within a few months of registering and swiftly sent on to Southeast Asia.

There were two ways to avoid that fate: men could enlist in the Army Reserve or National Guard, or they could go to college and get a four-year exemption.

There was just one hitch for a guy who went to college. If he flunked out, he was immediately eligible to be drafted. Oklahoma State University, where I wasted four years of my life, flunked out about 50 percent of the first-year class.

 I lived in Cordell Hall, my first year at OSU. Cordell was a gloomy Georgian-style building, which may have been the model for the Shawshank Redemption.  Because it was an old dorm with no air-conditioning, Cordell was mostly full of poor, first-year students who came from small Oklahoma towns.

My dorm floor housed a bunch of these guys. They were away from home for the first time, and they had two things on their minds: beer and girls in that order. Were they worried about getting drafted? No, they were not.

Gary, a freshman from Midwest City, was my roommate. Shortly after arriving on campus, he met Susan, and he spent every waking hour with her. He never bought a single textbook, and he stopped going to class two weeks after the semester started.

In those days, male freshmen were required to enroll in ROTC, which included weekly drills and a strict rule about keeping our shoes shined and our khaki shirts clean and pressed.

Gary blew off all that stuff, and at the end of the semester, his parents received his grades. He failed every subject except ROTC, for which he received a D.

Gary was mystified. He understood why he failed five courses, but could not comprehend how he had passed ROTC without ever going to class.

We puzzled over this conundrum for hours and finally came up with two theories. Gary believed he passed ROTC because he never signed up for drill. Thus, he hadn't been counted absent, and the Army thought Gary had perfect attendance.  My theory was that the Army knew it was going to get Gary sooner or later and didn't want to discourage him so early in his military career.

Why do I tell this story? To make a simple point: 18-old college boys are oblivious to risk. Do you think college students give a damn about the coronavirus?  Can they drink beer while wearing a mask at a campus watering hole? Can they get to first base with a college girl if they socially distance?  No, of course not.

If you are a parent of a student who plans to go to college this fall, you probably received many official notices about COVID-19 and all the things the college plans to do to protect your child from becoming infected.

But you may also have noticed that the college still plans to pack students into residence halls, where they will eat and sleep close to other students, many of whom spent the previous weekend in drunken debauchery. Why all the attention to safety in the classroom but less focus on dorm life?

Why? I'll tell you why. A lot of universities built their dormitories in recent years through a legal device called a Public-Private Partnership agreement (P3).  As Rick Seltzer explained in an outstanding article for Inside Higher Ed, P3s allow universities to offload their debt from dorm construction to private corporations that assume the liability and run the dorms in return for a share of dorm-rent revenue.

This is an excellent deal for the corporations because they are virtually guaranteed a nice profit, especially at colleges that require students to live in campus dorms and even eat their meals there.

But what if the students don't show up this fall?  The money spigot gets shut off, and the corporation can't pay the mortgage on the debt. Oops!

Parents of college-age students should independently assess the risk to their child if he or she lives in a college dorm this fall. The colleges will do the best they can to keep your kid safe and will buy Purell by the barrel. Still, they may be under severe financial restraints because they have significant financial obligations to private partners that require the colleges to keep the dorms full of rent-paying students.

Waylen Jennings warned rural moms not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys--and indeed, that is an unsettling prospect.  But maybe a more useful lyric might be this: Mothers be damned careful about putting your kid in a campus residence hall this fall.


Saturday, August 15, 2020

70 college groups ask Congress for more coronavirus money: Feed me, Seymour!

Writing on behalf of more than 70 college lobbying groups, Ted Mitchell, President of the American Council on Education, wrote a letter to Congressional leaders earlier this month asking for federal money to help colleges cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

Congress had already sent relief money to American colleges and universities through the CARES Act, but Mitchell asked for more--a lot more!

Mitchell said colleges need a total of $46.6 billion to cover increased student aid and lost revenues, and they need another $73.8 billion to pay the costs associated with the COVID 19 pandemic.

One congressional bill (the Corona Virus Child Care & Education Relief Act) calls for sending the colleges $132 billion, and Mitchell says that will do nicely, thank you very much.  Other legislation falls short of what Mitchell says the college industry needs.

Mitchell also asked for some other stuff:

  • Colleges want flexibility in how they spend the federal money they want Congress to give them.
  • Colleges want more cash even if they don't fully reopen. Or, as Mitchell put it, none of the money should be based on "an institution's reopening status."
  • Universities with fat endowments (Harvard's endowment fund is $37 billion) should not be penalized just because they're rich.
Mitchell's letter contained some more requests, but the bottom line is this: American colleges and universities want more federal money. Feed Me, Seymour!

When Mitchell was asking for a federal handout, did he urge Congress to provide some relief for college students? College borrowers, after all, collectively owe $1.7 trillion in student debt.

Oh yes. Mitchell asked Congress to extend the moratorium on monthly student-loan payments and accruing interest for an additional six months.  Thanks for thinking about the students, Ted. So thoughtful!

Mitchell did not mention bankruptcy relief for distressed student-loan debtors or the tax status of forgiven student debt.  He did not mention the millions of parents who took out PLUS loans to get their kids through crumby colleges--loans that sabotaged their retirement plans.

No, Ted Mitchell's letter was all about sucking up more federal money so the college racket can maintain the status quo--which includes robber-baron salaries for college presidents, coaches, and administrators.

Of course, the higher education industry won't admit that it brought its financial woes on itself or that many colleges were sinking even before the coronavirus showed up and crapped in their mess kits. (See Jon Marcus's recent essay in the Hechinger Report.)

Public institutions refused to consolidate their regional campuses even as college enrollments dropped precipitously.  Private colleges continued to insist that the liberal arts degrees they cranked out were valuable, even though they had forgotten what a liberal arts education is all about.

Law schools and business schools refused to cut their tuition or shrink the size of their entering classes even though there was a glut of JDs and MBAs on the market.

And now the reckoning day approaches, and all the college and universities can think of to do as a group is to have their 70 lobbying organizations ask Congress for more money.





Friday, August 7, 2020

U.S. colleges are in big financial trouble, and it's their own damn fault

I doubt that many college presidents listen to country music, but perhaps they should.

Country music is full of lyrics about people getting in trouble because they made poor decisions. In Mama Tried, Merle Haggard admits he wouldn't be in jail if he had listened to his mother. And of course, there are hundreds of country songs about guys who lost their marriages because they hung out in honky-tonks with loose women.

American colleges and universities, like country-music singers, have made spectacular mistakes. But unlike the hillbilly bards, college leaders won't admit it.  They just raise tuition and go on wild building sprees. Now they can't pay their bills.

As Jon Marcus wrote for The Hechinger Report, higher education's bad choices left it dangerously vulnerable when the coronavirus pandemic became its black swan.  What did the universities do wrong?

First of all, colleges continued hiring faculty even though they were attracting fewer students. As Marcus pointed out, overall enrollment in American colleges and universities shrank by 12 percent since the last recession (2008-2009), while higher education increased the number of employees by five percent.

In particular, many colleges didn't decrease staffing levels for programs that were in decline. Fewer and fewer students choose education or liberal arts as their major. Still, many institutions did not reduce staff or eliminated majors even though the professors had fewer students to teach.

Second, Marcus correctly noted that the trustees at many universities abdicated their leadership role to be "boosters, cheerleaders, and donors."  Many college boards paid their presidents lavish salaries with overly generous benefits, bonuses, and hefty retirement packages.  For example, Penn State University and Michigan State paid departing presidents millions of dollars in golden-parachute money after they left their positions in the wake of explosive sexual-abuse scandals.

Rather than trimming their financial costs or operating more efficiently, most colleges responded to rising costs by raising tuition, forcing students to take out larger and larger student loans. As students reacted to sticker shock, the colleges switched tactics by offering huge tuition discounts of 50 percent or more to lure students into enrolling.  That didn't work out well for most higher education institutions.  Their tuition discounts didn't reverse their financial woes, and revenues continued to drop.

Now the coronavirus has become an expensive problem for colleges and universities. Many of them will close. But they can't blame COVID-19 for their misfortune. A lot of colleges were "dead men walking" even before the pandemic showed up as a black swan event.


Friday, July 31, 2020

College students, beware: Do your own COVID-19 safety check before moving into a dormitory this fall

When I was young, I practiced law in Alaska, and many of my clients lived in the Alaska bush--that vast terrain of mountains and tundra that is off the road grid. Consequently, I traveled a lot in small single-engine airplanes. The bush pilots who flew these planes were all young, and many were inexperienced.

I knew nothing about aviation. I figured--incorrectly--that the pilots were the experts and I crawled into many a small, antiquated airplane without a thought about the danger I might be in.

But my senior partner set me straight. "Richard," he said:
You are responsible for your own safety. Before you get in a plane make your own assessment about whether the plane is overloaded or whether flying conditions are less than optimal.  If you don't feel safe, don't get in the airplane.
That was good advice, and I'm passing it on to young people who plan to enroll in college this fall. Every American university has adjusted its curriculum in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  A lot of teaching will be delivered online, through Zoom, or in socially-distanced class spaces.

 But notice how many colleges are assigning students two-to-a-room in campus dormitories, even though we are in the middle of a pandemic.  All across the nation, thousands of young people--not known for social distancing or wearing masks--are going to live together in close quarters for three or four months.  A good many will experiment with weekend binge drinking at the local bars where they stand an excellent chance of contracting COVID-19.

How safe will that environment be? The colleges say they are concerned about your safety, but they desperately need the revenue from dorm rentals because many of the dorms were built with borrowed money.   The universities have got to have students' cash to service that debt.

Before moving into a dormitory, ask yourself these questions:

1) Will you feel safe sharing a dorm room with another student and sharing restrooms and showers with people you don't know?

2) Will you feel safe eating your meals in a communal dining hall?

2) Does it make sense to live on campus when most of your classes will be delivered online or by Zoom, and there will be few if any opportunities to socialize with your peers?

The colleges want students to live on campus because they want your money. But make your own decision about whether it is safe to live in a dorm this fall. You may conclude it is better to find your own housing arrangements or live at home with your parents.  Remember, the coronavirus doesn't care who you are or where you live.


The Cessna 185 Skywagon: Alaska's flying pickup truck


Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Harvard University will go online this fall but will charge full tuition: $49,000 a year to take courses on your home computer

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Harvard University announced that all undergraduate classes will be taught online this fall. Harvard will allow only 40 percent of its undergraduates to live on campus, including all of its first-year students.

As several people have pointed out, Harvard's decision to teach students online this fall will prompt other universities to reassess their own teaching plans for the fall semester. After all, if mighty Harvard, with its $40 billion endowment, has thrown in the towel regarding face-to-face instruction, then many other colleges will surely follow suit.

Who are we--mere mortals--to question Harvard? Nevertheless, I don't understand the point of bringing first-year students on campus if they are going to be huddled over computers in their dorm rooms when taking classes. Why not let Harvard students stay home with mom and dad if they are not going to see their professors?

Harvard and other elite universities will weather the pandemic if it doesn't stretch on too long.  People who get admitted to Harvard will gladly accept any inconvenience to put Harvard University on their resumes. And, for a short time at least, Harvard can get away with teaching its courses online while charging full tuition--$49,000 a year!

But experts predict that the second- and third-tier colleges will see fewer students this fall. And those students will likely take price into account when choosing their schools.  After all, if students are going to be denied a traditional college experience—student clubs, dorm life, opportunities to develop romantic relationships—why not enroll in the cheapest school?

Without a doubt, most universities will have a lot of empty dorm rooms on their hands this fall, which means a significant loss in revenue. Privately owned student-housing complexes will also have vacant units, and many of these complexes were built with borrowed money.  The savvy cats who expected to make tidy profits on so-called luxury student housing may have trouble making their mortgage payments.

The coronavirus pandemic makes a lot of recent university projects look silly. Louisiana State University, for example, spent $85 million on a student recreation center that includes a climbing wall and a "Lazy River" water feature shaped like the university's initials. It looked like a smart move at the time, and the center was financed with student fees.

Now the Lazy River no longer seems so attractive.  Instead, it just looks like a great place to contract COVID-19.

Wigglesworth Hall at Harvard: Be sure to bring your home computer

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Second (and kinder) thoughts about distance learning at the universities during the coronavirus pandemic

Not long ago, I commented on the mass shift to distance learning at American universities, which were forced to close their campuses last March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Disappointed students sued more than 50 colleges about the transition, arguing that the quality of their education had deteriorated when face-to-face instruction was suspended. I commented that the students were surely right and that distance learning is indeed inferior to traditional modes of teaching.

Since I wrote that commentary, however, I taught a course as an adjunct at my former university, and I was pleasantly surprised by the experience.  I delivered this course using two distance-learning tools: Moodle and Zoom.

With Moodle, I was able to post all my reading materials and communicate with my students about their assignments. Using Zoom, I met with a small group of students in "real-time," and we were able to discuss court cases very much as if we were all in the same room. 

This positive experience with distance learning caused me to revise my views. I now believe that most colleges can maintain the overall quality of their instruction, even if they are forced to rely heavily on distance learning in the upcoming fall semester. But I still believe something will be lost if universities rely too heavily on technology.

 Zoom, I learned, is an excellent way to meet with small groups of students who are in different places. I think seminars and small-class settings taught through Zoom or a similar product can continue with little loss in quality.

And it seems to me that large lecture classes will not be adversely affected if professors give their lectures by video.  After all, one of my first classes as an undergraduate more than 40 years ago had 700 students enrolled. I was given an assigned seat at the back of the auditorium and could hardly identify the gender of my professor.  Delivering video lectures may actually be an improvement over having instructors drone on to hundreds of students in a cavernous auditorium.

I am still skeptical of so-called asynchronous teaching, where the professor presents students with canned instructional units without ever having any personal interaction with them. In my view, this kind of education amounts to little more than a correspondence course.

I am also skeptical about distance-taught instruction that assesses student performance through pass-fail grading.  It has been my observation that all rigor goes out the window when a professor is grading students on a pass-fail basis. It is almost impossible to fail anyone when the assessment standards are so relaxed, and it is absolutely impossible to reward students who excel in their classes.

And I continue to be opposed to academic programs that are delivered entirely online. After all, who believes that an undergraduate degree, a master's degree. or a doctoral degree that is offered entirely online is in any way comparable to an academic degree taught traditionally on an actual college campus?

I wish all the colleges well as they adjust their academic programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  I think most of them can deliver instruction this fall through various distance-learning formats without too much loss in quality.

Nevertheless, most students choose their colleges based on their perception of what their campus experience will be like. They don't just sit in classes, after all. They live in residence halls, interact with other students, and immerse themselves in all kinds of extracurricular activities. Some percentage of students will not go to college this fall if they can't have a traditional college experience.

Most commentators predict a significant enrollment decline if academic life doesn't get back to normal (or at least close to normal) by the fall semester. I think they are right. And the colleges that will suffer the most are the small liberal arts colleges and the regional public institutions.

This guy should be teaching online.


Monday, May 25, 2020

California ain't got the do re mi: Will Americans bail out the Golden State?


California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot
If you ain't got the do re mi.



Woodie Guthrie

Just a few months ago, the California economy appeared to be in great shape. Governor Gavin Newsom predicted a $7 billion budget surplus for 2020, and the state had $16 billion in its rainy day fund.  

The governor was feeling so confident that he promised to distribute $75 million to the state's illegal residents.  Very thoughtful. But after all, what's $75 million to California, the world's fifth-largest economy?

But then COVID-19 came along like a drunken ex-spouse at your wedding reception, and the Golden State's economy began heading south.

Today, Governor Newsom projects a $54 billion budget deficit--more than three times the amount of the state's rainy day fund.  California has 4.2 million unemployed workers and huge healthcare expenses connected with the coronavirus. One in three Californians (13 million) are on Medicaid and can't pay their own medical bills.

And of course, California's financial problems are more severe than this year's budget deficit. According to the California Policy Center,California's state and local liabilities total $1.5 trillion.  

A lot of California's debt can be traced to high salaries paid to the state's civil servants and unfunded pension obligations to government workers.  California's public employees (professors, school administrators, hospital administrators, etc.) are paid well. In fact, about one-third of a million government employees draw salaries of $100,000 or more.  Over 1,400 of them are paid more than Governor Newsom.

California's state and local employees also enjoy great retirement plans. Some retired school administrators draw pensions of more than $300,000 a year.

California desperately needs a federal bailout to keep essential services going and to pay thousands of overpaid public workers. Indeed, Governor Newsom said he is optimistic about the state's economic future but, "My optimism is conditioned on this--more federal support." 

Hence, Nancy Pelosi's $3 trillion HEROES Act, which, if passed, will shower more than $1 trillion of federal money to distressed state and local governments.  If the Senate votes to approve Pelosi's bill, lots of federal money will arrive in California.

But there's just one problem with the HEROES Act. The national debt already tops $25 trillion. Pelosi's legislation will add another $3 trillion to that number.

So if the federal government bails out California, taxpayers in Kansas, Ohio, and Oklahoma will help pay the tab for those quarter-of-a-million dollar California pension benefits. The citizens of the Midwest will help fund the princely salaries of California's college professors and school superintendents.  

As Woodie Guthrie observed nearly 100 years ago, California is a garden of Eden and a beautiful place to call home. But the state's dwindling middle class is going to find that California is not so hot if you ain't got the do re mi to pay for a whole lot of high living by people who call themselves public servants.

But Governor Newsom, we ain't got the do re mi!







Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Three out of four test-takers failed the California Bar Exam in February: Do you still want to be a lawyer?

This spring, pass rates for the California Bar Exam hit a historic low. Only 26.8 percent of the test-takers received a passing grade--about one out of four. The pass rate for retakers was even lower: a shocking 22 percent.

As one might expect, pass rates varied widely based on where the test-takers went to law school. People who studied at an ABA-accredited California law school had a pass rate of 42 percent, which is pretty poor odds.  But the poor blokes who got degrees from unaccredited distance-learning schools had a pass rate of only 16 percent.

No matter where students enroll, going to law school has gotten outrageously expensive. Most people who study law are forced to take out student loans.  According to one report, the average newly minted lawyer graduates with $145,550 in debt. How would you like to leave law school with $145,000 in college loans and then fail the bar exam? Or fail it twice?

People who graduate at the top of their class from elite schools (Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, etc.) generally find well-paying jobs with blue-chip law firms. But the leading U.S. law firms have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and are laying off lawyers and cutting salaries. Scroll down the list that Law360 compiled of the nation's most prestigious firms, and you will see that most of these big firms are hurting.

In other words, even law graduates with impeccable credentials are seeing their salaries cut due to COVID-19. People who graduate at the bottom of their class from second- and third-tier law schools will find it damned near impossible to pay off $150,000 in student loans because there are few decent-paying law jobs for these people.

So--if you are thinking about going to law school, do some research. Be sure to check out a couple of good web sites on the legal-education industry: Above the Law and Law School Transparency. Find out the bar pass rate and the average student-debt load for the law school where you intend to study. If you know some lawyers in the area where you hope to practice, ask them to share their thoughts about their local job market.

When I graduated from the University of Texas School of Law, the legal profession was a great way to make a living.  Tuition was very low, and I worked my way through school and graduated with no debt.  I did well in law school, graduating with honors, and I got several job offers.

In those days, even people who graduated with less than stellar grades could look forward to a stable job if they attended a well-respected law school. I had grown up in a small Oklahoma town, and law school opened up a bright, new world of seemingly limitless opportunities.

But those days are gone. Law school tuition is way too expensive. Today people who enroll at a mediocre law school are playing Russian roulette with their financial futures.

And law schools have lowered their admission standards to meet their enrollment goals, as evidenced by declining bar pass rates in states such as California.  This signals to me that the academic atmosphere of law school is not as stimulating now as when I was a law student.

So if you are dreaming about going to law school, think about it long and hard. Your world will definitely change if you get a J.D. degree, but it might not change for the better. Your dream of a better life could turn into a nightmare of bitterness, poverty, and regret.

Think hard about law school before you pull the trigger

Monday, April 20, 2020

Coronavirus is a black swan event for regional public colleges: Many will be forced to close

A black swan event is an unexpected occurrence that has potentially devastating consequences. For higher education, the coronavirus pandemic is a black swan event.

Even before COVID-19 forced a shutdown of the national economy, American colleges were suffering from enrollment declines. Declining birthrates have led to a shrinking number of college-age individuals in recent years. Small liberal arts colleges and for-profit institutions were particularly hard hit.

Regional public colleges are also suffering. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state's system of public universities saw an enrollment decline of 20 percent between 2010 and 2019. One small public college, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, saw its student body shrink by 61 percent to less than 1,000 students. Lock Haven University, another Pennsylvania public school, experienced an enrollment drop of 42 percent.

Thanks in large part to the coronavirus pandemic, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education projects that its 14 public universities will lose between $70 million and $100 million this spring. Some state legislators are calling for the system's small colleges to close.

Several Ohio public universities have also seen enrollment declines. Ohio University, Kent State University, the University of Toledo, and the University of Akron all lost students in 2019.

The University of Wisconsin's 26 two- and four-year institutions have recorded enrollment drops as well. UW's two-year colleges experienced a shocking 49 percent drop between 2010 and 2019.  One institution, UW-Plattville at Richland, a satellite campus of UW-Plattville, lost 58 percent of its students in just one year.  As reported by the Wisconsin State Journal, the University of Wisconsin's branch campuses had fewer students in 2019 than they did in 1973.

All these enrollment drops took place before the coronavirus pandemic showed up. And enrollment declines will surely accelerate in the wake of statewide stay-at-home orders that have triggered staggering drops in state tax revenues.

In the years to come, regional publ colleges all over the United States will be forced to close. Many states have far too many regional campuses. As public revenues decline in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the states simply can't afford to keep them open.

Moreover, increased opportunities for online learning are making regional campuses obsolete. If students are going to take their classes from home computers, there is no need to have a brick-and-mortar campus in their neighborhood.

College-bound high school graduates who decide to enroll at a public university in their home state should make every effort to get admitted to their state's flagship public university.  By and large, the flagships are seeing an uptick in their enrollments and can offer broader course offerings and student services than the regionals.

A few regional public institutions are thriving and maintaining their enrollment levels. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where I taught until I retired, is poised to remain viable even if the economic downturn persists. ULL has a nursing school, engineering programs, and computer-science offerings that make its degrees attractive in Louisiana's job market.

But in Louisiana and in most states, the small, marginal public colleges that were often their community's largest employer will be shutting down. For most students, it will not make sense to attend a regional school that may disappear before they pay off their student loans.











Saturday, March 21, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic and broad relief for battered student-loan debtors: Congress needs to go big or go home!

The coronavirus pandemic rolls along like a tropical storm gathering force in the Gulf of Mexico.
Every day, it kills more Americans and further batters the national economy. The airline industry, the travel industry, and the restaurant business are begging for financial assistance to help them survive an economic crisis that no one saw coming.

PresidentTrump and Congress are working on a $2 trillion aid package to assist industries that have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 outbreak and provide cash assistance to individuals who lost their jobs or their businesses due to the pandemic.

Lawmakers also recognize that student-loan debtors need relief. Even before the pandemic, millions of college-loan borrowers were struggling to pay off their loans. Now--as the unemployment rate rises and whole industries collapse, a lot of student-loan debtors have their backs to the wall.

Republicans and Democrats have both proposed some form of assistance for student debtors. The Republicans recommend giving students a three-month break from their student-loan payments with no interest accruing.  The Democrats want the Department of Education to make student-loan payments on borrowers' behalf for as long as the national emergency lasts.

These proposals are a good start, but they do not go far enough. More than 45 million people have outstanding student loans, and less than half of them can pay them back. As President Trump might say, it's time to "go big" when we think about student-loan relief.

First of all, let's take a look at Senator Bernie Sander's proposal for total student-loan forgiveness—a $1.6 trillion-dollar bailout. Let's also examine Senator Elizabeth Warren's plan for loan forgiveness up to $50,000 per debtor. These ideas are not as wacky as some commentators have made them sound.

Regarding Bernie's idea, let's face facts. More than 8 million people are in long-term, income-based repayment plans, and most of these people are not paying down the interest on their loans. In fact, their loan balances grow with each passing month due to accruing interest. Millions more are in default or have their student loans in deferment. They're not paying their loans back either.

What's the point of pretending the student-loan scheme is a solvent federal program? It's not.  Bernie's plan to wipe out all student debt and offer a free college education is a logical proposal.

Senator Warren's plan to help student debtors also makes sense.  She wants to cap debt relief at $50,000, and that would help a great many people. After all, as  Don Trooper and colleagues recently reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, people with small loan balances are more likely to default on their loans than people who owe $100,000 or more.

Forgiving student debt for individuals who ow relatively small amounts would help a lot of debtors who took out student loans to attend for-profit colleges and trade schools and didn't benefit from their educational experience.  That would be a good thing.

But if we really want to "go big," Congress must do two straightforward things. First, it must strike the"undue hardship." language from the Bankruptcy Code and allow insolvent student-loan borrowers to discharge their college loans in bankruptcy like any other nonsecured consumer debt. Second, it must repeal those provisions of the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform Act that made it more complicated and more expensive for beaten-down debtors to file for bankruptcy.

The very purpose of bankruptcy in American law is to give honest but unfortunate debtors a fresh start. Lawmakers need to remember that now as we enter into this century's Great Depression.

The 2020 Depression will look a lot like the Depression of the 1930s.