Showing posts with label coronavirus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label coronavirus. 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?


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.


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.


Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Police union posts billboard message: "Enter [Baton Rouge] at your own risk." Is it safe to attend LSU?

Last month, the Baton Rouge Police Union posted two highway billboards warning drivers to enter the city at their own risk. As of July 12, the police advertisement announced, Baton Rouge had experienced 47 homicides, a substantial spike over the previous year.

Baton Rouge is a college town with three universities and a large community college.  Baton Rouge is the state capitol, with thousands of well-paid and generally well-behaved public servants. Baton Rouge is the city where the state legislature deliberates and where our governor resides.

And the Baton Rouge police are warning citizens to enter the city at their own risk?

The Minneapolis authorities issued a similar warning to the residents of the city's Third Precinct. Carjackings are up 46 percent for the year, officials said in an open letter. Robberies are up by 36 percent. Police advised people to be prepared to give up their cellphones and to "do as they say" if they are accosted by robbers.

Minneapolis is another college town. Greater Minneapolis-Saint Paul has over 30 colleges and universities, and police are telling people to prepare for being a crime victim.

What's going on?

As students and parents make preparations for the upcoming fall semester, they should be aware that crime is up all over urban America. Moreover, many college campuses are being roiled by the defund-the-police movement. Faculty and students are making all sorts of demands, including disarming the police, cutting campus police budgets, and canceling agreements between colleges and the local police force.

Obviously, there is a political dimension to the policing debate. I don't have a dog in that fight, and neither should you when you are thinking about your own personal security.  Whether you are a defund-the-police advocate or a blue-lives-matter cop supporter, you want to be safe when you are on a college campus.

So if you plan to enroll at a university this fall, keep three things in mind:

First, has your college taken prudent precautions to protect you from contracting the coronavirus both in the classroom and in the residence halls?

Second, will your college survive the pandemic if enrollments decline as they are likely to do at many small liberal-arts colleges?

And finally, is your college committed to keeping you safe from crime, or will it bend to pressure from police critics and cut back on campus law enforcement?

That's a lot to think about.  And don't forget that you're probably taking out student loans to pay for your college education. You definitely don't want to borrow a lot of money to attend a university and wind up contracting the coronavirus, being a crime victim, or attending a school that will close before you get your degree.

Baton Rouge Police: Enter our city at your own risk.


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 14, 2020

"Don't bring your guns to town, son": Johnny Cash's mama gave good advice

Gun sales are skyrocketing in the United States. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (as reported by Forbes), Americans bought 2.5 million firearms in the first half of this year.

Even before this recent spike, Americans owned a lot of guns.  Today, Americans own 400 million firearms--that's a gun for every U.S. citizen, including toddlers and kindergarten kids.  And more Americans are packing heat when they travel.  As of 2019, 18.6 million citizens had concealed carry permits.

We've known for years that gun sales pick up in response to scary news events. Right now, people are worried about the coronavirus and urban violence in the wake of George Floyd's death. Many gun buyers don't actually want a firearm, but they are afraid they might need a gun one day and won't be able to get one.

This summer, however, we see a new development. Not only are people buying more guns, but they are also hoarding ammunition. As I write, it is virtually impossible to purchase handgun ammo in my city. A sales associate at my nearby Cabella's sporting goods store told me that ammo flies off the shelves as soon as it is stocked. "We sell out in about five minutes," he said.

Ammo.com reported that Texas saw a 1,000 percent increase in the purchase of 9 mm pistol ammunition this spring and a 2,400 percent increase in the sale of assault-rifle (223) bullets.

In my view, this is a worrisome trend. It is telling us that many Americans don't believe the police can protect them from crime and violence--that they are on their own when it comes to protecting their property and their families.

I'm not going to weigh in on the gun debate--the Second Amendment, yadda yadda yadda.  But I will say this. It is one thing for people who are trained to use firearms to keep securely-stored guns in their homes to protect their loved ones in the unlikely event that someone breaks into their dwelling, and the police don't arrive fast enough to deal with the threat.

It's quite another thing to carry a concealed weapon on a trip to the grocery store or to brandish a gun in public. Mark and Patricia McCloskey are famous now because they displayed firearms in their front yard when protesters came into their gated community in St. Louis. They say they were threatened and that the police didn't respond to their call for help. I believe them.

But wouldn't it have been better for Mr. and Mr.s McCloskey to have stayed in their home with the doors locked and call 911 repeatedly to ask for assistance? If someone broke into their house before the police showed up, the McCloskeys would then be well within their rights to protect themselves with guns.

But I don't see any sense in standing in one's front yard and waving a gun at people. I hope the McCloskeys aren't prosecuted for their misjudgment, but I also hope their personal drama is a lesson to the rest of us that we should heed Mama Cash's advice: "Don't take your guns to town, son. Leave your guns [inside your] home."





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

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 13, 2020

Fighting for milk: Now is the time to take any kind of work you can get

In the movie Cinderella Man, Russell Crowe plays the part of James J. Braddock, a professional boxer who breaks his hand in the ring, forcing him to leave his chosen profession and work as a common laborer. Then the Depression comes, and Braddock's family faces starvation. Braddock returns to boxing with ferocious intensity and winds up winning the World Heavyweight Championship.

In the movie, a reporter asks Braddock to explain why he had become a better boxer. Braddock answered that he was a better boxer because he had discovered what he was fighting for.  And what was that, the reporter asked?

"Milk," Braddock replied.

Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary made a similar point to people who have been laid off or furloughed from their jobs.  "Apply for any kind of work," she advised. Despite the economic downturn, some companies are still hiring, and all jobs bring in at least some money.

There was a time when experts advised people not to take menial jobs if they had been laid off from a professional position. A stint as a restaurant worker does not look good on the resume of someone who applies for a job as a financial analyst.

Also, many employers are reluctant to hire people who appear to be overqualified for the jobs they are seeking. Unemployed lawyers, for example, have difficulty getting employed as paralegals because the law firms believe that a licensed attorney working as a paraprofessional will be perpetually dissatisfied.

But these are desperate times, and they are becoming more desperate. If you have a home and a family, it makes sense to take any kind of work at all--any money you earn helps protect what is important to you.

After all, as the cinematic version of James Braddock showed us, working for milk is a dignified occupation.


Russell Crow as James J. Braddock: Working for milk

Friday, April 10, 2020

"If I were a carpenter": Manual skills will be more valuable than a liberal arts degree in the post-coronavirus economy

If I were a carpenter, and you were a lady
Would you marry me anyway?
Would you have my baby?

Tim Hardin
Sung best by Johnny Cash and June Carter

James Howard Kunstler wrote somewhere that in the coming age, carpenters will be more valued than people who design video games (or words to that effect). Kunstler's observation worried me because I have no mechanical skills at all, although I am a pretty good gardener.

Kunstler is right, and the coming age is now. Coronavirus is transforming the American economy. Millions of jobs have been lost that won't come back. All of a sudden, it matters if a person has real skills. A carpenter is going to be more valued in the years ahead than a sociology professor.

Americans have indulged themselves in the acquisition of meaningless university degrees--hundreds of thousands of degrees, and they will soon learn that all the millions of hours spent in university classrooms won't help them feed themselves.

I should know. I have been a university professor for 25 years, and I sat on dozens of dissertation committees. I would be embarrassed to list the titles of some of the dissertations I approved.  I remember one doctoral student at the University of Houston who wrote his thesis on what it felt like to be a graduate student.  I feel sure he is a tenured professor at some obscure regional university.

During my years in the Alice and Wonderland world of higher education, I stumbled across several instances of plagiarism. No plagiarist I discovered was ever kicked out of graduate school.  We treated plagiarism like a punctuation error--easily corrected.

All this foolishness was financed by the federal student-loan program, the Pell Grant program, and various forms of state and federal government support. And most of the people who acquired frothy university degrees got jobs--often soft-skill jobs in the public sector.  But few people who collected these degrees learned how to make anything useful.

Of course, not all higher education is vacuous. Programs in engineering, the medical profession, law, and accounting all teach useful skills. And several of my colleagues in my own field, which is education, are excellent scholars and dedicated teachers. I cast no aspersions on their work. But in general, the fields of education, liberal arts, and social studies offer degrees that lack real substance.

As I write this, nearly 17 million Americans are out of work, and this is just the first wave of job losses. Before the end of this year, people in government and education are going to feel the cold breath of a new Depression.  Experts reasonably predict that the unemployment rate in this country will reach 30 percent.

The world of higher education is in for a rude shock. Slovenly professors, who did very little work and made rare appearances on campus dressed in gym clothes, are going to lose their cushy sinecures.  If they are smart, they will acquire a craft skill and retool themselves as carpenters, plumbers, electricians, or technical workers.

As the job market for college professors collapses--and it will collapse, few laid-off professors are going to find new positions in academia. So If they don't retool, they will be forced on the dole, subsisting on food stamps and living with someone who has a real job.  

As for the people who took out student loans to get frivolous degrees, they are going to find it damned difficult to get a decent job and even more challenging to pay off their student debt. They, too, will need to master a useful skill if they aspire to own a home, get married, or have children.






Monday, March 30, 2020

God Bless John Prine! "Try to find Jesus on your own"

The lonesome friends of science say
"The world will end most any day."
Well, if it does, then that's okay
'Cause I don't live here anyway

John Prine is one of the three greatest American songwriters of the past century. With Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, Prine sang (and still sings) about the world where most of us really live.  He will be remembered long after the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga, and Elton John are forgotten.

And now John Prine has the coronavirus.  

When I heard the news this morning, one of his lyrics immediately came to mind. "The lonesome friends of science say the world will end most any day." 

And indeed, American life as we know it has ground to a halt.  The world of easy credit, Caribbean cruises, and an ever-rising stock market has been swept away. 

Without a doubt, the world where I made a living--the world of higher education--is fast sinking into oblivion.  As the nation's unemployment rate rises, who will take out student loans to study transnational sexualities and queer theory at Mills College?  Who still wants to borrow money to study sociology, anthropology, fine arts, art history, etc.  Who even needs an MBA?

And if the world of American higher education comes to an end, that's okay with me. I never lived there anyway. I never understood academia's obsession with race and sexuality, its neurotic fixation on victimhood, or the mean-spirited arrogance that permeates our nation's most elite colleges.

In the years to come, most Americans are going to get a lot poorer, and many of us have figured out that a college degree or a graduate degree from an overrated university may not improve our life's trajectory.  

So what should we do? Voltaire said we should cultivate our gardens, but John Prine expressed this sentiment better in the lyrics of Spanish Pipe Dream.  Yes--let's blow up our televisions, throw away our newspapers, plant a little garden, and try to find Jesus on our own.

John Prine assures us we will be fine.







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.









Thursday, March 19, 2020

Goodbye to all that: The coronavirus will sink many small colleges

Three presidents of elite colleges--Harvard, M.I.T., and Stanford--published an op-ed essay in the New York Times a few days ago, justifying their decisions to close their campuses. To increase social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, the three university presidents wrote, they were forced to take drastic action:
That meant turning university life upside down: suddenly sending virtually all of our undergraduates home; asking faculty to swiftly bring all instruction online; canceling academic, athletic, artistic and cultural events, and virtually all in-person meetings; shutting our libraries; and asking everyone who could work remotely to do so right away.
The elite presidents basically did what most college presidents did over the past couple of weeks; they shut down their campuses. Of course, this was a severe inconvenience; but Harvard, Stanford, and M.I.T. will weather this disruption.  All three have enormous endowments, wealthy donors, and millions of dollars in federal research grants. When the coronavirus crisis is over, life for them will quickly return to normal.

But a lot of small colleges were teetering on the brink of closure even before the coronavirus pandemic began. As Scott Carlson recently reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, six out of ten colleges failed to meet their enrollment goals last fall, and two-thirds of the colleges were unable to achieve their revenue goals.

This crisis will push many small colleges over the edge. According to Education Drive, which keeps track of college closings, 95 nonprofit colleges have merged or closed since 2016. This trend will surely accelerate. I think at least 100 small colleges will close within the next two years.

Many small colleges will suffer death from a thousand cuts. To begin with, the demographics for higher education are not good. The number of people in the traditional college-going age has shrunk, and college enrollments have suffered. Colleges have experienced enrollment declines for eight consecutive years.

These declines were not distributed evenly across the higher education community. By and large, the public flagship universities have continued to grow at the expense of small private colleges and regional public institutions.

Colleges have tried various tactics to grow their enrollments. Several years ago, the small, private colleges began discounting their tuition rates to lure students through the doors. The average discount for first-year students at small private colleges is now about 50 percent. But for many colleges, this tactic did not allow them to balance their budgets.

 In addition, a lot of colleges recruited international students to juice their enrollments and their revenues.  Most international students pay the full freight, compared to Amerian students who often receive grants, scholarships, or discounts. But foreign-student enrollment has declined substantially in recent years, and the federal ban on international travel will likely accelerate this trend.

Spring is recruiting season for both public and private colleges, the time when college recruiters strive desperately to sign up enough students to have a healthy sized freshman class. But these recruiting drives are being canceled due to the pandemic, and many colleges will have fewer first-year students as a result.

The coronavirus pandemic itself has a financial cost, and this cost will hit small colleges hard. Colleges that close their dormitories will be forced to pay out refunds to students who live in campus housing. Some schools may not have the liquidity to make these payouts.

Although circumstances will vary, the virus will force many colleges to pay employees to work less productively from home or cease work altogether. Sanitizing college buildings, athletic facilities, and residence halls will be costly. College professors are being ordered to teach their face-to-face classes online, and many professors do not have online teaching skills. Retooling professors to teach their courses in a new way is an unanticipated expense.

Kent Chabotar, a nationally recognized higher-education expert, summarized the pandemic's impact this way: "We've run into a crisis, and our flexibility is shot because we've already given away the store" [with high tuition-discount rates and other desperate measures].

In short, the coronavirus pandemic is an existential crisis for America's small colleges. When the crisis is over, a significant number of them will be closed.

This is my advice. If you are a young person thinking about attending a small, private college with high tuition, you might think again. Enrolling at a state university might make more sense because a public university is less likely to close than a small, private school.

If you are a college professor employed by a struggling, small nonprofit college, it is probably time to develop your Plan B. Think about what you will do if you are laid off, or your college closes.

For everyone who works or studies at a small, private college, it is time to face facts. The future is not bright at the nation's little colleges and universities, whether they are public or private. If you link your future to one of these struggling institutions, you may go down with the ship.






Tuesday, March 17, 2020

James Howard Kunstler says plant a garden: That's good advice

Blow up your t.v.
throw away your paper
Go to the country, 
build you a home
Plant a little garden
eat a lot of peaches
Try and find Jesus on your own

Spanish Pipedream
John Prine

If you would like to get a provocative and unconventional take on the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying financial crisis, you should read James Howard Kunstler's refreshing blog, clusterfuck nation. Mr. Kunstler has been predicting an economic meltdown for a long time. And now, by God, his prediction has finally come true.

What we are experiencing is not just a health emergency, and it's not a recession. We are at the beginning of the 21st century's Great Depression, and it is going to last a long time. A lot of industries, a lot of organizations, and a lot of jobs are going to disappear, and many of them are not coming back.

So what should we do? Kunstler recommends planting a spring garden:
If you’re prudent, you can begin at once to organize serious gardening efforts, if you live in a part of the country where that is possible. I’d go heavy on the potatoes, cabbages, winter squashes, and beans, because they’re all keepers over winter. Baby chicks sell at the local ag stores for a few bucks each now and you’ll be very grateful for the eggs. Get a rooster — even though they can be a pain-in-the-ass — and you won’t have to buy any more chicks.
I think Kunstler is right. I'm not saying we are in danger of starving to death in the coming months. I feel sure that our supply chains and grocery stores will continue to provide us with food. We may not be able to get Mexican blueberries in February, but we will always be able to get canned beans and Kraft macaroni and cheese--or so I believe. And, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, we'll always have baloney.

But planting a garden is a good thing to do. I have maintained a vegetable garden for the last eight years, and it gives me great satisfaction to harvest and eat food I grew myself. As everyone knows, homegrown tomatoes are better than the store-bought varieties. And homegrown broccoli, harvested and cooked on the same day, is a totally different experience from eating frozen broccoli from the grocery store.

Furthermore, by planting a garden, we begin to retrieve essential skills that our grandparents knew. My elders knew when to plant various crops and when to harvest. They knew how to preserve fruit and vegetables through the winter. They knew how to butcher a hog and turn it into smoked hams, bacon, sausages, and lard.  

I can't feed my family on what I grow in five raised garden beds.  In fact, if I gathered all the food my garden grows over the course of a year, my wife and I would survive for about a week. But I am learning a few things about raising food crops.

For example, I planted a fall garden this year and learned that broccoli can survive a light freeze.  I also learned that collard greens are ridiculously easy to grow and taste delicious if seasoned with bacon and a little garlic. 

I plant okra in my spring garden.  I've learned that okra likes hot weather and grows so fast once it starts producing that I have to pick okra every other day. But I also learned that I don't like okra very much.

In World War II, Americans ripped out their front lawns and planted victory gardens. I am told that at one time, people's individual victory gardens produced more food than all commercial farming combined.  

That's comforting to contemplate because things are changing in America, and they are changing fast. We are going to have to be more resilient, more frugal, and more self-reliant.  Planting a garden will help us obtain these virtues. 

After all, a tomato bush growing behind the garage is a reminder that we are capable of taking care of ourselves. 





Saturday, March 14, 2020

President Trump waives interest on student loans "until further notice": Woefully inadequate relief for distressed student-loan borrowers

In yesterday's speech on the coronavirus crisis, President Trump announced he is temporarily waiving interest on all federal student loans.

"I've waived interest on all student loans held by federal government agencies ... until further notice," Trump said in his speech "That's a big thing for a lot of students that are left in the middle right now. Many of those schools have been closed."

I appreciate President Trump's effort to assist distressed student borrowers, but yesterday's action is totally inadequate.  Millions of distressed student borrowers need broad and immediate relief, and a temporary waiver of interest offers almost no help at all. 

Around 45 million Americans have outstanding student loans totaling $1.6 trillion.  For many college-loan debtors, interest has already accrued, causing their loan balances to double, triple, and even quadruple.  Temporarily waiving interest on that debt is almost meaningless.

Besides, I think President Trump may have overestimated the Department of Education's ability to implement his moratorium.  Adjusting interest costs for 45 million student borrowers is no small task. Many student debtors have more than one student loan, and these loans have varying interest rates. (In fact, I met a woman yesterday who has five separate student loans.)We're probably talking about interest adjustments on more than 100 million individual loan agreements.

Frankly, I don't think Betsy DeVos's DOE is up to the job. DOE completely botched the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, denying 99 percent of the applications for PSLF debt relief. Last year, a federal judge ruled that DOE had managed the program arbitrarily and capriciously and in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

Also last year, a California federal judge held Secretary DeVos and DOE in contempt for not abiding by the judge's order to stop trying to collect on student loans taken out by people who had attended schools operated by the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges. I don't think DeVos and her crew intentionally disregarded the judge's order. I think they simply don't know what they are doing.

If DOE cannot manage its routine responsibilities, how can it manage adjustments on student loans held by 45 million people?

As Steve Rhode wrote a few days ago, "People in denial about the impact of COVID-19 may be adequately protected with emergency savings, good health insurance, and paid time off of work. But those of us who work in hourly paid jobs are at a very high risk of having finances slaughtered by this virus."

Mr. Rhode's observation is particularly applicable to college students and former college students.  A lot of people with substantial student-loan burdens are working in temporary jobs that pay low wages. In the coming weeks, these jobs are going to be lost as the public stops eating out, shopping, and traveling. The people who held these lost jobs are going to be unable to service their student loans, and many of them will default.

Giving overburdened student debtors a temporary break from the interest on their loans is like putting a bandaid on a compound fracture (a hackneyed analogy, I admit).  President Trump and Congress need to take far more drastic action.

Specifically, Congress must revise the Bankruptcy Code to allow insolvent student-loan debtors to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy.  

Ultimately, our politicians will be forced to confront the fact that the student-loan program is a colossal disaster, and the coronavirus epidemic is going to make it worse. Now is a good time to do what needs to be done. And what needs to be done is bankruptcy reform.