Thursday, August 22, 2013

The return of NCLB: No College Left Behind

We have a problem in the field of higher education. And it's a problem that's existed for decades now: costs for attending college have skyrocketed, rising at a far greater rate than pretty much any other metric one might think of, including healthcare. And frankly, there are many, many people who simply don't care about this problem, who are actively ignoring it or even helping to keep it going. For the most part, such people are in government--elected officials and bureaucrats, both--or in academia, itself. There are also those in the financial industry who effectively bank on these rising costs as a means of selling products, from loans to life insurance.

And pretty much every couple of years, this issue makes a bold appearance on the national stage, as one politician or another vows to "do something" about these rising costs. So far nothing.

Enter President Obama. Today, he announced a new initiative that would supposedly make college more affordable. Essentially, the President is proposing the creation of a new ratings system for colleges--a federally controlled ratings system--that would be used to determine how much federal aid schools would be entitled to receive. All of the details on this are not yet available, but here is a brief summary:
A draft of the proposal, obtained by The New York Times and likely to cause some consternation among colleges, shows a plan to rate colleges before the 2015 school year based on measures like tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend. The ratings would compare colleges against their peer institutions. If the plan can win Congressional approval, the idea is to base federal financial aid to students attending the colleges partly on those rankings.

“All the things we’re measuring are important for students choosing a college,” a senior administration official said. “It’s important to us that colleges offer good value for their tuition dollars, and that higher education offer families a degree of security so students aren’t left with debt they can’t pay back.”

Mr. Obama hopes that starting in 2018, the ratings would be tied to financial aid, so that students at highly rated colleges might get larger federal grants and more affordable loans. But that would require new legislation.
So, the basic idea is to rate colleges based on the above metrics and use those ratings as a basis for doling out federal monies. Sound familiar? President George Bush at the the signing of the NCLB Act in 2002:
First principle is accountability. Every school has a job to do. And that's to teach the basics and teach them well. If we want to make sure no child is left behind, every child must learn to read. And every child must learn to add and subtract. (Applause.) So in return for federal dollars, we are asking states to design accountability systems to show parents and teachers whether or not children can read and write and add and subtract in grades three through eight.
The breakdown of this "accountability" issue, via the Department of Education:
The NCLB Act is designed to help all students meet high academic standards by requiring that states create annual assessments that measure what children know and can do in reading and math in grades 3 through 8. These tests, based on challenging state standards, will allow parents, educators, administrators, policymakers, and the general public to track the performance of every school in the nation. Data will be disaggregated for students by poverty levels, race, ethnicities, disabilities, and limited English proficiencies to ensure that no child--regardless of his or her background--is left behind. The federal government will provide assistance to help states design and administer these tests. States also must report on school safety on a school-by-school basis. 
Annual school "report cards" will provide comparative information on the quality of schools. By doing so, they will empower parents to make more informed choices about their children's educations. These report cards will show not only how well students are doing on meeting standards but also the progress that disaggregated groups are making in closing achievement gaps. 
Districts and schools that do not make sufficient yearly progress toward state proficiency goals for their students first will be targeted for assistance and then be subject to corrective action and ultimately restructuring. Schools that meet or exceed objectives will be eligible for "academic achievement awards."
Written mostly by Senator Kennedy and championed by pols from both sides of the aisle, NCLB has been roundly criticized since its passage by pretty much everyone. Why? Because it hasn't worked. It's failed to deliver the promised improvements and has instead created a kind of educational gridlock in schools across the nation, so much so that many States have asked for (and received) waivers from the requirements of the program.

Do we learn nothing from the past? Apparently not.

So, here is the President, trumpeting a vast new program--with all manner of new bureaucrats, to be sure--to tackle the problem of rising education costs by imposing arbitrary standards for various metrics as a means of determining funding levels. How, exactly, will this reduce the costs?

None of the metrics are absolute. All can and will be gamed. Consider tuition. If tuition levels are going to be judged, schools (and States) will simply lower tuition or hold it steady, while raising things like student fees to make up the difference. Or graduation rates. That's just stupid, using such a metric. Schools can (and will) simply make graduation easier for borderline students, if such a change is the difference between receiving or not receiving federal monies. This isn't rocket science, it's basic economics, basic human nature.

And still, none of this will adress the cause of the problem, only--at best--some of the symptoms.

In the past few years it is true that the rising costs of tuition has flattened out somewhat, but this is mostly a consequence of the economy being in a severe downturn (to put it mildly). And still, the average costs have continued to rise. Why? Because, frankly, colleges are greedy, just like all those evil corporations we so often hear about. They're being run as businesses, even state schools, more for the benefit of the administrators, professors, and big donors than for anyone else, including the students.

But in the distance, a chill wind is blowing. I noted then the rising costs of tuition and the real "why" behind it:
And this rapid increase in [college tuition] costs over time coincides with a similar trend in the actual number of students. This indicates--on its face--costs increasing as demand increases in a traditional economics paradigm: more and more people want a college degree so degrees become more expensive. But those in the higher education field don't like to see it that way (despite their widespread inability to think outside such a limited economic box). They prefer to suppose that increased tuition costs simply reflect real needs. Why those needs have increased so dramatically--as opposed to everything else--they can never really say.  
Regardless, the point is that everyone is told to get a college degree these days and such degrees cost more than ever before. Once upon a time, the net benefits of having a degree most definitely outweighed the costs. This is no longer a given. With potential student debt for just a four-year degree pushing into the mid five-figure range (or even higher), a failure to graduate can be catastrophic (graduation is not a given, after all). Even if one graduates, the accumulated debt can take years--even decades--to pay off, especially given rising costs in other areas. The last supposes one is able to find a job that pays significantly more than can be had without a degree, no longer a certainty in today's environment.  
Yet, traditional colleges and universities have a virtual monopoly on degrees in the United States (which is why they can keep jacking up the cost).
The last remains true. For now. But maybe for not much longer. The possibility of an internet-based degree that equals or exceeds the value of a degree from a four-year university is almost a reality. Even some of the big-name schools realize this and are rapidly trying to get into that game before it's too late. But in doing so, they are ultimately undermining their own business model.

And it's truly fascinating to see an Administration that is supposedly so hip on internet issues offer a program that will likely be obsolete before it ever gets going. But in the meantime, it represents a pointless--and dangerous--waste of resources, though it does have that "feel good" vibe going for it.

Cheers, all.

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