September 25, 2018
A recent working paper by Caroline Hoxby (Stanford) suggests that the economic returns to online education (measured in terms of wage growth) may be too low to recoup the costs of these programs, especially as administered at for-profit institutions. Hoxby used a fixed effects approach, measuring earnings before and after online education compared to likely earnings without online education. She found that online education does not boost earnings by very much, and it does not do much to move students into more lucrative industries or occupations. Hoxby found evidence that most students pursuing exclusively online degrees lived within commuting distance of brick-and-mortar institutions that likely offered higher quality education with better returns.
Hoxby's observational results are consistent with experimental studies that have found worse outcomes for students randomly assigned to online education compared to traditional education.
In previous research, Hoxby warned that the spread of online education could undermine highly selective institutions' ability to finance original research and teaching innovations. Hoxby wrote: "selective] institutions weaken rather than strengthen their market power in research and original content creation when they increase their exposure on the internet."
Hoxby's working paper has been criticized by groups advocating partnerships between for-profit technology companies and educational institutions to spread online education to non-profit and public institutions. For-profits have been online education's earliest and most enthusiastic adopters, while private non-profit and public institutions have generally taken a more conservative approach. The strongest of the critiques of Hoxby's paper is that it looked at returns over the course of 10 years rather than a lifetime. The present value of lifetime earnings premiums is a more appropriate measure of the returns to education.
Related coverage: Should online education come with an asterisk?
August 08, 2018
The ABA recently voted to permit a dramatic expansion of online legal education.
Online education is controversial in higher education. It is even more controversial in legal education, which relies more on classroom interaction and less on lectures than most forms of higher education.
Widespread perceptions that online education is lower quality than live instruction in general—and may be particularly disadvantageous in legal education—are backed by numerous peer-reviewed empirical studies.
Proponents of online education argue that it is more convenient because students and faculty do not have to commute, or because students can learn at their own pace. They argue that it is potentially more cost effective, either because physical facilities need not be used, or because it is scalable, or because an artisanal model of teaching through knowledgeable faculty can be replaced with a less expensive, industrial model of low-skill specialized workers who each handle particular aspects of course development and teaching. Some argue that technology can be used to closely monitor and track students, and that the information gathered can be used to improve the quality of education.
Critics of online education argue that it is lower quality, that most students learn and absorb less, and that the social dynamic of the classroom and learning from one’s peers and interacting with alumni is a critical part of education. (In addition to multiple peer-reviewed studies, they point to recent examples of “online education” such as self-paced workplace training modules as examples of the low quality that can be expected.)
Critics point to the failure of MOOCS—which have extremely low completion rates (see also here)—as evidence of the limits of scalability. They point to the pricing and cost experience of most universities, which have seen high costs of developing and maintaining online courses and additional software licensing fees which have prevented them from charging much less for online classes than for those taught in person. And they point to a rash of cheating and distracted learning, which anecdotally seem to be more prevalent online than in person.
Perhaps the most empirically rigorous (and recent) study of online education to date—which relied on an experimental design with random assignment of students to different versions of the same introductory economics course—found evidence that “live-only instruction dominates internet instruction . . . particularly . . . for Hispanic students, male students, and lower-achieving students.” An earlier study which also used a quasi-experimental approach, found similar results, especially for complex conceptual learning:
“We find that the students in the virtual classes, while having better characteristics, performed significantly worse on the examinations than the live students. This difference was most pronounced for exam questions that tapped the students' ability to apply basic concepts in more sophisticated ways, and least pronounced for basic learning tasks such as knowing definitions or recognizing important concepts . . .
Choosing a completely online course carries a penalty that would need to be offset by significant advantages in convenience or other factors important to the student. . . . Doing as well in an online course as in the live alternative seems to require extra work or discipline beyond that demonstrated by our students, especially when it comes to learning the more difficult concepts.”
July 21, 2018
I recently pointed out some factual problems with claims by Northwestern lecturer Mark A. Cohen. Cohen, writing in Forbes, claimed that faculty terminations at Vermont Law School were proof that student debt was unsustainable, not only at Vermont, but at all law schools except for a handful of elite institutions.
Here’s the problem: When student debt levels are unsustainable, student default rates are high. But at Vermont--and at most law schools--default rates are low.
When Professor David Herzig pointed out some of the relevant literature to Mr. Cohen, Cohen responded with the following angry outburst on twitter:
“That "evidence" has been panned by every credible source I know. The methodology and premises upon which the conclusions were drawn are laughable and fly in the face of real studies. I was a bet-the-company trial lawyer for many years--the "study" you cite is 3rd rate fiction.”
Low student loan defaults for law graduates are consistent with the peer reviewed literature, such as The Economic Value of a Law Degree (final version here), Timing Law School (final version here), and related work by me and Frank McIntyre about the value of legal education. Law degrees generally provide benefits that are substantially greater than their costs, even toward the low end of the distribution, across race (final version here), sex and college major, both before and after the financial crisis, and including those who graduate during a recession. More than the top 75 percent of law graduates are getting good value relative to a terminal bachelor’s degree.
Strong student loan performance is also consistent with the After the JD study (compare waves I, II, and especially III), which showed rapid income growth for graduates of even low ranked ABA-approved law schools, and eventually, six-figure median full-time incomes.
Law students’ low default rates have featured in the business strategies of many student lenders, who are eager to refinance law student debt for interest rates substantially below those offered by the federal government.
Professor Herzig asked Mr. Cohen to be more specific about his sources and objections.
Mr. Cohen has yet to specify what he believes is wrong with the methodology in the studies—which were authored with a PhD labor economist, peer reviewed and carefully vetted, use high quality government data, use mainstream methods and assumptions that are well established in labor economics, and include sensitivity analyses and robustness checks. The results have been replicated by other researchers.
Mr. Cohen also has yet to specify which “real studies” he thinks use better data and more widely accepted methods, and why. He has yet to explain how his litigation experience qualifies him as a labor economist, statistician, and literary critic. Or why, as a seasoned litigator, he thinks so many of the lawsuits against law schools have been dismissed.
July 19, 2018
The trouble at Vermont Law School isn't due to "unsustainable" debt levels for students--but it might be because of unsustainable tuition discounting and underinvestment in outreach (Michael Simkovic)
Vermont Law School recently stripped many of its tenured faculty of tenure. A recent article in Forbes by Mark Cohen, a lecturer at Northwestern, claims that Vermont's financial problems are a sign that tuition is too high and student debt is unsustainable.
The data doesn't support his contention. When student debt levels are unsustainable, student default rates are high. But at Vermont--and at most law schools--default rates are low. Vermont Law School's 3-year cohort default rates over the last 3 years available (classes of 2012-2014) are between 0.3 and 1.2 percent, while the national average cohort default default rate across educational institutions is close to 11.5 percent. Nor are Vermont graduates defaulting in large numbers on their Perkins loans. The 2016 default rate, the most recent available, was 3.5 percent for Vermont, versus an average across all educational institutions of around 11.5 percent. Perkins loans are not eligible for Income Based Repayment, so Vermont's relatively strong performance is likely not due too a disproportionately large share of its graduates enrolling in IBR. (Not all Vermont grads will practice law in Vermont, but lawyers in Vermont are actually paid reasonably well--around 120,000 on average according to the BLS).
Vermont Law School's problem is not that tuition is so high that student debt levels are unsustainable relative to students' post graduation income and other financial resources. Rather, Vermont's problem seems to be that there are too few students, and because of aggressive tuition discounting intended to attract them, the students who matriculate are paying too little to make the school financially healthy. Vermont Law School's 2016 529 shows that around 90 percent of incoming students received some scholarship, and half of students receive half tuition scholarships or better.
Vermont Law School could try to respond by offering even more scholarship, but its competitors have deeper pockets, and can outspend Vermont until it runs out of room to maneuver. Escalating a price war that Vermont will surely lose would be foolish. Degrading the quality of its education by relying on more lecturers and adjuncts risks causing a death spiral in which quality, enrollments, reputation, and revenue per student all continue to drop.
To be successful and sustainable in the long run, Vermont may need to find a way to attract students--not just from Vermont, but from across the region--other than offering a cut-rate price. Rather than compete on price, Vermont should find a better way to reach out to those students who are most likely to find Vermont's offerings appealing.
July 18, 2018
New York Times contributors get an unpleasant surprise when they try to write about higher education without bashing it (Michael Simkovic)
Ellen Shell, a journalism professor at Boston University, recently wrote an article for the New York Times arguing that while higher education confers vitally important advantages in the labor market, education alone is not enough to overcome the disadvantages of childhood poverty and to promote greater equality. The purpose of Shell’s article was apparently to advocate for more comprehensive efforts to overcome poverty, above and beyond greater investment in higher education.
In the hands of editors at the New York Times, the title of Professor Shell’s Op Ed became "College May Not Be Worth It Anymore."
Several readers who contacted me about this article assumed that Professor Shell was an elitist who believed that the poor did not deserve to be as well educated as her own children. Apparently so did the author of the study she cited. He says that to the extent that Professor Shell may have intended to downplay the benefits of education to poor children, she misunderstood his work.
I contacted Professor Shell to ask about the discrepancy between the contents of her article and its title, and whether New York Times editors had changed her title.
She wrote back that she was surprised by the title, that it did not match the contents of her article, that it must have come from the editor, and that it did not endear her to the administration at her university.
I knew to ask Professor Shell before jumping to conclusions because I have also been surprised to find that New York Times editors attached inapposite, critical titles to my work. And I have repeatedly heard similar complaints from other professors who have written Op Eds for the New York Times and from sources who have been misquoted by the New York Times and had their professional reputations damaged as a result.
Most readers of newspapers assume that the writer listed in the byline of a newspaper article or Op Ed is responsible not only for the text of an article, essay or Op Ed, but also for the lead or title that appears at the top.
At the New York Times, that is not the case.
Editors choose the titles of Op Eds or articles. Because many readers only read the lead or title, and not the full article, this gives senior management at media companies an enormous amount of power. This power comes without public scrutiny, since usually only the name of the “author” (and not the editor) appears in the byline of the article.
June 11, 2018
Have education advocates sold out students' and educators' privacy for money from technology firms? (Michael Simkovic)
The Department of Education's failures to safeguard student data against leaks have led to repeated Congressional hearings over the last few years. (see here, here, and here). Even some of the best state education agencies have also suffered data breaches.
Privacy advocates, student and parent groups, and educators are therefore understandably concerned about sharing even more detailed and personal student information with government agencies that cannot adequately safeguard the information they already have.
A network of think tanks, advocacy groups, and media organizations with links to technology firms have been pushing for extremely intrusive and detailed collection of information about individual students. Disclosures would no longer be limited to aggregated, anonymized data, but rather would include information about individual students. Extant disclosures have already undermined student privacy far more than was anticipated. Student contact lists are commercially available for purchase on the basis of ethnicity, affluence, religion, lifestyle, awkwardness, and even a perceived or predicted need for family planning services. Disclosure of disciplinary records -- which occurs in spite of legal assurances that such data will remain confidential -- can put students at a disadvantage in the job market for a lifetime. (See also here).1
As one expert on technology explained:
"The bill proposes a new system to collect student-level data . . . . And that's where we all should feel a little queasy. Despite the obvious benefits of having access to data . . . the inherent security and privacy concerns of such a system are significant.
The definition of "data in scope" might change over time. And once the data is collected, there it sits, ready to be leaked, breached or worse. Without getting too deep into Big Brother conspiracy theory, there are so many ways for the system to go wrong."
Tech-backed groups want even more data collection mandated by the federal government. Many of these groups are funded by the Gates Foundation and related groups with links to technology firms.
Technology firms have a tendency to have faith in data-driven solutions to problems. But technology firms would also benefit financially from more onerous reporting obligations because technology firms provide compliance and reporting services to education institutions. Rising technology and compliance costs are among important reasons that higher education has become more expensive.
The American Council on Education (ACE) has stopped defending student privacy against these demands after ACE received grants from the Gates Foundation (including one to promote online education) and after ACE was viciously attacked2 by Gates-funded journalists3 for opposing Gates-backed policies.
The American Association of State Colleges and Universities also received a substantial grant from the Gates Foundation around the time it ceased defending student privacy (see also here). So did the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (see also here, here, here, here, here) and the American Association of Community Colleges (here, here, here, here, here). (While there may be innocent explanations, the optics are not great).
One of the few remaining defenders of student privacy is the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents private non-for-profit universities. However, even NAICU appears increasingly likely to compromise and give the Gates-backed group much of what it wants.
Technology firms might obtain access to extremely sensitive data through a revolving door between the Gates Foundation, the Department of Education, and Edu-Tech firms. Such data could be advantageous when technology firms negotiate the price of technology servicing contracts or compete with education institutions through online offerings.
One wonders if higher education "lobby groups", rather than educating policymakers about the needs of students and universities, have found it more advantageous to lobby higher education institutions on behalf of technology firms.
June 08, 2018
Apprenticeships and online education are not viable alternatives to ABA-approved law schools (Michael Simkovic)
Over the last several decades, both the cost and the quality of ABA approved law schools have increased. Faculty student ratios have fallen. Completion rates have increased, even as diverse groups with historically lower completion rates have become a larger share of the student body. Earnings premiums have increased, and racial disparities have narrowed.
Nevertheless, some critics of law school, concerned by the high cost, have suggested going back to the "good old days" of legal apprenticeships, or using technology to bring down costs. The data does not support apprenticeships or less highly regulated (and less expensive) online or correspondence versions of law school as viable alternatives to ABA-approved law schools.
Several major legal markets (including New York and California) permit prospective lawyers to sit for the bar exam after 4 years of apprenticeship under a licensed lawyer (or 4 years combined law school and apprenticeship). Very few people still try this approach. But for those who do, the bar passage rates are abysmal.
May 17, 2018
Following up on my previous post, When do donor influence and ideology undermine academic integrity?
The progressive activist group whose efforts forced George Mason to disclose some old grant agreements has created a petition asking George Mason to disclose all of its grant agreements. This echoes recommendations made by the Faculty Senate at George Mason following revelations of improprieties in grant funding, such as politically discriminatory compensation supplements for economics and law faculty who promoted an economically conservative agenda, consistent with the views of wealthy donors.
There are numerous other examples of improprieties, such as university based researchers working to advance the interests of the sugar industry or certain tech companies without proper disclosures.
Should George Mason disclose all of its grant agreements? Should universities more generally? Should think tanks and news organizations be held to the same standards of transparency?
April 30, 2018
A well-organized campaign to bait, discredit, and take over universities is exploiting students and manipulating the public (Michael Simkovic)
- Many lectures about “free speech” are not really about “free speech,” but rather are intended to provoke a reaction that will discredit universities.
- When such reactions occur, many news stories about them are created, shaped, and disseminated by a well-funded network that wants to transform and take over universities.
- Students, professors, administrators should not take the bait; nor should journalists.
After a violent attack on civil rights protestors that left three dead and more than a dozen injured at the University of Virginia, students and administrators at Vassar became concerned when they learned that William Jacobson was coming to defend racism. Jacobson’s libertarian hosts advertised his lecture as “‘Hate Speech’ is Free Speech, Even After Charlottesville.” Jacobson’s previous racially charged comments and dubious assertions earned Jacobson the admiration of White-nationalist websites such as V-Dare (see also here), the John Birch Society’s New American, and Breitbart news.
But Jacobson’s much-hyped lecture turned out to be a superficial and innocuous discussion of free speech, at the level of a high school civics class. Jacobson’s prosaic lecture was not news worthy. Instead, the press focused on student and university officials’ purported over-reactions to a talk about “free speech.”
Similar stories abound. Recently, the Federalist Society invited Josh Blackman, a tenured professor at South Texas College of Law Houston’s, to lecture at CUNY law school. Professor Blackman’s sparsely attended lecture drew protestors because of Blackman’s previous criticism of an amnesty program for undocumented immigrants and his use of language the protestors interpreted as racial dog whistling.
A university official asked the students to be respectful, defended Blackman’s right to speak, and admonished the students “please don’t take the bait.” One student noticed Blackman recording himself and asked Blackman, “You chose CUNY didn't you? Because you knew what would happen if you came here." (CUNY, like Vassar, has a reputation for left-wing student activism). Blackman deflected the question. One protestor used an expletive, which Blackman repeated.
According to both Blackman and CUNY, the protestors were non-violent. Security was present to maintain order. Blackman—tall and muscular—towered over the students and appeared calm throughout the exchange.
Right-wing journalists hyped up the incident, labelling the largely minority protestors a “mob” and “hoodlums.” A law professor writing for the Volokh Conspiracy blog at Reason Magazine argued that the CUNY Dean should be fired. White Nationalist websites such as Breitbart, New American (the John Birch Society), and VDare lionized Blackman as a hero. Blackman seized the opportunities that resulted, scoring an Op Ed in the New York Daily News.
Professor Blackman’s claim that student protestors at CUNY denied him a platform is ironic. It is precisely because of Blackman’s right-wing connections and the brief protests they engendered that Blackman was given a platform at the National Review, Fox News, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, Reason, Inside Higher Ed, FIRE, Campus Reform, Cato.org, Commentary, First Amendment Watch, The College Fix, and The Global Dispatch, SeeThruEdu (The Texas Public Policy Foundation) among others. Many of these organizations are part of the Koch Brothers’ backed State Policy Network.
The purpose of media exaggeration of incidents at universities appears to be to discredit universities in the eyes of conservatives, libertarians, and moderates.
April 24, 2018
In today's New York Times, Professor Krugman writes about the war on education. Krugman's generally smart post overlooks an important part of the story. Many wealthy Democratic Donors also want low taxes and are therefore also hostile toward teachers unions and increases in public funding for education. Republicans are not the only ones's responsible for the current state of K-12 education, in which high preforming college graduates are fleeing teaching for better opportunities. Krugman writes:
"State and local governments . . . are basically school districts with police departments. Education accounts for more than half the state and local work force; protective services like police and fire departments account for much of the rest.
. . . [W]hen hard-line conservatives take over a state. . . they almost invariably push through big tax cuts. Usually these tax cuts are sold with the promise that lower taxes will provide a huge boost to the state economy. . . . This promise is, however, never — and I mean never — fulfilled; the right’s continuing belief in the magical payoff from tax cuts represents the triumph of ideology over overwhelming negative evidence.
What tax cuts do, instead, is sharply reduce revenue, wreaking havoc with state finances. For a great majority of states are required by law to balance their budgets. This means that when tax receipts plunge, the conservatives running many states can’t do what Trump and his allies in Congress are doing at the federal level — simply let the budget deficit balloon. Instead, they have to cut spending.
And given the centrality of education to state and local budgets, that puts schoolteachers in the cross hairs.
How, after all, can governments save money on education? They can reduce the number of teachers, but that means larger class sizes, which will outrage parents. They can and have cut programs for students with special needs, but cruelty aside, that can only save a bit of money at the margin. The same is true of cost-saving measures like neglecting school maintenance and scrimping on school supplies to the point that many teachers end up supplementing inadequate school budgets out of their own pockets.
So what conservative state governments have mainly done is squeeze teachers themselves.
Now, teaching kids was never a way to get rich. However, being a schoolteacher used to put you solidly in the middle class, with a decent income and benefits. In much of the country, however, that is no longer true.
At the national level, earnings of public-school teachers have fallen behind inflation since the mid-1990s, and have fallen even more behind the earnings of comparable workers. At this point, teachers earn 23 percent less than other college graduates. But this national average is a bit deceptive: Teacher pay is actually up in some big states like New York and California, but it’s way down in a number of right-leaning states.
Meanwhile, teachers’ benefits are also getting worse. In particular, teachers are having to pay a rising share of their health insurance premiums, a severe burden when their real earnings are declining at the same time.
So we’re left with a nation in which teachers, the people we count on to prepare our children for the future, are starting to feel like members of the working poor, unable to make ends meet unless they take second jobs. And they can’t take it anymore.
. . . [E]xtreme right-wing ideologues . . . really believed that they could usher in a low-tax, small-government, libertarian utopia.
Predictably, they couldn’t. For a while they were able to evade some of the consequences of their failure by pushing the costs off onto public sector employees, especially schoolteachers. But that strategy has reached its limits. Now what?
Well, some Republicans have actually proved willing to learn from experience, reverse tax cuts and restore education funding. But all too many are . . . lashing out, in increasingly unhinged ways, at the victims of their policies."