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 attackedby 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.  

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June 11, 2018 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Law in Cyberspace, Of Academic Interest, Student Advice, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink

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.

 

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June 8, 2018 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Professional Advice, Science, Student Advice, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink

May 17, 2018

Should universities' grant agreements be made publicly available? (Michael Simkovic)

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?


May 17, 2018 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Law in Cyberspace, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (1)

April 30, 2018

A well-organized campaign to bait, discredit, and take over universities is exploiting students and manipulating the public (Michael Simkovic)

Key takeaways:

  • 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. 

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April 30, 2018 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Law in Cyberspace, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Student Advice, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink

April 24, 2018

Paul Krugman explains how the war against taxes became a war against education (Michael Simkovic)

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."

 


April 24, 2018 in Faculty News, Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Of Academic Interest, Science, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink

April 16, 2018

Privatization scheme highlights rifts in Democratic party between donors and educators (Michael Simkovic)

Democrats in Colorado recently voted overwhelmingly to reject public school privatization and deregulation efforts (charter schools).  Chalkbeat reports:

"Delegates at the Colorado Democratic state assembly Saturday sent a clear message to the state chapter of Democrats for Education Reform: You don’t have a place in our party.

After booing down the head of the education reform organization, who described herself as a lifelong Democrat, delegates voted overwhelmingly Saturday to call for the organization to no longer use “Democrats” in its name. While it’s unclear how that would be enforced, the vote means a rejection of DFER is now part of the Colorado Democratic Party platform. . . . 

The platform amendment reads:

“We oppose making Colorado’s public schools private or run by private corporations or becoming segregated again through lobbying and campaigning efforts of the organization called Democrats for Education Reform and demand that they immediately stop using the party’s name Democrat in their name.”

Vanessa Quintana, a political activist . . . said that before she finally graduated from high school, she had been through two school closures and a major school restructuring and dropped out of school twice. Three of her siblings never graduated, and she blames the instability of repeated school changes.

“When DFER claims they empower and uplift the voices of communities, DFER really means they silence the voices of displaced students like myself by uprooting community through school closure,” she told the delegates. “When Manual shut down my freshman year, it told me education reformers didn’t find me worthy of a school.”

Just two people spoke up for Democrats for Education Reform. . . .

In an interview, Quintana said she sees education reform policies as promoting inequality, and she wants to change a status quo in which reformers are well represented in the party establishment. She feels especially strongly about ending school closure and sees school choice as a way to avoid improving every school.

“Families wouldn’t need a choice if every neighborhood had a quality school,” she said. “There should be no need to choice into a new neighborhood.”

She believes the reform agenda is not compatible with the education platform of the party, which reads, in part, “our state public education laws and policies should provide every student with an equal opportunity to reach their potential.”

This move highlights a major rift within the Democratic Party on education policy. Charter school advocacy, expansion and evaluation has been heavily funded by foundations affiliated with technology companies--most famously the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation--billionaire philanthropists traditionally viewed as Democratic-leaning such as the Broads, as well as conservative and libertarian billionaire philanthropists such as the Kochs and Waltons. By contrast, teachers’ unions have fought for higher wages, stable employment, smaller class sizes, and better textbooks and equipment for students in public schools, as well as nationwide efforts to ameliorate poverty, which teachers say undermines students’ ability to focus on their studies.

There is a serious empirical dispute over the quality of charter schools. The foundations say that charters, often staffed by young, inexperienced, and low-paid teachers with frequent turnover are the future of education.  But peer reviewed empirical studies have not consistently found evidence that charter schools improve student performance, compared to public schools, after properly controlling for student characteristics and expenditures per student. Although some studies get positive results (see here and here ), these studies may have suffered from methodological problems that caused them to underestimate differences in student characteristics or to focus only on the best charter schools rather than a representative sample.  Many studies find that charter schools perform worse than public schools. (See here, hereherehere).  Experiments with K-12 privatization in Sweden produced similarly unimpressive results decades ago.

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April 16, 2018 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Law in Cyberspace, Of Academic Interest, Science, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink

April 11, 2018

Zephyr Teachout (Fordham): Congress let Facebook CEO off the hook too easily (Michael Simkovic)

In the Guardian, Fordham's Zephyr Teachout argues that members of Congress let the CEO of Facebook off easily and essentially treated his hearing as an opportunity to curry favor with him.  Teachout writes:

"It was designed to fail. It was a show designed to get Zuckerberg off the hook after only a few hours in Washington DC. It was a show that gave the pretense of a hearing without a real hearing. It was designed to deflect and confuse.

Each senator was given less than five minutes for questions. That meant that there was no room for follow-ups, no chance for big discoveries and many frustratingly half-developed ideas. Compare that to Bill Gates’ hearing on Microsoft, where he faced lawyers and staff for several days . . . By design, you can’t do a hearing of this magnitude in just a couple of hours.

The worst moments of the hearing for us, as citizens, were when senators asked if Zuckerberg would support legislation that would regulate Facebook. . . . By asking him if he would support legislation, the senators elevated him to a kind of co-equal philosopher king . . . 

Teachout goes on to argue that Facebook's wealth, power, disregard for individual privacy, ability to manipulate public perceptions and refusal to take responsibility for accuracy of the content it presents makes it a "danger to democracy."

"Facebook is a known behemoth corporate monopoly. It has exposed at least 87 million people’s data, enabled foreign propaganda and perpetuated discrimination. We shouldn’t be begging for Facebook’s endorsement of laws, or for Mark Zuckerberg’s promises of self-regulation. We should treat him as a danger to democracy and demand our senators get a real hearing. . . . 

Zuckerberg strikes me as reliably self-serving. That doesn’t make him that interesting as the CEO of a corporate monopoly; it makes him a run-of-the-mill robber baron. . . [Senators should not] treat[] him as a good-hearted actor with limited resources, instead of someone who is making monopoly margins and billions in profits."

In fairness to Mr. Zuckerberg, traditional media organizations also often exhibit a disregard for privacy, manipulate public perceptions and refuse to take responsibility for the [in]accuracy of the information they publish and the harm it causes. Too many journalists and and editors invest the bare minimum in fact checking (often nothing), and prioritize entertainment value and "virality" over economic or political significance.  The established press too often write preconceived stories full of selective quotes or facts while disregarding contradictory information, refuse to print corrections, elevate the status of those willing to supply "helpful" quotes, and retaliate against those who point out their errors. 

This irresponsible behavior is made possible by defamation laws that make it virtually impossible for the press to incur liability unless it can be proved that they knowingly and intentionally lied with the specific goal of destroying an individual's reputation--which is virtually impossible.

Facebook may have contributed to the unexpected outcome of the last election, but so did other media organizations.  Mainstream media organizations gave one candidate billions of dollars of free publicity (hundreds of millions more than his rivals) mainly because his provocative statements--delivered with the practiced timing of a "reality" TV star--were entertaining and boosted their readership, and therefore their revenues.

This is what happens when competitive market pressures encourage media organizations to see their role as packaging advertising rather than as supplying accurate information.    Facebook may play the same game, only with better technology.

This does not mean that Facebook should get a free pass.  But we should not use Facebook as a scapegoat to avoid talking about problems with the media landscape that are systemic and that would persist even if Facebook disappeared tomorrow.

 

UPDATE: This article was corrected on 4/15/2018 to note that media organizations provided billions worth of free coverage, not just tens of millions.


April 11, 2018 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Law in Cyberspace, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Television, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink

April 10, 2018

Jake Brooks in NY Times: Direct Federal Student Lending Should Provide Insurance to Students and Public Investment in Education (Michael Simkovic)

John Brooks of Georgetown's excellent Op Ed is available here

Brooks calls to task some of the questionable and alarmist narratives that have been coming out of nominally liberal think tanks (which are funded by foundations linked to the private student loan industry and purveyors of ed-tech of dubious value), noting that Direct Lending, IBR and debt forgiveness can benefit both students and taxpayers.  He also notes the dangers of the new PROSPER act and graciously linked to Friday's post about how small the direct budgetary impact of student loans is when viewed in context.

Brooks notes that some Democrats have been advancing a traditionally Republican privatization agenda.  Jeff Sachs has similarly taken Obama and Clinton to task for underinvestment in basic and essential public services and infrastructure, noting that by the numbers they invest only marginally more than Republicans.  Brooks argues that because of IBR, Obama deserves more credit, and that this important legacy of his presidency should be preserved.

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April 10, 2018 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Law in Cyberspace, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Science, Student Advice, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink

April 09, 2018

U.S. News.com and Pepperdine: There but for the Grace of God go we all (Michael Simkovic)

Pepperdine’s law school recently made an error when submitting enrollment data to U.S. News.com.  Pepperdine contacted U.S. News promptly after uncovering the error and submitted corrected data in time for U.S. News to use the corrected data in its ranking.  Although the erroneous data was more positive than the corrected data, no reasons have been given to believe that Pepperdine intentionally sought to deceive U.S. News. 

I know and respect Paul Caron, the current Dean of Pepperdine.  While we don’t always agree on technical or political issues, the notion that he would intentionally commit fraud—and then immediately correct his error—is outlandish.  (In the interest of disclosure, Leiter Reports joined a network of legal education blogs that Paul organized, but Leiter Reports and Caron’s blog, TaxProf, often compete and advance different perspectives.  I have vocally criticized some of the research covered on TaxProf blog.).

Nevertheless, U.S. News punished Pepperdine by making it an “unranked” law school this year.  Those who are not familiar with the reasons for this move in the rankings might mistakenly believe that Pepperdine fell outside the top 100.  According to analyses by Bill Henderson and Andy Morriss, if not for the penalty imposed by U.S. News, in all likelihood Pepperdine’s rank this year would have risen from 72 to between 64 and 62. 

Unranked status could have an adverse impact on Pepperdine’s enrollments and finances.  It is punitive, unnecessary, and perhaps even counter-productive in that it might discourage honest self-reporting of mistakes.  A more reasonable and compassionate approach would be to let Pepperdine off with a warning, and report the incident without changing the rankings, for example by including a footnote in the ranking explaining the misreporting.  U.S. News is a private business, but because of its virtual monopoly on rankings, enjoys quasi-regulatory authority.

Some of Pepperdine’s competitors might rejoice at Pepperdine’s misfortune, believing that admissions and enrollment are a zero-sum game.  They are making a mistake.

The lesson of the last decade is that law schools rise and fall together far more than they benefit from each other’s hardship.  What U.S. News does to Pepperdine this year, it could one day do to any law school that makes a mistake, even if it honestly and reasonably attempts to correct it.

Healthy competition between law schools can promote innovation and efficiency, and be good for students and research productivity.  But we should be careful that competition does not erode our ability to act cooperatively in pursuit of shared beliefs and shared values of fairness and due process.


April 9, 2018 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Rankings, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink

April 06, 2018

Student loans are too small to cause a fiscal crisis for the federal government (Michael Simkovic)

Many alarmist narratives suggest that federal student loans are going to lead to a fiscal crisis for the federal government unless loan limits are capped, interest rates are increased, and debt forgiveness is curtailed.  These hyperbolic claims are implausible. Higher education is a tiny fraction of the federal government’s spending and of the U.S. economy (around 3 percent of each). Moreover, education spending is a boon to the economy--boosting employment, earnings, growth and tax revenues.

The federal government spends 4 trillion per year and growing—mostly on the military, healthcare, and social security.  That’s $200 trillion dollars in net present value, discounted at 2% in perpetuity.[1] The whole U.S. economy is worth roughly 5 times that much.  Household net worth is close to $100 trillion.  The federal student loan portfolio is only about $1.3 trillion.  Student loans may look big on the federal government’s balance sheet, but the federal government’s balance sheet asset are small to begin with relative to the size of the government and the size of the economy.

Even with Income Based Repayment (IBR) with partial loan forgiveness, borrowers pay some interest and principle, so the loss rates on these programs are nowhere near 100%.  Several analyses by the GOA and DOE peg the net subsidy rate on these programs as negative by a few billion (i.e., the programs are slightly profitable for the government), with the possibility of eventually becoming positive by a few billion per year (i.e., the programs could become slightly subsidized).  These studies do not take into account the fiscal benefits of higher tax revenues, they only look at the net present value (NPV) of interest and principal payments.  The estimated annual subsidy rates are around 0.3% or negative 0.3% or less of the size of the portfolio.  

Different assumptions could produce different results.  But you would need some pretty extreme assumptions to get to the point where losses on student loans could move the needle.  Nations that are no more productive than the United States—and where the returns to higher education are lower—have fully funded higher education with public dollars (i.e., grants and direct institutional subsidies, not student loans) for decades while maintaining a lower debt to GDP ratio than the United States.  A grant is the equivalent of a loan with a 100 percent loss rate, since no funds will be repaid except in the form of higher tax revenue.

The direct budgetary impact of federal student loans as a pure lending program—that is, the net present value of all funds dispersed and all fees, interest, and principal collected—is tiny.  Viewed in context, whether the student loan program is slightly profitable or slightly subsidized, its direct costs are approximately zero.

But the indirect budgetary and economic benefits of student loans are huge.  Federal student loans help finance higher quality and more economically valuable higher education and boost the size of the educated work force.  Better education increases earnings, reduces unemployment, and facilitates economic growth and innovation.  Around 30 to 40 cents of every extra dollar earned because of higher education goes into the U.S treasury’s coffers through income and payroll taxes, which account for the overwhelming majority of federal revenue.

The real crisis in higher education is that the government is underinvesting in it. 

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April 6, 2018 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Of Academic Interest, Science, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink