Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: United States

August 31

Free Tuition Developments

One major trend of the last couple of years in global higher education has been the arrival of a wave of “free tuition” policies in jurisdictions that formerly charged them and which – in some cases – have substantial private higher education sectors.  But announcing free tuition is one thing: actually pulling it off is another.  Let’s take a quick look-in at how things are playing out in various parts of the world.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte (Luzon’s answer to Donald Trump) declared education at all public universities free in the state budget earlier this year, and the policy came into effect this fall.  Of course, this only affects a minority of students because public universities only educate about 45% of Filipino students: the rest attend one of the country’s 1500 or so private universities.  And fees were never that high to begin with (in the region of $150/year at most state colleges).

But what’s brilliant about the Philippines “free tuition” program is the packaging.  The budget for implementation is only P8 billion ($200 million Canadian or $160 million US), which is considerably short of what is needed to cover all students.  So to make up for it, they are i) putting an academic progress filter on the program (i.e. fail too many courses and you have to start paying fees) and more importantly ii) putting an income filter on it as well.  But, intriguingly, the law doesn’t say “targeted aid for the poor”; rather, what it says is “as a rule, fees shall be abolished” but that universities “shall create a mechanism to enable students with the financial capacity to pay…to voluntarily opt out of the tuition and other school fees subsidy or make a contribution to the school.”  In practice, what this means is that the funds will be distributed to institutions who in turn will provide fee waivers to students in order of financial need (a slightly more detailed explanation is available in this article from the Philippines Star).  Too rich?  No subsidy.  But the actual cut-off line will vary somewhat from institution to institution.

(I know that sounds weird, but running student aid through institutions rather than a national government is actually pretty common in southeast Asia).

Still, the government is sufficiently worried about extra demand that it is reinstating an entrance exam to keep growth in numbers down.  Which of course does make you wonder why they put free tuition in place in the first, if not to increase participation.

Over in Chile, President Bachelet has moved to expand the free tuition subsidy (“gratuidad”) to students from the sixth income decile starting this coming February; previously it was only available to students from the lowest five deciles.  In theory, the government is meant to nudge this up to the seventh decile by 2020, but the likelihood that the left will still be in power by then is pretty slim: polls right now have former centre-right president Sebastian Pinera well out in front, and he’s already more or less said he’s not committed to anything above the 50% threshold.

In the US, two states – New York and Oregon – brought in “free tuition” programs last year.  Oregon’s was a free community college plan, much like Tennessee’s; New York’s was a “targeted free tuition” system for 4-year colleges, which looked much like those in Ontario and New Brunswick only less well-targeted.  Now, both are slightly off the rails because of the weird way that legislation and appropriation happen separately in the US.  Despite “enacting” free tuition, neither state actually set aside enough money to actually make it work properly.  In Oregon, the short-fall means roughly 20% of students who should have been eligible will not receive benefits.  In New York, the demand for the new “Excelsior” scholarships exceeded the budgeted amount by a factor of three.  The best one can say for this situation is, as my colleague Robert Kelchen says, is that this is an unrivalled opportunity to test the “disappointment effect” in student aid.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, our two targeted free tuition programs – in Ontario and New Brunswick – seem to have started without much of a hitch.  For the moment, at least, we’re leading the pack in terms of coherent implementation.  Let’s hope it stays that way.

June 05

Student Health (Part 3)

You know how it is when someone tries to make a point about Canadian higher education using data from American universities? It’s annoying.  Makes you want to (verbally) smack them upside the head. Canada and the US are different, you want to yell. Don’t assume the data are the same! But of course the problem is there usually isn’t any Canadian data, which is part of why these generalizations get started in the first place.

Well, one of the neat things about the AHCA-NCHA campus health survey I was talking about last week is that it is one of the few data collection instruments that is in use on both sides of the border. Same questions, administered at the same time to tens of thousands of students on both sides of the border. And, as I started to look at the data for 2016, I realized my “Canada is different” rant is – with respect to students and health at least – almost entirely wrong. Turns out Canadian and American students are about as alike as two peas in a pod. It’s kind of amazing, actually.

Let’s start with basic some basic demographic indicators, like height and weight. I think I would have assumed automatically that American students would be both taller and heavier than Canadian ones, but figure 1 shows you what I know.

Figure 1: Median Height (Inches) and Weight (Pounds), Canadian vs. US students.


Now, let’s move over to issues of mental health, one of the key topics of the survey. Again, we see essentially no difference between results on either side of the 49th parallel.

Figure 2: Within the last 12 months have you been diagnosed with/treated for…


What about that major student complaint, stress? The AHCA-NCHA survey asks students to rate the stress they’ve been under over the past 12 months. Again, the patterns in the two countries are more or less the same.

Figure 3: Within the last 12 months, rate the stress you have been under.


One interesting side-note here: students in both countries were asked about issues causing trauma or being “difficult to handle”. Financial matters were apparently more of an issue in Canada (40.4% saying yes) than in the US (33.7%). I will leave it to the reader to ponder how that result lines up with various claims about the effects of tuition fees.

At the extreme end of mental health issues, we have students who self-harm or attempt suicide. There was a bit of a difference on this one, but not much, with Canadian students slightly more likely to indicate that they had self-harmed or attempted suicide.

Figure 4: Attempts at Self-harm/suicide.


What about use of tobacco, alcohol and illicit substances? Canadian students are marginally more likely to drink and smoke, but apart from that the numbers look pretty much the same. The survey, amazingly, does not ask about use of opioids/painkillers, which if books like Sam Quinones’ Dreamland are to be believed have made major inroads among America’s young – I’d have been interested to see the data on that. It does have a bunch of other minor drugs – heroin, MDMA, etc, and none of them really register in either country.

Figure 5: Use of Cigarettes, Alcohol, Marijuana, Cocaine.


This post is getting a little graph-heavy, so let me just run through a bunch of topics where there’s essentially no difference between Canadians and Americans: frequency of sexual intercourse, number of sexual partners, use of most illegal drugs, use of seat belts, likelihood of being physically or sexually assaulted, rates of volunteering….in fact among the few places where you see significant differences between Canadian and American students is with respect to the kinds of physical ailments they report. Canadian students are significantly more likely to report having back pain, Americans more likely to report allergies and sinus problems.

Actually, the really big differences between the two countries were around housing and social life. In Canada, less than 2% of students reported being in a fraternity/sorority, compared to almost 10% in the United States. And as for housing, as you can see Americans are vastly more likely to live on-campus and vastly less-likely to live at home. On balance, that means they are incurring significantly higher costs to attend post-secondary education. Also, it probably means campus services are under a lot more pressure in the US than up here.

Figure 6: Student Living Arrangements.


A final point here is with respect to perceptions of campus safety. We all know the differences in rates of violent crimes in the two countries, so you’d expect a difference in perceptions of safety, right? Well, only a little bit, only at night and mostly- off-campus. Figure 7 shows perceptions of safety during the day and at night, on campus and in the community surrounding campus.

Figure 7: Perceptions of safety on campus and in surrounding community.


In conclusion: when it comes to students health and lifestyle, apart from housing there do not appear to many cross-border differences. We seem to be living in a genuinely continental student culture.

May 25

Big Moves in U.S. Higher Education

The last couple of weeks have seen the unveiling of two massive but interesting strategic gambles taken by a couple of US public universities.  The kind of strategy moves that universities in other countries can only dream about.  I am speaking, of course, about the Purdue’s buy-out of Kaplan University and the University of Arizona’s attempt to create a global set of “microcampuses”.

Let’s start with the Kaplan/Purdue merger/buy-out/service agreement – what is it, exactly?  Well, it isn’t easy to explain.  Basically, Purdue, a prestigious research university in Indiana, has negotiated a deal in which it will create a new, arms-length (meaning not on the public books and not in receipt of public funding) branch of the institution consisting entirely of the operations of Kaplan University, a private for-profit institution with something of a checkered legal history.  Purdue paid Graham Holdings (former owners of the Washington Post) $1 for the deed to the company, but they keep the operating team (and, crucially, the marketing crew) and Graham gets paid to operate the company for up to thirty years (the university has an opt-out clause after six), sharing in the profits along the way.  So on the one hand you could describe it Kaplan being bought out; on another level, you could describe this as a form of Business Process Outsourcing, with Purdue as Kaplan’s only client.

There are two ways of looking at this.  On the one hand, it could be argued that Purdue is making a big bet on adult and online education and is moving to make itself a player in this area in the quickest way possible (buying off the shelf is way better than DIY).  Purdue gets a national network of campuses with a good technological backbone; Kaplan gets a non-profit status and some of Purdue’s prestige.  What’s not to like?

Two things, really.  The first is that we don’t really know why Purdue is doing this.  It could be that they wat to bring a public, research university ethos to the Kaplan network, but there’s not a lot of evidence for that.  For one thing, Kaplan’s marketing team – the one that ran the company straight into a Massachusetts legal battle over claims of high-pressure selling – is intact.  For another, no one’s ever tried merging two education cultures this distinct.  It doesn’t immediately seem like a marriage made in heaven

Claims that this is in fact a reverse take-over – a privatization of public education – are, I think, overblown.  There’s a reasonable chance quite a lot of good could come from this.  But don’t count out the possibility that this could turn into a disaster, too.  No one’s ever tried something like this before, so it’s hard to say.

The other really interesting and bold move came from the University of Arizona, which announced that it is going to create 25 “microcampuses” around the world capable collectively of teaching about 25,000 students per year.  Though U of A is technically the “senior” institution in the state, in terms of innovation it regularly plays second-fiddle to ASU and its hyperactive President, Michael Crow.

The idea of the microcampus is not to create little branch campuses around the world.  Rather, the idea is to embed spaces within partner universities where the two universities can co-deliver certain programs.  There’s a lot of upside to this: students in the host country (at the moment, mainly in Asia and the Middle East) can access an Arizona degree for about a fifth of what it would cost them to up sticks and study in Tucson, partner universities will benefit financially and academically from a permanent teaching partnership with University of Arizona staff, and Arizona gets global exposure while sharing risk with other parties and avoiding the hassle of actually setting up and managing branch campuses.  And – unlike the Purdue/Kaplan arrangement – it has real backing from U of A staff.  It’s a smart move all around.

You may, like me, occasionally ask yourself: why can’t Canadian universities act like that?  Why don’t they have the gumption to try things that are big, different and global?  Often, when making Canada-US university comparisons the answer is “well, private universities have more money/flexibility”.  But that’s not the case here: Purdue and Arizona are public universities.  There’s no reason that a Dalhousie or U of T couldn’t do the same.

Americans just have more chutzpah, period.  We could use more of it up here.


April 11

Populists and Universities, Round Two

There is a lot of talk these days about populists and universities.  There are all kinds of thinkpieces about “universities and Trump”, “universities and Brexit”, etc.  Just the other day, Sir Peter Scott delivered a lecture on “Populism and the Academy” at OISE, saying that over the past twelve months it has sometimes felt like universities were “on the wrong side of history”.

Speaking of history, one of the things that I find a bit odd about this whole discussion is how little the present discussion is informed by the last time this happened – namely, the populist wave of the 1890s in the United States.  Though the populists never took power nationally, they did capture statehouses in many southern and western states, most of whom had relatively recently taken advantage of the Morrill Act to establish important state universities.  And so we do have at least some historical record to work from – one that was very ably summarized by Scott Gelber in his book The University and the People.

The turn-of-the-20th-century populists wanted three things from universities. First, they wanted them to be accessible to farmers’ children – by which they meant both laxer admissions standards and “cheap”.  That didn’t necessarily mean they wanted to increase expenditures on university budgets substantially (though in practice universities did OK under populist governors and legislators); what it meant was they wanted tuition to remain low and if that entailed universities having to tighten their belts, so be it.  And the legacy of the populists lives on today: average state tuition in the US still has a remarkable correlation to William Jennings Bryan’s share of the vote in the 1896 Presidential election.


Fig 1: 2014-15 In-State Tuition Versus William Jennings Bryan’s Vote Share in 1896

Populism Graph


The second thing populists wanted was more “practical” education.  They were not into learning for the sake of learning, they were into learning for the sake of material progress and making life easier for workers and farmers; in many ways, one could argue that their attitude about the purpose of higher education was pretty close to that of Deng/Jiang-era China.  And to some extent they were pushing on an open door because the land-grant universities – particularly the A&Ms – were already supposed to have that mandate.

But there was a tension in the populists’ views on curriculum.  They weren’t crazy about law and humanities programs at state universities (too much useless high culture that divided the masses from the classes), but they did grasp that an awful lot of people who were successful in politics had gone through law and humanities programs and – so to speak – learned the tricks of the trade there (recall that rhetoric was one of the seven Liberal arts which still played a role in 19th century curricula).  And so, there was also concern that if public higher education were made too vocational, its beneficiaries would still be at a disadvantage politically.  There were various solutions to this problem, not all of which were to the benefit of humanities subjects, but the key point was this: universities should remain places where leaders are made.  If that meant reading some Marcus Aurelius, so be it: universities were a ladder into the ruling class, and the populists wanted to make sure their kids were on it.

And here, I think is where times have really changed. The new populists are, in a sense, more Gramscian than their predecessors.  They get that universities are ladders to power for individuals, but they also understand that the cultural function of universities goes well beyond that.  Universities are – perhaps even more so than the entertainment industry – arbiters of acceptable political discourse.  They are where the hegemonic culture is made.  And however much they may want their own kids to get a good education, today’s populists really want to smash those sources of cultural hegemony.

This is, obviously, not good for universities.  We can – as Peter Scott suggested – spend more time trying to make universities “relevant” to the communities that surround them.  Nothing wrong with that.  We can keep plugging away at access: that’s a given no matter who is in power.  But on the core issue of the culture of universities, there is no compromise.  Truth and open debate matter.  A commitment to the scientific method and free inquiry matter.  Sure, universities can exist without these things: see China, or Saudi Arabia.  But not here.  That’s what makes our universities different and, frankly, better.

No compromise, no pasarán.

March 17

Lower Ed

It’s only March, but I’m declaring the Higher Ed book of the year competition closed. No one is going to beat Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. It is genius.

Before I start praising this book to the skies, it’s worth noting that this is a very American book. Anyone looking for insights into for-profits outside the United States should look elsewhere: the insights generated here do not translate well to other countries. This isn’t a fault: American authors use a kind of ex-cathedra voice saying “this is how it is” because it doesn’t occur to their publishers that there is a world outside the US worth catering to. So when they say “this is how it is” they mean “this is how it is in the US”. This is not a fault of the author, but something to keep in mind while reading it.

What makes McMillan Cottom’s story different from other good accounts of the private higher education market (see for instance A.J. Angulo’ Diploma Mills) is her experience within the industry. After graduating from her Bachelor’s program, she worked in the industry both in the “mom-and-pop” sector of the industry (that is, colleges that are locally owned small-ish business) and the new breed of national chain schools, owned by NYSE-listed companies whose approach to the industry is to simply, relentlessly, make money. She knows the industry from the inside out. As part of the sales force in these two companies, she has a deep understanding not just of the sales techniques, but of the customer base as well.

As was the case for last year’s One Thought book of the year, Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price, it’s the way the author allows students to speak for themselves which is so arresting. But in this case it’s an even more stunning technique because for-profit schools themselves have been so misunderstood. McMillan Cottom pushes back – hard – on the idea that private-college students are simply low-information students, that it is in part through ignorance that they attend such high-risk/low-reward institutions. While agreeing that many students are only dimly aware, if at all, of the prestige ladder of higher education and where these institutions fall within it, she counters by saying that what these students understand above all is a form of education gospel – that education and only education will lead them to success. And what for-profit colleges do, primarily, is find ways to satisfy that need in a way with a level of convenience that public colleges choose not to match.

The ridiculously complicated FAFSA (student aid) process? They take care of that for you. Complicated class schedule? They simplify that too. A need to wait until next September to start classes? Nu-uh: in private colleges, intakes start every month, so you can get started right away. If you’re mid-career and need some education to change your life who wants to hang around waiting for months to get started? So what’s the problem?

The problem of course is that return on investment on these course is usually terrible, with students getting sucked far into debt to get credentials that tend not to qualify them for jobs that would make the expense worthwhile. But if states put licensure requirements on – say – hairdressing, which pays maybe $12-15/hour, then what they are actually doing is allowing the people who provide training to enter that field to extract massive amounts of rent. It’s crazy to pay $20,000 for a hairdressing course to get a job that pays so little. But the alternative is no education and no job. And so the schools continue to attract students.

Eventually, as the scale of the con became apparent to her, McMillan Cottom quit the industry to start a PhD in sociology at Emory (key detail: Emory said yes even though the start of class was only a month away – the speed of the application turnaround was consequential). The result of that PhD was this book. It contains some elements which are very traditionally academic, such as a systemic look at how the industry was transformed when big chains of schools took over the market in the aughts, at right around the same time as the US economy began its long, post-dotcom decline. But it also contains some deeply original and arresting moments, such as overheard snippets of conversation in shopping malls.

McMillan Cottom’s critique goes beyond the predatory recruitment techniques of for-profit colleges. She sees them, in a sense, as a natural outgrowth of the current moment of capitalism (she would use the phrase “neo-liberalism”, which makes my teeth ache a bit, even though she uses the term in a more rigorous way than almost anyone else I’ve ever read). If good jobs are becoming scarce and education is required to get those jobs, and public education is insufficiently funded and public post-secondary institutes don’t do their job in terms of making themselves truly accessible (in terms of making enrolment convenient and easily understandable), then yeah – somebody is going to fill that market niche. So is the problem the niche-fillers or the failure of the political system to prevent that niche from opening in the first place?

Anyways, don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself. You won’t be sorry.


February 08

New York, New York

With the Republicans in control of both Congress and the White house for at least the next two years, the fight for “free tuition” is moving to the state level.  And so to New York, where Governor Cuomo has proposed a form of “free tuition” for anyone attending the City University of New York (CUNY) or the State University of New York (SUNY) and whose family earns less than $125,000.  So what does this mean exactly?

Well, to be clear, it’s not the same kind of free tuition Hillary Clinton was offering back in the election campaign.  (There are many kinds of free tuition, as I noted back here; refresh your memory, if you like).  Clinton was offering – with scant details – a vision where with enough federal funds, states and their public university systems would agree to stop charging tuition fees to students from families below $125,000 in income (or, roughly, 80% of the student population.  That idea was always a little bit pie-in-the-sky: the impracticalities of it were well covered by Kevin Carey at the time.  What Cuomo is offering instead is a top-up plan to make tuition “net free”.  Basically, he’s going to offer students below the cut-off line whatever amount of grants it takes to equal the amount they pay in tuition.  This payment, to be known as an ‘Excelsior Scholarship” (really), is thus equivalent to tuition minus any grants the student is already receiving from the federal or state governments via the Pell grant system.

Now, you might be saying to yourself: hey, that kind of sounds like the Ontario model.  That’s good, isn’t it?  To which the answer is: yes, it is a lot like the Ontario model.  It’s income-targeted net free tuition.  Except a) in some respects it’s going to be more like New Brunswick, with a big step-function (link to: ) at $125,001 instead of a nice smooth slope of benefits like Ontario and b) the threshold for getting full benefits is ludicrously high and has perverse consequences.

What do I mean by perverse consequences?  Well, the thing is that for students at the low-income level of the spectrum, federal and state grants already equal tuition.  So literally none of the money involved here is going to help them.  The biggest winners in the Cuomo proposal are precisely those people who get no grants right now – basically from families with about $80K and up in family income.  And yet these are the people who have the least trouble going to college right now.

The question here is: if you have a couple of hundred million dollars to spend, why would you give it to a group of people who have no issue attending in the first place?  Why not put money where it will be most effective? Columbia University’s Judith Scott-Clayton suggests there’s good evidence that money going to institutions creates better access outcomes than simply limiting the price.

Even Chile, once very keen on full “gratuidad”, has belatedly come around to this realization.  For budgetary reasons, the government was forced to limit its recent introduction of “free” tuition to students from families in the bottom six deciles of income.  This summer, the Chilean Treasury Department published cost estimates for the program.  In its present state the fully-phased in cost of the program will be 607 billion pesos (about $1.25 billion Canadian, or about $950M American).  Adding each of the next four deciles raises the price by about 350 billion, or 58%.  That is to say, free tuition for everyone would cost over 2 trillion pesos, or over three times as much as it costs for the bottom six deciles.  That difference is equal to 1.5% of GDP.  And what would be the purpose of spending all that money?  The very fact that it costs so much is a reflection of the fact that participation from these groups is already so high they don’t really need government help.  What kind of socialist government prioritizes handing over 1.5% of GDP to families in the top four income deciles?

In short, while targeted free tuition makes a great deal of sense, it really does need to be targeted.  If targeting weakens, the program becomes more expensive and less effective.  New York’s plan, clearly, suffers from insufficient targeting.  Ontario’s plan has it about right.  But beware: the Premier occasionally muses about extending the plan to higher income groups and there’s certainly a chance such an idea will make it into the policy conversation as the provincial election approaches.  That way madness and much wasted public funding lies.

January 19

American Higher Education Under Trump

Tomorrow, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States (actually, the 44th person to be President: Grover Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms screw up the count).  What does this mean for higher education?

First off, let’s recollect that where higher education is concerned, the US, like Canada, is a federation where the main decisions about funding public education are made at the state level. Decreased state investment in institutions and consequent rises in tuition have given the federal government a larger though indirect role in the system because the salience of student aid has risen.  And of course, the government spends an awful lot of money on scientific research, primarily but not exclusively through the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).  And let’s also recollect that while the President names the Secretary of Education, a lot of control over specific budget items rests with Congress, which, despite being controlled by Republicans, will have ideas of their own.

Recall that Trump barely spoke about higher education during the campaign, other than endorsing an even-more-expensive version of income-based repayment than the existing one which was recently discovered to be costing nearly over $50 billion more than expected (short version: he wants to raise the repayment maximum from 10% of income to 12.5% but shorten the time before forgiveness to just 15 years).  Also, his education secretary Betsy DeVos, is a K-12 specialist (I’m using the term loosely) with very few known views on higher education.  I think it’s a given that their instincts will anti-regulatory and pro-market (which means things are looking up for private for-profits), but it’s hard to see them initiating a lot of new policy.  Which means the policy reins, such as they are, will likely be held by the Republican Congress and not the White House.

So what to expect?  Well, I think we can rule out any continuation of the Obama White House’s free college agenda, or anything vaguely like it.  That idea won’t disappear, but it’s something that’s going to happen in the states rather than in DC (witness Andrew Cuomo’s decision earlier this month to launch his own Ontario-like free tuition-plan).  Beyond that, you’re likely to see some cutting back on institutional reporting requirements, particularly with respect to Title IX, the federal law on sex-discrimination in education, and possibly a push towards more competency-based education.

Where it gets interesting, though, is on student-aid.  It’s not just that we’re likely to see cuts in things like loans to graduate students and (pace Trump’s own views) loan forgiveness.  We may see a return to more private capital in student loans (which would mostly be a bad things); we may also see institutions be required to pay for some of the costs of their own students’ loan defaults (an idea colloquially referred to as requiring institutions to have “skin in the game”.  Some think that the new Congress may push what are known as “Income Share Agreements”, which are kind of like graduate taxes only the entity giving the student money and then collecting a percentage of income afterwards is some kind of private investment firm rather than government.  One of the most crazy/plausible ideas I’ve heard is from University Ventures’ Ryan Craig who mused recently on twitter about setting rules whereby institutions might have to provide a certain fraction of total aid via ISAs in order to be eligible to receive federal aid.

On the research side: who knows?  Clearly, climate science is going to have a hard time.  But health sciences often do well under Republicans; the National Institutes of Health went from $18 billion/year to $30 billion/year under Bush Jr, for instance.  And Trump might decide to do something big and crazy like announcing a lunar base or a Mars mission (the former is a favourite of Newt Gingrich, the latter an obsession of Elon Musk, who suddenly seems quite close with the incoming White House), either of which would have substantial positive ramifications for university science budgets.  So we’ll see.

But put all this into some perspective: as far as Congressional priorities are concerned, changes to student aid are going to come several light years behind repealing Obamacare and dismantling various environmental protections.  The former in particular has some pretty serious budget impacts as repealing Obamacare is going to cost a ton of money.  That’s going to cause a scramble for offsetting budget cuts – one could imagine some pretty big across-the-board cuts in which higher education-related programs will simply be collateral damage.

It’s bound to be interesting, anyway.  Though I for one am glad I get to watch it all from a safe distance.

November 21

The “Poorly Educated” and the US Election

Morning all.  Hope you’ve been well.

During the US election and its aftermath, a lot of the discussion has focused on the issue of education.  Specifically, many pollsters noted large shifts in favour of the democrats among college-educated whites and even larger shifts rightward from less-educated whites.  Trump’s statement in June that he “love(d) the poorly-educated” was in retrospect quite significant.  From this, many on the left have deduced that “education is more important than ever”, a statement which is almost perfectly calculated to feed every piece of Republican paranoia about leftist indoctrination (and hence likely to make higher education a real target in the 25 states where the Republicans control both houses and the Governor’s mansion).

But I think there’s an important caveat to the education story.  Check out the map from NYT’s excellent The Upshot, which shows in green the counties which showed the biggest democrat-to-republican shift between 2012 to 2016.


If there was an education issue at work here, it was a pretty particular one – one which seems to have manifested itself mostly around the Great Lakes.  It’s the rust-belt, more or less.  Places where the economy has been in either relative or absolute decline for 50 years or more.  It’s not about trade deals; think back to movies set in this area from the 1970s like Slapshot or Breaking Away.  When this area complains about the economy, it has little to do with Obama’s policies or even trade deals. These places were already in deep trouble long before anyone even dreamed of NAFTA. This is about communities that have been falling apart for 50 years.

In the region’s glory days, it was one of the wealthiest regions of the entire globe.  And during that period, it had an unbelievably low education-to-wealth ratio; maybe the lowest of any place in the world, at any time.  Higher Education?  Who needed it, when well-playing manufacturing jobs were a dime a dozen.  Human capital was for suckers.  And that, unfortunately, is an attitude which has endured.

Times changed, of course.  Underinvestment in capital put paid to the steel industry, titanic incompetence the auto industry, while energy costs reduced the competitiveness of pretty much every other sector.  Result: de-industrialization.  There’s nothing unique about this process.  It’s happened in many places around the world Flanders, Lancashire, Eastern Germany.  What’s unique about the US rust belt is mostly how rich it was before the fall.

There was a lot of post-election commentary about how the Rust Belt’s swing to Trump was really a way of saying “we’re upset because no one listens to us” but that’s not strictly speaking true.  People listen.  It’s just that literally no one knows how to effectively reverse de-industrialization.  Americans have it worse because for a variety of reasons (most of them rooted in racism) they lack much in the way of a social safety net.  And as American scholar Toney Carnevale is fond of saying, when a country lacks social programs, education actually becomes the safety net.

But there’s a problem with that.  In declining economies, education is no guarantee of a job because hiring is low.  So the ones with education leave (to California, say, or New York) leaving the remaining population with lower average skill levels, thus making economic regeneration even harder.  People come to see education as a vehicle for personal salvation, but also potentially as an agent of community destruction because while they are creating human capital, they are also priming it for export.  I’m sure many readers in Atlantic Canada will know that feeling.

And to top it off, you have to remember that what people in the area really liked about the old days wasn’t just the middle-class jobs, but the fact that mental toil wasn’t necessary.  JD Vance, in his recent book Hillbilly Elegy (this fall’s de rigeur read for those wanting to “get” Trump voters) notes with some sorrow that the people of his home communities in Ohio and Kentucky lack much in the way of desire for self-improvement through education.  “We don’t study as children and we don’t make our kids study as parents,” he says. “We hillbillies need to wake the hell up”.  That awakening may happen, but it didn’t on November 8th.  In the key states that swung the election, Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” was taken up by the people with the subtext “We Want Jobs That Don’t Require College Again”.

In short: more education, on its own, won’t solve the problems of de-industrialization.  And even if that weren’t true, it’s not clear that more education is a medicine everyone wants to take.

November 11

The New WSJ/Times Higher Education Rankings

Almost the moment I hit send on my last post about rankings, the inaugural Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education rankings of US universities hit the stands.  It didn’t make a huge splash mainly because the WSJ inexplicably decided to put the results behind their paywall (which is, you know, BANANAS) but it’s worth looking at because I think in many ways it points the way to the future of rankings in many countries.

So the main idea behind these rankings is to try to do something different from the US News & World Report (USNWR) rankings which are a lot like Maclean’s rankings (hardly a surprise since the latter was explicitly modelled on the former back in 1991).  In part, the WSJ/THE went down the same road that Money Magazine went in terms of looking at output data: graduate outcomes like earnings and indebtedness, except that they were able to exploit the huge new database of institutional-level data on these things that the Obama administration.  In addition to that, they went a little bit further and created their own student survey to get evidence about student satisfaction and engagement.

Now this last thing may seem like old hat in Canada: after all, the Globe and Mail ran a rankings based on student surveys from 2003 to 2012 (we at HESA were involved from 2006 onwards and ran the survey directly for the last couple of years).  It’s also old hat in Europe, where a high proportion of rankings depend at least in part on student surveys.  But in the US, it’s an absolute novelty.  Surveys usually require institutional co-operation, and organizing this among more than a thousand institutions simply isn’t easy:  “top” institutions would refuse to participate, just as they won’t do CLA, NSSE, AHELO or any measurement system which doesn’t privilege money.

So what the Times Higher team did was effectively what the Globe did in Canada thirteen years ago: find students online, independent of their institutions, and survey them there.  The downside is that the minimum number of responses per institution is quite low (50, compared with the 210 we used to use at the Globe); the very big upside is that students’ voices are being heard and we get some data about engagement.  The result was more or less what you’d expect from the Canadian data: smaller colleges and religious institutions tend to do extremely well on engagement measures (the top three for Engagement were Dordt College, Brigham Young and Texas Christian).

So, I give the THE/WSJ effort high marks for effort here.  Sure, there are problems with the data.  The “n” is low and the resulting number have big error margins.  The income figures are only for those who have student loans and includes both those who graduated and those who did not.  But it’s still a genuine attempt to shift rankings away from inputs and towards processes and outputs.

The problem?  It’s still the same institutions coming in at the top.  Stanford, MIT. Columbia, Penn, Yale…heck, you don’t even hit a public institution (Michigan) until 24th position.  Even when you add all this process and outcome stuff, it’s still the rich schools that dominate.  And the reason for this is pretty simple: rich universities can stay relatively small (giving them an advantage on engagement) and take their pick of students who then tend to have better outcomes.  Just because you’re not weighting resources at 100% of the ranking doesn’t mean you’re not weighting items strongly correlated to resources at 100%.

Is there a way around this?  Yes, two, but neither is particularly easy.  The first is to use some seriously contrarian indicators.  The annual Washington Monthly rankings  does this, measuring things like percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, student participation in community service, etc.  The other way to do this is to use indicators similar to those used by THE/WSJ, but to normalize them based on inputs like income and incoming SATs.  The latter is relatively easy to do in the sense that the data already (mostly) exists in the public, but frankly there’s no market.  Sure, wonks might like to know about which institutions perform best on some kind of value-added measure, but parents are profoundly uninterested in this.  Given a choice between sending their kids to a school that efficiently gets kids from the 25th percentile up to the 75th percentile and sending their kid to a school with top students and lots of resources, finances permitting they’re going to take the latter every time.  In other words, this is a problem, but it’s a problem much bigger than these particular rankings.

My biggest quibble with these rankings?  WSJ inexplicably put them behind a paywall, which did much to kill the buzz.  After a lag of three weeks, THE made them public too, but too little too late.  A missed opportunity.  But still, they point the way to the future, because a growing number of national-level rankings are starting to pay attention to outcomes (American rankings remarkably are not pioneers here: in fact, the Bulgarian National Rankings  got there several years ago, and with much better data).  Unfortunately, because these kinds of outcomes data are not available everywhere and are not entirely compatible even where they are, we aren’t going to see these data sources inform international rankings any time soon.  Which is why, mark my words, literally all the interesting work in rankings over the next couple of years is going to happen in national rankings, not international ones.

November 09

A Second Thought About Half-Way Through A Pretty Awful Day

Forgive the intrusion.  But our neighbour to the South electing a quasi-fascist narcissist isn’t an every day occasion.  There are some significant short-term consequences for Canadian higher education, and I thought I would just quickly enumerate them so that debate and preparation can begin.

First, the chances of a recession in the next couple of years just shot up quite a bit.  Tearing up NAFTA also means tearing up the FTA: there will be a pause in business investment while everyone works out what on earth the new rules are going to be.  Other forms of protectionist legislation, even if not aimed at us, has the potential to wreak serious havoc as well.  Unlike previous recessions, interest rate cuts cannot be part of our policy arsenal as they are already near-zero.  To some people’s minds, that calls for massive Keynesian borrowing-and-spending.  But as we’ve already seen with the first round of Trudeau spending, it’s not at all clear that the intended multiplier effects work very well in a small open economy.  Long story short: provincial governments were never likely to be flush enough to grants serious relief to universities and colleges any time soon, but yesterday’s vote made such prospects even more remote.

Second, the forecast demand for Canada as an international education destination just went Through. The. Roof.  Already earlier this week, the annual i-barometer global survey of education agents named Canada the #1 “hot” destination for students.  But now, with a President-elect who degrades women, despises Hispanic and Muslims and openly consorts with anti-semites, there’s going to be a huge diversion of interest away from the United States and (since the UK has already hung out a huge “Sod Off” sign on its window), this diversion is be headed towards exactly three places: New Zealand, Australia, and Canada.  One recent study suggested fully 65% of international students would be less likely to study in the US if Trump were elected.  Even if that over-states the case by a factor of two, we’re talking about a couple of hundred thousand internationally mobile students up for grabs.  Not to mention the almost-certain increase in the number of Americans heading North.

That has a couple of implications.  The main one is that Canadian universities are about to get more pricing power:  No more being the discount end of North American higher education.  But we have to up our game significantly.  We have to have real presence – not just agents – in major export markets.  And we have to up the student experience international students receive as well.   There are significant opportunities here: but also some potential significant costs.  There’s no time like now to have a really thorough debate about internationalization on our campuses.

Third, while I have been impressed by how by some prominent Americans (Jonathan Chait, Lin-Manuel Miranda) are coming out strongly this AM saying (correctly) “Screw moving to Canada, we need to stay and fight”, the fact of the matter is there are going to be a lot of faculty wanting to head north and a lot fewer of our own professors wanting to head south.  Universities will have a much better set of potential hires in front of them for the next couple of years.  This is great news: but we should try not to squander this opportunity the way we squandered the post-2008 rush north.  We can and should use the opportunity to poach selectively; but perhaps not break the bank on salaries while doing so.

(Also: I’m pretty sure we’re not going to be hearing about brain drain and the loss of talent to the US for awhile, so it’s an opportunity as well to re-calibrate some of our arguments about education and the labour market).

So the net effect here for Canadian institutions over the medium-term: less government money, more opportunities in international education, and thicker academic labour markets.  On balance, it’s probably more good news than bad, provided we act deliberately and rapidly while ensuring that these moves have wide buy-ins on our campuses.

But beyond the simple dollars and cents of it all, there are deeper issues.  A monster has become President of the United States.  Misery is going to fall upon the American people for the next two years if not four: on Blacks, immigrants, women, LGBTQs.  We all know people down there, know what they must be feeling today, and our hearts ache for them.  We need to show solidarity with them whenever we can.  But we also need to be vigilant here in Canada.  We are not immune to nativism and intolerance.

Last night around 11 PM Dalhousie President Richard Florizone tweeted “When voices of intolerance are loudest don’t be despondent – be emboldened, and even more committed to values of diversity & inclusion.” And that’s exactly right.   We have to work – and work hard – at these things and for fairness, every day.  In the end, that kind hard work is all that ever makes a difference.

Page 1 of 712345...Last »