As a professor at Florida A&M University, I was cautiously optimistic when Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had a luncheon with presidents from some HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). As might be suspected, HBCUs often face funding issues and increased support would be very welcome. This is especially relevant in Florida since the state has not only cut education funding, it has also imposed a punitive performance based funding system in which state schools must compete. While the top three schools are rewarded with more funding, the bottom three schools are punished. Since there must always be a bottom three, there will always be three schools being punished—even if they are doing a good job.
While this should have been an easy public relations victory for DeVos, she ignited a firestorm with her attempt to whitewash the history of HBCUS and link them with her ideology of school choice. Apparently ignorant of history, she said that HBCUS “are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” and added that “They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
The obvious problem with her remark is that HBCUS were not pioneers of school choice; they were the result of a system of segregation that denied black students access to white colleges and universities. This segregation also extended to black educators, because “when segregation was rampant some of the most brilliant black educators had to come to [black colleges] in order to have an opportunity to teach. They couldn’t go any place else.” DeVos’ remarks about choice are thus both ironic and ignorant—HBCUs arose in a situation in which there was very little choice for black students. While there were a very few white schools that accepted black students, the real choice for most blacks was a black school or no school.
DeVos was, however, correct to claim that “more options help students flourish” in that having an option to attend college helps students flourish more than having no option. This is, however, rather different than the school choice she envisions as a model for education. As such, her effort to draw an analogy between HBCUs and her vision of school choice fails. While her remarks might have been a result of mere unforgivable ignorance (the secretary of education should have at least a basic grasp of the major historical facts of American education), they could also be taken as expressing a view that favors segregation.
While this might seem like a stretch, it is well worth considering the history of the sort of private schools that DeVos praises. While the Brown decision led to desegregation in the public schools, the ruling did not apply to private schools. As the public schools desegregated, white began to flee to “segregation academies.” This has contributed to a significant increase in public school segregation. While some might argue that using public money to fund private schools will address the problem of segregation, the data shows that private schools are even more segregated than public schools. Shifting public funds to private schools will result in an even more unequal system: well-funded, highly segregated private schools and poorly funded highly segregated public schools.
While I am not accusing DeVos of racism, it is tempting to see her praise of HBCUs and support for them in sinister terms. That is, that there is an intent to mirror the segregation at the K-12 level with segregation at the college and university level. Somewhat ironically, the desegregation of higher education had left HBCUs in search of a new mission to replace that of providing education to black students who lacked opportunities at white schools. DeVos, it seems, might be interested in making the old mission relevant again.
A standard argument against teachers’ unions is built on the claim that they spend millions of dollars lobbying politicians to protect and advance their interests. This is bad, or so the reasoning goes, because the interests of the teachers’ unions are often (or even always) contrary to what is best for the students.
When pressed for examples of such interests, opponents of the unions allege that “collective bargaining agreements are written like celebrity contracts” and they point to egregious examples such as how Buffalo pays the bills when teachers have elective plastic surgery.
One approach to addressing this criticism is to accept that unions do sometimes negotiate contracts containing problematic provisions while contending that this is not a defect inherent to unions. That is, the problems lie with the problematic provisions rather than with the existence of teachers’ unions. To use the obvious analogy, corporations spend millions lobbying politicians to protect and advance their interests. This lobbying often results in legislation that is contrary to the interests of many other citizens; but this does not justify eliminating or weakening corporations. It also does not automatically justify eliminating lobbying. The problem, after all, is not inherent to corporations or lobbying, but is the result of harmful legislation. Likewise, when unions lobby for and get laws or agreements that prove harmful to others, the problem lies within the laws or agreements and not with unions or lobbying.
It could, of course, be argued that collective entities like unions and corporations are inherently damaging to the rest of society and that they should be eliminated or weakened. However, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who hold this position. Also, this solution to the problem of teachers’ unions would need to be applied consistently, thus eliminating all collective entities that interact with the public. This would include all corporations and nonprofit organizations.
It could also be contended that the problem lies with lobbying—if lobbying was eliminated or severely restricted, then it would be a better world. Given that big-money lobbying often has a corrupting and corrosive effect, this does have considerable appeal. However, this is not a problem unique to teachers’ unions. As such, if the solution to the some of the woes attributed to teachers’ unions can be solved by eliminating or restricting their ability to lobby, then consistency would require extending the same policies to other collective bodies, such as corporations.
Another approach to the matter is to consider whether teachers’ unions are as harmful as their opponents claim. To provide a clear focus, I will consider the claim that teachers’ unions inflict collective bargaining agreements that are like “celebrity contracts.”
One popular example of such a “celebrity contract” provision is the above-mentioned coverage of plastic surgery provided to teachers by Buffalo. While the anti-union narrative is that the union negotiated so teachers could get breast implants and nose jobs, the real story is rather different. When the benefit was first offered, plastic surgery was used primarily for reconstruction after a disfiguring injury (such as that inflicted by being thrown through a car’s windshield). However, plastic surgery has changed since then—it is now an elective surgery for “improving” appearance. As such, it was not a case of the union negotiating a celebrity contract, but a case of a change in plastic surgery that has been exploited. Sorting out this matter did prove problematic, not because of unions but because of issues with the way contracts are handled. There is also the fact that one anecdote about plastic surgery benefits does not show that teachers’ unions in general are bad.
While plastic surgery might be part of a “celebrity contract”, a clear hallmark of such an agreement is the payment of large (even exorbitant) sums of money. As such, if unions are benefiting teachers at the expense of students, then large (even exorbitant) teacher salaries should be expected as well as sweet bonuses and perks. However, the typical salaries for teachers ranges from $43,491-48,880. While this is not a bad income relative to the national average, it compares unfavorably to the salaries of college educated workers in other professions. There are various myths about teacher pay that people use to argue that teachers are well (or even excessively) paid. However, these are just that, namely myths. As such, the idea that teachers’ unions are acting to the detriment of students by negotiating “celebrity contracts” for teachers is absurd in the face of the facts. That this is the case should be obvious to anyone who knows teachers—they do not live celebrity lifestyles and typically spend those “summer vacations” working a second job. My parents taught at public schools and I can assure readers that we did not live a celebrity lifestyle and they had to work second jobs over the summers to pay the bills. Speaking with people who are teachers today makes it clear that things have not changed since those days.
It could be argued that although teachers are not living the high life at the expense of students, unions still spend millions lobbying politicians and this money would be better spent on the students. On the face of it, this is a reasonable point: it would be better if that money could be spent on educating the children rather than fattening politicians. I am sure that other organizations, such as businesses, would prefer to use their lobbying money for more beneficial purposes, such as raises for employees. However, if they did not lobby, then they would be worse off. That is why they lobby. The same holds true for the teachers’ unions: if they did not lobby on behalf of teachers, then things would be worse off for the teachers and the students. While it would be wonderful if politicians would do the right thing for education (and business) because it is right and beneficial, that is not how politics works in the current system. As such, the fact that the teachers’ unions spend so much money lobbying is a problem with the politicians and not a problem with unions.
Considering the above discussion, while it is obvious and evident that while unions can do wrong, they are rather important for protecting teachers and education. As such, the efforts to eliminate or weaken unions are, at best, misguided.
One stock conservative talking point is teachers’ unions are a primary cause of educational woes. If only unions could be eliminated or significantly changed, then education would improve significantly. Those defending unions argue that education would be worse without unions and some contend the effort to eliminate teachers’ unions is part of a plan to transform public education into a for profit-system to benefit a few well-connected elites.
Since the debate is so politically charged, it is difficult to objectively address the issue of whether teachers’ unions harm education or not. However, I will endeavor to address the matter as objectively as possible and acknowledge that as an educator and union member I am biased. As such, my arguments should be reviewed with due caution. Now, to the matter at hand.
One standard criticism of teachers’ unions is that they harm students by protecting bad teachers from being fired. If unions could be changed or eliminated, then bad teachers could be replaced with good teachers and the students would benefit. One variation of this criticism is focused on the practice of last-in first-out: those hired last are the first fired, should firings occurs. The concern is that teachers are retained based on seniority rather than ability, which can result in bad teachers remaining employed and good teachers being fired. Retaining bad teachers and getting rid of good teachers would clearly be bad for the students.
On the face of it, this criticism does match a plausible narrative about unions: since they exist to protect dues paying members, the leadership is not overly concerned about the quality of these members. As such, they do their best to see to it that no one is fired and thus bad teachers remain in the system. These bad teachers, obviously enough, do a bad job at teaching students and this harm can impact them throughout their entire life. Being able to fire these bad teachers would open positions for good teachers. The good teachers would do a good job, thus benefiting the students. From this it follows that eliminating unions would be good for students.
In the case of the policy of firing the last hired, the claim is that eliminating unions would result in merit based hiring and firing, so that when there was a need to fire teachers, the bad teachers would be eliminated regardless of seniority. As such, being rid of unions would improve things for students.
One easy and obvious reply to these criticisms is that they are not criticisms of unions as such. Rather, they are criticisms of specific practices: retaining bad teachers and retaining based on seniority rather than quality. There is nothing essential to a teacher’s union that requires that it mandate the retention of bad teachers nor that it mandate a seniority based retention system. To use an obvious analogy, there are countless examples of bad policies followed by corporations that do not arise simply because a corporation is a corporation. Roughly put, the bad policies are bad not because they are policies of corporations but because they are bad policies. As such, they do not provide grounds for the elimination of corporations. Rather, the badness of a corporation’s policy provides grounds for changing that policy. The same applies to teachers’ unions: the badness of a union policy serves as grounds for changing that policy, not elimination unions.
It could, of course, be argued that by their very nature unions must protect bad teachers and that it is impossible for them to do otherwise. Likewise, it could be argued that corporations by their very nature must have various terrible policies that harm the public. If so, then solving these problems would require eliminating unions and corporations. However, this view seems implausible; although people’s ideologies do often compel them to see things this way.
A second reply to these criticisms involves considering the facts of the matter. If unions protect bad teachers, then highly unionized districts should retain more bad teachers than districts that are less unionized. But, if unions do not protect bad teachers, then districts should have comparable percentages of bad teachers (adjusting for other factors, of course).
As should not be surprising, the debate over this factual matter tends to involves anecdotes about bad teachers and intuitions about unions. While anecdotes can provide some illustrative examples, they do not provide a foundation for general conclusions. There is, after all, the classic fallacy of anecdotal evidence which involves doing just that. Intuitions can provide some guidance, but by their very nature they are feelings and thoughts one has prior to considering the evidence. As such, anecdotes and intuitions do not suffice to show whether unions are good or bad in regards to the retention of bad teachers.
Fortunately, Professor Eunice Han has conducted a study of the claim that unions overprotect bad teachers. While it runs contrary to the anecdotes about bad teachers that cannot be fired and intuitions about overprotective unions, the evidence shows that “highly unionized districts actually fire more bad teachers.” Somewhat ironically, districts with weak or no unions retain more lower quality teachers than highly unionized districts.
As Han notes, stronger unions reduced the attrition rate of teachers and increase teacher wages. Because of the higher salaries, there is greater incentive to remove bad teachers and good teachers have a greater incentive to remain. This nicely fits the conservative mantra that top talent can only be kept by paying top salaries, although this mantra is usually just applied to people like CEOs and not workers.
In contrast, weak unions (and the absence of unions) increase the attrition rate of teachers and decrease teacher wages. As such, good teachers will tend to leave for areas with strong unions while bad teachers will often end up in areas with weaker unions or those that lack unions. The statistics show that unions have a positive impact on teacher quality and that the myths of the overprotective union and the irremovable bad teacher are just that, myths unsupported by facts. This also nicely matches the conservative mantra about compensation: lesser talent will settle for lower salaries.
It must be noted that since this issue is so ideologically charged, those who oppose unions will tend to regard the study as biased and might offer “alternative facts” of their own on the grounds that what they believe must be true. Likewise, those who favor unions can be accused of accepting “facts” that match their views. This is, of course, a much larger problem than the debate over unions: if there is not a shared set of facts and methods, then no rational discussion is possible. Only the howling of ideological stances driven by desire for profit and power.
Discussions of the woes of public education inevitably turn to the subject of teachers’ unions. Some claim they are detrimental to public education, while others claim they are neutral or even beneficial. This is certainly a controversy worth addressing.
Before proceeding with the discussion, I am obligated to disclose that I am a union member. As such, my arguments should be read with proper scrutiny for the influence of unconscious biases on my part. While it might be suspected that I am blindly pro-union, I will endeavor to give an objective assessment of the arguments for and against teachers’ unions. In return, I ask the same of readers.
Objectively assessing teachers’ unions is certainly a daunting task. One reason for this is that the matter has become politically charged. For many conservatives, it is an article of faith that the main villains of education are the teachers’ unions. Since American politics is so bipolar, it is hardly surprising that liberals tend to favor (or at least tolerate) teachers’ unions. As with many political matters, a person’s stance on teachers’ unions often becomes part of their identity and this has many negative consequences in regards to objectively assessing unions. Ideological commitment is the enemy of rational assessment because it triggers a wide range of cognitive biases and motivates people to accept fallacious reasoning. As such, arguments and data tend to be accepted or rejected based on their correspondence to the ideology rather than their merits. While it is difficult to do so, these tendencies can be overcome—if one is willing to take the effort.
Another reason objective assessment is difficult is that there are entrenched and unfounded opinions about unions even in those who do not make their view of unions part of their political identity. People tend to believe what they hear repeated in the media and otherwise uncritically form opinions. Such unfounded and entrenched opinions can be hard to overcome with reason and evidence, but doing so is easier than getting a person to change an aspect of their political identity.
A third reason, one that helps explain the existence of unfounded opinions on the matter, is that there has been little in the way of rigorous studies of the impact of unions. As such, people tend to be stuck with mere anecdotal evidence and intuitive appeals. While these might turn out to be correct, they do not provide much of a foundation for making good decisions about unions.
In this essay (and the following ones) I will endeavor to objectively assess teachers’ unions in a way that overcomes my own political views and entrenched unfounded opinions. Naturally, I will try to do this with solid argumentation and good data rather than mere anecdotes and intuitions. While my main concern is with the impact of unions on education, I will briefly address two attacks on unions that do not directly relate to education.
One stock attack on unions is the argument based on the idea that it is wrong for workers to be required to join a union or pay dues to a union. In politics, this view is called “right to work.” Not surprisingly, it is generally opposed by unions and supported by businesses. Those who support it contend that it is good for business and employees. Those who oppose it point to data showing the negative impact of right to work laws. Since this is a contentious political issue, the various sides reject the data offered by the others because they are regarded as biased.
Being a philosopher, my main concern is with the ethics of compelling people to join a union or pay dues rather than with the legal issues. On the face of it, membership in a union should be voluntary as should paying fees to unions. Just as a person should be free to accept or reject a job or any service, the same should apply to unions. However, freedom (as some like to say) is not free: those who make the decision to not join the union or elect to not contribute to the costs of collective bargaining should be excluded from those benefits. As with any goods or services, a person who refuses to pay for them has no right to expect these goods or services. To use an analogy, if a group of homeowners are involved in a lawsuit and want to hire a lawyer, individual homeowners have every right to refuse to pay the lawyer’s fee. However, if they do not pay, they have no right to be free riders. To use another analogy, if a business does not want to join a chamber of commerce, it should be free to not join. However, the business has no right to claim the benefits offered by the chamber of commerce.
In case anyone wonders, I voluntarily joined the union on the moral grounds that I did not want to be a free rider. I knew I would benefit from the union, hence I am obligated to contribute to the costs of getting those services.
If unions are compelled to represent non-members, then the non-members would be obligated to contribute to the cost of this representation and it would be right to compel them to do so. Going back to the lawyer analogy, if the lawyer is compelled to represent all the homeowners, then they are all obligated to pay their share. Otherwise they are engaged in theft, plain and simple. The same holds for the chamber of commerce analogy: if a chamber of commerce is compelled to provide services to all business in the area, then those businesses are obligated to pay if they avail themselves of these benefits.
A second stock argument against teachers’ unions is based on the fact that they do not represent the views of all their members on various social and political issues. While this is a matter of concern, it is not unique to teachers’ unions or unions in general. All groups, ranging from clubs to political parties to nations face this problem. To use a specific example, the state legislature of any American state does not represent the views of all the members of the state. Since people have different and often conflicting views, it is nearly impossible for the representatives of a large group to represent the views of all the members. For example, some union members might favor allowing computer programing to count as a math class while others oppose it. Obviously, the class cannot be a math class and not a math class, so a union stance on the matter will fail to represent all views. As such, being unable to represent every view is not a special problem for teachers’ unions, it is a feature of groups made of people who do not agree about everything.
If the teachers’ union has a democratic process for taking positions on issues, be it direct democracy or electing representatives, then the union would represent the views of the members in the same way any democratic or representative system does. That is, imperfectly and with compromises. As such, the fact that unions do not represent the views of all members is not a special problem for teachers’ unions.
In the following essays I will focus on the claim that teachers unions are bad for education in general and students in particular.
In the previous essay on charter schools I considered the monopoly argument in their favor. On this view, charter schools break the state’s harmful monopoly on education and this is a good thing. It is worth noting, again, that the state does not have a monopoly on education (there are private, non-charter schools). Instead, the state schools often have a monopoly on public money and charter schools break this monopoly by receiving public money. This, it is argued by charter school proponents, allows for more choice. They are quite right. But not all choices are good choices.
Without charter schools, people face rather limited alternatives to the public-school system. One is home schooling. While this does appeal to some people, it does limit the educational experience and requires a great deal of the parent(s). Another is attending a private school. While these schools can provide excellent education, they can very expensive. As such, they are an option only for those who can afford them. Because charter schools receive public money, they can provide an alternative to public schools for those who cannot afford a private school. However, there is the question of why there should be such choice and why people would take it.
One reason often given in favor of charter schools over public schools is that charter schools are supposed to superior in terms of the education they provide (or in some other relevant way). Proponents of charter schools point to failing public schools as evidence for this claim. While this is certainly a rational argument, there are some concerns with it.
One concern is that while there are bad public schools and excellent charter schools, there are also excellent public schools and awful charter schools. As such, there is nothing intrinsic to the public system that necessitates its badness nor anything intrinsic to the charter system that necessitates its superiority. This raises the question about what causes school quality.
The easy and obvious answer is that the main cause is funding. It is no accident that the best schools tend to be in affluent neighborhoods and the worst schools tend to be in poor areas. After all, a significant portion of the funding for public schools is local and is often based on property taxes. As such, high value property generates more funding for schools. Low value property generates far less. Naturally, this is not the whole story for school funding, but it is an important part. It is also worth noting that not just community wealth is a factor—community health is also important for the quality of education. After all, stable communities that have families actively involved in the school can create a very good educational experience for the children. However, wealth and health often travel hand in hand.
As might be suspected, most parents would prefer their children attend the best schools—this is why parents who have the income buy houses in the best school districts. This provides another limit to choice: while anyone can attend the best public schools, they must be able to afford to live in the district. This makes the best public schools analogous to private schools; one must pay to be able to attend. The promise of charter schools is that children can escape the poor schools and go to a superior charter school, using public money.
While this does have some appeal, there are some obvious problems. One is that the poor schools will become poorer as they lose students and will presumably decline even more until only those who cannot escape remain. This would seem to be like pouring money into lifeboats for an ailing ship rather than using the money to fix it.
Of course, this analogy could be countered by saying that the public school ship is doomed and the only viable option is escape. This is a reasonable counter—if a school is so badly wrecked that it cannot be saved, then escaping to another school would be as sensible as fleeing a sinking ship. The challenge is, however, showing that this should be a charter school and not a new public school.
Another is that it would seem to make more sense to use the public money to improve the public school so that parents would want their children to attend. After all, if parents want to choose good schools, the best use of public money would seem to be to make public schools better. Since there are excellent public schools, this is clearly something that can be done with proper funding and a strong community. As noted above, there is no special magic to charters that makes them inherently better than public schools. To use another analogy, the charter school argument is like pointing to the poorly maintained roads of a community and saying that the solution is not to fix the roads, but to use the public money to put in another set of roads adjacent to the existing roads. It would seem to make much more sense to fix the existing public roads rather than putting in “charter roads.”
In light of the above discussion, the choice argument for charter schools based on quality does not appear compelling. Unless it can be shown that charter schools are inherently better than public schools in virtue of being charters, then it would be more sensible to improve the quality of existing public schools rather than siphoning away public money. There are, however, other matters of choice beyond quality. In the next essay I will look at the appeal of ideological choice—charter schools that offer an ideological or theological alternative to public schools.
While most of the attention about the cost of a college education is focused on tuition, there is also concern about the ever-increasing prices of text books. While textbooks are something of a niche product, their prices tend to be far higher than other niche books. For example, a new hardcover version of the Pathfinder Role Playing Game retails for $49.99 and sells for $30.47 on Amazon. This 576 page book is lavishly illustrated and is of excellent quality. In contrast, the latest edition of the 512-page softcover Critical Thinking book I use in my class sells for $176.60 on Amazon. While it is a quality work, it hardly seems worth the price.
There are numerous reasons textbooks have high prices. There is the fact that textbook sales tend to be relatively low, so the price needs to be higher to make a profit. There is also the fact that behind each textbook is typically a small army of people ranging from the lowly author to the exalted corporate CEO and everyone needs their slice of the pie. And, of course, there is the fact that the customers are something of captive market—the students are expected to buy what professors select and are often stuck with only that option. In any case, textbooks are now rather expensive—they can match or exceed the cost of a low end laptop.
While students have long been inclined to neither read nor buy texts, the rising prices serve as an ever growing disincentive for buying the books. This greatly lowers the chances that a student will read the book and this can have a detrimental impact on the student’s education.
Several years ago my students complained about the high costs of books (and these were not very high), so I took steps to address this concern. While they are lagging behind me, some state legislatures have started pushing for schools to address the high cost of textbooks. On the one hand, they seem to be taking the wrong sort of approach: publishers and sellers control textbook prices, faculty do not. This would be analogous to putting the burden of lowering the cost of prescription drugs on doctors rather than the pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies. The state legislatures could, if they think that the high cost of texts is a cruel burden on students, legislate price restrictions on these books or address the matter directly in other ways. On the other hand, professors can take steps to address the costs that students have to pay in regards to the required material for their classes. As such, there is a legitimate role here for faculty.
While I certainly support the goal of making the costs of texts less burdensome, the focus on textbooks by state legislatures smells a bit like a red herring. After all, one main factor driving the increased cost of a state college education is the systematic disinvestment in higher education by these very same legislatures. Students would, I think, be far better served by these legislatures restoring the investments in higher education—something that will aid the students and pay for itself in returns many times over. But since legislatures seem reluctant to invest in the future of America’s youth, I now turn to addressing how faculty can lower the costs that students have to pay for texts.
There are, of course, some easy and obvious solutions. One is for the professor to shop around when picking a text. Textbooks vary considerably in price and some companies, such as Oxford University Press, make a point of keeping prices in a more reasonable range. The challenge is, of course, to ensure that the lower cost book is of suitable quality; but this is generally not a problem if a professor sticks with the reputable publishers.
Another option is for professors to use older editions of books that are still readily available from resellers such as Amazon and whatever used bookstores remain in business. These books can be far cheaper than the new editions. The main concern is that older editions can become out of date. This can range from the relatively minor issue of having examples that are no longer current to the serious issue of a book containing information that has been proven to be in error. Concerns about the age of the text tend to be relative to the field. To illustrate, a class on ancient philosophy can easily use an ancient book while a class on contemporary moral issues would need a contemporary book. There are also public domain books readily available for free in electronic format, including versions available through such sources as Amazon.
Professors can also keep costs low by ensuring that they only require books that are really needed in the course. Some professors, perhaps to get free desk copies, require many books for their courses that end up either being underused (such as reading one article from an anthology) or not being used at all.
There are also various other established solutions such as using a custom course pack of readings (often assembled and sold by a local copy business) and having the course material put on reserve at the library. Professors can also locate free online resources, such as educational videos, that can be used in place of or in addition to traditional books. The
Professors can also aid students by doing the student’s research for them—looking up textbook prices online and informing students of the best deals at that time. Some states have been requiring professors to turn in text book orders months before the start of the semester; the theory is that students will use that time to hunt down the best textbook deals. This does require a means of informing students about the books, something that presumably would be listed online with the class. Sometimes professors have to turn in their book orders before they even know what they will be teaching, but this can be addressed by setting schedules early enough. In cases involving adjuncts (who are sometimes hired days before school starts) or new hires, books will no doubt be assigned by some other faculty member on the grounds that the alleged savings of being able to shop around early will outweigh any concerns about academic freedom or faculty decision making in regards to course content.
There are also solutions that require more effort on the part of professors. When my students began complaining of the high cost of books, I addressed the problem by assembling texts out of public domain works. While these “books” began as text files, the advent of PDF enabled me to create robust digital texts. The students can download these books for free from Blackboard, which saves them money. This approach does have limitations, the main one is that the works need to either be in the public domain or permission to use them for free must be granted. There are also creative commons works, but these are not terribly common in academics. Because of this, most of the works that can be included will be older, out of copyright works. For some classes, this is no problem. For example, my Modern philosophy class covers long dead philosophers, such as Descartes and Locke, whose works are in the public domain. For classes that require up to date content, such as science classes or classes devoted to contemporary content, this approach would not be viable.
Professors can, and often do, write their own texts for use in classes. If the professor goes through the usual publishing companies, they might have some ability to keep the price low. But, since author royalties are usually but a small fraction of the cost of a textbook, even if a professor were to forgo this royalty, the impact on the price would be minimal. As such, this is not a great option in terms of price control.
Thanks to on-demand publishing services (such as CreateSpace) and eBook publishing (such as Amazon’s Kindle eBooks) a professor can also publish their books with almost complete control over the price. For example, an author can set a Kindle eBook to sell for as low as 99 cents. On the positive side, this option allows a professor to provide printed and electronic books for very low prices.
On the minus side, self-published books are not subject to the review usually required by academic publishers and thus quality can be a serious concern. There are also some ethical concerns about a professor requiring students to buy their books—although a low relative cost can offset this worry. Although I have written numerous philosophy books, such as 42 Fallacies, I have not used them in my classes because of this concern. They have, however, been adopted by faculty at other universities.
While professors are now expected to keep the costs of texts down, there are ways students can save themselves money. The classic approach is, of course, to not buy the book (or only buy some of the books). While this does save money, it can impact negatively on class performance and learning. Another approach is to split the cost of the text and share the book, although this runs into the usual problems of sharing.
Text books can sometimes also be checked out from libraries; although there is the obvious problem of limited availability. Students who are more frugal than scrupulous can also acquire free books by other means—almost anything can be acquired through various channels on the web.
Students who are willing to buy a text can save money by shopping around online and at used bookstores for used or discounted copies of the text. Previous editions of books can also be found, often at lower prices. The downside is that publishers take special effort to make it harder to use previous editions—one tactic is to move around homework questions so the numbers are different between editions. On the positive side, content changes between editions tend to be otherwise minor.
Publishers also offer textbook rentals that offer savings relative to the sales price; given that the money students get for selling their books back is very little, this can be a good approach for people who would otherwise just sell their books back. Some books are also available at a slightly lower price as eBooks (although there is the concern about being able to sell them back).
A student can also make an appeal to the professor; they might have a copy they can lend or they might be able to suggest some lower cost options. While many professors are aware of the cost of texts and take steps to keep costs down, some professors are unaware—but might be willing to address this if asked by students.
To close, while state legislatures should be focused on the main cost factors of higher education (such as their own disinvestment choices) they are correct in pointing out that textbook costs do need to be addressed. While this should be handled by those who set the prices of the texts, professors and students can use the above approaches to help keep costs down.
One stock narrative in the media is that the cost of attending college has skyrocketed. This is true. There is also a stock narrative that this increase, at least for public universities, has been due to the cutting of public education funds. This certainly is part of the truth. Another important part is the cost of sustaining the every-growing and well paid administrative class that has ensconced (and perhaps enthroned) itself at colleges and universities. I will, however, focus primarily on the cutting of public funds.
The stock media narrative makes it clear why there was a cut to public education spending: the economy was brought down in flames by the too clever machinations of the world’s financial class. This narrative is, for the most part, true. Another narrative is that Republican state legislatures have cut deeply into the funding for public education. One professed reason for this is ideological: government spending must be cut, presumably to reduce the taxes paid by the job creators. A reason that is not openly professed is the monetization of education. Public universities are in competition with the for-profit colleges for (ironically) public funding, mostly in the form of federal financial aid and student loans. Degrading, downsizing and destroying public education allows the for-profit colleges to acquire more customers and more funding and these for-profits have been generous with their lobbying dollars (to Republicans and Democrats). Since I have written other essays on the general catastrophic failure that is the for-profit college, I will not pursue this matter here.
A third openly professed reason is also ideological: the idea that a college education is a private rather than a public good. This seems to be based on the view that the primary purpose of a college education is economic: for the student to be trained to fill a job. It is also based on what can be regarded as a selfish value system—that value is measured solely in terms of how something serves a narrowly defined self-interest. In philosophy, this view is egoism and, when dignified with a moral theory, called ethical egoism (the idea that each person should act solely in her self-interest as opposed to acting, at least sometimes, from altruism).
Going along with this notion is the narrative that certain (mainly non-STEM) majors are useless. That is, they do not train a person to get a job. These two notions are usually combined into one stock narrative, which is often presented as something like “why should my tax dollars go to someone getting a degree in anthropology or, God forbid, philosophy?”
This professed ideology has had considerable impact on higher education. My adopted state of Florida has seen the usual story unfold: budget cuts to higher education, imposition of performance based funding (performance being defined primarily in terms of training the right sort of job fillers for the job creators), and the imposition of micro-managing assessment (which is universally regarded by anyone who actually teaches as pure bullshit) and so on. When all this is combined with the ever-expanding administrative class, it becomes evident that public higher education in America is in real trouble.
At this point most readers will expect me to engage in my stock response in regards to the value of education. You know, the usual philosophical stuff about the unexamined life not being worth living, the importance to a democratic state of having an educated population and all the other stuff that is waved away with a dismissive gesture by those who know the true value of public education: private profit. Since I have written about these values elsewhere, I will not do so here. There is also the obvious fact that the people who believe in this sort of value already support education and those who do not will almost certainly not be swayed by any arguments I could make. Instead, I will endeavor to argue for the value of the public university in very practical, “real-world” terms.
First, the public university is important for the defense of the United States. While private, non-profit institutions do rather important research, the public universities have contributed a great deal to our defense technology, they train many of our officers, and they train many of the people who work in our intelligence agencies. Undermining the public university weakens the United States in ways that will damage our national defense. National defense certainly seems to be a public and not just a private good.
Second, large public universities are centers of scientific research that has great practical (that is, economic) value. This research includes medical research, physics, robotics, engineering and all areas that are recognized as having clear practical value. One sure way to ensure that the United States falls behind the rest of the world in these areas is to continue to degrade public universities. Being competitive in these areas does seem to be a public good, although it is obviously specific individuals who benefit the most.
Third, large public universities draw some of the best and brightest people from around the world. Many of these people stay in the United States and contribute a great deal—thus adding to the public good (while obviously benefiting themselves). Even those who return home are influenced by the United States—they learn English (if they do not already know it), they are exposed to American culture, they make friends with Americans and often develop a fondness for their school and the country. While these factors are hard to quantify, they do serve as advantage to the United States in economic, scientific, diplomatic and defense terms.
Fourth, having what was once the best public higher education system in the world gave the country considerable prestige and influence. While prestige is difficult to quantify, it certainly matters—humans are very much influenced by status. This can be regarded as a public good.
Fifth, there are the obvious economic advantages of a strong public higher education system. College educated citizens make more money and thus pay more taxes—thus contributing to the public good. While having a job is certainly a private good, there is also a considerable amount of public good. Businesses need employees and people need doctors, lawyers, engineers, psychiatrists, pilots, petroleum engineers, computer programmers, officers, and so on. As such, it would seem that the public university does not just serve the private good but the public good.
If this argument has merit, it would seem that the degrading of public higher education is damaging the public good and harming the country. As such, this needs to be reversed before the United States falls even more behind the competition.
I recently attended a meeting discussing the use of Blackboard analytics as a tool for student retention and improving graduation rates. Last year I had attended multiple meetings on the subject of classes with high failure rates and this had motivated me to formalize what I had been doing informally for years, namely generating a picture of why students fail my classes. While my university is still implementing Blackboard analytics, I have gathered information from my classes and my students which has enabled me to get a reasonable picture of the failure rates, attendance rates and the reasons for failure and absences.
Not surprisingly, the new data still supports the old data in regards to correlation between a student’s attendance and her grade. Students who do fail (D or F) tend to have very poor attendance. I have also found that attendance has grown dramatically worse in my classes over the years. This is not based on the usual complaints of the old about the youth of today—I have stacks of rumpled attendance sheets that provide actual evidence. Based on conversations with other faculty, the same is true of other classes.
Interestingly, while students who have good (A or B) grades tend to have good attendance, relatively large numbers of students are able to pass (C) despite poor attendance (missing more often than not). Perhaps they would have done better if they had attended more, but perhaps not.
Reviewing my gradebooks has shown that the main cause of failure is a combination of not completing work and getting failing grades on much of the work that is completed. The most common pattern is that a student does not complete 2-3 of the five exams, and fails some or all of the exams he does take. Somewhat less common is a student having passing grades on completed work, but not completing enough work to pass the course. This most commonly involves students who pass the exams and quizzes, but simply never turn in a paper. In some cases, students do pass the exams they take, but fail to take 2-3 of them. Interestingly, I have not had a student fail by completing and failing everything—the students who fail always leave some of the work undone.
In the days before Blackboard, students faced the challenge of coming to campus to take exams and turn in papers or assignments at specific times. In those days, I routinely had make-up exams and took papers late (when accompanied by appropriate documentation, of course). When Blackboard became available and reliable, I thought that I could address this problem by using Blackboard: students could take exams and quizzes and turn in papers and assignments at any time of day from anywhere they could get an internet connection. I also offered (and offer) very generous deadlines for the work so that students who faced difficulties or challenges could easily work around them.
While this did eliminate make-up exams and many problems with the papers, the impact on completion of work was less than I expected. In fact, class performance remained approximately the same as in the days before Blackboard. On the plus side, this showed that cheating had effectively been countered. On the minus side, I had hoped to significantly reduce the D and F grades resulting from people not doing the work.
While it is certainly tempting to regard the use of Blackboard as a failure in this regard, I do have some indirect reasons to think that it helped. As noted above, the attendance in my class (and those of others) has crashed. Despite this, the averages in my classes are remaining constant. One possible explanation is that the students would be doing worse, but for their ability to do the work in a very flexible manner. An alternative is, of course, that they are missing class because they can do the work on Blackboard. However, faculty who do not use Blackboard also consistently report attendance issues and generally have higher failure rates (based on general data regarding classes). So, I suspect that my use of Blackboard is doing some good, at least in terms of retention and graduation.
Naturally, I did wonder why students have been missing class. I have been conducting a study using a basic survey for one year and the results are here.
Over the year, I had 233 responses. Interestingly 71% reported attending at least often, with the largest percentage (25.8%) claiming to attend 80-90% of the time. 24.9% claimed to attend 90-100% of the time. As might be suspected, this self-reported data is simply not consistent with my actual attendance records. This can be explained in various ways. One obvious possibility is that students who would take the time to respond to a survey would be students who would be more likely to attend class, thus biasing the survey. A second obvious possibility is that people tend to select the answer they think they should give or the one that matches how they would like to be perceived. As such, students would tend to over-report their attendance. A third obvious possibility is that students might believe that the responses to the survey might cause me to hand out extra points (which is not the case and the survey is anonymous).
In regards to the reasons why students miss class, the highest (by far) self-reported reason is still work. While this might be explained in terms of students selecting the answer that presents them in the best light, it is consistent with anecdotal evidence I have “collected” by overhearing students, speaking with students, and speaking with other colleagues. It is also consistent with the fact that many students need outside employment in order to pay for college-work schedules do not always neatly fit around class schedules. If this information is accurate, addressing the attendance and completion problem would require addressing the matter of work. This could involve the usual proposals, such as finding ways to increase support for students so they do not need to work (or work as much) in college. It might also involve considering some new or alternative approaches to the problem. I suspect, but cannot prove, that my adoption of a heavily online approach has helped with this problem—students can complete the work around their work schedule, rather than trying to get work done at fixed times that might not match the needs of their workplace.
Of course, I also need to consider that it is this online approach that is contributing to the attendance issue. While 28.8% of students reported work as their primary reason, 15% claimed that the fact that the work is on Blackboard was the primary reason they missed class. Since the graded coursework is completed and turned in through Blackboard, a pragmatic student who is focused primarily on simply getting a grade as a means to an end would see far less reason to attend class. Since the majority of college students now report that they are in school primarily to get a job, it makes sense that many students would take this approach to class. However, there is the obvious risk in this pragmatic approach: as noted above, low attendance tends to correlate with low grades, so students who skip the class on the assumption that they can just do the work on Blackboard might not do as well as they could and might get far less from the course—that is, just a grade.
Based on this information and other findings, Blackboard is still a double edged sword. On the one hand, it does seem beneficial precisely because students can do the work or turn it in more conveniently and around the clock. On the other hand, using it as the sole means for turning in work does allow students to skip class while still being able to do the work. What still needs to be determined is which edge cuts more. Given the above discussion, I believe that while the use of Blackboard does lower attendance, it also allows students to complete work around their work schedules. As such, I suspect that it has generally been positive in terms of the purely pragmatic goal of maintaining or even improving retention and graduation. Of course, this claim is counterfactual: if I had not adopted the online approach, then the grades of the students would have worsened.
As noted above, my university is adopting Blackboard Analytics and this will provide the data needed to conduct a proper student (as opposed to an unfunded project using surveys and data from just my classes). Students today are, obviously, different from when I was a student and professors need to adjust to the relevant differences—one key challenge is finding out what they are. I have made some guesses, but better data would allow better decision making.
While people have been engaged in telework for quite some time, ever-improving technology will expand the range of jobs allowing for this long-distance labor. This, naturally enough, raises a variety of interesting issues.
Some forms of telework are, by today’s standards, rather mundane and mostly (non-controversial. For example, teachers running online classes from home is a standard form of education these days. Other forms are rather more controversial, such as remote assassination conducted via armed drones.
One promising (and problematic) area of teleworking is telemedicine. Currently, most telemedicine is fairly primitive and mainly involves medical personal interacting with patients via video conferencing software (“take two aspirin and skype me in the morning”). Given that surgical robots are now commonly employed, it is simply a matter of time before doctors and nurses routinely operate “doc drones” to perform various medical procedures.
There are many positive aspects to such telemedicine. One is that such doc drones will allow medical personal to safely operate in dangerous areas. To use the obvious example, a doctor could use a drone to treat patients infected with Ebola while running no risk of infection. To use another example, a doctor could use a drone to treat a patient during a battle without risking being shot or blown up.
A second positive aspect is that a doc drone could be deployed in remote areas and places that have little or no local medical personal. For example, areas in the United States that are currently underserved could be served by such doc drones.
A third positive aspect is that if doc drones became cheap enough, normal citizens could have their own doc drone (most likely with limited capabilities relative to hospital grade drones). This would allow for very rapid medical treatment. This would be especially useful given the aging populations in countries such as the United States.
There are, however, some potential downsides to the use of doc drones. One is that the use of doc drones would allow companies to offshore and outsource medical jobs, just as companies have sent programing, manufacturing and technical support jobs overseas. This would allow medical businesses to employ lower paid foreign medical workers in place of higher paid local medical personal. Such businesses could also handle worker complaints about pay or treatment simply by contracting new employees in countries that worse off and hence have medical personal who are even more desperate. While this would be good for the bottom line, this would be problematic for local medical personal.
It could be contended that this would be good since it would lower the cost of medical care and would also provide medical personal in foreign countries with financial opportunities. In reply, there is the obvious concern about the quality of care (one might wonder if medical care is something that should go to the lowest bidder) and the fact that medical personal would have had better opportunities doing medicine in person. Naturally, those running the medical companies will want to ensure that the foreign medical personal stay in their countries—this could be easily handled by getting Congress to pass tough immigration laws, thus ensuring a ready supply of cheap medical labor.
Another promising area of telework is controlling military drones. The United States currently operates military drones, but given the government’s love of contracting out services it is just a matter of time before battle drones are routinely controlled by private military contractors (or mercenaries, as they used to be called).
The main advantage of using military drones is that the human operators are out of harm’s way. An operator can also quickly shift operations as needed which can reduce deployment times. Employing private contractors also yields numerous advantages, such as being able to operate outside the limits imposed by the laws and rules governing the military. There can also be the usual economic advantages—imagine corporations outsourcing military operations and reaping significant savings from being able to keep wages and benefits for the telesoldiers very low. There is, of course, the concern that employing what amounts to foreign mercenaries might result in some serious moral and practical problems, but perhaps one should just think of the potential profits and let the taxpayers worry about paying for any problems.
There are various other areas in which teleworking would be quite appealing. Such areas would need to be those that require the skills and abilities of a human (that is, they cannot simply be automated), yet can be done via remote control. It would also have to be the case that the cost of teleworking would be cheaper than simply hiring a local human being to do the work. Areas such as table waiting, food preparation, and retail will most likely not see teleworker replacing the low-paid local workers. However, areas with relatively high pay could be worth the cost of converting to telework.
One obvious example is education. While the pay for American professors is relatively low and most professors are now badly paid adjuncts, there are still people outside the United States who would be happy to work for even less. Running an online class, holding virtual office hours and grading work require rather low-cost technology. The education worker would require just a PC and an internet connection. The university would just need access to a server running the appropriate learning management software (such as Blackboard). With translation software, the education worker would not even need to know English to teach American students.
Obviously enough, since administrators would be making the decisions about whose jobs get outsourced, they would not outsource their own jobs. They would remain employed. In fact, with the savings from replacing local faculty they could give themselves raises and hire more administrators. This would progress until the golden age is reached: campuses populated solely by administrators.
Construction, maintenance, repair and other such work might be worth converting to telework. However, this would require that the machines that would be remotely operated would be cheap enough to justify hiring a low paid foreign worker over a local worker. However, a work drone could be operated round the clock by shifts of operators (aside from downtime for repairs and maintenance) and there would be no vacations, worker’s compensation or other such costs. After all, the population of the entire world would be the work force and any workers that started pushing for better pay, vacations or other benefits could be replaced by others who would be willing to work for less. If such people become difficult to find, a foreign intervention or two could set things right and create an available population of people desperate for telework.
Large scale telework would also seem to lower the value of labor—after all, the competition among workers would be worldwide. A person living in Maine who applied for a telejob would be up against people from all around the world, ranging from Argentina to Zimbabwe. While this will be great for the job creators, it will probably be less great for the job fillers.
While this dystopian (from the perspective of the 99%) view of telework seems plausible, it is also worth considering that telework might be beneficial to the laboring masses. After all, it would open up opportunities around the world and telework would require fairly stable areas with adequate resources such as power and the internet (so companies would have an interest in building such infrastructure). As such, telework could make things better for some of the masses. Telework would also be fairly safe, although it could require very long hours and impose considerable stress.
Of course, there are still steps beyond telework and one possible ultimate end might be full automation of all jobs.
The rise of for-profit universities have given students increased choices when it comes to picking schools. Since college is rather expensive and schools vary in regards to the success of their graduates, it is wise to carefully consider the options before writing those checks. Or, more likely these days, going into debt.
While there is a popular view that the for-profit free-market will consistently create better goods and services at ever lower prices, it is wisest to accept facts over ideological theory. As such, when picking between public, non-profit, and for-profit schools one should look at the numbers. Fortunately, ProPublica has been engaged in crunching the numbers.
Today most people go to college in order to have better job prospects. As such, one rather important consideration is the likelihood of getting a job after graduation and the likely salary. While for-profit schools spend about $4.2 billion in 2009 for recruiting and marketing and pay their own college presidents an average of $7.3 million per year, the typical graduate does rather poorly. According to the U.S. Department of Education 74% of the programs at for-profit colleges produced graduates whose average pay is less than that of high-school dropouts. In contrast, graduates of non-profit and public colleges do better financially than high school graduates.
Another important consideration is the cost of education. While the free-market is supposed to result in higher quality services at lower prices and the myth of public education is that it creates low quality services at high prices, the for-profit schools are considerably more expensive than their non-profit and public competition. A two-year degree costs, on average, $35,000 at a for-profit school. The average community college offers that degree at a mere $8,300. In the case of four year degrees, the average is $63,000 at a for-profit and $52,000 for a “flagship” state college. For certificate programs, public colleges will set a student back $4,250 while a for-profit school will cost the student $19,806 on average. By these numbers, the public schools offer a better “product” at a much lower price—thus making public education the rational choice over the for-profit option.
Student debt and loans, which have been getting considerable attention in the media, are also a matter of consideration. The median debt of the average student at a for-profit college is $32,700 and 96% of the students at such schools take out loans. At non-profit private colleges, the amount is $24,600 and 57%. For public colleges, the median debt is $20,000 and 48% of students take out loans. Only 13% of community college students take out loans (thanks, no doubt, to the relatively low cost of community college).
For those who are taxpayers, another point of concern is how much taxpayer money gets funneled into for-profit schools. In a typical year, the federal government provides $6 billion in Pell Grants and $16 billion in student loans to students attending for-profit colleges. In 2010 there were 2.4 million students enrolled in these schools. It is instructive to look at the breakdown of how the for-profits expend their money.
As noted above, the average salary of the president of a for-profit college was $7.3 million in 2009. The five highest paid presidents of non-profit colleges averaged $3 million and the five highest paid presidents at public colleges were paid $1 million.
The for-profit colleges also spent heavily in marketing, spending $4.2 billion in recruiting, marketing and admissions staffing in 2009. In 2009 thirty for-profit colleges hired 35,202 recruiters which is about 1 recruiter per 49 students. As might be suspected, public schools do not spend that sort of money. My experience with recruiting at public schools is that a common approach is for a considerable amount of recruiting to fall to faculty—who do not, in general, get extra compensation for this extra work.
In terms of what is spent per student, for-profit schools average $2,050 per student per year. Public colleges spend, on average, $7,239 per student per year. Private non-profit schools spend the mots and average $15,321 per student per year. This spending does seem to yield results: at for-profit schools only 20% of students complete the bachelor’s degree within four years. Public schools do somewhat better with 31% and private non-profits do best at 52%. As such, a public or non-profit school would be the better choice over the for-profit school.
Because so much public money gets funneled into for-profit, public and private schools, there has been a push for “gainful employment” regulation. The gist of this regulation is that schools will be graded based on the annual student loan payments of their graduates relative to their earnings. A school will be graded as failing if its graduates have annual student loan payments that exceed 12% of total earnings or 30% of discretionary earnings. The “danger zone” is 8-12% of total earnings or 20-30% of discretionary earnings. Currently, there are about 1,400 programs with about 840,000 enrolled students in the “danger zone” or worse. 99% of them are, shockingly enough, at for-profit schools.
For those who speak of accountability, these regulations should seem quite reasonable. For those who like the free-market, the regulation’s target is the federal government: the goal is to prevent the government from dumping more taxpayer money into failing programs. Schools will need to earn this money by success.
However, this is not the first time that there has been an attempt to link federal money to success. In 2010 regulations were put in place that included a requirement that a school have at least 35% of its students actively repaying student loans. As might be guessed, for-profit schools are the leaders in loan defaults. In 2012 lobbyists for the for-profit schools (who have the highest default rates) brought a law suit to federal court. The judge agreed with them and struck down the requirement.
In November of 2014 an association of for-profit colleges brought a law suit against the current gainful employment requirements, presumably on the principle that it is better to pay lawyers and lobbyists rather than addressing problems with their educational model. If this lawsuit succeeds, which is likely, for-profits will be rather less accountable and this will serve to make things worse for their students.
Based on the numbers, you should definitely not attend the typical for-profit college. On average, it will cost you more, you will have more debt, and you will make less money. For the most for the least cost, the two year community college is the best deal. For the four year degree, the public school will cost less, but private non-profits generally have more successful results. But, of course, much depends on you.