While state support for United States public higher education dropped 25% from 2000 to 2010, for profit colleges have enjoyed an ever larger slice of public funds. Part of this is due to the increase in enrollment for the for-profit schools: in 1990 only 2% of undergraduate college students were enrolled in such schools, but in 2008-2009 it increased to 11.8%.
However, the for-profit schools get a disproportionate amount of state money in the form of federal money. While having 10% of the students in higher education, they received almost 25% of the Pell Grant money and 25% of the federal student loans.
The for-profit schools are also beneficiaries of the GI Bill: in 2010-2011 $1 billion of the $4.4 billion disbursed by the Department of Veterans Affairs went to just eight such schools. Overall, 37% of the GI Bill money went to for-profit schools.
As such, the for-profit schools are receiving state funds that are disproportionate to their actual enrollments at a time when public schools are having their state support cut. To use the rhetoric of the Tea Party and Republicans, this would seem to be socialism: the state just dumping taxpayer money to benefit a few takers. Moving away from the rhetoric, it does seem to be a point of concern that state money is being moved away from public institutions so as to enable for-profit institutions to profit. Shockingly enough, the Republicans (and most Democrats) are not outraged by this “socialism.”
This state money is the main revenue stream for the for-profits, so they are truly state-supported businesses. They are also successful at making money in this manner: they enjoy an average profit margin of 19%. This enables them to engage in advertising and thus gain more students who enable them to tap ever more into that sweet taxpayer largesse.
The obvious reply is to contend that the for-profit colleges earn these profits while state schools flounder in financial woes. This, it might be claimed, is proof that the for-profit approach is superior to the inherently inferior public approach. However, there are two replies to this.
The first, and most blindingly obvious, is that the for-profit colleges get most of their revenue from the state, thus their success depends on siphoning off taxpayer money into their coffers.
The second is that the for-profit schools often turn out to be disasters for their students, especially when compared to public schools.
While student debt is a serious problem, it is far worse for those who attend for-profit schools. 54% of the students who graduate with a BA from a for-profit school end up with over $30,000 in debt. In contrast, only 12% of public college graduates end up in that dire situation.
The for-profit schools also do poorly in actually placing students in jobs—the public schools do much better. As such, it is hardly a surprise that although students who attended for-profit colleges make up a fraction of the total college student population, they made up 48% of those who defaulted on student loans in 2010.
Given their rhetoric regarding government spending, socialism and people “taking” from the government, one would think that the Republicans would be leading a charge against the for-profit schools. After all, these schools are receiving large sums of public money and doing a poor job. As a faculty member at a public university I can attest to the Republican obsession with making public institutions prove that they are providing a return on the state money they get. I serve on various committees that exist primarily to collect and process assessment data to prove to the state legislature and governor that we are getting results for every penny we receive and our funding is tied to this data. Also not surprisingly, there is also a push to have private sector companies provide expensive tests at the taxpayers’ expense to, somewhat ironically, make sure the taxpayers’ money is being well spent.
However, this does not seem to be the case. Instead, the push by Republicans (and many Democrats) is for even more for-profit education that is funded by the taxpayer. This indicates that the opposition is to “socialism” of the sort where public money goes to public colleges. The “socialism” that involves redistributing wealth from the taxpayers to the problematic for-profit colleges is apparently just fine.
As a professor I have grown accustomed to the litany of doom regarding American education. We are repeatedly told that American schools are failing, that colleges are not teaching, and that the students of today are not as good as the students of the past.
There are, of course, problems with the education system. Because of economic disparity, some schools are significantly better than others and the ideas of equality of education and equality of opportunity are cruel jokes. However, the mere fact that there are some serious problems does not entail that all the dire claims are true.
One stock claim is that America has fallen behind the world in education in terms of performance on various tests. While the fact that America is behind other countries is a point of concern, there are at least three points worth considering here. The first is the above-mentioned disparity which will tend to result in lower performance when taking the average for America. The second is that many countries have put considerable effort into improving their education systems and hence it is worth considering that America’s decline is also due to the improvement of others. The third is the matter of the measures—do they, in fact, present an accurate picture of the situation? I am not claiming that the data is bad, I am merely raising a reasonable concern about how accurate our picture of education is at this time.
Another stock claim is that American students are doing badly on standardized tests. While there is clearly value in assessment, it is reasonable to consider whether or not such tests are a proper and adequate measure of education. It is also worth considering whether the obsession with these tests is itself causing damage to education. That is, as teachers teach to the test and student learn for the test, it might be the case that what is being taught is not what should be taught and what is being learned is not what should be being learned. My view is that standardized tests seem to exist mainly to make money for the companies that sell such tests and that their usefulness as a tool of education is dubious. However, such a claim would require proper support, ideally in the form of a properly funded assessment of these assessments.
It is also claimed that schools are failing and that even colleges are not providing worthwhile education. I do agree that the cost of college education has become ridiculous and there are problems in the entire education system. However, it is certainly interesting that along with the mantra of “public schools are failing” there has been a strong push to funnel public money into private and for-profit schools. Now, it could be the case that the for-profit and private schools are merely being proposed as solutions to the alleged problems. But, it seems worth considering that the “public schools are failing” line is being pushed so that people will support and favor shifting funding from the public schools to the for-profit and private schools. Interestingly, while traditional private schools generally do well, the for-profit schools have been plagued with problems, as I have written about in earlier essays. As such, the idea that for-profit schools will save education seems to be a dubious claim.
One last matter I will consider is the idea that students are worse now than ever. After hearing colleagues and professionals say this over and over, I almost began to feel that it was true. However, my familiarity with history saved me from this fate: such claims about the inferiority of the current generation goes back at least to the time of Socrates. Every generation seems to claim that the next is inferior—think of all “when I was kid” claims that people make. “When I was a kid, people respected their elders.” “When I was a kid, we did our homework.” “When I was a kid, we studied hard.” While kids are different in some ways today (they have Facebook and smartphones), the idea that they are inferior must be considered in the context of the fact that people always make that claim. Now, it might be that every generation is right and that we have reached the lowest point in human history. However, going back and considering actual facts in an objective way should show that the kids today are a bit different but they do not appear to be any worse than the other generations.
As a professor I do often hear other professors lament about how kids get worse every year (I have been hearing this for about 20 years). However, there is an alternative explanation. I do admit that the work of students, such as papers, does seem worse than it did in the past. But, this could be due to the fact that I am better at my job rather than the students being worse. When I look back on my own work as a student, I can see the same bad writing and mistakes I see in my students today. I improve each year, but each year I get new students and it seems reasonable to consider that they seem worse because of this and not that they must actually be worse.
I do admit that changes in technology are probably impacting the students of today. They do labor under the delusion that they can multitask effectively (they cannot—they can just multitask poorly) and they also have more distractions than I faced as a student. However, the students seem to be about the same as when I was a student years ago.
Overall, I do not claim that there are not problems in education. However, I am concerned that the litany of doom and despair may contain consider hyperbole. I am also suspicious regarding some of the motivations behind the doomsayers. While some are no doubt sincerely concerned, it is worth considering that some people are motivated by political or economic agendas rather than the needs of students.
While there are many excellent schools, there are also serious problems plaguing the American education system. People are, of course, eager to point fingers and these fingers are often pointed at teachers’ unions. Being a professor at a state school, it should hardly be a surprise that I am a member of the UFF, NEA and AFT. Because of this, my writing on this subject should be read with a critical eye so as to catch any bias in my claims or any trickery in my argumentation.
One stock argument against unions is based on the claim that the teachers’ unions are aimed at the good of the union members and this good is not always consistent with what is good for the students. There are, of course, harsher versions which involve claims that unions serve primarily to protect incompetent teachers and to do other wicked and damaging things.
This line of argument can have merit. After all, unions do (in theory) aim at benefiting their membership and the members of the teachers’ unions are teachers rather than students. There are also legitimate concerns that unions have enabled incompetent teachers to retain their jobs and that the lobbying power of teachers’ unions has been used in ways that might not lead to the best use of public money. That is, it could be argued that teachers’ unions function like pretty much all such organizations ranging from labor unions to corporations to political parties. This does not justify or excuse such behavior, but it does indicate that teachers’ unions are hardly unique in their sins. It also suggests that if organizations that serve the interest of their members but can be a detriment to the public good should be gotten rid of, then we should not just be rid of teachers’ unions but also corporations and political parties as well.
Of course, it would be absurd to rid society of all organisations that might act contrary to the public good-after all, this would undo much of society itself. Rather it would seem more sensible to address the alleged harms done by an organization so as to determine whether the organization should be changed (or perhaps destroyed). After all, to be rid of teachers’ unions because it is alleged that they have some role in the woes of education would seem to be on par with being rid of financial corporations because they happened to wreck the world economy (any only the most radical are suggesting that).
Turning back to teachers’ unions, there would seem to be two main avenues of legitimate criticism. One would be that teachers’ unions are somehow intrinsically damaging to the education system. That is, it is simply the nature of these unions that they will, of necessity, cause trouble. Interestingly enough, some critics of capitalism make similar claims about corporations and other business: they must, by their very nature, be exploitative and harmful.
The idea that organizations such as unions and corporations are inherently harmful is certainly an interesting idea and one that would be well worth investigating in more detail. However, it seems unlikely that teachers organizing into unions must, of necessity, create harm to the education system. To support this, I offer two arguments.
First, there is the example of Finland. It has a unionized education system that is, in fact, excellent. As such, if unions were of necessity a bane to education, then Finland should be doing badly rather than well. Of course, it could be argued that Finland is an unusual exception. This takes me to my second argument.
Second, if unions are a significant cause of educational woes (as some critics claim) in the United States and elsewhere, then one would expect to see correlation between the presence of unions and such woes. To use the obvious analogy, if a toxin causes disease, one would expect to see more cases of the disease in areas where to toxin concentration is higher. Interestingly enough, educational quality in the United States does not seem to correlate with the presence or absence of unions, but rather with other factors. In the case of K-12 public education, the quality and problems seem to match quite closely the poverty or wealth of the school and the community. That is, “poor” schools tend to have far more problems than “rich” schools. As such, it would seem that it is not primarily a matter of unions (after all, rich and poor schools alike are unionized) but rather other factors.
It might be replied that unions are still a problem but that the money enables the schools to counter the damage done by unions (just as a wealthy community might be able to counter a toxin by having more money to spend on treatment and prevention). This is a point worth considering, but what would be needed would be evidence that the unions are doing the damage rather than the other factors that seem to correlate with educational woes.
In regards to the claim that unions are inherently harmful because the serve the interests of teachers, one rather obvious reply is that students have no union and the organizations that are most likely to act in ways that are in the interest of students are teachers’ unions. After all, these unions generally aim at things like better schools, better funding for educational programs and so on. That is, the interests of teachers overlap the interests of students and teachers’ unions tend to provide students with the only organized voice in the realm of politics. As such, teachers’ unions do not seem to be intrinsically bad. There is also the obvious concern of how eliminating these unions would actually improve education-that is, what group would step in to see to it that the interests of the students and teachers were being taken into account.
Another avenue of criticism is to raise specific problems that particular actions by unions or union members cause. For example, if a union acts to prevent incompetent teachers from being fired at a specific school, then this act could be legitimately criticized and such problems should be addressed.
In general, it would be rather odd if unions did not cause some problems. If they did not, they would be truly unique. However, it seems more sensible to address these problems rather than simply condemning unions. Given the fervor with which these unions are being attacked, it might be suspected that some folks stand to make a profit by getting rid of these unions. But perhaps that is merely cynicism on my part. After all, I am sure that the people funding the attacks on unions and the politicians who will attack them are merely driven by a love of the public good and are doing it for the children.
Education is once again in the spotlight and what this light reveals has generally not been very good. Since the general consensus is that education is “broken”, I will not endeavor to argue for that point. Instead, I will look at the role that luck plays in the American education system.
I am not taking luck as some sort of metaphysical force on par with the ancient Greek concept of Fate. Rather, I’m using the term in a fairly general sense to stand for what depends primarily on chance rather than choice.
One obvious role that luck plays in education (and life in general) is the matter of birth. A person’s parents and their economic status have, obviously enough, a huge impact on a person’s educational future. While the role that the parents play in the education process is important, the factor I will focus on is the matter of economic status.
As a matter of fact, the quality of schools tends to vary in proportion to the wealth of the surrounding community (with some notable exceptions). Parents generally know this and often attempt to move into the neighborhoods that serve the best schools. Obviously enough, parents who lack the money needed to live in such areas will generally lose out on getting their kids into the better schools. This will begin the process of shortchanging their education and this will most likely lay down a weak educational foundation.
Money also allows parents to send their kids to private schools, an option that is generally not open to poorer families. While private schools are not always better than public schools, parents can buy a good education for their kids provided that they have the money and do some research. For the kids this is, obviously enough, all a matter of luck-being born into a family that has enough money to buy a good education either directly (private school) or indirectly (by living in the right area).
The solution to this is obvious enough: make all public schools good, that way luck/chance is less of a factor in the quality of education that American children receive. Of course, the idea of making things equal and fair might be regarded by some as a sort of creeping socialism. After all, if all the schools were equally good, people might start thinking that other inequalities will need to be addressed. Perhaps that is why certain folks are against true education reform: they can see where it might lead.
Another way in which luck plays a role is clearly an example of chance. I recently learned that some of the best public schools actually have a lottery system. As such, getting into such schools is (supposed to be) entirely a matter of luck. While this can be seen as a random sort of democratic approach, it hardly seems like a very good approach. While having some good schools that people want their kids to attend so badly that a lottery is needed is better than having none, but it seems unjust to leave something so important to random chance. The solution, as before, is to work so that all schools are good and thus eliminate the need for a lottery to divide up scarce resources. Of course, this is easy to say but hard to do. Obviously, we are busy dumping vast sums of cash into two other countries and our war machine, so it is hardly surprising that funds are a bit short for such endeavors. However, we might find that as well are trying to build up Iraq and Afghanistan, that we are sliding down ourselves-at least when it comes to education.
Of course, the problem of education cannot be fixed merely by throwing money at it. Many of the fixes would actually save money or cost little. But, more must be said about the solutions.
Being a professor, I tend to notice stories about education. While there are the occasional positive pieces (such as success stories), the news generally seems to focus on the negative aspects of education. While it is always reasonable to be wary of making inferences based on media coverage, the American education system does seem to have serious problems.
One obvious problem is that the economic downturn has led some states to reduced spending by cutting the education budget. Given that problem, the headline grabbing $578 million school in LA seems rather bizarre. After all, it seems to be an act of insanity to spend that much on a single school while teachers are being laid off and the education system is facing rather serious problems.
While a $578 million school is a new record, there are other high price schools. Also, those outside academics might find it interesting that universities rather often keep building new buildings and renovating old ones even during budget problems. This occurs even when the woes are severe enough to result in faculty and staff being fired.
Long ago, as a matter of luck, I got to speak to a major administrator about how schools can build new buildings while being “forced” to fire faculty/staff and cut support for students. I was informed that the budgets for building and renovation are distinct from those used to pay faculty/staff and provide support. Being very young and naive at the time, I asked why money could not be moved. After all, money is money-it is not like the dollars for building where composed of a magical substance (“buildonium”) that could not be touched by faculty, staff or students. Also, I was well aware that people do move money from one budget area to another (usually from faculty/staff salaries or student funding to somewhere else). It was explained to me that the allocation was fixed and could not be changed. Of course, this was a circular answer (it cannot be moved because it cannot be moved), but even then I had the good sense not to point out such things to the suits.
Since I was rather suspicious of suits then, I inferred that the money for building was fixed and generally safe because the money being spent went to friends, allies, and relatives of the folks who vote on such allocations. After all, a major university construction project would mean some rather sweet profits for the contractors. This suspicion was confirmed when I later learned of the not uncommon (but illegal) practice of contractors doing “free” work for certain administrators who were in charge of construction and renovation.
Now that I am much older, I do see that there can be legitimate reasons for putting money into infrastructure even when there is a budget shortage. After all, when buildings are literally falling apart, then they need to be fixed. Of course, I still believe that the main focus of education spending should be on the core function of education, namely education and not construction.
Turning back to the $587 million school, while a pleasant and well equipped learning environment can make a difference, it makes more sense to try to create the greatest benefit from the money. So, rather than pouring $587 million into a single school, it would be better to use that money to improve education on a broader scale. Also, it makes more sense to focus resources on the core functions of education. Of course, this alone will not solve the education woes. To use an analogy, the education system seems to be like a drifting ship whose core structure is decayed and fractured. Patching here and there and even adding some fancy cabins to the ship will not solve the core problems. The ship needs to be put on a definite course to a dry dock. Once there, it needs to be rebuilt.
America’s education system at the university level is still the best in the world (maybe). However, it is critical that our K-12 system be elevated to at least this level of excellence. This is not to say that the universities do not need improvement. They do and, of course, the rest of the world is working hard to catch up and surpass us.