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Education Archive



September 2014



Is Government Threat of Punishment Keeping Private Universities from Cutting Tuition?

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Economics & the Economy, Education

Federal policies unquestionably deserve some blame for skyrocketing tuition costs. Washington subsidizes student borrowing, and colleges in turn raise prices to capture federal dollars. Higher prices put pressure on Washington to increase subsidies and the cycle repeats.

But there are obviously other forces at work as well. In a typical market you would expect competition to drive prices down, for instance. However, cutting prices doesn’t have the expected effect. Ike Brannon explains:

[W]hy don’t private colleges simply reduce tuition and reap the benefits? Indeed, a few colleges have done precisely that, and have been rewarded with a sharp spike in applicants the first year or two afterwards.

However, the gains from such a tuition reduction are short-lived: the typical pattern from a unilateral price cut is that by the third year the market has forgotten the gauzy rhetoric behind the price reduction and perceives the cut-rate tuition as an indicator of an inferior good, and applications decline.

Colleges in this way act as a Veblen good, meaning demand is proportional to price, rather than inversely proportional as we would expect from the law of supply and demand. Colleges with higher tuition are perceived as more prestigious and of higher quality and afford their alumni bragging rights. Thus, slicing tuition in a vacuum can reduce demand.

But one college president proposed a solution that would benefit consumers. Unfortunately, the government sprung to action and threatened him with legal repercussions:

Private colleges can cut tuition and avoid such a death spiral, but only if they do so in concert. However, the specter of a few dozen private colleges organizing to reduce prices — which might seem like an unmitigated good to parents — risks the ire of the Justice Department, which launched an investigation when a college president suggested such an idea at a public conference. College presidents don’t like being told by an officer of the government that they’re risking jail time, and any nascent discussions quickly ceased.

The government has criminalized “price fixing” in the name of protecting consumers. But as we see here, good intentions mean little once government bureaucrats with tunnel vision are brought into the equation. Regardless of the rule’s intent, prosecutors are prepared to punish colleges for potentially agreeing to lower tuition despite both its obvious benefit to consumers and the action’s alignment with stated policy goals.

Government policies helped create the problem of exorbitant tuition costs, and now it is actively working to prevent others from solving it. To quote Ronald Reagan, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”



June 2014



Another Industry In the Obama Administration’s Sites

Written by , Posted in Education, Government Meddling

The private sector is under assault from the Obama administration. We’ve seen it most famously with the war on coal, but as this post from Center for Freedom & Prosperity President Andrew Quinlan demonstrates, we can add for-profit higher education to the list. And once again, it is unelected regulators usurping legislative powers in order to eradicate entire industries:

Now, the Department of Education is targeting private-sector colleges through so-called “Gainful Employment” regulations. The rules not only punish an entire business model for the wrongdoings of a small few schools, but by closing one of the best avenues for working class adults to improve their education and increase employability, they also threaten jobs and the economy.

The proposed rules would cut off federal loan and financial-aid eligibility for programs that fail to meet certain federal standards, such as graduates with high student-loan debt relative to their earnings in the first few years after graduation. This is a deeply flawed approach for reasons both practical and philosophical.

While there is a strong case to be made for ending or severely reducing government financial support for higher education, allowing government to distort the market by picking winners and losers would be even worse than the current system of heavy subsidies. The “Gainful Employment” regulations amount to a thumb on the scale, which unsurprisingly would benefit government-run institutions at the expense of the private sector.

The so-called “Gainful Employment” rule will limit loans and financial aid on the basis of high student loan debt relative to post-graduate earnings, among other things. Problems with the rule are numerous. First and foremost, if it is truly needed to protect students, why are public and private non-profit universities excluded? For-profit schools only serve about 20% of all higher education students, and yet are the exclusive target of the regulation.

Second, the rule fails to account for the market being served. For-profit schools provide opportunities for a lower economic class of students that is often closed out of the prestige-conscious university system. Any rule that punishes schools whose students have relatively lower post-graduate earnings is going to in effect punish schools that take on students who start with lower earnings potential. The rule is thus a perverse attack on economic opportunity at a time when opportunities are already few and far between.

Like much of the Obama agenda, the effort has already run into legal trouble. A prior version of the rule was thrown out by a federal judge for being “arbitrary,” but that hasn’t stopped anti-market ideologues from coming back for another bite at the apple. Quinlan quotes industry expert Donald Graham’s scathing letter in opposition to the rule, which includes an account of the true objectives of the rule’s chief architect:

Why is Mr. Shireman still relevant? Because it is he who decided there should be a gainful employment regulation in the first place.

…With his speech last week at the Center for American Progress, Mr. Shireman lets the cat out of the bag: he simply does not believe that a business should own a college or serve students. Now this is a perfectly respectable point of view. But one could ask: is a person who holds this point of view a fit regulator of a sector consisting of colleges owned by businesses? The judgment on whether businesses were fit to own colleges was made by the Congress of the United States in 1965. Mr. Shireman and now his successor regulators seek to substitute his judgment for that of Congress.

Obama administration officials substituting their lawless judgment for that of duly elected members of Congress seems par for the course these days.



February 2014



Children Are Not Property of Society

Written by , Posted in Education

One of the more pernicious examples of collectivist ideology in practice is the insistence that children belong to the state. This might seem like an outrageous assertion. Who, after all, could possibly believe such a ridiculous thing?

Well, Hillary Clinton, for one. She has argued that “there is no such thing as other people’s children.” And her book, It Takes a Village, has as its entire premise the notion that children are ultimately the responsibility of the society as a whole, which in practice she holds as indistinguishable from government.

MSNBC host Harris-Perry made a similar argument when she said that we need to “break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents,” and replace it with the more enlightened view “that kids belong to whole communities.”

To this list we can now add Common Core advocate and former Massachusetts education secretary Paul Reville:

At an event on Friday sponsored by a leftist think tank, former Massachusetts education secretary Paul Reville called Common Core critics a “tiny minority” and asserted that “the children belong to all of us.”

Reville also claimed that opponents of Common Core are against any academic standards, reports

“To be sure, there’s always a small voice — and I think these voices get amplified in the midst of these arguments — of people who were never in favor of standards in the first place and never wanted to have any kind of testing or accountability, and those voices get amplified,” Reville declared.

…“Again, the argument about where it came from I think privileges certain sort of fringe voices about federalism and states’ rights, and things of that nature,” he told CNSNews.

“Why should some towns and cities and states have no standards or low standards and others have extremely high standards when the children belong to all of us?”

The errors here are manifold. Children do not belong to “whole communities,” “all of us,” or even their parents. Children are not slaves; they belong to no one. They have fundamental rights like any other person, some of which their parents have the responsibility to exercise on their behalf until such time as they can do so on their own.

But more specific to the issue of education, Reville’s argument is a befuddled mess. Many of those who oppose Common Core for “federalism” or “states’ rights” reasons would prefer tougher standards, so to say that they “never wanted to have any kind of testing or accountability” is simply untrue. The operative policy question is how best to ensure that the standards used are the most productive. As it turns out, centralization is a very poor method.

The benefit of having a multitude of standards, or allowing “some towns and cities and states have no standards or low standards and others have extremely high standards,” is that what a central planner like Paul Reville might think is a low or errant standard could well produce the greatest educational outcomes. After all, if we perfectly understood how best to education students the debate would be moot. Rather than fighting over a one-size-fits-all standard from central planners, we should let educators try different standards and see what produces the best results.

At the same time, if we realistically want to see real, effective standards develop then we need to reform the system to encourage innovation and experimentation. The way to do this is by embracing school choice and a true market in education.



January 2014



Notable Quotations

Written by , Posted in Education, Energy and the Environment, Free Markets, Government Meddling

Anthony J. Sadar, “A libertarian’s guide to climate change hype:”

After giving some much-needed perspective on scientists, Delingpole tackles “science,” observing that political activists discovered that science could be used “as a handy excuse to advance their agenda under the guise of studied objectivity. ‘Hey, it’s not because we’re a bunch of crypto-Marxist control freaks that we’re demanding higher taxes, more regulation, and the replacement of Western industrial civilization with a Soviet-style global command economy run by leftist technocrats. It’s because the science tells us that that’s what we need to do’.”

Ira Stoll, “Tech Innovation Outstrips Government Obstructionism:”

One recurring theme in successful startups is the ability to get around the regulations created by politicians like Obama. Companies are using technology to create a free market.

The foremost example of this is Uber, with its UberX service that turns ordinary drivers in their own cars into taxi drivers. Sidecar and Lyft operate on a similar model. A Boston lawyer who represented existing taxi services challenging the new entrants, Sam Perkins, told the Boston Globe, “SideCar and UberX have targeted Boston to make the guy next door and his Prius into an unlicensed taxi driver with an uninspected taxis and no safety equipment…Their goal is to eliminate the existing taxi system and its consumer protections.”

The government-imposed licenses, medallions, inspections, minimum wages, regulated fares, and “consumer protections” turn out to be replaceable, more or less, by an Amazon-style star-rating system and the incentives of independent drivers and ride-provider networks that want repeat business.

A. Barton Hinkle, “School Choice Foes Are Wrong:”

During [Michael Bloomberg’s] term, the number of charter schools in the Big Apple soared from seven to 123.

De Blasio, a left-wing ideologue, does not approve. His “idealism,” as The New York Times explains, was shaped by his time in Nicaragua, then controlled by the Sandinista revolutionaries of whom he became an “ardent” supporter. “They gave a new definition to democracy,” de Blasio once said. That they did: Their version of it included censorship, suspending civil rights, breaking up demonstrations and imprisoning suspected political opponents without trial.

No surprise, then, that de Blasio is taking out after charter schools—an innovation that has helped poor and underprivileged students by bringing a (very) small degree of personal choice to a system controlled by the state.



November 2013



Political Correctness Run Amok

Written by , Posted in Culture & Society, Education

There’s no doubt that societies change over time. In just the last half century or so we’ve witness a dramatic change in social norms and attitudes on a variety of issues (as documented first instance by this photography portfolio of vintage toys).

Not every change in this regard is good (though growing tolerance of diverse demographics certainly has been), and certain people and groups are prone to taking things to an absurd, politically correct, excess.

Appropriate attire for celebrating the  Non-Denominational Winter Solstice

Appropriate attire for celebrating the Non-Denominational Winter Solstice

Hallmark has decided that “gay” should no longer describe the holiday apparel that we don.

In defending itself, Hallmark pointed out that the lyrics for “Deck the Halls” were translated from the Gaelic way back when.  So the “gay” of the 1800s isn’t the “gay” of 2013.  Such “multiple meanings,” the company said in a statement, “could leave our intent open to misinterpretation.”

Words change, it’s true, but multiple meanings are common in the English language. The timeless nature of Christmas carols, furthermore, are a major part of their charm.

Hallmark has realized their silly mistake, and in the grand scheme of things such blunders are harmless.

More concerning are the efforts of radical ideologies to eradicate core American values:

According to prevailing progressive “wisdom,” success is just becoming downright… unfair. The University of Georgia’s Student Government Association (SGA) held an unusual “dinner and dialogue” during Social Justice Week in opposition to the notion of “success stories.”

The event “No More Success Stories: Dinner, Dialogue, Making A Difference” was scheduled for October 23rd (pace the flyer), and listed panelists for the “final event of Raise Your Hand for Equality!” Day at the U. of Georgia. The premise of the forum is that minority “success stories” diminish the stature of other minorities. The flyer, for example, features the openly gay CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper in the background, and poses: “1 in a Million Means 999,999 left behind.”

Efforts to de-emphasize the importance of success are not new, forming the basis of numerous misguided fads – such as grade-free schools, or sports without score keeping – of the government monopoly education system. These do a disservice to children, who are left unprepared for what is a decidedly competitive society. “Success stories” do not exist to make people feel bad; they exist to inspire. In life there often are winners and losers, and which you are is usually determined by how hard you work. No number of “dinner and dialogues” will change this truth, but fooling oneself into believing they can is not just silly, it’s dangerous.



March 2013



Is There a Fundamental or Unalienable Right to Homeschool?

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Education, Liberty & Limited Government

Do parents have the rights to educate their own children? That’s the question at the heart of an ongoing legal battle between the Obama administration and a German couple who sought, and were originally granted, political asylum in the US on the grounds that Germany’s ban on homeschooling was a violation of their rights, and that being forced to return home would subject them to persecution. Reason covered the issue rather thoroughly in this video:

After a judge originally granted the couple’s request, noting that Germany’s policy was “utterly repellent to everything we believe as Americans,” the Obama administration naturally stepped up to defend the indefensible, claiming that homeschooling is “not a fundamental right.”

This is an outrageous assertion. There are few rights more fundamental than that of parents to direct the upbringing of their children. The US Supreme Court has afforded parental rights the respect they deserve, noting in Pierce v. Society of Sisters that “the child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right and the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”

Given its views on power in general, I suppose it shouldn’t be all that surprising to see the Obama administration disagree. Parental authority is, after all, in direct competition with that of the state, and is an important and necessary check against the growth of tyranny. It’s no coincidence that a Nazi-era German law is at issue here. Affording the state the unique power to indoctrinate the next generation with its own propaganda, without competition or recourse, is a serious threat to basic human liberty, and is also why we need to do a lot more than the basic minimum of allowing home or private schooling in the US. We need to end government monopoly schooling across the country and replace it with a system of choice, not only to improve educational outcomes, but also in defense of our liberty.



October 2012



Overgovernment: No Free Learnin’ Edition

Written by , Posted in Education

Technology has made information more accessible than ever. It is also providing potential answers to the problem of exploding tuition costs and student loan debt. Which is to say, alternative education models are in the nascent stages. An example is Coursera, which offers free online courses from top universities. Who could object to that? Government, of course (Hat-tip: Reason):

Coursera offers free, online courses to people around the world, but if you live in Minnesota, company officials are urging you to log off or head for the border.

The state’s Office of Higher Education has informed the popular provider of massive open online courses, or MOOC’s, that Coursera is unwelcome in the state because it never got permission to operate there.

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education offered this clarification/explanation:

George Roedler, manager of institutional registration and licensing at the Minnesota Office of Higher education, clarifies that his office’s issue isn’t with Coursera per se, but with the universities that offer classes through its website. State law prohibits degree-granting institutions from offering instruction in Minnesota without obtaining permission from the office and paying a registration fee. (The fee can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, plus a $1,200 annual renewal.) That means that it’s Stanford, Columbia, Michigan, the University of Melbourne, et al. that are violating Minnesota law by partnering with Coursera to offer courses that Minnesota residents can take for free.

“It’s not like we’re sending the police out if somebody signs up online,” Roedler adds. “It’s just that the school is operating contrary to state law.”

The law’s intent is to protect Minnesota students from wasting their money on degrees from substandard institutions, Roedler says. As such, he suspects that Coursera’s partner institutions would have little trouble obtaining the registration. He says he had hoped to work with Coursera to achieve that, and was surprised when they responded with the terms-of-service change notifying Minnesota residents of the law.

Setting aside that free courses still don’t fall within the scope of this argument, Minnesota apparently regards its citizens as morons. The plebes are simply too stupid to evaluate the quality of institutions without guidance from their government betters.

But what makes anyone think government knows how to evaluate institutions for quality better than potential customers? As is so often the case with licensing and registration schemes, the government is serving the role of protector of  established business interests at the expense of industry newcomers. The side effect of this approach is the suppression of innovation.



May 2012



Everyone is Wrong on Student Loans

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Education, Free Markets

In an otherwise decent speech where he called out the Democrats’ political gamesmanship, Speaker Boehner said that, “Nobody wants to see student loan interest rates go up.” It’s certainly true that the entire political class is united on continuing to subsidize borrowing for higher education, but last time I checked there are more people in existence than just politicians. I, for one, want to see student loan interest rates go up.

I have nothing against student loans, the students who borrow them, or the general idea of borrowing money to receive an education that is expected to provide greater future value than the costs. But the reality is that many today are borrowing more than they can afford and which isn’t justified by the value added.

The federal government is the biggest supplier of student loans, accounting for 90% of all borrowing in the 2010-2011 academic year. Because they are heavily subsidized, student loan interest rates are lower than would otherwise be offered by the market, which means students are taking out more and bigger loans than they otherwise would. This is the intended effect of the policy, but is it a good one?

One result has been skyrocketing tuition costs, as colleges simply raise tuition rates to capture any increases in government financial aid. As the below chart from Dr. Mark J. Perry shows, college tuition growth has considerably outpaced medical care and home prices over the last 30 years.

While the costs of obtaining a degree have ballooned, their value has plummeted. As degrees become increasingly common, their usefulness in signaling diminishes. Degree-holders just aren’t as special anymore, and having a degree no longer conveys the same kind of information to potential employers as it used to.

Meanwhile, the actual educational benefit of obtaining a degree are also decreasing. Colleges are increasingly failing to teach the most basic knowledge and skills, opting instead for obscure courses focusing on identity politics and which have little to no practical value in the real world.

All the trends point toward a massive higher-ed bubble, and with an ever growing number not paying off their loans it’s likely to blow up in taxpayers’ faces.

What exactly the necessary steps are to reverse these trends, I do not know. Part of it is political, and involves removing federal distortions from the lending market. But part of it is cultural. Many see college attendance not as a time to take in as much knowledge as possible, but a rite of social passage that requires doing in excess all manner of social activities. It would be a good start if society – whether it be parents, teachers, politicians or popular culture – stops mindlessly repeating the trope that everyone must go to college. Universities were not designed for everyone, and not everyone will benefit meaningfully from the experience. Some would be better off in trade school, others in the work force gaining an extra 4 years of experience on their peers, while some are simply ready to strike out on their own. But whatever it takes to resolve the issue, this is a major problem that is only going to become increasingly salient for both society and the political class.



February 2012



Another Reason to Support Walker

Written by , Posted in Education, Labor Unions

Gov. Scott Walker’s reforms in Wisconsin aren’t just important for their fiscal impact. Keeping teacher’s unions from getting too strong also prevents nonsense like this:

They’ve slapped around students, ripped off taxpayers and boozed it up in the classroom — and they’re all still employed as city public-school teachers.

A review of nearly 100 disciplinary hearings from 2011, obtained by a Post Freedom of Information Law request, shows the city had to fight tooth and nail to remove lawbreaking, abusive teachers — terminating a paltry 31 percent of the 70 charged with misconduct.

And the city could dismiss only 12 of 26 teachers who were brought up on charges of incompetence — which is driving a push by Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg for new teacher evaluations.

Or how about this guy:

Alan Rosenfeld — a 66-year-old disgraced typing teacher — hasn’t taught since he was accused of making  inappropriate comments and leering at 8th grade girls in 2001, but still collects $100,049 a year from the city, the New York Post reports.

This is what teacher’s unions are really fighting for: the power to be unaccountable. They are never, as they claim, in it for the children.



December 2011



United Judicial Fiefdoms of America

Written by , Posted in Education, The Courts, Criminal Justice & Tort

It is hard to square the American ideal of representative government with this sort of news:

Denver District Court Judge Sheila Rappaport ruled in Lobato v. Colorado that the state’s funding system fails to provide the “thorough and uniform” education required by the constitution. She called the system “significantly underfunded,” even though Colorado now spends $3.2 billion, or about 45 percent of the $7 billion annual state budget, on K-12 education.

“There is not enough money in the system to permit school districts across the state to properly implement standards-based education and to meet the requirements of state law and regulation,” Judge Rappaport wrote in her Dec. 9 opinion. “There is not one school district that is sufficiently funded. This is an obvious hallmark of an irrational system.”

That’s funny, as I consider a singular, unelected judge determining it is her sole responsibility to set budget priorities as the hallmark of an irrational system.

I have 3 fundamental problems with this ruling: 1) It’s not the judge’s place to make such a determination, 2) Colorado education spending per pupil is in fact increasing, and 3) more spending has not worked in the past to improve education, and it won’t today.

While it can certainly be said that it was stupid of Colorado to include something as vague and meaningless in their Constitution as a requirement for “thorough and uniform” education, the responsibility to fulfill such a requirement is still necessarily legislative. Under what authority does this local judge imagine that her policy preferences outweigh those as expressed by the voters of Colorado, whom have already voiced their preferences for the spending of scarce resources? Consider the madness that would erupt if her petulant demands were actually carried out, and then tell me again what part of all this is irrational:

How much would it take to fund the state education system? The judge declined to name a dollar figure, but in her 189-page decision she cited a study introduced by the plaintiffs that called for an additional $2 billion to $4 billion per year.

That would require the state to devote 89 percent of the general fund to K-12 education, according to estimates by the attorney general’s office…

“I suppose you could basically shut down every other discretionary thing in the state budget,” said Independence Institute research director David Kopel on Friday’s edition of “Colorado Inside Out” on Colorado Public Television.

“We could get rid of higher education, get rid of the Colorado state patrol, get rid of every social service program we have in order to throw money into this sinkhole that Judge Rappaport pretends is mandatory under the constitution,” he said.

Unfortunately, this sort spontaneous judicial excitement is becoming increasingly common, hence the title of this post.

As you can see below, Colorado’s education spending, like that of the rest of the country, has been increasing steadily over time, even after being adjusted for inflation.

Will additional increases in spending actually help improve the quality of education? If history is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding no:

If this judge were actually serious about accomplishing her goal, she’d order the immediate abolition of the government’s monopoly on education.