Sunday, February 13, 2011

The State of the State of the State

Over at Ethics Alarms a couple of days ago, Jack Marshall excoriated those who took seriously and propagated as if true an obviously satirical story about Sarah Palin supposedly saying that she’d deport Christina Aguilera for botching the lyrics to the National Anthem at this year’s Super Bowl.

I agreed. Even by Palin’s standards, those comments were absurd. Any reasonable reader would at least be suspicious enough to notice that word “comedy” in both the headline kicker and the site’s URL. And condemning Ms. Palin for what she didn’t say is foolish at best and unethical at worst. But, as I said in a comment on the Ethics Alarms post, “[s]ometimes politicians (of all political stripes) say things that are stupid enough to seem to be satire.” And that, my friends, is the cue for Governor Rick Perry’s State of the State address.

OK, let’s just take as given that about all I share with the governor are a first name and a (current) home state. We’re not going to agree on much politically. That happens. And some of the comments below reflect a simple difference of political, economic, and pedagogical priorities. But some go beyond that, suggesting that Governor Perry is a). lying, b). dumber than dirt, or c). flat-out insane.

I cite in their entirety his comments on higher education, a topic I flatter myself that I know something about, having been a professional in that field for over thirty years. The indented block quotes are Mr. Perry's; the comments with “normal” margins, mine.
On the higher education front, we've experienced enrollment growth over the last two years higher than any time in Texas history. Our public institutions had 200,000 more students enrolled in 2010 than they did in 2008, so let's be sure those students and their families are getting the best value for their time and money.
So value wasn’t as important two years ago?
Change does not come easily or naturally to these big institutions, but it is critical to educational effectiveness and efficiency. Back in September of '09, I ordered a review of cost efficiencies at our universities as a way to make education more affordable.

One idea that emerged from that process is called "Outcomes-Based Funding" in which a significant percent of undergraduate funding, would be based on the number of degrees awarded. Texans deserve college graduation for their hard-earned tax dollars, not just college enrollment.
Well, the most obvious way to make education more affordable is to increase, not slash, state appropriations to educational institutions. That would reduce the amount of money universities would need to make from tuition, thereby lowering costs to students. This is not to say that there isn’t some streamlining that could in fact make the higher education more economical without reducing quality. There isn’t an intercollegiate athletics program in the state that breaks even, for example. (N.B.: the foregoing statement, while true, is intended purely as snark, not as a serious proposal, although the fact that I have to say this certainly indicates where the sacred cows are, and they’re not in classroom learning, the library, faculty salaries, the arts…) But with greatly reduced state funding, universities already need to cut muscle rather than fat just to break even, let alone reduce costs.

If there is an idea stupider than Outcomes-Based Funding, I haven’t heard it. What this proposal ultimately says is that we really don’t care if our workforce has any skills, as long as they have diplomas. While this provision might conceivably prompt admissions offices to enforce the standards they claim to uphold, which would certainly be a good thing, the pressure would be far greater on administrations to graduate students who, frankly, don’t deserve a degree. Inevitably, that pressure is transferred to faculty: “I know Johnny the History major said the American Revolution happened in 1941, but really, when you think of it in geological terms, he was actually pretty close. So give the lazy little moron a passing grade, or we’ll hire someone who will.” It’s a variation on the “everybody gets a ribbon” mentality that values self-worth over actual achievement. I always sort of thought of this particular manifestation of soft-headedness masquerading as soft-heartedness as more of a liberal failing than a conservative one. No, huh?

This kind of thinking is already far too prevalent. Texans do not “deserve college graduation for their hard-earned tax dollars.” They deserve college graduates who know something: about their major subject, about the world of ideas, about life in general. And students who actually earn a degree deserve to have it mean something. Ironically, of course, we are also in the age of assessment. I’m already spending literally dozens of hours a year—time that could otherwise be spent preparing for classes, working with my advisees, advancing my research, or (gasp!) reducing my work week below 55 or 60 hours—preparing essentially meaningless statistics to justify that which ought to require no justification. That I know of no one in my business who just does a Fox News and makes these numbers up is little short of a miracle.

In other words, especially for a university like the one where I work—not a flagship, in other words—we are structurally encouraged to reward mediocrity at every step of the process. It may be the admissions office who admitted the kid with an 11 ACT and a felony conviction (yes, I had a student not long ago who met both of those criteria), but it’s not their fault—or indeed the student’s—if the kid flunks out. It’s the faculty’s, at least in the parallel universe inhabited by Rick Perry. And here I was thinking the Republicans were the party of personal responsibility, and of “equal opportunity, not necessarily equal results.”
As families continue to struggle with the cost of higher education, I am renewing my call for a four-year tuition freeze, locking in tuition rates at or below the freshman level for four years.
Brilliant. “You have more students than ever before, and we’re cutting your state funding, so let’s also prevent you from raising funds virtually any other way.” No, I do not believe that throwing money at a problem necessarily solves it. But when streamlining the budget means classrooms are over-crowded, when the library can’t stay current with new publications, when faculty leave (or don’t come) because the salaries that are already miniscule compared to those of professionals in other fields with equivalent training and intellectual demands are cut—these are signals of calamity, not economy. I do, by the way, support the option of allowing universities to offer such pledges—as my doctoral institution does—as a recruiting tool. But, given his rhetoric on the health care bill, no one should understand better than Governor Perry the difference between allowing and requiring, or between that which is decided upon locally and that which is imposed by government.
As leaders like Senator Zaffirini search for more low-cost pathways to a degree, it's time for a bold, Texas-style solution to this challenge, that I'm sure the brightest minds in our universities can devise. Today, I'm challenging our institutions of higher education to develop bachelor's degrees that cost no more than $10,000, including textbooks.
OK, here’s where the governor needs to check in with the known universe, although I understand that the roaming charges for such a venture would add another couple of billion dollars onto the deficit his policies went a long way toward creating. These are the comments of someone who knows nothing about the cost of education, nothing about the ancillary benefits expected by students and parents (computer centers, free counseling services, infirmaries, etc.), and certainly nothing about the cost of textbooks. I don’t have specific numbers to back up my claim, but I strongly suspect it’s a very conservative estimate to suggest the average course has over $100 in textbooks; many (and I do mean many) cost three or four times that. Even this low-ball number, however, translates into over $4000 just in textbooks over the course of a baccalaureate degree.

And, NEWSFLASH: universities have virtually no control over the cost of books. True, we might be able to choose the terrible $80 book instead of the good $120 book, but quality really does matter, and books are expensive. I know of literally no one in my profession who doesn’t try valiantly to keep the textbook costs to students from being even more outrageous than they are: not merely comparison shopping for texts, but also, for example, using web-based sources like Google Books for texts that have entered the public domain. But while such strategies may work in some courses (I’ve done this twice already in Asian Theatre this spring, for example), it doesn’t work so well in, say, Physics, where a five-year-old textbook is already out of date.

If the proceeds went to the authors, that would be one thing. But the majority of that profit margin goes to Governor Perry’s friends in Big Business: the publishers, the transport companies, the chain bookstores. (Sidebar: my dissertation advisor co-wrote one of the standard textbooks in our field. He showed me his annual royalty check once: $141 and change. Somehow I suspect the publisher did a little better than that, or the book would never have been reprinted.) Curiously enough, however, there was no gubernatorial call for McGraw-Hill, UPS, or Barnes & Noble to cut their profit margins to help those poor, struggling Texas families be better able to afford a university education.

That leaves us with $6000 to cover tuition and fees for four years. The fees mount up, of course, because states across the country have figured out ways of financing big-ticket construction projects (both the student center and the rec center at my university, for example) on the backs of future students. Library fees are another common scam: the library doesn’t actually get all the income, and students enrolled in overseas programs are still expected to pay. Nice racket. Figuring $100 a semester, or $800 over four years, for unavoidable fees, often for things that should have already been paid for by the state, would be a conservative estimate.

So: $5200 for 120 credit hours. The current tuition structure for the University of Texas varies from college to college, but the cheapest, Communication, costs $4646 for a single long semester, or $37,168 for eight such semesters. Of course, if you happen to take five years’ worth of 12-hour loads instead of four years of 15-hour loads, it’ll run you $46,460. But let’s go with the lower figure. For the governor’s idea to come to fruition, there would need to be cuts totaling 86%! True, it wouldn’t hurt us as much: we’d only have to cut about 64%. Easy-peasy. Of course, this doesn’t factor in the reduced income from cuts in the state allocation.

In other words, Governor Perry is living in Cloudcuckooland (I’d be happy to explain the reference to him, as I suspect Aristophanes has never been on his reading list). True, this rhetoric is consistent in some respects with the inane “trickle down” economics Republican snake oil salesmen economists have been selling for 30 years: deficits created by lack of income aren’t really deficits (unless we can use them as an excuse to eliminate programs that help the 98% instead of the 2%, of course), tax cuts stimulate the economy (despite mountains of evidence that all they do is increase the wealth disparity), the only legitimate programs are those which can be quantified, unless a). there’s reams of evidence about, say, the economic value of the arts and we choose to ignore it, or b). we’re talking about religion Christianity Fundamentalist Protestantism.

But the degree of the inanity in this particular proposal dwarfs the merely logically insupportable and becomes a nightmarish dystopia in which no means yes, and where we have always been at war with Eurasia. (I’d be happy to explain that reference, too, Mr. Perry.) This proposal is beyond silly, beyond mere political posturing, because it could never happen.

Well, actually, it could. We could choose the kind of system that the UK supported quite well for generations until they decided to let the bankers and the war profiteers take over their country. We could, in other words, actually create a meritocracy, and put our (tax) money where our mouth (instead of our trigger-finger) is. But the idea that Rick Perry’s policies would take us in that direction is the stuff of hallucinogens, not satire. His suggestions make as much sense as decapitation as a weight-loss strategy.
Let's leverage web-based instruction, innovative teaching techniques and aggressive efficiency measures to reach that goal. Imagine the potential impact on affordability and graduation rates, and the number of skilled workers it would send into our economy.
Ah, yes. Web-based instruction, this year’s pedagogical panacea. You know those assessment reports I complained about earlier? About the only thing they’ve actually shown us over the past however many years I’ve been doing the damned things is that students in web-based courses don’t do as well as those in face-to-face environments on either objective tests or response papers. And it’s not the instructor, who has taught (and taught well) in both structures.

Twenty years or so ago, before there was such a thing as the internet (or at least before the general population knew anything about it), the trend of the future was going to be distance learning. I remember going to a conference and hearing a particularly impassioned speaker tell us that “whether you like it or not, distance learning professionals are meeting in Detroit [or wherever it was] this very week to talk about ways of offering more courses through their programs.” I raised my hand and asked, “why do they have to meet?” I made both friends and enemies in that three seconds, but the point remains: even the distance learning people recognize the need for person-to-person, in-the-same-room interactions. And if it wasn’t Detroit, it was someplace similar, as opposed to Orlando or Las Vegas or Honolulu: they weren’t using their conference as an excuse for a resort vacation.

This is not to say that there aren’t uses for distance learning, for the web, and for technologies yet undiscovered. But the physical presence of the professor in the classroom is still going to be a required part of any educational system in which quality matters, not just in my field, but across the curriculum.
Speaking of skilled workers, we have a ready source of technical skills living among us that too often goes untapped. Countless Texas veterans receive top-level training in the military, but have a hard time getting credit for their knowledge and skills when they return to civilian life. We should support what one school calls "College Credit 4 Heroes."

With the support of Senator Van de Putte, the Texas Workforce Commission is working with Higher Education Coordinating Board and our community colleges on a plan to offer veterans credit for their skills & experience. The goal is to accelerate them into the Allied Health Occupations, which are critically needed across our state, and offer immense opportunity to these brave men and women.
Apart from the gag-inducing name of the program at whatever school that is, there’s actually some potential here. But, again, quality matters. I can certainly see that someone trained as a medic in the military might be able to transfer those skills into, say, a nursing career, and shouldn’t be expected to start at square one to do so. The same would hold true for a number of other military specialties in areas like supply, communications, and security. But there’s not a lot of call for missile-launchers in the private sector (I hope!), and smearing on camouflage grease for a night mission doesn’t mean you should get credit for a course in stage makeup. I’m skeptical of the idea of pushing veterans—or anyone else—into the health field if that’s not where they want to be: it could be bad for them and for their clients alike. But here, at least, is a proposal that isn’t freaking ridiculous on its face. Perhaps there is solace there.

To recap: diplomas = skills. Low graduation rates are the product of poor teaching, not possibly of lazy or stupid students who are actually being held to a standard of competence (I started to say “excellence,” but there are a whole lot of not excellent students getting degrees all the time). Cutting well over half of a student’s cost of education while at the same time slashing universities’ income (and hence their ability to make up the loss of tuition revenue) will actually improve the quality of higher education. Wow.

Regardless of how bad an undergraduate paper is, I try desperately to find a way to give it a passing grade. If I can look at myself in the mirror and swing a D-, I’m going to do it. That last point, about finding legitimate ways to recognize what veterans learned during their service? Not bad. But the speech was already irredeemable. F.

1 comment:

Daniel Gambill said...

Incredible. I completely agree. The fact that he was elected... again... and again... and so on is beyond me... but then again look at who he was leutenant govenor for...

I appreciate the fact that there is at least someone else out there that is not a blind supporter...