John Kerry Speaks!


At many colleges and universities across this great land of ours, graduation weekend has just passed. Amid the festivities and regalia and good-hearted celebration, that meant the return of one of our most dreaded civic traditions: the commencement speech. For those fortunate enough to have avoided these in recent years, the commencement speech has become the chief opportunity for would-be public intellectuals to spout truisms and feel even more self-important than usual.

Case in point: one of this site’s favorite bloviators, John Kerry. Invited to speak at Yale’s Class Day, presumably on the strength of his sterling undergraduate record, Kerry produced a masterpiece of vacuity, making a case for how urgently the students needed to trust their “instutitions,” by which he meant the government. In addition to the expected lame jokes and the kinds of cultural references that dads make to try and pretend they’re still cool, Kerry indulged in his habitual verbal offenses:

  • word salad, such as rallying students to “galvanize action to recognize felt needs” (translation: “we need to spend lots of money meddling with people”);
  • doublespeak, such as “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade.” (translation: “especially meddling with people in other countries”);
  • bumper stickerism, such as “None of our problems are without solution, but neither will they solve themselves” (translation: “our meddling can solve anything”); and
  • dubious assertions, such as “Participation is the best antidote to pessimism and ultimately cynicism” (translation: “never doubt even for a moment that meddling isn’t the right thing to do”).

Thing is, by graduation-weekend standards, Kerry’s speech is only half bad—I’ve survived much worse. What’s happened this year that has given me hope is students finally getting fed up and fighting back. At a number of schools, the student body banded together to reject the speaker being foisted on them. This move has brought howls from the sorts of writers who hope themselves one day to deliver commencement addresses. But why submit yourself to listening to a half hour from an architect of the Iraq War, like Condoleeza Rice, or a defender of forceful police coercion against nonviolent student protestors, like Robert Birgenau, if there’s any alternative? Graduations are a time for students to celebrate with friends and family, a chance to reflect on years past and look forward to years future. Nothing about that requires the importation of big-name outside speakers—especially those whose fame depends on the degree to which they’ve intruded themselves into the lives of others.

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Universities Are Not Walmart


Just recently, the e-zine ran a piece bearing the provocative title, “The Walmart-ization of higher education: How young professors are getting screwed.” It wins my prize for the most bizarre think-piece of the year.

The author, Keith Hoeller, considers the move in higher education to replace tenure-track professors with lowly adjuncts. To him, this is apparently as shocking as it is surprising.

He begins by noting that various surveys of workers show that tenured professors are a pretty happy bunch. They average over $90,000 a year in total compensation, for only nine months work, and they report low levels of job stress, high levels of job satisfaction, and so on. This is hardly a surprise. Getting tenure means never having to hear “you’re fired.” Tenured professors are virtually immune from termination, no matter how poor their job performance.

The first strange thing about Hoeller’s article is that it isn’t reporting anything new. The shift from highly-paid tenured professors to lowly-paid adjuncts has been going on for decades. The article’s deeper flaw its author’s use of Walmart as a slur.

Yes, Walmart uses a lot of part-time labor, as do most other retail and service industries. (The frequency of part-time work is increasing rapidly as the full implementation of that crazy-quilt law called ObamaCare grows nigh). But the resemblance ends there. Walmart, so despised by bien pensant literati, has succeeded in lowering its prices dramatically, on a vast array of consumer goods, and has done so since its inception. Walmart saves the average American family — all American families, including those of elitists who refuse to shop there — something like $2,300 per year. Its costcutting measures, including of course labor-saving measures — which go way beyond using part-time labor — have benefitted all consumers with lower prices and better goods, and Walmart investors with a good return on their money.

Walmart, Target, Costco and so on continue to deliver more for less, while the higher education system business only continues to deliver less for more.

In stark contrast, colleges have systematically screwed their consumers and investors. Consider first the consumers, i.e. students. During the past few decades, they have seen their tuition rise much faster than inflation — while the service rendered has steadily deteriorated. The deterioration takes the form of watered-down courses, degrees in vacuous subjects, and rampant grade inflation. Over the past decade in particular, students have had to run up huge amounts of loan debt getting degrees that have proven worthless in terms of career placement.

The investors in these colleges, the taxpayers (for public schools) and the donors (for private ones), who have seen graduation rates dwindle and the employability of recent college grads — only 56% of whom are in jobs appropriate to their training — plummet, are also being swindled.

The Hoeller piece doesn’t address the damning context of the increased use of academic part-timers: the fact that such savings in labor costs have not even slowed the explosion of costs to the students, and the fact that the services rendered have dropped in quality. The proximate cause is, of course, administrative bloat.

Bloat is the focus of a recent article by Jon Marcus of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Marcus reviews a report from the Delta Cost Project (also reviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education) on the rapid growth in college administrative staff. Marcus reports that the growth in the number of college administrators has greatly exceeded the growth in both the number of students and the number of faculty. Over the past 25 years, colleges and universities have increased the number of their administrative staff by 517,636. During that time, the ratio of nonacademic employees to faculty has doubled. We now see two non-academics for every tenure-track or tenured professor at public universities, and a ratio of two and a half to one at private colleges.

Growth in this area is especially strong at the central offices of public college and university systems. For example, the headquarters of the California State University system has a separate budget that exceeds the budget of three of its campuses!

Marcus cites economist Robert Martin making the point that so eluded Hoeller: “While the rest of the economy was shrinking overhead, higher education was investing heavily in more overhead.” Walmart, Target, Costco and so on continue to deliver more for less, while the higher education system business only continues to deliver less for more.

Marcus notes that in constant dollars, tuition and fees have nearly doubled at private four-colleges, and nearly tripled at public four-year colleges, over the last quarter-century. And during this period, the ratio of part-time to full-time faculty has gone from about one-third to about one-half.

Naturally, administrators have a reply: they claim they are delivering more value to the consumers (students) and principals (taxpayers and donors) by creating and expanding offices for security, counseling, technology services, “sustainability,” disabled student services, and especially “diversity.” But skeptics rightly reply that these services don’t seem to have resulted in objectively measurable favorable outcomes. For example, over the past decade, Marcus notes, the percentage of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees — which can be completed in four years — and actually getting their degrees within six years has risen only slightly (from 55% in 2002 to 58% in 2012).

In constant dollars, tuition and fees have nearly doubled at private four-colleges, and nearly tripled at public four-year colleges, over the last quarter-century.

And several economists cited in Marcus’ piece made the obvious point that universities, to the extent they even need many of these services, could easily outsource them. As Robert Martin put it, “You can hire outside firms, on a contract basis, with competitive bidding. All these activities are a distraction from what the institution is supposed to be doing.”

What is causing the exploitation of adjuncts and the explosion in student fees is at base the same thing: a severe case of the principal-agent problem.

The managerial agents at American universities — the administrators — have achieved virtually total power over the institutions they manage, so much so that they view themselves as the true principals (owners). Of course, they’re not — the principals are the taxpayers, the donors, and the tuition-payers. But the administrators seldom see it that way.

Until this problem is solved, you can expect to see administrative bloat continue apace, enabled by the burgeoning ranks of the adjuncts — and by higher tuition, which is in turn fueled by the federal student loan program, a government program run amuck.

In fine, the American university system is as dissimilar to Walmart as you can get. Walmart has not been shafting its customers through management bloat, higher prices, poorer service, and lousier products, all fueled by massive federal subsidies. The American university system has.

Growth in this area is especially strong at the central offices of public college and university systems. For example, the headquarters of the California State University system has a separate budget that exceeds the budget of three of its campuses!

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Why Choose Less?


A recent story in the WSJ caught my eye, since it bears on a topic that is of much practical importance but hasn’t been much investigated. The issue is: why do college students choose the majors they choose?

As I have reported elsewhere, there is now a detailed economic study about what students of various college majors earn later in life. Not surprisingly, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors do better financially than, say, humanities majors. But this study only confirmed what was widely understood all along. It’s not as if students (and parents) hadn’t already understood the disparity of incomes, ranked by major.

But this recent WSJ piece reports that students are picking the easier majors, even though they know that those majors offer lower financial payoffs. It tells the tale of one young Chinese American who enrolled at Carnegie Mellon as an electrical and computer engineering major, only to switch to a major in psychology and policy management (whatever the hell that is!). Psych majors average about $38,000 a year less than computer engineering grads. She explained her decision by saying, “My ability level was just not there.”

The authors raise the issue of whether the continuing bad economy will persuade more students to major in the STEM subjects. But the trend hasn’t been good in that regard. From 2001 to 2009, while the number of college grads increased by 29%, the number of engineering grads only increased by 19%, and those with computer science degrees actually dropped 14%.

In fact, the full stats are even grimmer. As the estimable Sol Stern has recently noted, over the last 50 years, technological innovation was responsible for over half of all American economic growth. However, bachelor’s degrees in engineering (awarded to American students, not foreign nationals) peaked in 1985 and have dropped ever since. We are now down 23% from that peak. Only 6% of American college students major in engineering, compared with 12% in Europe and Israel, not to mention the 20% level in Japan and South Korea. We are near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to the percentage of college grads with STEM degrees.

Returning now to the WSJ article: it notes that one problem is the perceived disparity in difficulty between STEM courses and those in the humanities and social sciences. Ms. Zhou found that she went from earning C’s and B’s in engineering to A’s in psychology. There is nothing new here, of course. Students have noticed for decades how much easier it is to score much higher grades for much less work in non-STEM majors. Science and math majors average three hours more per week in study time. That difference may seem trivial, but students are increasingly less inclined to work. The article notes that the average time students spend studying has dropped by half since 1960.

It also notes, with evident approval, the efforts of some STEM departments to stem attrition by “modifying” their classes to make them — what? more palatable? — to students from other majors. In his class for liberal arts majors, one computer science prof cut down on the theory component in favor of practical programming. Now 85% of the students pass. What his pass rate was before this, the story doesn’t say. Presumably lots, lots lower.

Whether any of this constitutes dumbing down the subject, the story also doesn’t say.

It is also silent about what to my mind are the biggest issues here.

First, to what degree are humanities, social science, education, and other non-STEM departments inflating grades to attract students, or — given the pervasiveness of leftist thought in those departments — out of a loopy egalitarianism? Grade inflation, no less than monetary inflation, is a profound pricing problem.

Hayek and Kirzner urged us to understand pricing as a language. In a free market, if something fetches a low price, it tells the producer not to produce so much of it. I think that grading is pricing. If a student has to work and winds up with low grades, the grades are telling him that he may need to work still harder, or find another major. The STEM instructors are just doing their jobs and telling the truth to students.

But if (as I suspect) the grading standard has been inflated by many non-STEM professors, they are doing something immoral: they are lying to students about their real abilities. If I give A’s to all my philosophy students, I’m telling them that they are excellent at a subject, when most are not. I may encourage them to pursue a career when they shouldn’t, or — more to the point — not pursue a career they should.

Second, to what extent is this problem another example of the dismal failure of America’s public K-12 educational system — a failure that ramifies into the post-secondary educational system? I have suggested elsewhere that part of the reason many employers look to hire college grads for jobs that really require only a high school education is that a high school diploma from most urban public school districts no longer means a thing in terms of basic educational competence.

If students are switching to easier subjects, might that not be because so many of even the most technically talented young people were so badly instructed in math and science during K-12 that they face extra challenges learning the introductory college-level material? Similarly, if these students were never forced to work diligently in grade school or high school, might this not be the reason why they flee majors that require hard work, and in fact are studying less than ever before in college?

All of this is as disquieting as it is ignored by the mainstream media.

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Crony College Capitalism


In several earlier articles in this journal, I began examining the theory and practice of crony capitalism — that peculiar form of statism that ostensibly embraces free enterprise, while arranging for government to control the major economic enterprises by means of its favored supporters (its “cronies”). I suggested that this form of statism is common in failed socialist states, such as Russia, and neo-socialist ones, such as the United States.

Much attention has been paid, by me and others, to the crony car and crony green energy capitalism so artfully practiced by the current administration. But there are many other flavors of crony capitalism. In a recent piece, for example, I touched on what you might call the Obama regime’s crony drug capitalism. Now let’s turn to a flavor that isn’t often noticed. It is what we might term “crony college capitalism.”

Besides studying Saul Alinsky, President Obama has apparently studied Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist theorist who urged his fellow Marxists to go into education, the better to turn regular schools into training grounds for future radicals. Since its earliest days, the Obama regime has been concerned with extending its power in the realm of college education, giving economic rewards to college teachers and students, who are overwhelmingly Obama supporters.

The working class was once a mainstay of the Democratic Party coalition. The new Democratic Party will consist of statist-inclined college educated groups.

Indeed, a recent piece in the New York Times suggests that Obama’s reelection campaign strategy now explicitly recognizes that it has to give up the white working class, except the tiny 7% that is unionized, hence able to contribute largely to the campaign. The working class was once a mainstay of the Democratic Party coalition. The new Democratic Party will consist of statist-inclined college educated groups such as professors, teachers, school and college administrators, therapists, lawyers, librarians, social workers, artists and designers, and their numerous dependents, along with key ethnic minorities.

You can see this calculation at play in Obama’s recent decision to kill the Keystone XL pipeline. The decision cost tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs, but it mightily pleased the environmental lobby, disproportionately college educated folks of statist mindset.

The tactics the Regime is using to corrupt higher education policy for its own benefit are the same it has used elsewhere: identify cronies, expand the size and scope of federal subsidies to them, and expand the size and scope of regulation to attack the cronies’ competitors. More succinctly, the Regime’s crony capitalist game in higher education is — as it is everywhere else — one of rewarding supporters and attacking their (and hence its) enemies.

Start with the rewards for the cronies. One of the Regime’s major “educational” initiatives was its socialization of the student loan industry, which happened just two years ago. A troika of key Regime players — Obama, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) — ended private funding of government-backed student loans (the most common student loans), under the theory that the private lenders (read: banks) were greedy, i.e., only after profits, and not truly interested in helping students achieve a decent education. Government, of course, is run by people incapable of greed, and motivated entirely by their concern for others.

The scheme included the usual outrageous accounting trick. Sympathetic congressmen claimed that by nationalizing student loans, they would “save” $87 billion over 11 years. In the same way, nationalizing GM and Chrysler has “saved” billions, and Obamacare will “save” even more. At the time, the CBO had dutifully scored the savings at $87 billion, but the Director of the CBO, Douglas Elmendorf, had signaled Congress (in a letter to Senator Judd Gregg) that the scoring did not reflect the risk that defaults could be higher than projected. But the Regime pushed its phantom “savings” with a straight face. It even used them to write down part of the costs of Obamacare and justify an expansion of educational Pell Grants (about which more below).

You can see this calculation at play in Obama’s recent decision to kill the Keystone XL pipeline, a decision that cost tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs.

A posteriori experience from the student loan nationalization confirms what a priori economic reasoning would naturally suggest: the government generally runs things less efficiently than the private sector does. The Department of Education now reports that the default rate on student loans has surged by about one-fourth, from 7% in 2008 to 8.8% in 2009. Worse, because of another government accounting trick, these figures are deceptively low. The government loan program has options that allow some students to pay less that they really owe (these options are euphemistically called “income contingent” and “income based” repayment plans).

Besides rewarding its likely supporters with student loans, the Regime moved to expand the Pell Grant program — to double its funding, in fact. And it is resisting the efforts by the Republicans in the House of Representatives to rein in the program by requiring that recipients have a high school diploma or GED(!).

As a consequence of these policies, and the fact that in deciding who gets student loans the government doesn’t bother looking at the students’ assets or credit histories, the aggregate amount of college student debt has risen dramatically — up by 25% over the past three years, a time, please note, during which Americans generally reduced their personal debt load by 9%. Student debt now exceeds total consumer credit card debt. It now tops $1 trillion.

Of course, the Regime has revealed a solution for the problem it helped so much to create. It proposes to roll forward a law that helps college students mitigate and even get out of their student loan debts. Under current law, students must make monthly payments of 15% of discretionary income, with the balance of their loans forgiven after 25 years. (“Forgiven” means, of course, that the taxpayer eats the remaining cost of a college degree that mainly benefits the degree holder personally.) A law passed by Congress in 2010 and scheduled to take effect in 2014 will drop payments to 10%, with the balance of the loan forgiven after 20 years. Obama now wants this to take effect starting next year — which just happens to be his re-election year.

This is all on top of an existing program that allows students who enter “public service” (read: students who go to work for government or other nonprofit agencies — both areas in which employees tend overwhelmingly to vote Democrat) to have their loans forgiven after only 10 years. All of these “forgiveness” programs are projected to cost the treasury $575 million a year — quite unforgiving for the taxpayer.

Moreover, Obama is now proposing that students be able to combine their older (pre-Regime-takeover), federally-backed private loans together with the new government loans under a new lower interest as well as under the new rules.

All this is obviously aimed at buying the votes of all college students, but especially appealing to the ones whose degrees — say, in social studies, humanities, ethnic studies, women’s studies, and so on — make it likely they won’t earn high enough salaries to pay off the loans in 20 years.

Of course, complete student loan debt forgiveness is a prominent demand of the Occupy Wall Street protesters (those foot-soldiers of the welfare state so conspicuously embraced by the Regime), and a sizable proportion of students generally. One “We the People” petition on the White House website calling for total student loan forgiveness already has more than 32,000 signatures, and a similar petition on “” has garnered 640,000 signatures. You can bet Obama is after those votes.

Government, of course, is run by people incapable of greed, and motivated entirely by their concern for others.

How has the higher education business reacted to the increased amount of money it can now extract from students — because the higher education business can now extract more from government? The reaction has been predictable, from the economic point of view. Colleges have dramatically increased their tuition and fees. The costs of higher education have risen even faster than the costs of health care, which is widely viewed — even by the Regime — as out of control. Lavish funding for students has college administration and staff — another of the Regime’s core constituencies.

A recent report shows that just year, in-state tuition and fees for four-year public universities jumped by 8.3% on average, to a new high of $8,244. Private colleges saw tuition and fees jump by 4.5% on average to a new high of $28,500. (The state universities, at least, had to contend with a cutback of state support.)

The notion that increased federal funding of higher education has fueled its explosive growth in costs is the focus of a fine report by Neal McCluskey and Vance Fried, put out by the Cato Institute. The authors point out that profits at colleges — public and private, for-profit and non-profit — have escalated during the past three decades. They calculate the current costs in two different ways. They first is the “buildup" method, in which the researcher adds up all the input costs — professors’ compensation, administrators’ compensation, utility costs, etc. The second is the “internal accounting” method, which uses the actual accounting numbers furnished by colleges (numbers that few states make available, if you are talking about public colleges).

The authors find that both methods yield roughly the same result, about $8,000 a year at an average residential college.

Tuition figures are readily available. Using 2008 figures, tuition for a full-time student averages about $13,500 at a private 4-year college. This is a profit of $5,500 per student — or about a 40% margin. Add in charitable donations into the college endowment targeted for teaching, and the profit margin is even higher.

Moreover, they estimate that the margins at public universities are roughly the same, when you factor in the state subsidies (paid by the taxpayers) along with the tuition (paid by the students and their parents).

The high profit margins are the result of colleges jacking up their charges over the past 30 years. McCluskey and Fried note that even in constant dollars (i.e., correcting for inflation), average tuition and fees have gone up 300% during that time.

In what other industry do you see this sort of price inflation? On the contrary, in private industry, (real) price reduction is the norm. Prices of computers — even prices for laser eye surgery — have dropped dramatically over the years. But in the massively subsidized college business, which has seen its direct government subsidies — as well as the subsidies given to students — rise dramatically, price gouging has become the norm. The authors note that federal aid to students has gone up by an astounding 400% over the last three decades.

As the ever-prescient Glenn Reynolds recently put it, “When the government subsidizes something, producers respond by raising prices to soak up as much of the subsidy as they can. Colleges are no exception.”

Why is it not obvious to the average taxpayer that college costs are exploding precisely because of the generosity of that selfsame taxpayer? I confess that I find this psychological mystery even more interesting than the economic issues I have been addressing.

Certainly, part of the problem is the rational ignorance spoken about in public choice theory: ordinary citizens are being screwed by greedy rentseekers, but those citizens remain uninterested, because of the asymmetry of self-interest involved. Each one of them loses only a relatively small amount of assets, while the rentseekers in the higher-ed business stand to make out like bandits. Even now, after the massive increase in federal and state funding of our increasingly dysfunctional K-12 public schools system, and its colossal and consequent failure (as evinced on international tests), the public is reluctant to institute deep changes, such as universal school choice.

The default rate on student loans has surged by about one-fourth, from 7% in 2008 to 8.8% in 2009. Worse, these figures are deceptively low.

Besides the normal rational ignorance of citizens, however, I suspect another reason. People who are usually critically aware have their senses dulled by the very concept of “nonprofit” institutions. I notice this phenomenon in my business ethics classes. It seems almost analytically true to the average student (and by extension, the average person) that in a nonprofit business, there should be no “principal-agent” problem. That is, since the people who created the institution are not in it for profit — unlike the despicable money-grubbers in private industry — their employees must also be devoted solely to delivering the service that the principals intended, instead of ministering to their own self-interests.

In the case of public and nonprofit private colleges, the service to be rendered is primarily student education (and to a lesser degree, research for the benefit of the people generally). The principals are the founders (in the case of private colleges), the taxpayers (in the case of public colleges), the donors, and the students (and parents) who pay tuition. The principals expect the agents — the college professors, administrators, and staffs — to work to achieve the service goals of the principals.

But the principal-agent problem (which is the problem of getting self-interested agents to do what is intended by the principals) is no less acute when the principals are presumed to be altruistic (as are the taxpayers and donors) than when the principals are themselves clearly self-interested (as are the owners of a for-profit business).

What the agents of the nonprofits typically do is just what the agents of profit-seeking enterprises do — continuously seek to expand their compensation, while diminishing their workload. They try for smaller classes, higher salaries, better retirement packages, more grants, fancier equipment, plusher offices, more research assistants, more student aides, more secretaries, more assistant deans, more time off, more holidays, more sabbaticals, more time attending professional conferences, and easier tenure requirements.

I have noted elsewhere one manifestation of this phenomenon: the explosion of the number of college administrators. Not only has the number of administrators at nonprofit colleges gone up, their pay has, too. For instance, in a major piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out that 36 nonprofit colleges had compensation packages well over $1 million in 2009. In its survey of 519 private nonprofit colleges, the Chronicle found that the median total compensation was $385,000.

This delusion that nonprofits are immune from greed helps explain the flip side of crony college capitalism, the Regime’s war against for-profit colleges, institutions that the Regime’s supporters in the academy universally despise.

The Regime has conducted a long, deliberate struggle with these colleges (especially chains such as Westwood College and National University). When the Regime controlled Congress, the attack took the form of “hearings” into the biggest chains. The “hearings” were essentially show-trials, exposing the for-profit colleges for being, well, profit-seeking. The people in charge obviously thought — or pretended to think — that the colleges were inferior, and sought out cases of consumers who claimed to have been harmed by being students there. These testifiers told sad tales of running up large loans getting worthless degrees.

In the massively subsidized college business, which has seen its direct government subsidies rise dramatically, price gouging has become the norm.

This sham show was just polemical tactics. The congressmen on the attack never once called students from public and nonprofit private colleges to testify about the student debts that they had run up while pursuing degrees that never got them jobs. I mean, it’s not as if we couldn’t find students who had accumulated big debts at, say, a California state university (where the presidents sometimes earn salaries in the $400,000 range) to acquire degrees in various unemployable subjects — women’s studies, say, or sociology. The Regime could have found plenty of such “victims,” of this I can assure you.

But a crony capitalist jihad — like any other jihad — is always directed at one group on behalf of another group, to wit, the cronies who inspire and sometimes fund the jihadists.

In crony college capitalism, these are primarily unions, especially teachers’ unions (and allied guilds, such as the American Association of University Professors). These cronies despise for-profit colleges, not merely on philosophic grounds, but because their faculties are non-unionized. To put this simply: they fear the growth of these enterprises in the way that Teamsters fear the expansion of Wal-Mart. For example, the AAUP has strongly attacked for-profit colleges, and called for dramatically increasing regulation of them.

The cronies don't care whether there is any greater pattern of "abuse" at for-profit colleges than at supposedly eleemosynary ones. If they wanted to find that out, they could do detailed observational studies that ruled out confounding variables (by correcting for ethnicity, income-level, and asset bases of parents, SAT scores, and high-school GPA), and see whether similar graduates from for-profit colleges fared any worse on the job market than graduates of nonprofits.

Also in the attack on for-profit colleges are trial lawyers. One notorious example is Florida attorney Chris Hoyer, who is suing Westwood College now, and looking at suing at least seven other for-profit colleges. Hoyer is a donor to the Regime, of course.

Naturally, however, the Regime’s Department of Education has plans to strengthen regulations governing for-profit colleges — yet another way of aggrandizing the federal government, at the expense of yet another part of the economy.

We can put an ironic cap on this discussion by noting a recent report out of the House of Representatives. It points out that over the past decade, while tuition has increased 4.5% at nonprofit private schools, and a whopping 8% at public colleges, it has gone up only 3.2% at for-profit colleges. This competitive edge would be reason enough for the Regime's desire to protect its cronies.

For the record, I think the government-backed student loan program should simply be ended. It is encouraging students to take on debt for degrees that have a dubious payoff, and creating thereby a massive moral hazard: a constituency of people who want to burn the taxpayer by not paying back the loans in full. Moreover, these government loans help inflate college costs pointlessly for all students.

Instead, let all college loans be between private lenders and individuals, with no tax dollars at risk, and with self-interested lenders using their judgment in lending money, knowing that if they loan to incompetent students or for unusable degrees, they may find that the students can’t pay and will discharge the debt in bankruptcy.

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Cesspools of "Education"


As readers of this journal know, I like to highlight work being done by classical liberal thinktanks. A recent piece by the estimable George Leef of the John William Pope Center for Higher Educational Policy affords me the opportunity to do so. It touches a topic about which I have written myself.

The topic is the dirtiest, darkest secret in American education: the general weakness of university education departments, through which pass most future teachers. These departments effectively control the teacher credentialing process in most states. They are truly cesspools of educational mediocrity.

Leef reviews a paper by an economist, Cory Koedel of the University of Missouri. Koedel conducted a detailed analysis of the grades given in education department courses, and we are all shocked — shocked! — to find grade inflation rampant.

Koedel found that profs in education departments award good grades to virtually all their students. In many ed school classes, all “students” receive As. It’s Carrollean: all the kids are winners, so all must have prizes. Koedel notes that this was recognized as a problem half a century ago. And I recall reviewing a book back in 1987 (Education’s Smoking Gun, by Reginald Damerell), a book that excoriated ed departments as hopelessly obstructionist and patently useless. But given the continuing decline of American students in the international rankings, this matter seems worth addressing with renewed interest.

Koedel notes that one reason for the easy grading is that there is no market discipline to check it. If an engineering department routinely gave As to even the most incompetent students, the market would punish it—very soon, its graduates would simply not find jobs. But no such discipline faces incompetent education school grads.

Of course, if we privatized the public school system by voucherizing all the schools, there would suddenly be market discipline. But I won’t pursue that topic here.

Leef adds a second reason for the fact that grade inflation is especially rampant in ed departments: they are ruled by an ideology that includes the view that the role of the teacher is to impart self-esteem directly to the student. Ed profs are merely being consistent — making their students feel good by shoveling the As at them.

I have no doubt that a big part of the problem with ed schools is a loopy leftist ideology, a kind of aging hippie Weltanschauung that worships books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It’s no surprise that when Bill Ayers decided he wanted to stop waging revolution and start working for wages, he became an ed school prof.

But I suspect that another part of the problem is simple ignorance about how to instill self-esteem. Alas, ed school profs don’t read Aristotle (he is, after all, a really dead white male). His view is one that the best teachers instinctively hold. It is that the way to create self-esteem is not to try to instill it directly, but instead to help each student develop his potential, his virtues; and from the exercise of his virtues he will get his rightful self-esteem. If you have a student who has ability at, say, math and music, encourage her to develop those abilities as far as she can, and from the mastery of those subjects will flow her self-esteem.

I am grateful to Leef for pointing out something of which I was unaware. Japan — a country where student performance has traditionally been excellent — has no ed schools. All teachers must actually get an undergraduate degree in an actual academic subject, and then find a teacher with whom they can apprentice, to learn the mechanics of the profession.

This raises the intriguing question of whether we could implement such a system here. Certainly something like that is being done by the group Teach for America, which takes Ivy League graduates in solid subjects and just gives them a course in the mechanics of classroom instruction. Its graduates are highly sought after.

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Unsolicited Advice


The current state of our union has generated many opportunities to share libertarian perspectives on the economy, the constitution, and civil rights; but until I picked up the January-February issue of the Atlantic, I hadn’t seen much opportunity for sharing the libertarian outlook on social and personal relations. In that issue’s book review section there was a piece (no pun intended, you’ll get it as you read along) called “The Hazards of Duke.”

The article, by Caitlin Flanagan,loosely discussing several works (Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, andThe Company She Keeps), disparages Duke University (rightly in many ways), discusses alcohol consumption by young women, and pontificates about differences between male and female perspectives on sex. But its main focus (and the lens through which it views the preceding list) is on a relatively recent internet sensation — Karen Owen’s F*** List — a graduate’s mock senior thesis about her sexual escapades with 13 Duke athletes (“officially” titled — “An Education Beyond the Classroom: Excelling in the Realm of Horizontal Academics”).

Flanagan presumes a great deal about Karen Owen and her thesis, telling us much more about her own attitudes than about Owen. Shedivines Owen’s motivation — revenge on the men who discarded her — tagging it as a theme for women through the ages. She also identifies direct causes for Owen’s actions. For example, she cites a letter to Duke’s school newspaper, written in response to Owen’s thesis, and the surrounding controversy, by sorority members distancing themselves from Owen. According to Flanagan, this “served to underscore the disdain that the actual Karen Owen seems to have engendered in her fellow students, whose closed social system offered her no safe harbor.”

After reading Owen’s “brief communications with the press,” Flanagan contends that it’s hard to believe Owen’s claim that the email she sent to “only three friends” was not for public consumption, but it’s “not at all hard to believe that Owen had only three friends in college.” She then weighs in on Owen’s mental and emotional state: “The overwhelming sense one gets from the thesis is of a young woman who was desperate for human connection, and who had no idea how to obtain it.” The author further laments that poor treatment by one of her early partners “broke [Owen’s] heart and her spirit” and sent her on a self-destructive path.

That’s a lot of presumption.

The article describes a Fox News segment, hosted by Megyn Kelly, discussing Owen’s thesis. Not trusting the author for objective description, I watched the Fox News clip online. The segment included Kelly and two other female legal commentators. After discussing Owen’s possible financial motivations, Kelly said, “I gotta go off topic from the law because I have two beautiful women here who are college and law school graduates. What could she be thinking? First of all, she slept with 13 guys. . . . . I personally, reading this, was disgusted.” One commentator responded, “Disgusted, yeah. She’s dirty. Yeah, I don’t like it at all. I was like ‘Oh my God,’ this is so unbecoming.” After more banter, Kelly said, “I can tell you, having dated the captain of the lacrosse team at Syracuse, men do not respect women who do this.” She added, “You may sleep with half the lacrosse team. They don’t think that’s a great thing. They don’t talk about how great you are. They talk about what a joke you are. So that’s a word to the wise.” Thanking her guests, Kelly closed by saying, “This has nothing to do with the law, but my own unsolicited advice for young women. Don’t sleep around. Don’t be easy. It’s not empowering. It’s embarrassing. You will be the butt of men’s jokes. You will not be respected and you may be humiliated as this woman is now.”

That’s a lot of condemnation.

I looked up Owen’s “thesis” online and found what appeared to be the original power-point on YouTube. Reading it, I did not see the “little girl lost” who was discovered by Flanagan. I just saw someone who was objectively, and at times humorously, evaluating sexual partners from her college years. I was not the only one to see a discrepancy. Looking online for’s interview with Karen Owen, I discovered that a good number of posters, and the reporter who talked with Owen after her list went viral, took Flanagan to task for her many assumptions.

I believe I can identify several different perspectives on this.

The liberal perspective. Flanagan’s theme is clear. Karen Owen was a victim of an alpha-male, athlete-loving, cliquish, misogynist university culture. Her sexual exploits were not her own. Her desires were shaped — nay, deformed — by careless man-boys and a patriarchal system that coddled them. This is not her fault. Duke’s system failed Owen. It “offered her no safe harbor.” Owen deserves our pity. Something must be done, so other girls don’t suffer her fate.

The conservative perspective. Megyn Kelly’s commentary and advice are representative, and painfully traditional. She admits that her advice was unsolicited, yet she was compelled to give it, and keep giving it. It was advice laden with well-wornresentments and prescriptions for proper social and personal behavior for young ladies. It was imparted to viewers as if Mrs. Cunningham were having a serious talk with her daughter on “Happy Days.” Owen is not a good girl. She’s a bad girl. “She’s dirty.” What Owen did was wrong, immoral, disgusting. No self-respecting, young lady does that. It is bad, bad, BAD! SHAME!

Liberals say it’s not her fault. Conservatives say it’s all her fault. Both conclude that Owen is unfortunate. One scolds. One patronizes. Both warn: don’t act this way. It’s bad!

Now, I am no fan of Duke or its athlete-loving culture, but it’s clear from Owen’s own writing that she chose to do certain things with certain people. And she admits enjoying most of her liaisons. There is no accusation of rape or sexual assault, which are criminal acts. There is no blame to be borne here. Though I am a feminist, I do not share Flanagan's sentiments. The Duke University system did not fail Owen. It owed her little beyond an undergraduate education. As for the earnest advice from Ms. Kelly, it is paternalistic, and the shaming aspect is obnoxious. It’s what prompts so many non-Republicans to shout, “Get out of our bedrooms!” And to what purpose did Kelly cite the beauty of her guests? I graduated from college and law school and am now in the dissertation stage of a Ph.D. program. If I tell you what I look like, will that lend any more or less authority to this reflection? Moreover, Kelly’s claim of insight gained by dating the captain of the Syracuse lacrosse team is laughable. Nowhere in her thesis does Owen make any claim that what she was doing was dating. As to Kelly’s traditional invectives against Karen Owen and her exhortations not to sleep around and not be easy, that’s a decision for each individual adult woman to make for herself. Besides, there are two sides to that coin. As Mae West said, “When women go wrong, men go right after them.”

So now, a libertarian perspective. Entering college, Karen Owen was likely 18 years old — old enough to vote, old enough to go to war, and old enough to experiment in various social behaviors. Her thesis does not represent a giant step backward for women, or a giant step forward either. It is simply one individual’s description and humorous assessment of her past activities. It is nothing more, nothing less. As to the other people involved in those activities, they deserve no sympathy because of the publicity she gave them. They, as individuals, each chose to engage in sexual activity with Ms. Owen. If any of them are unhappy that Owen disclosed those activities, every choice has consequences, good or bad. If Owen wants to discuss or analyze these acts, she is free to do so. As are they. While such “postgame analysis” may be in bad taste, there is no law against it, nor should there be. It is simply an additional risk to the already risky act of the college hookup in the internet age.

Though I did not fully appreciate it in my youth, as a mature libertarian I value the advice my father always gave me about social and personal situations: “Be discreet.” He did not mean secretive. He meant that you should think about what you do, and with whom you do it, because all actions have consequences, some quite unwelcome. That’s good advice, solicited or not.

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Rewarding Yale-ness


I thought I already knew what was wrong with US News’ rankings of “Best Colleges,” so I was slow to reach for Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece in the New Yorker, The Order of Things” (Feb. 14 and 21). But (to use our past president’s wonderful locution), I misunderestimated Gladwell’s contribution, a portion of which I will share here.

People who follow higher education know that US News’ rankings rely heavily on inputs, not outputs (e.g., not the learning the schools impart but the amount of resources spent), and that they use estimates of reputation for a good part of the ranking (22.5%).

But the problems with US News’ rankings apparently go deeper or at least are more complex. Gladwell argues that it is impossible to come up with a single ranking of heterogeneous institutions (as US colleges are) on multiple dimensions — as US News tries to do — without making “implicit ideological choices.” He says that those choices mean that schools that enable more students to get better educations are always going to be low on the list.

To be specific: universities that currently rank in the middle of US News’ list can’t improve their rankings, for two reasons. A University of Michigan sociologist who studies rankings has found that the university presidents who take the reputation survey (some are expected to “evaluate” more than 200 peer institutions) depend heavily on the existing US News rankings for their evaluations! In other words, the reputation process is circular.

Second, student selectivity swamps measures of effectiveness. Here’s how it happens. US News does have what Gladwell calls an “efficacy” measure, “graduation rate performance.” Since graduation rates depend largely on the selectivity of the incoming students, this measure “compares a school’s actual graduation rate with its predicted graduation rate given the socioeconomic status and the test scores of its incoming freshman class.”

If the graduation rate is higher than expected, the difference raises a school’s score, because the school is graduating more students than would get through on the basis of selectivity alone. (There might be some question about this as a measurement of efficacy, but that’s not my point right now.)

The problem, says Gladwell, is that “no institution can excel at both.” For example, Yale is so high on the selectivity scale (it’s ranked first among national universities) that its “predicted graduation rate” is 96. Thus, its efficacy rate can’t be more than four, and it’s actually two. In contrast, Penn State, which has the lowest ranking of the top 50 national universities, is not as selective as Yale. But it does very well on the graduation measure; its expected graduation rate is 73% and its actual graduation rate is 85%, giving it an “efficacy” score of 12, the highest in the top 50.

But US News gives twice as much weight to selectivity as to efficacy — a completely arbitrary choice and, according to Gladwell, the wrong measure in terms of social benefit (although from the perspective of the student seeking prestige, it may be the right choice).

Finally, the rankings leave out price. Although Gladwell doesn’t recalculate the top 50 universities with price as a factor, he does so with law schools, since an Indiana University law professor has conveniently laid out the chief US News criteria in a spreadsheet. The expected schools are there, led by the University of Chicago, Yale, and Harvard. If Gladwell makes price a factor and gives it equal weight with the US News’ other criteria for law schools, two new schools pop up on the list. The upstarts are Brigham Young University and the University of Colorado.

Gladwell suggests that a school should be rewarded for being affordable, but this is beyond the pale for US News. As a result, says Gladwell, “the Yales of the world will always succeed at the US News rankings because the US News system is designed to reward Yale-ness.”

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