Tag Archives: Education

Performance Based Funding & Social Mobility Index

Once upon a time, the animals gathered together to decide which of them was the very best. After some deliberation and braying, barking and squawking of opinions, the wisest of the animals realized that they would need a set of standards to decide the best.

All the animals readily agreed, even the grumpy wolverine. A horse raised the question of what standards to use and each animal rushed to answer. The wisest animal quickly restored order and said that each animal should speak in order as selected by drawing lots. The animals recognized this as fair, though the lion did make some noises about the prerogatives of royalty.

Cheetah went first and stated that the only sensible standard was speed in a sprint. The bat went next, insisting that the ability to fly in the dark and hang upside down were the only sensible measures. And so each animal proposed standards that suited them best. Each was enraged when its standard was not accepted and this is why, to this day, that animals no longer speak to each other.

Rankings are very important to academic institutes—and not just in regards to their sports teams. Colleges and universities battle in the academic rankings for the prestige, to impress parents into sending their kids to schools befitting their rank, and to justify those sweet administrative salaries. Some schools are also forced to engage in the blood sport that is performance based funding. My university, Florida A&M University, is one of these schools.

As I have noted in previous essays on performance based funding, Florida A&M University (FAMU) has fared poorly under the standards imposed by the state legislature. To be specific, FAMU has been ranked last since 2013. The punishment is, of course, a reduction in funding. In contrast, the University of Florida has been winning this contest by a significant margin, thus enjoying the fruits (and cash) of victory. The University of South Florida placed second and the University of Central Florida placed third.

The standards used for performance based funding are, I have argued previously, unfair. I will not argue this point here, but will note that the standards used are obviously not the only ones that can be used to rank a university.

One interesting way to rank colleges and universities is to consider one of their historical purposes: to enable social mobility through education. As many others have argued, education has long served as a key means of social mobility. The idea that people can rise from humble (that is economically disadvantaged) beginnings through a college degree has long been a part of the mythology of the American Dream.  It is certainly a part of my family story. The rhetoric of politicians is also heavily laden with words praising and calling for upward mobility and success. Given the importance of social mobility in traditional American values, mythology and rhetoric, it seems reasonable to consider that an important measure of a university’s success.

Conveniently enough, CollegeNET has created a Social Mobility Index that ranks schools in terms of weighted assessment of tuition, the economic background of students, the graduation rate, early career salary and the endowment of the institution. Roughly put, the better a school does in regards to social mobility (enabling people to move upwards via education) the better its SMI.

While FAMU is ranked last by the state’s performance based funding standards, it ranks 19th in the United States in terms of its SMI. FAMU ranks well because 52.8% of the students are low income, the tuition is relatively affordable ($5,785), and the median early career salary is a respectable $45,900.  68% of the freshmen have Pell Grants and 77.8% of them are lower income students. On the minus side, FAMU has a graduation rate of 40.9% and an endowment of only $80 million.

As I argued in previous essays, the low graduation rate can be accounted for by social factors, especially economic ones. Somewhat ironically, FAMU is regarded as a poor performer by the state for the same reason it does exceptionally well at social mobility: it has a majority of low income students and does a good job assisting them upwards—and this is in despite of the tremendous obstacles presented by economic factors and the impact of past and current racism. Since the state standards do not account for the challenges faced by low income and minority students, pursuing a mission that aids social mobility condemns FAMU to the bottom of the state ranking. To use an analogy, if you are trying to help people up from a deep cave with a rope that is being steadily weakened, then it would hardly be a shock if not everyone made it into the golden light of the sun. Yes, I just used a metaphor I stole from Plato.

Interesting enough, the undisputed winner of the state’s performance based funding, the University of Florida (UF), is ranked #260 in terms of its SMI. This is not because it is a bad school—quite the contrary, it is a very good school (unlike my Florida State brethren I have little football animosity against the Gators and can give them their due praise).

UF has an exceptionally good 86.5% graduation rate, reasonable tuition ($6,263), a good median early career salary ($49,500) and an impressive endowment (over a billion dollars). These facts might lead one to wonder why UF is ranked so far behind FAMU. The main reason is that only 11.2% of UF students are low income. Only 29% of UF students are Pell Grant recipients, but 60.8% of them are not lower income students. As such, UF excels at assisting upper income students to become upper income graduates. It does however, very little in regards to social mobility.

The success of UF is hardly surprising—just as economic disadvantage decreases a student’s chance of graduating and likely income, an economic advantage increases a student’s chance of graduating and the likelihood of a good income. To use an analogy, UF is pulling people along a level ground with an ever stronger rope—this is ever so much easier than pulling people out of a deep cave.

There is, obviously enough, nothing wrong with UF helping the relatively well-off remain relatively well-off. In fact, this is laudable. There is, however, something wrong with basing funding on performance standards that ensure schools with low percentages of low income students will excel and thus garner the rewards while schools that contribute to social mobility (and thus face lower graduation rates) will have what little they receive reduced.

As might be suspected, the second place school in the state ranking (the University of South Florida) is ranked #72 by SMI. It has 33% low income students and a 63.2% graduation rate. The state’s third ranked school (University of Central Florida) is ranked 53 by SMI. It has 27% low income students and a graduation rate of 67.2%.

A look at the data for the schools shows a not surprising correlation between the percentage of lower income students and the graduation rate. As such, the relatively low graduation rate of FAMU and the relatively high graduation rate at UF are not aberrations. They are exactly what should be expected due to the impact of economic class on student success.

As discussed in a previous essay, it has been suggested by some that FAMU can improve its ranking by changing its approach to admission. If FAMU lowered the percentage of low income students, it could increase its graduation rate. This would also impact other standards—people who are already from the higher economic classes are more likely to get jobs and more likely to get better paying jobs. This would, however, negatively impact FAMU’s rank in terms of social mobility—instead of assisting people out of the lower economic classes, FAMU would simply be engaged in keeping students in the higher economic classes, thus condemning lower income students to remain in the lower income class.

Someone more cynical than I might claim that the state ranking system is intentionally designed to punish schools that assist in upward mobility and reward schools for maintaining the economic status quo. This, some might say, is part of a broader economic ideology that favors abandoning the less-well off and maintaining a rigid class system and whose words about opportunity are but empty sounds. The less cynical might say that the state system is merely pragmatic—in the face of intentional cuts by the state to the education budget, the remaining funds must be spent wisely on those likely to succeed. These just happen to be those who are already well off, rather than those who are in the lower income classes. Helping the successful stay successful makes good sense and helping those who need help is too much of a risk. After all, if we are pulling people along level ground, then they will almost all make it. If we are pulling people out of a cave, they might not all reach the light of day. Better to just leave them in the darkness, right?


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The Value of Public Universities

One stock narrative in the media is that the cost of attending college has skyrocketed. This is true. There is also a stock narrative that this increase, at least for public universities, has been due to the cutting of public education funds. This certainly is part of the truth. Another important part is the cost of sustaining the every-growing and well paid administrative class that has ensconced (and perhaps enthroned) itself at colleges and universities. I will, however, focus primarily on the cutting of public funds.

The stock media narrative makes it clear why there was a cut to public education spending: the economy was brought down in flames by the too clever machinations of the world’s financial class. This narrative is, for the most part, true. Another narrative is that Republican state legislatures have cut deeply into the funding for public education. One professed reason for this is ideological: government spending must be cut, presumably to reduce the taxes paid by the job creators. A reason that is not openly professed is the monetization of education. Public universities are in competition with the for-profit colleges for (ironically) public funding, mostly in the form of federal financial aid and student loans. Degrading, downsizing and destroying public education allows the for-profit colleges to acquire more customers and more funding and these for-profits have been generous with their lobbying dollars (to Republicans and Democrats). Since I have written other essays on the general catastrophic failure that is the for-profit college, I will not pursue this matter here.

A third openly professed reason is also ideological: the idea that a college education is a private rather than a public good. This seems to be based on the view that the primary purpose of a college education is economic: for the student to be trained to fill a job.  It is also based on what can be regarded as a selfish value system—that value is measured solely in terms of how something serves a narrowly defined self-interest. In philosophy, this view is egoism and, when dignified with a moral theory, called ethical egoism (the idea that each person should act solely in her self-interest as opposed to acting, at least sometimes, from altruism).

Going along with this notion is the narrative that certain (mainly non-STEM) majors are useless. That is, they do not train a person to get a job. These two notions are usually combined into one stock narrative, which is often presented as something like “why should my tax dollars go to someone getting a degree in anthropology or, God forbid, philosophy?”

This professed ideology has had considerable impact on higher education. My adopted state of Florida has seen the usual story unfold: budget cuts to higher education, imposition of performance based funding (performance being defined primarily in terms of training the right sort of job fillers for the job creators), and the imposition of micro-managing assessment (which is universally regarded by anyone who actually teaches as pure bullshit) and so on.  When all this is combined with the ever-expanding administrative class, it becomes evident that public higher education in America is in real trouble.

At this point most readers will expect me to engage in my stock response in regards to the value of education. You know, the usual philosophical stuff about the unexamined life not being worth living, the importance to a democratic state of having an educated population and all the other stuff that is waved away with a dismissive gesture by those who know the true value of public education: private profit. Since I have written about these values elsewhere, I will not do so here. There is also the obvious fact that the people who believe in this sort of value already support education and those who do not will almost certainly not be swayed by any arguments I could make. Instead, I will endeavor to argue for the value of the public university in very practical, “real-world” terms.

First, the public university is important for the defense of the United States. While private, non-profit institutions do rather important research, the public universities have contributed a great deal to our defense technology, they train many of our officers, and they train many of the people who work in our intelligence agencies. Undermining the public university weakens the United States in ways that will damage our national defense. National defense certainly seems to be a public and not just a private good.

Second, large public universities are centers of scientific research that has great practical (that is, economic) value. This research includes medical research, physics, robotics, engineering and all areas that are recognized as having clear practical value. One sure way to ensure that the United States falls behind the rest of the world in these areas is to continue to degrade public universities. Being competitive in these areas does seem to be a public good, although it is obviously specific individuals who benefit the most.

Third, large public universities draw some of the best and brightest people from around the world. Many of these people stay in the United States and contribute a great deal—thus adding to the public good (while obviously benefiting themselves). Even those who return home are influenced by the United States—they learn English (if they do not already know it), they are exposed to American culture, they make friends with Americans and often develop a fondness for their school and the country. While these factors are hard to quantify, they do serve as advantage to the United States in economic, scientific, diplomatic and defense terms.

Fourth, having what was once the best public higher education system in the world gave the country considerable prestige and influence. While prestige is difficult to quantify, it certainly matters—humans are very much influenced by status. This can be regarded as a public good.

Fifth, there are the obvious economic advantages of a strong public higher education system. College educated citizens make more money and thus pay more taxes—thus contributing to the public good. While having a job is certainly a private good, there is also a considerable amount of public good. Businesses need employees and people need doctors, lawyers, engineers, psychiatrists, pilots, petroleum engineers, computer programmers, officers, and so on. As such, it would seem that the public university does not just serve the private good but the public good.

If this argument has merit, it would seem that the degrading of public higher education is damaging the public good and harming the country. As such, this needs to be reversed before the United States falls even more behind the competition.

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The Challenge of Attendance

I recently attended a meeting discussing the use of Blackboard Analytics as a tool for student retention and improving graduation rates. Last year I had attended multiple meetings on the subject of classes with high failure rates and this had motivated me to formalize what I had been doing informally for years, namely generating a picture of why students fail my classes. While my university is still implementing Blackboard analytics, I have gathered information from my classes and my students which has enabled me to get a reasonable picture of the failure rates, attendance rates and the reasons for failure and absences.

Not surprisingly, the new data still supports the old data in regards to correlation between a student’s attendance and her grade. Students who do fail (D or F) tend to have very poor attendance.  I have also found that attendance has grown dramatically worse in my classes over the years. This is not based on the usual complaints of the old about the youth of today—I have stacks of rumpled attendance sheets that provide actual evidence. Based on conversations with other faculty, the same is true of other classes.

Interestingly, while students who have good (A or B) grades tend to have good attendance, relatively large numbers of students are able to pass (C) despite poor attendance (missing more often than not). Perhaps they would have done better if they had attended more, but perhaps not.

Reviewing my gradebooks has shown that the main cause of failure is a combination of not completing work and getting failing grades on much of the work that is completed. The most common pattern is that a student does not complete 2-3 of the five exams, and fails some or all of the exams he does take. Somewhat less common is a student having passing grades on completed work, but not completing enough work to pass the course. This most commonly involves students who pass the exams and quizzes, but simply never turn in a paper. In some cases, students do pass the exams they take, but fail to take 2-3 of them. Interestingly, I have not had a student fail by completing and failing everything—the students who fail always leave some of the work undone.

In the days before Blackboard, students faced the challenge of coming to campus to take exams and turn in papers or assignments at specific times. In those days, I routinely had make-up exams and took papers late (when accompanied by appropriate documentation, of course). When Blackboard became available and reliable, I thought that I could address this problem by using Blackboard: students could take exams and quizzes and turn in papers and assignments at any time of day from anywhere they could get an internet connection. I also offered (and offer) very generous deadlines for the work so that students who faced difficulties or challenges could easily work around them.

While this did eliminate make-up exams and many problems with the papers, the impact on completion of work was less than I expected. In fact, class performance remained approximately the same as in the days before Blackboard. On the plus side, this showed that cheating had effectively been countered. On the minus side, I had hoped to significantly reduce the D and F grades resulting from people not doing the work.

While it is certainly tempting to regard the use of Blackboard as a failure in this regard, I do have some indirect reasons to think that it helped. As noted above, the attendance in my class (and those of others) has crashed. Despite this, the averages in my classes are remaining constant. One possible explanation is that the students would be doing worse, but for their ability to do the work in a very flexible manner. An alternative is, of course, that they are missing class because they can do the work on Blackboard. However, faculty who do not use Blackboard also consistently report attendance issues and generally have higher failure rates (based on general data regarding classes). So, I suspect that my use of Blackboard is doing some good, at least in terms of retention and graduation.

Naturally, I did wonder why students have been missing class. I have been conducting a study using a basic survey for one year.

Over the year, I had 233 responses.  Interestingly 71% reported attending at least often, with the largest percentage (25.8%) claiming to attend 80-90% of the time. 24.9% claimed to attend 90-100% of the time. As might be suspected, this self-reported data is simply not consistent with my actual attendance records. This can be explained in various ways. One obvious possibility is that students who would take the time to respond to a survey would be students who would be more likely to attend class, thus biasing the survey. A second obvious possibility is that people tend to select the answer they think they should give or the one that matches how they would like to be perceived. As such, students would tend to over-report their attendance. A third obvious possibility is that students might believe that the responses to the survey might cause me to hand out extra points (which is not the case and the survey is anonymous).

In regards to the reasons why students miss class, the highest (by far) self-reported reason is still work. While this might be explained in terms of students selecting the answer that presents them in the best light, it is consistent with anecdotal evidence I have “collected” by overhearing students, speaking with students, and speaking with other colleagues. It is also consistent with the fact that many students need outside employment in order to pay for college-work schedules do not always neatly fit around class schedules. If this information is accurate, addressing the attendance and completion problem would require addressing the matter of work. This could involve the usual proposals, such as finding ways to increase support for students so they do not need to work (or work as much) in college. It might also involve considering some new or alternative approaches to the problem. I suspect, but cannot prove, that my adoption of a heavily online approach has helped with this problem—students can complete the work around their work schedule, rather than trying to get work done at fixed times that might not match the needs of their workplace.

Of course, I also need to consider that it is this online approach that is contributing to the attendance issue. While 28.8% of students reported work as their primary reason, 15% claimed that the fact that the work is on Blackboard was the primary reason they missed class.  Since the graded coursework is completed and turned in through Blackboard, a pragmatic student who is focused primarily on simply getting a grade as a means to an end would see far less reason to attend class. Since the majority of college students now report that they are in school primarily to get a job, it makes sense that many students would take this approach to class.  However, there is the obvious risk in this pragmatic approach: as noted above, low attendance tends to correlate with low grades, so students who skip the class on the assumption that they can just do the work on Blackboard might not do as well as they could and might get far less from the course—that is, just a grade.

Based on this information and other findings, Blackboard is still a double edged sword. On the one hand, it does seem beneficial precisely because students can do the work or turn it in more conveniently and around the clock. On the other hand, using it as the sole means for turning in work does allow students to skip class while still being able to do the work. What still needs to be determined is which edge cuts more. Given the above discussion, I believe that while the use of Blackboard does lower attendance, it also allows students to complete work around their work schedules. As such, I suspect that it has generally been positive in terms of the purely pragmatic goal of maintaining or even improving retention and graduation. Of course, this claim is counterfactual: if I had not adopted the online approach, then the grades of the students would have worsened.

As noted above, my university is adopting Blackboard Analytics and this will provide the data needed to conduct a proper student (as opposed to an unfunded project using surveys and data from just my classes). Students today are, obviously, different from when I was a student and professors need to adjust to the relevant differences—one key challenge is finding out what they are. I have made some guesses, but better data would allow better decision making.


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Teleowork of the Future

While people have been engaged in telework for quite some time, ever-improving technology will expand the range of jobs allowing for this long-distance labor. This, naturally enough, raises a variety of interesting issues.

Some forms of telework are, by today’s standards, rather mundane and mostly (non-controversial. For example, teachers running online classes from home is a standard form of education these days. Other forms are rather more controversial, such as remote assassination conducted via armed drones.

One promising (and problematic) area of teleworking is telemedicine. Currently, most telemedicine is fairly primitive and mainly involves medical personal interacting with patients via video conferencing software (“take two aspirin and skype me in the morning”). Given that surgical robots are now commonly employed, it is simply a matter of time before doctors and nurses routinely operate “doc drones” to perform various medical procedures.

There are many positive aspects to such telemedicine. One is that such doc drones will allow medical personal to safely operate in dangerous areas. To use the obvious example, a doctor could use a drone to treat patients infected with Ebola while running no risk of infection. To use another example, a doctor could use a drone to treat a patient during a battle without risking being shot or blown up.

A second positive aspect is that a doc drone could be deployed in remote areas and places that have little or no local medical personal. For example, areas in the United States that are currently underserved could be served by such doc drones.

A third positive aspect is that if doc drones became cheap enough, normal citizens could have their own doc drone (most likely with limited capabilities relative to hospital grade drones). This would allow for very rapid medical treatment. This would be especially useful given the aging populations in countries such as the United States.

There are, however, some potential downsides to the use of doc drones. One is that the use of doc drones would allow companies to offshore and outsource medical jobs, just as companies have sent programing, manufacturing and technical support jobs overseas. This would allow medical businesses to employ lower paid foreign medical workers in place of higher paid local medical personal. Such businesses could also handle worker complaints about pay or treatment simply by contracting new employees in countries that worse off and hence have medical personal who are even more desperate.  While this would be good for the bottom line, this would be problematic for local medical personal.

It could be contended that this would be good since it would lower the cost of medical care and would also provide medical personal in foreign countries with financial opportunities. In reply, there is the obvious concern about the quality of care (one might wonder if medical care is something that should go to the lowest bidder) and the fact that medical personal would have had better opportunities doing medicine in person. Naturally, those running the medical companies will want to ensure that the foreign medical personal stay in their countries—this could be easily handled by getting Congress to pass tough immigration laws, thus ensuring a ready supply of cheap medical labor.

Another promising area of telework is controlling military drones. The United States currently operates military drones, but given the government’s love of contracting out services it is just a matter of time before battle drones are routinely controlled by private military contractors (or mercenaries, as they used to be called).

The main advantage of using military drones is that the human operators are out of harm’s way. An operator can also quickly shift operations as needed which can reduce deployment times. Employing private contractors also yields numerous advantages, such as being able to operate outside the limits imposed by the laws and rules governing the military. There can also be the usual economic advantages—imagine corporations outsourcing military operations and reaping significant savings from being able to keep wages and benefits for the telesoldiers very low. There is, of course, the concern that employing what amounts to foreign mercenaries might result in some serious moral and practical problems, but perhaps one should just think of the potential profits and let the taxpayers worry about paying for any problems.

There are various other areas in which teleworking would be quite appealing. Such areas would need to be those that require the skills and abilities of a human (that is, they cannot simply be automated), yet can be done via remote control. It would also have to be the case that the cost of teleworking would be cheaper than simply hiring a local human being to do the work. Areas such as table waiting, food preparation, and retail will most likely not see teleworker replacing the low-paid local workers. However, areas with relatively high pay could be worth the cost of converting to telework.

One obvious example is education. While the pay for American professors is relatively low and most professors are now badly paid adjuncts, there are still people outside the United States who would be happy to work for even less. Running an online class, holding virtual office hours and grading work require rather low-cost technology. The education worker would require just a PC and an internet connection. The university would just need access to a server running the appropriate learning management software (such as Blackboard). With translation software, the education worker would not even need to know English to teach American students.

Obviously enough, since administrators would be making the decisions about whose jobs get outsourced, they would not outsource their own jobs. They would remain employed. In fact, with the savings from replacing local faculty they could give themselves raises and hire more administrators. This would progress until the golden age is reached: campuses populated solely by administrators.

Construction, maintenance, repair and other such work might be worth converting to telework. However, this would require that the machines that would be remotely operated would be cheap enough to justify hiring a low paid foreign worker over a local worker. However, a work drone could be operated round the clock by shifts of operators (aside from downtime for repairs and maintenance) and there would be no vacations, worker’s compensation or other such costs. After all, the population of the entire world would be the work force and any workers that started pushing for better pay, vacations or other benefits could be replaced by others who would be willing to work for less. If such people become difficult to find, a foreign intervention or two could set things right and create an available population of people desperate for telework.

Large scale telework would also seem to lower the value of labor—after all, the competition among workers would be worldwide. A person living in Maine who applied for a telejob would be up against people from all around the world, ranging from Argentina to Zimbabwe. While this will be great for the job creators, it will probably be less great for the job fillers.

While this dystopian (from the perspective of the 99%) view of telework seems plausible, it is also worth considering that telework might be beneficial to the laboring masses. After all, it would open up opportunities around the world and telework would require fairly stable areas with adequate resources such as power and the internet (so companies would have an interest in building such infrastructure). As such, telework could make things better for some of the masses. Telework would also be fairly safe, although it could require very long hours and impose considerable stress.

Of course, there are still steps beyond telework and one possible ultimate end might be full automation of all jobs.


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Should Two Year Colleges Be Free?

Tallahassee County Community College Seal

Tallahassee County Community College Seal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Germany has embraced free four year college education for its citizens, President Obama has made a more modest proposal to make community college free for Americans. He is modeling his plan on that of Republican Governor Bill Haslam. Haslam has made community college free for citizen of Tennessee, regardless of need or merit. Not surprisingly, Obama’s proposal has been attacked by both Democrats and Republicans. Having some experience in education, I will endeavor to assess this proposal in a rational way.

First, there is no such thing as a free college education (in this context). Rather, free education for a student means that the cost is shifted from the student to others. After all, the staff, faculty and administrators will not work for free. The facilities of the schools will not be maintained, improved and constructed for free. And so on, for all the costs of education.

One proposed way to make education free for students is to shift the cost onto “the rich”, a group which is easy to target but somewhat harder to define. As might be suspected, I think this is a good idea. One reason is that I believe that education is the best investment a person can make in herself and in society. This is why I am fine with paying property taxes that go to education, although I have no children of my own. In addition to my moral commitment to education, I also look at it pragmatically: money spent on education (which helps people advance) means having to spend less on prisons and social safety nets. Of course, there is still the question of why the cost should be shifted to the rich.

One obvious answer is that they, unlike the poor and what is left of the middle class, have the money. As economists have noted, an ongoing trend in the economy is that wages are staying stagnant while capital is doing well. This is manifested in the fact that while the stock market has rebounded from the crash, workers are, in general, doing worse than before the crash.

There is also the need to address the problem of income inequality. While one might reject arguments grounded in compassion or fairness, there are some purely practical reasons to shift the cost. One is that the rich need the rest of us to keep the wealth, goods and services flowing to them (they actually need us way more than we need them). Another is the matter of social stability. Maintaining a stable state requires that the citizens believe that they are better off with the way things are then they would be if they engaged in a revolution. While deceit and force can keep citizens in line for quite some time, there does come a point at which these fail. To be blunt, it is in the interest of the rich to help restore the faith of the middle class. One of the nastier alternatives is being put against the wall after the revolution.

Second, the reality of education has changed over the years. In the not so distant past, a high-school education was sufficient to get a decent job. I am from a small town and Maine and remember well that people could get decent jobs with just that high school degree (or even without one). While there are still some decent jobs like that, they are increasingly rare.

While it might be a slight exaggeration, the two-year college degree is now the equivalent of the old high school degree. That is, it is roughly the minimum education needed to have a shot at a decent job. As such, the reasons that justify free (for students) public K-12 education would now justify free (for students) K-14 public education. And, of course, arguments against free (for the student) K-12 education would also apply.

While some might claim that the reason the two-year degree is the new high school degree because education has been in a decline, there is also the obvious reason that the world has changed. While I grew up during the decline of the manufacturing economy, we are now in the information economy (even manufacturing is high tech now) and more education is needed to operate in this new economy.

It could, of course, be argued that a better solution would be to improve K-12 education so that a high school degree would be sufficient for a decent job in the information economy. This would, obviously enough, remove the need to have free two-year college. This is certainly an option worth considering, though it does seem unlikely that it would prove viable.

Third, the cost of college has grown absurdly since I was a student. Rest assured, though, that this has not been because of increased pay for professors. This has been addressed by a complicated and sometimes bewildering system of financial aid and loads. However, free two year college would certainly address this problem in a simple way.

That said, a rather obvious concern is that this would not actually reduce the cost of college—as noted above, it would merely shift the cost. A case can certainly be made that this will actually increase the cost of college (for those who are paying). After all, schools would have less incentive to keep their costs down if the state was paying the bill.

It can be argued that it would be better to focus on reducing the cost of public education in a rational way that focuses on the core mission of colleges, namely education. One major reason for the increase in college tuition is the massive administrative overhead that vastly exceeds what is actually needed to effectively run a school. Unfortunately, since the administrators are the ones who make the financial choices it seems unlikely that they will thin their own numbers. While state legislatures have often applied magnifying glasses to the academic aspects of schools, the administrative aspects seem to somehow get less attention—perhaps because of some interesting connections between the state legislatures and school administrations.

Fourth, while conservative politicians have been critical of the general idea of the state giving away free stuff to regular people rather than corporations and politicians, liberals have also been critical of the proposal. While liberals tend to favor the idea of the state giving people free stuff, some have taken issue with free stuff being given to everyone. After all, the proposal is not to make two-year college free for those who cannot afford it, but to make it free for everyone.

It is certainly tempting to be critical of this aspect of the proposal. While it would make sense to assist those in need, it seems unreasonable to expend resources on people who can pay for college on their own. That money, it could be argued, could be used to help people in need pay for four-year colleges. It can also be objected that the well-off would exploit the system.

One easy and obvious reply is that the same could be said of free (for the student) K-12 education. As such, the reasons that exist for free public K-12 education (even for the well-off) would apply to the two-year college plan.

In regards to the well-off, they can already elect to go to lower cost state schools. However, the wealthy tend to pick the more expensive schools and usually opt for four-year colleges. As such, I suspect that there would not be an influx of rich students into two-year programs trying to “game the system.” Rather, they will tend to continue to go to the most prestigious four year schools their money can buy.

Finally, while the proposal is for the rich to bear the cost of “free” college, it should be looked at as an investment. The rich “job creators” will benefit from having educated “job fillers.” Also, the college educated will tend to get better jobs which will grow the economy (most of which will go to the rich) and increase tax-revenues (which can help offset the taxes on the rich). As such, the rich might find that their involuntary investment will provide an excellent return.

Overall, the proposal for “free” two-year college seems to be a good idea, although one that will require proper implementation (which will be very easy to screw up).


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Student Evaluations of Faculty


While college students have been completing student evaluations of faculty since the 1960s, these evaluations have taken on considerable importance. There are various reasons for this. One is a conceptual shift towards the idea that a college is primarily a business and students are customers. On this model, student evaluations of faculty are part of the customer satisfaction survey process. A second is an ideological shift in regards to education. Education is seen more as a private good and something that needs to be properly quantified. This is also tied into the notion that the education system is, like a forest or oilfield, a resource to be exploited for profit. Student evaluations provide a cheap method of assessing the value provided by faculty and, best of all, provide numbers (numbers usually based on subjective assessments, but pay that no mind).

Obviously enough, I agree with the need to assess performance. As a gamer and runner, I have a well-developed obsession with measuring my athletic and gaming performances and I am comfortable with letting that obsession spread freely into my professional life. I want to know if my teaching is effective, what is working, what is not, and what impact I am having on the students. Of course, I want to be confident that the methods of assessment that I am using are actually useful. Having been in education quite some time, I do have some concerns about the usefulness of student evaluations of faculty.

The first and most obvious concern is that students are, almost by definition, not experts in regards to assessing education. While they obviously take classes and observe (when not Facebooking) faculty, they typically lack any formal training in assessment and one might suspect that having students evaluate faculty is on par with having sports fans assessing coaching. While fans and students often have strong opinions, this does not really qualify them to provide meaningful professional assessment.

Using the sports analogy, this can be countered by pointing out that while a fan might not be a professional in regards to coaching, a fan usually knows good or bad coaching when she sees it. Likewise, a student who is not an expert at education can still recognize good or bad teaching.

A second concern is the self-selection problem. While students have access to the evaluation forms and can easily go to Rate My Professors, students who take the time to show up and fully complete the forms or go to the website will tend to have stronger feelings about the professor. These feelings will tend to bias the results so that they are more positive or more negative than they should be.

The counter to this is that the creation of such strong feelings is relevant to the assessment of the professor. A practical way to counter the bias is to ensure that most (if not all) students in a course complete the evaluations.

Third, people often base their assessments on irrelevant factors about the professor. These include such things as age, gender, appearance, and personality. The concern is that this factor makes evaluations a form of popularity contest: professors that are liked will be evaluated by better professors who are not as likeable. There is also the concern that students tend to give younger professors and female professors worse evaluations than older professors and male professors and these sorts of gender and age biases lower the credibility of such evaluations.

A stock reply to this is that these factors do not influence students as strongly as critics might claim. So, for example, a professor might be well-liked, yet still get poor evaluations in regards to certain aspects of the course. There are also those who question the impact of alleged age and gender bias.

Fourth, people often base assessments on irrelevant factors about the course, such as how easy it is, the specific grade received,  or whether they like the subject or not. Not surprisingly, it is commonly held that students give better evaluations to professors who they regard as easy and downgrade those they see as hard.

Given that people generally base assessments on irrelevant factors (a standard problem in critical thinking), this does seem to be a real concern. Anecdotally, my own experience indicates that student assessment can vary a great deal based on irrelevant factors they explicitly mention. I have a 4.0 on Rate my Professors, but there is quite a mix in regards to the review content. What is striking, at least to me, is the inconsistencies between evaluations. Some students claim that my classes are incredibly easy (“he is so easy”), while others claim they are incredibly hard (“the hardest class I have ever taken”). I am also described as being very boring and very interesting, helpful and unhelpful and so on. This sort of inconsistency in evaluations is not uncommon and does raise the obvious concern about the usefulness of such evaluations.

A counter to this is that the information is still useful. Another counter is that the appropriate methods of statistical analysis can be used to address this concern. Those who defend evaluations point out that students tend to be generally consistent in their assessments. Of course, consistency in evaluations does not entail accuracy.

To close, there are two final general concerns about evaluations of faculty. One is the concern about values. That is, what is it that makes a good educator? This is a matter of determining what it is that we are supposed to assess and to use as the standard of assessment. The second is the concern about how well the method of assessment works.

In the case of student evaluations of faculty, we do not seem to be entirely clear about what it is that we are trying to assess nor do we seem to be entirely clear about what counts as being a good educator. In the case of the efficacy of the evaluations, to know whether or not they measure well we would need to have some other means of determining whether a professor is good or not. But, if there were such a method, then student evaluations would seem unnecessary—we could just use those methods. To use an analogy, when it comes to football we do not need to have the fans fill out evaluation forms to determine who is a good or bad athlete: there are clear, objective standards in regards to performance.

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The Corruption of Academic Research

Synthetic insulin crystals synthesized using r...

Synthetic insulin crystals synthesized using recombinant DNA technology (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields are supposed to be the new darlings of the academy, so I was slightly surprised when I heard an NPR piece on how researchers are struggling for funding. After all, even the politicians devoted to cutting education funding have spoken glowingly of STEM. My own university recently split the venerable College of Arts & Sciences, presumably to allow more money to flow to STEM without risking that professors in the soft sciences and the humanities might inadvertently get some of the cash. As such I was somewhat curious about this problem, but mostly attributed it to a side-effect of the general trend of defunding public education. Then I read “Bad Science” by Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones. This article was originally published in issue 14, 2014 of Jacobin Magazine. I will focus on the ethical aspects of the matters Hinkes-Jones discussed in this article, which is centered on the Bayh-Dole Act.

The Bayh-Dole Act was passed in 1980 and was presented as having very laudable goals. Before the act was passed, universities were limited in regards to what they could do with the fruits of their scientific research. After the act was passes, schools could sell their patents or engage in exclusive licensing deals with private companies (that is, monopolies on the patents). Supporters asserted this act would be beneficial in three main ways. The first is that it would secure more private funding for universities because corporations would provide money in return for the patents or exclusive licenses. The second is that it would bring the power of the profit motive to public research: since researchers and schools could profit, they would be more motivated to engage in research. The third is that the private sector would be motivated to implement the research in the form of profitable products.

On the face of it, the act was a great success. Researchers at Columbia University patented the process of DNA cotransfrormation and added millions to the coffers of the school. A patent on recombinant DNA earned Stanford over $200 million. Companies, in turn, profited greatly. For example, researchers at the University of Utah created Myriad Genetics and took ownership of their patent on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 tests for breast cancer. The current cost of the test is $4,000 (in comparison a full sequencing of human DNA costs $1,000) and the company has a monopoly on the test.

Given these apparent benefits, it is easy enough to advance a utilitarian argument in favor of the act and its consequences. After all, if allows universities to fund their research and corporations to make profits, then its benefits would seem to be considerable, thus making it morally good. However, a proper calculation requires considering the harmful consequences of the act.

The first harm is that the current situation imposes a triple cost on the public. One cost is that the taxpayers fund the schools that conduct the research. The next is that thanks to the monopolies on patents the taxpayers have to pay whatever prices the companies wish to charge, such as the $4,000 for a test that should cost far less. In an actual free market there would be competition and lower prices—but what we have is a state controlled and regulated market. Ironically, those who are often crying the loudest against government regulation and for the value of competition are quite silent on this point.  The final cost of the three is that the corporations can typically write off their contributions on their taxes, thus leaving other taxpayers to pick up their slack. These costs seem to be clear harms and do much to offset the benefits—at least when looked at from the perspective of the whole society and not just focusing on those reaping the benefits.

The second harm is that, ironically, this system makes research more expensive. Since processes, strains of bacteria and many other things needed for research are protected by monopolistic patents the researchers who do not hold these patents have to pay to use them. The costs are usually quite high, so while the patent holders benefit, research in general suffers. In order to pay for these things, researchers need more funding, thus either imposing more cost on taxpayers or forcing them to turn to private funding (which will typically result in more monopolistic patents).

The third harm is the corruption of researchers. Researchers are literally paid to put their names on positive journal articles that advance the interests of corporations. They are also paid to promote drugs and other products while presenting themselves as researchers rather than paid promoters. If the researchers are not simply bought, the money is clearly a biasing factor. Since we are depending on these researchers to inform the public and policy makers about these products, this is clearly a problem and presents a clear danger to the public good.

A fourth harm is that even the honest researchers who have not been bought are under great pressure to produce “sexy science” that will attract grants and funding. While it has always been “publish or perish” in modern academics, the competition is even fiercer in the sciences now. As such, researchers are under great pressure to crank out publications. The effect has been rather negative as evidenced by the fact that the percentage of scientific articles retracted for fraud is ten times what it was in 1975. Once lauded studies and theories, such as those driving the pushing of antioxidants and omega-3, have been shown to be riddled with inaccuracies.  Far from driving advances in science, the act has served as an engine of corruption, fraud and bad science. This would be bad enough, but there is also the impact on a misled and misinformed public. I must admit that I fell for the antioxidant and omega-3 “research”—I modified my diet to include more antioxidants and omega-3. While this bad science does get debunked, the debunking takes a long time and most people never hear about it. For example, how many people know that the antioxidant and omega-3 “research” is flawed and how many still pop omega-3 “fish oil pills” and drink “antioxidant teas”?

A fifth harm is that universities have rushed to cash in on the research, driven by the success of the research schools that have managed to score with profitable patents. However, setting up research labs aimed at creating million dollar patents is incredibly expensive. In most cases the investment will not yield the hoped for returns, thus leaving many schools with considerable expenses and little revenue.

To help lower costs, schools have turned to employing adjuncts to do the teaching and research, thus creating a situation in which highly educated but very low-paid professionals are toiling away to secure millions for the star researchers, the administrators and their corporate benefactors. It is, in effect, sweat-shop science.

This also shows another dark side to the push for STEM: as the number of STEM graduates increase, the value of the degrees will decrease and wages for the workers will continue to fall. This is great for the elite, but terrible for those hoping that a STEM degree will mean a good job and a bright future.

These harms would seem to outweigh the alleged benefits of the act, thus indicating it is morally wrong. Naturally, it can be countered that the costs are worth it. After all, one might argue, the incredible advances in science since 1980 have been driven by the profit motive and this has been beneficial overall. Without the profit motive, the research might have been conducted, but most of the discoveries would have been left on the shelves. The easy and obvious response is to point to all the advances that occurred due to public university research prior to 1980 as well as the research that began before then and came to fruition.

While solving this problem is a complex matter, there seem to be some easy and obvious steps. The first would be to restore public funding of state schools. In the past, the publicly funded universities drove America’s worldwide dominance in research and helped fuel massive economic growth while also contributing to the public good. The second would be replacing the Bayh-Dole Act with an act that would allow universities to benefit from the research, but prevent the licensing monopolies that have proven so damaging. Naturally, this would not eliminate patents but would restore competition to what is supposed to be a competitive free market by eliminating the creation of monopolies from public university research. The folks who complain about the state regulating business and who praise the competitive free market will surely get behind this proposal.

It might also be objected that the inability to profit massively from research will be a disincentive. The easy and obvious reply is that people conduct research and teach with great passion for very little financial compensation. The folks that run universities and corporations know this—after all, they pay such people very little yet still often get exceptional work. True, there are some people who are solely motivated by profit—but those are typically the folks who are making the massive profit rather than doing the actual research and work that makes it all possible.


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Outsourcing Education for Savings

Due to a variety of factors, such as reduced state support and ever-expanding administrations, the cost of college in the United States has increased dramatically. In Michigan, a few community colleges have addressed this problem in a way similar to that embraced by businesses: they are outsourcing education. As of this writing, six Michigan community colleges have contracted with EDUStaff—a company that handles recruiting and managing adjunct faculty.

It might be wondered how adding a middleman between the college and the employee would save money. The claim is that since EDUStaff rather than the colleges employs the adjuncts, the colleges save because they do not have to contribute to state pensions for these employees. Michigan Central College claims to have saved $250,000 in a single year.

One concern with this approach is that it is being driven by economic values rather than educational values—that is, the goal is to save money rather than to serve educational goals. If the core function of a college is to educate, then that should be the main focus, though practical economic concerns obviously do matter.

A second concern is that this saving mechanism is being applied to faculty and not staff and administrators. If this approach were a good idea when applied to the core personnel of a college, then it would seem to be an even better idea when applied to the administration and staff. The logical end result would, of course, be a completely outsourced college—but this seems rather absurd.

A third concern is that while avoiding paying pensions results in short term savings, the impact on the adjuncts should be considered. This approach will certainly make working for EDUSTaff less desirable. There is also the fact that the adjuncts will not be building a retirement, which will mean that they will need to draw more heavily on the state (or keep working past when they should retire). As such, the saving for the college comes at the cost of the adjuncts. This, of course, leads to a broader issue, namely that of whether or not employment should include retirement benefits. I would suspect that those who came up with this plan have very good retirement plans—but are clearly quite willing to deny others that benefit. But, if they truly wish to save money, they should give up their retirements as well—why should only faculty do without?


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kNOwMORE, Sexual Violence & Brands

Florida State University College of Motion Pic...

Florida State UniversityPhoto credit: Wikipedia)

Florida State University, which is across the tracks from my own Florida A&M University, has had some serious problems with sexual violence involving students. One response to this has been the creation of a student driven campaign to address the problem with a brand and marketing:


Students developed the “kNOw More” brand to highlight the dual message of Florida State’s no tolerance stance on sexual violence and education efforts focused on prevention. Students also are leading marketing efforts for a campaign, “Ask. Respect. Don’t Expect,” aimed at raising awareness among their peers about obtaining clear consent for sexual activity and bystander intervention to prevent sexual assault or misconduct.

As an ethical person and a university professor, I certainly support efforts to reduce sexual violence on campuses (and anywhere). However, I found the use of the terms “brand” and “marketing efforts” somewhat disconcerting.

The main reason for this is that I associate the term “brand” with things like sodas, snack chips and smart phones rather than with efforts to combat sexual violence in the context of higher education. This sort of association creates, as I see it, some concerns.

The first is that the use of “brand” and “marketing efforts” in the context of sexual violence has the potential to trivialize the matter. Words, as the feminists rightly say, do matter. Speaking in terms of brands and marketing efforts makes it sound like Florida State sees the matter as on par with a new brand of FSU college products that will be promoted by marketing efforts. It would not seem too much to expect that the matter would be treated with more respect in terms of the language used.

The second concern ties back to a piece I wrote in 2011, “The University as a Business.” This essay was written in response to the reaction of Florida A&M University’s president to the tragic death of Florida A&M University student Robert Champion in a suspected hazing incident. The president, who has since resigned, wrote that “preserving the image and the FAMU brand is of paramount importance to me.” The general problem is that thinking of higher education in business terms is a damaging mistake that is harmful to the true mission of higher education, namely education. The specific problem is that addressing terrible things like killing and sexual violence in terms of brands and marketing is morally inappropriate. The brand and marketing view involve the ideas that moral problems are to be addressed in the same manner that one would address a sales decline in chips and this suggests that the problems are mainly a matter of public relations. That is, the creation of an appearance of action rather than effective action.

One obvious reply to my concerns is that terms such as “brand” and “marketing effort” are now the correct terms to use. That is, they are acceptable because of common use and I am thus reading too much into the matter.

On the one hand, that is a reasonable reply—I might be behind the times in terms of the terms. On the other hand, the casual acceptance of business terms in such a context would seem to support my view.

Another reply to my concerns is that the branding and marketing are aimed at addressing the problem of sexual violence and hence my criticism of the terminology is off the mark. This does have some appeal. After all, as people so often say, if the branding and marketing has some positive impact, then that would be good. However, this does not show that my concerns about the terminology and apparent underlying world-view are mistaken.


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Getting High for Higher Education

English: A domestic US propaganda poster circa...

English: A domestic US propaganda poster circa 2000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two major problems faced by the United States are the war on drugs and the problems of higher education. I will make an immodest proposal intended to address both problems.

In the case of higher education, one major problem is that the cost of education is exceeding the resources of an ever-growing number of Americans. One reason for this is that the decisions of America’s political and economic elites damaged the economy and contributed to the unrelenting extermination of the middle class. Another reason is a changing view of higher education: it has been cast as a private (rather than public) good and is seen by many of the elites as a realm to exploited for profit. Because of this, funding to public schools has been reduced and funding has been diverted from public schools to costly and ineffective for-profit schools. Yet another reason is that public universities have an ever-expanding administrative burden. Even the darling of academics, STEM, has seen significant cuts in support and public funding.

The war on drugs has imposed a massive cost on the United States. First, there is the cost of the resources devoted to policing citizens, trying them and incarcerating them for drug crimes. Second, there is the cost of the social and personal damage done to individuals and communities. Despite these huge costs, the war on drugs is being lost—mainly because “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Fortunately, I have a solution to both problems. After speaking with an engineering student about Florida State’s various programs aimed at creating businesses, I heard a piece on NPR about the financial woes of schools and how faculty and staff were being pushed to be fund-raisers for schools. This got be thinking about ways universities could generate funding and I remembered a running joke from years ago. Back when universities started to get into the “businessification” mode, I joked with a running friend (hence a running joke) that we faculty members should become drug lords to fund our research and classes. While I do not think that I should actually become a drug lord, I propose that public universities in Florida (and elsewhere) get into the drug business.

To be specific, Florida should begin by legalizing marijuana and pass a general law allowing recreational drugs that can be shown to be as safe as tobacco and alcohol (that sets the bar nicely low). The main restriction will be that the drugs can only be produced and sold by public universities. All the profits will go directly to the universities, to be used as decided by boards composed of students and faculty.

To implement this plan, faculty and students will be actively involved. Business faculty and students will develop the models, plans and proposals. Design and marketing students and faculty will handle those aspects. Faculty and students in chemistry, biology and medicine will develop the drugs and endeavor to make them safer. Faculty and students in agriculture will see to the growing of the organic crops, starting with marijuana. Engineering students and faculty will develop hydroponics and other technology.

Once the marijuana and other drugs are available, the universities will sell the products to the public with all profits being used to fund the educational and research aspects of the universities. Since the schools are public universities, the drugs will be tax-free—there is no sense in incurring the extra cost of collecting taxes when the money is going to the schools already. Since schools already have brand marketing, this can be easily tied in. For example, Florida State can sell Seminole Gold and Seminole Garnet marijuana, while my own Florida A&M University can have Rattler Green and Rattler Orange.

One practical objection is that the operation might not be profitable. While this is obviously a reasonable concern, the drug trade seems to be massively profitable. Also, by making such drugs legal, the cost of the war on drugs will drop dramatically, thus freeing up resources for education and reducing the harms done to individuals and the community. So, I am not too worried about this.

One health objection is that drugs are unhealthy. The easy reply is that while this is true, we already tolerate very unhealthy products such as tobacco, alcohol, cars and firearms. If these are tolerable, then the drugs sold by the schools (which must be at least as safe as tobacco and alcohol) would also be tolerable. The war on drugs is also very unhealthy for individuals and society—so ending at least part of the war would be good for public health.

One moral objection is that drugs are immoral. There are three easy replies. The first is that the drugs in question are no more immoral than alcohol and tobacco. If these can be morally tolerated, then so can the university drugs. Second, there is the consequentialist argument: if drugs are going to be used anyway by Americans, it is better that the money go to education rather than ending up in the coffers of criminals, gangs, terrorists and the prison-industrial complex. Third, there is also the consequentialist argument that university produced drugs will be safer and of higher quality than drugs produced by drug lords, gangs, terrorists and criminal dealers. Given the good consequences of legalizing university-manufactured drugs, this plan is clearly morally commendable.

Given the above arguments, having universities as legal drug sellers would clearly help solve two of America’s most serious problems: the high cost of education and the higher cost of the ineffective and destructive war on drugs. As my contribution to the brand, I offer the slogan “get high for higher ed.”

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