How the USA Lost Its College Mojo

The government intervention in full-blown love affair between college degrees and the middle class (and lower classes) began in the aftermath of the Russian launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. The G.I. Bill after World War II started the movement of greater accessibility to college but Sputnik launched a new era of education. Leadership in government, industry and academia were panicked that the Red Menace may have eclipsed the mighty, rising American Democracy. Coincidentally, universities and colleges across the United States were bursting with some of the best talent that the world had ever known at the time of the launch. Thirty-three thousand German Jewish scientists and artists, the epitome of European intellectualism, had been expelled from Nazi Germany in 1933 and they, along with their talented American students, were bringing American intellectual prowess to the fore on the world stage. Then Sputnik announced itself with a plaintive beeping from outer space.

There was a rush to prioritize American intellectual and technological innovation. The challenge for the leaders of that time was finding a methodology that harnessed the resources of the country to meet the needs of what they believed was a decades-long race into space. They discovered that were neither enough engineers or scientists in the specific bleeding-edge STEM fields nor enough classes for new students to learn these disciplines. Everyone agreed that expanded, elite education (and a tremendous amount of money to the military-industrial complex) was the necessary element to win the space race. They were thinking long-term, looking for promising students in public school and pushing them through the college process.

The United States reinvested in a part of the scientific process called Basic Research. They paid professors through their colleges to do basic research in university laboratories with their graduate students and promising undergraduates at their sides. Colleges built laboratories and hired more professors. The students from the public schools came, understanding that a secure financial future could be had with a college degree.

The plan worked. The United States put a man on the moon in 1969 and then several times more. No other country or corporation has been to the moon since.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, he came with a certain set of ideas about the relationship between government and industry. During his tenure as governor of California, he had been a great supporter of the state college system but he did not follow the same pattern as President of the United States. As president, Reagan argued that the government was paying for basic research that benefited private industry but the government received nothing in return. Advanced research as done by industry was proprietary. Private industry would use the basic research as a foundation for their own specific, advanced research but they did not contribute to the basic research funding. President Reagan decided that industry could pay for their own basic research and cut funding to universities for research so deeply that private college undergraduate tuition jumped up as much as 33% between 1982 and 1984.

The cutting continued unabated through this year. Tuition has surpassed a boundary from affordable to unaffordable even in state schools. Tenure for professors is rapidly disappearing and adjuncts cannot make a living wage. Federal loan programs for college and graduate schools are predatory with alarming interest rates. Aberrant and predatory pro-profit post high school institutions have monetized education.

Over the weekend, the Department of Education announced a new program of debt forgiveness for victims of the for-profit Corinthian College. The expected tab is as high as $3.5 billion. All sides of the education debate can agree that this allocation is wasted taxpayer money as far as investing in workers and jobs for the next years. The money invested by students and the government in this for-profit corporation has disappeared into a black hole of high finance.

Would it or would it not have made sense to spend taxpayer money on basic research in universities that would have kept tuitions lower and the quality of education higher? Would it not have been better fiscal policy to pay professors and colleges to produce boring and laborious research while training students in those laboratories? Professors are not paid just to teach; they are paid to produce research and train the next generation in scientific theory and in practical application. Private industry and for-profit colleges are not engaging in nor plan to engage in such costly activity. The long term prospects for the country’s economic health have been endangered by short-term shareholder priorities.

Ronald Reagan was wrong. Thirty years later, college students are either dropping out because of the lack of funds or they are saddling themselves with unbearable debt. The emerging world economy demands a college degree or two just as states are ratcheting up education cuts. Reagan’s model of higher education is failing and the youngest generations are being sacrificed.

In the pragmatic realities of the world, the U.S. government was going to spend billions of dollars in higher education. The post-Sputnik model worked and generated the enormous benefits that we still enjoy in the science, technology and engineering sectors. We need to return to this older model, not as a matter of a political ideology, but as a matter of investing in American prosperity in the coming decades.

The Favorite Book 2

The evolution of the ebook is a heated discussion. While there is the convenience of traveling with an e-reader like the IPad or a Galaxy tablet, there is a visceral loss of paper and ink. Scribbling in the margins does not work on an e-reader but hauling a bunch of books around in a backpack or a messenger bag is a series of frustrations too.

Even more, reading an ebook is a subtly different set of mental processes than a print book, especially non-fiction. In a print book, I may tag a sentence with a pencil in the margin that stands out for retrieval or further review. Often I read a sentence of which I am unsure and I let it remain unmarked although I tag the page number or the page itself in my memory, waiting to see if the next pages prove or disprove the relevancy. This is the process of reading a book and its arguments closely. If the sentence proves relevant, I will flip back a page or two because I am haphazardly counting pages as I continue to follow the argument of the sentence or the paragraph.

I find that in an ebook, the pages look altogether much more similar – the page with the large paragraph followed by the two small paragraphs blends away. Further, I am less conscious of swiping pages compared to turning pages. I lose track. Short arguments work well on an ebook but long, involved arguments are easier to comprehend on printed pages. These minor differences frustrate my long-time developing methodology for studying. The fixes that others have suggested are time-consuming and loss of time defeats the purpose.

The paper-based thesaurus is superb at presenting a lot of information quickly and taking the reading to further information just as speedily. Most online thesauri stink and fail either criterion, a lot of information quickly or access to expanded but related information just as rapidly. I say “most” because I was recently sent to a website that is a holy grail of computing promises; namely, transforming a process done with paper and ink into a better process in digital format. The ebook format excels.

Check out Plug in a few common words and watch the maps blossom across the screen. Please, though, don’t blame me for all the time you spend with this word engine.

Wine and Cheese – How To

Once in a while, a learned student will step back from his/her life and work to create an accessible lesson of what they have learned. Wine and cheese are wonderful treats but few of us have time or the ability to pair the two to enjoy the most out of both. Bon Apetit!

cheese and wine pairingWhen you are done enjoying this visually rich chart on the pairing of cheese and wine, step back and consider how this teacher chose to present the subject. Most of us would have been content with a spreadsheet or even an how-to booklet. I count at least four or five chapters of a book in this chart yet in this case, the making of a book is unnecessary. How often to do we fail to recognize the genius of teaching subject matter?

Piggy bank for College?

The New York Times ran an op-ed column by Andrea Levere on October 7, 2014 (yesterday as of this writing) on Children’s Savings Account (CSA). Ms. Levere is attempting to address the issue of sending lower income children to college by starting CSA’s for disadvantaged children in kindergarten or even at birth as a government program. The idea is worthy but the presentation has a terrible flaw – saving money even from birth does not pay for college any more.

My good friend was so proud of his first born and had great dreams for her. He put $100 in a 529 College Savings Plan every month through her first 18 years. At the end of her 12th grade year, her account had $40,000. For a capital investment of $21,600 with compounding interest, the child had a great start so it seemed.

Except that $40,000 did not cover completely her first year of college. She was an excellent student who excelled and secured a slot an fine university that was not Ivy League. If her father had put away $500 a month for 18 years, then the power of compounding interest would have paid for her undergraduate career. That is $6000 compared to the $1200 that my friend socked away each year. For middle class families in the United States, putting away for each child $6000 a year for college is not a possibility. Putting away 8% of the household income per child when the average income for a two adult, two child middle class household at $75,000 a year is a fantasy.

Adding insult to injury is the manner in which the government calculates estimated family contribution (EFC) for government sponsored loans and grants for college. The higher the EFC number, the more the family has to pay out of its own pocket. If the money is still in the 529 College Savings plan, the government calculates 100% of the money for college, which raises EFC by hundreds or thousands of dollars. If the college money is not in the 529 plan but under the parents’ name in any sort of investment fund, then the government calculates a percentage of the money based on the 1040 tax return, which will be less than 100% including the parents paying income tax on the college money the previous year! The money is the same amount but the EFC will be lower. The system is disconnected by college savings under one agency and college loans under another agency and thus broken.

The real kicker is that if the family has not put aside any money for college, the EFC will be lower and the student and the family will qualify for more subsidized loans and/or grants.

College tuition along with room and board has risen much faster than inflation in the United States and real wages have been stagnant for at least twenty years. Also, the middle-class paying jobs of the foreseeable future require a Bachelor’s Degree. Without government intervention into this non-market driven segment of our economy, more and more of the population will be disenfranchised from achieving or even maintaining a middle class livelihood. This is more than bad economics, this is a recipe for the decline of a nation.

Stealing College textbooks

The Washington Post is asking why college students are illegally downloading their textbooks for free. The simplest answer is given in the second paragraph, which states that prices have risen 82% between 2002 and 2012. Prices have risen far beyond the reasonable expectations of inflation and texts are more than reproductions of the previous year with minor changes and page shifts.

There has been a steady, publishing drumbeat that a person with a college education will earn many times more money and enjoy stronger job security than someone with just a high school degree. I believe the studies and I also see that the most likely fields of employment require at BA. The response is a push for college degrees.

Tuition in the United States are set by states in the public universities but large numbers attend private colleges and universities that set their own tuition and fees every year. In most other countries, the universities are funded by the national government, giving the government the ability to get their students into colleges. In the United States, the college system is a non-profit, market-driven enterprise, even the state schools.

The economy stinks. Federal funding for research professors has been curtailed. States trying to balance budgets have jacked up tuition rates and also curtailed college funding. Colleges respond by limiting full professors on tenure track and hiring adjuncts to teach undergraduate courses. College sports teams are doing well for the most part, generating lots of income but not for the benefit of the greater student body.

Imagine going tens of thousands of dollars in debt for a BA. or going hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for an advanced or professional degree. On top of these bills, publishing houses want students to pay $200-$500 for a textbook of recycled material.

Really? You are surprised they are using their educations to afford their education by being internet savvy? The model is unsustainable and the stealing of etextbooks is only a symptom of the endemic problem of funding higher education in the United States.