Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Is Free Tuition the Handwritting on the Wall?

The following article was published by EducationDive on why free tuition at public institutions may be the only way to achieving a nationally competitive workforce inclusive of the 99%.

By LaSonya Moore, assistant professor of special education in the College of Education at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, and Edward Renner, courtesy professor, USF.

Is the announcement by the NYU School of Medicine of free tuition the beginning of an inevitable evolution toward free public higher education in the US?

Since the 1960s, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollment has steadily increased until it peaked in 2011 at 20.6 million students. Over the next six years there has been a steady decrease in enrollment, down to 18.8 million in the Fall of 2017. Over this period there has been a series of institutional failures, and the creditworthiness of institutions of higher education has been downgraded by Moody’s.

Over the 56 years that the Higher Education Price Index has been computed by the CommonFund, it has outpaced the Consumer Price Index by 160% and has maintained that pace over the past six years with 2017 showing the largest one-year increase since the recession of 2008. One result has been a non-sustainable growth in the size of student loan debt

In partial response, curriculums have been adjusted to be more practical and job centered, increased focus has been given to student recruitment and retention, and colleges and universities are now competing for transfer students.

While strategic planning is certainly required, it alone will not be sufficient if the six-year graph is capturing an inflection point that is the beginning of a long-term trend. Such a divergence of enrollment and costs is related to two additional issues, for which there is growing awareness.

Disruptive innovation

The limiting case for the two trend lines is consistent with the prediction by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen that more than one-half of higher education institutions will be bankrupt over the next decade or so, following Circuit City, encyclopedias and others as the victims of “disruptive innovation.” Looming in the background is an economic crisis for educational institutions similar to that experienced in 2008 by financial institutions. With the continual expansion of Open Educational Resources (OER), the availability of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and independent certification of competence, there is reduced educational need for a traditional college experience. 

While the doubling rate of knowledge is difficult to measure, the suggestion that half of what one learns over a four-year degree will be outdated by graduation suggest an alternative role to be filled by nonresidential, remote digital continuing education.

Income, wealth and social disparities

In practical terms, if cost continues to rise, fewer students will be willing to assume increasing amounts of student debt. Over-recruiting of marginal students and diluted standards may provide temporary numerical relief, but in the longer-term deepen disillusionment and public confidence, setting the stage for a future larger crisis. Such a crash is increasingly likely with limited annual economic growth in a time of rapidly increasing national debt.

Projecting increased costs and reduced enrollment to their limit provides a graphic picture of the richest 1% bringing a ton of money to the Registrar of the remaining institutions to purchase the additional social, cultural and civic benefits of the four-year college experience — while the 99% are bystanders looking on.

Beyond tinkering

If disruptive innovation and even greater inequalities are the outcome of sticking with the status quo, then tinkering with enrollment strategies, student loan forgiveness, deferred maintenance, more adjuncts and practical job training will not be sufficient.

If the goal is to ensure the K-16 pipeline, a much bolder vision will be required.

Free tuition for all at public institutions may be a necessary current policy debate to have in the U.S. The pending economic crisis facing public institutions could offer the opportunity of following other Western democracies by restructuring financial support as a public cost, rather than bailing out the status quo as was done in 2008 for the financial system. This would create an education system where excessive wealth cannot provide, nor poverty deny, access to public higher education, creating a new system where only competitive ability and personal motivation are the currency of exchange for entry. Such a change may be the only way to achieving a nationally competitive world-class workforce that is inclusive of the 99%. 

Without radical thinking, the handwriting on the wall suggested by the NYU Medical School announcement of free tuition may signal the beginning of end of the dead idea that knowledge is a commodity to be purchased as a personal expense, rather than a national investment in the future of the nation itself.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Economic Side of Suicide

Published in the Tampa Bay Times, 06/22/2018, page A007

The Economic Side of Suicide

The US Government’s Center for Disease Control recently released data on suicide rates. For the three year period ending in 2001, to the three year period ending in 2016, the suicide rate in the US increased 25%.

The increase has been treated as a mental health epidemic. Individual are encouraged to learn the dangers signals and seek help for themselves or their family and friends.

Yet, in over half (54%) of all the instances the individuals did not have a known mental health condition.

One way to try to explain such trends is to ask what else was changing at the same time. While two similar trends do not prove the two are related, identifying those relationships often offers clues to how better understand what is causing the problem and how it might best be solved.

Of all of things that have happened since the turn of the century up to the present, what are the most remarkable? 

The financial crisis of 2008, economic globalization, the loss of well paying jobs to technology and the wealth and income disparities between the 1% and the 99% are prime candidates.

If we take 2001 as a reference point, when suicide started to increase, what do we know about changes in wealth during the same period:

·      The best-off of the poorest 20% of the population were  60% poorer in 2016 than in 2001
·      The middle class person with the median level of wealth was 17% poorer in 2016 than in 2001
·      The worst-off of the richest 10% of the population were 19% richer in 2016 than in 2001

The figure helps to explain why the richest nation in the world has:

·      40 million people live in poverty, 13.3 million of them children
·      The largest income and wealth disparities of any developed country in the world

The housing crisis of 2007 resulted in millions of foreclosures. Those owners then competed with existing low income people for affordable housing. As a result, the number of renters increased by nearly 10 million by 2016, driving up rental rates in the face of reduced financial resources. Families living in poverty have no place to go and cannot afford where they live. That is hard on the human spirit. 

As financial hardships continue to grow for the majority of the population, and in particular for the poorest among us, suicide rates have gone up. Is this relationship between the concentration of wealth at the top and suicide rate simply a coincidence? If not, what are the implications?

To define suicide as a mental health epidemic implies that we should help the poor and over-stressed to better accept their fate as an individual responsibility. The alternative is to define the rapid rise in economic inequality as a situational cause and as a social responsibility.

The alternative solution is not difficult. The economic hardships that cause despair, loss of personal identity and hope, can be reduced through free entitlements available to all, rich and poor alike; such as: universal health care, and quality public education through college based on personal motivation and academic ability, not family wealth and ability to pay. Such universal entitlements account for why all of the other western democracies have lower levels of income and wealth inequalities. 

Often it is more effective to have a level playing field by fixing the situation causing the problem, rather than constantly trying to repair those who have been damaged by the situation.

As a Professor of Psychology, I have been convinced for over 40 years that many of the problems we consider to be “mental health” or individually based, cannot be separated from the context in which the person lives.


Prof. Edward Renner is a retired university professor. He blogs on current social issues at http://forumsforafuture.blogspot.com. He may be reached at erenner@kerenner.com