Monday, July 19, 2010

Higher Education: Not Really About Education Anymore

There was a disturbing little article in the Times a couple weeks ago about the increasing share of college and university budgets going to athletic facilities, sports teams, student clubs, fancy dormitories, and other non-instructional ends. The article quotes Ohio University Professor Richard K. Vedder giving the obvious explanation: "In the zeal to get students, [schools] are going after them on the basis of recreational amenities." Professor Vedder studies the economics of higher education, but it doesn't take a specialist to see how this is playing out.

I was riding the Q train over the Manhattan Bridge a couple days ago, and the whole car was plastered with an ad campaign for Monroe College; the ads touted the school's sports teams, its student clubs, its athletic facilities; they compared the dormitories to luxury condos; and they said very little about academics. I think it's pretty clear that what we're seeing is a higher-education system that's responding to market forces.

This is something that we want to take a close look at, because a lot of people think that the model for public primary and secondary schooling ought to be a lot more market-based. In an article from 2000, for example, U. of C. professor of economics and Nobel laureate James Heckman makes the argument in no uncertain terms: "Once it is recognized that public schools, especially inner-city public schools, are a virtual monopoly, while the U.S. university system is highly competitive, the mystery of the poor performance of the former, and the great success of the latter vanishes.".[1]

On the surface, the decreasing emphasis on instruction in college and university budgets seems like an argument against Heckman. In fact, I think that decreasing emphasis tells a different story, not about the merits of competition in education, but about the tools by which education is measured.

Heckman's thinking on this issue is, like that of so many academics, distorted by the assumtions and paradigms of his field. Economists are used to thinking about goods whose quality is relatively easy to determine. An education is vastly more complicated than your average widget, and its quality is extremely difficult to assess. It is the tools and structures by which we evaluate it, far more than the competition or lack thereof, that will ultimately determine quality of education. Only what is measurable can be rewarded or punished by the market. In other words, it's all about incentives.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Crisis-Point Interventions, Part I

I've been working on a new post for five days now, and it keeps squirming out of my grasp. The fact is that the data on the topic is a lot more ambiguous than I wish it were. My goal was to use last Friday's Times article on Chicago's new program to reduce gun-violence against grade-schoolers (actual article; my summary) as a jumping-off point for a discussion of crisis-point interventions versus early interventions and prevention programs: the Chicago program is taking highschoolers who are currently in gangs or have been in the past, and trying to get them safely out of gangs and out of the way of former gang-contacts who are seeking retaliation; why not, I wondered, target younger kids and try to prevent them from joining gangs in the first place. It's harder than I expected to make that argument.

When you're talking about a program like this, the big question is cost-effectiveness. You only have so much money—six million dollars, in federal stimulus funding, in this case—and you want to use it to have the biggest impact you can. By my admittedly rough estimation, the Chicago program is costing around $6,000 per student, per year. (See my calculations.) To put that number in perspective, that's about 60% of the total cost of sending these kids to school every year.[1] By that estimate, the program will cost a total of around nine million dollars, when it's expanded to cover 1,500 students next year.

Based on the data in the article, it's impossible to be sure what the real impact of the program is—there were 40 fewer students shot this year than last year, a reduction of about 16%, but there's no way of knowing whether that's due to the program or not, especially since the article gives no information on the variance in number of shootings from year to year.[2] Even if we assume that the reduction in shootings was due entirely to the advocates program, though, that doesn't mean the program was cost-effective—after all, there might be another program that could prevent more shootings for the same amount of money.

I assumed, naively, that the motivations for the Chicago program were sentimental: the city was devoting all its resources to the neediest few, rather than stepping back, practicing a little triage, and fixing the problem at its source. Turns out, I may be the sentimental one. The current wisdom on how to reduce youth gang activity is decidedly cool-headed—possibly even cold-headed.