Evidence-Based and the Marginal Cost of Zero

If you can conceive of a solution to a problem that has a marginal cost of zero due to cheap replication and economies of scale, then that’s good. If you’re doing that by going into the digital space, where cost of experimentation is low, even better. 

Many elements of education are best seen through the marginal cost of zero lens, and it’s that dream of essentially free education, based on economies of scale, that tends to drive a lot of philanthropy. 

Where there’s dissonance, though, is that we are also told that what we do has to be evidence-based. And I think sometimes there is this show that granting agencies and philanthropic institutions make that they are going to cut through the bull and be scientific about this stuff, in a way that we have not been.

The problem is that most of the time these things don’t line up. The projects that get the most attention focus on the economies of scale (Khan, MITx) with very little focus on evidence-based practice. 

That seems to me a problem. Are we letting our dream of a completely free education undermine the more modest (and evidence-supported) goals of dirt cheap technology-assisted education? Maybe not. But if you looked at what gets covered in the press and funded on the ground, you could be forgiven for thinking that.

Higher Education is Already a Voucher System

Saw this about the K-12 online space today in NYT:

Some teachers at K12 schools said they felt pressured to pass students who did little work. Teachers have also questioned why some students who did no class work were allowed to remain on school rosters, potentially allowing the company to continue receiving public money for them. State auditors found that the K12-run Colorado Virtual Academy counted about 120 students for state reimbursement whose enrollment could not be verified or who did not meet Colorado residency requirements. Some had never logged in.

“What we’re talking about here is the financialization of public education,” said Alex Molnar, a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education who is affiliated with the education policy center. “These folks are fundamentally trying to do to public education what the banks did with home mortgages.”

Sound familiar? These practices are already widespread in higher education’s for-profit space, and to a lesser extent in the non-profit space. 

We’ve been a voucher system for decades, and the corrosion is extensive….

the briefing room: Canadian university considers radical change

the briefing room: Canadian university considers radical change


Find out why some students are opposed

…That problem could be eliminated for future students at tiny Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, which is debating switching to a block plan where students would be taught one course at a time, rather than five at once.

The block plan…

Rising College Costs Are Due Largely to Books, Room, and Board, Study Finds

UpdateI just noticed this was a CCAP study. So forget the study —Vedder’s little conservative lobbyist think tank does the sloppiest work around, and I am pretty sure this study is no different. I regret having given it (mistakenly) any publicity at all. 

I do wish the Chronicle would stop publishing CCAP’s press releases though. It occasionally looks like news, which leads to all kinds of confusion.

From The Chronicle:

Despite the widely publicized rising sticker prices on tuition, about two-thirds of the increase in the cost of attending a four-year college from 2000 to 2009 came from nontuition sources, such as books and off-campus room and board, according to a report released on Thursday by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. The average amount that students paid, after subtracting savings from scholarships and grants, increased by nearly $3,000, while net tuition prices grew by only about $1,000 over roughly the same period.

Again, the story most people get on rising college costs is radically simplified. Most people are surprised to hear net college tuition cost for state institutions has barely budged in the past decade (if you take into account increased federal aid, and shifts from direct funding to things like tax breaks).

I’m not saying we don’t have major problems. We do. But it’s important to know precisely what those problems are and what is causing them. I’m not sure how we can solve them otherwise.

Regarding the story above, one of the things I have been thinking about lately is whether a semester long housing experience could be broken up into shifts, and combined with blended instruction. Group A comes up for weeks one and two, is home for weeks 3 and 4. Group B comes up for weeks three and four, is home for weeks one and two. The residential experience is so important to college, but there is, I suspect, some diminishing returns involved over the course of the semester. Why not treat that time on campus as a valuable commodity instead of as a generic experience?

Adding… I think the textbook angle goes without saying — open textbooks is an access issue, full stop, end of story. Time to get this done.

Why the State Money for Education Is Not Coming Back, Cont’d

From the new report: Coming in 2020: New Hampshire’s “Silver Tsunami”

By the year 2020, New Hampshire’s shift towards an increasingly older population will reach a peak. And by 2030, nearly half a million Granite Staters will be over the age of 65, representing almost one-third of the population. This trend will influence nearly every critical policy debate, perhaps none more so than health care. Released today, the Center’s latest report, “New Hampshire’s Silver Tsunami,” analyzes the potential impacts of this demographic shift on the state’s health care systems.

As we’ve shown here before, each dollar increase in Medicaid funding (which will be affected by this, according to the report) decreases state spending on education between six and seven cents. Again, I am not rationalizing the cuts here. We spend way too little on higher education, and we have to push to spend more. But the economic dynamics are such that we will lucky if we can hold institutions of higher education at level funding going forward.

What do we do? Well, politically, if you care about education, the single most important thing you can do is to support politicians and policies that attack the health care cost problem. All the other stuff is pretty useless without that. 

But from a professional standpoint, imagining some alternate world where everything changes in the next decade and we don’t have to compete for student dollars or cap costs in one way or another because suddenly everyone gets how important education is and we get the funding we need — this is not a helpful professional stance, IMHO. The healthcare situation is increasingly going to pit competing goods against one another; we are going to lose in that battle repeatedly, because asked to choose between funding an ethics class and treating poor people in the ER, we will choose the ER.

In the meantime we have students we are going to need educate — never mind the issues of access we have to address. There is not a magical world where we are not going to have to do this at at least a stable inflation-adjusted per-student cost over the next ten to twenty years. There’s just not. The only responsible action given the need and the economic reality is to look to drive down costs while maintaining or increasing access. 

Scholarships Go Disproportionately To White Students

Scholarships Go Disproportionately To White Students

From Yglesias, today:

The issue here isn’t racial discrimination, it’s a symptom of the fact that the incentive structure of American higher education is totally screwy. Schools want to produce two things. One is rich alumni who give them money, and the other is high ratings from US News and World Report. Both goals can be pursued either by investing resources in recruiting better inputs or else by investing resources in doing a better job of teaching. It turns out to be more cost-effective to invest in recruiting better inputs.

Healthcare swallows everything

Healthcare swallows everything

Government spending as a percentage of GDP

This is basically the story all over America:

John Arnold, director of the Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting, said that Medicaid and other health-care expenses are predicted to grow to as much as 40 percent of the state budget by 2015. That will force the state to cut higher education funding because there are few other options, he said.

And that’s just at the state level. Take a look at the chart at the top if you want to know where Pell Grants are going to go…

It’s maybe fun to talk about why costs of college went up, and about whether we are bloated or starved to death. It’s fun to take a stand and say — look, we should just hold out for the money we need to keep things operating this way, there is no problem.

But it’s all pretty irrelevant. I’m about as progressive a person as one gets, and I’ve been in the trenches fighting for change. But the economic dynamics of the coming health care crisis mean we will have to spend less per student in the very near future, period. There’s not a believable scenario where that doesn’t happen. The question is only how fast and what the change looks like.

A while back, the meme that Broadband Swallows Everything was floating around the ed-tech world — I think that’s looking the wrong direction. It’s healthcare and an aging population that’s going to bring state-funded education to its knees in the next 10 years; every other influence is trivial by comparison.

On The Innovative University

I read a ton of books on the history of higher education, how change happens in higher education, and how technology will change education, etc. Stuff going back to Boyer’s 1987 book College, Lion Gardiner’s 1994 work on redesigning higher education, to the more recent explosion of books on re-engineering what we do (I’m sure you all know the books). 

But I’ve often found the visionary books to be detached from reality to some extent — proposing courses of actions that show an illiteracy of how colleges actually operate and the multiple functions they serve. And I’ve found that people that write about the system from the inside, the people that do get how change is made in higher ed often suffer from a really reduced sense of the possibilities. 

This is maybe the first visionary book that I feel actually grapples with higher education as it actually exists. And it does it by making sense of how universities and colleges act, instead of just throwing up its (metaphorical book) hands and declaring higher ed insane, or greedy, or both.

Publishing Gives Hints of Revival, Data Show

Publishing Gives Hints of Revival, Data Show

The “buggy-whip” theory of industry collapse has never really sat well with me. You know, the idea that the buggy-whip producers couldn’t see that cars would collapse their industry, etc.

Here’s the problem — did anyone back then really produce (and only produce) buggy-whips? I imagine most “buggy-whip makers” were really leather workers and did quite alright as the nations GDP rose and folks could afford more leather goods.

I guess in some way that validates the analogy. But my point is that it is not as dismal a proposition to be a buggy-whip maker as many people seem to believe it is. The industry morphs, but the players remain the same.

In any case, far from being eaten by broadband, publishers seem to be entering a golden age of profits. Maybe that’s temporary. But I have to say it’s not what a lot of people predicted would be the case 18 years into the Web, and it’s worthwhile to look at the reasons why this particular content industry is not imploding and recalibrate our predictions.

A Means A: Solving the problem of unbundled credentialing

A Means A: Solving the problem of unbundled credentialing

I am suspicious of any idea posted on econlib.org, to say the least. I mean really suspicious.

But this is an interesting point a poster there is making — we need to come up with a hybrid solution to credentialing.

Why? Well, unbundled credentialing tends to lead to teaching to the test, and ultimately narrows curriculum, as we have seen (in spades) in the K-12 space in America.

Bundled credentialing, on the other hand, tends to get a bit incestuous over time — “Of course our students are competent, they get an average grade of B+!”, etc.  

The solution, says this guy, is to use a third party agency to “Test to the teaching”:

One solution might be an independent assessment center that is sort of a cross between the Advanced Placement testing system and Swarthmore College’s outside examiners. Like the AP tests, it would use a rigorous grading system that people could trust. Like the Swarthmore system, the examiners would show some flexibility in adapting to any course syllabus, so that the syllabus and the curriculum would come from the bottom up (teachers and students) rather than from the top down (the rigid curriculum of the AP folks).*

(*What if a teacher of, say, organic chemistry, offers a dumbed-down course that omits a number of difficult topics? The folks at A Means A would write an exam and give a grade based on the curriculum, but they would also report that the curriculum failed to cover topics that ordinarily are covered in organic chemistry.)

There’s a number of problems with this, certainly, but it represents better thought about the unbundling of credentialing than I often see elsewhere.