Obama, the suburbs, higher education, and HENRYs

Peter Wood ties Stanley Kurtz’s new book about Obama and the suburbs to another interesting issue: the higher education bubble.

I have argued that among the factors most likely to precipitate the crash is the disaffection of families earning over $100,000 a year. Many of these families have seen the value of their home equity fall but have, with hard effort, kept their noses above water during the recession. The income bracket of $100,000 to $250,000—called “HENRYs” in marketing parlance, for High Earners who are Not Rich Yet—are a key sector for colleges and universities. These are the folks who borrow to the hilt to afford overpriced college tuitions. The bracket above the HENRYs, those earning over $250,000, are another key to higher-education finance. There are only about two million such families, but they are the top-end consumers of expensive colleges. Their willingness to pay top dollar is what signals to the HENRYs that the tuitions must be worth it.

These high income families—$100,000 and above—are concentrated in the suburbs. I have already written (Helium, Part 2) on the likelihood that these families will be forced to rethink their longstanding assumptions about the value of expensive colleges in light of the huge tax increases set to kick in after the 2012 presidential election. In the “ecology of higher education,” we are about to see what happens when we torch the canopy.

Kurtz’s book suggests that the assault on the HENRYs and the $250 K plus crowd goes beyond income and capital-gains taxes. We are in an era of emergent policy aimed at deconstructing what makes the suburbs attractive to the affluent. The “regionalists” advocate something called “regional tax base sharing,” which essentially means using state legislative power to take tax receipts from the suburbs to pay for services in the cities. The suburbanites will be faced with the unpleasant choice between lower levels of service for their own communities or raising their own taxes still higher to make up for the money they will “share” with their urban neighbors…

These are matters that faculty members, even those who enjoy life on campuses idyllically tucked away in verdant suburbs, will probably weigh lightly. But the regionalists are, in effect, working hard to diminish the attractions of the communities that form the social base for the prestige-oriented upscale colleges and universities that have for the last sixty or seventy years defined the aspirational goals of the American middle class. The war on the suburbs combined with the large increase in the tax burden may be the pincers that pop the bubble.

America is a suburban country so it makes sense that HENRYs and some of the colleges that appeal to them are located in the suburbs.

There are larger issues here. College is tied to a key foundation of suburban life: children should be cared for and given the opportunities that will help them get ahead in life. Particularly in the post-World War II era, going to college is a necessary suburban rite of passage that insures a middle-class or higher lifestyle. If college becomes too expensive for this group, it will be fascinating to see how they adjust.

Positive results for teaching statistics by computer

A recent study shows that students taking an online statistics course utilizing software from Carnegie Mellon do better than students who take a hybrid course with a classroom classroom:

The study, called “Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities,” involved students taking introductory statistics courses at six (unnamed) public universities. A total of 605 students were randomly assigned to take the course in a “hybrid” format: they met in person with their instructors for one hour a week; otherwise, they worked through lessons and exercises using an artificially intelligent learning platform developed by learning scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative.

Researchers compared these students against their peers in the traditional-format courses, for which students met with a live instructor for three hours per week, using several measuring sticks: whether they passed the course, their performance on a standardized test (the Comprehensive Assessment of Statistics), and the final exam for the course, which was the same for both sections of the course at each of the universities…

The robotic software did have disadvantages, the researchers found. For one, students found it duller than listening to a live instructor. Some felt as though they had learned less, even if they scored just as well on tests. Engaging students, such as professors might by sprinkling their lectures with personal anecdotes and entertaining asides, remains one area where humans have the upper hand.

But on straight teaching the machines were judged to be as effective, and more efficient, than their personality-having counterparts.

As someone who regularly teaches both Statistics and Social Research (a research methods course), these findings are intriguing. I understand the urge to curb costs while still providing a good education. However, I have three questions that perhaps go beyond these findings:

1. Are there any benefits for students from being in a classroom for three hours a week beyond learning outcomes? Is there a social dimension to the classroom setting that could enhance learning? For example, it is common for professors to have students work in groups or with each other, sometimes with the idea that being able to teach or effectively help another student will increase a student’s learning. Also, I wonder about learning becoming strictly an individualistic activity. Sure, there are ways to do this online (discussion boards, using Skype, etc.) but does this replicate the kind of discussions faculty and students can have in a classroom?

2. Are there any professors in the United States who might secretly welcome not having to teach statistics?

3. Is there a point in a discipline, like statistics, where the difficulty of the subject matter makes it more helpful to have a live instructor? This study looked at introductory stats courses but would the findings be the same if the courses covered more advanced topics that require more “intuition” and “art” than pure steps or facts?

h/t Instapundit

Should college be marketed as the best four years of life?

John J. Miller points out that the idea that college should be the best four years of one’s life, brought to his attention by a University of Michigan mailer, is an odd goal.

I tend to agree – and have a few thoughts about this:

1. This is a terrible setup for the rest of life. If students think that life is downhill after college (which is implied with sayings like this), then this could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps it suggests that the college life (or at least its lifestyle) should be extended before one has to “get real” and pursue more adult goals. Adult life certainly is different than college life – but this idea suggests it is the peak of life and adult life, in comparison, is lacking.

2. How does this work for students who find that college is not the best four years of their life? The college experience does not appeal to everyone nor is it perfect. If you were not thrilled with everything in college, should you feel guilt? Remorse? Did you miss something? College is not just a fun time – it is a period of transition from being a teenager to being an adult and this can be a difficult process.

3. When did this shift from college being preparation to college being “an experience” happen? Which is the more important goal, particularly for a society that hopes to have productive and learned citizens? At the same time, if one is paying $20-50k a year for college, it had better be a good experience…