Sharing Blame for the Grad Student Tax

I was happy to see that the current Senate version of the tax reform bill left the tuition waiver in place for both undergrads and grads, and I am REALLY hoping that that doesn’t change during mediation while they hash out the final bill.  Taxing students on tuition waivers seems like a cheap shot at people who don’t have all that much income to begin with.  And, from a political standpoint, seems like a pretty dumb idea since it will tick off a large percentage of an entire population demographic.  I’m hoping it was just bluster by the House knowing the Senate would take it out.  Anyway, enough on that.

I have mentioned in a couple previous blog posts that I am frustrated with where we are as far as the cost of higher ed goes.  I think we keep throwing money at the system in an attempt to help students and we really just end up inflating costs without a commensurate increase in education received.  We add more paperwork and overhead and the like and in the end, we’re not all that farther than we were before.  Anyway, interesting article that ties that in a little bit with the current tax situation:

Worth a read if you’ve been following the tax reform bill.  I’m glad it doesn’t try to remove blame from congress for the removing the waiver but I thought they made some excellent points about what higher ed has done to exacerbate the problem.  Some of the more interesting comments are:

“Like grants, tuition is another way the university makes money from science. While tuition looks mainly like an artifact of accounting for most graduate students in the humanities and social sciences (where the university just pays itself for tuition), in the natural and applied sciences, tuition is a way for the university administration to get more money out of the public. As the university bulletin explains, “for a standard [research assistant] appointment in addition to the salary, the grant pays half of the tuition.” In other words, the government — through the National Science Foundation, NIH, NASA and other agencies — is transferring $20,500 per year per research assistant into Yale’s accounts, at a time when the university endowment is at an all-time high above $27 billion. This tuition transfer certainly totals in the millions every year for Yale alone, and must add up to a mind-boggling sum across the country. Again, this is money that the public pays universities for granting graduate students the privilege of working for them to create more wealth for those same universities.”

“The most self-serving reason university administrators continue to charge tuition, though, is to use the fact that they waive payment of it as propaganda. To oppose our unionization, the administration here has repeatedly cited this money that we never see as evidence of our privileged status, suggesting that our income is much higher than it actually is (the exact argument they now want us to deter Congress from making).

Adding all these facts up leads to a disturbing conclusion. Yale doesn’t want the Republican bill to pass, and neither do I. But it would appear that Yale and most other elite universities would rather maintain a steady income stream from the public and their ability to disavow our value to the institutions — even at the cost of our potential individual financial insolvency. Increasingly corporate university administrations have helped create the situation where the Republicans could try something like this. They could still change course in a way that would moot the tax bill: They could recognize that graduate student workers add value and stop charging tuition.”

Yes, it’s lazy of me to just copy and past so much but I thought the article made some good points and I didn’t want to summarize.  I mostly found it interesting when they mention that institutions talk all the time about how much they have to pay for our tuition and how we are privileged that they pay it for us and so our income is higher than we actually see.  And yet, when congress uses the same rationale, they don’t want it to fly.  I am totally aware that there are costs to administering the paperwork for us to graduate and there are overhead costs for equipment (which we still often pay for from project funds), but if we aren’t taking classes, lets drop tuition or lower it to a reasonable level commensurate with the services the university actually provides (ignoring the fact that we are actually bring money into the university for cheap labor).  Turns out Yale actually only charges fourth-year PhD students to $600 per term, likely recognizing that these students aren’t taking classes and are just low-wage employees of the university.  If universities could take a similar approach to grad students everywhere, we would have more money for actual research and the tax waiver would be almost moot because our “additional income” from getting the waiver would be a lot smaller and unlikely to push anyone into a higher tax bracket.  Would it be annoying to pay taxes on that $600, of course!  But we’d be a lot better off that paying taxes on tuition rates (and out-of-state fees) that we now have.

Haha, so that was a longer rant that expected.  I really hope the whole discussion becomes meaningless when the final tax bill comes out, but either way, it’s probably still worth revisiting how we bill grad students when it comes to tuition and other fees by recognizing we are employees of the university and probably shouldn’t be paying so much for the opportunity to be an employee.  Not likely to happen (especially not before we graduate), but one can hope.



Transparency in the Path Forward

Ever heard of a “Unit Record” in higher ed?  Me neither.  I was browsing articles about higher ed reform though and was pointed to this article:

Turns out to be a pretty cool idea.  The idea of a unit record is being proposed in the US Senate’s “College Transparency Act” and would “tell students how others with their backgrounds have succeeded at an institution, and help point them towards schools best suited to their unique needs and desired outcomes.”  The system, housed at the National Center for Education Statistics would include information intended for students, institutions, and policy makers regarding the type of jobs graduates in a given major and a given college might get after college and also potential earnings.

I think it’s a great idea.  Other than buying a house (or a REALLY expensive car), there will likely never be a single investment someone makes as financially massive as choosing to go and where to go to college.  There are also few decisions that can be as pivotal in determining what direction you take in life as picking a major.  I think providing more information, actual statistics in this case, to prospective students is a great way to help them make more informed decisions.  I think data like this may also help institutions see areas where they need to improve or where they should be spending more resources.  I would hope it would help colleges realize they need to find ways to ensure what students learn at college translates to actual jobs and actual earnings.

There are some concerns regarding privacy because large-scale data releases may violate FERPA.  It’ll be interesting to see what they can work out, but the bill currently prohibits including identifying data such as “health data, student discipline records or data, elementary and secondary education data, exact address, citizenship or national origin status, course grades, religion” so they are at least aware of potential issues and are looking for ways to address them.

I think the system would be a great idea.  And, apparently, even the author of the original ban on a unit record-type system think so too so the outlook is optimistic on something like this getting passed.  Hopefully this will improve the college experience (maybe even lower costs, who knows?) for new students or at least give them less of an excuse to complain if they end up in a less than favorable situation after college.  Let’s hope not.

Changes to Higher Ed

It’s interesting to write this blog after listening to presentations on higher ed in several different countries all of the world.  I walked away realizing that there are definitely things that could be improved in the US system, but overall, I’m pretty happy with the system.  People come from all over the world to study here because of what we have.  So yea, I feel pretty lucky to be studying here.

Happy thoughts aside, of course there are things we can change.  School is too expensive.  I think we’ve over subsidized education without limiting cost increases and now to some extent we are stuck.  I think we encourage (read “force”) people to attend expensive schools and take out loans to get degrees that won’t get them a job they want.  Or that pays enough to comfortably live with the debt they’ve accrued.  I think we need to be realistic when advising potential students about their choices, the cost of college, and what comes after college.  In the end though, I’m glad we give people the option to attend college, even if it be through loans, I just wish we were more upfront and realistic with people before we did.  On that vein, I think we should encourage more attendance at community college for those who can not or do not want to pay for more expensive colleges when they are working on their gen eds.  There is the Freshman Year for Free movement and maybe that will help.  I think the system will improve when more private donors support movements like that instead of just throwing more government money at a broken system and hoping it gets fixed.  Maybe it’s not a change directly to higher education, but I think we should take a better approach to vocational training.  Dean DePauw mentioned that other countries don’t look down on vocational training, as often occurs in the US, and I wish we’d do the same.  I think college is a great opportunity and I love that we have enough colleges and other opportunities that most people can go if they want.  But, I don’t think we should force people to go to college who don’t want to be there.  I think we should still encourage people to get as much education as they can, but if you can make bank as an electrician or a handyman and that’s more your thing, do it.

I also think we should reduce the amount of money we spend on administration and programs.  We put so much effort into “making the next center of technical expertise” or any number of other efforts that really do not improve teaching or learning and just increase costs.  Looking at the increase in administrators relative to teaching/researching faculty, it’s kind of a sad state.  Not that I don’t think we need administrators, but streamlining the system a bit and cutting back on paperwork and meaningless busywork certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Disagreeing Without Being Disagreeable – Being Kind When of a Different Mind

Face it.  We will disagree.  You, me, everyone.  I find it ironic that we live in a world where people even disagree with the right of others to disagree.  Think about that for a second.

I was pondering topics to write about related to higher education and the thought popped into my mind that disagreement is a topic that has never been a more vocal part of higher education.  I believe that disagreement is a vital part of learning.  I don’t think we have to disagree (or agree) on EVERYTHING, but I think it’s healthy for us to form our own opinions and let others form THEIR own opinions.  We learn through mistakes, correction, and discussion.  We learn from exposure to people of different backgrounds and cultures and opinions.  I don’t think we learn from insults, and i don’t think we learn when we think the worst of, and often say the worst to, people we disagree with.  I was reading an article by Gordon B Hinckley, former president of the Mormon church on the topic of disagreeing without being disagreeable and fellowshipping those who hold different beliefs and opinions.  I found some of the quotes in the article, while written about religious differences, to be incredibly insightful on how we as college students, and people of the world in general, can work to have open and, dare I say kind, discussions with those with whom we disagree.

Here are a few quotes:

“Let us be involved in good community causes. There may be situations where, with serious moral issues involved, we cannot bend on matters of principle. But in such instances we can politely disagree without being disagreeable. We can acknowledge the sincerity of those whose positions we cannot accept. We can speak of principles rather than personalities.

In those causes which enhance the environment of the community, and which are designed for the blessing of all of its citizens, let us step forward and be helpful. …

… Teach those for whom you are responsible the importance of good civic manners. Encourage them to become involved, remembering in public deliberations that the quiet voice of substantive reasoning is more persuasive than the noisy, screaming voice of protest.”

“We can lower our voices a few decibels. We can return good for evil. We can smile when anger might be so much easier. We can exercise self-control and self-discipline and dismiss any affront levied against us.”

“May the Lord bless us to work unitedly to remove from our hearts and drive from our society all elements of hatred, bigotry, racism, and other divisive words and actions. The snide remark, the racial slur, hateful epithets, malicious gossip, and mean and vicious rumor-mongering should have no place among us.”

There’s more in the article that I liked, but those were some of my favorite snippets and I didn’t want to just paste the whole thing.  I’ll write a different blog on what I believe should change about higher education, but if there was one thing not explicitly related to the mechanics of higher education that I wish would change, it would be that we could truly make universities places where we can disagree without being disagreeable.  I would love them to be places where you don’t get insulted or embarrassed or intimated for having an unpopular opinion.  Are there people I will always disagree with?  Of course, but I hope that I, and all of us, can do our best to be willing to at least hear people out and actually be as inclusive as we say we are.

To finish, article includes a poem by Edwin Markham:

   He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

Lets wake up tomorrow and draw a bigger circle than we drew today.  You might be surprised at how grateful you are you included someone new, and they might be even more surprised you chose to include them.  Amazing how if we pass along kindness, it often comes back in kind. Have a good one!

General Education

I thought class today was interesting in spite of it wandering a bit.  Certainly provided an insight into the variety of general education curriculums in the US in both high school and college.  I found myself poking through several articles about gen ed in college and, unsurprisingly, found a wide range of opinions online ranging from proponents of liberal arts educations stating that MORE emphasis should be placed on gen ed to people who thought that gen ed requirements were pretty much the cause of all the problems with the US education system.  I found both extremes to be flawed, but there were some good points on each side.

I, personally, am a fan of gen ed requirements.  Did I have to take some classes I thought were boring or useless or fill-in-the-blank negative, of course!  But I think I still benefited from some of those classes, even if I wouldn’t have wanted to admit it at the time.  I was noticing during the international student presentations just how few countries allow students to enter college without choosing a major.  I found that surprising.  I can probably count on a couple hands the number of friends I had that ended up graduating in the same major they were leaning towards when they started.  I think far more of them learned, through gen ed courses and intro courses, what they wanted to pursue professionally after entering college.  Is that the most efficient way to get people from kindergarten to practice, no, but I think it’s a good way to do it.  I don’t know about most people, but I honestly had no idea what a lot of professions/majors/disciplines were actually like and what people in those disciplines actually did professionally when I left high school.  I was grateful for an opportunity to experience a wide range of fields and classes at a college level because it gave me a little more perspective on those things.  Maybe we could restructure to be more like some countries where you kind of head towards a certain major as early as middle school, but I’m grateful we get some flexibility to explore our own way.  I can imagine you’d end up with a lot of engineers who were engineers because their parents/teachers/schools told them to be an engineer if we had a system like that rather than people who actually chose the profession on their own in college.  I guess I prefer a system that may be less efficient but allows you more personal choice and freedom to choose as opposed to one that is more scripted.  I also think gen ed is good because it gives you experience in a wide range of fields.  I’ve been surprised at how beneficial it’s been to have some fluency (however rudimentary) in a lot of fields.  It’s been a benefit professionally because I’ve had opportunities to do a lot of cross-disciplinary work and have been able to use principles I’ve learned in non-major classes to improve my work.  I think too, that being a more well-rounded person educationally gives me a broader perspective on the world and may even help you be a better conversationalist.

There are obviously downsides like having to pay tuition for an extra year and spending an extra year in school.  Or having to write papers for a class you could care less about.  But, on the whole, I think GEs are worth it.

Faculty Reflections on MOOCs

I reviewed the article “Faculty members reflect on their experiences with digital teaching” posted here:

It was an interesting and recent article about the perspectives several Yale professors have after teaching MOOCs for the last year or so.  As of the time the article was posted, Yale offered 19 courses on Coursera with one other planned.  The topics span from history to philosophy to medicine to astronomy.  The faculty interviewed have all had positive experiences and are excited about expanding Yale’s MOOC offerings.  Not surprising they would be excited about it given the have been tasked specifically with expanding knowledge dissemination through Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning, but I thought they made some good points.

One comment made from Diana Kleiner was that, “online education makes it easier to learn at all times and in all places and thus situates education where it should be —at the epicenter of everyone’s lives — not just during the student years but as a lifelong endeavor.”  This seems to be a major benefit of MOOCs.  They give people of all ages and of most backgrounds the opportunity to learn something pretty much any time they want.  I was reading several articles and it seems like much of the “student body” for MOOCs is people who are already working professionals or are retired and just want to learn something new.  While they may not have much practical application, I think it’s neat to have that option.

Mary Tucker teaches a class called “Journey of the Universe” and noted:

“If we want to have a broader impact with ideas, clearly we need to engage with the digital world,” said Tucker. “Our scholarly books and articles will reach a relatively small audience, but a film like “Journey of the Universe” has already reached several million through its three-year broadcast on PBS and now through the Yale MOOCs available around the world. In the fall these courses will be offered in Chinese, which will extend their reach as well.”

This comment really highlights the major contribution of MOOCs which is the ability for these classes to have massively wider-scale dissemination than a standard course taught on a university campus.

I did find some interesting counter-articles or at least articles, which expressed concerns about how MOOCs were being implemented on campuses including this one:

Older article, but it raises some concerns that I imagine still are valid today.  Concerns included things like how to make sure MOOCs actually provided quality learning, compensation for professors and/or universities for courses provided,  how to integrate large-scale systems like Coursera with pre-existing online modulus provided, and the lack of input from professors when universities make their policies regarding MOOCs.  The later is one I’ve seen in a few articles and one that doesn’t surprise me too much.  It seems like these kind of policies are things that sound flashy and could be pushed heavily by administration as a PR move without actually consulting the professors who will be asked to provide these courses.  Some comments from the article that I found interesting were this one from Dr Robinson, chairman or Purdue’s University Senate:

“We know that leading institutions want to be seen at the leading edge of everything, but it’s very unclear to me and many other faculty how this is going to translate into something valuable and useful,” he said. “There’s very little evidence that what they’re doing is delivering quality learning.”

And this one from Dr Nikias, USC’s president:

“Other universities are increasingly offering online courses for free, with scant concern for whether enrollees ever complete a course,” he wrote. “Our goal, by contrast, is to ensure that the educational experience is reserved for only those students with the requisite interest and ability to meet our faculty’s high expectations…. [USC] does not intend to join the growing ranks of institutions that seek to franchise undergraduate education through the Internet or through smaller satellite campuses abroad.”

Clearly there are some issues and questions that need to be addressed and will continue to arise as MOOCs and other similar learning opportunities become avaialble, but these systems also provide some incredible opportunities for people to continue and life-long learning, regardless of their personal circumstances, and I think that’s great.