Why is College so Expensive?

American universities are among the best in the world, however, they are also among the most expensive. In this blog, I will go through a few of the expert opinions that offer an explanation to the constant increase of university prices. These expert opinions vary drastically with no single explanation that is unanimously agreed upon. The only objective truth is that tuition price has increased at a faster rate than both inflation and family income, making this a problem worth exploring.

The first group of experts argue that government aid has allowed universities to increase prices without facing consumer backlash. Since students are not having to pay out of pocket directly, because of government subsidies, they are less likely to react when prices aggressively increase. Furthermore, the lack of competition in non-profit universities has made faculty and administration less productive since they do not have to compete. This has led to an increased need for faculty hiring, while the productivity per faculty has decreased.

A second group of experts blame the problem on the university’s excessive spending habits. Such as spending million dollars on new buildings, amenities, and non-instructional staff. If you look at statistics for university hiring patterns, it is apparent that these institutions have decreased the number of professors they hire while increasing non-instructional staff such as counsels, athletic coordinators, lawyers… To account for the additional expenses, these universities started relying on part time instructors and graduate students to teach classes and save cost, however, the cost savings are not enough which led to the increase in tuition.

A third group of experts, particularly economists, argue that the cause is simply the economy. They assert that the service industries which involve highly educated people have seen a similar price increase to higher education. Notable examples include the price of dentists, lawyers, and doctors. They also argue that higher education suffers from an economic phenomenon called the “cost disease” where the service provided does not change through time, but the price of the service must increase due to the economy. Professors still stand in front of a class and teach, as they did decades ago, however, professors are highly educated people that can commend high salaries and thus even though their function did not change, their salaries have increased which has led to an increase in prices.

This is a very brief and simplified explanation of the most popular opinion regarding the increase in the price of higher education. The topic itself is very controversial and nuanced. However, I hope I was able to deliver a simplified glimpse into the problem.

Fixing the basics, the future of the university

When I came to Virginia tech to get my PhD, I was expecting to take courses of a much higher caliber than what I was used to in my undergraduate institution in Lebanon. To give credit where credit is due, I have taken really good courses taught  by exceptional professors. Unfortunately, I have also taken courses that are way worse than the worse course that I have taken in my undergrad. I am not going to directly address why these courses were so bad, however, I would like to point out that in my opinion the university’s lack of monitoring and tenure may be the two main culprits. Let me further explain, professors who already have tenure, or are along tenure track, are expected to teach, do research and get involved in service. The problem arises when a very good researcher is forced into teaching, even though this is not his strong suit. Another problem is when professors who want to teach are allowed to, even though they are not good at it. The result is a very bad educational experience for students who are caught in the cross fire.

So, what I would like to see in higher education is an increased emphasis on the quality of teaching. Might it be through more rigorous selection of qualified teachers or the separation of research and teaching. I am not suggesting that professors chose between either teaching or research, rather my suggestion is to at least keep teaching a choice for professors. If this leads most professors to pick research, fine, hire people who actually want, and can, teach. For the professors that actually chose to teach alongside their research, i would expect that the quality of their class is way better than a colleague that is forced. On the flip side, not every professor that wants to teach should be allowed to, a specialized department should evaluate the teaching skills of every professor in an effort to offer the best experience for students. At the end of the day, students are at the heart of every university and actions should be taken to preserve their best interest.


Technology, Give Me Back My Attention!!!!

When it comes to multitasking, I have always known that it is not a thing, at least not for me. When I want to focus on my work, I always prefer to be in a calm quiet space where I can concentrate. Working while having distractions such as music or tv are reserved for easy and boring tasks that do not require my full concentration. However, something that has recently plagued me is my inability to do nothing. Ironically, I find it hard to concentrate when reading long articles or when sitting in class, yet at every moment during my day I must pay attention to something. Let me clarify, as soon as I wake up, I find myself having breakfast while watching some random YouTube video. While on the bus heading to the university, I will be looking at social media and listening to music. Whenever I have free time from my work, I will be on some platform or randomly browsing the web for stuff I don’t need. It’s like I lost the ability to just sit, relax, and do nothing. Although at first glance this seems benign, this behavior is very weird and wasteful especially since I have basically no recollection of most of the stuff I go through.

Having read the first chapter of Clive Thompson’s “Smarter Than You Think” book. I definitely agree that working in tandem with technology has made us much more productive and smarter (Although his example of how humans team up with a machine to play better chess than the machine itself does not hold anymore these days). Personally, working in a field such as robotics, I could not manage without technology on my side, from browsing journals, to solving long equations, to creating complicated simulations …  In this context, technology is my best friend. However, technology has consumed all my attention, in both good and bad ways. So where should the line be drawn? Is centering one’s life around technology become the new standard of living? Or is it simply the case that I have a weak will power when it comes to restricting myself from using technology?

I am not completely sure whether this problem is unique to me or shared by others. If I were to guess, I am pretty sure a lot of people are going through the same thing. On this note, I would like to turn it over to you and hear our thoughts on this matter.



Some Thoughts on the Current Education System


Let me begin by saying that during my undergrad I was the type of student that found most lectures boring, could not pay attention for more than a couple of minutes at a time, cared a lot about my grades and much less about learning, and skipped most of the classes when I could get away with it. That being said, I still think I got a really good education, a solid grasp of my domain, and even enjoyed some of the classes I took; else I would not have chosen to pursue a Ph.D. in the same discipline. The reason for that is that I interpreted courses as a path that leads me to my goal, and not my actual goal.

The first issue I would like to point out which makes the college (I am strictly talking about college here) education system seem broken is the lack of proper guidance that students receive before picking their majors. I know from personal experience and from observing the people around me that the majority of students rarely pick a major based on passion or interest, and when asked why they have chosen to pursue their major, the most prevalent answers were “Why not” and “The market demands it”. With people making such choices why does it come as a surprise that most students want to survive through their education? If a student is passionate about his major, sitting through 3 to 4 years of college is a very small sacrifice that will yield dividends in the coming 30 to 40 years of work. My point is, in many cases in many cases, guiding people towards a major that suits them is a better solution as compared to making courses more “barrable”.

The second point I would like to touch on is that yes, the education system is not perfect, but with the current economy of scale it’s very hard to come up with a system that is both better for students and scalable. How is it possible for a professor to interact with students at a personal level when the class has a 100+ students? You might say that a class should not contain that many students and I agree, but again I come back to the issue of scale, when 10000 students apply for one specific major, the university hast to either reject most of them  (you can’t do that) or hire more professors (not a very financially sound decision for the university).

To wrap up, is the college education system perfect? Definitely not, I can point out so many things that are current being done wrong, but overall is it broken? I don’t think that either. I think that the way our current society works has forced the education system along its current trajectory and instead of trying to fix the education system, I would suggest looking at why the education system got to this point in the first place, fix those core problems, then try to fix the current problem which is a consequence rather than the cause.

Open Access Robotics Journal

Since i work in the field of robotics, I have chosen the Robotics Open Access Journal published by MDPI (Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute). This institute has been established in 1996 and is currently based in Basel, Switzerland with the main goal of fostering open scientific exchange across all disciplines.

The main values that this journal abides by are first and foremost being open access in order to share the latest scientific research with the biggest audience possible. They work on reviewing and publishing submitted work in a very fast and efficient manner. The first decision regarding a submitted paper is made in under a month and once accepted, the paper is published within a week,  all in an effort to keep the published work relevant for the longest period of time possible. MDPI also believes in simplicity and flexibility where they try to keep the entire process of submissions and review under one easily accessible umbrella, in addition to always being on the look for feedback from authors, editors and readers on how to enhance their experience and better meet their needs.

MDPI defines open access as peer reviewed literature that is freely available without subscription or the barrier of price, is immediately released upon acceptance and the published materials can be used without obtaining permission as long as the work is properly cited. They believe that their open access initiative can largely help research spread worldwide, including developing countries and the interested general public. Finally, MDPI believes that open access enriches scholarly communication and should coexist with the other society based publishing initiatives.

All published articles are in full open access under the creative commons license. The cost of publishing a journal is 350 Swiss frank or equivalently 351.42 USD.



Why I hate Online Courses, but like MOOCs

Well if I’m completely honest I have always hated online classes. The main reason in my opinion is because I am in the heavily theoretical field of electrical engineering where most of the lecture consist of explaining hard, and sometimes non-intuitive, concepts through a myriad of equations. Its hard enough to concentrate while siting in class, and it becomes much harder online when you can barely hear or see the professor, you have the absolute freedom to do anything you want, and having an actual conversation is harder than using Morse code to communicate. All joking aside, my experience with online learning has not been great. However, a big part of my disappointment comes due to having high expectations, especially when you pay thousands of dollars to attend the class.

MOOCs on the other hand, assuming they stick with open access and free, could be a really good way to obtain a quality education. I’m willing to put in the extra effort needed to succeed in an online class for the convenience of obtaining a free education from home. Life is a compromise, I can settle with a less interactive and personal experience if this is balanced with having a free and open to all course. However, once I pay a significant amount of money to obtain a quality education, I will not settle for anything less than the optimal. On a different note, MOOCs can help bridge the gap between people of different economic standing by providing advanced education to whomever wants it. Removing money from the equation opens the door to many people you are skilled, talented, and determined to obtain a quality education, but could not afford it.

My Experience with Adapting Teaching to Different Cultures

Although I have never had a classroom teaching experience, I was a private tutor for around five years in my undergrad, and a GTA responsible for a circuits/electronics help group during my first year at tech. Even though my teaching style never changed, I quickly realized that I had to tweak how I interact with students to cater for my new and more diverse audience.

As most Lebanese people, i tend to be very sarcastic in my daily life interactions. And during my run as a private tutor, I always used sarcasm to entertain and create a bond with my students. This approach was very successful and students responded well, especially since most, if not all, of them where middle to high school boys who had the tendency to be mischievous. I could always capture their attention for around 2 hours, but at the cost of spending the better part of around 30 min discussing random off-topic  issues. All in all my approach was successful, leading to improvement in my student’s understanding of the material.

Now lets jump to when i started my GTA here at Tech. I was quite confident in my approach, and, as expected, many students were able to relate with my friendly and sarcastic personality. However, others did not. I ended up with a group of students who specifically waited for my help, and others that completely avoided me. At first this phenomenon was pretty strange to me, I
wasn’t sure exactly what was happening. However,  after a while, i started to notice the dumbfound faces of students each time I gave a sarcastic remark. I have to admit, it took me a while to realize that people were misinterpreting me, especially because i come form a country where sarcasm is so deeply rooted in society, it has become second nature. After this realization, I had to change my interaction approach. Primarily, I tried to tone down my sarcasm until i figured out how much the student I am currently helping would appreciate. After all my purpose is to help all student, not just the ones that can relate to my character.

As a closing remark, I am always true to my self, I never completely changed my interaction approach, rather I adapted my interactions to my audience. I tried to find a balance between the way I want to interact with people and the way people want to be interacted with.

Don’t Judge a book by its cover, but still!!

I have to admit that before reading the article “The Case Against Grades” I was extremely biased. As soon as I read the title, I directly knew what to do next:
read the article, bash the article every chance i get, criticize the article in my blog. However, i quickly realized that the author Alfie Kohn is making very good points, and looking back on my own education, i have been the victim of many downsides of grading which include:

>Diminishing students’ interest in whatever they’re learning.
>Creating a preference for the easiest possible task
>Reducing the quality of students’ thinking
>Increasing the levels of cheating

However, as much as i do agree with these points, I still think grading is necessary, at least in advanced levels of education. I definitely see how letting go of grades for children can enhance the learning experience, i mean giving a 7 year old an F isn’t really helping anyone. However, i would definitely feel more comfortable knowing that my surgeon can identify every single organ in my body, or that the pilot knows what the big red button does. Don’t take the previous examples too literally, but try to see the underlying point. If no grading exists how can we differentiate between people who are qualified and people who are not. The article suggest personalized feedback, or meaningful assessment, but once other people have access to these assessment this becomes another way of grading, basically all we end up doing is manipulating semantics. If i know that a professor is going to be writing my recommendation letter, i will naturally tend to put much more effort toward his work, and less towards other’s work. If this sounds familiar, well its similar to what grading does to people.

At the end of the day i don’t think we are stuck with only one of two options: keep grading as is or completely get rid of it. We should focus on reducing the harm caused by grading, but at the same time acknowledge that grading does still have the benefit of at least giving a perspective of a person’s qualifications ( again i agree that qualifications are not entirely based on grades). I will end by saying that a person can be passionate about a career, but passion does not translate into competence.



My Experience with Favoritism, Was I Unethical??

When I saw that the topic of this week’s blog is Ethics, the first thing that popped into my mind was the peer review system. However, I have decided against this topic since many people are likely to cover it. Instead, I would like to share a story from my undergrad involving favoritism in force adding students to classes. Admittedly, this story involves an ethics violation by both my advisor and I. I’ll leave it to you guys to judge on whether or not my actions were justified.

The story begins on the first semester of my undergraduate studies. My university follows the American standard of education, and courses are picked almost identically to how they are picked here at tech. The exception is the first semester where your advisor must register your courses and you do not have the power to do it yourself. After the registration process, I ended up with 4 courses on MWF and 1 course on TTH. For more background, back in the day I was not motorized, and proper public transportation is basically nonexistent which transformed a 30 min drive to campus into an 1h 30 min trip involving 4 buses and at least 20-30 min of walking (assuming it’s a nice sunny day).

Understandably, on the day of drop and add I was planning to drop the TTH course and force add the same course on MWF. When I went to my advisor, he refused to sign my force add request stating that I will not get force added to the course. Note that my advisor does not have any say on whether or not my force add request is going to get accepted, he only needs to sign the paper, so I can file it. Additionally, a couple of my friends who also wanted to transition where able to get their signatures right away from their advisors. After a couple of minutes of arguing I asked him to drop the course and register me in some free elective. He bluntly refused stating that this course should be taken in the first semester (There is no rules that forces me to do that, it is just usually recommended since it was an introductory course to engineering).

Feeling that a 3-hour commute to attend a 1hr 30 min class is not justifiable and that I can spend this time studying or doing something useful, I contacted a professor (an old acquaintance) in the department of business asking her for help. After explaining the situation, she contacted the dean’s secretary, explained the situation, and sent me to meet her. There, the secretary accompanied me to my advisor’s office, where he very gladly signed my papers and even stated, and I translate: “You came back with a powerful ally”. After this process, the secretary filed my papers and I got the 35th seat in the MWF class which was the maximum physical capacity of the class. Admittedly, there was at least 10 people I knew that wanted that seat and I was able to get it only because I called in a favor.

Back in the day, when this incident happened, I was very mad at my advisor and really glad I was able to “beat” him. Now that I reflected on the incident, I noticed that I also behaved in a somewhat unethical manner. That being said, I do not regret my actions and I’m pretty happy with the outcome. So what do you guys thinks, were my actions justified? Was my advisor allowed to deny my signature even though it’s not his decision? was my advisor allowed to deny my request for a free elective, even though I was legally allowed to do so? Or was I at fault, and should have conceded? Eager to hear different perspectives.





Why is Gaming So Enjoyable, Yet Studying is So Hard?

Anyone who has played video games knows that gaming is not easy. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that to become a professional gamer requires the same amount of effort needed for a graduate degree. However, I have always found gaming to be highly entertaining, and studying not so much. so why is that exactly?

I think the first, and most important, aspect that differentiates gaming from studying is the positive annotation attached to gaming. To explain this point, I will use the example of reading. To many, this is a very nice and enjoyable way to spend time, however, I never could associate reading with fun because of all the reading assignments I had to do in school. Gaming has always been about having a good time, even though in many cases it can be frustratingly hard, while studying always relates to long hours of boredom, even though the material is interesting.

Second, comes the stakes associated with each activity. If you lose in a video game you can always restart and improve, however, if you fail the test you might not have a chance to make it up. This allows people to enjoy the game and learn on their own pace rather than having to worry and grind to pass a test.

The third and final point I would like to make is instant gratification. I know this is a controversial point and probably a counter argument to gaming but hear me out. Each time I’m facing a tough problem I can’t solve or fail at a task at hand it always makes me feel better when I open a game and crush everybody else. Studying is associated with a long-term plan and often one does not reap the fruits of his education until years to come. This makes justifying studying that much harder especially when bombarded by assignments and exams.

On a closing note, I don’t expect studying to be as fun as gaming, nor do I think it should be. Gaming can be a great way to blow off some steam while studying to build your future.