Thursday, March 13, 2014

Change of Venue

The Provost's Blog is moving to the Hofstra University News Site. You can find the latest posts at

Monday, March 3, 2014

Weather and Admissions

A few weeks ago, I met a good friend for dinner. It was in between snow storms and I vividly remember how slippery the restaurant parking lot was. Once I got into the restaurant, a few minutes before my friend arrived, I was one of only two customers in this large restaurant. And almost as soon as my friend arrived, the other person left. We had the restaurant to ourselves. In this terrible winter in the northeast, having restaurants almost empty - even during normally busy times - has become the norm rather than the exception. Clearly, many businesses suffered. In fact there was a front page story in USA Today on February 17th that talked about how the "Brutal Winter Stymies Shipping," specifically how stalled shipments have had a negative "ripple" effect on the economy. The impact on the airlines was also widely reported with 75,000 canceled flights since December 1st.

It's not hard to identify areas of the economy that falter when the weather impacts day to day activities in a significant way. Hurricane Sandy had that impact; the recent snow storms provide another significant example. It is also not hard to identify sectors of the economy that do better when the fury of nature makes itself felt. Snow blower sales have, I am sure, been impressive. And snow melting salt sales have without question exceeded virtually all expectations. Teenagers have also done well shoveling driveways. But what about colleges' admissions, both undergraduate as well as graduate?

Many of us work with sophisticated econometric admissions prediction models. These simulation models include more and more variables and more and more and more data. The models predict the future based on the past and the more things remain as they had been, the more likely the simulations are accurate. But what happens when the weather is far worse than the previous years? Do fewer families visit campuses? Do fewer students decide to go to colleges and universities in the hard hit areas? Both New Orleans and the Hurricane Sandy impact areas seem to suggest that weather challenges may not necessarily adversely impact admissions. Even if initial visits to the campus are down, admissions can be fine. I think this rough winter will also not adversely impact admissions. I am hoping there will not be a weather related transfer effect but we won't know the reality until sometime in the summer. On the graduate level, where many students work full time as well as pursue an advanced degree, I think there will be an effect that favors hybrid and online programs.

So for anyone who believes that their simulation model will be an accurate predictor, please remember that there is so much not under our control that a model's accuracy always is somewhat uncertain. Hopefully, however, when there are surprises, more will be positive than negative.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Online and there is no choice

In a recent consultant’s report, in a section where the discussion focused on online degree programs, the report noted that 34% of the master’s degrees in education are earned through online education. I’m not surprised and I fully expect that this number will exceed 50% within the next five years. What is surprising to me is that there is still so much resistance to this inevitable trend. More than a decade ago, I began regularly talking about the need for part-time graduate programs to move into a distance learning mode. There was not surprisingly substantial resistance. The key to this resistance is the legitimate fear that you lose the personal interaction so important to gaining the maximum educational benefit.

Fast forward to today and it is clear that there is a new legitimate fear, namely losing students from in-person programs to online programs. And if you don’t have the students, you also don’t have the ability to deliver a personal experience. The interim period of time has however demonstrated that the personal element is alive and well in online education. If you measure a personal experience by student faculty contact, there is more contact as well as more frequent contact in distance learning via distance learning. Students no longer come, in large numbers, to faculty open office hours. Even in the past these hours had their limitations: the hours were often scheduled (certainly not intentionally) during the times that students had other classes, or were off campus or were working. Now the ability to communicate through email or through a learning platform encourages on-going interaction and often at those times that are most helpful to students and their learning. I am not suggesting that emails sent to faculty in the middle of the night or at other inconvenient or inappropriate times, should be answered at those times. I am suggesting that if a student has a question on a Friday, there is no longer the need to wait until the following Tuesday to take advantage of available office hours.

For much of private higher education, there is the additional concern regarding the cost difference between online programs at public institutions and online programs at private institutions. Can private institutions compete when there are lower cost public alternatives? The answer is a clear yes in my opinion. We compete effectively with substantially smaller classes, more interaction with students, more support for students, and the use of faculty rather than teaching assistants. We stress an overall more personal experience. These same advantages carry over to online education and the same ability to compete is present even if the learning platform has changed.

In a world where our students—especially our graduate students—are carrying out multiple responsibilities and where time is a scarce commodity, it makes tremendous sense for these students to take advantage of the benefits of online learning. Leaving an office early, coming home late, and commuting are not irresistible nor are they part of the learning process. There are many more good learning options available than there were when many of us went to school. We should do all we can so that students can take advantage of them.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Beautiful Theater and Economics

The first Broadway show I ever attended was My Fair Lady. My mom took me to the show, and I remember enjoying it but being disappointed by the ending. My only other live theater experience, when I was growing up, was going with my mom to Radio City Music Hall every time there was a new Cary Grant film, and where every movie was accompanied by a live musical performance by the Rockettes. In those days I had not yet experienced my first economics course, not yet majored in economics in college and not yet earned my PhD in economics. Fast forward to today and from that very limited initial exposure to professional theater, I now try to see almost every Broadway musical but, given my educational background, I also think a lot about the economics of Broadway.

Last night I attended a performance of Beautiful, The Carole King Musical. The show, not surprisingly, focuses on the life of Carole King and also on the music of Carole, Carole and Gerry Goffin as well as the music of their contemporaries, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. I grew up with this music and I enjoy it as much today as I did growing up. Songs like “So Far Away,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “Walking in the Rain,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “Beautiful,” are classics that are easy to listen to and have broad audience appeal. In Broadway terms, the fact that the music is known and liked also helps the show succeed and takes some of the risk away from the almost speculative investing that is part of almost every Broadway show. You need to look no further away than Spiderman which at its closing, almost three years after it opened, still had a loss of 10’s of millions of dollars. If the story is good, and that was certainly the case for Beautiful, and the music memorable to begin with, the show has a greater chance of success and the risk involved in the investment is somewhat mitigated. Added evidence in support of this conclusion include Jersey Boys, Motown, and Mama Mia. But great music is not a guarantee of a great show or even a modestly successful show. All Shook Up featured great Elvis music and a great cast, but a story line that just didn’t work. Other Broadway shows featuring the hit songs of very popular groups have closed before I even had the chance to see them. Nevertheless, beginning with top notch music is a recipe for financial and artistic success

Because the costs of putting on a Broadway show are as high as they are, and because there is very substantial risk in the investment, the ticket costs of Broadway show are high and very much limit the potential audience. Turning shows into movies (Les Mis) and into television specials (The Sound of Music) can increase their accessibility. So can not-for-profit- family theaters such as New York’s New Victory. College and high school groups also enhance accessibility. I am an advocate for the arts and for the profound impact that theater can have. I know that the economics of professional theater requires high tickets prices to cover costs and recoup investments but I also know we need to do a better job in promoting accessibility and providing alternatives. When done right, the experience and the educational impact is certainly beautiful.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Right Priorities but…

I have been watching and listening to multiple state and local leaders articulating their priorities for next year. And much of what I hear is music to my ears. I support a longer school day, I support universal pre-K, and I support no increase and, if possible, a decrease in local and state taxes. What is there that anyone could argue with in this ambitious agenda?

If you take a look at much of the K-12 education that we already provide in our local communities, there are often areas where more could be done or more resources are necessary. I live in an excellent school district but we are nevertheless constrained. There are a significant number of excellent districts; and there are unfortunately too many districts that are far from excellent. Dated facilities, limited technology, dated textbooks, and limited support services are just a few of the symptoms of districts that are not able to provide what is needed. And please remember that the end result of not providing the inputs that are necessary is that the children in the schools are at a disadvantage, one that often lasts throughout their careers and their lives. These kids would benefit from universal pre-K and they would benefit from a longer school day but before we do more, with an added cost, we first need to make sure what we are doing is being done as well as possible.

Universal pre-K and a longer school day are very worthwhile objectives but cannot be implemented with the present resources and obviously require added funding. Where will that come from? Vastly greater government or school efficiency? At the margin perhaps there are a few resources that can be reallocated. But the bulk of what is necessary will have to come from added taxes. Either very visible taxes such as income or property taxes or more subtle taxes such as sales taxes or fees. Other than income taxes, much of our tax structure is regressive. Increased taxes can be positioned as impacting only the rich, or millionaires, or the top 1%. But if the tax is only on the top 1%, and if the increase is reasonable, I doubt that sufficient funds will be generated for what needs to be done. Who, then, do you tax next?

Robust growth can of course lead to more employment, higher income, greater purchases and as a consequence, more revenue for government. Our economy is stronger but the growth won’t be sufficient to provide the resources we need. The reality is that at best we will be able to make token progress in these new priorities given the constraints we operate under. And if that is the case, my vote and my priority would be to concentrate on doing better what we are already doing rather than do more but with too little of it done well.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Because of the Bad Weather Just After New Year’s Day

Because of the bad weather just after New Year’s Day, we spent three days trying to get back from Hawaii. The trip to Hawaii was wonderfully restful; the return trip beginning the Friday after New Year’s Day was not a positive experience. Three years ago, bad weather stranded us at Newark airport for two days and we never made it to Hawaii; this time I was wondering when we would get back to New York.

Being stranded in Hawaii can really not be considered a negative. Being stranded in the Portland and Minneapolis airports doesn’t have the same tropical feel. Our return trip from Hawaii had as its only scheduled stop, a change of planes in Portland. Shortly before we arrived in Portland, the connecting flight to New York was canceled because of bad weather airport conditions at JFK. The snow had stopped a day earlier but JFK was having continuing problems which seemed to affect some airlines more than others. Now, we all understand that delays can happen; however, the fact that it took three hours trying to find an airline representative to talk to, including standing on a long line before we could get any rerouting help is not my idea of good customer service. There wasn’t even an airline representative at the gate when we disembarked in Portland, though many passengers were affected.

The initial rerouting had us staying in Portland from late Friday until Tuesday. I followed up with the airline on the phone (an 8 hour experience from start to finish) and we were given an alternative where we would arrive in Philadelphia on Sunday evening. The alternative involved flying from Portland to Minneapolis and subsequently flying from Minneapolis to Philadelphia, at which point I would rent a car to drive back to New York. We made it almost on time to Minneapolis and prepared to embark on the flight to Philadelphia. Minneapolis at the time had a temperature of -10 Fahrenheit and we had no clothes that would keep us warm or semi-warm if we needed to go outside. Somehow a sweatshirt really doesn’t serve the purpose when the climate is in negative numbers.

Getting onto the plane in Minneapolis took 3 hours longer than we expected, and then the surprise happened. The bathroom water lines had frozen and first needed to be thawed before we could take off. It never happened. First we just sat on the plane for an additional hour; then we were asked to leave the plane so that the temperature in the plane could be increased as much as possible. Another two hours later and there was the announcement that this hadn’t worked, and that another plane would soon be available. Two hours later we were able to get onto the replacement plane. And more than seven hours later than originally scheduled, we landed in Philadelphia. Add another 30 minutes waiting for the luggage, and at 12:40 AM we were set to leave the airport. Now, a snow storm is clearly an act of god and not under the control of the airlines; however, letting water lines freeze at -10 degrees is clearly a mistake of the airline. They had to know that subzero temperatures impacts water. And yet there were no consequences for the airline.

Because we landed so late in Philadelphia and it was very foggy besides, we didn’t try to drive to New York in the middle of the night. We rented a car, stopped at a local hotel, and the next morning after breakfast drove to New York.

Safety needs to come first in air travel and I would never argue that a flight should take place if that safety would be compromised. But in a difficult situation, the absence of customer service makes the situation all the worse. The lack of airline agent support in Portland, the lack of proper plane preparation in Minneapolis made a difficult situation much more unpleasant and ultimately more costly and time consuming. Shouldn’t more of this burden be carried by the airlines? And I know that some airlines did better than others. Those that did better, and the airports that did better, should be recognized and those that didn’t should face the consequences. Outcomes assessment has an important role outside as well as inside of education.

Monday, January 13, 2014


As an economist, I always await all the major economic data that is released on a regular weekly or monthly or yearly basis. I always look for the more positive signs of economic growth and prosperity, and I worry when the signs reflect weaknesses or areas of concern. But what if I didn't have access to all this data? Could I still tell what was and was not happening? Would I be reduced to visiting a fortune teller on a regular basis? Or isn't this in the cards for me?

For broad trends (as opposed to very nuanced happenings), I would rely on observation and intuition and I would expect to be more right than wrong. This holiday season was especially telling for me. More than a few times the line of cars from the highway to the largest mall in the area stretched back a full exit on the highway. Putting a value on my time, I doubt I would be willing to join this car cavalcade but more cars /people were on line and I believe that translated into more sales. Another example took place late on the night before Christmas Eve. My older daughter needed to finish her shopping and so she asked me to drive her to the nearest major department store. I grimaced and reluctantly agreed. Since it was already late at night, the store was not that full but more importantly you could see areas where there were clearly some shortages of desirable merchandise. Good lesson for my daughter but also a small positive indication regarding the economy.

My family and I spent the holiday break in a nice warm climate. Part of the allure of visiting this area is visiting our favorite restaurants and here too there were positive signs. The restaurants were packed so much so that I was glad I had made the reservations months ago. Easily more packed than the past year or the year before or even the year before that. The same for the hotel we stayed at. For much of the holiday break period, the hotel was at 100 percent occupancy, which also wasn't the case in previous years. From observation, both travel and retail sales looked more robust to me.

I'm glad to have both economic performance data and empirical data readily available. Statistics are enormously important but empirical data with a dose of intuition for me is another helpful dynamic way of assessing where we are. Thinking back to the recent holiday seasons, I am thankful for the progress that has been made and the signs that are clearly visible.