Monday, August 27, 2012

Less Choice

With much of high education in a constrained situation, there are more and more discussions regarding how to operate in an ongoing environment of greater than historical constraints for much of higher education. I have talked about a number of possible alternatives to deal with these constraints in a relatively recent blog including larger class size, more adjuncts, etc. Another important part of this equation are the choices that are provided and how extensive those choices are. And here, I am writing about the choice of courses within a major as well as areas of major.

Earlier today, I had a discussion with a department chair from a well- run department that has for many years laid out a grid so that a student could plan ahead and help make sure they will graduate at the appropriate time. Included in the grid was a provision for all key courses for the major to be offered every semester. This is clearly a great convenience. However, student enrollment needs could certainly be satisfied with the majority of these courses being offered on a once a year basis and ultimately this is not, in my opinion, a difficult decision to make.

A much more difficult decision for an institution to make is whether to continue offering every major, every program both graduate and undergraduate, the institution presently provides. I, for one, appreciate a breadth of offerings especially on the undergraduate level so that students can choose or change a major—without leaving their present institution—from a wide array of alternatives. But here too, if there is not a critical mass of students, the decision to continue offering that particular major or majors or programs should be reexamined. I am not talking here about service courses but only about majors where the enrollment just isn’t there.

Two important caveats must be factored in. First, there are a significant number of courses that are pivotal to more than one major or more than one graduate program. In those cases where there is this commonality, it is important to look at the combined enrollments when determining whether a critical mass exists. On the other hand there are certain courses, statistics courses and research courses being prime example, where a department would like to have their own individual course though the methodology studied cuts across a number of distinct disciplines. On one level, I understand it. I would prefer that all the examples in these courses focus on economics. But on a more important level , since the methodology of the social sciences and business, or education, or in the sciences are virtually identical within these categories, this should be seen as an area where meaningful savings can be realized without a diminution of statistical and research sophistication.

In confronting economic constraints, everything should be on the table with the goal of meaningful savings with the least adverse impact on the education we provide.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Last Chance

As I have noted before I am a car person and so last night I took advantage of an opportunity from a local dealer to take a preview firsthand look at the new 2013 Cadillac ATS.  The ATS is aimed at the Mercedes C class and BMW 3 class competition, a competition that BMW has dominated for a number of years.   The luxury entry level cars are key bread and butter cars for the upscale brands and Cadillac has been absent from this market for many years.  I actually remember when Cadillac first entered this market—the vehicle was the Cadillac Cimarron, a mediocre leather trimmed version of the Chevrolet Cavalier. Since my brother had one of the first Cimarrons delivered, I know up front and personal how mediocre feels, drives, rides, and lasts.  Cadillac’s last attempt prior to the ATS was the Catera, a decent car that was based on an Opel that coupled anonymous style that never conveyed luxury, with a respectable road manners.  But nothing special doesn’t compete effectively with BMW, Mercedes, Lexus and Infiniti.

The ATS is very impressive inside and out. It has style but doesn’t in anyway copy either the BMW or the Mercedes. Instead the style is distinctly American, slightly more brash with somewhat more flashy trim than either of the European leaders of this market.  And the inside is also very classy and elegant. Once again a little more styled and brash than the corresponding European cars but in a very positive way.  The car also comes with almost anything you could possible want in a luxury car including all wheel drive.

Lincoln is in a similar situation with the new MKZ entry level luxury vehicle.  Here too, this is a critical effort on the part of Ford.  Previous MKZs were simply slightly more styled (but not necessarily more attractive) Ford Fusions.  And here too the new car seems to be up to the challenge with a contemporary look and flowing lines that denote class and luxury.

The Cadillac advertising campaign as noted in Automotive News is “dubbed Cadillac ATS vs. the World.”  The characterization is correct.  The US automobile industry has come back in a very impressive way.  The government bailout in my opinion has served us well and US firms have demonstrated we can be fully competitive across a wide range of cars.  But ATS and MKZ are aimed at the market that seems to date to have eluded even a respectable showing for American cars.  If the quality and durability are there, if the ride and handling are there, if the quietness is there, if the service is there, we can make a significant impact not only on American markets but also in Europe and elsewhere.   We are challenging the world leaders in this critical market segment.  From what I have seen, I’m optimistic about the result, and the ripple effect of these cars being successful can impact our overall economy.  It would be gratifying if the last chance showed how well we can compete just when it mattered most.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Take Your Time

Part of my non-work identity is defined by three interests – Broadway musicals, chocolate and cars.  In the cars category, I read virtually every car magazine and look at virtually all car related websites.  I don’t claim this is in any way intellectual but growing up at the time that cars helped define the national and individual identity, and personified progress, made a tremendous impact.

At the end of last week, I was reading a newspaper review of a 2013 top of the line but still popularly priced imported car.  As part of the review, the writer commented unfavorably on the restyled grill and front end of the car.  I completely disagree and think the restyled car is noticeably better looking. In looking at most car magazine or newspaper reviews including this one, and especially car comparison tests, the end results are usually very close with “fun to drive” or some other subjective factor being the ultimate determinant of which car is ranked first.  I often disagree because subjective factors are just that, factors the depend on one person’s (or one magazine’s) priorities, which clearly differ from individual to individual.  For some reviewers, being able to go from 0 to 60 miles almost instantly helps determine the fun factor; it just isn’t that kind of priority for me.

I sometimes think that for too many parents and too many soon to be college students, there is too much reliance on the opinions of others, especially when those others are making determinations based on subjective factors. And here I am talking not only about college guide books but often also about family, friends, and teachers. How often over the years have I heard parents say that their son or daughter should go to and graduate from the same institution they graduated from?  How often, over the years, have I heard one soon to be college student saying to another that the other student should attend the same institution so that they can continue going to school together?  Or a teacher or a counselor stating that many of his or her students have loved institution X and this student will as well. All of these opinions and all of these reasons could be completely on target but there needs to be on the part of many families a more comprehensive effort to find the best match, not for someone else but the best match for the person who is about to enter college.

Within any quality band in higher education, there are many choices. These choices are limited for many by financial considerations, but even with those considerations, there are often multiple choices.  What matters most – possible majors, class size, living options, support services, internships, civic engagement, a religious framework, career services, etc?   These factors all enter into a student’s success.  All of us talk about what we, as colleges and universities, do well, and we deliver that message in a very convincing and comprehensive manner.  But for the college selection process to work as well as it can, there needs to be, on the part of many of those embarked on selecting a college or university, more of an effort to find the best fit.  Making the best use of scarce resources by graduating in the least time possible is only possible if the right choice is made regarding a college before day 1 of that undergraduate experience. 

We all know that informed decision making is key to the wise use of resources. But for individuals and families, we need to-do more to make this happen. In this time of constrained resources, how do we make sure up front the resources are there to ensure the best educational decision making?  No question, it will cost us more now but the savings over time will more than compensate.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Laughing at Economics

I always enjoy a good laugh bit it rarely happens when I am reading economics.  I’ve never thought of economics as the “dismal science” but likewise, it never seems to be a barrel of laughs.  Two weeks ago, while reading one of the Sunday newspapers, I came across an interview by Mary Ann Gwinn of The Seattle Times with Yoram Bauman, Ph.D. who describes himself as “the world’s first and only stand-up economist.” In addition to a Ph.D., according to the interview, Yoram has a background doing “stand-up routines at Seattle’s Comedy Underground.  The interview also mentioned that Yoram is the co-author of the recently published “The Cartoon Introduction to Economics: Volume Two: Macroeconomics,” which I immediately ordered after reading the interview.

The book is fun to read and funny as well.  More importantly the economics is solid and the book does a good job explaining important economic concepts in common sense ways with very helpful illustrations by the co-author and cartoonist Grady Klein.  For example, in the discussion on inflation, and specifically how prices change in real as opposed to nominal terms, the discussion goes as follows:

        To avoid suffering from money illusion, economists study how prices change in real terms.

        Real prices are adjusted for inflation.  They show us how the price of something has      changed relative to the overall price level.

        For example compare the price of milk in 1920.

                        That’ll be $0.72 per gallon.

        With the price in 2010.

                        That’ll be $3.00 per gallon.

        Based on this comparison of nominal prices, it looks as if milk has gotten a lot more        expensive.

                        $3.00 per gallon!? When I was a kid, milk was only $0.72 per gallon!
        But if we adjust for inflation between 1920 and 2010

                        In 1920 milk was $0.72 per gallon.  But the CPI says that average prices in 2010                    were  10 times higher …  …So in today’s dollars the price of milk was about                                   $7.20 per gallon!

        ...we see that the real price of milk has actually fallen.

        What this means is that the prices of most other things have gone up more than the      price of milk.
The discussion of GDP is another example of a good discussion of economic principles accompanied by helpful yet funny cartoons

        However you measure it, GDP gives macroeconomists a way to tell a story about the     entire economy.

                        Mommy tell me a story. $5.8 trillion… $8.4 trillion…$10.2 trillion…
        GDP sheds light on everything from Health Care…

                        Health care spending in 2008 was only 8% of GDP in Finland... …but was  16% of                                GDP in the United States… … and it’s growing fast everywhere.

        …to the size of government

                        Federal, state and local governments in the U.S. make up about 35% of GDP.
        …to the National Debt

                        During World War II, the U.S. national Debt soared to over 100% of GDP.

                        Then it was pretty steady at 30-60% of GDP for fifty years. And after the 2008                            financial crisis, it’s heading back up toward 100%.

        No wonder GDP is the most important statistic in macroeconomics!

I have left out the cartoons from my review of this book on purpose. The text clearly and simply provides the key economic concepts that define macroeconomics. It comes together as a superior overview. The cartoons interject the lightness and humor.  And not surprisingly even critical economic concepts benefit from humor, and likely the learning process is the greatest winner of all with a book like this.  Congratulations to Klein and Bauman on a job well done.  We need more books like this.