Monday, December 17, 2012

One Direction

My younger daughter decided against having a birthday party for her latest birthday and asked instead that I take her to the One Direction concert at Madison Square Garden. I had heard of the group – a very popular English boy band – but really knew nothing about their music. I agreed, however, and then set about getting tickets which had long since gone on sale and were instantly sold out. Fortunately, however, we now have an effective market mechanism that efficiently allows for tickets to be purchased at a fair market price. That mechanism is Stub Hub and I quickly found a pair of very well located first row balcony tickets and purchased them. I was clearly paying for the popularity of the group and the location of the seats…but I still felt this was reasonable since it was instead of a birthday party.

As the event approached, I encountered the first major complication. The University’s NYC alumni holiday party was scheduled the same night as the concert. I always enjoy attending to catch up with the many alums I have known for many years including more than a few of my former students. I wanted to go and also felt I needed to go to the holiday party but what about One Direction and more importantly my relationship with my younger daughter who had talked about little else other than this concert for weeks? One possibility was that my wife could take her instead of me but our marriage works well based on a fair division of responsibilities, which clearly places events like this exclusively in my purview. And besides, I wanted to spend the time with my daughter. I needed to work it out. The solution was at the expense of dinner before the concert. I would go to the holiday party. My younger daughter would wait for me while the party was happening and then we would take a taxi to Madison Square Garden.

We found a taxi very quickly. Actually we found two taxis. The second taxi tried to cut off the first taxi as that taxi was stopping to pick us up. The taxi drivers started arguing—both getting out of their cars—and we were left to look for another taxi which we found within a block. We made it to the Garden just as the warm up act was performing. We got to our seats, I put in my silicone ear plugs and we were both ready. Even with the plugs in, I could hear everything but still felt insulated. After about 30 minutes the warm up act ended, the set was rearranged and shortly thereafter One Direction started performing. And here was the surprise: I enjoyed the performance and enjoyed the music. First of all the staging was very impressive—the lights, the smoke, the flames, the background videos were all visually interesting and effective. The songs had pleasant melodies and the group was not only friendly and charming, but also appreciative of their fan support. They thanked their fans numerous times for making this concert such a wonderful time for them. And from the reaction of the audience, clearly the feeling of a wonderful time was mutual.

I was appreciative as well. First, for the time with my daughter. Second, for her taste in music. And third, that I still have an open enough mind to experience and enjoy what I never thought I would appreciate. I’m glad to still be going in more than one direction.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The $10,000 Degree

I am a huge fan of Consumer Reports and consider them the most objective source of product information available anywhere. Rarely do I ever purchase a product without first checking their evaluation. So when it comes to buying or leasing a car, I look in detail at the ratings of the type of car I am interested in and able to afford. But since I am also a car person, I can’t resist looking at the ratings in general. On a scale of 0-100, there are cars in the 90s, which are top rated, and there are cars in the 30s, which are little more than basic transportation. The cars with the higher ratings often, though not exclusively, are more expensive; the cars with the lower ratings are often, but not exclusively, lower priced. I am tempted to give actual examples but I am certain that Consumer Reports is familiar enough to the Inside Higher Education readership that no specifics are necessary.

A highly ranked car or a poorly ranked car will get you to the same place often at the same time (assuming everyone follows legal speed limits). Likewise, a highly priced car and a low priced car will also get you to the same place at the same time. The same analogy holds for the $10,000 degree and the $30,000 a year tuition charge. Offering a bachelor’s degree for $10,000 is certainly doable and I feel confident that on standardized objective tests, the results could be very similar and possibly identical to higher cost degree programs. But is the product really the same?

What will the $10,000 degree look like? A MOOC tied to recitation sections at another college is one likely alternative. You can get thousands of students into the MOOC and recitation sections could perhaps reach up to a hundred students each. The lead faculty could be a well known expert and a fascinating lecturer. The recitation section could be taught by a person whose qualifications are much less high powered. MOOCs are typically free, at least up to now, so the cost incurred by the credit granting institutions (which may just consist of the recitation leaders’ compensation) could be minimal. Please understand, this is not what I advocate but it is a workable model for a low priced degree.

Large lecture sections provide another alternative for a lower cost degree. Five hundred students in a lecture class certainly moderates the cost equation. But is this the same education that a student receives in a 30 student class? Are the important extras also there? Would there be advisement, counseling, career services, other support services, sports, faculty with sufficient time to meet with students, co-curricular activities, an attractive campus, etc.? Not likely – there is just so much you can do for a very low price.

What is better? The value proposition of a $10,000 degree or the much more personalized education which a $30,000 annual tuition charge is likely to deliver? For some students, it may not matter. Their skill set and their comprehension of the material is such that to a significant degree they can teach themselves. But there are many other students that need guidance and support to succeed. They have the potential to succeed beyond expectations but not without the safety net of individualized attention and support services. As college continues to be the economic ticket to success for so many of our students we need to work to both not lose accessibility while at the same time making sure we meet the diverse and not insubstantial needs of many of our students. As attractive as a $10,000 price tag may be for higher education, it is fairly certain to not meet the needs of many in our society. Think about it; who is likely to gravitate toward this minimal cost degree? Will it be those who don’t have the economic resources to pursue a more enriched education? How will their support service needs be met? And if this minimalist degree doesn’t meet those needs what happens to their chance to succeed?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Cliff time

Notwithstanding the impact of Sandy, I have much to be thankful for, including this year’s very welcome Thanksgiving Day break. But what I am most thankful for is not yet a done deal but rather a new feeling that suggests we will avoid the fiscal cliff. The meeting a week before Thanksgiving between the Congressional leadership and President Obama seemed to end with a sense on all sides that fiscal disaster could be avoided. In my opinion, there is no choice but to do so, but I am a spectator and Congress and the President are the ones who need to make it happen.

What needs to happen is compromise. There need to be revenue increases and there need to be spending cuts, but there is more than one way of accomplishing each of these necessary goals. Tax rates are at the heart of the issue and key to any compromise. The democrats want a tax increase for the wealthy; the Republicans want no increase in tax rates whatsoever. The magic number, where a tax increase will once again be imposed, has been $250,000 but compromise requires not only a different number but also a different solution. There are such solutions readily available and finding them is not by any means rocket science. The solution needs to be crafted through limiting the deductions, exemptions, credits, and favorable tax treatments that are part of the current tax code. By diminishing tax breaks on the very wealthy, we can have the same effect as tax rate increases would have, all without changing the nominal tax rates.

Spending cuts are also part of any compromise and solution but automatic “sequestration” on January 2nd is not the answer. Here too, we can accomplish what is needed while still minimizing the impact on the key safety net legislation which so many of us value so highly. Dismantling Obamacare is not an option. Our citizens deserve a health care safety net; it cannot be bargained away. But not every expenditure needs to be protected or can be protected. Given the magnitude (half a trillion dollars) of the reductions sought, there may not be time between now and January 2nd for all the changes to be identified. Certainly however we need a major reduction in spending identified by the start of 2013.

Being thankful for something that has not yet happened is always a risk. My feeling that a cliff can be avoided may or may not be correct. Hopefully, it is not based on false optimism generated by the return of electricity. The Congressional leaders and the White House need to keep talking and working until the compromise is complete. And this time we need to hold our public officials completely accountable. If a compromise is reached, we need to applaud their efforts. If the country wins by avoiding a fiscal cliff, we all win. And if the compromise doesn’t happen and we are faced with a recession following a weak recovery, here too our public officials must be fully accountable. Voting them out of office is then the only appropriate response.