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July 28, 2013

Educare--To Save Higher Education

Cornell_University,_Ho_Plaza_and_Sage_Hall.jpg
By Robert Weissberg 

How do you end the current disaster where thousands of intellectually mediocre and unprepared kids who should not attend college nevertheless enroll and learn little of value while building crushing debt? And, for good measure, how can we discourage colleges from offering intellectual fluff, e.g., Gender Studies. In other words, return higher education to reasonably affordable higher education

Glad you asked. Believe it or not, solutions exist and implementation would not be especially difficult. The model is Medicare, yes Medicare. We'll call our plan Educare.


Let's begin with soaring student debt. The problem is that today's colleges have no skin in the game when pushing students into cheap government loans. They get paid even if the student defaults. The solution is to make schools guarantee all loans, so if the student defaults, the school is on the hook and must pay Uncle Sam. No more admitting bodies thanks to Washington's dumb and blind generosity. Perhaps to facilitate closer scrutiny, schools might receive a 1% government up front commission on all loans. Of course, a financially prudent university would insure itself against such defaults but that premiums would further encourage due diligence.

Back to 1958

Now for Educare, a program that will reward smart students and enrich top schools, all cheaply. The parallel is the National Education Defense Act  of 1958, when Washington marshaled US brain power under the shadow of the Soviet's Sputnik I success. (The threat of nuclear annihilation did concentrate the mind). Details can be worked out, but here are the core ideas.

As Medicare reimburses the doctor, Washington will reimburse schools for a student's education according to a strict though negotiated payment schedule. Moreover, as in Medicare, no school or student will be legally required to accept Educare. But, as under Medicare, once accepted, the school cannot ask the recipient to pay the difference between Educare's reimbursement and the school's official fee. It's all or nothing.

These reimbursements will be substantially lower than the school's "list price" (a fiction, anyhow due to scholarships), but keep in mind that these "list prices" included items with little educational value, e.g., recreational and entertainment activities. Educare will require that non-academic fees be made optional and billed to students separately. Gone will be debt from un-wanted, unnecessary "activity" and housing fees. Educare only pays for education, period. 

It Depends on School and Course Quality

Now for the tough part. Similar to Medicare, reimbursement will be calculated according to formulas that reflect (1) school quality and (2) educational value of the course. Not as formidable as it might appear and far simpler than how Medicare currently operates. Here's how.

All colleges will be rated on their academic standing. Think any number of college guides or various accrediting bodies, the American Bar Association or the AMA and medical schools. A simple five-point scale would suffice.

Next, courses will be judged according to intellectual or vocational value--again, a task easier than it might appear. I once personally assessed courses to certify transfer credits and faculty routinely evaluated proposals for new courses. Any decent academic knows the criteria: the syllabus's reading list, the topics covered and student responsibilities. Save a few ideologues, professors can recognize fluff and no-work gut courses. Again, the scale could be 1 to 5. 

Uncle Sam, as in Medicare, will pay accordingly. Let me suggest that the quality number be multiplied by course quality rating to yield a scale ranging from 1 to 25) and then by a dollar figure, to establish reimbursement. 

So, passing an Introductory Gender Studies course at Foulmouth State that required students to read only a handful of feminist magazine articles and no serious writing requirement will bring a check for $7.84, according to my calculations (only passing counts, not grades so there's no incentive for grade inflation). But passing Cal Tech's BE 157, Modeling Spatiotemporal Pattern Formation in Complex Biological Systems will be worth $11, 675 with the same formula, all paid directly to the school (in other words, assuming five such courses, Cal Tech  receives a check for $ 58,375 just for one semester's classroom work). Again, easier than it seems--it operates fairly well for Medicare where the categories are far more numerous and complicated. 

Yes, it is bureaucratic but it is also rational and, of the utmost importance, it will dramatically improve American higher education.  Nor does it impinge on academic freedom--fluff still can be taught provided students (or some foundation) personally pay for it. Nor will the PC agenda be forbidden. Everything is a matter of government financing it regardless of ideology. Conceivably, if Harvard's African and African American Studies 117x -Of Mean Streets and Jungle Fevers: Race, Gender and Ethnicity in Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee garners a "perfect" 25 rating, reimbursement will be exactly the same as MIT's course 22.5,1 Quantum Theory of Radiation Interactions.

Critically, Educare has the advantage of encouraging schools to voluntarily rid themselves of educational parasites. With low Educare reimbursements, no incentives exist to hire administrators or faculty who contribute little of intellectual (and financial) value. Gone will be Deans and professors specializing in easy-to-pass courses on victimology. Or, if there is such a demand, students will have to pay themselves while their more serious classmates get a free ride. Meanwhile non-academic (and often money-losing) campus units like dining services will shrink.

Nor are reimbursements rates written in stone. If a degree in Gender Studies becomes valuable, reimbursement to the school will increase and the unemployed professor of Gender Studies can be rehired. It is just a question of deciding what is important educationally.

Okay, I admit that the Educare Plan is DOA given today's credential mania. Just too many losers and few bureaucrats possess the courage to tell Foulmouth U.'s Gender Studies majors to pay their own bills. The carnage would also be spectacular--absent government tuition loans, hundreds of mediocre colleges (and their cherished football teams) would vanish.

But our utopianism acknowledged, it remains true that current US higher education policy has a striking resemblance to failed Soviet industrial policy--churning out millions of ill-fitting left shoes in the name of "investing in the future." That is, America now "invests" in millions to produce armies of college-educated debt-ridden waiters and Starbuck baristas. It is a foolish and wasteful policy and if somebody has a better idea than Educare, I'd like to hear it.        

 


Comments (1)

Dismalist:

Alas, no. Complete the analogy to Medicare: The providers determine the necessary services and their prices. Government will turn to the experts in fluff to determine the amount of fluff that is healthy educationally and what the price of the fluff will be.

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