PS Textbooks – Wondering About Costs

I haven’t posted anything in nearly a year, and it’s time that I start again.  Today’s Chronicle of Higher Education offers good topic: the cost of textbooks.  The article, “Students Are Spending Less on Textbooks, but That’s Not All Good,” talks about text book  and observes that when less spending means fewer purchases – not lower costs – that result does not benefit students. An excellent post, “The Practical Costs of Textbooks,” asks and and answers, “What impact does the cost of textbooks have on students? Textbook costs cause students to occasionally or frequently take fewer courses (35% of students), to drop or withdraw from courses (24%), and to earn either poor or failing grades (26%). Regardless of whether you have historically preferred the College Board number or the student survey number, a third fact that is beyond dispute is that surveys of students indicate that the cost of textbooks negatively impacts their learning (grades) and negatively impacts their time to graduation (drops, withdraws, and credits).”

Both as an instructor and an advisor, I see that student’s having the right course materials matters a good deal.  I have had students tell me about failing a course because they didn’t get the text. I’ve talked with students about strategies for reducing textbook costs plenty of times : by using older editions, by sharing textbooks with a classmate and so on.  And, the data reported confirm my suspicion is that high textbook prices hits the least savvy college consumers – first-year and first-generation college students – the most.

I am not quite sure where to place the blame for rising textbook costs.  When I have talked to publisher representatives about the high costs of new textbooks, they have told me that high costs stem from the now shorter-cycle for new textbooks. Because of efficient re-sale markets for textbooks and textbook rentals, the revenue stream for new textbooks is mostly done in eighteen months. Students not buying as many books may be part of that issue too.  Faculty’s insisting on the latest and new edition of a text – rather than using the old text with an errata sheet or a supplement may too be part of the problem.  All these issues should matter as part of the discussion on textbook costs.

Yet, the discussion is missing two important points.  First, texts and other assigned readings have a high relative value for college education.  Students (do and ought to) spend more time with the text than in class.  I find that when students do the reading for a class, they succeed in the class.   Or, at least, they succeed much more often.  They learn the material. Related to that point: More and more often, good lectures are available for free on-line; textbooks aren’t free.  And, reading the book still matters. Good books are worth paying for.

Second, put aside the issue of students failing courses for want of a text; I would expect as much.  Even a wonderful lecture is not a substitute for diligent study of a worthwhile textbook.   My wonderment is that so many students are able to pass courses without purchasing a textbook.  How can those students pass?  If faculty aren’t reinforcing the reading assignments through their lectures, assignments and examinations, textbooks are only a supplement – at best.  How integral can those those unreinforced readings be to the class? To put the point more directly, why are students spending thousands of dollars to take a class, but not willing to spend hundreds of dollars to buy the books necessary to succeed in a class? (Or, maybe have some students made a rational calculation that the books aren’t necessary? That result would be a genuine disappointment.)

On this issue, historical data – which I don’t have – might be helpful.  Still, jokes of weighty texts used – and only used – as doorstoppers have a lineage at least decades long.  Maybe students purchased texts in earlier eras, but their purchase is not an assurance of their use.  I will add that my intuition – formed mostly by glancing through older syllabi – is that most courses assign less reading than was common twenty or thirty years ago. So, in the end, we know something about expenditures, but we don’t know the relationship of expenditure to use.

I’ve written more than I expected, but what prompted my post was this:  According to data provided by the National Association of College Stores’ Student Watch in the article posted in The Chronicle above, Political Science and health majors spend around $800 dollars per year on texts – about $200 dollars  more than students in computer science and $250 dollars more than students in humanities.  I wonder how that result can be.  Books in STEM disciplines tend to cost more, and, I believe, most humanities courses require a good deal of reading… yet political science costs rank high.  I just wonder what’s driving those results. Issues of compliance, i.e., health sciences and political science students purchase what they’re supposed to purchase and other students don’t, course difficulty, i.e,those students are assigned more to read, or instructor assignment patterns all might play a role here. I don’t know. I wish that I did.



Reviewing Syllabi

Some months ago, there was a flurry of articles related to a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), “Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them: Training Our Future Teachers.”  Maybe not a flurry, but I did see articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed and even The Huffington Post. I am sure that there are others.  Most of the articles announced the results and cited critics denouncing it – largely for inappropriate methodologies.  For example, The Chronicle offered a commentary by Donald Heller, Dean of Education at Michigan State University, wrote: “this one has fatal flaws that undermine most of the conclusions articulated in it.”

There is much to be said on this controversy.  There are complaints about the organization conducting the study, the data collection, the methodology and the conclusions asserted.  I don’t want to weigh-in on this study at all except for a narrow issue of some consequence for advising: the use of syllabi.  In the context of commenting on the Easy A study, Lauren Ingeno reports, “Leaders of teacher preparation programs complained that the review relied almost entirely on syllabuses, course descriptions and other ‘inputs’ rather than ‘outputs.’”  One dean she quotes adds, that a syllabus is “’a very, very thin and indirect determinant of what the students who take that course actually learn.’”

Of course, that’s correct, a syllabus is not a measure of learning at all. A syllabus is an indication of instructor intentions.  Moreover, within higher education, a course syllabus is widely taken to be a fairly reliable indication of instructor intentions.  Faculty, deans and others routinely rely on them in evaluating course content.  If an instructor departs too far from a syllabus, students rightly complain.  Advisors suggesting courses or placements to students need to rely on syllabi too.

Students learn – or fail to learn – many things in their courses.  Still, I find it hard to assert or imagine building a course or curriculum around a view that students reliably learn subject-related material other than matters detailed in the syllabus.  Quite commonly, success in, let’s say, Course B depends on knowledge, skills or abilities taught in the prerequisite, Course A. Not to rely on syllabi, at least for purposes of course articulation, is an affront to comity between different educational institutions.

In looking over syllabi, which is a day-in-the-life of advisors, or at least this one, we need to look beyond the broad proclamation of “learning objectives” or “outcomes” and drill down.  What are the readings? What are the assignments? How are students graded? And so on.  The question is what can a student be reasonably expected to learn from those readings and those assignments, well-assisted by lectures and feedback from grading.  Those are the essential questions for me in looking at and advising relative to a syllabus.

Changing markets for lawyers and law schools

The economics of practicing law of law school are in the news again.  In an article this week, Jeffrey Toobin writes – part quoting an article by Gunderman and Mutz from The Atlantic  “’More than 180 of the 200 US law schools are unable to find jobs for more than 80% of their graduates.’ Median starting salaries for those who do find work are down by seventeen per cent, and more than a third of graduates cannot find full-time employment.”

Toobin links the circumstances of the legal profession to broader changes in the global economy, but then shifts the article into a commentary on legal education.  Speaking of lesser law schools, he observes, “for many that remain are only offering their students false hopes of employment in exchange for big debt. These students are getting the legal-education equivalent of the subprime loans that helped sink the national economy.”

That’s incredibly strong language that many would-be law students need to drink-in: Not only students who might select a lesser school but also students in better schools who will face a competitive market place populated by starving lawyers.

Gunderman and Mutz, write about the importance of rankings in bringing about the current state of affairs.  While beginning with a discussion of law school rankings, they turn to consider the significance of law firm rankings – and in particular – the profit per partner ranking published by The American Lawyer.

Treating lawyers as unit of production, demoting them “from professionals to mere service providers,” and measuring the work of lawyers by profit and dollars is, they report, demoralizing.   They write, “Noble aspirations that may have drawn young people to the law in the first place—serving their fellow citizens, making the community a more just place, and securing democracy—evaporate thanks to this constant attention to money.”

Again, pretty strong language.  If nothing else, these two articles suggest that going to law school should be a well-considered choice and not a default.  In other postings, I’ve commented on the economics of going to law school, but the Gunderson Mutz article makes a larger point about happiness and quality of life.  Far too many students head to law school or other post-graduate opportunities because they don’t know what else to do.  That’s not a good place to be.

TED Talk: University of the People

Yesterday evening, I watched the TED Talk by Shai Reshaf, “An ultra-low-cost college degree.” His belief is that higher education is a “right.” The problems he sees with higher education are its costs, unsuitable culture, and its want of capacity to meet the demand of all who want higher education. Accordingly, he founded “The University of the People.”

The University offers a limited curriculum: degrees in business administration and computer science. It relies, I suppose like many universities, on generosity of donors – especially professors who offer courses for free. He reports 1700 students from 143 countries from all over the world – truly an intercultural experience. On its web page, the university reports accreditation from the Accreditation Commission of the Distance and Education Training Council (DETC). That is something. Still, I would feel more comfortable if the school were accredited by a traditional accrediting body – one that accredits brick and mortar institutions.

I really love this idea for students. “Free” is a difficult price point to beat. Nevertheless, I haven’t looked at any of the courses – so I have no opinion on them. A USA Today article, indicates nine courses ready to be taught; and 20 under development. That’ s a pretty narrow focus to an education. I suppose that there must be more courses available or coming.
Of course, quality of the educational experience is always a concern. A BBC article of earlier this year, “University of the People – where students get free degrees” notes a study of Coursera: Only 4% of the students that take courses with a MOOC, finish it. That statistic is a concern about interest and quality. On-line education is going to be tough for an number of students. I don’t know how this school does.

Another anecdote raises a different concern. How will employers and others look at the degree? The same BBC article above reports on a students’ success story. It’s a nice story, but at the end, the student doesn’t yet have a job. I would really like to hear about other school’s acceptance of this institutions degrees.

The TED talk is interesting; the university’s founding is ambitious. Still, I think that relying on such a program for educating very many people is a risk. But, it might be a nice supplement, and down the road, such programs may be more acceptable.

A broken heart of the matter

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences has released a report, “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive and secure nation.”   The report offers a good call, but it ends up breaking my heart.  At the beginning, the report asks: “Who will lead America into a bright future?” And, then the report answers, “Citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world. An adaptable and creative workforce. Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts. Elected officials and a broader public who exercise civil political discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history.”

At the outset, the report sounds like a call for a political scientist full employment act: Citizenship, governance, national security, elected officials… these all sound like buzz words incident to the study of political science.  What’s not to like about a report that talks about the importance of these topics for college education?  But, the details of the report don’t deal with those issues or problems in any direct sense.

Of particular promise is the section on “Two- and Four-Year Colleges.” It  leads not with a discussion of curriculum or on the centrality of politics and governance but with expression of public concerns about ”the cost of college, the debt burden students can incur, and whether colleges actually provide the skills students need to thrive.”  (p. 32)

Costs, debt and outcomes of college education are important topics, but their discussion is a shift in emphasis.  The report indicates that higher education must “face these challenges squarely” and “colleges must do their part” to contain costs, but then the tenor of the report shifts yet again.  “Colleges,” the report tells us, “have important work to do in explaining what the value of their education consists of, and in assuring that they are living up to this promise.”   It adds, “This case needs to be made to every relevant audience: students, parents, governors and legislators, and the public at large.”

As important as the case for liberal arts is, and as important as making that case to the public is, the concerns about informed citizenry guiding the political life of the nation are hijacked.   The report talks about the importance of liberal arts education to employers (p. 33). In later sections, the report calls for development of a culture corps (pp. 51-52) and greater accessibility to on-line resources (p. 52). It joins calls for greater intercultural competency, promotion of language learning and so on – laudable things all – but quite a different place than its starting place: talk of civic participation and governance.

I do think learning about civic life and governance has a rightful and proper place in education. (A political scientist could hardly think otherwise!) But, I think – as a whole – even on its own terms for promotion of the humanities and social sciences — the report sells the importance of humanities and social sciences short.  I am truly sorry report depicts so limited and small a role for them in human thought and life.  Only citizenship and governance — what a disappointment! The study of politics is great, but other things matter too. I am truly sorry that the report does not make a better case. My heart will heal, but the report has broken it a little.

Summer Ideas for Things to Do

As summer is winding down, The Chronicle ran a late but helpful article full of suggestions on things to do over the summer.  The article, “Hey, Young Scholars: Here’s a Personal-Development Plan For the Summer,” is aimed at young faculty members but there’s nothing in it that’s a terrible idea for college students or academic advisors either.  Maybe starting to twitter, writing guest posts on blogs or starting a new business are not the first recommendations that I would make, but taking an on-line course, starting a community group, working on a g+ account or a Linked-In account (personal web pages of kind) are all reasonable and worthwhile things for students – and others – to do over the summer.  (For college students, I would like to encourage more reading, maybe some travel, and some job or career exploration, but that’s a matter for another post.)

Proficiency Testing, Competency Demonstration and Credit for Prior Learning

Earlier this week, The Chronicle, reported on “buzz among policymakers and think-tanks and foundations” about  competency-based education.  According to the article, “College, on your own,” competency-based education, “redefines academic progress according to the learning that students demonstrate.”  Presumably, that demonstration might be by examination, project or otherwise.

The article goes on to identify White House, think tank and foundation interest in the concept of competency based education. To be sure, the concept of competency-based education can cover a number of very different things: test-based credit for courses; skills-based testing for entire curricula; or even credit for past experiences.  I want to focus on course-oriented proficiency testing.

The day after The Chronicle article, Matt Reed of Inside Higher Ed, pondered in a blog post whether emphasizing “disruption” was the most helpful narrative; colleges and universities have offered test-based credit – proficiency test – for quite some time. I agree.

Some of the issues related to competency or proficiency testing are purely administrative.  Others are more philosophic. In this view, “A good liberal education,” as Johann Neem wrote, is not out specific outcomes or competencies, but about having “intellectual experiences.”  Critics of the credit hour system point to proficiency testing as an alternative necessary; the credit-hour system was maladpated from a solution for a different problem.  For me, the issues about proficiency testing in higher education are somewhat different.  They are student interest and quality testing. 

Administering – and sometimes writing – proficiency examinations is part of my job.  I haven’t noticed a clamoring of students for the opportunity to take a proficiency test.  I do agree that student work on proficiency tests would speed their way through college at a lower cost.  I do think more students should explore and even pursue this option, but I have observed, that not many students want to invest the time on self-study to prepare themselves to pass a rigorous examination.  They prefer to take the class; I think that preference will limit use of proficiency or competency exams.

Second, to a point, I agree that the experience of an education matters; good proficiency tests shouldn’t demand merely a recitation of a canned set of facts.  The tests need to provide an opportunity for students to show that they have had the transformational educational experience that the underlying course would provide.  Precisely, what that test should look like – especially in the abstract – is harder to say.  An obvious criterion is this: The test should provide some assurance that the student who passes it can thrive in the next sequential course – the one after the course for which proficiency is taught.  Less obviously, and much harder to articulate or measure, a proficiency test should provide some assurance that the student who passes it operates at the same level and in the same domains – in the sense set out by Benjamin Bloom in his well-known taxonomy – as the student who has enjoyed peak intellectual experiences in the underlying courses shows.  I suppose there are other criteria that merit attention as well.

Discussion on this matter is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.