Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Trouble at the University of Phoenix

Phoenix, the granddaddy of the for-profit higher education world, appears to be in trouble with their accrediting body. Given the troubles in the for-profit sector, this is not surprising - but it is a new twist.

Phoenix is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association - the same accrediting body that oversees Ohio State, the University of Chicago, most of the midwest, and my employer. The fact that Phoenix is accredited by the same organization that accredits many of the nation's finest colleges and universities has long been a secret sore spot for a lot of "traditional" academics - they're forced to take Phoenix seriously even though they don't really want to.

To be clear, the article linked above does not say that Phoenix is about to lose their accreditation. But it does raise a very significant question about the business model of for-profit education and its uneasy relationship with higher education in America. The key section of the story is this:

“Specifically, the review team concluded that the University of Phoenix has insufficient autonomy relative to its parent corporation and sole shareholder, Apollo Group, Inc., to assure that its board of directors can manage the institution, assure the university’s integrity, exercise the board’s fiduciary responsibilities and make decisions necessary to achieve the institution’s mission and successful operation,”

The Apollo Group is essentially a holding company for the University of Phoenix; the university produces 90% of Apollo's revenue, so it is to a large extent a shell around the university operation. This is a common model in the business world, and there's nothing wrong with it in business terms. But by this warning the HLC seems to be suggesting that this model of ownership and control may not be structurally compatible with the standards of American higher education.

It's not hard to see why. Faculty at almost all colleges and universities worry about their administrations putting "the bottom line" above academic quality. But being non-profits run by boards of trustees who have no financial stake in the university, and having no shareholders to answer to, the real structural danger of this is low. Despite images of academic administration being "the dark side," most academic administrators were (and remain) faculty members, and they for the most part don't want to pursue revenue and profit at any cost. There is certainly no structural incentive to do so in traditional universities; presidents and provosts who increase the bottom line at the expense of the quality of the institution don't materially benefit from doing so.

On the other hand, an Apollo Group-like structure does have built-in incentives for this sort of behavior. Apollo (NASDAQ: APOL) is a publicly-traded corporation. When corporations that have to issue quarterly financial statements run into trouble, they will naturally turn to their revenue-producing units to, well, produce more revenue and/or cut costs. If they're like most corporations, the CEO and other top-level leadership have a direct and immediate financial stake in the company's fortunes, both through their compensation packages and through their stock holdings. Imagine a university at which the president's pay depended, every three months, on how the university's bottom line was doing.

This is a serious challenge to for-profit models of higher education. As long as Phoenix and its for-profit brethren were growing and exuded an aura of inevitability, people seemed content to leave well enough alone. Now that things aren't going so well (Phoenix and many of its kin are in the midst of a massive retrenchment), people are starting to look a little more closely. And the questions are proving to be uncomfortable.

Wall Street's answer, of course, would be to do away with the accreditation standards and "let the market decide". But American higher education didn't get to be the global gold standard by playing fast and loose. The accreditation system in place, as frustrating and sometimes hide-bound as it can be, has much to do with American dominance in university education. Scrapping it would indeed be killing the goose that lays golden eggs.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next year - whether Phoenix (the standard-bearer in the for-profit world) can figure out how to insulate its academic operations from its for-profit realities. If they can't square that circle, that may spell the end of the whole experiment. Even if they do manage to hang on, I suspect it will be under much more significant constraints than they have faced in recent years.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Guns, Internet Memes, and "Thinking" With Your Gut

While the US budget debate has taken the front seat (this week, at least), the national conversation about gun control continues. There is more energy on this issue than there has been in years, and more of a sense that things might change (for good or ill, depending on your point of view) than at any time since the 1990s.

As is typical, much of the "conversation" isn't conversation at all - it's people talking to other people who agree with them, and making snarky comments about the other side. This has led to the increased use of the term "dog whistle politics", in which words or symbols that only have meaning to one side are used as a kind of rallying cry within the tribe.

In this context, I ran across this internet meme the other day:

It struck me as fascinating, in part because it has all the hallmarks of a bogus internet "argument": appeal to tribal labels (liberal, conservative), ad hominem and straw man attacks (in the same image!), a healthy dose of snark, a nice helping of sidebar unintended ignorance (do rapists choose their victims based on how attractive they are?), and just enough structure to make it superficially look like an actual comparative argument.

Reactions to this sort of thing, of course, are predictable. Everyone except conservatives will ignore it; self-identified "liberals" who are looking to get their heart rate up without going to the gym might dwell on it for a few moments just to feel their blood boiling. Self-identified conservatives, at least some of them, will smile and nod and say "Yeah, that's' right." Many of these will, of course, hit the ubiquitous "Like" button and/or send the image to their friends.

And it's that last response that really fascinates me. For folks that Like and re-post this kind of thing, what exactly is it that they are agreeing to? What does the dog whistle sound like to them, and why do they respond to it when the rest of us don't?

There's nothing intellectual in that response, of course. Like most political internet memes (of all ideological stripes), this one has enough logical fallacies to fill a philosophy 101 textbook. It doesn't appeal because people think about it; its appeal is because of the feelings these images invoke.

The feeling at the core of this particular image has two roots. One is revenge, the gut feeling that if given a chance, wouldn't it be great to shoot a rapist? This requires a particular point of view towards violence, one driven by the emotion that it's not only OK but good to mete violence out against those that "deserve it". I've blogged on this before with regards other, similar kinds of stories making the internet rounds.

The other pillar underlying the conservative "Heck, yeah!" response to the image above is an unexamined assumption about weapons and violence - namely that the more damage a weapon can do, the better it must be. "Never bring a knife to a gunfight" is a popular quote for this crowd. And since a gun can kill, whereas a whistle can't, the gun must be better.

This is the same kind of "emotional logic" that leads people to "think" that SUVs are safer to drive or ride in, even though data suggests otherwise. Folks get idealized scenarios in their heads, think about how they would want to solve that problem, and arrive at the "best" solution based on their idealized reality.

But is a handgun the best weapon against a rapist? Guns are best for self defense if you are beyond arm's reach - preferably far enough beyond arm's reach that you can fire a few times before the attacker gets to you. If you are already in close quarters with your attacker (which seems likely in many rape scenarios) and you draw a gun, you have introduced a dangerous wild card into the situation. You might shoot him. You might shoot yourself. He might take the gun away from you and then either shoot you or threaten you with it.

It is these other possibilities that folks who claim "guns are good for women, because women are weaker then men and need an equalizer" don't want to think about. If a man is strong enough to overpower you unarmed, he's probably strong enough to take the gun out of your hands if he's close enough - and once you draw it, you've given him a strong motive (survival) to do so.

Memes "work", of course, precisely because they appeal in a compact fashion to preexisting sets of beliefs. Much of the time, those beliefs are unexamined - just part of the tribal identity that people carry around with them every day. In this particular case, the beliefs in question are in serious need of examination on both moral and practical grounds. But that kind of examination, the psychologists tell us, is rare. And until it happens, we'll keep on happily dog-whistling to our friends and ignoring everyone else.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

NCAA Rules Gone Amok

From the ongoing battle over the NCAA's role in American universities comes this story:
Wrestler Loses Scholarship for Posting His Music Online
The key bit is here:
National Collegiate Athletic Association rules prohibit athletes from using their name or image for commercial purposes
So an organization the rakes in hundreds of millions in TV revenues tells a struggling wrestler that he can't sell songs (that have nothing to do with his performance as an athlete) for a few bucks online? This is upside-down crazy, and another indication of a broken system that may not be repairable. The sooner some of the lawsuits against the NCAA (questioning, among other things, its legal standing to tell anybody to do anything) are resolved, the better.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Using College as Punishment: What Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

People on both the left and the right (usually at different times) often accuse the federal government of trying to act like a parent, telling "children" (US citizens) what they can and can't do and what's good or not good for them. Terms like "paternalism" and "nanny state" get bandied around a lot, usually intended as insults when one doesn't like what the government is doing.

Sometimes, there is some truth to these accusations. This is particularly true in the realm of crime and punishment, in which there have been (broadly speaking) two warring philosophies for generations: a "reformist" argument and a "punishment/deterrence" argument. The former suggests that, if you want to cut down on crime, you need to reform the conditions in society that contribute to it and help individual criminals reform so they don't continue committing crimes. The latter argues that it is better to prevent crime through deterrence and fear, primarily the fear of punishment.

This argument plays itself out all the time, in all kinds of different contexts. Federal regulations on higher education and financial aid are no exception. Federal law bars the awarding of financial aid to any student convicted of a drug-related offense - presumably as an intended deterrent to students who might otherwise do or get involved with drugs.

The problem is that students who make the mistake of getting involved with drugs in high school can be delayed in going to college, or may not go at all, as a new study has found. Which means that young people who have started down the wrong road are being told, in effect, "we want you to stay away from drugs and crime and be a productive citizen. But we're going to close off one of the main avenues for you to get there. Good luck."

As a policy intended to cut down on drug use and drug-related crime, this is in the long run likely to make things worse, not better. People like to refer to drugs like marijuana as "gateway" drugs, and it's true that involvement with illegal drugs can be a gateway to more crime. But why "punish" people who have taken a step into that gateway by shutting down other options? Doesn't that make it more likely that they will move further into criminal activity? The Feds - who have a terrible track record of late on making rational decisions on higher education - need to rethink this, gather some serious data, and reconsider whether an effort to use federal aid to deter drug use is likely to help or to harm.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Higher Education Bubble Bursting

When the housing bubble burst a few years ago, a lot of folks starting to take a long, hard look at the higher education sector. Like housing, higher ed is mostly financed by borrowing, and the "cheap money" bubble that built up during the housing boom had, by some standards, also produced a "higher education boom". Various wags and talking heads wondered about how long it would be before state and private universities started to go bust, while college administrations have been quietly concerned about the same thing for the past several years.

It turns out that there was a bubble in higher education, and it is bursting - fairly impressively. It's just not where we thought it would be. Traditional universities, while things have been lean for a few years, are doing more or less OK. But the collapse in the for-profit university sector is both spectacular and ongoing. Consider this latest:
For-Profit Backlash: Campuses Close in Milwaukee
The case of Everest College is interesting for the spectacular nature of its failure. But notice how many others are retrenching: Kaplan, Sanford-Brown, and Phoenix, some of the biggest names in for-profit education. If this were the automobile sector, there would be a massive hullabaloo in Congress about "saving American jobs".

As it is, we shouldn't be surprised that the "frothy" part of the higher ed bubble landed in the for-profit arena. Bubbles are enabled by cheap money, but they are driven by people looking to use that cheap money to make a quick buck, usually in some market segment that's not being served. In this case, the for-profits picked on underprepared first-generation college students from poorer families - a market segment largely ignored by "traditional" universities, and one ripe for fleecing servicing.

The thing is, there's a reason why many of these young adults weren't going to college before: they weren't prepared, and they couldn't afford it. Fancy debt accounting doesn't make either of those problems go away - it's just a means of extracting some money from them before they fail, just as complex no-doc balloon loans were a way for banks to make money before people went bust in foreclosure.

In a few years we may look back on much of the current experimentation with for-profit higher education with the same eye that we currently view Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and stories of Wall Street vampire squids. Yes, some companies may actually figure out how to run a university sustainably and still turn a profit. But in the meantime, we'll continue to see implosions and investigations across the country as the for-profit higher-ed bubble continues to deflate.