Surprise:  More Evidence that College Does Not Really Cost More Than It Did Two Decades Ago

(I have another post coming on “privilege,” but first, this news about college costs.)

Staggering student debt from college……is mostly a myth.

What?  Hasn’t a college education (especially at private colleges) become outrageously expensive in recent years?

Not really.  What actually may be going on is that our our culture has bought into perceptions that just aren’t accurate.

If you care about the Christian faith, you should care about this.  Many Christian colleges (and non-Christian private colleges) are facing financial challenges because fewer students are going to these kinds of colleges.  I think that a major factor here (although I don’t have hard evidence for this) is that many Christian students and parents are steering away from Christian colleges because they believe the financial costs have become unbearable. So, the thinking often goes, better to go to a public university or a community college.  College grads going to a private institution will be drowning in debt for years,   Right?

Wrong — at least for the majority of students.

I’ve supplied evidence on this issue before, but now we have more.  The problem is that anecdotes and simple images (the story of the college grad with $80,000 dollars of debt, for instance) gets lots of media play and the hard evidence does not.  The Brookings Institute has released a study showing that the Staggering Student Debt cliche is actually a perception that has taken on the status of myth.  They don’t phrase it quite like that, but that is the upshot.

If you don’t want to read the whole article, here are a few highlights:

— Average tuition at private colleges (non-profit private colleges, that is) has not increased any faster than inflation over the past decade, once you consider financial aid.  (My commentary:  the standard tuition price you see really does not tell you how much you will pay.  You have to receive a financial aid package to know what you will actually pay. It’s dumb, but that’s how the system works).

— Tuition really has increased at public institutions, by more than fifty percent.

— The amount of income the average grad has to devote to student debt is about the same today as it was in 1992 and it is actually lower than it was in 1998.  How can that be?  Average student debt has actually risen in the past two decades, but so has the average income of college grads.

Ha, ha, this is funny.  But do you think we do better in trusting a cartoon or a evidence from the Brookings Institute?

Ha, ha, this is funny. But do you think we do better in trusting a cartoon or a evidence from the Brookings Institute?

— Large student debts are uncommon.  58% of all grads have less than $10,000 worth of college debt.  Those with Staggering College Debt are outliers — only 7% have more than $50,000.

— Students from financially well-off families are paying more for college.  Students from middle and lower income families are not.

— The real problem comes for those students who drop out of college without a degree.  Their debt has doubled over the last decade.

My thoughts:

1) Compare student debt to the average debt from buying a new car, and suddenly the costs of college do not look as scary.  Consider this:  last year the average amount Americans borrowed to buy a car was $27,000.  But most grads have student loan debts of less than $10,000.  We Americans are going into much more debt for new cars than for college!  Where is all the hand-wringing about the staggering load of our car debts?  A college education is a much better investment, even if you only thinking in crass economic terms.

2) Students need to stay in college and see it through.  For some students, that is a real challenge, for a variety of reasons.  It is a challenge for those of us in higher education who are trying to help them persevere.

3)   Secular colleges and universities present a particular kind of education, framed by secular assumptions, questions and goals.  This can be helpful, though it does not often require students to think about important questions in life.  Christian colleges do more.  They frame their education by the assumptions, questions and goals of the Christian faith.  That is a different kind of education.  It is not interchangeable with the kind of education you get at a public education.

So if you know of a Christian who is considering college, bring up the issue of misperceptions about student debt.  And raise the question about what a Christian education does differently than a secular education.




Some Things Very Few People Know

A quiz.

What do the following people have in common?

Martin Luther King, Jr., Sun Yat-Sen, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, W.E.B. DuBois , Jomo Kenyatta, Rosa Parks.

You could say they are all important people of color.  You could say that they all played an important role in forging nations in the 20th century.

And if you have been following my blog lately and are good at guessing at quizzes, you are also calculating that I have some sort of missionary angle here.

Yep.  But what is it?

The answer:  each one of these individuals received at least some of their education from an institution founded by missionaries.  And those missionaries would have been the evangelistic types who wanted to convert people to Christianity.

This is not widely known.

In fact, the missionary education connection to all of these people may not be known by anybody but you and me.  (Hey, that’s kind of exciting, isn’t it?).  Two weeks ago I did not put all these people together.  I knew that King, Kenyatta and Mandela had gone to schools founded by missionaries.  But Bob Woodberry’s article got me thinking.  (Come to think of it, Bob probably knows these things, so it’s probably not just you and me.  Sorry.)  I started digging a little into the academic history of notable people of color from the 20th century.  The Nobel Peace Prize list was a good place to start — I found quite a few there and I haven’t even listed here all the Nobel Peace prize winners who attended a school founded by missionaries.  In fact, the list of nine people above is a pretty impressive group of people.  I’d put it up against any list of twentieth-century people of color who were not educated at schools founded by missionaries.

So, it turns out that this guy has more in common with.....

So, it turns out that this guy has more in common with…..

Yet you will find very few scholars who make any missionary connection to any of the people above.  In fact, as I was wondering about these questions the past week, I had to dig quite a bit to find the information about these people.  Go ahead and research Gandhi’s life on the internet like I did (this is not the best way to do solid research, but my budget for this blog is rather limited) and see if anybody mentions that Gandhi went to a university founded by missionaries.  Google “The University of Mumbai” and see how many of the links mentions this.  (The University of Mumbai does not describe itself this way).  A few sites will say that the institution was founded by a guy named John Wilson, but will not mention that Wilson was a missionary.  It will be quite likely, though, that the reference will say the University of Mumbai was founded by the British.  You’ll find the same kind of descriptions if you try to research the educational background of the others on my list.

A few years the conservative pundit and habitual gadfly Dinesh D’Souza wrote a flawed article entitled “Two Cheers for Colonialism.”  D’Souza, who was born in India himself, made the argument that there was a good side to colonialism because the British brought western education to India.

Now, strictly speaking, it is true to say that the British brought western education to India.  But this is sort of like saying the town of Wapakoneta, Ohio brought the American flag to the moon.  Wapakoneta is a very nice little town with some fine people in it, I am sure, but when we explain how we landed on the moon, the birthplace of Neil Armstrong seems somewhat incidental as a causal explanation.

While it is true that the British and French governments established schools in their colonies, they invariably did this fifty to one hundred years after missionaries had already built schools and colleges in these areas.  In fact, the British East India Company opposed missionaries and missionary schools for many years.  Company officials battled missionary supporters in Parliament in 1813 over whether missionaries should be allowed to operate freely in India.  So if we want to be even more precise about D’Souza’s claim, we would have to say that the British both opposed and supported bringing western education to India.  So how much credit should we give them?

....this guy, than just a commitment to nonviolent protest.

….this guy, besides a commitment to nonviolent protest.

In essence, the British government began setting up schools many decades after the missionaries did when they began to see that locals who had been educated by missionaries were useful to their colonial system.

And there is more.  Once the British Parliament implemented the policy pushed by the evangelical lobby in the early 19th century to allow missionaries the freedom to establish schools, print newspapers and exchange ideas freely, they were forced to allow Muslims, Hindus and other non-Christians in their colonies to do the same.  So Gandhi, who never converted to Christianity, of course, had the freedom to campaign for democracy and against British colonialism in large part because missionaries had helped create the conditions to make this possible.

Oh, and Dinesh D’Souza, who has argued that we need to thank the British colonizers for providing India with a western education?  He attended a school in Mumbai that was founded by Catholic missionaries.

Now, Neil Armstrong, on the other hand, attended a public high school in Wapakoneta, Ohio before going on to the University of Southern California.  USC, which is known for its Trojan football team, was not founded by missionaries.  It was founded by evangelical Methodists.

And that is different.





Those Missionaries. There They Go Again, Building Democracies Around the World. Wait a Minute…What?

I think I’m done with my ranting.  I may not be done being snarky.

One of the points I made in my previous post was that Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, social scientists from the 1970s, and Barbara Kingsolver did not really know a lot about missionaries.

But maybe that doesn’t matter.  Maybe they were still correct.  Maybe they picked up their information from others who knew the situation well.  Maybe missionaries really were cultural imperialists who set back causes for freedom and human flourishing.  After all, a lot of really intelligent people of goodwill in the American establishment viewed missionaries as cultural imperialists.  And we certainly can find examples of missionaries behaving badly.

On the other hand, maybe Bob Woodberry is right.

Bob Woodberry says that “areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on the average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”  And, oh yeah, they “heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracies around the world.”


That runs smack in the face of 100 years American establishment thinking about missionaries.

But who is this Bob Woodberry guy, anyway?  And what does he know?

Does this guy know what he is talking about?

Does this guy know what he is talking about?

Bob Woodberry is a sociologist who recently published an article in the American Political Science Review (APSR), which is the top academic journal in political science.  Some things to consider here:  you can’t get published in this journal unless you can convince others that your work is top-notch.  The APSR is also a journal that is not inclined to believe Woodberry’s argument.  The editors of the APSR, in fact, were skeptical enough to ask him for more data and studies when he first submitted his study.  He responded with 192 pages of supporting material.  Woodberry has been at this research for fifteen years now and he uses historical analysis and very sophisticated quantitative methodology of social science, including “two-stage least-squares instrumental variable analysis.”

There you are.  The “two-stage least-squares instrumental variable analysis” technique.

I have no idea what that is.

If you are one of those people who are deeply fascinated in both missionaries and sophisticated sociological methodology, you can pick up the May, 2012 copy of the APSR....

If you are one of the millions of people who are deeply fascinated by both missionaries and sophisticated social science methodology, you can pick up the May, 2012 copy of the APSR….

But I know this:  his article in the APSR has won four academic awards.

In other words, he has convinced a lot of skeptics with his research.  There is a fine article about him and his work in the Jan/Feb, 2014 issue of Christianity TodayIt goes into more detail about how he reached his conclusions and some of the things he was up against as he tried to convince others of the validity of his research.  I happen to know Bob and I’ve heard a story or two about scholars who got quite irate when they were confronted with his research.  Other scholars, though, are sitting up and taking his work seriously.

Now, I should point out that these global developments did not happen simply by missionaries going out and preaching democracy.  It is more complicated than that. Usually, missionaries were just trying to figure out how to spread the Gospel.  Sometimes, in their falleness, they acted in undemocratic ways.  Furthermore, many people who did not convert to Christianity still ended up embracing democracy and education and better health practices and more honest government and more robust economic practices.  But according to Woodberry’s findings, the influence of missionaries played a key role in that whole process.

This is very important research.  And it matters, because if Woodberry is correct, there are a lot of scholars (in the United States and around the world) who will need to reconsider the relationship between religion and the formation of democracy.

....or you might just want to read the CT article....

….or you might just want to read the CT article.

Woodberry is not alone in his scholarship on missionaries.  A number of very good scholars in the last couple of decades have started to show that the 20th century establishment view of missionaries is flawed.

Of course, maybe Woodberry is wrong.  After all, you can always believe H.L. Mencken, who did his research on missionaries by reading a few newspapers at his desk in Baltimore in the 1920s.   Or Barbara Kingsolver, who not only read a book by Chinua Achebe but also one by David Livingstone.



Surprise! Actual Costs of College Have Leveled Off

This one caught me by surprise.

According to a major analysis of college costs done by the College Board, the net cost of tuition, fees, room and board for the average student at a private college is pretty much the same as it was ten years ago, when adjusted for inflation.

New Picture (1)I have been hearing so many media reports about the rising cost of college and mounting student debt, that I did not expect to see this. Yet, there it is:  not only have the actual costs at private colleges leveled off, but the actual cost is far less than the “sticker” price that one gets when looking at tuition, room and board.

So, you want to get a rough idea of what the average student will actually have to pay for a private college?

Figure it to be about 57% of the published costs for tuition, fees, room and board.

How can this be?  We’ve all been inundated with story after story about the rising costs of college in recent years.  Is this report completely off base?

As I look at it, it makes sense to me.  We have to keep several things in mind.  First, college costs did increase well beyond the rate of inflation in the 1980s and 90s.  That is real.  It seems likely, though, that popular perceptions are about a decade behind reality.  We first started worrying about high costs of college in the 1990s and especially in the 2000s.  Meanwhile, it appears that the costs have stabilized (for private colleges) in the last decade but popular perception hasn’t kept up.

Second, other than health care, there is no cost that is so complicated and confusing to calculate as that of higher education.  You can’t just figure it based on the stated cost of tuition.  You have to take those costs, and calculate in grants, tax benefits (ah, our wonderful tax code!), and this mysterious thing called the “discount rate.”  But a student usually won’t know what the actual cost of a given college will be until they have applied to a college, submitted a financial aid to the government, and then received the financial aid offer back from the college.  (The last part is where the discount rate kicks in).  Most people also fail to calculate what they will save in taxes after that point.  Actual costs, then, vary from student to student.  Confusing, isn’t it?

On top of that, these are all moving targets:  tuition, discount rates, tax breaks, inflation, family income, offers by the financial aid office.  For instance, ten years ago, you could figure the actual costs of tuition, fees, room and board to be 68% of the “sticker” price, which is significantly different from the average 57% of “sticker” price today.   So, yes, sticker prices of tuition have been going up (the price that is quoted most often in reports you see) but actual costs have not.

(The next time you see a report about the rising costs of college, look to see whether the figures are based on “sticker” prices of tuition or actual costs.  Chances are, it will only give you the “sticker” price rather than the actual cost).

What a mess.  It just isn’t as easy as walking into Best Buy and comparing the costs of different HD TVs, is it?

Third, the media doesn’t always report these things very well, particularly since the system is so confusing.  And thanks to the Great Recession we’ve been battling, debt of all kinds is on our minds.  Some media handle these issues effectively and some do not.  Recently, an area newspaper featured a Malone graduate on its front page, making the point in the opening sentences that this student was $80,000 in debt.  Far down in the story, it was mentioned that the average Malone student graduated with $23,400 in debt, which is, quite frankly, a big difference.  Most students are in a very different situation than this grad and nearly 20% of Malone students do not have any debt when they graduate. But the headlines and structure of the story leave the reader with a perception that college costs are much worse than what they really are.

And let’s face it, a story about a student who leaves a private college with a debt of, say, $2500, probably is not going to attract as many readers.

At any rate, the economics of higher education is certainly a complicated and confusing system.   But this latest report from the College Board gives one reason to hope that things are actually better than what they seem.

So, if you know of anybody who is considering a private college, but is getting scared by the sticker price, encourage them to dig deeper than just the sticker price when they are figuring costs.

A Crisis in Christian Higher Education?

If you are a Christian, you really ought to think carefully about the role of Christian colleges in our society and the current economic dilemma (trilemma, actually) that they find themselves in.  I recommend that you read this open letter from Chris Gehrz, a historian at Bethel University in Minnesota.

Thoughts, anyone?





Trix Cereal or Augustine?

(This is the last post in a series of I am doing entitled “Why It Doesn’t Make Economic Sense to Run Education like a Business.”)

Trix or Augustine?  Which would be a better model for how we think about education?  I’m afraid that we too often approach education as if we were buying breakfast cereal (if we are students) or trying to sell breakfast cereal (if we are in charge of education).

Think about this.  We don’t run our family economies like a business.  And we shouldn’t.  (“Justin, that’s the third time in the last month that you forgot to clear the dishes from the table.  This has really cut into our household productivity, so we’re going to have to let you go.   But chin up, buddy.  I’m sure it won’t be long before you land on your feet with another set of parents somewhere who are in need of a nine-year old boy.”)

We don’t run our church economies like a business. (Well, most churches do not).  And we shouldn’t.  (“Here at Bob’s Discount Baptist Church, you get two sermons on John 3:16 for the price of one offering!  But wait, there’s more!  Just present this coupon to the usher and Pastor Bob will take an additional 25% off of your next altar call!”)

Hmmm. Should we follow the impulses of a silly rabbit……

We should not run our educational economies like a business, either.  The market has its place, but it will not take care of the challenges of education, just like it won’t take care of the challenges of parenting or of ministry.

And yes, there is a proper role for government, but government will not solve these problems, either.  (Insert your own joke here).  I say this because Americans tend to react to non-individualized problems by turning either to the market or to the government.  There are more than two options out there, folks.

I’m afraid, though, that I don’t have a good model for how the economics of education should work.  It would be great if a really smart economist, who understood the ways that humans behave when confronted with the dynamics of learning, would work all of this out.

My primary concern, though, is not exactly the question of how to fund education.  My bigger concern is that, socialized as we all are in deep patterns of consumerism, we carry a consumer mindset to so many aspects of our life where they don’t belong.  (See “Cereal, Trix.”).

And it is in this realm where we can find a much better model:  Augustine.

Now, I am not an expert in Augustine.  His thought can get quite complicated, but there are real riches to be found there, especially for the Christian faith.  Let me summarize and over-simplify a huge body of work here by saying that Augustine wrote that the best education is built upon gratitude, sacrifice, humility, love and true delight.  These are qualities that take us in very different directions from consumerism.

Let’s unpack these a bit.

Gratitude.  It sounds strange to say that we should be thankful for a college education when tuition costs so much.  But you can’t buy an education.  A college education is actually a gift from God, in an odd sort of way.  Not everybody has the ability to do college-level work.  Some people are more “gifted” intellectually than others.  Get it?  Furthermore, there are millions of people in this world who have the gifts to do college-level work, but do not have the opportunities to get a quality university education.  Those of us who have been given these opportunities should be grateful for them.  If we are not grateful for a college education we will feel entitled; we will think we deserve our educational opportunities and the benefits that come from it.  And entitlement is not a good thing, is it?

....or one of the great theologians in all of history?   Hmm.  Decisions, decisions.

….or the thinking one of the great theologians in all of history? Hmm. Decisions, decisions.

Sacrifice.  Ah, yes, a good education requires one to work.  That means sacrificing short-term desires like Facebook, video games, shopping, eating, hanging out, movies, or all that other stuff for the long-term good of one’s education.  Sacrifice is hard; consumerism is not.  Barlow’s Law, baby.

Humility.   The best education provokes us to admit that we do not have everything figured out.  The best education pushes us to respectfully consider the ideas of others.  The best education requires that we submit to the methodologies, theories and practices of an academic discipline.  The best education demands that we change our understanding, beliefs and practices when confronted with our own misperceptions, errors, or faulty processes.  Those are all elements of humility.  Consumerism, by contrast, puts us in charge of buying what we want.  Not much humility in that.

Love.  The best education helps us to better love God and love others.  In fact, every academic discipline, properly understood, can and should be about loving God and/or others in some way.  Education should direct us to God’s purposes for the world and a deep concern for the common good.  It is in these highest biblical commands to love that we truly find life.  Much of consumerism, as so many advertisements declare, is all about me.  And that is a distinctly un-biblical sort of way of thinking and desiring.

True delight.  When all of these things come together, we discover the true delight in learning.  We are grateful for our learning, we don’t mind the sacrifice, we embody humility and we love more completely.   Meanwhile, it’s rather odd that the happiness I experience when I buy my new iPhone lasts for….two weeks?  And the thrill is definitely gone when the newest iPhone hits the market.  Consumerism fools us into thinking we are finding true delight, but it fails to deliver.

Augustine’s principles do not just apply to students.  Teachers, professors, administrators, and anyone involved in or concerned with education should give his principles careful consideration as well.  I myself need to be reminded of these points regularly.




Case’s Law #3: It is Impossible for Students to Know Exactly What They are Buying

(This is Part 4 in a series of blogs I am doing entitled “Why It Doesn’t Make Economic Sense to Run Education like a Business.”)

One day, when I was about eleven years old, I was in the Ford station wagon with my dad when the engine light went on.  He stopped to pop the hood and we got out to peer at the workings underneath.  “One thing to do when something is wrong is smell the engine,” he said.  I looked at him, waiting for that important bit of advice that fathers pass on to sons.  “I don’t really know what I’m supposed to be smelling,” he said with a chuckle, and we slammed the hood and got back into the car.  This was the moment when it dawned on me that the entire automotive world was something of a mystery to my father.

My father, a Methodist minister, has many gifts. Automotive knowledge.  I have several vacation memories of sitting on the side of the road, while we waited for the tow truck to haul away of one of the many station wagons we went through.  A mechanic once informed my father that his Buick Skylark was actually two different cars  — a 1980 body had been jerry-rigged onto a 1981 chassis by some mysterious party that had sold the vehicle to him.   Our family still talks about the bright yellow Chevy Nova that blew out three different engines.  And then there was our 1972 Chevy Vega.  This car ran fantastically for years.  Since this particular model has been called “The Worst Car Ever Made,” it is apparent to me that my father pretty much relied on dumb luck when he made his decisions to buy cars.

I don’t have more knowledge of cars than my dad, but I decided long ago to use a different method when purchasing a car.  I have discovered research.  I read Consumer Reports before I start to think about models.  I have bookmarked where I can determine the fair value of a car I am thinking about buying.  And I always take a used car to be examined by my trustworthy mechanic before I buy it, since he has far more expertise I do.  This research doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be surprises in the future, but it gives me a much greater sense that I know what I am getting into.

So we ought to be able to do this kind of research for a college education, right?

No.  I don’t think it can be done.

Education is a different animal.  Its unpredictability functions in a different way than car purchases.

What if you bought a vehicle and you thought this is what you were getting into.....

What if you bought a vehicle and you thought this is what you were getting into…..

Even if we believe college education is about getting training for a job (a definition of education that is so narrow as to be impoverished, in my estimation), we can’t know for sure what we are getting into.  For instance, many students are told, when they research potential colleges, they should choose a college with a good major in the field they want to study.  On the face of it, this is solid advice as one sets out on a career, like looking for a car with good reliability ratings.  But I have had conversations with countless numbers first-year college students over the years who aren’t really sure what they want to do.

Some say that if you don’t know what you are going to do for a career, you should take some time after high school graduation to do something else.  This kind of “research” may be of great help…and it may not.

It would not have helped me.  Like many young people at high school graduation, I did not know what I wanted to do, or what I would be well fitted for.  The existence of hundreds and hundreds of possible career options did not help.  What did I do?  I had fooled around with one of the very earliest personal computers that our high school had obtained and thought it was cool, so I declared myself to be a computer science major when I entered college.  I was unable to get into any computer science classes in the fall semester, but it took me about two weeks of a computer science class during my spring semester to realize that this was not for me.  Programming, which is very different from fooling around on a computer, was not what I expected.  Though I could do it, the work was a real struggle – I just did not “get it” as quickly as my classmates.  And I did not find the work interesting, inspiring or fulfilling.  I was not well fitted for it.

Meanwhile, I had taken a world history class during my first semester.  I not only did well, but I enjoyed it greatly.  And I had no thought that history was in my future until, late in the semester, my professor told me I had a knack for it.  He asked if I ever considered becoming a history major.  By the third week of my spring semester I had switched to history and it has proven to be a good fit.  Indeed, I would say that God called me down this path.

...only to learn that you had really been driving this around for the previous six months?   What kind of world is that?  It's college!

…only to learn that you had really been driving this around for the previous six months? What kind of world is that? It’s college!

How could I have ever known that this is what I was getting into before that first tuition payment was sent in before fall semester?  I only discovered this about myself by taking a computer science class and a college-level history class.  Pre-college research would not have helped.  In fact, that is the point.  How can we know something before we learn it?  A good college education is about education  — which includes gaining a deeper understanding of who we are and how the world works.  I can’t know what I am buying ahead of time in education, because education is about learning what I do not yet know.

And I’m just scratching the surface here.  Even if you know what career you will pursue, how do you know how a particular college will affect your ethics, politics, religious faith, or relationships?  How will a college education affect your understanding of science, culture, the arts, social institutions, gender, race, nationalism or thousands of other things?

It makes sense, of course, to choose a college with high academic standards.  It makes even better sense (in my estimation) to choose a college that will direct your mind and your desires to what is good.  Research can give you a rough idea of these qualities in a college.

But even this sort of research can be misleading.  Just what do the U.S. News and World Report rankings tell us about the kind of education we will be getting?  A recent Atlantic article argues, quite persuasively, that this ranking system is not what it claims to be.

And how about this:  this very popular system of ranking colleges may be raising the cost of education.  And, surprise, surprise, status (rather than educational outcomes) plays an outsized role in the ranking process – as I mentioned in an earlier post.

Consumer Reports gives me pretty good odds of how reliable my car will be.  A college education, however, is a four-year process that involves the unpredictability of human growth, development, learning, and desires, all cast in a context with hundreds (thousands?) of others whose impact on us is unpredictable as well.  We can learn much ahead of time about the type of college we might go to, but we can’t really know what the education will do to us.








Case’s Law #2: Customer Service is Bad for the Student

(This is Part 4 in a series of blogs I am doing entitled “Why It Doesn’t Make Economic Sense to Run Education like a Business.”)

A story.  During my first semester at Malone I was asked to teach a course in European history.  The problem was that I had little graduate training in European history.  But the department was going through some transitions and we did not yet have a historian in European history, so I was tapped to fill in.

This made me rather nervous.  I felt a bit out of my depth. I worried that the students wouldn’t get what they needed.  Furthermore, I wanted to make a good impression on the students and the department, since it was my first semester at Malone.  And I knew that students would be filling out evaluations of my class at the end of the semester.

The result?

According to the student evaluations, this was the best class I ever taught.  The scores were higher than just about anything I have taught in the fourteen years since then. Whew.  Happy ending!

Wait a minute.

Why did I receive the best scores for a course that I was least qualified to teach at a moment in my career when I was least experienced as a professor?  Have I regressed as a professor since that glorious moment in the fall of 1999?  Do I really do a worse job in subjects that I know and understand the most?


I know what that European history class looked like from my end, particularly in comparison to other classes I taught.  Since I didn’t have much graduate school expertise to draw upon, I dipped back into my old materials when I taught European history in high school.  I pulled out some old stories and jokes that I used to use, which was fun.  More tellingly, I did not require as much critical thinking, ask as many challenging questions, or raise as many difficult issues as I did in my other classes.  And I did not feel that I could grade as tough as I did in other classes, because I believed I would be punishing students for my lack of experience and expertise in this area.

In other words, this may have been the easiest, least challenging class I have ever taught in college.   But from a customer service standpoint, it was a big hit.

And that helps explain why customer service is bad for the student.

New Picture (1)Before I go further, allow me to pull out an old professorial trick here by saying that I need to qualify Case’s Law # 2.

There is a type of “customer service” in which professors care deeply about the academic excellence, character development and well-being of their students.  They might even tell a few jokes in class.

That kind of customer service, however, runs on different dynamics than our economic model of customer satisfaction, which is built upon that old American motto, “the customer is always right.”  That motto, which was popularized by department stores like Marshall Field in the early part of the twentieth century, was intended to inspire employees to do what they could to satisfy customers who were buying skirts and shoes.

Education, though, is a different animal.

The department store model of customer service encourages professors to look for ways to grant short-term happiness to students. The easiest way to make most students happy in the short term is to make the course easy and hand out good grades.  Professors know this.  Consider the following, from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education of September 5, 2008:

“For faculty members, the pressure to grade generously comes not only from anxious students and ‘helicopter’ parents, but also from promotion-and-tenure committees that look carefully at end-of-term student evaluations.  ‘It’s easier to be a high grader,’ says (one professor). ‘You can write that A or B, and you don’t have to defend it. You don’t have students complaining or crying in your office. You don’t get many low student evaluations. The amount of time that is eaten up by very rigorous grading and dealing with student complaints is time you could be spending on your own research.’”

What we have here is a variation on Barlow’s Law.  This is why we need to understand grade inflation better – the data that shows that grades in higher education have been getting higher and higher in the past four decades.  Some observers say that it is not a big deal and a few people even say it doesn’t exist.  But most observers and their studies indicate that it is real and it is a problem.  That means we need to think more carefully about these things.

A hypothesis:  our academic standards have gradually eroded over the past few decades because  we have treated education more and more like a business.  I don’t know if that is true or not, but I would like some good researchers to investigate it.

Another qualification: student evaluations do tell us some things.  They are blunt but helpful tools for identifying real problems in the classroom.  At the end of the day, students want to believe that they have learned something, even though they may not want to be pushed very hard.  Truly poor teaching does show up on student evaluations.  In addition, some students truly desire to be pushed toward excellence and will indicate so on their evaluations.

New PictureBut it looks like those good intentions only go so far.  Even very good students who want to get into graduate school will complain that tougher grading (and presumably, the higher standards that go along with it) will hurt their chances to get into graduate school (where, ironically, they will face more challenging standards).  Interestingly, these potential graduate students may be correct.  A recent study actually shows that “admissions officers appear to favor applicants with better grades at institutions where everyone is earning high grades over applicants with lower grades at institutions with more rigorous grading.”

Customer service:  it lowers our standards and gives us the incentive to produce an inferior product.

Is that the economic model we want?