Friday, September 20, 2013

Containing College Costs (Continued)

Students:  There are constant complaints that college is horrendously expensive, and yet many of you spend money like water while in college.  To outside observers, you often look like you are not serious about your studies and then disappointed when you graduate after four (or six) years (if you graduate), having learned and benefited and profited less than you thought you were going to.
            First, if you don’t feel ready to go to college, don’t go!  No matter how much your parents or friends or high school counselor are pushing you, listen to your own inner voice.  But, if you don’t go to college, get a real job and live on your own on your wages.  Find out what the economic choices really are.
            Second, study what you love and are good at, but be practical about it.  The best strategy is a double major (or more) if you have multiple or esoteric interests.
            Third, live frugally.  Don’t borrow money, however deferred and low interest the payments are, to live a lifestyle above your family’s means.  Take the bus.  Have an old phone.  Go out only once a week.  Have a roommate.  You can still have fun, and your 20s will be much more pleasant with lower student loan payments.
            Fourth, be involved on campus.  Your major may give you a credential.  Your work and extra-curricular experiences on campus (or off) and your connections to faculty will help you get a job or into graduate school.
            Fifth, persevere when courses are hard.  Dropping a course seems easy at the time, but adds to your time in college and the amount you ultimately pay.
            Finally, you will get out of college what you put into it.  Do not expect to be forced to do all the things necessary for your education and career preparation.  You will certainly be offered many wonderful opportunities.  It is not your university’s fault if you fail to take advantage of them.

Parents: College for one child is probably the third-most expensive thing you have to fund in your lifetime, the first two being your retirement and house purchase.  If you have multiple kids, then college expenses could rival those others.
            First, and it’s probably too late for you if you are reading this, save, save, save, save.  You have to save for retirement.  You have to save for a home, and you get to pay that off over 30 years.
            Second, don’t let your kid go to a college you can’t afford.  It is not necessary to go to an expensive school to get a good education.
            Third, help your kid see what is important about a college.  Not important: fancy dorms, state of the art work out facilities, gourmet food options, national championship athletic teams. All that is nice, but you should see multiple dollar signs hanging over each of those fancy extras.  Important: low faculty-student ratio, good academic support services, effective career services center, vibrant extracurricular, internship, and study abroad programs.  If you allow your kid to prioritize choosing all the extras even if it’s too expensive for you, please do not complain later that your kid has a lot of debt and no job.  You set the tone by giving the message of choosing fun over substance in college.

Faculty: You just want to teach and do your own research, and not have to worry about things outside your job description like whether students actually finish college.  It is the case that most faculty are working harder.  And faculty see that their pay is rising more slowly than the cost of everything else on campus.  Still, you are the backbone of the institution.  Students need you.
            So, first, do notice what is going on with your students.  It is not coddling to notice when students are struggling or absent, and to provide support, a gentle nudge or a kick in the pants.
            Second, realize that many students have much more serious issues to contend with than may have been the case during your college years.  Practice compassionate rigor.          
            Third, it is easier to say “yes” to students.  Yes, you can drop that class.  Yes, you can change your major.  Yes, you can take that difficult requirement during summer school or online at another university.  But try saying “no,” or better yet, “why” to the students asking to do those potentially problematic, expensive, education-extending things.
            Fourth, don’t put unnecessary obstacles in the path of students working sincerely to finish a class, a major or a degree.  Maintaining standards is crucial, but so is facilitating student success.

Administrators:  Your numbers and cost have been growing faster than anything else in the university except possibly health insurance.  Any serious attempt to address the cost of college will take a long, hard look at each administrative position.
            First, then, you serve the institution and students best if every act of administration makes it easier for students to learn and faculty to teach.  In practical terms, this means having an attitude of facilitation rather than setting mandates and issuing directives.
            Second, the act of teaching and process of learning does not always unfold with business-like efficiency.  But administration should.  See how much you can do with the fewest possible resources.  The trend has been administrative bloat and cuts to faculty lines.  This suggests that high level administrators believe the university’s mission is administration, not teaching.
            Third, vow that no assistant or associate dean, let alone other administrator without an academic title, will make more than the average full professor salary in your institution, calculated on the basis only of regular (not endowed chair) salaries.  Send a message that your institution values education more highly than management.

- Anne Foster

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Containing College Costs (without MOOCing Things Up)

The rapidly rising cost of American college education – tuition jumped 500% over the past 28 years, according to MSN Money – became a matter of national concern last year, when President Obama announced several mild proposals addressing the problem.  Other stakeholders in the debate, mainly state legislators, college administrators, and well-intentioned but clueless gadflies like Tom Friedman have advocated more radical reforms, like increasing faculty teaching loads or relying on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  I have not given the matter much thought here, except to note in passing that Americans have collectively decided A) to make college education almost universally necessary for employment, and B) to force students to pay for it themselves, with loans now collectively valued at 1 trillion dollars

Rather than curse the darkness and the many predators who lurk in it, some thoughtful faculty members have offered intelligent and nuanced suggestions about how to get college costs under control.  One, I am proud to say, is my colleague Anne Foster, who kindly took time off from her busy schedule as a professor and co-editor of Diplomatic History to share her thoughts on the subject. Her suggestions will appear here in two parts, one today and the other this Friday.  Comments are welcome, either here or by direct communication with Prof. Foster (


On college affordability, view from the trenches
Anne Foster

            President Barack Obama has weighed in on the college affordability conversation, touting a program to incentivize colleges and universities to keep their costs down.  He wants to make college more affordable, student loans less onerous, and higher education more accessible.  All worthy goals, none likely to be achieved by President Obama’s plans.  From my vantage point as a faculty member with six years of teaching experience in a small, private liberal arts college and ten in a public university, I offer the view from the trenches, and some advice to those whose choices make a difference in the cost of college.

Federal government:  I start with the feds only because President Obama has suggested the federal government will use its power to enforce a particular vision of how to make college affordable.  His vision is based on the notion that knowledge will lead to more rational choices.  Students and parents already have access to a lot of information about which colleges are more affordable and graduate their students, at the College Navigator website run by the U.S. Department of Education.  Some other federal government efforts would be more helpful.
            First, make it easier for students attending college part time to access federal financial aid.  Too many students with modest economic resources or demanding personal situations attempt to attend college full time while working full time or caring for family members. Why do they take on this heavy burden?  Because only full time students are eligible for most forms of financial aid.  And because financial aid is not tied to number of credit hours attempted, but to number of semesters attended.  This one-size-fits-all approach ill serves the students who most need and deserve assistance with attending college.
            Second, make sure Pell Grant amounts keep up with inflation.  Self-explanatory.  The grant for those students whose families have the fewest financial resources need to hold their value.
            Third, make student loans able to be discharged in the bankruptcy process, and lower the interest rate.  Student loans should be harder to get and cheaper to have.

State governments:  State universities have seen their net cost rise more quickly than private in most cases, in large measure because most state governments have cut appropriations.  Many state colleges and universities have also been asked to teach more students with these fewer resources, and to meet an increasing number of mandates from the state government.
            First, decide whether you want to keep cutting taxes or have inexpensive higher education.  You can’t do both.
            Second, don’t micromanage state colleges and universities.  Legislate educational goals; let universities figure out how to implement them.  The faculty, administration and students know how to manage their own institutions far better than you do.
            Third, do cultivate better relationships with faculty and students at the state universities.  Most state legislators speak only to lobbyists and high level administration officials.  Important though they are, they are the least important people in the educational process.  If you want to know what is happening, work to get to know those who are teaching and those who are learning.
            Fourth, education is difficult, for learners and teachers.  The path is not always smooth and swift, and people will make mistakes along the way and then learn from them.  Focusing solely on the goal of graduation may miss the broader goal of education.
            Fifth, education is expensive and state budgets are limited.  If state appropriations to colleges and universities must be cut, don’t be surprised if those schools go after other revenue sources (tuition hikes and out of state students).  Don’t be surprised when the schools think that if the state provides less money it should have less control as well.

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Most Important Battle Ever Fought on Lake Erie

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie, a short but intense* shoot-out between American and British naval squadrons that killed or wounded 260 people and resulted in the disabling or capture of six British ships.  The battle made American commandant Oliver Hazard Perry a war hero - one of the few that the obscure and inglorious War of 1812 produced - with a popular tagline, "We have met the enemy and they are ours."

It was also, however, an important episode in Native American history, even though no Indians fought in the naval engagement.  Prior to the battle of September 10th, British ships controlled most of the Great Lakes and used this control to seize American forts in the region and to supply His Majesty's Native allies.  After the Battle of Lake Erie, the Americans were able to ship 5,000 men across the west end of Lake Erie to Detroit, which they retook from British forces before marching into southwestern Ontario.  It was there that the Indian confederation of Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa made their wartime headquarters, and there that American forces smashed the confederacy on October 5th, at the Battle of Moraviantown. Native American casualties in the battle were light, but they included Tecumseh, whose death fatally demoralized his already exhausted confederates. 

In this case, it wasn't just superior American numbers that mattered, but also superior American mobility, without which the United States would not have been able to move so many men so far away from their supply base.  The fall of Tecumseh's confederacy thus resulted, part, from a fateful imbalance between U.S. and Northwest Indian forces: one side had a navy, and the other did not. (H/t to Gregory Evans Dowd, A Spirited Resistance [1992], 184-185.)

* British sailors who'd fought in both the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Lake Erie said that the 1813 engagement was more vicious and violent.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013


Winston Churchill, author of the Gallipoli fiasco of 1915-16 and the disastrous deflation of the British pound in 1925, finally redeemed his reputation in his sixties as the head of Britain's wartime coalition government.  In your humble narrator's youth, most Americans who knew of Winston Churchill considered him one of the greatest heroes of the twentieth century, who inspired a besieged island nation to fight the Nazis wholly through the power of oratory.  Winston Churchill's wartime speeches are certainly masterpieces of rhetoric, but careful research by Professor Richard Toye of the University of Exeter has revealed that most Britons found the prime minister's addresses less than inspiring at the time of delivery.  Polls from the early 1940s indicate that listeners had measured responses to Churchill's broadcasts, found some of them gloomy or depressing, never actually heard one of the most famous speeches ("We shall fight them on the beaches...") on the radio, and in some cases considered the prime minister guilty of a "f[arging] cover-up."  Listeners also thought the PM was drunk during his "finest hour" speech of August 1940, and lest some of my readers think this improbable, let me add the following recollection by Churchill's secretary, who left no indication that he considered the PM's drinking habits excessive:

"At work or on holiday, Churchill drinks a glass of dry sherry at mid morning and a small bottle of claret or burgundy at lunch.  To Mr. Churchill a meal without wine is not a meal at all.  When he is in England he sometimes takes port after lunch, and always after dinner.  It is at this time that his conversation is most brilliant.  In the late afternoon he calls for his first whiskey and soda of the day...He likes a bottle of champagne at dinner.  After the ritual of port, he sips the very finest Napoleon brandy.  He may have a highball in the course of the evening." (Paul Fussell, Wartime [1989], 98.)

Small wonder that Dave Barry renders Churchill's most famous dinnertime quote as "Madam, I may be drunk, but BLEAAARRRGGGHHH." Apparently the prime minister thought he had better treat World War Two less as a great national trial and more as a drinking game.