Two thoughts on Oregon’s Pay It Forward tuition experiment

I am not entirely sure what I think about the Pay It Forward approach to tuition for public higher education in the U.S., but I do think that the Oregon legislature passing a bill to study the idea is a a welcome spark of creativity in the ongoing debate about costs and affordability.

At first look, I am drawn to the idea for its apparent progressiveness, but it is hard to say how well, or how progressively, Pay It Forward, as proposed here, would actually work in practice. If the proposed study is well crafted and executed, and a solid pilot is recommended and launched, there should be answers to these questions in the next couple of years and perhaps some meaningful action on at least college affordability as a result, whether in the form of Pay It Forward or some other approach that might emerge from the discussion being started here in Oregon.

However, I do have two more specific thoughts on the early debate over the idea.

First, I am singularly unpersuaded by one of the central arguments being made against the concept of Pay It Forward, namely, that the approach is either unfair to or a disincentive for students intending to, and who do, enter high-paying jobs or professions after college.

Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education, sums up this argument in a Time Business article by Martha C. White, “‘It’s a real moral hazard problem,’ she says. ‘If you have no intention of doing anything other than staying home with your kids, this is great for you. If you think you’re going to be an investment banker, you’re going to think really hard,’ and might decide not to participate with ‘Pay It Forward’ or attend a state school.” At The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann, calls this the, “engineer problem.”

Baum’s invocation of “moral hazard”, suggests that, on one level, this is an argument about the ethics and politics of “redistributive” social policies. Where one stands on this question depends on one’s political commitments and vision of a just society. Some people will insist on seeing Pay It Forward as a system that punishes the rich, who are, implicitly, hardworking, and rewards the poor, who are, implicitly, lazy. Comparing a stay-at-home spouse to an investment banker is a framing that seems deliberately designed to make this point.

Writing as a professor, I’m thrilled by the prospect of the odd student who is not fixated on what job they’ll get after graduation. Presumably, that individual is seeking a college degree to be a more fulfilled human being, citizen and member of society and not just because they’ve been told, repeatedly, that higher education is necessary to securing, “a good job.” If it takes a few investment bankers – or a few more university professors – to subsidize that person, fine by me, and, on balance, better for my classes.

More realistically, there are very few individuals who choose to go to college without some job or career intentions, and in that case, where everyone has a job and everyone is paying back into the system, identifying “takers” and “makers” becomes less clear. I think you have to look at his issue from a particularly abstract perspective to see much of a problem with Baum’s investment banker paying more, over time and in absolute terms, than, say, a teacher or home healthcare worker.

And if you do consider the principle here in abstraction, I think that you then also have to consider the broader question of value in relationship to different educational and employment choices, and not just how much someone ends up paying back to their college or university. Does Baum really think that the well-educated stay-at-home parent contributes less to society than the investment banker? (I’m not even asking for consideration to be given to the damage that actual investment bankers have done to other people’s livelihoods when using their educations solely for their own enrichment. Imagine an ethical banker, if you want).

The other side to this argument, Weissmann’s “engineer problem”, is not so much that Pay It Forward sets up a moral hazard, but rather that individuals with high-income aspirations simply won’t like the idea of ultimately paying more than those whose job goals or prospects are less lucrative. These feelings of unfairness or resentment will lead the engineers of the world to avoid Pay It Forward schools, leaving those institutions with a revenue problem.

Unlike the moral hazard question, the “engineer problem” is an empirical matter and until there is an actual trial of Pay It Forward no one will know if this problem is, in fact, a problem. That being said, I do think that arguments like these are rhetorically powerful for many Americans, but that, in practice, most people don’t actually base many of their important life decisions, like where to go to college, solely on calculations of whether their choices will result in them coming out economically “ahead” or “behind” other people.

Studies of the effect of tax rates on both households and businesses largely suggest that these play little to no role in individual choices regarding where to live or do business. That isn’t to say that there aren’t those who will decide to move, whether themselves or their business, because of perceptions of being unfairly taxed, but as Matthew Yglesias has noted recently, even in contexts where you might expect individuals to act as rational profit-maximizers, they often don’t, choosing instead to give greater weight to other values or outcomes.

While the ability to choose a college for reasons other than cost and affordability is substantially tied to class in the U.S., this is also an intensely personal choice for many students. Closeness to, or distance from, home, where one’s friends are, or are not, going, family ties to an institution, sports and geographic allegiances, quality of academic programs, appeal of campus life and activities, are some of the more obvious factors that can and do influence where an individual might go to college in addition to cost and how to pay. In other words, and by way of example, it is hard for me to imagine an aspiring engineer from a long line of engineers, all of whom attended Oregon State, turning their back on the family legacy simply because Pay It Forward leaves a bad taste in their mouth, which is how I understand the essence of the argument articulated by Baum and Weissmann.

I first learned about the Pay It Forward proposal in the Oregon legislature from Think out Loud on OPB and on that broadcast one of the arguments in favor turns the “engineer problem” on its head. The position here is that the status quo causes students to value earning potential over other considerations when choosing a program of study and looking at options for employment after college. The result is that many individuals end up majoring in fields about which they care little and entering into jobs that might pay well, but are not very fulfilling. More particularly, individuals are dissuaded from choosing jobs and professions in socially valuable, but lower paying, fields such as teaching and social work or, even, less remunerative specialities in otherwise higher paying areas like law and medicine.

In the absence of evidence one way or another, it is difficult to say whether the status quo’s “teacher problem” is greater than Pay It Forward’s “engineer problem”, but I do think it should be noted that the proposal under consideration is not classically progressive in that the tax that would be levied on post-college income will be flat, working out to 3% annually for individuals who finish their degrees in four years. This is clearly intended to make the system appear “fair” and to garner support across party and ideological lines, but it does make Pay It Forward less progressive than it could be if there were different tax rates for different income levels. I also think that this decision has implications for my second thought.

Pay It Forward is clearly aimed at addressing the problems of student debt and college affordability, but, in regards to U.S. public higher education at least, those issues are not isolated, but are the consequences of declining funding. Simply put, rising tuition and fees, and therefore student debt, are responses to state legislators cutting support to public institutions of higher education.

My sense here is that following a Pay It Forward model for tuition is probably an excellent idea where there is an adequate baseline of funding for services and the physical plant, but that where tuition dollars are being counted on to provide that baseline, the model turns risky. This sense is reflected in the recurring question of how to pay for the first generation of students, if and when Pay It Forward is adopted. In effect, state voters or legislators will have to be willing to provide funding to the public system at a level much higher than they have been willing in order to implement Pay It Forward. The question then becomes one of how serious everyone is about the potential for the model to bring down debt and make college more affordable. Maybe the Oregon study will reframe the funding issue in a way that gets the relevant individuals thinking about funding in a realistic and productive way or maybe members of the legislature who voted for the proposal are hoping that somehow the study will provide a magic key for solving all of OUS’ financial problems. It won’t, obviously.

Even if at the end of the study process in Oregon there is a consensus that Pay It Forward would reduce student debt and make college more affordable for more people it still seems likely that no one will have the will to address the problem of funding. In that case, the real shame won’t be the failure to implement Pay It Forward, but the confirmation that platitudes, and studies, are about as far as most people in positions of political and economic power are willing to go in support of higher education.

Moving Image Geography channel on Vimeo

A few years ago I had the idea to start an online journal devoted to film and video work in/on/about geography, but at different points technological, financial and support issues became barriers to getting the project launched. Recently, I decided to readjust my thinking and reboot the journal as a “channel” on Vimeo, “Moving Image Geography”. You can go to the homepage, and also get content notices via Twitter. If you have relevant interests and qualifications, I am looking for additional moderators. Contact me with inquiries if you’re interested.

In the meantime, here are two of my initial selections:

 

Finding an audience

I’ve written previously about Comic Book City being rejected by film festivals and, taking off from a post at the Raindance blog, I’ve also written about working in an academic mode and how that may put my film in a different frame than those used by festivals when evaluating of submissions.

In thinking about the last several months of trying to secure formal review and screening opportunities for my film, I should thank Elliot Grove for his Raindance piece. That blog entry, followed by a couple of rejections from festivals that I had had some hope for, prompted me to think more critically about who the potential audience for Comic Book City might be.

While I had already given thought to submitting the film to conferences and journals in film and media studies, and that, at some point, I would try to negotiate opportunities to screen the documentary at a geography venue, it was not until the aforementioned retrenchment that I started looking closely at comics studies events.

I initially focused on festivals for the simple reason that film festivals are set up to exhibit films. Most academic conferences, let alone journals, are not. In addition, acceptance into a film festival struck me as a kind of peer review that would be readily understood by colleagues and administrators on my campus, which will have value to me when I finally decide to apply for promotion to full professor.

However, if that route is a dead end, obviously I need alternatives, and as recently announced, I seem to have discovered that a significant part of the potential audience for the film is with comics studies scholars.

As I’ve suggested before (see my response to Grove above) I can understand why festival programmers/selectors are not finding Comic Book City to be appropriate for their events. My mom, (yes, my mom) remarked after watching the film that she could see how if someone were not already interested in comics (or Portland) that the documentary would lack appeal. The film doesn’t have a conventional narrative structure (in fact, I think of it more as creative non-fiction than as a documentary, but the latter is better shorthand for most purposes). It doesn’t address a critical social or political issue. It doesn’t tell any stories about the triumph of the human spirit (at least not in a significant or highlighted way). It has an experimental visual design. The themes that it explores – place, creative process, the spatiality of different media – are fairly abstract. Which is all a way of saying that the academic roots of the project show. If I were a festival programmer, I don’t think I would see the film as something that would sell tickets or passes, or that would contribute to my event’s reputation in ‘the industry’.

While most academic conferences are not organized for film screenings, what they do have are specialized audiences, and I suspect that with Comic Book City, I need to find those audiences, that is, the people for whom the film has intrinsic interest. I am grateful for the interest shown so far by my colleagues in comics studies and only wish that I did not have to wait until May for the first conference.

I am showing the film, and have shown related works, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Ultimately, I want to release it, and significant parts, into the wild and let the larger audience find it in their own time and own ways. Refereed screenings, like the ones I have coming this spring and summer are important to me, though, not just for the base professional reasons I’ve already noted, but also for the opportunity to watch and discuss the film with an interested audience, which, I imagine, is what any filmmaker wants for their work.

Call for participation: film project on the work of J.B. Jackson

I am starting a new film project, one focused on interpreting the writings of landscape scholar J.B. Jackson. I am interested in using and incorporating audio commentaries from others who work in landscape studies. You can see a more detailed call for participation here. You can also contact me for more information.

Florida’s proposal to set tuition by major: crazy, yes, but also too close to home

At The Atlantic this week, Jordan Weissmann posted a story about a proposal in Florida to set tuition at state institutions according to major, with students choosing “high demand” fields earning a discount, while those choosing majors less in demand would pay more.

This is the kind of proposal that is easy to scoff at, and to write off as being the product of one place’s peculiar politics, but, in truth, the underlying logic is one I see at work everyday at my institution and in the Oregon University System more broadly.

Currently, for example, there are clear mandates to direct scarce resources for faculty hires towards departments with professional or pre-professional, or even just practical-sounding, majors. Meanwhile, faculty in departments with more traditional academic majors are forced to fight just to keep existing tenure lines, or to hire adjuncts to cover course releases and leave, let alone to supplement regular course offerings.

In considering the Florida proposal, Weissmann notes the difficulty in trying to peg what constitutes a “high demand” field and how to keep up with ongoing changes in labor markets. Whether setting student tuition or constructing programs and hiring faculty, playing the market seems like a foolish risk for colleges and universities, no matter how appealing it may sound to state legislators and governing boards. Systems risk sinking investments into fields of study that may or not be relevant a few years down the road, if they were ever relevant to begin with.

Like Weissmann, I can imagine a system of data collection to try to make these kinds of decisions be as economically rational as possible, but it seems equally likely that these decisions are or would be made for less grounded reasons, such as what appeals politically or some vague sense of what an employable major does or does not look like.

Taking faculty hires at Western as a case in point, I haven’t seen any indication that decisions about new programs and allocation of resources are being made with clear data on employer demand or the likelihood of finding employment after graduation. For the most part, these decisions seem to be driven by legislative mandates, which, as Weissmann puts it, are just as likely to be based on assumptions of, “Science: Good! English: Bad!”, as they are to be founded on thoughtful study, by what sounds career-oriented, or fits in with some influential person’s general picture of the economy.

In each of these cases, what I see is an expansion of one of the central myths of higher ed in America, namely that the purpose of choosing a major is to secure a specific job or to get started on a particular career path.

This is nonsense.

For starters, and to state what should be obvious, but apparently isn’t, choice of major doesn’t guarantee any form of employment. A student can make all the “right”choices and still end up working in some other field or in jobs that don’t appear to make direct use of the content of their college major, or not able to find work at all. Simply majoring in a STEM field or in some narrowly drawn program like Heath Care Management (or whatever) doesn’t guarantee specific or gainful employment anymore than majoring in a “loser” academic field in the social sciences, arts or humanities fates one to a life of drawing espresso.

Increasing one’s prospects for decent employment is a perfectly fine reason to go to college, and there is certainly no shortage of studies and data about employment, unemployment, and earnings to demonstrate the economic value of having an undergraduate degree. The misapprehension that springs from this general point, for students, for parents, for legislators, for members of boards, for, even, administrators, is that if it’s better to have a degree than not it must be even better to study something “practical”.

One obvious risk to Florida’s proposal that Weissmann notes in his article is that many students will be tempted to declare majors for which they may not have a true aptitude or passion. Those students are likely to either fail out of their programs or end up being less competitive in the job market in comparison to those who are better prepared and more talented.

When it comes to actual funding decisions, little value is assigned to what a college education can do for students beyond the promise of specific employment. Very few people have aspirations that stop at their job. In our lives as friends, neighbors, members of families, and citizens, and in our non-employment related pursuits, there is value in having had breadth built into our higher educations. There is value in cultivating broader habits of the mind that make us better thinkers, readers, information-seekers, and communicators. Even in the context of economistic arguments about higher ed, it is worth noting that these qualities are also useful in seeking employment, and, over the course of a lifetime, likely more useful than any specific career-related or technical knowledge one may have acquired in a particular moment, e.g., when one was an undergrad.

The danger inherent in a proposal like the Florida tuition scheme or the current approach to hiring at my institutions is that, over time, “low demand” programs will die on the vine. If that happens, institutions will be left with the problem of how to actually educate, as well as train, all of those scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. There would also be the question of what to do with students who, despite all the incentives, choose to major in fields outside of the STEM or professional and pre-professional areas. I don’t think it can be overstated that there will always be students for whom science, math, engineering, and related fields, will not be good or viable options. And yet if the general economic case for a college degree holds true, state systems should have an interest in ensuring adequate alternatives for students choosing to pursue higher education, and, at some level, that means supporting academic majors in the humanities, arts, and social sciences alongside those in the STEM fields and in explicitly career-oriented programs.

One thing that I’ve noticed lately about how my institution works is while the largest majors do tend to be in professional, pre-professional, or explicitly career-focused, in the main, these programs only serve their majors. While departments in the traditional liberal arts and sciences may not have that many majors in comparison, in any given graduating class, more students will have taken courses from faculty in those programs than in the aforementioned majors, which are found in Business, Criminal Justice, Education, and Computer Science.

I don’t have a problem with this, nor would I disagree that a department with tens or hundreds of majors merits a faculty adequate to serve their students, but what I do object to is the manner in which demand seems to only be assessed in terms of markets, whether at the university or in the larger economy*. Yes, many of the social sciences, arts and humanities may have small majors, but faculty in those programs teach a lot of students from across the university. That service, that kind of “demand”, is routinely discounted, I think, because it is primarily the result of how the general education curriculum is designed.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think this is some accident or quirk of history. Disciplines like mine, geography, are meant to provide generally useful knowledge about the world. Modern professional fields are primarily intended to educate students with specific job and career aspirations. While I would not want to suggest that there is no value in, say, non-business majors or minors taking Business courses, in my experience, faculty in fields like that are primarily interested in teaching students who are looking for preparation in that field. The fact that Business, etc. are not explicitly represented in the general education curriculum, especially at the lower division, is because faculty in those programs have opted out of participation, and not because they have been excluded.

At the same time, most faculty in the professional and pre-professional areas rely on faculty in other departments to provide breadth and fundamentals to their students. Most faculty in those areas realize that their students are better off for having taken courses in the traditional liberal arts and sciences. And yet proposals like Florida’s, or decisions like those being made around hiring at my institution, seem to be made with little understanding or appreciation of how higher education actually works in practice for faculty and students.

*I also think it should be noted that “demand” is a slippery concept in these discussions. Majors like Criminal Justice or Business often do show high levels of demand on many campuses in terms of enrollment, and they do guide students into specific jobs or careers, but students with degrees in those areas largely do not command the same kind of demand in the job market that majors in the STEM fields do. So, in some ways apples and oranges are being lumped together in this blog post, but that’s largely because they do in practice, too. On many campuses, the STEM fields are likely small in terms of enrollment, but are supported because of apparent demand in the job market. Many professional, pre-professional, and career-oriented fields are supported because students want to major in those areas. In either case, departments in the middle are left to fight over whatever crumbs are dropped on the campus floor.