November 11, 2015

The myth of excessive testing

by Grace

We don’t test students as much as people think we do. And the stakes aren’t really that high.

The facts do not support President Obama’s declaration”that schools in this country are over-testing” according to former Tennessee commissioner of education Kevin Huffman.  But in response to complaints from parents and teachers about over-testing, the Obama administration has come out with a recommendation for “a cap on the amount of time that students spend testing at 2 percent of overall instructional time”.

… the dramatic flair of the president’s announcement and the elated response from many critics of education reform obscured some important truths. First, students are tested less than many people believe. Second, in places where students spend too much time taking tests, local schools and districts — not federal or state policies — tend to be the culprits. And third, the notion of standardized tests as “high stakes” is vastly overstated.

Is this recommendation relevant?

Contrary to the exaggerations, though, most states already are under the 2 percent testing cap. A Center for American Progress analysis of 14 districts in seven states found that testing consumed an average of 1.6 percent of instructional time. …

Excessive testing time is usually based on decisions of local school districts.  Perhaps they feel pressured, but so far schools and teachers have suffered few consequences from poor test scores.

The truth is, it’s nearly impossible for a teacher to get fired because of poor test scores. And for schools, significant interventions generally happen at just the bottom 5 percent of campuses. Poor test results may be embarrassing when released publicly, which can lead schools to scramble into drill-and-kill test-prep mode. But the claims of massive stakes driven by federal or state law are overwrought.

For those parents whose children are spending excessive time involved in standardized testing, the logical recourse would be to take it up with the local school.  Unfortunately, changing school policies is an uphill battle and parents often find they are powerless to make meaningful changes for their own children.  More school choice would give families more options in cases where over-testing is a problem.

July 24, 2015

College student retention services ‘is a hot business’

by Grace

Copley Retention Services is one of several companies that offers offers technology-based systems intended to keep students on track to graduate on time from college.  It uses “a combination of over 20 data points to flag students who may be at risk of dropping out”.

One in three college freshmen don’t return for their sophomore year. It’s a sombering statistic not just for students, but also for universities that miss out on tuition dollars.

Student retention services appears to be a growing field.

Forecasting student success is a hot business, and the industry has seen major consolidations this year. In February, Starfish Retention Solutions and GradesFirst have been acquired, respectively, by Hobsons and Education Advisory Board, two companies trying to move the needle on college completion rates. Earlier this week, Uversity was bought by TargetX, both of which provide data analytics to help colleges boost student recruitment and retention. Learning management systems like Desire2Learn also boast their own student success tools.

This need is also increasingly felt at the K-12 level, with startups like LearnSprout building early warning systems that tap into student information systems for signs that can help elementary and high school students stay on track.

Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, has partnered with other parties to invest $1.5 million in Copley.  He explains how colleges benefit from retention services.

Copley makes higher education more efficient. It is expensive to lose students or have them drag on their education over an extended period. Copley is the leader in helping schools address the needs of at-risk students. That is money in the bank for the school.

Of course, students benefit also.

If we can get more at-risk kids to graduate in four years or less, all while not over-taxing the support services of the school, tuition may have a slight chance of staying flat or going down.

But for many “at-risk kids”, all the tracking and remedial efforts may not be enough if they lack family support as well as the fundamental competencies that should have been taught in K-12.  It remains to be seen if these retention services are able to make a dent in the college drop-out problem.  However, if these services are funded by taxpayer dollars I don’t put much faith in how carefully their efficacy will be assessed.


Tony Wan, “Copley Retention Systems Raises $1.5M From Mark Cuban, USA Funds to Boost Student Success”, edSurge, Jul 10, 2015.

Tony Wan, “5 Questions With Mark Cuban on Higher Education and His Newest Edtech Investment”, edSurge, Jul 17, 2015.

July 15, 2015

Duke is one of only two top-ten universities to offer merit aid

by Grace

Duke is one of only two top-ten universities to offer merit scholarships.

… Though some critics of merit aid programs say the scholarships can take resources away from students who need financial help most, University administrators say this is not the case for Duke. The University maintains eight merit scholarship programs while also growing the amount that is given to students with financial need, according to Melissa Maouf, director of the Office of Undergraduate Scholars & Fellows.

“Our merit communities are a mixed bag, economically all over the place,” Malouf, wrote in an email Wednesday. “All students to apply to Duke may be considered for a merit scholarship—rich or poor or in between.

Only three Duke scholarships are solely merit-based.

Three of the eight scholarship programs Duke offers—the Angier B. Duke Scholarship, the Benjamin N. Duke Scholarship and the Robertson Scholarship—solely take merit into account. The remaining five scholarship programs consider a mixture of merit and need.

Nearly 4% of Duke students receive merit aid.

In 2013, Duke provided merit scholarships averaging about $56,000 per year to 314 students, nearly 4 percent of the undergraduate body, according to the 2013-14 CDS survey.

Only one other top-ten school, the University of Chicago, also offers merit awards.  All the other schools only give need-based financial aid.


Jenna Zhang, “Duke stands alone among peers in merit-based scholarship priorities”, The Chronicle, January 20, 2015.


July 8, 2015

Should Parent PLUS loans generate billions in profits?

by Grace

The US government’s predatory-lending program
America earns $3 billion a year charging strapped college parents above-market interest. “It’s like ‘The Sopranos,’ except it’s the government.”

The fast-growing federal program known as Parent PLUS now serves 3.2 million borrowers, who have racked up $65 billion in debt helping their kids go to school. The loans have much in common with the regular student loans that have created a national debt crisis and a 2016 campaign issue, but PLUS has much higher interest rates and fees, and far fewer opportunities for loan forgiveness or reductions.

Should student loans generate profits for the federal government?

In fact, the PLUS program, which includes similar loans to graduate students, is the most profitable of the 120 or so federal lending programs. That sounds like a good thing, until you remember the government’s profit comes from its own citizens, often citizens of modest means.

Student loans enhance accessibility, but at what cost?

… PLUS loans have also become a key revenue source for many schools, particularly historically black colleges and for-profits that tend to serve lower-income families.

But that just illustrates the increasingly tortured economic paradoxes at the heart of modern higher education, where schools have no incentive to provide affordable prices as long as they can count on federal dollars for making education affordable. Ultimately, Parent PLUS sluices more cash into the college-industrial complex, helping educators jack up their tuitions while pressuring parents to make up the difference with debt, while doing nothing to ensure they’re getting a real return on their investment. It enhances accessibility, but not really affordability, simply giving parents a way to punt the skyrocketing costs into the future.

Underwriting standards are lax, and the government lends money to “people with no clue if they can pay it back”.

Many critics argue that Parent PLUS should be abolished, and that the government should expand Pell grants and raise caps on student loans instead. But even those who want to continue the program — including Rodriguez in the White House and Republican staffers on Capitol Hill — seem to agree there are relatively obvious ways to strengthen it. The most evident would be real underwriting standards to evaluate the ability to pay of potential borrowers. Another would be strict loan caps. Or a combination of those reforms could link the creditworthiness of borrowers to the size of the loans they’re eligible to receive, the kind of calculation real banks make. Even Draeger, who represents aid administrators at 3,000 colleges and universities, said the system needs structural changes to protect vulnerable families.

A parent’s comment in a CollegeConfidential thread illustrates part of the problem.

My main concern with the Parent Plus loan is the lack of consumer disclosures regarding future pymts and the cost of credit – there are none. I borrowed $24,000 this week – it took about 5 minutes – with no evaluation of my qualification to repay – and no disclosure to me of what my future pymts will be. I can see very easily how someone could get in over their head.

The major challenge to reforming the Parent PLUS program is its “immense profitability”.

… These days, the government borrows money at almost no cost, so lending at 7 percent plus fees can add up: Parent PLUS could reduce the deficit by $3 billion this year. That means any effort to scale it back and restrict it to creditworthy borrowers would cost the government a lot of money….

July 2, 2015

Teen employment rate continues to decline

by Grace

Teen summer employment has been in steady decline since the 1970s.


To understand what’s happened to the Great American Summer Job, we looked at the average employment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds for June, July and August (teen employment typically peaks in July of each year). Since 1948, which is as far back as the data go, through subsequent decades, teen summer employment followed a fairly regular pattern: rising during economic good times and falling during and after recessions, but generally fluctuating between 46% (the low, in 1963) and 58% (the peak, in 1978).

That pattern began to change after the 1990-91 recession, when the teen summer employment rate barely rebounded. Teen summer employment again fell sharply after the 2001 recession and again failed to rebound, and fell even more sharply during and after the Great Recession of 2007-09. After bottoming out in 2010 and 2011 at 29.6%, the teen summer employment rate has barely budged – it was 31.6% last summer.

For younger teens, the summer-jobs picture is especially bleak. Last year’s summer employment rate for 16- to 17-year-olds was 20%, less than half its level as recently as 2000. For 18- and 19-year-olds, the summer employment rate last year was 43.6%, still well below the 62.6% average rate in the summer of 2000.

Why the decline?

… Researchers have advanced multiple explanations for why fewer young people are finding jobs: fewer low-skill, entry-level jobs than in decades past; more schools restarting before Labor Day; more students enrolled in high school or college over the summer; more teens doing unpaid community service work as part of their graduation requirements or to burnish their college applications; and more students taking unpaid internships, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not consider being employed.


Drew DeSilver, “The fading of the teen summer job”, Pew Research, June 23, 2015.

June 23, 2015

Should you default on your student loans?

by Grace

Lee Siegel, New York writer and recipient of three Ivy League degrees, was roundly castigated after he proudly explained  “Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans”.

Years later, I found myself confronted with a choice that too many people have had to and will have to face. I could give up what had become my vocation (in my case, being a writer) and take a job that I didn’t want in order to repay the huge debt I had accumulated in college and graduate school. Or I could take what I had been led to believe was both the morally and legally reprehensible step of defaulting on my student loans, which was the only way I could survive without wasting my life in a job that had nothing to do with my particular usefulness to society.

I chose life. That is to say, I defaulted on my student loans.

As difficult as it has been, I’ve never looked back. The millions of young people today, who collectively owe over $1 trillion in loans, may want to consider my example.

Besides generating revulsion at Siegel’s oozing sense of entitlement, his column stirred criticism of the New York Times for “dispatching criminally negligent financial advice”.

Ron Leiber pointed out the flaws in Seigel’s explanation of how to circumvent the negative repercussions from a student loan default.

First, he tells people to get as many credit cards as they can before they stop repaying their student loans. This way, presumably, you will have plenty of credit available once your credit report is ruined and you can’t get new cards. But card issuers are constantly checking the credit of existing cardholders to look for distress signals. If they see any, they may lower your limits or close your accounts….

The second piece of advice Mr. Siegel has for aspiring defaulters is to establish a good history of paying rent. This can work, as long as you rent from a landlord who never checks your credit or a new one who relies on your old landlord’s good word.

But many landlords do check and won’t be sympathetic, especially in tight markets. Besides, plenty of people don’t want to be tenants forever, given how hard it can be to find rentals in some good school districts. Others want to plant roots and build home equity.

Will those defaulters be able to qualify for a mortgage? A judgment resulting from a default may stay on your credit report for up to 10 years….

Bank of America, one of the biggest home lenders, did not comment on whether people with defaults on their credit record would be able to get mortgages, and a Wells Fargo spokeswoman declined to categorically rule out the possibility that someone could qualify for a loan within the tarnished-credit window.

But Richard M. Bettencourt Jr., the secretary of the National Association of Mortgage Brokers and a lender himself with a company called Mortgage Network in Danvers, Mass., said he had never seen people with student loan defaults on their credit records get a mortgage….

Which brings us to Mr. Siegel’s third piece of advice: Marry well, or at least have a creditworthy partner. Then, that person can be the sole mortgage applicant. Mr. Siegel’s wife bought the home where they live, according to public records.

There are a number of problems with this approach. Some lenders may not allow it, since certain low down-payment loans in community property states require both spouses to apply, according to Wells Fargo. Of course, you’ll need to talk someone into coupling up with you in the first place, after explaining that you’re not so big on financial obligations but that you really, truly intend to honor marital ones.


Lee Siegel, “Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans”, New York Times, June 6, 2015.

Ron Lieber, “Taking On Student Debt, and Refusing to Pay”, New York Times, June 15, 2015.

June 1, 2015

A blog hiatus

by Grace

I will be taking a summer break from blogging at Cost of College.

Other priorities are taking my attention away from this blog, so posts will be infrequent over the next few months.  Please continue to check and read this blog, and I can still be reached through my contact page.

As always, thank you for reading and commenting on Cost of College.

May 29, 2015

Is a gap year right for your child?

by Grace

Gap years have become more populare in the U.S.

… Prominent in Europe since the 1960s, the intentional and structured break from formal education before college is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S.

Formally described as a time for “increasing self-awareness, learning about different cultural perspectives, and experimenting with future possible careers”, in many cases a gap year’s most important benefit is simply to help a young person mature and be able to make better decisions about college plans.

While some gap programs cost about as much as a year of college, many other options are more affordable.  Sometimes a gap year is a time to earn extra money for college.  Simply living at home while working is a basic option, perhaps with classes or travel included for personal growth and preparation for college.  Other low-cost options include domestic or international travel along with internships.

Proper planning maximizes opportunities.

Before you design your gap year plan, sit down and really think about what interests you want to explore or what countries spark your interest. Combining an interest (such as learning Spanish) with a low-cost opportunity (such as Au Pairing in Spain) ensures your gap year will be meaningful to you as well as cost-effective.

WWOOF and Help Ex are two resources for matching students with farms, homestays, ranches, lodges, B&Bs, backpackers hostels and other options where volunteers receive room and board in exchange for work.  Dynamy’s program of mentored internships has been personally recommended in one situation I know.

Families are becoming more receptive to gap years, and many believe that it is a good way to lower the chances of college students wasting time and money in college while they try to figure things out.


Naila Francis, “Gap years gain popularity as students seek purpose, passion”, The Intelligencer, July 13, 2014.

Julia Rogers, “An Affordable Gap Year”, My College Planning Team, November 6, 2014.

May 28, 2015

‘Good riddance’ to school days!

by Grace

Joe Queenan holds no nostalgia for his children’s school days.

… From the moment my children left school forever ten years ago, I felt a radiant, ineffable joy suffuse my very being. Far from being depressed or sad, I was elated. There was a simple reason for this: From that point onward, I would never again have to think about the kids and school. Never, ever, ever.

I would never have to go to the middle school office to find out why my child was doing so poorly in math. I would never have to ask the high-school principal why the French teacher didn’t seem to speak much French. I would never have to ask the grade-school principal why he rewrote my daughter’s sixth-grade graduation speech to include more references to his own prodigious sense of humor and caring disposition, and fewer jokes of her own.

I would never have to complain that the school had discontinued the WordMasters competition, the one activity at which my son truly excelled. I would never have to find out if my son was in any way responsible for a classmate damaging his wrist during recess. I would never again have to listen to my child, or anyone else’s, play the cello.

As I look forward to my youngest graduating from high school next month, Queenan’s words strike very close to home.  I feel relieved that my years of awkward questions and uncomfortable conversations with public school bureaucrats are ending.

Of course, it was not all bad.  Some administrators and teachers are memorable as standing head and shoulders above the crowd in offering the very best to their students.  For them I will be forever grateful.  But to the rest, I find myself nodding in agreement to Queenan’s words.

… The ordeal had ended; the 18-year plague had run its course; the bitter cup had passed from my lips. I would never quaff from its putrid contents again. Good riddance.


Joe Queenan, “School’s Out Forever”, Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2015.

May 27, 2015

Is a ‘Great Reset’ of our economy inevitable?

by Grace

Are we experiencing an end to the long-term trend of a rising standard of living in our country?  Are we due for a “Great Reset” of our economy, one that is inevitable due to the competing interests of workers and consumers?

Tyler Cowen warns “Don’t Be So Sure the Economy Will Return to Normal” and asks “what exactly are we experiencing?”

One relatively optimistic view is that observed deficiencies — like slow growth in real wages and the overall economy, persistently low interest rates and low levels of labor participation — are merely temporary. In this view, these problems will dwindle after manageable problems like high levels of public or household debt have been reduced.

Another commonly heard view is that we made the mistake of letting the last recession linger too long, allowing some of its features to became entrenched. That analysis suggests that if we correct past policy errors, whatever they may have been, an underlying normality will re-emerge.

There are some nuggets of truth in both of these arguments, but there is a much more disturbing possibility that could turn out to be more accurate: namely, that the recession was a learning experience that we haven’t fully absorbed. From this perspective, the radical and sudden changes of the financial crisis were early indicators of deep fragility and dysfunctionality.

Slowly but surely, we may be responding to these difficult revelations by scaling back our ambitions for the economy — reinforcing negative trends that were already underway. In this troubling view, we have finally begun to discover some unpleasant truths. Borrowing a phrase from the University of Toronto economist Richard Florida, it’s possible that we are experiencing a “Great Reset.”

A reset is hard for us to see because changes “seem to be gradual and slow”.  And new government policies meant to steer the economy “are no more than changes at the margin”.

Are millennials bearing the brunt of this reset?

Amid much talk about income inequality and an increasingly two-tier economy, it appears that a “heavy burden of adjustment in the overall labor market is being borne by the young”

… Wages for the typical graduate of a four-year college have dropped more than 7 percent since 2000, and the labor force participation rate of the young has been falling. One consequence is that young people are living at home longer and receiving more aid from their parents. They also seem to be less interested in buying their own homes.

Megan McArdle explains that we brought the “Great Reset” on ourselves, with our desire for rising, stable wages that conflicts with cheap services and goods.

The average American is at the heart of this story — as the victim and as the perpetrator. We suffer as employees because we exert influence as consumers.

Is a reset inevitable?

… The reset may not be fair. It will certainly not be easy. But it may be necessary.


Tyler Cowen, “Don’t Be So Sure the Economy Will Return to Normal”, New York Times, May 15, 2015.

Megan McArdle, “U.S. Workers Brought the ‘Great Reset’ on Themselves”, Bloomberg, May 19, 2015.


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