Tag Archives: education

The Hidden Culprit Behind Rising Tuition: Wall Street

In the lasts 15 years, student debt has grown by over 1,000% and the debt held by public colleges and universities has tripled.  Where is the money going?

The scholars behind a new report, Borrowing Against the Future: The Hidden Costs of Financing U.S. Higher Education, argue that profit is the culprit.  They write:

Scholars have offered several explanations for these high costs including faculty salaries, administrative bloat, and the amenities arms race. These explanations, however, all miss a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Sociologist Charlie Eaton and his colleagues crunched the numbers and found that spending on actual education has stagnated, while financial speculators have been taking an increasing amount of money off of the top.

Higher education fills the pockets of investors in three ways:

  • Interest on student loans, paid by students and parents.
  • Interest paid by colleges who take out loans to fund projects — everything from new academic buildings to luxury dorms and stadiums — ultimately repaid with tuition hikes and higher taxes.
  • And profit from for-profit colleges (with “dismal graduation rates, by the way).

Take a look at this figure breaking down the sources of the rise in the cost of higher education.  Interest on debt — taken on by both students and the colleges they attend — has risen.  Meanwhile, direct profits from for-profit colleges have skyrocketed.

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Overall, Eaton and his colleagues found that Americans are spending $440 billion dollars a year on higher education and that 10% of that goes into the pockets of investors who are skimming profit off of all forms of higher education.

Want more?  Read their report or watch their summary:

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Banal Nationalism

Flashback Friday.  

In his book by the same name, Michael Billig coined the term “banal nationalism” to draw attention to the ways in which nationalism was not only a quality of gun-toting, flag-waving “extremists,” but was quietly and rather invisibly reproduced by all of us in our daily lives.

That we live in a world of nations was not inevitable; that the United States, or Sweden or India, exist was not inevitable.  I was born in Southern California.  If I had been born at another time in history I would have been Mexican or Spanish or something else altogether.  The nation is a social construction.

The nation, then, must be reproduced. We must be reminded, constantly, that we are part of this thing called a “nation.”  Even more, that we belong to it and it belongs to us.  Banal nationalism is how the idea of the nation and our membership in it is reproduced daily.  It occurs not only with celebrations, parades, or patriotic war, but in “mundane,” “routine,” and “unnoticed” ways.

The American flag, for example, casually hanging around in yards and in front of buildings everywhere:

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References to the nation on our money:

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The way that the news is usually split into us and everyone else:

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The naming of clubs and franchises, such as the National Football League, as specific to our country:

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The performance of the pledge of allegiance in schools and sports arenas:

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So, what?  What could possibly be the problem?

Sociologists have critiqued nationalism for being the source of an irrational commitment and loyalty to one’s nation, a commitment that makes one willing to both die and kill.  Billig argues that, while it appears harmless on the surface, “banal nationalism can be mobilized and turned into frenzied nationalism.”  The profound sense of national pride required for war, for example, depends on this sense of nationhood internalized over a lifetime.  So banal nationalism isn’t “nationalism-lite,” it’s the very foundation upon which more dangerous nationalisms are built.

You can download a more polished two-page version of this argument, forthcoming in Contexts magazine, here.  Images found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Sunday Fun: Precious Academic Moments

Thanks to someone for this mash up of academia and Precious Moments figurines! About him or herself, he or she writes:

I’m the sort of person who (a) constantly saw, and was occasionally given, Precious Moments figures as a kid, despite finding them creepy; and (b) now makes a living in, and constantly thinks about, academia, despite finding it creepy.

Scroll through some of my favorites below or see them all!

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Saturday Stat: Salaries on University Campuses

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- PhD Comics.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Saturday Stat: College Majors, 1970 to Today

How has the distribution of college majors changed? This graph, borrowed from A Backstage Sociologist, shows bachelor’s degrees conferred in the 1970-71 academic year and those conferred 41 years later.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch: Part I

On any given workday, over 31 million lunches are served to children in school cafeterias. Part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) nutritional assistance efforts, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) aims to deliver affordable and nutritious meals to the nation’s schoolchildren. After all, food plays a key part in helping them learn, grow, and thrive.

To reach those who need it most, the federal and local governments work together to offer free lunch to children whose parents cannot afford to pay for it. But money is just one way a meal can be compensated for: the ‘free’ school lunch comes at other costs.

First, there are the health costs. At its inception, the NSLP was not designed as a social program. Instead, it was a response to agricultural overproduction and a surplus of farm produce, writes historian Susan Levine. The policymakers’ goal was to get rid of excess foods while supporting domestic production.

As a result, nutrition was of secondary concern to them: one year, eggs would be on the menu daily; another, they would hardly make an appearance. It wasn’t until the war, when politicians grew concerned about the ability of the nation’s men to fight, and until it became apparent hungry children don’t do well in classrooms they were newly required to sit in, that anyone took a serious look at what kids at school were actually eating.

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By that time, it was too late. The program was already run like a business, and not even the introduction of nutritional standards helped. Today, these normatives are outdated – children snack rather than eat three square meals, and are less physically active, requiring fewer calories – and almost impossible to follow with the budget restrictions school lunch planners face.

The private industry was quick to offer solutions, but is more interested in profits than schoolchildren’s waistlines. Enriched and fortified chips and candies of otherwise dubious nutritional value appear in school cafeterias and vending machines, often a more popular choice with kids than apples. Frozen and convenience foods are replacing fresh meals cooked on premises. And the labyrinthine regulations of meal calorie contents coupled with cafeteria financial realities often mean adding more sugar to students’ plates is the only thing that can bring down its fat content, for example.

The food itself is not the only factor contributing to children’s undesirable health outcomes. Economist Rachana Bhatt finds the amount of time students have to enjoy lunch also matters. Students tight on time – they must squeeze all getting to the cafeteria, standing in line, eating their food, and cleaning up into their lunch break – might choose to skip the meal, leading them to overeat later, or eat quicker, leading them to consume more due to the delay in feeling full. Even if all school lunches offered healthy options, time would complicate their relationship with health outcomes: Bhatt found students who had less time for lunch were more likely to be overweight.

The lunch may be free when children choose their meal and sit down to eat it, then. But it may come at a substantial cost several years down the line, when a young adult is paying for diabetes medication and visits to the doctor to monitor their blood pressure.

Read Part II of “No Such Thing as a Free School Lunch.”

Teja Pristavec is a graduate student in the sociology department, and an IHHCPAR Excellence Fellow,  at Rutgers University. She blogs at A Serving of Sociology, where this post originally appeared. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

How Well Do Teen Test Scores Predict Adult Income?

The short answer is, pretty well. But that’s not really the point.

In a previous post I complained about various ways of collapsing data before plotting it. Although this is useful at times, and inevitable to varying degrees, the main danger is the risk of inflating how strong an effect seems. So that’s the point about teen test scores and adult income.

If someone told you that the test scores people get in their late teens were highly correlated with their incomes later in life, you probably wouldn’t be surprised. If I said the correlation was .35, on a scale of 0 to 1, that would seem like a strong relationship. And it is. That’s what I got using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. I compared the Armed Forces Qualifying Test scores, taken in 1999, when the respondents were ages 15-19 with their household income in 2011, when they were 27-31.

Here is the linear fit between between these two measures, with the 95% confidence interval shaded, showing just how confident we can be in this incredibly strong relationship:

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That’s definitely enough for a screaming headline, “How your kids’ test scores tell you whether they will be rich or poor.” And it is a very strong relationship – that correlation of .35 means AFQT explains 12% of the variation in household income.

But take heart, ye parents in the age of uncertainty: 12% of the variation leaves a lot left over. This variable can’t account for how creative your children are, how sociable, how attractive, how driven, how entitled, how connected, or how White they may be. To get a sense of all the other things that matter, here is the same data, with the same regression line, but now with all 5,248 individual points plotted as well (which means we have to rescale the y-axis):

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Each dot is a person’s life — or two aspects of it, anyway — with the virtually infinite sources of variability that make up the wonder of social existence. All of a sudden that strong relationship doesn’t feel like something you can bank on with any given individual. Yes, there are very few people from the bottom of the test-score distribution who are now in the richest households (those clipped by the survey’s topcode and pegged at 3 on my scale), and hardly anyone from the top of the test-score distribution who is now completely broke.

But I would guess that for most kids a better predictor of future income would be spending an hour interviewing their parents and high school teachers, or spending a day getting to know them as a teenager. But that’s just a guess (and that’s an inefficient way to capture large-scale patterns).

I’m not here to argue about how much various measures matter for future income, or whether there is such a thing as general intelligence, or how heritable it is (my opinion is that a test such as this, at this age, measures what people have learned much more than a disposition toward learning inherent at birth). I just want to give a visual example of how even a very strong relationship in social science usually represents a very messy reality.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality and Pacific Standard.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Is Massive Financial Risk the New Recipe for Success?

Do Millennials really carry more debt than their parents and grandparents did at their age? Yes, according to a new study by sociologist Jason Houle.  “In order to participate in society and gain economic independence,” he writes, “many young adults today must take a massive financial risk.”  Or, as he puts it, “out of the nest and into the red.”

The graph below compares the amount of debt held by three generations in young adulthood (adjusted for inflation and controlled for other variables). Notice that the median debt load has grown, but the average debt load has grown much faster. This means that, while debt has grown over all, averages are also pulled up by a small number of young people that have really high levels.

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Some evidence suggests that high debt individuals may be coming from lower income families. They take on debt as young people because the adults in their lives have already maxed out. They can’t count on their parents, for example, to take out a second mortgage on the house in order to pay for their college education. So, if they want to go to college, they have to take on the debt themselves.

Houle’s analysis, however, also shows that the kind of debt has changed across the three generations. The pie charts below reveal that the proportion of debt accounted for by home or car loans has shrunk, while the proportion accounted for by education loans and unsecured debt, like credit cards, has risen.

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Moreover, Houle argues that this profile of generation Y’s debt is class specific:

The more advantaged are able to take on debt that helps them pursue a middle class lifestyle and build their wealth, while the less advantaged must take on debt to pay their bills and keep their heads above water.

So, is massive financial risk the new recipe for success?

For some, the answer may be yes. But for many, the gamble does not pay off. Students that take out college loans, for example, are more likely to drop out of college than those who have a parent that can pay. The combination of school loans and minimum-wage jobs can add up to a lifetime of economic insecurity. But, without other resources, not risking at all almost guarantees failure in this economy.  For this reason, Houle argues, the availability of credit and acquisition of debt may be just another driver of income and wealth inequality.  It’s a disturbing story that you can read in more depth here.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.