More Money, More Progress

Our prompt for this week is to write about one thing we think should change in higher education, and the first thing I thought about was public funding. We have talked in class a good deal about how public funding for higher education has deteriorated over the past several years and as a result, tuition has skyrocketed. Of course, the cost of tuition may be dictated by a number of factors (it has skyrocketed at private universities as well)  so it might be a difficult problem to tackle directly. Public funding on the other hand is more straightforward, and it’s been on the downswing lately. A quick look at this Chronicle of Higher Education article shows how public funding is a much smaller share of public university budgets than it used to be:

I think that as our economy continues to develop and becomes more automated in the future, higher education will become even more important than it is today. There are probably a lot of things that universities/colleges need to do to adapt to that future, but they’re going to have a hard time doing much of anything if they continue to lose state support. Research needs to continue on as well, if we are to tackle the problems of climate change, new diseases, etc., and it will also be well-served by public funding.

Higher education and research definitely provide private benefits to those that acquire them (individual students and firms), but they provide public benefits as well. If our workforce is well educated, our economy will be more productive and innovative, and fewer people are likely to need public services. The same goes for research of many different kinds. For these reasons, higher education should get a good deal of public funding.

Policy makers, as well as the public who votes for them, need to realize the importance of funding for higher education. Without it, our educational system will have difficulty making positive changes and progress in the future.

Students Under Pressure

The other day, there was a link to this article on the PFF homepage:

I read it and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. It’s about high school students in the town of Lexington, MA, an affluent suburb of Boston, and the amount of pressure they are under to be successful at, well, everything.

I grew up pretty close to Lexington, which is probably why the article stuck in my mind so much. Honestly, Lexington was the town we all hated- we competed with them in sports and they excelled at pretty much everything, plus we knew they were really wealthy. But, it doesn’t give me satisfaction to know that the students at that school are so stressed out; really, I don’t think that kind of culture is good for anyone.

Although the article is about high school, this kind of pressure/behavior/culture has implications for higher ed as well. What these kids want is to get into top-rated schools, and then once they get there I’m sure they will continue putting themselves under tremendous pressure to try to achieve whatever comes next. It’s the kind of mind frame that makes students sign up for a million activities and get good grades, without learning much about themselves or what they love in the process. Even though they want to achieve at high levels, I wonder what implications this kind of culture really has in the long run- what’s going to happen to these kids? Will they find things they’re genuinely passionate about? Will they have happy lives? Will they be more likely to cheat or partake in other unethical behaviors to get ahead? Will some of the burn out before they’re 30?

I feel sorry for these students, because it seems like they are just reacting to the pressures around them. I wonder why the adults in their lives have such narrow definitions of success and so much invested in status. As adults, we should show young people many different ways to be happy and successful, so they can choose for themselves what path to take. As teachers, we can play a role in this by structuring our classrooms and university cultures to encourage mindful learning, not give our students busy work, and engage them during lectures so they don’t just sit their ruminating on all of their stress. This kind of high-pressure culture might work for some people, but ultimately I think it’s pretty toxic. Let’s do what we can as educators to combat it!


Open Access Journal in Economics

Next week in class we will be discussing open access, and for our blog assignment we must find an open access journal in our field. I had to step outside of Agricultural and Applied Economics and into Economics in order to find one.

The journal I found is simply called Economics. It is associated with the Kiel Institute for the World Economy and the ZBW – Leibniz Information Centre for Economics. Here is a link:

The journal covers all areas of economics. It contains sections on Policy Papers, Surveys and Overviews, and Replications. It provides some guidelines for conducting replication studies and states that it is committed to publishing “both confirming and disconfirming replications.”

The journal prides itself on having Open Access (it does not charge for access to papers), Open Assessment (there is a public peer review process), and Speed of publishing (articles are posted relatively quickly for feedback from the community).

I hope that in the future, there are more open access journals. It seems absurd to me that journals, which usually seem to be owned by private companies, can make money off of other people’s research, other people’s time reviewing, and (often) public money (and/or tuition money) that went into funding research and professors’ salaries. The only service they really offer is organizational, and that isn’t needed as much these days.


MOOCs: Complements to traditional education

The Economist magazine has published a few articles on MOOCs over the years. I just re-read one from January 2017 and I found an older one published in 2014.

According to these articles, when MOOCs first took off in 2012,there was a lot of anxiety that they would displace more traditional modes of higher education. As time went on, however, it became apparent that MOOCs serve as better complements to traditional higher education than substitutes. By 2014, some universities were offering their own online platforms and courses. Traditional universities offer things that online courses can’t, such as (more respected) certifications, and social capital. Nevertheless, the cost of university has skyrocketed in the past decade or two so there’s high incentives for students to take advantage of online courses, MOOCs and other, at reduced price.

MOOC’s are low-cost and offer students a lot of flexibility in when and where they learn. The MOOC providers themselves also have flexibility in what they can offer: they can partner with universities to offer traditional classes or partner with private companies to offer job skills training.

MOOCs certainly have challenges, and in many cases there is an advantage to getting an in-person education, but I think they’re a crucial part of higher education today and I would like to see them continue to grow and evolve. Higher education, especially in the US, has a major problem: it is too expensive and too difficult to access. In situations when online learning works, people should use it. I’ve used a few different online learning platforms in the past few years, entirely to complement my graduate studies- I learned a little bit of programming, improved my knowledge of statistical software, and brushed up on my math skills. In fact, when I taught a class last semester, I encouraged my students to check out Khan Academy to review some basic topics in Economics that they may have forgotten.

I encourage anyone interested in MOOCs and how higher education is evolving in the US to check out these articles:

“Established education providers v new contenders.” The Economist. January 12, 2017.

“The digital degree” The Economist. June 27, 2014.

My Community College Experience

Several weeks ago in class, our professor asked if anyone had any community college experience. Very few students raised their hand. My own experience is limited, but I still have some thoughts to share.

I graduated from a private liberal arts college in 2010, but after graduation, I wanted to take some more math classes to prepare for grad school. I was working in Boston at the time, and I actually had several options for where to take such classes. The most convenient was Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC) (movie buffs might recognize BHCC from the film Good Will Hunting). It was directly on my way between work and home, and it had it’s own mass transit stop.

The first class I took was Linear Algebra, twice a week at around 4:00 pm. It cost about $650 to take. I remember signing up being somewhat of a hassle, since I had to register in person. The class itself was really good. The instructor was a PhD student at a nearby university, and she did a good job teaching. I enjoyed the class and got a solid understanding of the subject.

I then decided to take Multivariable Calculus and it was so horrible I dropped it a few weeks in, even though I couldn’t get my money back. The instructor was the worst teacher I have ever had: he spent very little time actually teaching (I remember him wasting several minutes each class shaming people if they came in late).

As far as the college itself, BHCC was one of the most legitimately diverse places I have ever been in terms of age, race, and ethnicity. The age diversity really struck me: most colleges mainly serve 18-22 year-olds, but there were many older students here. The liberal arts college I went to paid a lot of lip service to diversity, and I think it was fairly diverse compared to other private colleges, but BHCC just was diverse, because it served a truly diverse community.

Despite that terrible professor, my experience at BHCC solidified my respect and admiration of community colleges and the role they serve in US higher education. There absolutely needs to be places where people can access higher education, even if they’re not 18-22 years old, even if they can’t commit to a four-year degree, or commit full-time, or move away from home, or stop working, etc., etc. In the US, community colleges are these places.

Another useful thing about community colleges is that they’re accustomed to non-degree students taking their classes. Aside from having to wait in a couple of long lines, I ran into no problems enrolling in just one class. This makes them an asset to the entire community,  not just to their full or part-time enrolled students. Even if you have no need for an Associates Degree, your local community college might have something that interests you. The ones near Boston offer classes in art, film, creative writing, computer skills, and other topics that would be fun or enriching for many people to take.

In short, community colleges are pretty great, they deserve funding and support, and you should check out what they have to offer!










Ethics Violations: The Role of Our Own Egos

This is my second blog post on ethics, reflecting the current topic in our PFP class. The specific topic of this blog post is a class assignment: to go to the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity website and blog about a case or educational program.

The website has many case summaries regarding individuals who violated the ethics of research, mainly through falsifying and/or fabricating data (at least within the subset that I perused). The case summary I read in the most detail describes a graduate student from the University of CA, San Francisco who altered experimental data to support his hypothesis. He published two papers using this falsified data. As punishment, he entered into a “Voluntary Settlement Agreement” in which he will essentially be on probation for three years and be excluded from certain responsibilities such as peer reviewing and serving on committees. He also must retract or correct his two papers that used the falsified data. Here’s the link to the summary:

I don’t believe that many people set out with the intention of cheating. Most people probably get into research due to a desire to make the world a better place. On the other hand, academics do often have large egos and are under a tremendous amount of pressure to publish. Given the culture of academia, I’m not surprised that people cheat. There’s a big risk for failure, and people wrap their whole sense of self-worth into their career success: that’s a dangerous combination, especially since researchers often have ample opportunity to fiddle with their data.

There’s been plenty written on the culture of academia, but there’s something we can all do on a personal level to prevent ourselves from feeling the urge to cheat: we need to chill out about our desire to be professionally successful. Academics (and others as well, certainly) sacrifice a lot at the alter of career success. When we cheat, we sacrifice our integrity, whether or not anyone catches us. My point isn’t that we shouldn’t try our best to do meaningful research, but rather that we shouldn’t prioritize our own egos over the work. I believe that that would prevent at least some of the cheating/ethics violations that occur within academia.


Are There Too Many PhDs?

If you google the title of this blog post, you will find a lot of articles on the subject. The fact that PhDs in many fields have difficulty finding academic jobs is not a surprise to anyone. According to The Atlantic, the academic job market has been tightening for years; they give a wide array of relevant statistics regarding the number of PhDs produced per academic job, the percentage of PhDs without any job, etc. The situation seems pretty dismal.

As a PhD student in Agricultural and Applied Economics, I know I have job options besides just academic jobs, and that fact is comforting. When the time comes, I plan on approaching the job market with flexibility- seeing what jobs are out there, and applying to the ones that seem interesting to me, regardless of whether they’re in the academic, private, or public sphere. I think that kind of attitude is helpful for anyone with a PhD, although I do still see a lot of attachment to the idea of getting an academic job.

As long as PhDs have some flexibility in the jobs they will take, then I prefer to see the increasing numbers of graduate-educated people as a boon to our society, rather than as a problem. The fact that there are so many people willing to devote themselves to learning, without a high salary and without the guarantee of ever having a high salary, is a tremendous resource if we put it to use. Imagine, for instance, if more high school teachers had PhDs – high school education might improve. Imagine if more journalists had PhDs- science journalism which would vastly improved! Imagine if our government boosted funding for science, public health, policy analysis, etc., to make better use of all of our PhDs- life might become better for a lot of people.

Of course, this utopian future requires two things: 1. Academia has to stop pretending that it’s solely training future academics, and 2. As a country, we need to devote more resources to education and research. I don’t really see that happening anytime soon. However, that doesn’t change my opinion that the problem isn’t that we’re producing too many PhDs, but rather that we’re not producing enough opportunities for them to apply their knowledge and skills.


McKenna, Laura. “The Ever-Tightening Job Market for Ph.D.s.” April 21, 2016. The Atlantic.