21 January 2015

Government Paying for Higher Education

Stephen Kershnar
Free Community College? Too much college?
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
January 19, 2015

President Obama has proposed making community college free. This is a bad idea and it is worth considering whether the state should be in the business of subsidizing higher education at all, let alone at the current high level.    

Obama’s proposal is intended to benefit 9 million students. His administration claims that when implemented, the typical full-time community college student would save $3,800 per year, although the student would have to maintain a C+ average to get the freebie. It further claims that it would cost $60 billion over 10 years. The vast cost overruns of the major federal programs suggest that the number is much higher. Obama’s proposal is to have the federal government pick up 75% of the tab, the states pay the rest.  

Why is this a bad idea? First, community colleges are failure mills. Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute points out that only 20% of first-time, full-time students at community college students get their degree in three years and it is a two-year degree. It is unlikely that making students invest even less in their education will make them invest more time and energy into their studies.   

Second, McCluskey argues that after accounting for grants and scholarships, tuition at these colleges is already free for many members of families earning less than $65,000. Thus, we are largely focused here on making community college free for the middle class and rich. This is hardly a priority.

Third, writing in The New York Times, Catherine Rambell points out that tuitions and fees at colleges and universities have skyrocketed in the last few decades. Since 1985, the price of these institutions have increased roughly two and a half times faster than that of consumer goods and far outpaced the exploding price of medical care. Opening the money spigot will further increase the cost of education, even if it is shifted from students to taxpayers.  

Fourth, writing in The National Interest, Kevin James points out that federal funding will undoubtedly lead to increasing federal control of community colleges. Giving more power to the architects of Obamacare and their Congressional brethren is just a bad idea.   

The interesting issue is why we subsidize college education at all, let alone community colleges with large drop-out rates. College is a good deal. Economists Janice Eberly and Kartik Athreya point out that college graduates earn more than 50-70% more than high school graduates and that money spent on education has a rate of return roughly twice that of the stock market. Also, as economist Bryan Caplan points out, a college graduate is 7 times more likely than someone with only a high school degree to marry a college graduate. Thus, college graduates often get a sizable marriage bonus. It is unfair to force taxpayers, especially those who didn’t go to college, to pay for such a good deal. We are talking real money here. Writing in The New York Times, Jason Deslisle estimates that the federal government is spending at a rate of more than a trillion dollars a decade on higher education.

One defense of subsidizing college is that doing so is necessary to give poor people equal opportunity. If this were correct, then the state should subsidize the poor directly through grants and subsidized loans rather than paying for middle class and rich students. Not only are the latter a large percentage of college students, they’re an even larger percentage of those who graduate.    

There is also the issue of how much money and opportunity the poor should be given. They already pay little, if anything, in taxes and often receive free or subsidized food, housing, medical care, welfare, and K-12 education. Enough already.  

A second defense of subsidizing college is that education provides benefits to society, independent of the benefits college graduates themselves receive, and we want to give students additional incentive to go to school as a way to provide society with more of these benefits. That is, education has positive externalities.  

If the extra money put into higher education leads to an explosion in spending by colleges and universities, then it is unclear whether the extra money will serve as an incentive for more education. The concern here is that government subsidies will be diverted to hire new armies of administrators and staff rather than to lower the price of a college education.    

Also, weaker students traditionally have not graduated at very high rates and subsidizing them is likely a bad investment both for them and for the community. If the justification for spending taxpayer money on higher education is to produce positive externalities, then it should probably be spent on better students, rather than wasted on those who did poorly in high school and are unlikely to graduate from college.  

There is also a theoretical issue as to whether education has positive nor negative effects on the communities (externalities). Economist Bryan Caplan points out that much of what colleges and universities teach has little relation to the real world and students often don’t retain much of what they learned. Far too many students fail to pick up even the critical thinking skills that are thought to be useful across an array of jobs. On Caplan’s signaling theory, employers pay more for college students not because they’ve picked up valuable workplace skills, but rather because a college degree is evidence that such workers are more productive. The idea is that it signals that, on average, they have higher IQs, better work ethic, or conform to workplace norms. We should be hesitant to spend taxpayer money into higher education without being confident the signaling theory is wrong. Even if it is wrong, we might want to limit taxpayer subsidies to fields that clearly teach workplace-skills, such as engineering, medicine, and accounting.   


For those of us who work for public universities, this argument is disturbing, which is different from saying it’s mistaken. 

07 January 2015

Campus Rape: Numbers, Virginia, and Duke

Stephen Kershnar
Campus Rape by the Numbers
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
January 5, 2015

As of late, campus rape has been all over the news. The media discredited an article by Sabrina Erdely of Rolling Stone on a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. This followed up a national furor over an alleged gang rape by Duke lacrosse players in 2006. This allegation was proven false. Lena Dunham’s story about rape at Oberlin College turned out to be problematic. President Barack Obama weighed in with the claim that 1 in 5 of women in college (200 per 1,000) have been sexually assaulted while at college. With these swirling stories, let’s consider what we know about campus rape. 

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that from 1995 to 2013, approximately 6 females per 1,000 ages 18 to 24 who were enrolled in college were subject to rape or sexual assault victimization and 2 per 1,000 were raped.

A chilling figure is that 4 of 5 of these rapes or sexual assaults went unreported. Among collegiate women’s reasons for not reporting it were that was a personal matter, they feared reprisal, and they did not want to get the offender in trouble with the law. The last reason is likely related to the fact that the victims knew most of their attackers (78%) and some were intimate partners (24%).

Women who did not attend college were significantly more likely to be raped than women in college, but were also more likely to report it. As a commentator at the Federalist pointed out, this suggests that the notion that colleges and universities are hotbeds of rape culture relative to other parts of our society is incorrect. Women in college are safer from rape than women not in college. Even when women in college are raped, most of the time it doesn’t occur on campus.

There is some good news here. The frequency of rape or sexual assault is dropping sharply for college-age women. My guess is that it is related to the sharp drop in overall crime rates. 

The estimates of the frequency with which women falsely accuse men of rape vary greatly. The most plausible estimates are 2-8% as judged by the government studies in Britain and Australia and by psychologist David Lisak. This is unsurprising because the lower number is in line with false reports of other crimes. Still, 2-8% is a big range and even these numbers come from studies that are fairly limited in their ability to figure out whether an accuser is lying. 

The rate of men who were raped or subject to sexual assault on campus is roughly 1.4 males per 1,000. They are thus raped at nearly 1/4th the rate of women. This is surprising in that one would not expect one man is raped for nearly every four women who are raped.

Daily Mail, a British paper, argues that when sexual abuse in prison is taken into account, more men are raped in the U.S. than women. Using 2011 Department of Justice number, it asserts that 40 out of 1,000 prisoners were sexually abused. This figure is outrageous. Wardens and other prison authorities should make reducing this disgusting figure a priority and failure to do so should lead to prompt dismissal.

The demographics are fairly predictable. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the poor are much more likely than the middle class and rich to be raped or sexually assaulted. Specifically, for every rich or upper middle class person who is raped, approximately 20 poor people are raped (2009 figure). My guess is that poor women are far more likely to come into contact with the dregs of the male population.

BJS reports that blacks are much more likely than white men to be rapists. This is unsurprising given the widespread differences in crime and violence. More surprising is that BJS numbers indicate that black men rape white women in significant numbers, but white men rarely, if ever, rape black women. It is unclear why.  

An interesting issue is what penalty should be given to one who commits rape or sexual assault. In Britain, The Guardian reports that the average rapist is imprisoned for 8 years. BJS reports that in 1992 the average rapist in the U.S. was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ended up serving a little more than 5. I cannot find a more up-to-date figure. In theory, various punishment theorists argue that justice requires that punishment should fit the crime. Some theorists have interpreted this to mean that wrongdoer should suffer by an amount equal to what was done to the victim.

Is an eight-year sentence more or less harmful than a rape? This is hard to say. My guess is that most people would think the sentence is more harmful, but this is just a guess. If so, then this theory would say that sentence is too harsh and thus unjust. If most people would think the same for the five-year sentence, then it too is too harsh.

While the college rape statistics are still too high, they do not justify closing down fraternities, doing away with fair trials on campus for accused offenders, or making students so fearful that they refrain from going to parties. There are more pressing threats. Writing for U.S. News and World Report, Mike Bowler points out that roughly half of college students never graduate. Therese Borchard writing for PsychCentral reports that 25% of college students have a diagnosable mental illness. Depression and eating disorders are particular threats. Students are likely better off focusing on these threats, although addressing one set of threats doesn’t preclude addressing another.  


While campus rape is a horrendous crime, the numbers are nothing like the 1 in 5 number that Obama and others cite. Colleges are not hotbeds of rape. In fact, college women are less likely to be raped then women who do not go to college. Surprisingly, men in college also risk being victimized by rape or sexual assault. The frequency of such attacks in prison is a national disgrace. 

27 December 2014

Why Life After 75 is Worthwhile

Stephen Kershnar
Dying at 75: Not Recommended
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 22, 2014

Recently bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel sparked controversy with his article in The Atlantic, “Why I hope to die at 75.” He argued that it would be best for him to die at 75 because his contribution to society and creativity will have significantly declined and because he will become an increasing burden on his family. He argues that his continued life will replace his family’s memories of him as rigorous, funny, and loving with memories of him suffering from worsening disabilities and as a caregiving burden.

As Brown University philosopher Felicia Ackerman points out, Emanuel’s opinion matters because, he is the director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the National Institutes of Health and thus in a position to transfer resources away from projects that aim to prolong life in the elderly. He is also one of the primary architects of Obamacare.

Emanuel tried to limit his argument in terms of what was good for him rather than others, but unless one thinks that what makes people’s lives go well varies at a fundamental level, his argument applies to others. Whether applied to others or himself, the argument fails for several reasons.

First, happiness makes a life go better. Psychologist Arthur Stone has found that from 65 to 85 people become happier. Here happiness is measured according to self-reported well-being. If (on average) people become happier, then during their elderly years their lives go better rather than worse. As a result, each year is more worth to them than earlier years. A common view, and I think the correct one, is that contribution and creativity matter only because they make one happier, they do not independently make someone’s life go better. 

Now if life becomes awash in pain and degradation, then the calculation might change. For example, one in three Americans 85 or over has Alzheimer’s. This along with other maladies might make life no longer worth living, but this is not the sort of case on which Emanuel and I are focusing.   

Second, even if one thinks that how well one’s life goes depends on things that are independent of happiness (for example, loving relationships, knowledge, and virtue), there is no reason to think that these things are not present after age 75. Even if they were not present at the same level, and I see no reason to think this, it is better to have them to a lesser degree than not at all. This points out the more general point, which is that even if one’s quality of life were to decline with age, this is still no reason to cut it short. By analogy, just because Martin Scorcese movies are less enjoyable now than in the past, this is no reason to stop watching them if one loves movies and his movies are still better than their competitors.      

Third, healthy families do not prefer that their elderly parents be dead rather than in a reduced state. This is true even if they factor in the loss of replacing good memories with bad ones. Assuming their preferences are well thought out, and I think they often are, this tells us that the early death is not good for the family members Emanuel is trying to help by cashing out early.

There’s not much to be said for Emanuel’s position. The correct approach is to consider whether one’s future has more happiness than unhappiness (alternatively, net positive well-being). If so, then dying is not in one’s interest. What is worth noting is how the introduction of religious ideas changes how we should think about this issue. Emanuel takes a pass on the role of heaven because introducing this factor would change how one thinks about dying early.

Judaism and Christianity are committed to an afterlife. If one knows he is going to heaven and that he’ll be happier in heaven than on Earth (this is true on any plausible theory of heaven), then it makes little sense to try to stay alive. Doing so would be like people in the 1950’s spending time in New York City during the insufferably hot part of the summer when they could be at a resort in the Catskills swimming, dancing, and eating ten different types of cured fish. Leaving aside work and family-related duties, there is little to be said for suffering unnecessarily in the city heat.

Even the family issues cut in both directions. If many of one’s family (for example, deceased spouse, parents, and siblings) are in heaven desperately missing the elderly person and one will escape both Earthly maladies and decreased productivity and creativity in heaven, then only a selfish family would want to delay an elderly person’s passage. After all, they’ll catch up with him later and he’ll be very happy in the interim. If they want him to delay passage, then perhaps the elderly person should do so, but he should be clear as to why he is delaying his passage, namely, for his family and not for himself.

If one is risking hell or time in purgatory, then an elderly person ought to focus on doing what is necessary to avoid such a catastrophe. Of course, this has little relation to declining productivity and creativity or to malady-related suffering. Here adult children of the elderly should focus on helping the elderly avoid hell or minimize time in purgatory and should give this priority as this goal is far more important than whether the adult children’s offspring go to a good college or become a physician. Even for Jewish parents, the benefit of being a child becoming a physician is infinitesimal compared to the cost of a parent going to hell.

Now one can be confident that a loving God would not send people to hell, at least a hell that did not allow people to eventually leave it for heaven. Such suffering would be disproportionate to whatever finite evil a person did and, in any case, would not achieve any worthwhile goal. To the extent this conflicts with various branches of Christianity (for example, Catholicism), this is good reason think that these branches are in error.   


Our elderly years on Earth promise to be golden ones and much should be done to make sure we get as many of them as possible. This changes if heaven exists and the failure to enter this into the calculation makes sense only if one is an atheist.