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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Future of Engineering Education - Part III

In Part I and Part II of this series, I told you how desperately public universities play the U.S. News & World Report rankings game. Public academia appears to be unable to grasp the fact that school rankings are an elaborate scam set up to boost private schools and provide them with steady income and prestige.  This obsession with rankings also plays to the recurrent thinking in the U.S. that unless you are rich or an already highly-educated, ready-to-use immigrant like me, you are not worthy of a decent life and it is your own fault.  Yeah, shame on you, why aren't you rich or well-educated?

In Part I and Part II, I also suggested that in undergraduate education public universities would never win or place high in the current rankings scam.  Simply put, the rankings carrot is dangled from much too high for the public universities to bite, no matter how hard they try to jump.

Since I spent 18 years as a faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, and have students who are now professors at Stanford and MIT, I must tell you that Berkeley is not 18 notches beneath Harvard.  In fact, one could argue that the rich and complex social ecosystem of Berkeley puts Harvard to shame most of the time, while costing Californians four times less.

So if Berkeley = Harvard in overall rankings, why should UT Austin be number 52, after some no-name private colleges?  With all due respect, why is a Washington University in Saint Louis number 19, while Berkeley is number 20 and The University of Texas at Austin is number 52?  Has anyone heard about a Wake Forest University? I certainly haven't, but it ties with UC Los Angeles, University of Southern California, and University of Virginia for the 23 place in the U.S. News and World Report.  Have we gone mad?

OK, so we have gone mad and public universities are now focusing solely on graduate rankings, feeling correctly that in this domain they can still compete with private universities. But there is a hitch: The public perceives public universities as insufficiently caring about their sons and daughters, almost all of whom will never go beyond an undergraduate B.S. or  B.A. degree.  Few Americans ever get a graduate M.S. degree and far fewer a PhD. degree.  Especially in science and engineering, Americans seldom enroll in graduate schools. A vast majority of all PhD. students in these areas is foreign born. We continue to bet that most of the freshly-minted PhDs  will stay here and run the technical side of U.S. economy.

The top echelons of politics, diplomacy, law, banking, finance, insurance, and the military-spying-police-entertainment-industrial complex are reserved for the Americans graduating from top private schools.  This sophisticated cast system has brought to the U.S. a dismally low social mobility, marginally higher than those in the almost failed United Kingdom and Italy, and five times lower than those in Norway, Denmark and Finland. 

The current fixation with graduate academic rankings palpably hurts public universities, because they fail to see what the public supports and how their own faculty should be rewarded.  These two points are significant, because public universities have now lost much of their public support, but they have not become private universities shielded by the giant endowments and tuition charges that subsidize and maintain their unquestioned royal opulence.  Public universities usually receive strong support from their alumni and falsely assume that this support extends to the general public.  It does not.

In Part II, I quoted Edward Bernays, one of the greatest public communicators of all times, who 80 years ago pointed out that "The public cannot understand unless the teacher understands the relationship between the general public and the academic idea...."

It's that simple.  If public universities want to continue serving a large number of ordinary families, we need to be in tune with what these families care for.  The public cannot be hearing from us only how great we are in research, and how they should help us fulfill our scientific destiny.  The public simply doesn't comprehend what we are talking about.  The public wants to hear what great things we can do for the society in general and their children in particular.

The grievous disconnect between public academia and the general public is a side effect of the con game in which public academia has been ensnarled.  The purpose of this con game is to strengthen private schools and weaken public ones.  And thus we, the oh-so-smart faculty, are drowning only because we must prove to ourselves that we are as good as the private princes of pristine science.  Well, we are actually much better.  Try to imagine private schools running on one quarter or one fifth of the resources they are accustomed to and do as well as we do!  Just look at the three figures below, and Part I and Part II of this blog.  For God's sake, wake up you public academic teachers and tell your bureaucrats to shape up!  By the way, many of these bureaucrats live to play the rankings game and nothing else matters to them.  This means, in particular, that they are less than truthful when they talk about importance of undergraduate education without mentioning research needs in the same sentence.

So why do public universities think they can compete with private ones? First, let's do the numbers.

Figure 1. Total enrollment in the top 30 U.S. graduate programs in engineering.  The top private universities are in red and the top public ones in blue. Notice that in contrast to their small undergraduate enrollments, some of the top private universities have substantial graduate enrollments in engineering.  Simply put, there is a lot more money to be made off of graduate students starting their own companies and filing patents.  In general, undergraduate education is a money-losing proposition best left to public universities.  Unless, of course, you belong to the nomenklatura and a gentleman's C is in store for you, especially if daddy kicked in a few million dollars to his/your private Alma Mater. Source: 2013 rankings by US News & World Report.
Figure 1 shows that among the top 30 engineering programs in the U.S., 17 are public.  The mean enrollment and the standard deviation are 2,410 +/- 874 graduate students for the public universities and 2,202 +/- 1,323 students for the private ones.

Figure 2. Nominal tuition and fees charged by the top 30 U.S. programs in engineering . For the public universities, these are in-state tuition plus fees. For the private universities the tuition and fees are for full-time students.  Texas A&M is an anomaly in its reporting, quoting $258 per credit, the number that is incomprehensible to the public and suggests an almost free education.  In this plot I did the translation. Notice that NC State, Texas A&M and UT Austin charge the least for graduate education.  These charges are below cost and must be subsidized from their respective endowments. Source: 2013 rankings by US News & World Report.
Figure 2 shows that the mean tuition and fees and their standard deviation are $12,787 +/- $3,840 for the top public universities, and $39,426 +/- $6,148 for the private ones.  In short, a good private university charges three times more on average than a good public university.

Figure 3. Nominal income from the current graduate student populations in the top 30 engineering programs. Source: 2013 rankings by US News & World Report.

Figure 3 shows that the mean nominal income and its standard deviation are $30.5 +/- $14.5 million per year for the top public universities, and $86.0 +/- $51.6 million per year for the private ones.

So what's the conclusion here?  Public universities can fight their way to the top of graduate rankings in engineering despite income that on average is three times less than that of private universities.   When it comes to merit and funding from competitive public sources (NSF, NIH, DOE, DoD, etc.),  creativity and ambition more than make up for the lack of most other resources relative to private universities.

But this victory of sorts of public universities is a Pyrrhic one.  By focusing on research these universities undercut the already meager support of the public, which knows nothing about research and advanced degrees, and does not care.  The public cares, however, a lot about their high-school graduate sons and daughters, who cannot get into the overextended and underfinanced public universities.

For example, my department of Petroleum Engineering at UT Austin already has a 40:1 overall student:faculty ratio and in 2014 had to reject 13 out of 14 candidates for freshmen. At the same time, the public keeps on hearing a loud chorus of voices that tell them the following:  Public universities should deliver cheap and shoddy education for the unwashed masses, and they should stop competing with the private barons and princes of education, who mostly serve the affluent cast.

The public at large is generally uneducated about research and advanced degrees, and deceived.   As it so often happens in America, people actively oppose what might be good for them, because they are conned into believing that they all are incipient millionaires, who have been poor by accident just for the first x-years of their lives. I do not need to remind you that being poor in America is deeply shameful. Shame makes people pretend that they are who they are not, and vote against their self-interest. 

P.S. I wrote this blog on 2/28/2014, but out of disgust could not make myself publish it until today. A week ago I had a medical incident that made me rethink many things.  Chief among them is the creeping betrayal of more than half of U.S. population, from the poor professional soldiers and veterans, to the lower 50% of the population in K-12 schools, which receives eduction at a level below most third-world countries, to a burgeoning population of the less-than-affluent people, who want to send their children to public universities, but cannot, because these children were insufficiently educated in their dismal K-12 schools, and later must compete with the better-to-do families, whose children also flock to public universities.

Let's hope that the wrecking ball falling on undergraduate public education in the U.S. will be less than awesomely devastating.  Judging from what already happened to K-12 schools, I am not holding my breath.  Please pay attention to the ever-louder demands for (academic) teacher "accountability."  That's how it starts.  And it goes down from there.  

Edward Bernays, who was an honest original propagandist, must be turning in his grave.  Bernays genuinely believed  that manipulation of the disoriented masses by the enlightened elites served good social purpose and improved civil society.  Many high schools today do not have real teachers of sciences, but they do have accountability and mechanical, mind-numbing tests for the young inmates.

The purpose of these tests has been to indoctrinate the obedient, schematically thinking, and disoriented young consumers, not enlightened thoughtful citizens. Think then of best public universities as intensive care units, in which some of the young patients  are brought back to life.

This important link to an article "Americans Think We Have the World’s Best Colleges. We Don’t" on the utter mediocrity of most U.S. colleges at bachelor level was added on 6/29/14.  Simply put, most graduates of the generally mediocre K-12 schools in the U.S. are never resuscitated by U.S. colleges, no matter how highly the respective graduate programs in these colleges rank.  Remember that the U.S. graduate programs in math, physics, chemistry, and engineering are mostly for the gifted foreign-born students.  I often hear from this from great American kids: "How can I compete in (PhD-level) math with all these foreign-born students?"  How will I then pass the PhD qualifying exam? So these kids never become PhD students. I could write a whole dissertation on how low on average the analytic math and programing skills are among American undergraduate students.  I would be describing my personal teaching experience over the last 25 years. Other serious problems affecting performance of U.S. colleges involve child poverty, poor nutrition or malnutrition, lack of family support, increasingly language problems, and so on.  These problems are not nearly as severe in other developed countries.

P.S.P.S. Those few public high schools that still work are severely segregated, so that the well-to-do are served and others aren't.  While I do not mind elite high schools protected by difficult entrance exams, I attended one after all,  their admission procedures need to be transparent and well-publicized, and good alternatives for the less prepared/gifted children must exist.  I have a feeling that in the U.S. such alternatives do not exist.

P.S.P.S.P.S.  And here is how the private for profit universities fared and what they have done to tens of thousands of their students.  A decade ago, Corinthian Colleges was a darling of Wall Street which valued it at $3.4 billion, and was used as a shiny example for the outdated public universities.  After wasting billions of dollars of taxpayer's money and thousands of student lives,  Corinthian Colleges will have to fold.  And, yes, public often underwrites private profit and then pays for private losses.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Future of Engineering Education Machine in Almost Here - Part II

In Part I, I criticized current framing of disputes about the future of public higher education.  Now it's time for a positive proposal.  I will show you that private and public schools cannot be easily compared and should not be included in the same rankings.  As you will see, these unrealistic rankings compare equivalents of a leisurely weekend runner jogging at 5 miles per hour (private schools) with a hurried man barreling down a freeway sixteen times faster at 90 miles per hour.  It is impossible to apply the same criteria to the behavior and priorities of both.

In my mind, current university rankings by the U.S. News and World Report should be soundly repudiated by public universities acting as a group, and a case should be made to split the ranking lists of private and public universities.  I am assuming here that we will continue to insist on numerical measures of academic success, however incomplete and distorted these measures are.  That's because I realize that we are insignificant parts of the ever more powerful Machine.  Let's start from a scene from a Roman Polansky movie.

Imagine a lavish ball in an old castle.  The walls of a spacious, richly ornamented ballroom are lined with tall mirrors and a chamber orchestra is playing in the corner.  On the floor, dozens of pairs of bejeweled beautiful ladies in long dresses and elegant men in dark suits are dancing with great skill.  It's a breathtaking view!  Then you look at the mirrors and all you can see is the empty ballroom.  What you observed was an illusion, a beautiful but empty image.  You just watched the Annual Vampires' Ball in Count Dracula's castle.
The ever-insecure public academia is examining herself with trepidation:  "In my cheap dress, will I look as pretty as those private school dames?"  The simple answer is: "No, public academia is different than private schools,  clothed or naked. We serve different societal needs, and we should stop comparing ourselves to our very rich but distant second cousins." Cumulatively, the top 15 public universities charge a little less than one quarter of  the tuition and fees charged by the 15 top private universities, and enroll roughly four times more students. By this metric, the cohort of 15 top U.S. public universities is 16 times (sic!) more efficient than the comparable cohort of private universities. Therefore, it is only right that anyone who feels like it harasses and admonishes public schools, while the private school slobs are living serene fulfilling lives. Source: E.C. Escher, "Hand with Reflecting Sphere," 1935.
Which brings me to academic rankings pursued by public universities with troubling desperation.  As I wrote in Part I of this series, private universities need not worry: By definition, they are on top of all rankings. Think of this, if private schools were not highest-ranked, who would spend up to $100K  per year on private education if 25% of that sum would buy equally good public education?

The small but luxurious private universities are gate keepers, who for the right price dispense lifetime membership cards to the American nomenklatura.  Therefore, no one at the US News and World Report would dare to question the glittering supremacy of the Ivy League schools, never mind that as a cohort they are 4.4x3.7=16 times less efficient than the comparable public universities (see Figures 1 - 4 and 5 - 6). After all, the United States of America has invented the beautiful and tempting, but otherwise empty images.  And this invention has served some of us very well.

Rushing at 90 miles per hour, the stressed-out public educators are remiss in educating public about academia's priorities and difficulties.  Here is what the original U.S. propagandist (in 1928, the term "propaganda" did not have the contemporary pejorative connotation), Edward Bernays, wrote on this subject:
EDUCATION is not securing its proper share of public interest. ... The public is not cognizant of the real value of education, and does not realize that education as a social force is not receiving the kind of attention it has the right to expect in a democracy. ... There are a number of reasons for this condition. First of all, there is the fact that the educator has been trained to stimulate to thought the individual students in his classroom, but has not been trained as an educator at large of the public. In a democracy an educator should, in addition to his academic duties, bear a definite and wholesome relation to the general public. This public does not come within the immediate scope of his academic duties. But in a sense he depends upon it for his living, for the moral support, and the general cultural tone upon which his work must be based. In the field of education, we find what we have found in politics and other fields—that the evolution of the practitioner of the profession has not kept pace with the social evolution around him, and is out of gear with the instruments for the dissemination of ideas which modern society has developed. If this be true, then the training of the educators in this respect should begin in the normal schools, with the addition to their curricula of whatever is necessary to broaden their viewpoint. The public cannot understand unless the teacher understands the relationship between the general public and the academic idea....
I note in passing that private universities have developed a formidable propaganda apparatus since WWI, and continue with great skill to use think tanks and other propaganda outlets to promote their positive public image.  After all, they have ample resources and staff to drive their perennial PR offensive.  Public universities are poor propagandists, because - hmm - they are much poorer and - setting aside the corrupt "college athletics" - they are not as slick as private universities in lying and covering up:
Then as the 2012-2013 school year commenced, Joseph Asch, Dartmouth '79, wrote an open letter the incoming class of 2016 on the Dartblog titled, "Freshman, There Will be Lies." In his letter Mr. Asch warns, among other declarations, that students should begin their time at Dartmouth with the understanding that the administration will lie, underscoring his point by asserting, "Not small lies, or white lies, or inadvertent ones, but straight-out lies that help the administration gain the goals that it seeks at your expense." He reverses all that the students once thought true about an elite academic institution by telling the class that although they expect this "noble institution" to serve the students, in fact the administration "has goals to achieve, and work in an environment where lying has been part of the modus operandi for many years."
In summary, public and private universities are fundamentally different and should not be lumped together in an artificial way that boosts the Ivy League schools relative to the poorer, busier, and less glamorous public university cousins.   In Part III, I will get deeper into these gaping differences and public misperceptions.

P.S. (02/21/2014) If you think that the private and public non-profit schools are less than perfect, you should also look at the for-profit universities.  The pursuit of short-term profits and generally unethical behavior have created greedy monsters that steal money from the taxpayer and the poor. And Congress seems to be unable to control these monsters, which are feeding on mostly government-backed loans to ruin poor uneducated people.

Figure 1.  Click on the image to see it in full resolution. Tuition and fees charged by the top-ranked private universities. All of these universities are at the top of national rankings, i.e., Princeton is #1, according to the U.S. News and World Report. Add another $25-40,000 per year for living expenses. Another question comes to mind:  Is this cartel of private schools colluding in setting their tuition levels?
Figure 2.  Tuition and fees charged by the top-ranked public universities. U.C. Berkeley, the top public university in the U.S., is ranked as #20 by the U.S. News and World Report. The University of Connecticut is ranked #57. Add another $25-40,000 per year for living expenses.
Figure 3.  Undergraduate enrollment in the top-ranked private universities. All of these universities are at the top of national rankings, i.e., Princeton is #1, according to the U.S. News and World Report.
Figure 4.  Undergraduate enrollment in the top-ranked public universities. U.C. Berkeley, the top public university in the U.S., is ranked as #20 by the U.S. News and World Report. The University of Connecticut is ranked #57.
Figure 5.  Cumulative undergraduate enrollment in the 15 top-ranked private (#1-15) and 15 top-ranked public (#20-57) universities. Source : the U.S. News and World Report. The cumulative enrollment ratio is 4.4:1 in favor of the public universities.
Figure 6.  Cumulative tuition and fees charged by the 15 top-ranked private (#1-15) and 15 top-ranked public (#20-57) universities. Source : the U.S. News and World Report.  Cumulatively the private universities charge 3.7 times more than the corresponding cohort of public universities.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Future Engineering Education Machine is Almost Here - Part I

I presume that you already know what engineering and science education should morph into in the near future. After all, the distinguished professors of management and psychology are telling you how research should be divorced from teaching and how good teachers and good researchers should be put into two different academic drawers. 

Today, the consensus is to split teaching from research in all disciplines of public academia, thus lowering cost and increasing efficiency.  I find this consensus to be misinformed and potentially harmful to many of the students who will not go to Harvard or Yale to replenish the ranks of our oh-so-smart and so-thoughtful elites.

A complete divorce of research and teaching, vigorously pushed by non-scientists (psychologists, economists, political scientists, business majors, and the like), is akin to a religious belief in absolute right and wrong that simply do not obtain in science.  Dr. Isaak Asimov commented on this belief, which is rooted in scientific ignorance, in a beautiful essay: "The Relativity of Wrong"  (The Skeptical Inquirer, Fall 1989, 14(1), 35-44).  English Lit majors beware when you pontificate about science and engineering!

Where we are in the U.S. today is in no small measure an outcome of our elites' superior Ivy League education and their thorough understanding of the universe.  Take, for example, President George W. Bush, a Yale and Harvard graduate. His VP, Dick Chaney, was another failed Yale student and draft dodger, while his Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was a political scientist from Princeton.  Yet another prescient guru in this team was the Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, with a B.A. in English from Dartmouth College and MBA from Harvard, just like President Bush.  Paulson's most quotable parting words were: "Who could know that the financial markets would collapse?"

In eight memorable years, those geniuses -  not one with an advanced degree in anything I would consider to be rigorous education - raked up 30% of all U.S. national debt and did more damage to the U.S. than all of our enemies combined over the last century.  Their collective actions are quite an achievement for any Ivy School-educated team. Now, were their academic teachers researchers or lecturers?  Or does it matter?

Of course, to my knowledge, no one suggests that anyone should divorce teaching from research in the Ivy League colleges.  They're fine, as are private high schools.  After all, how could anything be wrong if these schools charge $40-50K per year in tuition, their student-to-faculty ratio is less than 10:1, and they graduate  - and intermarry - most of our presidents, top federal government appointees, CEOs, and other legacy children?

Presently, we are only talking about how to best damage public education at all levels.  And here there is no shortage of deep insights about streamlining the future lives of the gifted children of lesser others.

In summary, public discussion about the future of education has framed the subject in a way that lets private schools off the hook, despite their monumental failures in delivering quality education and instilling social responsibility into their highly-paying customers.  In Part II, I'll explain my thinking about education costs, teaching, and research in academia.