Opinion

Reihan Salam

Online education can be good or cheap, but not both

Reihan Salam
Jul 26, 2013 15:21 UTC

During his recent economic address at Knox College, President Barack Obama briefly referenced the promise of online learning. Specifically, he celebrated the fact that some colleges are “blending teaching with online learning to help students master material and earn credits in less time,” a development that holds great potential to contain the rising cost of higher education. Yet this potential is still a long way from being realized, as demonstrated by a recent hiccup at California’s San Jose State University.

Like many of America’s public universities, San Jose State has struggled in recent years to increase its graduation rate. Only 8 percent of students who enrolled as full-time first-years in the fall of 2003 managed to complete their bachelor’s degree in four years, a share that climbed to 46 percent over six years. For students who enrolled in the fall of 2005, the numbers barely budged, with 7 percent finishing in four years and 46 percent finishing in six years. San Jose State has an ambitious plan to increase that share, which includes San Jose State Plus, a new effort to harness the potential of online learning.

The San Jose State Plus initiative is a wonderful example of innovative public sector thinking. Rather than build new online courses in isolation, San Jose State partnered with edX, a non-profit organization founded by Harvard and MIT, and Udacity, a highly-regarded education startup, to create courses that were rigorous, accessible and cost-effective.

But as Jason Dearen reports, earlier this month San Jose State suspended five of its new online courses, all of which were offered in conjunction with Udacity and had no classroom learning. The courses — in elementary statistics, college algebra, entry-level math, introductory programming and introductory psychology — were in theory exactly the right kind of courses for an online instructional provider to teach, as they covered basic introductory material. Outsourcing this kind of teaching could in theory be an enormous boon to the bottom line of colleges and universities, as the most effective providers could spread their online courses across the country, sparing the need for large numbers of expensive faculty members. Indeed, Udacity’s entry-level courses were offered for $150 each, far less than the $620 San Jose State charges for traditional classroom-based courses.

The problem, however, is that between 56 percent and 76 percent of students who took the final exams ultimately failed them. Udacity has acknowledged that the results of its collaboration with San Jose State have been disappointing, and the startup is committed, in classic Silicon Valley fashion, to learn from its mistakes. That online learning will experience growing pains is to be expected.

How computerized work affects immigration

Reihan Salam
Jul 19, 2013 14:53 UTC

In 1900, 41 percent of the U.S. workforce was employed in agriculture. One hundred years later, that share had declined to 1.9 percent. Over that interval, the jobs that were easy and cheap to mechanize were mechanized, and now we are left with a handful of jobs that machines find extremely difficult to do. Machines can’t make strategic decisions about which crops to grow, and as a general rule they can’t fix themselves, so that leaves a significant role for managers and mechanics. Until recently, machines were also really bad at doing things like picking heads of lettuce and other delicate crops, as this requires a deftness of hand and an attention to detail that machines lack.

This is why the agricultural sector continues to have an appetite for less-skilled labor, which has been a huge driver of the recent comprehensive immigration reform effort. The idea is that because native-born Americans will never pick cucumbers — or at least because they will never pick cucumbers at a wage that would make for affordable cucumbers — we need a steady supply of less-skilled, low-wage workers to keep farms that grow cucumbers and lettuce and other delicate crops viable.

Now, however, a number of innovative firms have developed machines that use sophisticated sensors and an enormous amount of raw computing power to do jobs that had once been beyond the reach of machines. The reporters Gosia Wozniacka and Terence Chea recently described a Lettuce Bot that can “thin” a lettuce field in the time it would take twenty workers to do the same. Though the Lettuce Bot and machines like it remain expensive, there is every reason to believe that prices will fall. These picking machines are not quite good enough to pick fresh-market fruit, but they’re getting there. The reason these machines are being developed is the same reason agribusiness interests have been agitating for a substantial increase in less-skilled immigration: the supply of workers willing to work the fields is not big enough to keep wages extremely low, and so farms have been desperate for low-cost alternatives.

Republicans back agribusiness with the farm bill

Reihan Salam
Jul 12, 2013 20:29 UTC

This week, House Republicans passed a farm bill that reauthorizes and expands a wide range of federal subsidies for the agricultural sector. The bill, which is expected to cost $195 billion over the next decade, is far smaller than an earlier $939 billion version that went down to defeat last month, in what was widely seen as yet another blow to House Speaker John Boehner. Conservatives and libertarians are outraged. Heritage Action for America, the advocacy wing of the Heritage Foundation, has issued a scathing denunciation, as has policy expert Sallie James of the Cato Institute, who warns that even the modest savings promised in the farm bill are likely to prove illusory.

And liberals are also furious, as the House GOP, in an effort to paper over internal disagreements, decided to separate out the nutrition programs that had been in an earlier version of the bill, to be dealt with at a later date. Under the earlier version of the farm bill, nutrition programs — which include SNAP, the food stamp program that currently enrolls 47.6 million people — were expected to cost $743 billion over the next decade, $20.5 billion less than under the status quo. Congressional Democrats opposed the cuts on the grounds that they were too steep, while conservative GOP rebels insisted that they were too small.

The expectation is that House Republicans will propose nutrition-only legislation that will be considerably less generous than what came before it, thus bringing the rebels back into the fold. The debate over nutrition programs is obviously crucially important. David Armour and Sonia Sousa, policy scholars at George Mason University, have documented the extraordinary growth of SNAP over the last decade, and there does appear to be room to curb its growth while protecting the interests of the very poor. Whether or not Republican lawmakers choose to take that path remains to be seen. One thing we do know, however, is that the farm bill that has passed represents a serious step backwards for a party that was once committed to rolling back the agricultural welfare state.

Obamacare’s sliding scales and slippery slopes

Reihan Salam
Jul 8, 2013 18:14 UTC

Last week as Americans celebrated Independence Day, the Obama administration made a pair of big announcements about the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the crown jewel of the president’s domestic policy efforts: two of the ACA’s key enforcement provisions—income verification and a mandate for employers to provide healthcare—are being delayed until 2015. The exchanges will still open and subsidies will flow in 2014, but efforts to ferret out fraud, or for that matter honest mistakes, will be put on hold. Reading between the lines, it seems as though the White House was acknowledging that the health system created by the ACA is unworkable in its current form.

As Eugene Steuerle, a fellow at the Urban Institute, has explained, the ACA establishes a “four-part, nearly-universal, health care system” built around Medicare, Medicaid, employer-sponsored insurance, and the new state-based insurance exchanges. The really confusing thing about our new four-part health system is that the federal subsidies available to households earning the same income can vary dramatically, depending on which part of the health system you find yourself in. As long as you are old or disabled, Medicare treats all comers roughly equally. The federal contribution to Medicaid varies from state to state, but the level of coverage tends to be pretty similar across recipients. Subsidies for employer-sponsored insurance, meanwhile, are much higher for households earning high incomes, and thus paying high taxes, than for less affluent households, while subsidies for the new exchange policies are generous for low-earners and phase out for high-earners. The upshot is that subsidies for many low- and middle-income households are far more generous on the exchanges than they are for employer-sponsored insurance.

Given that the subsidies on the exchanges are more generous than the subsidies for employer-sponsored insurance, the ACA took various steps to contain spending. One of the most important was its employer mandate, which imposed a fine on mid-sized and large employers that failed to provide full-time employees with affordable insurance options. The idea was that the fine would nudge employers to offer affordable insurance options, underwritten by the relatively stingy tax subsidy for employer-sponsored insurance, thus containing the growth of exchange subsidies.

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