Archive for the Education Category

‘Union’ is Not a Four Letter Word

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on March 20, 2013 by davehurwitz
Blue Sky & Palm Trees

Beautiful Southwestern College

I have made history, of a sort.  As of this week, I am the very first member to be profiled on the brand new website for the SCEA, my faculty union.  I’m honored.  Hopefully other profiles will follow, and it won’t be just me hanging out there by myself.  In the mean time, here are some thoughts on the predicament of unions today and why I became a union member in the first place.

Several semesters back, one of my students came up during break holding a pay stub from Henry’s.  This was her first paycheck from her first ever job, and she wanted to know where all the “missing money” had gone.  I can never resist explaining anything to anybody, so I was happy to help.  Taxes she understood perfectly well.  She had at least heard of Social Security, so that was another easy one.  But when I said that the last deduction paid her union dues, she gave me blank look and asked, “What’s a union?”

I will admit to being a little stunned.  I remembered learning a great deal about U.S. labor movements and unionism in a junior high school political science class.  Yet here was a grown woman, a high school graduate, who didn’t know what a union was.  Shocking.  After a longish pause, I launched into a very abbreviated explanation of collective bargaining and the good things it has brought us over the decades: the forty hour work week, overtime pay, child labor laws, safety regulations, workman’s compensation, whistle-blower protection.  By the time I needed to resume class, I think she understood.  Still, I remained befuddled.  Part of me just couldn’t believe that it had been necessary to even have that conversation.

These days, I look back at my reaction as naive.  With collective bargaining under legislative assault in a number of states and anti-union, anti-public employee rhetoric trotted out by local political hopefuls in every election cycle, I’ve realized that this is a conversation that I–that all union workers–should be having with a lot more people.

Not that I’m in any position to throw stones.  When I started working for SWC, I did not join the faculty union.  This was back in the days when non-members paid no dues, but got representation anyway, so I saved a few dollars every paycheck.  I needed the money, and I didn’t feel any guilt about it.  That changed when I needed the union’s help.  I had been denied an interview for a full time faculty position despite a clause in our contract that guarantees a first round interview to all adjuncts with three or more semesters under their belts, a clause the SCEA negotiated, by the way.  I sent an email to the grievance chair, and a couple days later I was back on the interview list.  I didn’t even need to file a formal complaint.  At that point, I decided to pay up and support the union that had supported me.

This makes for a good story, but now I can’t help but see my reason for joining as little selfish, a little shortsighted.  The union is always working for me, whether or not it is solving a specific problem on my behalf.  Recently, the SCEA helped to elect a more labor friendly governing board for my college.  Even now, the union is engaged in some very fraught negotiations with the administration over the next faculty contract.  These things might not seem like such a big deal, especially to freeway flying adjuncts who work multiple campuses, but all of us will feel the impact soon enough, in our workloads and in our paychecks.  I for one am counting on our union officials and negotiators to stand tall.

Why am I pro-union?  Why do I belong to the SCEA?  Because the least I can do is stand behind them.

D. Hurwitz

Why Are College Textbooks So Expensive?

Posted in Book Review, Education, Random Weirdness with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2013 by davehurwitz

I get asked this question a lot, usually by frustrated students who’ve had to plunk down a serious chunk of change for a book they don’t really want to read in the first place.  By way of example, the required text for one of my English classes, Evergreen: A Guide to Writing with Readings, has a list price of $132.95.  Textbooks for hard science subjects like Physics or Chemistry can run twice that much.  Publisher’s reps, when I ask them this same question, invariably give the same tired old answers.  They say that textbooks are a niche market, with smaller print runs than popular novels, which drives up the per unit printing cost.  They also say that they must often pay royalties to not only the editor of a textbook, but to the authors of various essays reprinted within the book, which adds to the cost.

Strangely, the jacket art is white, not green.Both of these excuses–for they are excuses, not reasons–are transparent bullshit.  I buy fiction titles from niche presses all them time.  These are books with severely limited print runs, often no more than 500 copies.  Sure, the per unit cost is higher, but I’ve never paid $133 dollars for one of these titles.  The most expensive work of fiction I own cost $60, and was bound by hand with sewn in signatures.  Besides, with 89% of U.S. high school graduates enrolling in colleges and universities, how small is the textbook market, really?  The second excuse is equally bogus.  I’m sure you’ve all seen multiple-author story anthologies at your local bookstore.  All those writers had to be paid individually, too, but those books don’t cost any more than single-author titles of the same size.

Textbooks are overpriced because textbook publishers cling to outmoded notions of how their books should be produced and sold.  Having worked both as a small press publisher and as a college instructor, I naturally have a few ideas about how this situation can be improved.

Print Textbooks in Standard Trim Sizes on Cheap Paper:

They say this book jacket can't pay the rent...Let’s face it, college textbooks are a disposable item.  Most students can’t wait to get rid of them when the semester is over.  If they cling to them at all, it’s because they want to sell them carefully in order recoup as much of the cover price as possible.  Given these truths, there’s no reason not to print cheap books that can just be tossed in the recycling bin after finals week.  As an example, let’s look at another book I use, They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.  This is a small, short, softbound book, with no color printing, but a new copy will still set you back $25.  Why?  Because it’s printed on slick paper with it’s own unique trim size.  There’s simply no excuse for this.  A mass market publisher like Angry Robot could knock out newsprint copies for $8 each and still turn a profit.  That’s less than a third of what my students are asked to pay.  Mass market style textbooks would also mean more new book sales for publishers, since an $8 paperback is scarcely worth reselling.

Stop Printing in Color Unless Absolutely Necessary:

English Composition is not a subject that requires a lot of charts and graphs, yet most of the textbooks I see are printed in color, and styled like commercial websites.  This not only requires a more expensive printing process, but necessitates a higher quality of paper than simple black and white.  So why use color in an English book?  The main reason seems to be that it adds ‘visual interest,’ eye candy intended to lure students into reading the presumably uninviting content.  I’m not against this in theory, but in practice, a lot the ‘visual interest’ items seem pointless or even counter-productive.  Going back to Evergreen for an example, right smack in the middle of a chapter on sentence fragments, there is a half-page full color reproduction of an ad for Tommy Hilfiger clothing.  Yes, it is visually arresting.  Yes, it could reasonably generate a discussion on the psychology of advertising.  But what is it doing in a chapter about basic sentence errors?  Nothing, except distracting my students from the matter at hand, and possibly selling some yachting outfits.  Frankly, I’d rather have plain old black and white, especially if it brings the price of the book down.  In cases that absolutely require full color figures–hard science textbooks again–I suggest the solution adopted long ago by the publishers of true crime books and movie star biographies, print most of the book in black and white, with a signature or two of color in the middle where all the nice photos go.

Ditch the Enhancements:

In the Fall of 2010, a video made the rounds on YouTube in which Management Professor Richard A. Quinn of the University of Central Florida accused most of his class of cheating on a midterm exam.  The test in question had been assembled from a database of potential questions provided by the publisher of his textbook.  Though Quinn seemed sincerely outraged, I was shocked by his naivete.  Really, what did he expect to happen?  Any sizable student population is bound contain a few individuals with Mad Hacker Skillz.  It’s a given that this not-terribly-secure database would be cracked by someone who would then pass on the the questions and their answers, either for profit or out of a misplaced sense of altruism.  No professor worth his tenure–especially one with multiple grad students to use as slave labor–uses canned test questions for precisely this reason.  Yet, this is exactly the sort of ‘bonus content’ that publishers waste time and money producing.  Other typical ‘enhancements’ include publisher hosted blogs and social media sites keyed to specific textbooks.  These too become fertile fields for cheaters and short-cut artists, this time in the form of term papers plagiarized from other students who have posted their legitimate work to these sites.  Frankly, I’ve even grow leery of using textbooks batched with readings.  Once they’ve been in circulation a while, corresponding essays start to appear on the internet, either posted to personal sites by proud students, or for sale as ‘research tools.’  Either way, these present even more opportunities for plagiarism.  Publishers should stop providing these crutches for lazy professors.  They increase the cost of textbooks without improving their intrinsic qualities, and ultimately cause more classroom problems than they solve.

Embrace Student-Friendly Technologies and Sales Points:

There are hopeful signs in this area.  The webpage of Cengage, the publisher of Evergreen, offers an electronic version of the book for $46.49.  This is a rental, a bit like a library ebook, which will vanish from students’ computers at the end of the semester.  Weirdly, it’s actually cheaper to rent the physical book, which comes with a postage paid return.  Clearly, Cengage isn’t pushing its electronic content very hard, despite the obvious cost savings.  But how many students will even find this page without assistance?  Over at Amazon, where most ebook purchasers wash up, a Kindle-ready copy of Evergreen will set you back $92.49.  Hardly an alluring price tag, especially when you consider that you can buy a used copy for half that much from These Sellers.  Evergreen isn’t even for sale at Smashwords, where all the cool kids hang out.  This situation is fairly typical for electronic textbooks.  They’re often too expensive relative to the cost of the print book.  Students and even instructors may be unaware of them because they’re not sold in the usual places, and campus bookstores have an obvious motive to deny their very existence.  But these problems can be overcome.  Publishers can strike deals with popular ebook providers, or at least promote their own sales points more effectively.  A sane and consistent pricing policy, one that bears in mind the easy availability of used print books, can be found.  After all, publishers earn nothing from used book sales, a clear reason to make electronic books cheaper.  In the end, both textbook publishers and their customers–the students–will benefit.  Isn’t that what good business is all about?

Dave Hurwitz

Federal Student Aid is Driving Tuition Prices Higher

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on October 2, 2012 by davehurwitz
They can look a little smug.  They're winning.

Barry & Bill: Presidents, Jazzmen, and Big Time Lenders of Your Tax Dollars to High School Graduates.

During his speech at the Democratic National Convention, former President Bill Clinton made a point of reminding voters of a 2010 law pushed through congress by the Obama administration which, among other things, relaxed the repayment requirements for federally guaranteed student loans.  Despite the fact this law allowed a lot of indebted Americans to breathe a little easier–and despite my admiration for these two men who have done their best to clean up after the Bush family–I was and am against this law.  In fact, I am against the whole idea of the federal government lending money to students so they can buy their college education on credit.

Hold on a minute, I can hear you thinking.  Aren’t you a college professor?  Don’t you have kids who will be university age soon?  Yes and yes.  But I’d hate to see my boys, or any other young person, rack up thousands of dollars of debt just so they can attend school.  Not when there are other solutions.

Federal student aid is driving a price explosion at America’s colleges and universities.  Tuition prices have risen more than 400% since I received my BA in 1992.  It’s gotten so bad that the money I paid to attend the University of California would not be enough to buy my sons an AA at the college where I teach.  This is a community college, mind you, where classes used to be free.

What does the precipitous climb of education prices  have to do with federal grants and loans?  To answer that question, let’s try a little thought experiment.

The way this car looks makes me want to throw a fit.

Beautiful Brand New Car!

Imagine for a minute that you are buying a new car.  Imagine further that the demand for new cars is enormous.  Everybody you know seems to want one.  Because demand is high, the price of new cars has risen steadily, so much so that even though you’ve been setting money aside for this purchase, you can’t afford to buy one outright.  What do you do?

You get a loan, of course.  Nothing easier.  With a normal auto loan, you would pay some of your saved money down, then pay so much every month until the cost of the car and the interest on the loan have been paid in full.  Assuming, that is, that your credit score qualifies you for loan in the first place.

But what if someone offered you a crazy loan?  A loan so insanely good that you’d be a fool to refuse it?  These are the terms you’re being offered:  You pay no money down, none at all, but you get to drive the car off the lot today.  You make no payments for four full years, with the option to add a couple of years should it prove necessary.  Once that time is up, you will never be asked to pay more than ten percent of your yearly income to the loan holder, and you can pretty much take as long as you need to pay the loan off.  Oh, and did I mention that the interest rate on your loan is less than the Prime Rate?

Would you take this loan?  A lot of people would.  But let me ask an outside-the-box question at this point:  With demand so high, and loans like this available, what happens to the price of cars?  That’s right.  The price will go up and up and up until lenders stop making these crazy loans and people are forced to buy with real money, straight from their savings accounts.

This isn’t a hypothetical situation.  Loans like this are being offered and accepted right now.  I’ve only changed one detail.  The commodity in question isn’t a new car.  It’s a college education.

The price of higher education isn’t going to go down until people are unable to pay it.  Federal student aid allows people to pay these inflated prices.  While that may seem to be a good thing, who is really better off?  Is it the debt free high school grads, who can afford to work their way up from the bottom?  Or is it the newly minted college graduates, tens of thousands of dollars in debt in their early twenties, praying for a salary that will cover their loan payments?  Persistent student loan debt isn’t just a problem for people with relatively useless degrees like English Literature.  I know a doctor–a doctor–who is still paying off her student loan well into her forties and cannot afford to send her own children to college.

If President Obama really wants to help students, he needs to stop luring them into debt.  Instead of students loans, the administration should offer cash incentives to public colleges and universities to cut down administrative expenses and offer more classes at a cheaper price.  After all, no one needed a student loan when college classes were free.

Dave Hurwitz