Herman Berliner's blog

The $10,000 degree- Provost Prose

I am a huge fan of Consumer Reports and consider them the most objective source of product information available anywhere.  Rarely do I ever purchase a product without first checking their evaluation.  So when it comes to buying or leasing a car, I look in detail at the ratings of the type of car I am interested in and able to afford.  But since I am also a car person, I can’t resist looking at the ratings in general.  On a scale of 0-100, there are cars in the 90s, which are top rated, and there are cars in the 30s, which are little more than basic transportation.  The cars with the higher ratings often, though not exclusively, are more expensive; the cars with the lower ratings are often, but not exclusively, lower priced.  I am tempted to give actual examples but I am certain that Consumer Reports is familiar enough to the Inside Higher Education readership that no specifics are necessary.

A highly ranked car or a poorly ranked car will get you to the same place often at the same time (assuming everyone follows legal speed limits).  Likewise, a highly priced car and a low priced car will also get you to the same place at the same time.  The same analogy holds for the $10,000 degree and the $30,000 a year tuition charge.  Offering a bachelor’s degree for $10,000 is certainly doable and I feel confident that on standardized objective tests, the results could be very similar and possibly identical to higher cost degree programs. But is the product really the same?

What will the $10,000 degree look like? A MOOC tied to recitation sections at another college is one likely alternative.  You can get thousands of students into the MOOC and recitation sections could perhaps reach up to a hundred students each.  The lead faculty could be a well known expert and a fascinating lecturer.  The recitation section could be taught by a person whose qualifications are much less high powered.  MOOCs are typically free, at least up to now, so the cost incurred by the credit granting institutions (which may just consist of the recitation leaders’ compensation) could be minimal. Please understand, this is not what I advocate but it is a workable model for a low priced degree.

Large lecture sections provide another alternative for a lower cost degree.  Five hundred students in a lecture class certainly moderates the cost equation. But is this the same education that a student receives in a 30 student class?  Are the important extras also there? Would there be advisement, counseling, career services, other support services, sports, faculty with sufficient time to meet with students, co-curricular activities, an attractive campus, etc.?  Not likely – there is just so much you can do for a very low price.

What is better?  The value proposition of a $10,000 degree or the much more personalized education which a $30,000 annual tuition charge is likely to deliver?  For some students, it may not matter.  Their skill set and their comprehension of the material is such that to a significant degree they can teach themselves.  But there are many other students that need guidance and support to succeed.  They have the potential to succeed beyond expectations but not without the safety net of individualized attention and support services. As college continues to be the economic ticket to success for so many of our students we need to work to both not lose accessibility while at the same time making sure we meet the diverse and not insubstantial needs of many of our students.  As attractive as a $10,000 price tag may be for higher education, it is fairly certain to not meet the needs of many in our society.  Think about it; who is likely to gravitate toward this minimal cost degree?  Will it be those who don’t have the economic resources to pursue a more enriched education?   How will their support service needs be met?  And if this minimalist degree doesn’t meet those needs what happens to their chance to succeed?

A Draw

Both of my kids have been issued iIPads in school and I am convinced they are receiving a better, more sophisticated and dynamic education as a result of the use of technology.  At the same time, I worry about all the screen time that has now been incorporated into their lives. Whereas in the old days (Middle Ages) when I went to school we had TV and movies (yes, as I remind my kids, they were talkies), kids today still have TV, movies, plus on a much more personal and individual level, iIPads, computers, as well as smart phones. Books and magazines are still popular but screen time often seems to be an irresistible urge complicated now by the multiple uses (school, social, games, etc.) for both the computer as well as the iIPad.

It looked for most of the Thanksgiving weekend that screen time had totally dominated. The parade on TV, various movies, games, 007, and I was really beginning to despair. Had my kids become the captives of screens, mostly the small screens that seem now to be everywhere? And then we decided to go the Museum of Natural History.  The combination we attended consisted of the spider exhibit, the Flying Monsters IMAX show, and the foods of the world exhibit.  Each in itself was a wonderful learning experience as well as thoroughly enjoyable.  The spiders, especially those that were alive, gave wonderful insights into the life of a spider.  My first look at a live Black Widow, various other spiders, and a few tarantulas and scorpions certainly held all our attention.  The Flying Monsters IMAX show provided an in-depth look at the largest creatures ever to fly and it is amazing to see what seems to be an accurate depiction, based on the skeletons that have been discovered and studied, of the creatures that dominated the skies when the dinosaurs dominated the land.  An IMAX presentation is clearly screen time but the educational component is nevertheless clearly dominant. And the food exhibit covered everything from the growth of food, to the different types of food that are most prevalent, to the meals of the famous and not so famous.

The trip to the museum was very successful and quickly became one of the highlights of this holiday weekend for the kids (as well as for me).  More importantly, it demonstrated again that the education that matters most together with the entertainment that captivates best can often be found at a museum, especially one as spectacular at the Museum of Natural History.

To the extent that we can, we need to compete with screen time by stressing family time, play time, cultural time, and educational time.  How to do so successfully is the increasing challenge we all face. 


Cliff time

Notwithstanding the impact of Sandy, I have much to be thankful for, including this year’s very welcome Thanksgiving Day break.  But what I am most thankful for is not yet a done deal but rather a new feeling that suggests we will avoid the fiscal cliff.  The meeting a week before Thanksgiving between the Congressional leadership and President Obama seemed to end with a sense on all sides that fiscal disaster could be avoided.  In my opinion, there is no choice but to do so, but I am a spectator and Congress and the President are the ones who need to make it happen.

What needs to happen is compromise.  There need to be revenue increases and there need to be spending cuts, but there is more than one way of accomplishing each of these necessary goals.  Tax rates are at the heart of the issue and key to any compromise.  The democrats want a tax increase for the wealthy; the Republicans want no increase in tax rates whatsoever.  The magic number, where a tax increase will once again be imposed, has been $250,000 but compromise requires not only a different number but also a different solution.  There are such solutions readily available and finding them is not by any means rocket science.  The solution needs to be crafted through limiting the deductions, exemptions, credits, and favorable tax treatments that are part of the current tax code.  By diminishing tax breaks on the very wealthy, we can have the same effect as tax rate increases would have, all without changing the nominal tax rates.

Spending cuts are also part of any compromise and solution but automatic “sequestration” on January 2 is not the answer.  Here too, we can accomplish what is needed while still minimizing the impact on the key safety net legislation which so many of us value so highly.  Dismantling Obamacare is not an option.  Our citizens deserve a health care safety net; it cannot be bargained away.  But not every expenditure needs to be protected or can be protected.  Given the magnitude (half a trillion dollars) of the reductions sought, there may not be time between now and January 2 for all the changes to be identified.  Certainly however we need a major reduction in spending identified by the start of 2013.

Being thankful for something that has not yet happened is always a risk.  My feeling that a cliff can be avoided may or may not be correct.  Hopefully, it is not based on false optimism generated by the return of electricity.  The Congressional leaders and the White House need to keep talking and working until the compromise is complete.  And this time we need to hold our public officials completely accountable.  If a compromise is reached, we need to applaud their efforts. If the country wins by avoiding a fiscal cliff, we all win. And if the compromise doesn’t happen and we are faced with a recession following a weak recovery, here too our public officials must be fully accountable.  Voting them out of office is then the only appropriate response.


On Sunday evening, after thirteen days, the electricity came back on.  By the time it returned, my wife, kids, our dog, and I had moved into a neighbor’s den and had adjusted as well as possible.  We consider ourselves to be fortunate that we only lost electricity; Sandy’s impact in this area was devastating and there are many people at the University and in the greater community who have lost homes, cars, furnishings, computers, etc.   I do believe the local utility was not as well prepared as it should have been and I think the multiple investigations that are taking place are thoroughly justified.  There needs to be accountability and there needs to be change; the lessons learned can only serve us well if we are better prepared in the future.

But while the focus is rightly on what the Long Island Power Authority did and did not do, attention should also be paid to rigidities in our system that at key moments can be totally counterproductive.  The ability of public schools to reopen and remain open provides a clear example.  One of the most challenging side effects of Hurricane Sandy was the momentary gasoline shortage.  Deliveries of gas were limited and many gas stations had lost power and were unable to open even though they had gas on hand.  For school districts in this area, the busing of students is a mainstay that most parents rely on.  But what should happen if there is insufficient gas to power the school buses but the schools are ready in all other aspects to open up and continue educating our kids.  The state laws are clear; the schools need to stay closed if the buses are unavailable.  Now think about the situation we were facing— almost half the community had lost power for more than a few days.  Homes were cold; kids were cold; and the novelty of losing electricity had quickly worn off being replaced by a heightened stress level on the part of kids and adults alike.  Most of the schools had power, were warm, had internet access, and were ready to do their part in educating our children.  The environment was welcoming, the senses of normalcy important, the teachers able to educate and be supportive, but we could only take advantage of these benefits if the fleet of buses were fully operative.

 I know that not having buses would place a strain on parents, especially given the shortage of gasoline for private cars as well as school district buses.  I know that our tax money pays for the bus service and this is an important entitlement.  The law as noted above is clear, no buses even in an emergency situation, no school, but does this make sense?  Having school continue or resume quickly, providing warmth and comfort to our kids even without bus service is better than none of the above.  In an exceptional time and at an exceptional moment, our system and our rules and regulations need to be nimble.  The post Sandy review needs to look at more than how well we are doing on the electric and gas front; it also needs to look—across the board—at the policies that guide us in these critical moments.


Over the years, I have participated in many telephone interviews of potential candidates for positions at Hofstra as well as for not-for-profit boards that I have participated on.  Interviewing candidates in this way has always struck me as second best (but certainly better than not participating).  Inevitably you miss much of the back and forth that takes place, you miss some of the reaction of the candidate and that of board members, and you seem somewhat out of sync with what is happening. In between interviews, at those times when there are multiple interviews scheduled, there are also typically multiple conversations of the board members present and here too it is very hard to participate in a meaningful way.

I have also participated in board meeting over the phone and have even participated in a few teleconference board meetings a number years ago.  Phone board meetings have the same disjointed feel that interviews have, and the early teleconferencing was often somewhat of a blur with resolution that matched my vision when I’m not wearing glasses.  And then there were those cases where the video and audio were not quite synchronized, which is just plain annoying.  Or those cases where I needed to go to a special facility on campus to participate.

You can imagine how pleased I was when an academic consortium of provosts that the University belongs to, decided to interview three candidates for the executive director position by teleconferencing. The candidates and the present executive director would be at the home school of the consortium with that provost present, and two additional provosts, including me, would participate by teleconference. Of course, there was the alternative of traveling to Virginia but that would turn three hours worth of interviews into at least a full day away from the office.

Everything I needed was on a laptop on my desk and at the appointed hour of 5:15 I connected.  There on the screen was the person being interviewed, the “home” provost and the present executive director, the other provost participating and me.  All right in front of me, all crystal clear, and each of the three interviews and the conversations in between and at the end worked as well as if we were all there in person.  Going forward, I will certainly make use of this capability much more frequently.  And now that I think about it, since I have used “facetime” on an iPhone and iPad a number of times with good success, I don’t know why I was so reluctant in this case to take advantage of the benefits of technology.  So much of what we do and especially how we do it has changed and overall the advantages clearly outweigh any disadvantages.


It is now Monday morning and we are resuming classes today. The campus has been very fortunate. Our loss of power was limited and of short duration and the campus damage was mostly limited to trees with very little other damage.  Long Island’s damage was extensive with reports of 100,000 homes lost and almost 300,000 homes still without power 5 days later.  The devastation on the north shore and south shore of the Island was massive. Lights are still out at key intersections, gas lines at those few stations that are open are often 100 cars long.  Mass transit is returning but still disrupted and we are now hearing reports of a nor’easter by the middle of this week. Recovery will take a long time.  Adjusting to the return of heat and hot water at home, once it arrives again, will not take a long time. Instantaneous is exactly how long it will take me to adjust and to be thankful for this one important step toward normalcy. For many of my colleagues a return to normalcy, given the significant property devastation, will be much more difficult

Closing for the week has made sense.  Given everything that members of our community have been through we could not have held classes this week.  Even the commute has become much more difficult and much riskier.  Our president has reached out to all members of the community in an effort to provide and coordinate support for those members of our community with the greatest need.  The outreach is very much needed. And to the credit of the community, we have already had offers of support from all constituencies but more support is needed and coordination is key to having the help available go to those with the greatest need.

We need to make up for the lost time in class and I know we can determine ways to do so effectively so that the learning that should take place in a course does in fact take place.  But there can be no one approach that will meet the needs of all our faculty and all our students and flexibility on all parts is essential.  Some faculty and students (as well as administrators and staff) have lost their homes; some have lost their computers as well as key books and papers; others have no phone or internet access; and with the shortage of gas and the limits of mass transit, some members of our community will not be able to get here.  In some cases, all of the above applies and the hardships are multiple and formidable.

In my role as a school board member, I have already heard from the superintendent that he expects to open schools today after also having been closed for the week.  Many of the kids in our district will be going to school, even though they still have no power at home and their sense of normalcy seems seriously compromised..  Here too we need to be flexible and recognize that many  kids have felt the trauma in their lives that we all work so hard to shield them from. I know the life lesson is important and so is the message regarding the importance of resuming education ASAP. I fully support the schools reopening quickly and I am sure that the community feels equally supportive.

In a difficult time, what members of the community do makes all the difference. We can’t waive away the devastation; we can’t just turn the power on; and we can’t just instantly return to normal.  We can do the best we can to make a positive difference and to cope with adversity. I see more and more instances of members of our community doing what needs to be done and I am thankful for their good work.   And at the end of the day it will be the resilience of people that once again makes the difference (as it has before in so many tragedies around the globe) and allows us to move forward.

Kids and Cars

I grew up during the time that Detroit’s Big 3 ruled the automobile industry and grew up with an automobile being an important part of my American dream.  Since I grew up in New York City with the benefit of a great mass transit system, I’m not really sure why I was so car focused but there is no doubt that I studied every fin, checked every instrument panel, and knew all horsepower figures and 0-60 miles per hour acceleration data. And very much related to the times I grew up in, cars had no apparent flaws even though the mileage and the quality left much to be desired.

To this day, I still read every car magazine and remain focused on cars, now regardless of where they are produced.  Crain’s Autoweek is now at the top of my list of must readings regarding automobiles (and just for the record, Consumer Reports is at the top of my list for any and every consumer product).  In the September 17th issues of Autoweek, there is an article on “Love of Driving Lost?”  subtitled “Gen Y doesn’t share the same lust for wheels as past generations.”  The article by Jayne O’Donnell quotes Kit Yarrow, a marketing and psychology professor at Golden Gate University, who makes the point that “young people are not burning for freedom from their parents or the independence they can get from a car,” and that “teenagers are happy with the freedom they get from smartphones and computers” (which Professor Yarrow calls “private brain places”).  Yarrow’s final point is that Gen Y is more visually oriented than previous generations and that “brands and products represent who they are,” which “makes driving a clunker just to have wheels less acceptable.’”

The same article discounts the economy as a primary reason why cars are no longer irresistible.  “Some say its debt, college or otherwise keeping Gen Y out of the driver’s seat.  But consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow says that never stopped previous generations…from getting a nice junker until they could afford better.”  I think Kit Yarrow is certainly correct in explaining some Gen Y behavior and noting that the impact of computers, smartphones and the internet cannot be minimized.   Absent her analysis, my initial position would certainly have been that it’s the economy that matters most together with the reality that the automobile, though still very desirable, has substantial costs that are much more visible today.  I would point to the decline in family wealth, and the uncertain economy making it harder for families to cover all the necessary costs of living as well as a car for their driving age kids.  I would also point out that the costs and other requirements associated with automobile ownership are much clearer and more substantial today than for previous generations:  Insurance requirements, credit requirements, gas mileage costs, environmental impact.  I have no doubts that the economics based answer is at least partially correct, but this is a case where economics alone would not provide a sufficient explanation.  Our kids are different and this analysis helps us as educators understand that difference.


Pizza Debate

The Presidential Debate at Hofstra went off without a hitch and more importantly will clearly be a significant moment in terms of who will be the next President of the United States.  The questions asked reflected well on the Town Hall participants and the passionate answers given shed more light on complex issues that need resolution sooner than later.

Just as individuals are judged at moments like this by the quality of their questions and answers, so are corporations judged by the quality of their products as well as corporate earnings plus their commitment to being good citizens.  By the measure of corporations being good citizens, in my opinion, Pizza Hut, the national pizza chain that offered free pizza for life to anyone asking President Obama and Governor Romney the question of “pepperoni or sausage,” deserves a failing grade.  And since the corporation also encouraged a follow up question regarding pizza toppings, an additional failing grade is also in order.

I wasn’t surprised that no one asked the pizza question during the debate since it is clear to everyone that there are critical issues we are confronting as a nation and as citizens of this planet.  The time for frivolous questions is long gone.  Being able to ask a question at the debate represents an opportunity and it is counterproductive for an important corporation to create temptation to squander that opportunity or turn it into a fiasco. This is not a matter of having a sense of humor; rather it represents using common sense.

Our work as educators involves cultivating and recognizing accomplishments. We applaud student accomplishment and the degrees we award are the cumulative acknowledgement of those accomplishments.  If Pizza Hut or any corporation would like to have a contest revolving around a Presidential Debate, let the focus be on the best question asked and recognition for the person who asked that question.  This could be done by means of a poll or utilizing a panel of experts.  Either way, it would assure even more attention and focus on a critical question and a critical issue.

Democracies aren’t strengthened by deliberating between “pepperoni or sausage.” The classic economic tradeoff of guns or butter still applies today while the pizza tradeoff is just irrelevant. Democracies are strengthened by asking fundamental questions, having thoughtful discussions, and dealing with issues that require resolution.  My pizza preference by the way is plain pizza, prepared by a business that  understands its success is grounded in the success of our country and our ability to utilize the best minds to confront the issues that we have no choice but to confront sooner rather than later.



The Debate

In 2008, when Hofstra hosted the third Presidential debate, I received an email from a person I attended high school with, many years earlier.  This person was not a close friend and there had been no contact for all the years between high school and early October 2008. In the email, the person indicated that he had been thinking about me for the last 40 years and, by the way, did I have a spare ticket to the debate.  I responded (nicely) indicating that all our tickets go to our students who are selected by way of a lottery of all Hofstra students interested in attending the debate.  This email was one of many that I received last time and the email requests are starting again now that we are approaching the October 16th debate that will be hosted by Hofstra.

I think it is terrific that we hosted a Presidential debate four years ago and it is as least as terrific that we are again hosting a debate.  Almost all of the students who were here during the last debate have graduated and the students who are here now are as excited and energized as they can be.  More and more, when I am attending events on campus or just eating on campus or walking on campus, I hear members of our community—especially our students—talking about the upcoming debate.  A number of our courses are tied to debate-related themes and many of our guest speakers are focused on the Presidential election and the issues confronted by our country and our planet. Students have already suggested that Hofstra host a debate every four years and I think there is wisdom in their position.  Hosting a debate on campus and all the associated activities clearly demonstrates to the students that this is their world and their issues and that it makes sense for them to be concerned and involved.

I am very positive regarding the quality of a Hofstra education but I also feel strongly that an outstanding education is more than a classroom experience.  I recognize how necessary it is for many students pursuing their college degree to also work part-time in addition, so I am especially pleased when a significant number of these students are also involved in civic engagement activities and other volunteer activities.  I am convinced that having the debate on campus increases participation in these activities as it also increases voter registration.

I am by nature an optimistic economist and I don’t consider that combination to be an oxymoron.  But it is clear that the problems we confront are daunting.  An educated population is absolutely essential to successfully confronting these problems and I remain a passionate advocate for higher education.  But I am more and more convinced that along with the education there needs to be a buy-in that we are all in this together and that we all need to be invested in developing solutions.  A Presidential debate on a campus tremendously increases the buy-in to developing solutions among that community.  What more can we do so that a wonderful every four year event on the Hofstra campus and/or other campuses is just one of many happenings designed to convince our students that a prosperous future involves their commitment today?


A recent online issue of University Business dealt with the topic on stress on college students.  From my days in college, the only stress I remember is social stress and the stress of fitting in but that isn’t the stress being talked today.  Today’s stress is financial stress and it is clearly manifesting itself on today’s generation of students.

University Business summarizes a study completed by Inceptia which presents the following “key findings:”

        One third of respondents said financial stressors have had a negative impact on their academic performance or progress.

        Seventy-four percent of respondents are working during the academic year and 15 percent are working full-time.

        Students who work more than 20 hours per week during the academic year are significantly more likely to report that financial stress has had a negative impact on their academic progress or performance and that they reduced their academic course load due to this stress.

None of these results are surprising; many students have always had to work while in college and a constrained economy inevitably results in this number rising.  And the more hours that students need to work the more the stress level is enhanced.  Not measured in this study is the fact that the financial strain and the hours worked can diminish the higher education experience in very tangible ways.  Every year, I am sure we all hear about students who can’t accept internships (which are often unpaid) because they are dependent on the income earned through working part-time.  Every year, I am sure we all hear about students who can’t take advantage of a study abroad experience because there are both extra costs and forgone income involved in taking advantage of such an opportunity. And every year, there are many students who can’t participate in co-curricular activities because the time involved reduces their ability to work.  If the average full-time student is working more than 20 hours per week, something has to give.

The impact of financial stress is even more profound than the ramifications noted above.  More students and their families are opting for lower priced higher education alternatives.  These alternatives involve less personalized education, impacting everything from class size to advisement/counseling services to co-curricular activities.  Many students can still do well in such an environment; others struggle and/or do not maximize their potential. 

What can we do to help?  Certainly government, both at the state level and the federal level, should continue to view higher education as a necessary and worthwhile investment in the economic success of our country.  To compete in a global economy requires a sophisticated skill set; it can’t happen without a highly educated work force.  And all of us should remember that a more sophisticated work force will likely earn more and pay more in taxes.   But we in higher education can also do more to ameliorate the stress level.  There should be more fundraising for scholarships that allow students to undertake unpaid internships or participate in study abroad opportunities. Co-curricular activities should be scheduled in such a way that even working students have opportunities to participate.  We have known for a long time that the benefits of higher education accrue to society as well as to individuals and, more than ever, we should be guided by that reality today.






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