January 11, 2012
Over the last three decades, through good economic times and bad, one of the few constants in American life has been the relentless rise in the price of higher education. The numbers are stark: According to the non-profit College Board, public four-year universities raised tuition and fees by 8.3 percent this year, more than double the rate of inflation. This was typical: Over the last decade, public university tuition grew by an average of 5.6 percent above inflation every year. And the problem is also getting worse: In the 1990s, the annual real increase was 3.2 percent. In the 1980s, it was 4.5 percent.
Even as the economy has reorganized itself to make college degrees increasingly indispensable for the pursuit of a decent career, federal financial aid programs and family income haven’t been able to keep up with incredibly buoyant tuition bills. Students and families have been left with only one recourse: borrowing. The federal government is now lending college students over $100 billion per year, a 56 percent per-student increase, after adjusting for inflation, from just ten years ago. Most undergraduates borrow today, and leave college with an average of over $25,000 in debt. And as the many signs displayed by the Occupy movement attest, some young people owe much more than that. For a growing number of students, entering the lucrative college-educated realms of the economy is like being smuggled across the border—you can get to the promised land if you try hard enough, but you arrive in a state of indentured servitude to the shady operators who overcharged you for the trip.
Politicians are taking note of the rise in public outrage. Several weeks ago, at a student financial aid conference in (appropriately enough) Las Vegas, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan exhorted the nation’s colleges and universities to work with more urgency and creativity to “contain the spiraling costs of college and reduce the burden of student debt.” The next week, President Obama held a private meeting with a small group of college presidents to discuss the issue. Vice President Biden followed a few days later, telling a group of parents that “The incredible cost of college education is for the first time crushing hundreds of parents.” (He meant hundreds of thousands, presumably.)
But while the administration has done a great deal to mitigate rising college prices by increasing funding for Pell grants and making it easier for students to pay back loans, it has done little to restrain the growth of college prices themselves. The recent communications blitz has raised the profile of the issue, but solutions that might actually bend the higher education price curve remain in short supply. And that’s because tuition addiction is a function of basic structural elements of the higher education system that will require equally foundational changes to alter.
But the severity of the problem should not be a deterrent to finding a solution. The best thing federal policymakers can do is help colleges hit rock bottom as quickly as possible, before the opportunity for recovery is lost. That will mean creating a new policy structure allowing for new higher education providers—not all of them colleges—to help students learn.
BACK-BREAKING TUITION increases are, in many ways, an inevitable consequence of the way our higher education system is currently designed. Imagine you’re in the business of selling apples that cost $1 on the open market. Then the government decides that more people should have the opportunity to buy apples and society would benefit from a net increase in apple consumption. So it decides to drop the price of apples to 60 cents. Sometimes it does this by giving you 40 cents for every apple you sell, on the condition that you start selling apples for 60 cents. Sometimes it gives people vouchers worth 40 cents that can only be used to purchase apples from approved vendors.
At first, the policy works splendidly. Apples are effectively less expensive so more people buy them and the nation is suffused with apple goodness. But then you, the apple vendor, look at the situation and say “Hey, the market price of an apple is still $1. Wouldn’t it be great if I could charge $1 for apples, but still get 40 cents from the government for every apple I sell?” Raising the price all the way from 60 cents back to $1 in a single year would be too obvious and jeopardize political support for the apple subsidy program. So you start raising prices by three, four, or five percent above inflation annually. When annoyed public officials begin asking why, you explain that apple production is an expensive, labor-intensive business, and that all of the extra money is being used to produce the very best apples money can buy. Since apple quality is substantially a matter of taste, this is a hard claim to refute.
Meanwhile, you use some of your new profits to sponsor crowd-pleasing sports events on weekends, building public goodwill. Other profits are used to hire professional lobbyists to plead for both more subsidies and more freedom to set prices. You also convince the government to allow you and other incumbent apple sellers to form a private organization with the authority to decide whether new sellers can become “approved apple vendors” for the purposes of receiving public subsidies. Unsurprisingly, few new sellers are approved.
But eventually things start to break down. As time passes and price increases accumulate, the public starts to notice that while the taxes they pay to support apple subsidies are staying the same, the price of subsidized apples is creeping closer to the market price. This seems unreasonable. Meanwhile, when the economy turns sour, available tax receipts for apple subsidization decline. Instead of raising taxes to make up the difference, public officials drop the per-apple subsidy to 30 cents. This is bad for you, because it means you either have to spend less money on the exotic orchid greenhouse you’ve built next to the apple orchard—the reason, truth be told, you got into the apple business in the first place—or raise prices even further. Luckily, since you’ve kept new vendors out of the market and prices are still below the market rate, you can get away with raising prices, and so you do.
This is essentially the story of public higher education over the last thirty years. Diplomas are, of course, not apples. But they are more like apples than colleges like to pretend. In particular, highly-profitable lower division courses in common subjects like Economics, Calculus, and Psychology have similar curricula at most colleges and rely on many of the same nationally-marketed textbooks. They are often taught by people with no formal training in teaching. These courses are, in the education context, commodities.
It’s true that we also have many private non-profit and for-profit colleges and universities in this country. But they, too, are afflicted with the craving for increased tuition. In part, that’s because they benefit from many of the same subsidies. Non-profit colleges don’t pay taxes, even when they have billions of dollars in the bank. People can use their publicly-financed college vouchers—and, increasingly, claim lucrative tax credits—for private college tuition. Because nobody really knows which colleges provide the best education, consumers have been trained to think of colleges like a luxury good: The best are the most expensive, by definition.
Non-profit colleges also don’t have shareholders demanding that they maximize the difference between revenues and expenses. Instead, they’re run by administrators and faculty who are most interested in competing for status with other colleges, which is determined by the size, expense, and ornateness of the academic greenhouses in which basic research and scholarship are produced…
January 11, 2012
Nineteen clicks of the mouse, the electronic brandishing of a credit card, thirteen dollars of my savings. A box of communion wafers was on its way to my apartment. Five days later, it arrived: five hundred whole-wheat discs emblazoned with a cross, packed like bags of Lay’s into two puffed plastic sacks. The size of a half-dollar, an eighth of an inch thick. My roommate, a lapsed but confirmed Catholic, couldn’t get enough of them, inhaling one after the other as if to bring some junk-food jingle to life. Analogies to Styrofoam notwithstanding, they are a low-fat snack. (In Quebec, they have even been marketed that way; prior to consecration, the host is only bread.) I watched him toss the wafers back like popcorn—the unrealized body of Christ, purchased on the Internet.
The wafers I bought were manufactured by the Cavanagh Company of Greenville, Rhode Island, which now makes 80 percent of the “altar breads” consumed in the US. The automation in Cavanagh’s facility is on par with that of Pepperidge Farm or Frito-Lay: they use custom-converted versions of the wafer ovens that turn out cream-filled vanilla wafers, and bake according to a patent-protected process that gives their wafers a sealed edge—to avoid crumbs. Cavanagh’s engraving plates stamp crosses and Christian lambs in their dough, while other companies use the same equipment to emboss their wheaten products with trademarks and brand-unique tessellations. Their batter is tested with an electronic viscometer. Their flour blend is a trade secret.
Cavanagh’s wheat is supplied in shipments of 42,000 to 45,000 pounds, bouncing across the heartland in eighteen-wheelers every three weeks. Their supplier, Archer Daniels Midland, is one of the biggest corporations in agribusiness: the same flour that ends up on Catholic altars across the country in the form of hosts could, according to ADM, end up in tortillas, refrigerated doughs, “Asian noodles,” bagels, and doughnuts at your local supermarket. In an unexpected parallel to more globalized industries—think apparel, electronics—ADM’s employees do not necessarily know how their product will be used. The majority, according to John Dick, Cavanagh’s sales representative at ADM, have no idea that the flour they grind will one day become, in the eyes of millions, the body of Christ. The very idea, Dick said, is “awe-inspiring” to him.
The Cavanagh Company was founded in 1943, born of the same collision of modern possibility and ancient need that brings us most great inventions. That year, according to company lore, a Jesuit priest in Greenville visited the convent that supplied his parish with communion wafers. He found the nuns toiling away in a stuffy kitchen, baking twenty wafers to a cookie sheet and cutting them out one at a time. It had been this way for centuries. In convents the world over, women religious made the vast majority of bread used for the Eucharist, baking in small batches to supply churches in the vicinity. Producing altar breads was not work but Work, internal to the Church and accompanied by prayer. Still, the priest was dismayed to see his Sisters toil so—they spent so much time baking communion wafers that they couldn’t get any sleep. So thought to ask his parishioners for help. He thought, in particular, of John Cavanagh, an inventor, and his two sons, devout young craftsmen who had smithed baptismal fonts and other objects for the altar after returning from World War II.
John Cavanagh designed the equipment and his sons helped him to build it, developing the earliest machines by adapting waffle irons and humidifiers to the needs of monastic bakers. Soon, the Cavanaghs began to manufacture machines especially for the production of communion wafers—extra-large “wafer irons” and cutters that could punch out ten hosts at a time. With the exception of the electric oven, it was the industry’s first real change in technology in decades, and probably even centuries. The company grew as they helped convents streamline their baking operations.
For those who were following communion-wafer production in the 1960s, the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council “really changed everything,” in the words of Brian Cavanagh, John’s great-grandson and the company’s head of sales and marketing. In four sessions spanning the middle of the decade, leaders of the Catholic Church met in Rome with a mandate to redefine Catholicism and heal the sectarian divisions of the past. Observers from all the major Protestant denominations took part. The Pope and the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church signed a mutual “expression of regret” for the Great Schism. It was a split, circa 1054, caused in part by a debate over the use of yeast at the Last Supper. Was Christ a Jew observing the rites of Passover with the Old Testament’s unleavened “bread of affliction” (Roman Catholic), or was he following a New Law, the leaven in his bread an allegory for the propagating powers of the Holy Spirit (Eastern Orthodox)? After 900 years, the churches reached a point of mutually accepting disagreement at Vatican II; academics have yet to lay the question to rest.
What emerged from Vatican II was a more open, updated Catholic Church. It ended the reign of the Latin mass, and it recognized, however begrudgingly, elements of truth and sanctification in traditions beyond its purview. In doing so, it retained a good portion of the baby boomers then coming of age who might otherwise have been tempted to raise their families outside the flock. Just as important for the world of altar breads, Vatican II got Protestants taking Communion again. For Episcopalians, it rekindled the idea of “recapturing what we held in common” with Catholics, as Tom Miller, a Canon of Arts and Liturgy, put it, sitting in an anteroom at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. “In addition to baptism, the Eucharist is the next closest thing, ” he said. Following Vatican II, not only Episcopalians, but Lutherans and other Protestants began to question their longstanding aversion to taking Communion every week, of steering away from parts of the service that could be seen as “too Catholic.” The Sunday service at St. John the Divine, for instance, now includes the Body and the Blood of Christ. Beginning in the 1960s, without cloistered communities to do their baking, thousands of Protestant churches went looking for wafer suppliers…
January 11, 2012
Syria sits at the historical, geographical, and political strategic crossroads of civilization. That definition is etched into every Syrian child’s mind from grade school through university. We are taught to believe we occupy the center of the universe and that our land matters on a global scale.
The last 10 months of the Syrian uprising have placed our blood-soaked country at another critical crossroads: with more than 5,000 dead, tens of thousands imprisoned, a brutal family dictatorship fighting for survival, a fragmented opposition, and a suffering people. There is no end in sight to the violence that escalates by the day and no clear vision of Syria’s future.
In December, after months of stalling and facing enforced sanctions, the Syrian regime finally seemed to buckle under pressure from the Arab League and agreed to sign a “protocol” ostensibly aimed at quelling the uprising. The agreement called for the regime to remove heavy artillery from urban areas, halt the use of force against civilians, release all political prisoners, and allow independent media into the country. Late last month, an advance team of 15 Arab League observers arrived in Syria on a one-month mission to monitor the regime’s compliance with the protocol. They have since increased to 153 observers; that number still falls far below the 500 observers that was part of the original agreement.
“Observe” is a banal word sucked of accountability, responsibility, action — a fitting way to describe an Arab League mission. Monitoring abuses of power is a function one would not expect from the Arab League, which, let’s face it, represents mostly dictatorships and absolute monarchies that have less-than-stellar human rights records. But observing Syria is an activity we have all become complicit in — observing the meetings, agreements, conferences, opposition groups forming and reforming, while Syrians are killed every day. We debate the conspiracies, the Western/Israeli/American/Saudi/Sunni alliance versus the Eastern/Russian/Iranian/Shiite one, with Palestine strung taut in between. These discussions, devoid of action, build a cruel barrier between ruthless international power games and innocent people who are being played. This is why the Syrian people suspiciously view the Arab League as a protector of the regime and by extension its brutality.
On a personal level, we have taken to consuming our country in tweets, video clips, and Facebook pages — observing from a distance. Until a brief Skype call sharply pushes you out of the virtual, the political, the abstract, into grounded reality.
His voice is heavy with sleep — it’s the middle of the night in Syria. He is an activist in the southern city of Deraa. He speaks of his city before the observers arrived, how life had been difficult but had become predictable, how the protesters and the shabbiha – the armed thugs the regime uses to attack and intimidate the opposition — had come to know each other, understanding and perfecting the game of cat and mouse, where and when to be and not to be.
The observers’ arrival changed the rules of the game. The regime sends spies to take pictures of the protesters who dare speak to the observers. Before every excursion, the streets are secured in any way necessary, by bullets or arrests (for the safety of the observers or to preserve what’s left of the regime’s tarnished image?). The streets of Deraa have to be scrubbed clean of its people, silencing their voices and erasing any sign of dissent, to present an image of control, safely guarded by snipers lurking on rooftops.
The man from Deraa with his steady, unemotional voice knows no report will protect his family, his neighbors, his town, his country. He is too smart to have hope; he relies on steel determination instead.
“When the observers first arrived, the people were extremely optimistic,” he tells me. “On the first day the team met with the mayor, so we couldn’t do anything. The second day, we invited them to a protest at a martyr’s funeral. They said, ‘We don’t have cars for transportation.’ We asked, ‘How could the team of observers not have cars?’ So we postponed the protest. The third day, we asked them to come and observe the protest, but the regime took them somewhere else. Their work is not even at 1 percent. Nothing is happening. They aren’t gathering testimonies from the families. They are witnessing the snipers and the army on the streets. They see this with their own eyes. A stranger walking in the streets would know.”
So far, the regime has freed 3,500 prisoners, but an estimated 30,000 more still remain imprisoned, and according to Syrian activists, 5,700 people have been detained since the Arab League mission began. One week before the observers arrived, the regime escalated the crackdown, killing at least 250 people in four days. Since then, the casualties have gone down to an average of a couple of dozen people a day, according to numbers tallied by various human rights groups and local coordination committees.
The Arab League mission has been declared a failure for multiple reasons: the insufficient number of observers to cover all the “hot spots”; the questionable integrity of the head of the mission, Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi; and the observers’ heavily monitored movement by security forces, which limits their ability to “observe.” As Qatar’s prime minister and head of the Arab League committee on Syria, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, admitted last week, “There are mistakes, but we went there not to stop the killing, but to monitor.” He cited the Arab League’s inexperience with leading this type of mission as one of the main concerns…
January 11, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.