September 19, 2003

Wasteful Spending?

Salaries for teachers at the new primary school at Columbia University go as high as $100,000. The student-teacher ratio is five to one. And the school, which opens today, intends to develop individual learning plans for every student.

In a bold and costly bid to attract and hold professors, Columbia has created one of the most ambitious private elementary schools in the city one where 20 percent of the staff members have doctorates. Formally known as the School at Columbia University, it offers a glimpse of what educators might come up with if they had the time, the money and the freedom to do whatever they wanted.

-- Karen W. Arenson, "What Would Teachers Do if They Had the Chance? This"

Individualized learning, a student-teacher ratio of 5 to 1, and "free juice, fruit and coffee all day" long. Via Laura at Apt 11D (permalinks bloggered: scroll to Lunchtime Reading and Waste), Columbia University is opening a new K-4 elementary school for the children of full-time faculty. Actually, only half the spots will go to faculty children. As the NYTimes reports:

Its original market was the children of Columbia professors. But to placate critics who argued that the university should improve local public schools rather than create another private school, Columbia agreed that half of the students would come from the neighborhood, and that it would provide the financial aid for them to attend. And to ensure that it would not skim top students from the local public schools, Columbia agreed to choose the students by lottery.

More than 1,700 neighborhood children applied for about 100 openings this year.

It sounds like a wonderful school. It also sounds like a rather expensive school:

Columbia is paying at least half of the $22,000 tuition charge for all children of faculty members (more than half for lower-income faculty members), and an average of 80 percent of the tuition of the community students. Only 6 of the 200 students entering this week are paying full tuition, school officials said.

The total cost of the school is to be more than $12 million a year, including building costs, university officials said. School officials hope to bring in revenue through consulting, product sales and donations.

This certainly seems to fall under the heading of the expansion of the university's mission, which several commenters discussed a couple of weeks ago in this thread . Is it, as Laura suggests, an example of the kind of wasteful spending that is driving up undergraduate tuition costs? Based on the information provided in the above-linked article, I don't think it's possible to know how much it will actually cost (and I doubt those directly involved with the project really know, either): we get the $12 million cost figure, but with no idea of how much revenue might be generated through "consulting, product sales and donations." Still, the NYTimes quotes Columbia president Lee Bollinger, who

declined to discuss the school's finances, except to say: 'There is no question this is expensive. But there are lots of things we have to do to maintain pre-eminence in higher education in the United States.'

On the one hand, I guess I could think of worse ways to overspend than by running a school that reserves half its places for children from outside the Tower walls. On the other hand, I think Laura has a point when she suggests that this is a "luxury item" for "big name faculty who aren't even teaching classes." And though this is not about "wasting taxpayer's money" -- Columbia is a private school: if anyone's money is being wasted, it's that of the undergraduate tutition-payers -- the sheer extravagance of the project would seem to lend support to a charge that is frequently levelled against educators and edu-administrators: namely, that they don't pay enough attention to the bottom line (or, as the NYTimes suggests, here's what they will come up with if you don't impose a bottom line).

That said: $100,000 to teach at this school!? What do I need to do to get certified?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at September 19, 2003 09:17 AM

I've been telling people complaining about the cost of day care that they could staff a daycare entirely with PhD's for only about $30 k per each. I actually mean it as a joke, with a slight implication that people get what they pay for (and in fact Montessori schools DO give high-quality care with expensive, specially-trained staff.)

Jane Galt (now first facing, as a Randist, the family-career dilemma that everyone else talked to death 25 years ago) didn't seem to get my point, which was that a.) kids are enormously expensive and really not a good deal at all economically, and b.) her problem was that she either couldn't afford good care or was too cheap.

Jane didn't get it. I'm not sure she has a sense of humor.

So anyway, I wasn't even ahead of the curve. The PhD daycare was already on the way as I spoke.

Posted by: zizka at September 19, 2003 11:57 PM

Do female Randists have children? Pregnancy would be quite a trip for an Ayn Rand acolyte.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at September 20, 2003 10:42 AM

If Columbia wants to run a school, they should be developing and testing methods that are scalable: ie, that have to potential to be used on a large scale in schools throughout the country. This program, because of its cost and labor-intensiveness, does not seem to qualify.

Looks like pure conspicuous consumption to me.

Posted by: David Foster at September 21, 2003 10:41 AM

Or.... Amartya Sen, who may very well know, says that schooling and basic medical care are affordable specifically in poor countries, which can't otherwise soak up all their educated workers. And various people who I am too lazy to look up on a Sunday think the US, and probably Japan and the EU, are heading into permanent underemployment because so many of the jobs we currently pay for are being replaced by automation.

So maybe we could capture the automated productivity and have a self-sustaining society in which the real jobs are robot maintenance; childcare; education; healthcare; and entertainment. We might have to, to have something other than an unemployed many and a productive-capital-owning embattled few.

Posted by: clew at September 21, 2003 05:46 PM

Is it strictly healthy for four-year-old children to be drinking free coffee all day?

Posted by: dsquared at September 22, 2003 12:28 PM

"Is it strictly healthy for four-year-old children to be drinking free coffee all day?"

Strictly speaking, no. Four-year-old children should have to pay for their coffee (and at Manhattan rates), so that they imbibe the principles of free market exchange.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at September 22, 2003 12:37 PM

I live a few blocks from that school, and I am a student at Columbia (nursing--I am 37 and changing careers after having children).

The "community" wanted Columbia to work to improve the local public schools rather than building their own private school. The lottery was their response to that suggestion.

I can understand the problem--there are some good schools in NYC but children must apply in the fall before they plan to attend. Anyone who moves into the city is just stuck with the local school.

I certainly plan to apply for a place next year--my youngest starts kindergarten. But I'm not holding my breath. Nor do I think that a luxury education for 100 lucky children is the best use of the amount of money being spent.

Posted by: Shamhat at October 2, 2003 11:04 AM