NOTE: The views expressed here belong to the individual contributors and not to Princeton University or the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Separating the Tree from the Forest: Tackling deforestation independently to make progress on climate change

Jessica Duncan, MPA

In early 2007, there was a palpable sense of a growing global consensus on the need for a multilateral climate change agreement. US presidential candidates were discussing their plans for domestic legislation, many European nations had already enacted ambitious policies, and the Chinese government had declared pollution – carbon emissions included – as a top priority. However, the 2008 financial crash and the resulting credit crunch, falling gas prices, and a return to protectionism quickly wiped out both capital and political will for the climate change agenda. At the time, commentators said it would take a year for the economy to bounce back and climate change would again return to the docket. President Obama and others spoke of the opportunity presented by clean energy industries to foster, rather than limit, American economic growth.

Four years since that cautiously optimistic time, and few of the predictions have come true. Indeed, climate change has all has absolutely disappeared from Washington. While American politics on energy have often been fickle, European’s sudden silence on climate change is more surprising. Across the globe, it appears that multilateral environmental agreements couldn’t be further from political leaders’ priorities.

In this political and economic context, what is the most productive next step to foster international climate change consensus? If we assume that something should be done on climate change but realize carbon pricing simply will not be implemented in the current economic climate, what do we do?

Way Ahead: Divide and Conquer
The most influential forum for climate policy, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), should take areas of growing consensus and separate negotiations and policies on these issues from the broader UN international climate change process, e.g. deforestation and technology transfer policies. (This article will focus on the former.) While far from ideal, this pragmatic division of labor will enable the US and other major emitters to invest in components of the climate policy that do not threaten their domestic economies in such a rough economic time. They can work aggressively on these areas until their domestic politics and economies better align to allow stronger mitigation policies in the future.

With regard to deforestation policy, in recent rounds of UN climate talks there has been remarkable convergence of international opinion on its importance, including the launch of the United Nations’ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) program to better coordinate UN efforts to combat climate change by providing incentives to decrease deforestation. However, these promising developments have been overshadowed by the lack of movement in other areas of climate change policy and by the ongoing turbulence of the global economy. Overall, leaders have been prevented from doing all they can in this area because of a larger stalemate around carbon pricing and binding emissions cuts. A division of the international negotiation process that tackles deforestation policy separately will capitalize on positive developments even when countries remain at different ends of the table on other issues.

What can be done on deforestation alone?
Deforestation accounts for an estimated 20% of global carbon emissions each year. Slowing emissions from the destruction of forests will help keep global emissions at sustainable levels even if there is delayed action on more contentious areas of mitigation. While it may take decades to stop reliance on fossil fuel, it is possible to slow or halt deforestation far sooner. Reforestation also presents a very cost-effective opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with far greater returns on each dollar invested than most other mitigation options. In addition, deforestation should be separated from the broader climate agenda because it has potential to alter regional and international economic and political landscapes by giving developing countries, from Indonesia to Congo to Brazil, massive value in their forests. If these new carbon assets are managed correctly, so that current incentives are reversed and forests are more valuable left standing than cut down, carbon sinks – reservoirs that store carbon, removing it from the atmosphere – could become a tremendous resource for the populations of these developing nations. However, if they are poorly regulated, carbon sinks could feed corruption, giving governments leverage which could disrupt geopolitical relations and even potentially drive conflict. It is vital for the international community to establish sound deforestation policies now since it will be far harder to reform them down the line.

The UNFCCC should separate deforestation policy from a broader post-Kyoto agreement for the following reasons:
  • Effective international regulation in these areas is essential to cut global greenhouse emissions at the scale and with the urgency dictated by science – it’s more important than ever to protect carbon sinks since we have been unable to cut carbon emissions.
  • Regulation of these areas will provide opportunities for developing nations to profit from the climate agenda rather than be burdened by it.
  • As deforestation policy helps emerging economies become more invested in the international climate agenda, these nations may become more willing and able to take on binding emissions reductions targets.

Success on reforestation will not only cut global emissions in the near-term, but it will also – perhaps even more importantly – feed back into, strengthen, and drive progress on a more comprehensive global environmental negotiation in the future.

Chugga Chugga Moo Moo: Developing Cow Power

Carol Lu, MPA

While solar and wind power have become synonymous with renewable energy, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made it a priority to support the commercialization of a much less glamorous source of energy – dairy biogas from digester systems. Biogas (bio-gas) is gas produced by the biological breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen, and digester systems are industrial structures designed to capture that material. Located on the dairy farms themselves, digesters capture biogas from manure, transforming waste to energy. These systems benefit the environment by reducing water pollution from nutrient run-off. And, they represent a potential business opportunity. Even in this win-win situation, the current nascent digester industry is not economically sustainable: electricity sales to the wholesale market don’t justify capital costs. Entrepreneurs may make inroads to costs through “learning” on operations, but more is needed to push the industry toward profitability.

As a key environmental player with strong connections to local regulatory agencies and regulated entities, the EPA can help to increase digester project revenues in two ways:
  • Reduce barriers to co-digestion. Because restaurant grease has high energy potential, co-digestion of these wastes with manure would allow projects to generate double or triple the electricity at nearly the same costs. In addition, digester developers could charge restaurants a tipping fee to dispose of their grease. These additional revenue streams could make a project profitable. Unfortunately, co-digestion in areas like California is nearly impossible because of strict environmental permitting standards. The EPA should work with local agencies to develop a fast-tracked permitting exception for diary digester projects in states where co-digestion is not permitted.
  • Facilitate direct partnerships between large electricity end-users and digester projects. By directly providing electricity to an end-user rather than selling electricity to the wholesale market, a project developer is able to obtain a higher price for its renewable energy. Higher prices mean higher revenues. As an agency that regulates both large industrial electricity users and small dairies, the EPA is in a unique position to match these parties together. Thus, the EPA should develop an internal process in which those that work with large electricity users in the air permitting office collaborate with those that work with dairies in the water and agriculture offices. With sufficient support from the top, this intra-agency working group has the potential to bridge this critical gap.
With California’s cap-and-trade program rolling out in 2013, dairy digester projects across the United States may be able to supplement electricity revenues with compliance-offset revenues. Eight percent of emissions reductions by entities regulated under the cap may come from offsets, and livestock manure projects are one of the four approved offset project types. While there are many other factors to ensuring sustained deployment of dairy digester technology, increasing revenue potential is a vital first step.

What Do We Do With Data Soup?

Katherine DiSalvo, MPA

As policy professionals, we’re likely to encounter messes of contradictory findings more and more throughout our careers.

There is contradictory data on important issues like the real level of US poverty, whether moving people out of a neighborhood of concentrated poverty improves their chances in life, the success of charter schools, or the effectiveness of giving away free bed-nets to combat malaria.

Do you know what to do with data soup? At the Woodrow Wilson School, I don’t think we students learn this sufficiently.

According to R. Kent Weaver, in Ending Welfare as We Know It (Brookings, 2000), the 1980s and 1990s saw a “multiplication” of policy research with “differing assumptions and conclusions.” Simultaneously, interest groups were adopting social science techniques and creating “a welter of conflicting findings.” In a separate article Weaver and a colleague assert that this may result in the “devaluation of the currency” of policy research. Weaver argues that it may “cause legislators to simply dismiss all evidence that does not fit their personal or constituency preferences.”

Devaluation of policy research is becoming commonplace. Even in the era of “data-driven” education leadership, Brenda Welburn, the head of the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), recently told a WWS workshop team researching “School Choice and Impacts on Cities” that State Boards of Education members don’t know whose data to trust. As board members attempt to make state education policy and funding decisions, sometimes they don’t know how to do it with facts. “We [at NASBE] are dealing with perceptions, often,” Welburn said.

I don’t think it’s easy to digest data soup, and I think the Woodrow Wilson School needs to do more to help its students develop this ability. You may scoff and tell me you know how to wade through the stew. You know statistics! You know what research methods matter!

I don’t think any policy professional can rely on statistical prowess alone. The statistics program at the Wilson School is strong, and its decision to expand statistics requirements was a good one. However, with our limited time we students (not to mention professionals) cannot dig into data sets, look at assumptions, and evaluate every conclusion we read for ourselves. While some such analysis might be possible before an important policy decision or publication, we consume too much information to scrutinize it all.

The best proof that policy students won’t always use technical skills to sort through conflicting data professionally is that Woodrow Wilson students don’t always do so here! When I encounter conflicting data in classes, I’m too often told we students should dig deeper and decide who’s right…later.

We can’t rely exclusively on the “the gold standard” professors teach us to love: data generated by randomized control trials (RCTs). This creates an easy top tier of information on too few topics. Additionally, all the emphasis we hear on the “gold standard” may lead us to trust in RCT-based research too easily. The best part of the WWS course on data-based decision making is hearing Professor Lorenzo Moreno talk about how complicated it can be to do the right thing in the evaluation field. All that glitters…

We policy students need more practice criticizing questionable research. We need more practice wading through data mess and taking and defending a stand – not on politics, as we do in the introductory 501 course, Politics and Public Policy, but a stand on what we think is the truth. We need more sophisticated conversations about what data to trust and about how to evaluate vendors of policy research when we cannot evaluate each product. We need more shorthand than one “gold” standard.

We also need to talk about making policy in a world where different “facts” are consumed by different constituencies, and the truth is always up for debate. It’s the world in which we live, and it’s likely to get worse. If the Woodrow Wilson School could prepare us to digest data soup and to help change these cooking trends, that would truly be in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

African Energy Access: Is China a game-changer?

Phillip M. Hannam, PhD candidate

This summer in Nairobi, Kenya, I would often go vegetable shopping at a local open-air market. To my surprise, many of the vendors – native Kenyans – spoke Mandarin with the Chinese clientele, who had a distinct presence throughout the market. Nearby, massive concrete pillars and cantilevered steel beams rising above the city – the first elevated highway system in Kenya, courtesy of China – are a visible manifestation of growing development cooperation between China and Africa. Many Chinese and African scholars regard these investments as “win-win” partnerships, though Chinese state-owned institutions have also garnered criticism over resource interests and the disregard of humanitarian and environmental concerns in project planning.[1]

Beyond highways, hospitals, municipal water and waste systems, stadiums, and government buildings, China is also heavily invested in Africa’s electricity generation infrastructure. The scale of China’s involvement could provide electricity to millions in Africa who need it. And the energy could be renewable. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Seychelles, Jean-Paul Adam, recently expressed his optimism to the UN General Assembly:
“China and Africa have an ideal opportunity to work together to set an example for the world on best practices [in] eco-friendly technology transfer, to enhance the development of renewable energy.”[2]

Approximately 1.4 billion people lack access to electricity globally, and one billion more have unreliable electricity access.[3] Lack of modern energy services impairs attainment of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The World Bank predicts that an underperforming energy system results in a loss of 1-2% of annual economic growth potential.[4] Yet of the US$35-40 billion needed annually from now until 2030 to achieve universal energy access, only about 5% of this amount is expected through traditional development institutions. At this rate, the proportion of people with energy access is unlikely to improve significantly by 2030, the year the UN has called for universal access to modern energy services. Thus, China’s energy investments around the world – though hardly altruistic – could still help bring this goal into reach.

It is too early to tell if China’s investments in Africa will significantly change the outlook for the people of this resource-rich, but chronically energy-poor, continent. Nonetheless, I posit a few initial observations, expanded below:
  1. China is a new major player in Africa’s electricity sector: China’s presence in a range of renewable energies across the continent is welcome from the standpoint of increasing energy access and helping to achieve the UN MDGs. Unfortunately, the vast majority is in hydropower, which carries its own deleterious baggage.
  2. China views Africa as a growth market: Chinese companies see Africa as a new frontier for renewable energy – using China’s domestically-honed comparative advantages in solar, wind, and hydropower technology to employ Chinese firms, open market opportunities, and base manufacturing capacity within Africa. Western companies reticent to invest in Africa may miss emerging opportunities for renewable energy across the continent.
  3. The World Bank is shifting away from coal. China’s focus is likewise migrating to renewables: Chinese energy investments closely parallel those at the World Bank, where the focus is (slowly) shifting away from coal. While this unfortunately means a lot of new hydropower, it could also mean a lower coal and carbon trajectory for African development.

1. China is a new major player for African energy access: According to a study by the World Bank, 34% of Chinese investments in African infrastructure are in electricity.[5] Of this, the vast majority is hydropower. A watchdog group, International Rivers, reports that Chinese financial institutions are building over 250 hydropower projects across the developing world, mostly in Africa and Southeast Asia. Large hydropower projects, on the scale that China builds them, are highly controversial. Chinese dams in Ethiopia, Sudan, Ghana, and elsewhere face intense opposition because of ecosystem damage and displacement of indigenous groups. Chinese developers remain unapologetic, and most African policymakers support the projects. The Gibe III project on the Omo River in Ethiopia, as one example, will provide 1,800MW of electricity – effectively doubling Ethiopia’s generating capacity.[6] The energy access provided by the project is weighted against the dam’s impact on hundreds of thousands of people who rely on the Omo River and its ecosystems for their livelihoods.[7]

Better governance of international development cooperation could make such projects more tolerable. The World Commission on Dams delineates how large hydropower may be sustainable in an environmental, social, and economic context, though the recommendations have largely been dismissed by Chinese developers (and the World Bank, for that matter).

Fortunately, China is investing beyond hydropower. China Longyuan Power Group is investing in several wind power projects in South Africa, on the scale of 100MW.[8] Hydrochina International Engineering Company is building wind farms at two sites in Ethiopia. Another Chinese state-owned company, Xinjiang Goldwind Science & Technology Co., is supplying the wind turbines for the project.[9] A subsidiary of Chinese oil giant Sinopec has invested US$18.7 million to develop geothermal power potential across Kenya and the Rift Valley. China is also emerging in Africa’s nuclear power sector, exporting its domestic nuclear technology. China National Nuclear Corporation is considering developing a new nuclear power station in collaboration with South Africa. A Chinese-built nuclear power station is also under discussion for east Africa.[10]

2. China views Africa as a growth market: Beyond building new power stations, Chinese firms are investing in renewable energy manufacturing across Africa. Western solar power companies were active in the Kenyan market in the 1990s, but most pulled out due to high costs and low sales.[11] Today, the African renewables market is changing. Policies to incentivize grid-connected solar power are being considered in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda. For now, all solar panels demanded in Africa must be shipped from outside the continent – a financial and logistical problem that stifles growth of the industry.

China’s Tianpu Xianxing Enterprises, a prominent Chinese integrated solar manufacturer with exports around the world, is negotiating a major manufacturing hub in Nairobi. By creating a production base within Africa, shipping costs would be reduced and sale prices for panels may drop from US$310 to US$77 for a typical home system.[12]

In 2010, Suntech, China’s largest solar panel manufacturer, began investing several hundred million US dollars in a manufacturing base in South Africa capable of producing 100MW of capacity annually. The plant is expected to supply the growing South African solar market, which some analysts predict could reach US$1 billion annually. The creation of a manufacturing base within Africa increases the potential for skilled-job creation and technology transfer – desperately needed for the development of Africa’s fledgling electricity sector. It could also keep educated Africans from fleeing to jobs outside the region, as manufacturers within Africa put a premium on local skilled labor and technical skills.

3. Trends in Chinese investments following the World Bank: The World Bank has come under intense scrutiny in recent years regarding its role in financing large carbon intensive projects in energy and extractive industries. Coal is oftentimes the cheapest option when the price of carbon isn’t internalized. As a concession to international pressure, in 2011 the World Bank strictly limited future lending for coal power to the very poorest (non-IDA countries) countries. The World Bank’s energy strategy supports hydropower explicitly, calling it low-carbon electricity (though much evidence contests this) and noting that 90% of the hydropower resource in sub-Saharan Africa remains undeveloped.

Given China’s experience with coal domestically (which supplies 80% of Chinese electricity), Chinese investment in coal projects globally could fill the void left by the Bank’s exit from coal power in some countries. While no complete database exists of Chinese international projects, my own research indicates that Chinese firms have been involved in roughly 4GW of fossil power in Africa since 2000. China has several coal projects in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Senegal, and Botswana, as well as natural gas projects in Sudan, Nigeria, and Ghana.[13]

Encouragingly, none of these projects were announced in the past two years, while most of the non-hydro renewable energy projects mentioned above were initiated during that time. It remains to be seen how China’s investment portfolio will change as a result of World Bank policy, but for now I am optimistic that China is investigating opportunities beyond hydropower and coal for its African energy investments.

Renewable energy is playing a growing role in Africa. China is a champion of this trend, particularly as it explores investing in renewable energy manufacturing capacity in southern and eastern Africa. Western firms remain largely absent in this market. Indeed, it appears that in the arena of development aid and development finance – once dominated by western powers – China is increasingly emerging as a leading player.

While huge investments in hydropower are disastrous for biodiversity and have significant human impacts, the electricity generated bodes well for energy access goals. Moreover, while China frequently comes under direct criticism for its development projects, China’s energy investment portfolio seems to be consistent with that of the World Bank. Stronger institutions are needed to ensure that large scale projects, whether invested by China or Western institutions, maximize benefits while eliminating humanitarian and environmental costs to the extent possible.


[1] Deborah Brautigam at American University is particularly fair and thorough in her treatment of China’s engagements in Africa. Visit her blog here.
UN 65th Session. Quote from AE-Africa (27 September 2010). Link.
International Energy Agency (2010). “World Energy Outlook”. Executive Summary. Link
World Bank (2009). “Africa’s infrastructure, a time for transformation.” World Bank Africa Infrastructure Country Diagnostic.
Foster, V., Butterfield, W., Chen, C. and Pushak, N. (2009). “Building Bridges: China’s Growing Role as Infrastructure Financer for Sub-Saharan Africa”. Trends and Policy Options, No.5. Link
BBC, 26 March 2009:
Last month’s decision by the Burmese Government to shelve the $3.6 billion Myitsone hydropower project being developed by a Chinese parastatal company was celebrated as a victory for local and international activists. Yet by most guesses, Chinese hydropower investment will continue unabated.
Wee, S. and Walet, L. (26 August 2010). “UPDATE 1-Suntech signs MOU to build S.Africa solar plants.” Reuters. Link.
iStockAnalyst (10 January 2011). “Goldwind signs wind poer equipment contract with HydroChina in Ethiopia.” Link.
Reuters (25 May 2011). “China interested in building nuclear power plant in E.Africa, IBI Corp says” Alertnet. Link.
Japan is an exception to recent Western neglect of the African solar market. Japan donated US$7.4 million to Morocco to build a 1MW PV installation, another US$13.7 million for a 1MW station in Botswana, and a grant to Malawi for construction of a solar array on the Kamuzu International airport (AE-Africa 2010b).
Disenyana, T. (February 2009). “China in the African Solar Energy Sector: Kenya Case Study.” South African Institute of International Affairs: Occassional Paper No.25 – China in Africa Project. Link.
Foster, V., Butterfield, W., Chen, C. and Pushak, N. (2009). “Building Bridges: China’s Growing Role as Infrastructure Financer for Sub-Saharan Africa.” Trends and Policy Options, No.5. Link.; Macauhub (13 June 2006). "China’s CITIC to finance Brazilian thermoelectric power plant in Rio Grande do Sul." Link.

Kenya's Operation Protect the Nation: Yet another foreign intervention in Somalia

Beza Tesfaye, MPA

What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Somalia? Failed state. Sadly Somalia is indeed the epitome of what state failure entails—a weak government with power limited to the capital Mogadishu, a famine that threatens the lives of millions, rampant piracy and lawlessness, and an amorphous militia claiming to control most of the country under a strict version of Sharia Law. Yet Somalia’s recent and historical problems can only be fully understood in light of external involvement in Somali politics. The recent move by the Kenyan government to send troops into Somalia to fight Al Shabab warrants a brief discussion of how foreign invasions contribute to the perpetual crisis in Somalia.

Many of us vaguely remember seeing images of dead US soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu on the evening news. Before this decisive turning point, a UN humanitarian mission backed by US forces was involved in a large-scale humanitarian intervention to bring famine relief to starving Somalis. At the time, the US made an imprudent decision to kill and/or capture Somalia’s most powerful warlord, Mohamed Farrah Aidid. The mission ended in failure and embarrassment for the US government and with a tacit agreement to no longer directly interfere in the volatile nation’s affairs.

Some time passed and it seemed Somalia had fallen off everyone’s radar, with new crises emerging in other African countries like Rwanda, Liberia, and Congo. The popular image of Somalia remained, a “basket-case” country without a fixed state and governed by clan-based warlords. However, it was during this time that a semblance of stability and governance began to emerge under a network of Islamist courts known as the Islamist Courts Union (ICU). This loosely-organized group was able to bring peace and began to provide basic social services such as education and healthcare that had been non-existent for years.

Despite this brief window of stability in the early 2000s, the situation in Somalia has deteriorated far worse than anyone could have imagined. For reasons that have never been well articulated, the Ethiopian army – with financial and military support from the US – invaded Somalia in 2006, destabilizing the ICU. Three years later, the Ethiopian forces gave up the intractable military mission having achieved nothing and inadvertently fueling the growth of an unmanageable force that has since consumed Somalia—Al Shabab.

Less than three years after Ethiopia’s failed invasion and departure, Kenya has now joined the class of nations that try to “fix” the Somali problem through force. On October 16th, Kenya launched Operation Protect the Nation, sending hundreds of troops across the border into neighboring Somalia. Despite the Kenyan government’s rationalization that sending troops into Somalia was for the purpose of maintaining territorial sovereignty after a recent string of kidnappings within Kenya, this action has been met with mixed reactions. Below I highlight a few issues of concern that question the rationality of this decision:

1) First, it is important to note that Al Shabab has not claimed responsibility for the recent kidnappings of foreign tourists and aid workers along the Somalia/Kenya border (a rare precedent for an organization that has never shied away from limelight when it comes to acts of terror it has committed—e.g. the July 2010 bombings in Kampala, Uganda). More likely, the crimes were committed by Somali pirates or bandits seeking ransom rather than any type of political statement. This raises the important point that the problem with Somalia is not just Al Shabab—it is also lawlessness, underdevelopment, poverty, and a lack of institutions to effectively govern the fragmented society. A foreign invasion, even if it is able to rid Somalia of Al Shabab, is probably unlikely and unwilling to address these deeper-rooted structural sources of conflict and instability in Somalia that have inevitably spilled over into neighboring countries like Kenya.

2) The Kenyan government for some time has maintained a hands-off approach towards Somalia, seeking to secure its porous border areas, rather than involving itself directly in Somali internal affairs. Kenya has also been accommodating towards hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees and the beleaguered transitional government of Somalia. It is surprising, then, that Nairobi should suddenly make such an unpredictable policy change at this point—possibly opening the nation up for retaliatory attacks from aggrieved extremists. It should be noted, for example, that northwestern Kenya has been plagued for years by attacks from Ethiopian Toposas and Merrile cattle raiders, but the idea of invading southern Ethiopia to stop these killings has never been entertained. Succinctly put, Kenya is not an aggressive nation, and the recent declaration of war raises important questions about what or who urged the Kenyan government to invade Somalia.

3) Most importantly, what will this new foreign intervention mean for Somalis who are already suffering from the worst famine to hit the region in 50 years? The implications are hard to predict but what is certain is that fighting between Al Shabab and Kenyan troops as well as Kenyan air raids are likely to result in civilian casualties. Inevitably, this is a common cost of any armed conflict but one that is often justified by clear positive outcomes. In this situation, it is unclear what end results the Kenyan government seeks to achieve. If the aim is to completely eradicate Al Shabab, then Kenya is setting itself up for a long and potentially unwinnable conflict against a militant group that may be able to diffuse into Somali society and remerge even stronger. This is particularly likely if Somalis perceive the invasion as an unwelcome foreign incursion on their homeland, as was the case with the Ethiopian and U.S. military interventions. By attacking Somalia when Al Shabab was beginning to lose legitimacy and control in the country (having retreated from Mogadishu just this summer), Kenya may have grant the extremist group an unexpected lifeline. Without speculating too much of what will happen in the coming months, it suffices to say that war is detrimental to Somalis, especially a poorly-planned invasion with only vague objectives.

Immigration: The costs of a broken system

Sebastian Chaskel, MPA

On October 14th and 15th Princeton’s campus hosted Voz Latina 2011, the third annual symposium organized by the university’s Office of Academic Affairs and Diversity and the Latino Graduate Student Association in honor of Latino Heritage Month. This year’s topic: "Immigration in the 21st Century—the Costs of a Broken System."

The conference organizers could not have chosen a more opportune moment for a conversation on immigration. While the percentage of foreign-born residents in the United States has skyrocketed from 5% in the 1960s to 13% today, some state governments are implementing the strongest anti-immigrant policies the country has ever seen, reflecting a strong xenophobia in certain regions. The United States’ 11.2 million undocumented immigrants—half of them Mexican—now represent 5% of the US labor force. Yet they continue to work in the shadows, lacking the rights and protections that the rest of the population enjoys. As Princeton Professor Douglas Massey commented in his presentation, the structural conditions are being created for a semi-permanent underclass in the United States.

The symposium’s guests highlighted the elevated costs of a broken system. Enrique Morones, the founder of Border Angels, mentioned that about 10,000 people have died on the US-Mexico border attempting to cross it. His organization places water, blankets, and food on the border in an attempt to prevent further deaths, and records the stories of those that have perished in order to give a human face to the statistics. Professor Jorge Bustamante from Notre Dame University commented on his findings as UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants from 2005 to 2011. During this time, he witnessed constitutional violations executed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) agents who entered homes without warrants and seized occupants without legal bases. At the time the US government questioned Bustamante’s accusation, but a 2009 report by the Immigration Justice Clinic at Yeshiva University's Cardozo Law School, Constitution on Ice, seconded Bustamante’s findings, “reveal[ing] an established pattern of misconduct by ICE agents” in the region covered by the study.

Princeton Professor Patricia Fernandez-Kelly argued that undocumented immigrants are more likely than others to suffer from the country’s broken health system. Her research shows that those that choose to immigrate to the United States are healthier than the average person in their countries of origin, but health problems emerge once they enter the United States. As immigrants assimilate, they and their descendents pick up unhealthy smoking, drinking, and eating habits, along with the diseases that accompany them, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Their health is further impaired by limited access to health services due to state and local policies nationwide which limit immigrant access to basic medical care. New Jersey and Miami-Dade County stand out for the services they offer immigrant populations, while San Diego is notorious for its barriers to health access.

Professor Marta Tienda focused on Latino education trends, lamenting that although 16% of the American population is Hispanic, only 6% of college degree holders identify as such. She implored the Latino students present to do their part by encouraging and assisting other Hispanics in their college application processes. “Bring along two others, one in each hand,” Professor Tienda urged.

The national immigration correspondent for the New York Times, Julia Preston, explained that the harsh state anti-immigration laws being implemented across the country, such as Alabama’s HB56, and Arizona’s SB 1070, reflect the disagreements between states and the federal government over immigration reform. Professor Massey argued that these and other restrictive developments, such as greater border control, have not decreased illegal immigration, but have encouraged illegal immigrants to “hunker down” in the US, as the costs of traveling home and returning have increased. “Coyotes,” or smugglers, now charges $5,000-$7,000 per person brought to the country, compared to $1,000 or $2,000 just five years ago. Illegal migration has dropped in recent years, but this is due to decreased job openings in the United States, greater legal migration opportunities, and reduced fertility in Mexico. As a result, there is a net inflow of zero illegal immigrants to the U.S. now—fewer people are coming, but fewer people are also going back.

In terms of what should be done, both Professor Bustamante and Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) Professor Denise Dresser argued that the ideal policy response would be a bilateral agreement between Mexico and the United States on immigration. Legislative reform by nature is unilateral, Bustamante explained, and will therefore not be able to solve a bilateral problem. Such an agreement was on the table when Vicente Fox and George W. Bush led Mexico and the US, respectively, but the notion of a bilateral agreement disappeared on September 11, 2001. Immigration is now seen through a prism of security and thus such an agreement is no longer a viable option.

Professor Massey argued that the US is closer to passing comprehensive immigration reform than most think. The border is now secure and a system by which Mexicans and others can apply to work in the United States is already in place. The one outstanding issue is dealing with the 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants in the country, and Massey sees the only feasible and humane policy choice as 1) granting automatic legal status to everyone who was brought illegally to the US as a child, and 2) creating a system by which those that came as adults can gain citizenship.

Julia Preston predicted that policymakers will not touch immigration reform until after the 2012 presidential election due to the sensitivity of the subject to constituents. Professor Massey explained that the uneasiness many middle-age Americans feels about the increasing level of foreign-born residents in the US can be partly explained in that they came to age in the 1950s-60s, a time in which the foreign-born percentage of US residents was at an exceptional low of about 5%. The current 14% is closer to the country’s historical record, but it is nevertheless s a new reality for that generation. Professor Dresser emphasized that it is in both the United States’ and Mexico’s interest to find a sustainable solution and encouraged those interested in seeing reform, including the Mexican government, to pressure American legislators at a local level in order to create the incentives for reform.

A population of 11 million residing in the US without access to basic rights clashes with the values American society purports to uphold. While there was variance among the participants as to the best policy choice and the most efficient strategy to achieve reform, there was unanimous agreement in recognizing that the current situation is inhumane, dangerous, and unsustainable. Lest the United States become a country with permanent first- and second-class citizens, with different sets of rights and protections, immigration reform should be an urgent priority for the country’s decision makers.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Attention Women: RUN!

Christina Henderson, MPA

Back in the day when Michele Bachmann was leading in the Republican presidential primary (i.e., this summer), I was doubled over with grief at the idea that she could be first. Call me crazy, but I hope whoever achieves the honor of becoming the first woman to win the presidential nomination of major political party does not have to be convinced that the Founding Fathers did not in fact outlaw slavery.

Now that Bachmann’s star has fallen, I am concerned that neither political party has a deep enough bench to field a viable female candidate for president in the next three years. Currently, there are only six women serving as governors, 17 women in the United States Senate, and 72 in the House of Representatives. If we control for age, experience, name recognition, likability, alternative ambitions, and public displays of wackiness (yes, this is applies to male candidates too because wackiness knows no bounds), the numbers look even bleaker. We have got to get more women off the sidelines and into the field!

A 2009 study conducted by Stanford University and the University of Chicago found that on average, women in Congress introduce more legislation, attract more co-sponsors, and secure more resources for their districts and states than their male counterparts. In general, women in government are known to get things done and not take no for an answer. This is not to diminish the impact of men, but there are times when the fortitude and deep abiding commitment of women is stronger than that of said counterparts. And at this time in our nation’s history, it is needed.

In the last ten months, we’ve witnessed an unbelievable war on women across the country. From "forcible rape" to Planned Parenthood, from the assault on public employees (the majority of whom are female) to allowing hospitals to deny pregnant women life-saving care, can we please call off the vultures?! Now, I am not expecting every woman who decides to run for office to be progressive and pro-choice (it would be nice, but I’m realistic). However, when a city decides to decriminalize domestic violence over a budget dispute with its county counterparts, I would hope all the women could come together as a collective and say: “Are you serious?!”

We need more women running and serving in public office. Now, I would be remiss not to mention the difficulties involved in running for office. As a veteran campaign staffer, I know campaigns are not for the fainthearted. They are tough—physically, mentally, and spiritually. And for women—Democrat or Republican—it’s harder in ways men cannot even fathom. You will get frustrated, you may want to quit, and yes, it is possible that you may even lose your race. But know that hopefully because of your efforts the next time a woman runs, it will be a little easier that go around. When you are woman seeking to break political glass ceilings, the process is as much about you as the next five who follow. (Hillary to Bachmann: “You’re welcome.”) Don’t sit this opportunity out. Join the other incredible women in our nation’s history who have dared to define the role women play in politics on their own terms. Your country needs you.

The Colonization of Africa, Part II: Energy

Jared Crooks, MPA

It’s been almost 60 years since the British government gave up its audacious plan to build an African transcontinental railroad from Cape Town to Cairo. The first question that should come to mind is, “How is that even possible?” Well, it was. Just take a look at the map showing the division of the African continent at the height of colonialism. All of the light blue territory belonged to the UK.

I won’t start a lengthy diatribe on territorial rights, because that debate has been over for a long time. The last African country to gain independence did so in the 1990s.

But what was the point of African colonization? Well, certain parts of Africa are rich in natural resources (gold, diamonds, coffee, rubber etc.), which makes them highly desirable and attainable by the militarily-able countries. But now in the technology and information era, countries are in need of a certain kind of natural resource far more valuable than rubber: energy!

Yes, yes, we have all seen the graphs that show the trending line for the world’s energy needs for the next 50 years. But just in case: in a word, the world’s supply of oil is drying up and our demand is ever-increasing. Hence, our concentration on alternative energy solutions. (Well, that and climate change.)

Africa is chock full of potential alternative energy waiting to be tapped. If used correctly, 1/3 of the continent of Africa could be powered by solar energy trapped in the Sahara desert, 1/3 of the continent could also be powered by hydro-energy trapped by its rivers (e.g. the Nile) and amazingly 1/3 of the continent could be powered by geothermal energy (i.e. natural hot springs). Pause for math: 1/3 + 1/3 + 1/3 = 1!

Yes, the whole continent of Africa could be powered by alternative energy alone. Unfortunately, emphasis on “could.” Sadly what we are beginning to see now is the next era of African colonization. The European Union plans to build a huge solar energy plant in the Sahara…and export it back to Europe. Tunisia is setting up to transfer 200 Megawatts of “green energy” to Europe.

If this isn’t enough to make you pause and check the year on your calendar then I don’t know what is. But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Ethiopia is launching a project to take hydro-energy generated from the Nile to help power the country, but sadly this is just one of few examples of African ownership of resources.

The policy practically writes itself:
  • To African countries – Wake up and get your act together! Green energy is a great way to create jobs and compete globally.
  • To potential energy colonizers – Merely gaining approval from local governments to extract energy doesn’t rid you of obligation. Take precaution so that extraction efforts actually benefit locals and ensure that the domestic population isn’t being denied its rightful access to local energy due to corrupt elites. Either that or harvest Helium from moon dust.

D.C. Public Schools: 1 AMR (After Michelle Rhee)

Jeff Ross, MPA

One year ago this month, Michelle Rhee stepped down as chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). Anyone who has lived in the District knows that it is an odd mix of national and local priorities, Redskins fans and Cowboys fans, transplanted individuals and born-and-raised lifers. But no matter how connected or disconnected one is with the goings on of local DC issues and politics, nearly everyone who lived in the District from 2007-2010 had an opinion about “that Korean lady who was running the schools.”

Ms. Rhee, selected as chancellor by Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007 shortly after the D.C. City Council voted to establish direct mayoral control of the public school system, was young for an urban superintendent and had a non-traditional background for a superintendent of a large urban school district. She taught elementary school in Baltimore for three years before founding the non-profit The New Teacher Project, an organization that has worked with urban school districts to recruit or hire over 43,000 teachers. At the time, DCPS had long been considered one of the worst performing school districts in the nation, a system that spent one of the highest amounts of dollars per student yet got some of the lowest academic outcomes in the country. Leadership had been a constant revolving door, with six different superintendents in the previous ten years.

In the three plus years of Ms. Rhee’s controversial tenure, she brought a sense of urgency coupled with significant change aimed at improving the school system as quickly as possible. Washington Post writer Bill Turque, who covered the D.C. Public School system since relatively early in Ms. Rhee’s tenure, recently wrote a review of Ms. Rhee’s record. For the most part, I think it paints a fair picture of the successes (improvements in student outcomes and test scores, operational improvements in central office functions and food service, increased focus and importance on education as a civic issue) and challenges (opposition from some parents and community members, continued high principal turnover) faced by Ms. Rhee during her tenure, with a few caveats:

1) While the statistics surrounding D.C. Public Schools prior to Ms. Rhee’s tenure mentioned earlier are well-known and oft-cited, I think people often forget just how much agreement there was in the unacceptable state of affairs in DCPS at that time. The landslide 9-2 vote to enact mayoral control coupled with the unanimous vote to approve Ms. Rhee as chancellor are but two markers of the universal call for change at the time.

2) A noticeable omission from the article was the focus Ms. Rhee and DCPS put on ensuring every school had an arts, music, and physical education program. While parents and teachers alike often complain of the edging out of more robust educational opportunities in some schools (particularly those in urban areas) in favor of more practice with tested subjects (reading and math), DCPS under Ms. Rhee invested significant resources to ensure these options were available to all students for the first time.

3) Turque mentions that parents and community members felt that Ms. Rhee moved forward with school improvement efforts – including but not limited to closing underutilized school buildings – despite their stated objections. Indeed, Ms. Rhee faced decreasing approval ratings from D.C. residents during her tenure. However, it is important to note that while residents disapproved of Ms. Rhee personally in increasing numbers, Washington Post polls found that residents were in fact more satisfied with the levels of safety and overall satisfaction with public schools under Ms. Rhee, suggesting that much of the discontent was communication or personality related.

As a former employee of DCPS under Ms. Rhee, I certainly think that there were things that could have been done better. While I’m sympathetic to the position of Ms. Rhee and others that when it comes to student outcomes, change and improvement cannot happen fast enough, I think that it is crucial to present such efforts in as fair and collaborative manner as possible. While some would call that a subtle distinction, such a mindset shift would potentially have large effects on the number of new programs created, the rollout of vital new systems like the IMPACT teacher evaluation system, and communication with elected officials and community members. That’s why I’m confident in the future of DCPS under the leadership of current DCPS chancellor Kaya Henderson, who brings the same unwavering passion and commitment to improved student outcomes with a more inclusive style. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to take stock of where things were just a short time ago, and to have the understanding that such meaningful and positive change wouldn’t have occurred without the efforts of Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Seeing Beyond Tomorrow: The scourge of extreme poverty and finally ending it

Ayokunle Abogan, MPA

Can we end extreme poverty within the next three decades?

This question was posed in an article I read while in Nigeria, my home country. In trying to answer it, I cannot help but view the problem from a personal angle. Herein I share Modupe’s story.

Modupe is a woman I met during a volunteer project created to eradicate poverty in Nigeria. She is a Nigerian woman, likely in her mid-thirties, although she can only guess. AIDS (contracted from her now-dead husband), poverty, and hunger have taken a devastating toll on her—she looks more like 60. Does Modupe worry whether her six children also have AIDS? No. She doesn’t have time to worry. She’s focused solely on daily survival. Her mother, who lives with her, needn’t worry about AIDS—she’s already dying of tuberculosis.

Modupe scavenges for scrap paper at the rubbish dump to sell to market vendors. If Modupe is lucky, she can make as much as 60 cents a day. When luckier, she finds discarded dregs of produce, meat and dairy. Most days Modupe is not lucky. She averages three to four meals in a week. Land surrounds her leaf-and-mud hut but the adjacent factory’s chemical wastes have rendered the land toxic, infertile. It doesn’t matter. Dying of AIDS, Modupe can barely scavenge, never mind farm, competing alongside scores of others scrabbling for scraps. They suffer, too.

I know Modupe. I know many like her. Too many.

Nearly 1.2 billion people worldwide—one-sixth of the world’s population—suffer from extreme poverty. No clean water, sanitation, or electricity. The numbers are staggering. Illiteracy ensures that they continue to suffer. Some regions with entrenched cycles of poverty, death, and inequity, helplessly pass them from one generation to another. In my continent, Africa, more than half of us live in extreme poverty. Come 2040, nearly 30 years from now, the world’s population is forecast to increase to 8.8 billion, with more than 70% living in so-called developing countries. If we can’t manage poverty now, how will we manage it then on such a greater scale?

To cite statistics here, however, is to intellectualize a crisis that one must feel viscerally. Ironically, society today is now inured to others’ pain while being simultaneously, due to technological advances, close enough to observe it. We witness yet remain detached, isolated. But if you experience directly what I have experienced, the more critical question becomes: “Can we really afford to wait 30 years?”

International organizations including the World Bank and the UN emphasize improving income levels. That doesn’t work. It benefits only a small percentage, the educated, who better grasp how to improve living standards. The illiterate do not.

Basic needs must be met first. How can people educate themselves if they don’t even have food or water? If disease is everywhere around them? Surviving today isn’t just a means to an end; it becomes the end itself. Resolving basic needs will then naturally segue into health services, education and improved housing.

These are the core necessities we must provide our starving brothers and sisters:

  1. Enhanced food production. Food is fuel; we don’t run without it. Farmers comprise 60+ percent of the world’s extremely poor. Why not teach subsistence farming techniques for that 60 percent? A simple application of the “give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime” philosophy. Governments must invest in responsible farming techniques, tools, storage, and irrigation, and also develop suitable transit of farm products to outlying marketplaces.  
  2. Basic Infrastructure and Amenities. Clean water supply, electricity, and basic sanitation are taken for granted yet are all but unknown to the impoverished. The technology exists! Waste recycling, management, education and facilities will cut disease. Healthcare facilities decrease malaria and HIV/AIDS and preventable death. Rainwater harvesting, water wells, and hand pumps when appropriate, can provide additional water—substantial hours are spent daily traveling to obtain water; local water quality inspections limits typhoid and other water-related problems. Constructing micro-hydroelectric plants to boost electricity supply can funnel power to those outside centralized grid sources. Basic sanitation systems eradicate health risks, lessen water source pollution, and enhance human dignity.
  3. Education. In addition to lifestyle education, developing human capital leads to better jobs, wages, and living conditions. The educated make informed decisions concerning healthcare, reproduction, employment, and economic equality. Attendance at school until a legally-employable age, for men and women, and vocational training/skills improvement for adults lacking education are a must. 
  4. Debt Relief. Developed countries not only consume most of the world’s resources but also have technology to improve their economies. With debt relief, struggling countries can focus their resources to address national poverty. Fluctuating food prices and high energy proces make it more difficult for poor people to afford enough food to eat. Food and energy represent 60 percent of impoverished household expenditure. Even the US, an affluent nation, has seen much of its middle and lower classes forced into poverty by rising food and energy costs while battling unemployment and foreclosure in an economic crisis. The Middle East continually faces riots due to spiraling food costs. Mitigating the devastating price swings and economic slowdowns in developing countries is critical.
All four elements are inter-dependent and must be implemented for both short-term and long-term resolution. They fall under one umbrella: investment in the human capital of the world’s extreme poor. The impoverished do not need us to provide incentive to improve their quality of life—they possess the most painful of motivations. But they need the willingness, dedication, and resources of the rest of the world to help them down the road toward a global economy where they can first taste the dignity of self-support and then go on to achieve making a contribution.

Modupe doesn’t have 30 years. Neither do we.

Africa for Africans? State-sanctioned foreign “land grabs” in Ethiopia

Feker Tadesse, MPA

Coming back to Princeton from JFK airport, an Indian gentleman struck up a conversation with me, inquiring where I was from. When I told him I was from Ethiopia, he proceeded to talk positively about the recent developments in the country, particularly leasing of land to foreign investors. Relieved as I was that the mention of “Ethiopia” didn’t automatically prompt him to lament about droughts and famine, nevertheless I was hard pressed to share his optimism for what’s been dubbed “The Land Grab of Africa.”

The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, recently expounded on what leasing land to foreign investors would mean to the country’s economy. His argument was simple enough: there was plenty of idle land in the countryside that communities had neither agricultural nor settlement use for. Hence, foreign investors would transfer technology, create jobs for the locales, and increase government revenue. Thus far, some regions such as Benishangul Gumuz have leased around 2 million hectares to Saudi investors.

Critics are quick to point out the irony of a country that is dependent on food aid leasing out masses of fertile land so that countries like Saudi Arabia can ensure national food security. Moreover, the premise that the land being leased is idle land is under strong scrutiny. Stories regarding displacement of local populations have been circulating in the media. Secondly, environmental degradation is a real concern, particularly with the introduction of intensive agricultural ventures like horticulture that leave the land no longer viable for agricultural purposes. Finally, the prime minister’s argument that the agricultural sector in Ethiopia will not grow unless large scale mechanized farms come to its rescue is far from convincing. There are countless studies that claim quite the opposite: increasing the productivity of smallholder farmers is by far a better strategy to tackle rural poverty.

Given that the “land grab” issue is fairly recent, there is a lack of clear information on what exactly is taking place on the ground. While the PM’s arguments make sense theoretically, if recent allegations, particularly those on displacement of the local population hold true, this can hardly be praised as a government’s initiative towards foreign direct investment.

Making Butter Without the Cream of the Crop: Overcoming the bimodality of urban school choice

Drew Haugen, MPA

In the education reform world, charter schools have been garnering a lot of attention. Schools like KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), started in Houston in 1994, have achieved tremendous gains with students from underserved communities and have taken their model nation-wide.

Charters like KIPP also usually endure a barrage of criticism and scrutiny. Common critiques range from charges that they take the “cream of the crop” of available students to accusations of being quick to expel students with behavior, language, or disability issues. Others argue that their model is financially unsustainable.

My critique of charter schools like KIPP is through a different lens—what I call the Commitment Dilemma.

Commitment to a school like KIPP, with its longer days, Saturday school, longer academic year, hours of homework every night, and a rigorous behavioral culture, is a hefty commitment for a child of any ability level to make. Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston, my boss this summer and former principal of a high school that dealt with at-risk students, explained the Commitment Dilemma to me using the following analogy.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that all students have 100 “Free-time Commitment Points.” These 100 points represent the available free-time a student has for the activities to which they can devote their energies outside of mandatory requirements (sleeping, the seven-hour school day required by law, etc.).

Students can allocate their Free-time Commitment Points however they like, divvying them up between activities like studying, family time, organized sports, time with friends, and so forth.

For the purposes of this example let’s say that to graduate in the middle of her class at a KIPP school the average low-income urban student, Shirley, must allocate 80 of her total 100 Free-time Commitment Points to KIPP and the additional time, activities, and homework KIPP requires.

In contrast, Shirley’s local school, which is not as academically rigorous and does not yield the same high probability of college acceptance for Shirley as KIPP, is nonetheless a safe and moderately performing school that many of Shirley’s friends attend. To graduate from this school in the middle of her class requires 40 of Shirley’s Commitment Points.

Now let’s pause for a moment and inject some self-reflection into this analogy. Say I give you two options for the undergraduate institution you will attend: Vanderbilt or CalTech. You must choose one of these two options.

If my intuition is correct, a number of my capable and intelligent readers will choose Vanderbilt and a number will choose CalTech.

Applying our Free-time Commitment Points analogy, my guess is that readers who want to devote a large portion of their Points to academic extracurriculars like course reading, studying, and so forth in exchange for a more rigorous academic experience will choose CalTech. I’d also guess that readers who want to spend more of their Free-time Commitment Points on activities not directly related to school, such as social events, sports, and so on, will choose Vanderbilt.

This is a rough analogy, but the gist is this: students that are equally capable and intelligent (my readership) will choose different schools for different reasons and some of these reasons have little or nothing to do with academic pursuits.

Luckily for us, CalTech and Vanderbilt are both academically rigorous institutions that yield intellectual development and professional readiness for their students and a baseline of required academic proficiency in order to receive a diploma.

The same cannot be said of Shirley’s choices in our example. Even if Shirley is an above-average student with 60 Points to commit to academic enrichment, she falls short of the extraordinary commitment required to succeed at KIPP and will most likely end up in her neighborhood school. Shirley becomes a cautionary tale. This is the Commitment Dilemma.

It is true that KIPP achieves extraordinary results. But KIPP also enjoys extraordinarily committed administrators, teachers, parents, and students. The portion of our society willing to devote this much free-time and energy to schooling is a small minority.

If we can assume normality of student free-time commitment levels, then ideally there should exist a normal distribution of school options for students like Shirley to pick from. It would be a relatively easy endeavor for Shirley to find a school to match, or come close to, her 60-Commitment Point level.

All schools in this distribution would require a baseline academic proficiency of their students equivalent to a high school diploma or GED. As schools increase their academic enrichment activities (longer days, school years, more homework, AP and IB courses, advanced diplomas, etc.), so would their Free-time Commitment requirement.

Near the top of this distribution, we would find schools that prepare students for entry into elite higher education institutions. Near the bottom of this distribution, we would find schools that prepare students for success in community and junior colleges and entry-level four-year institutions.

Unfortunately, the reality of what most poor urban students encounter is a bimodal distribution of school options. Their first option is a low-commitment school, usually a failing public school that graduates them unprepared for success at a community college. The other option is a high commitment school, usually a rigorous charter school that prepares them for success at a mid-range four-year college.

The education reform movement must devote more energy to “building out the middle” of this currently bimodal distribution of school options. The development of rigorous and challenging schools for administrators, teachers, parents, and students of all commitment levels must be a much stronger priority.

A fitting model is the California higher education system, which was reorganized under the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education.

The Master Plan organized California’s higher education system into tiers. Tier 1 is comprised of the state’s marquee institutions—the University of California (UC) system. The California State University system makes up Tier 2, and the state’s community and junior college system rounds out Tier 3.

In California, the top 12.5% of graduating seniors are guaranteed a spot at one of the UC schools. The top 33% is guaranteed a spot at a Cal State, and California Community Colleges are to admit “any student capable of benefiting from instruction.”

This diversification of higher educational opportunities in California has yielded tremendous results: enrollment has increased ten-fold since 1960, while the California population has only approximately tripled. What’s more, there are avenues for advancement and enrichment between tiers: Santa Monica Community College in Los Angeles is the #1 institution for transfers to UCLA and UC-Berkeley.

By providing a similarly wide array of school options for public K-12, all of which afford students rigorous opportunities for academic proficiency and enrichment, our school system will yield higher retention levels, better academic fits for students, and more robust achievement on a large scale. Our education system must adapt itself to make butter with all types of milk—not just the cream.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

When it Comes to Colleges, Spare Us the Rankings (But Keep the Numbers)

Dan Fichtler, MPA

Arguably the most relied-upon college admissions advice for high school seniors comes not from a guidance counselor or an admissions officer or even a parent, but rather from the pages of a well-known magazine. The editors of U.S. News & World Report (USNWR) have just released the 2012 version of their annual college rankings (Editor’s note: Princeton #1!), and like in recent years, many soon-to-be applicants took another step towards higher education by consulting this publication to navigate the difficult decisions that lie ahead.

As has also become something of an autumn tradition, this year’s USNWR rankings were taken out to the woodshed by a wide variety of educators and pundits. The rankings have existed for nearly three decades now, and the charges laid against them are fairly predictable. Critics often cite the use of input-driven data (SAT scores and class rank of incoming students) rather than output-driven data (post-graduation salaries and percentages of alumni pursing or holding advanced degrees). Another common complaint is the ability of colleges and universities to manipulate data by changing their practices; that is, allocating resources towards those characteristics that the USNWR editors deem important, at the expense of the many other crucial elements of a college education. Anyone who has ever wondered why so many college courses are capped at the unusual level of 19 students, for example, can likely find an answer within the USNWR rankings formula.

But perhaps most objectionable is the idea that colleges and universities can be ranked in such a neat and simplistic way – or that they can be ranked at all. This criticism has more merit than any other that is regularly piled onto the USNWR editors (more on this point in a bit).

So how does USNWR determine these rankings? Well, it assigns each college and university an overall score, which is calculated via a relatively simple process. Data on a series of school characteristics are compiled, computed into common units, and summed, with different characteristics holding different weights. The schools are then ranked based upon their overall scores.

USNWR makes no attempt to hide its methodology[1], and yet anecdotal evidence suggests that very few high school seniors or their parents (or really anyone else for that matter) understand how the scores are calculated. And while an informal survey certainly cannot substitute for more rigorous hypothesis testing techniques, I sought to observe this anecdotal evidence. I asked about a dozen well-educated individuals to estimate the weight given to a school’s acceptance rate in the USNWR rankings. Answers ranged from a low of 8% to a high of 100%, with most falling in the range of 15-20%. The correct answer: 1.5%.

The table below provides the factors (and weights) used to determine the USNWR overall scores.

Methodology Used by U.S. News & World Report in its 2012 College Rankings[2]


Weighting (out of 100%)

Undergraduate Academic Reputation
          Academic peer assessment
          High school counselor assessment
          Six-year graduation rate
          Freshman retention rate
Faculty Resources
          Average faculty salary (including benefits)
          Proportion of classes with fewer than 20 students
          Proportion of faculty with highest degree in their field
          Proportion of classes with 50 or more students
          Student-faculty ratio
          Proportion of faculty who are full-time employees
Student Selectivity
          SAT and ACT scores of entering students
          Proportion of freshman graduating in top 10% of HS
          Acceptance rate
Financial Resources
Graduate Rate Performance
Alumni Giving Rate

Perhaps what appears to be systematic overestimation of the importance of acceptance rates comes from perceptions encouraged by the USNWR critics. Stories in the media that demonize elite universities for lowering their acceptance rates to game the rankings may lead readers to believe that this single variable plays an important role in the rankings formula. Of course, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about ever lower acceptance rates. There are also, however, plenty of reasons why schools might seek to lower their acceptance rates, USNWR aside. To directly or indirectly attribute causal effects to USNWR for this trend without considering these other factors represents nothing more than lazy analysis.

As the critics know, it is not difficult to find flaws in this system, or at least to question the validity of the specific weights assigned to various factors. What the critics often fail to acknowledge, however, is the valuable service that the USNWR editors provide. That service is the pure provision of information in a market that has otherwise been difficult for consumers to navigate.

Choosing which colleges to apply to, and eventually which to attend, are important life decisions. Future careers, lifelong friends, and even spouses are discovered during these years for many individuals, which therefore raises the stakes on the importance of making good decisions. If we believe that high school students (and parents and counselors) are best served by having access to information on many characteristics of colleges and universities, then we must applaud those who make this information widely available and easy to process. That group includes not only USNWR, by the way, but also the editors of rival rankings systems, who created their rankings in part to rectify what they felt were flaws in the USNWR system.

The creation of new, widely circulated systems suggests that college rankings will not be disappearing anytime soon. Forbes and Washington Monthly have entered the rankings game in recent years, and the college rankings edition of USNWR continues to sell remarkably well. And despite the valid criticisms of the specific USNWR methodology, the larger question remains: can simple rankings of colleges and universities across many variables help consumers?

For example, is #12 Northwestern really an incrementally better university than #13 Johns Hopkins? And is #2 Amherst really an incrementally better liberal arts college than #3 Swarthmore? They surely are not – at least not categorically. Ranking schools on this type of continuous scale therefore makes very little sense. For some students, Northwestern is a better option than Johns Hopkins; for others, the opposite is true. The same goes for Amherst and Swarthmore.

So how do students make these decisions? They could use the wide array of data that USNWR puts forth, comparing schools on the characteristics that are most important to them, whether those are class size or graduation rate or academic reputation. Some students certainly do this. Many others, however, fall victim to the “rankings-as-gospel” syndrome. Swarthmore may be a better fit for their personality and interests, but they cannot get beyond the fact that Amherst is ranked higher, and a mismatch occurs. The solution to this dilemma is quite simple: remove the rankings, keep the numbers.

And so the critics are correct – USNWR seems to be at least partially to blame for mismatching and suboptimal decision-making. But USNWR is also at least partially responsible for the good decisions of those students who are able to look past simple rankings and delve deeper into the data. Since 1983, USNWR has provided crucial information to students in an easy-to-digest manner. For that, they deserve our (partial) thanks.

[2] Applies only to National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges.