The Optimist

Outsource Your Kid

Trying to save money on a university and still get a good education? Forget the local community college -- send your kid to school overseas.

It's that time of the year again: high-school seniors around the country are anxiously awaiting the news that will change their lives -- early admission to the university of their choice. But while junior checks his email and the school's website 15 times an hour, parents are checking their savings account statements. As the recession bites into American families' incomes and makes the job search for recent graduates that much trickier, an increasing number of people are beginning to question the cost of attending colleges and universities in the United States.

And consider that cost: Colorado College, for example, has an annual tuition of $39,900 -- and once room, board, and supplies are factored in, that rises to a whopping $52,000 for non-Colorado based students.  You have to pay top dollar for a top-ranked school, of course: Colorado College is No. 1 in the nation for being "marijuana friendly," according to test-prep agency Princeton Review.

While Colorado College's fees are at the upper end, it is hardly unique. The College Board suggests that more than two-fifths of full-time undergraduate college students attend a college that charges less than $9,000 per year for tuition and fees -- but, at the other end, more than a quarter are in schools charging $36,000 or more. Some of those students get a scholarship, many get federal aid -- but plenty don't, or don't get enough.  Across the United States, college seniors who used loans to help fund their education owed an average of $25,250 upon graduation in 2010. So, perhaps it is not surprising that a Pew Research Center study suggests that 57 percent of Americans think college is of only fair or poor value for the money. And three quarters argue that college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.

There is a simple answer to such concerns: Shop around for a better deal. If junior is willing to travel a little bit further -- to colleges overseas -- the world offers some incredible bargains for quality tertiary education, with the option of free language and culture immersion thrown in. Tuition costs for foreign students at some of the best universities in Asia, Europe, and Africa can be as low as $4,000, well below half the median cost of college in the United States.

Of course, just because a Kia is cheaper than a Lexus doesn't mean it's necessarily better value. What matters is the cost to quality equation. But before assuming that U.S. college education must be of unbeatable excellence, it is worth mulling over a 2006 assessment of adult literacy which found that fewer than a third of four-year U.S. college graduates were fully capable of tasks like comparing viewpoints in two editorials; interpreting a table about blood pressure, age, and physical activity; or computing and comparing the cost per ounce of food items.

Global university rankings, like those from Shanghai University, Britain's Times Higher Education Supplement, and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), are hardly free of controversy. And they are rarely centered on the student experience -- instead, taking into account things like the number of Nobel prizes awarded to faculty or how many citations the average professor gets in journals that are read by a global readership of 43 (on a good day).  Nonetheless, they provide one broad measure of university quality around the globe.  And the rankings do suggest the United States remains top dog in terms of world-beating universities. Seven out of the top ten on the Times ranking are American schools, for example. All three rankings have at least two British universities among the top ten, however, and the QS ranking helpfully reports that these universities charge around $22,000 in annual tuition to foreign students -- compared to domestic fees of around $38,000 for the top U.S. schools.

That said, 99 percent of U.S. college applicants don't have a great shot at Harvard and MIT, or have little hope of spending three years shivering in the windswept fens of Cambridge or the fog-bound damp of Oxford. But the good news for prospective students and parents is that the opportunities for bargains get better as you go down the rankings: Canada's McGill University is ahead of America's Duke University, for example, and charges about half the fees. And the Shanghai top 500 includes about 37 universities from low- and middle-income economies. Institutions like the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil and Fudan University in China both rank above renowned U.S. establishments like George Washington University in Washington, D.C. or Notre Dame in Indiana. For the cost-conscious consumer of tertiary education, this high quality comes at truly bargain basement price.

South Africa's University of Cape Town beats out Georgetown University on the QS rankings. But Georgetown's fees are $40,000-plus, compared to an upper end of $8,000 for foreign students attending Cape Town. And only one of the two comes with quality local wine and views of Table Mountain. Or what about the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi -- ranked a little above Notre Dame in the QS rankings, but with annual fees somewhere between a fifth and a seventh of the price? Again, on the same rankings, the American University of Beirut beats out Brandeis -- for one-fifth the price.

Want to combine a quality education with language immersion? Peking University -- No. 49 on the Times criteria, above Penn State -- charges between $4,000 and $6,000 in tuition a year. For those wanting to brush up their Spanish, the Catholic University of Chile ranks considerably above Wake Forest, but the fees are 80 percent lower.

But junior won't just learn language there. The even-better news is that many developing country universities score better on the teaching environment than they do on overall rankings. For example, the Times scores suggests that Peking University's ranking on teaching is better than all but 15 of the 49 universities above it on the list. That may be why a growing number of foreign students are flocking to universities in middle income countries. In 2009, three developing economies -- Russia, China, and South Africa -- attracted nearly 250,000 overseas students between them, according to the OECD.

So, American high-school kids would both pad their resumes and do their parents a favor by considering schools abroad instead of lower-ranked U.S. options. They would also do the United States a favor, because the country's tertiary education system is looking increasingly isolated in a globalizing world. The OECD suggests that the number of students enrolled in college outside their country of citizenship worldwide climbed from 2.1 million to over 3.5 million between 2000 and 2009. But U.S. undergraduates accounted for only 0.4 percent of that global total. The Institute for International Education can only find evidence of 12,425 U.S. students enrolled in overseas undergraduate degree programs (almost half of them in Britain). Compared to an overall U.S. tertiary student body of around 20 million, that's about 0.06 percent.

Meanwhile, when it comes to importing scholars, the OECD suggests that, in terms of absolute numbers, the United States still leads the world in attracting foreign students. In 2009, U.S. universities took in 18 percent of the global total of study abroad candidates, but that had dropped from 23 percent in 2000, and left U.S. colleges and universities as a whole with less than two-thirds the OECD average of foreign student enrollment.

That's bad news for America: not least, a limited number of people who have spent time living abroad helps account for the country's dire lack of polyglots. Only about 14 percent of Americans claim they can speak Spanish well enough to hold a conversation -- a surprisingly low number considering that 16 percent of the country reports being of Hispanic or Latino origin. A little over 4 percent can have a chat in French, and a little less than 3 percent German -- and if we move onto Mandarin or Urdu, we're talking fractions of a percent. As well as being a potential national security issue, a denuded flow of students in and out of the United States reduces the country's ability to trade, invest, and exchange technology internationally.

All of which suggests the government ought to be helping the more intrepid American high school graduates enroll in college abroad. Why not change the requirements for institutional participation in federal student aid programs to allow foreign schools to provide support to U.S. student tuition and living costs? Or expand study abroad programs like the Gilman Scholarship to cover full degree programs overseas? Or perhaps extend Fulbright scholarships to cover undergraduates? Or, perhaps even more effective: advertise the fact that, in most of the rest of the world, the legal drinking age is 18.

MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images

The Optimist

Forest Bump

The global economic crisis is good news for trees, but how can we make sure the gains keep coming?

Fewer jobs, dwindling savings, piles of public debt -- there's not much reason to be thankful for the global recession. But one small silver lining is that it has slowed the rate at which we're turning the atmosphere into an over-amped electric blanket.

There are two things at work here: First, less growth slows the demand for energy. During a recession, people make less, drive less, and even turn off lights more to save a couple dollars on the utility bill. That's the big factor behind greenhouse gas emissions in the United States having fallen 6 percent between 2008 and 2009, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The second reason environmentalists can feel good about a recession is that lower demand for everything -- including wood and agricultural products -- reduces the incentive to chop down trees. That relationship presents a challenge to tree-lovers: how to keep the chainsaws silent as the economy recovers? But it also suggests a solution -- and financial incentives can play a big role.

Tropical forests are home to about half of all species on Earth. And all of those trees store up a lot of carbon -- which escapes into the atmosphere when they are burned down. That's why the rapid rate of forest clearing worldwide is a vital global issue. Indonesia, a major home to tropical forests, lost about one quarter of its forests to logging and slash-and-burn agriculture between 1990 and 2005 alone. And, historically, forest clearing has accounted for somewhere around 15 percent of the impact of greenhouse gasses on global climate change. So we should cheer recent news that the global rate of deforestation has slowed. At the same time, sustaining that decline is going to take some serious work.

A tool developed by my colleague David Wheeler at the Center for Global Development called FORMA (or Forest Monitoring for Action) allows close tracking and analysis of global deforestation trends. FORMA covers 27 countries that accounted for 94 percent of clearing in the first half of the last decade. Every month, the FORMA software examines NASA data all across the tropics, 1 square kilometer at a time, to look for fires and changes in vegetation color -- telltale signs of loggers at work. Wheeler's work suggests that, between December 2005 and August 2011, the rate of monthly tropical forest clearing dropped by 42 percent.

That change was largely thanks to a considerably slowed rate of clearing in Indonesia and Brazil, which between them account for over three quarters of tropical deforestation. At the same time, the data suggests that among the 27 countries covered by FORMA, clearing increased in 14 of them over the last six years. And even within Brazil the picture is mixed: slower deforestation in southern Amazonia, more rapid clearing to the north. Likewise in Indonesia, which has seen decreased clearing in the southern and central areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan, but more rapid deforestation elsewhere on the same islands. That suggests a complex story regarding what has caused the global decline in deforestation, and what it would take to sustain it.

Analysis of the FORMA data for Indonesia points to a range of factors that help to explain how much forest is cleared, and where and when. Rainfall makes it harder to burn trees, so wet seasons see slower clearing. The spread of cell phone coverage appears to have helped loggers work more efficiently -- put up a cell tower and a logger may soon follow. Macroeconomic factors also play a role: Lower interest rates and a more favorable exchange rate -- both of which increase returns to investing in palm oil (Indonesia is the world's largest producer) and logging -- increase the rate of clearance. Sadly, among the factors that appear to have no effect on rates of deforestation across Indonesia is the one that has been a focus of global efforts to slow clearing: putting land in protected-area status. Again, the strength of local government institutions plays a limited role.

In short, it appears that changes in deforestation over the last few years are likely to have been driven by short-run economic factors. And that may mean that when the global economic crisis ends, clearing rates will rise again -- unless we find a better way to protect forests now.

But the importance of economic factors to clearing rates also suggests an obvious and effective response: pay people to keep forests intact. Thankfully, there is an ongoing international effort to create such a program. Negotiators in the last U.N. climate change conference in Durban hashed out a number of issues related to paying countries to preserve their forests under a scheme called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation -- also known as REDD. But they are still a long way from a final agreement. It has been immensely difficult to agree on who would get the money, and against what benchmarks and targets. And at a time of limited appetite for new expenditure by governments in developed nations, it isn't yet exactly clear who will pay the billions of dollars that donor countries as a group agreed to provide for REDD at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit.

In the interim, the Norwegian government has started running REDD pilot programs -- but these exercises have shown how complex it can be to link payments with results on the ground, especially when so many local factors are involved in slowing the rate of clearing. In May 2011, Norway agreed to pay Indonesia $1 billion if, among other things, it put in place a two-year moratorium on new concessions to cut down forests. The decree excluded existing concessions and those "approved in principal," so perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that FORMA data suggested that June 2011 actually saw rates of clearing in Indonesia rising. The good news is that July and August of last year did see rates at their lowest levels since 2006, so perhaps there is a hope that however full of holes the agreement appears to be, it may still have some effect. But a previous Norwegian deal with Guyana appears to have done little to slow deforestation in the short term; and a $1 billion fund supported by Norway in 2008 to back Brazilian forest protection had only spent $39 million by the start of 2012.

Wheeler's analysis does suggest one potentially more straightforward approach. Pay countries each month if they manage to keep deforestation at a rate below that which would be expected given long-term development trends. Wheeler and colleagues suggest that as countries get richer they also clear less forest -- and that by the time a country's per capita gross domestic product hits around $10,000, it is likely to see a zero rate of net deforestation. So, if a developing country manages to slow its rate of clearing, and deforest less than its average income would suggest in a given month or year, it gets paid. FORMA provides sufficient, and sufficiently accurate, data to make such a scheme workable -- and Wheeler suggests a number of tweaks to make sure that the scheme encourages the long-term outcomes that we want.

Of course, given that the analysis of FORMA data suggests that protected area status and the quality of local government makes little difference to the rate of deforestation in Indonesia, one might wonder what good a scheme that gave money to apparently impotent governments would do. One answer is that the program would give countries a significant incentive to overcome that impotence -- searching for whatever amounts to the institutional equivalent of Viagra for their forestry departments. In fact, more capable government would be a considerable side benefit of the scheme. Less pulp and more efficient paper-pushers -- what's not to like?

Lunae Parracho/AFP/Getty Images