Archives for College

Is a more-educated retail sales force worth the money?

Is the expense of going to college worth it? When you consider not only tuition and books, but also opportunity costs, the answer is sometimes “no, at least from a financial standpoint.”

The Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education, naturally enough, is an advocate for spending on higher ed. It cites, among other things, salary premiums enjoyed by college graduates over similarly situated people without degrees.

So, for example, “marketing and sales managers” who have a degree earn on average 62 percent more than managers without a degree.

But we also read that the wage premium exists in other fields: 84 percent for cashiers, 63 percent for cooks, 38 percent for auto mechanics, 34 percent for cops, and 23 percent for postal service mail carriers.

Now, I’ve run a cash register before, and I have to ask a few questions. Is having a college degree a prerequisite to working as a cashier? Does having a college degree make a cashier 84 percent more productive? Given the low wages of cashiers and the high costs of going to college, has going to college paid off, financially, for the cashier? Has it paid off for the taxpayers, who in various forms subsidize college education? I could ask similar questions of cooks, auto mechanics, and so forth.

Now let me interject a few qualifications. First of all, many people would benefit from some sort of post-secondary education. It just doesn’t have to be what we have historically called a “four-year degree.” For example, automobiles are pretty sophisticated devices, so perhaps a would-be mechanic ought to pursue a technical (“two year”) degree or a certificate from a community or technical college. A second qualification is that often–though not always–when a college graduate works as a cashier, cook, or what have you, it’s a temporary situation. In a down economy, you take whatever you can get. (In my case, my first post-college job involved asking strangers, “would you like fries with that?”) And finally, there are certainly non-financial benefits to the college experience. Being introduced to, say, classic debates in philosophy, is good for the mind and even the spirit, if not necessarily the wallet.

But neither students and their families nor taxpayers can ignore the wallet. The inflation rate of tuition consistently and significantly outpaces that of the economy as a whole. College graduates–and even those who leave college without a degree–leave the campus with significant amounts of debt. The public fisc, meanwhile, faces ever-increasing pleas for more money from colleges and universities.

So while the “wage premium” argument has some appeal, it deserves some scrutiny. And–this is the topic for some significant reflection and analysis that goes beyond a single blog post–we ought to rethink the college experience and the role of government in it.



College is Costly and Mired in PC: What Should We Do?

(This is the second in a two-part series on a recent conference on education policy.)

Janet Beihoffer started the afternoon sessions by saying that instructors, whether K-12 or at the college level, must have high expectations of students. (See here for more.)

Political correctness and the university

We moved to higher education, with Dick Andzenge, a sociology professor at St. Cloud State, giving a talk on political correctness. I believe he said something like “the effort to do good has done a lot of bad,” which seems like a fair (if overly generous) summation. So what is political correctness (PC)? In brief, it’s the attempt to create a culture in which nobody is offended. Ironically, a PC culture is also one in which people take a lot of offense. Instead of promoting the interaction of different cultures, PC encourages “safe havens” for people to self-select in communities of the same race, ethnicity, or sexual identity.

PC thinking has harmed the university in several ways: It has brought about an expanded but shallow curriculum. It has killed intellectual debates, thus weakening the university’s ability to create or foster independent thinkers. PC has also created new bureaucracies on campus, dedicated to carrying out and enforcing the new attitudes. PC has helped turn academic institutions into arms of political activists, and it has also (further) fragmented the university.

I will insert my own anecdote here. While in graduate school, I took a class that dealt with social movements. (Here are a few social movements from American history: the abolitionists; prohibition; anti-war activism of the Vietnam era, and feminism.) The study of social movements can be a respectable intellectual endeavor. Not only do they have real-world effects, but the intellectual questions surrounding them touch on topics such as mass psychology, leadership, religion, politics, and economics.

There were about a dozen students in the class. Almost to a person, each student identified himself or herself as a gay or lesbian who was studying the history of gay or lesbian activism and community-building. I’m sure, again, that there are some worthy intellectual questions involved, but it all struck me as a case of applied activism and navel-gazing, not academic pursuits.

Now to return to the presentation, we have the question of the purpose of the university. How sensitive should it be to the needs of the market? Andzenge weighed in on this longstanding debate by saying, “The purpose of the university is not to train you for a job. If you are an educated person you can create a job.” As someone with two liberal arts degrees, I’d have to agree–but also say there is room for other forms of higher education.

The technical college

Jeff Johnson, a professor of aviation at SCSU, represented the more technical and “hard sciences” side of the university. He made several good points, including this one worthy of a sociologist: There’s a tendency for people’s views and attitudes to conform to the environment around them. More directly, Johnson said that college faculty and prisoners share a common quality: They are institutionalized and have a hard time thinking outside the institution. The institution they live in becomes their world, and it’s hard for them to imagine anything else. (No wonder the professoriate leans left. It operates in a quasi-socialist environment in which professors are largely isolated from market discipline. With a few exceptions, tuition has no relationship to the market demand of the discipline a student is studying.)

Johnson observed that 85 percent of college graduates are moving back home. “This is not a problem,” he said. “This is an epidemic.” Indeed–especially when you take student-loan debt into account, since “some of these kids will carry debt until retirement.”

Given this reality, is a hard degree better than a soft one? Not necessarily,. said Johnson. “But there are junk degrees.” Indeed.

As a liberal-arts grad who couldn’t fix an engineering problem to save my life, I would say no, and yes to the question. The answer is “no” if by “better” you mean “more academically challenging and worthwhile.” Both a hard-science program of study and soft-science one can be rigorous. In addition, society benefits from some amount of study to human interaction and behavior, as well as the arts. (Caution: We should not forget the issue of declining marginal productivity.) If by “better” you mean “financially beneficial to the graduate,” I would have to look at the numbers, but would caution that at the individual level, there’s no guarantee either way. You could have a hard-science degree and work as a lab assistant all your life, earning a modest income. Or you could also earn a history degree and rise to become a corporate leader. Who’s going to earn more?

But what is socially “better” when it comes to the fields that students study? Should government, when it subsidizes higher education, subsidize only the hard sciences? Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, for example, has been accused of waging war on anthropologists and more broadly, the social sciences (to say nothing of the humanities). Last fall, he said, “I want to spend our money getting people science, technology, engineering and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all of their time and attention on: Those type of degrees that when they get out of school, they can get a job.”

Here’s one possible response (which I may later recant): Let’s move towards a funding model in which the public money we direct towards higher educated is carried on the backs of students rather than being parceled out to departments, and let some departments charge a higher tuition rate than others. In other words, move towards a demand-driven approach. Do a more thorough job of publicizing the starting salaries, and unemployment rates, of various majors, and let students respond accordingly. I suspect we will have more engineers and fewer anthropologists, without having to shut down departments.

Facing up to the myths of higher education

The final speaker of the day was Richard Vedder, an economist by training. While he spent a career as a professor studying fiscal policy, Vedder has, for the last decade or so, been looking at college itself. His Center for College Affordability and Productivity is a must-look-at resource for anyone interested in higher ed.

His talk was on “12 inconvenient truths about higher education.” Here they his points, in brief:

ONE: High costs become higher over time.

TWO: Higher education is, for states, not the engine of economic growth you think it is. (The key: diminishing marginal productivity)

THREE: College degrees do not guarantee work success. Here’s one example: We have 19,000 parking lot attendants with a bachelors degree.

FOUR: College students don’t spend much time in class or studying.

FIVE: Undergraduate students are often neglected, especially at large research universities.

SIX: Most students do not graduate on time, and 40 percent don’t graduate even after six years–leading in many cases to large debts but no paper to show for it.

SEVEN: Colleges hide vital information from consumers.

EIGHT: Freedom of expression is sometimes curtailed on campus, even though professor themselves fiercely guard their independence from the political pressure of legislators.

NINE: Universities are not, in fact, a force for income equality.

TEN: Colleges are run for the comfort of faculty and administrators rather than the benefit of students.

ELEVEN: Federal financial aid programs don’t work to promote access.

TWELVE: College sports has run amuck.

As for solutions, Vedder proposes more use of technology, more use of year-round programs, and funding students rather than programs. By the way, if you ever get a chance to hear him speak, take advantage of it. He’s far from the stereotype of the boring, inaccessible professor.

For more information

There’s much to commend higher education America, but it also needs some significant changes. Vedder’s site offers some ideas. See also the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has been working with Vedder to promote some reforms.

How Good is that College Education, and Does Everyone Need a Degree?

Are American college students spending too much for too little? Quite possibly. Here are two publications on the topic.

First up is What Will They Learn, a booklet, website, and publication of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). It evaluates over 1,000 private and public colleges and universities, grading them on how well-rounded their graduates will be, based on course requirements laid out by the institutions. In the view of the report’s authors, the best college education is one that requires students to take at least one general-survey course in each of the following subjects: English composition; literature; foreign languages; U.S. government or history; economics; mathematics; and science. If a requirement can be met by an esoteric (“History of Landscape Architecture”) or “Mickey Mouse” course (“Arts and Crafts for Leisure”), it doesn’t count towards the institution’s report card.

Nationally, 29 percent of “four year” colleges and universities earned a D or F, meaning they required a general survey course in, at most, two of the seven subject areas that ACTA considers important for work and citizenship today. Compared with the rest of the nation, the colleges of baccalaureate-granting institutions in Minnesota was more compressed: Nobody got an A, but nobody an F, either. Nationally, 39 percent of institutions got an A or B; in Minnesota, 22 percent did. Nationally, 32 percent of institutions got a C; in Minnesota, 52 percent did. Nationally, 20 percent of institutions got a D; in Minnesota, 26 percent did.

Here is a summary of the report card for Minnesota institutions:

  • Augsburg College: D
  • Bemidji State University: C
  • Carleton College: B
  • College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University: D
  • Concordia College: C
  • Condordia University: B
  • Gustavus Adolphus College: C
  • Hamline University: D
  • Macalester College: C
  • Metropolitan State University: C
  • Minnesota State University, Mankato: C
  • Minnesota State University, Moorhead: C
  • Southwest Minnesota State University: D
  • St. Catherine University: C
  • St. Cloud State University: D
  • St. Mary’s University of Minnesota: B
  • St. Olaf College: B
  • U of Minn, Crookston: C
  • U of Minn, Duluth: C
  • U of Minn, Morris: D
  • U of Minn, Twin Cities: D
  • U of St. Thomas: B
  • Winona State University: C

The more detailed report card breaks down each college or university’s grade into the seven subject areas. Nationally, only 19 institutions earned an “A.” They were:

  • Baylor University [Texas]
  • California Polytechnic State University – San Luis Obispo
  • City University of New York – Brooklyn College
  • Gardner-Webb University [North Carolina]
  • Kennesaw State University [Georgia]
  • Morehouse College [Georgia]
  • Pepperdine University [California]
  • St. John’s College [Maryland]
  • St. John’s College [New Mexico]
  • Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi
  • Thomas Aquinas College [California]
  • Thomas More College of Liberal Arts [New Hampshire]
  • United States Air Force Academy
  • United States Coast Guard Academy
  • United States Military Academy
  • University of Dallas
  • University of Georgia
  • University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma
  • University of Texas – San Antonio

Graduation rates

You know that there’s a problem with high school dropouts. Did you know that college students also drop out at significant rates? Here’s the information on the percentage of students who entered the institution in the Fall 2004 term, and graduated within six years.

  • Augsburg College: 60%
  • Bemidji State University: 50%
  • Carleton College: 93%
  • College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University: 79%/74%
  • Concordia College: 67%
  • Condordia University: 53%
  • Gustavus Adolphus College: 77%
  • Hamline University: 72%
  • Macalester College: 88%
  • Metropolitan State University: 26%
  • Minnesota State University, Mankato: 49%
  • Minnesota State University, Moorhead: 42%
  • Southwest Minnesota State University: 39%
  • St. Catherine University: 67%
  • St. Cloud State University: 47%
  • St. Mary’s University of Minnesota: 59%
  • St. Olaf College: 85%
  • U of Minn, Crookston: 37%
  • U of Minn, Duluth: 54%
  • U of Minn, Morris: 66%
  • U of Minn, Twin Cities: 70%
  • U of St. Thomas: 77%
  • Winona State University: 54%

Here’s a snapshot of institutions in Minnesota, grouped into quartiles by the percentage of first-year students who graduate within six years:

  • 75 percent or more: 6 (Carleton; St. Benedict/St. John’s; Gustavus Adolphus; Macalester; St. Olaf; St. Thomas)
  • 50 to 74 percent: 11 (Augsburg; Bemidji State; Concordia College; Concordia U; U of Minn, Duluth; Hamline; U of Minn, Morris; St. Catherine; St. Mary’s; U of Minn, Twin Cities; Winona State)
  • 25 to 49 percent: 6 (Crookston; Metro State; Mankato; Moorhead; SW Minnesota; St. Cloud)
  • 0 to 24 percent: none

Is “College for All” a good idea?

On a related note, many pundits and scholars have suggested in the last year or so that we have a “bubble” in higher education, driven in part by an unwise policy environment that pushes too many high school graduates into four-year programs. Sean Kershaw and Stacy Becker, both with the Citizens League, raised that point in a recent op-ed published by the Star-Tribune: College is not always the ticket to success.

They admit that people with a baccalaureate degree earn on average more than those who don’t–but then go on to say that the averages hide some very real and interesting numbers. “For example, one-quarter of workers with only some college or with associate’s degrees make more than do half of those with bachelor’s degrees.” [Emphasis added]

The authors can’t say much about solutions in a short piece. Instead, they offer this general approach: “Our responsibility as adults is to help students discover their passions and talents, identify a career path that makes the most of these passions and talents, comprehend what type of education and skills are necessary to success in such a career, and understand the future potential of that career in our economy.”

There are some possible clues within the piece. For example, it notes that new-and-improved technical and vocational education in high school can help. The authors also say that employers should focus “on the range of skills, knowledge and competency sets being acquired rather than credits and degrees.”

But college has become a screening device, a test for a person’s perseverance and ability to learn. Perhaps our economy would be better off with the expanded use of some sort of employment-based credentials, somewhat akin to the CPA.

When compared with K-12 education or health care, higher ed is a successful sector. Yet there’s plenty of room for improvement, to raise degree completion rates (if not raw numbers), increase affordability (by increasing the productivity of colleges rather than expanding the federal loan program), and decrease the amount of public money spent on studies of, say, the sex lives of left-handed, aboriginal underwater basket weavers. For more possibilities, see, 25 ideas from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

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