A segment for the
Wall Street Journal‘s “MarketWatch” recent featured good paying jobs which don’t require
workers to have a bachelor’s degree. For those students who may be worried about the cost of college (particularly given the risk of being underemployed after graduation), these types of jobs may be the occupational route for some students who are looking for alternatives to a job that needs a four-year degree.
In yet another dismal talking point about the job prospects for college graduates, they’ve been declining for six years.
As worrisome as the trend is, it’s probably understating the problem. It only
counts full-time workers, not part-time workers, and doesn’t address the underemployment of graduates. Especially since 2008, I’d expect
the trend to be more drastic.
The slide since 2000 could bolster Bryan Caplan’s claim that education works as a signaling mechanism; students are realizing smaller returns from higher education in the marketplace. Instead of gaining useful skills, the ever-increasing tuition teaches and prepares students for less.
Choosing to earn a graduate degree distorts the data as well; students who can’t find work after graduation decide to attend graduate school instead of joining the labor force in a low-paying, mismatched. If we look at graduate enrollment for 20-to-24-year-olds since 2006, it’s constantly increased:
I’m unsure how to explain the average wage increase during the mid-2000s; perhaps more graduates chose employment over graduate school (and more debt), whereas more graduates chose graduate school instead of low-paying employment. Thus, with fewer graduates in the job market who took low-paying jobs, the wage increase wasn’t weighed down. Or, the market simply had an increased demand for graduates; from 2003 to 2006, United States GDP grew by $2 trillion.
If universities are over-educating students for jobs that don’t exist (regardless of whether economic growth lags or increase), students become over-educated, underemployed, and debt-ridden. They successfully avoid some pain in the short run for greater pain in the long run.
In the end, however, the case for the 10K-B.A. is primarily moral, not financial. The entrepreneurs who see a way for millions to go to college affordably are the ones who understand the American dream. That dream is the opportunity to build a life through
earned success. That starts with education.
Actually, I would be more likely to agree if I were allowed to swap out the “10K-B.A.” for “MOOCs.” It’s not that I think MOOCs will someday displace
the truly elite liberal arts education (I doubt it) but that the approach MOOCs are taking (though they still have far to go) is probably the best way to expand educational access now to millions around the world who otherwise wouldn’t have anything remotely resembling the quality these online courses can offer them.
This may just be an indicator that the fiscal challenges for many institutions of higher education have faced post-financial crisis. Or it might a signal that the sector is facing
long-run structural challenges. Either way, this report from InsideHigherEd is probably not without some significance:
Moody’s Investors Service downgraded 34
higher education institutions in 2012 while upgrading only 3, the ratings agency reported Friday, an indicator of ongoing financial challenges facing colleges and universities. Analysts chalked up the downgrades to problems raising net tuition revenue, continued state budget cuts, and enrollment troubles.
In an effort to collect more information, The Chronicle of Higher Education recently expanded a project on tracking adjunct pay across the nation. The Adjunct Project relies on adjuncts to submit information about their salary to create a robust, easy-to-search database by state and university. Considering
the record of colleges and universities releasing information, the project provides access to a goldmine; the site gives analysts a peek at the market rate for adjuncts and factors affecting salaries.
One reason that could explain the dearth of information on adjuncts (and the hesitation of institutions to make the data easily accessible):
”The prospect that people will flood to California and to other higher-paying adjunct environments, if they can, is quite likely,” says Ms. Hanzimanolis, who is now teaching at three institutions: De Anza, City College of San Francisco, and Cañada.”
Making it more difficult to find salary information means that low-paying institutions don’t need to compete against high-paying institutions for adjuncts, thus keeping pay low. However, with budget cuts and staff reductions during the last few years, competition among adjuncts willing to relocate might not work ideally. Until an oversupply of adjuncts disappears (or adjuncts refuse to work for little pay), salaries won’t increase until the higher-paying institutions start to hire the above-average and average adjuncts. Or, if adjuncts leverage their position for a better job at their respective institutions, little might change.
Another bright side of this project: It could spur colleges and universities to self-report the data to protect institutional integrity. Inaccurate data could result from a lack of due diligence, deliberate errors from slighted adjuncts, or a lack of context could make the institution look worse. While not questioning the project’s integrity, large databases are prone to error. Though universities aren’t always trustworthy for data, either.
If the project eventually builds a thorough database, it could be used to compare adjunct salaries on the state level, unionized vs. non-unionized faculty, competition among universities in close proximity, etc. It’s depressing that such basic information has barriers to prevent quick and easy access; institutions of
higher education wax poetically about the call to disseminate knowledge and educate the public, but tend to obscure that part of their mission when faced with scrutiny.
As CCAP releases a new study today, the media coverage has already been strong. “Why are Recent College Graduates Underemployed? University Enrollments and Labor-Market Realities” has been discussed in USA Today, National Review, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, CNN Money, and The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, to
name a few.
Briefly, the study by Richard Vedder, Christopher Denhart, and Jonathan Robe finds that nearly half of recent college graduates are underemployed, holding jobs that require less than a four-year college degree. That finding, coupled with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, suggests that public policy directs too much state and federal funds to higher education, resulting in overinvestment and
burdening graduates with large amounts of student-loan debt.
Instead of ensuring taxi drivers and retail sales clerks hold college degrees (15 percent and 25 percent, respectively), our system of educating students and preparing them to enter the workforce might need a reformation ranging from fewer students at four-year institutions to alternative methods to verify competency.
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I found this blog essay by David D. Perlmutter to be a delightful read, in particular this insightful–and self-introspective–comment:
To take a more charitable view, professors love professing and assume everyone else loves what they have to profess.
Exactly so. And I think this may get close to the heart of
what may be a disconnect between the view college professors’ have of academia and the corresponding view held by the general public. It seems to me that, roughly speaking, college faculty view the purpose of college to be the creation and furtherance of scholarship. Many in the general public wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that, but a good number would, as some survey data suggest, place a greater explicit emphasis on the job outcomes of a good college education. The response from the professoriate would be that “learning for learning’s sake is good and noble and beautiful, in and of itself.” To which the “average Joe” would naturally respond, “sure, if that’s the way you want it for you, more power to you, but I have far more practical concerns in my life to worry about.” Besides, it’s not strictly true that professors are motivated solely by a noble love of learning rather than some more mundane interest in earning a living; after all, faculty are paid to teach and research, to engage in scholarship. While I certainly think it is appropriate to pay college faculty (and I would not advocate that we cease to do so), I will hazard a guess that no college professor would willingly forgo all compensation as a way to demonstrate an unfaltering fealty to the noble cause of learning.
Is the response of “average Joe” to the faculty one that is fundamentally anti-intellectual? Perhaps, but it is dangerously hasty to jump to that conclusion. Rather, could it not be that the real undercurrent to the general public’s dismissal of scholarship is really nothing more than the (somewhat obvious) observation that a lot of scholarship has more or less zero effect, practically speaking, on the lives of most people? How many people really care about, for example, whether yawning is contagious with the red-footed tortoise (I mean other than those awarding the Ig Nobel Prize). What I suspect happens with a good many people in the general public is that they don’t give a
lot of scholarship a second thought not because they think it’s garbage (though some do think that of a lot of research) but because they simply do not have the time (they have jobs to attend and families to look after and other means of leisure) or, more importantly, do not see how much of the scholarship has much, if any, relevance to their lives. And that’s not, as I see it, a failure on the part of the general public; in many ways, it’s actually the fault of those inside the Ivory Tower for not giving attention to making the public case for the importance of scholarship. Rather than thumb our noses on the vast, uneducated plebeians, a much better course would be to take Perlmutter’s caution humbly to heart and realize that just because other people lack a keen interest in the same research field as we do, it by no means necessarily means that they are anti-intellectual. Then proceed to build a convincing case (from the point of view, not of the one making the argument, but of the one who needs to be convinced) that this research is indeed important. If we want to raise the public out of an anti-intellectual stupor, let’s first treat them as fully capable of doing so.
I fully concur with this very thoughtful (though brief) caution that Lloyd Armstrong has raised:
Many of the traditional nonprofit universities and colleges are jumping into the online business because they see it as a new source of much needed revenue. As a former administrator, I understand the need for new revenues as much as anyone, so I am a fan of increasing revenues. My concern is that in most cases the online initiatives are not being done in a way that incorporates the online education into the educational mission of the institution – it is a financial, not educational advance. As a result, little emphasis is being placed on educational effectiveness in many of the new online programs. I have great fear that when the educational outcomes of many of these new programs are evaluated, they will be shown to be relatively ineffective. This result will
lead many to conclude that online education is intrinsically inferior, when all it will really show is that inferior pedagogy leads to inferior learning. Nonetheless, such a negative, albeit flawed, analysis could be a big setback in the much needed expansion of effective online learning in higher education.
I share Armstrong’s concern, but I think that it is more than just financial concerns which are crowding out educational ones; in some cases, the proximate cause deals with the desire to maximize prestige or some other intangible measure of institutional success (though, given that these measures–especially prestige-seeking–are keys to new revenues, perhaps even this motive boils down to the financial realm). It’s not just for financial reasons, for example, that Harvard, MIT or other elite institutions are welcoming (to one degree or another) the emerging MOOCs; I suspect at least part of the reason is that these institutions are wanting to build some political capital against further protestations from the public about college cost escalation (if someone complains that Harvard, for example, is out of touch with the public, Harvard can point to edX as its attempt to address the problem). For other less prestigious institutions (take San Jose State as an example), an additional motive for jumping on the MOOC (or even online education more broadly) bandwagon is the fear that they will be doomed if they don’t
get on because the last institution to embrace the rise of online initiatives very well may be left behind and crowded out of the market.
The problem with any of these motives is that they don’t necessarily have much to do (directly, anyway) with the education of students. The danger is that if improved educational outcomes are not the preeminent motive for institutions to join these online education initiatives, the colleges and universities will not take a comprehensive view to online education. Instead, they will try to slap on new technologies to the old model; if that’s the case, the new technologies, rather than lowering costs and/or improving outcomes will wind up increasing costs and even lowering outcomes. This is exactly the approach that institutions of higher education have taken for centuries and for many technologies: whether it is the blackboard, overhead transparencies, VCR, Powerpoint, or “clickers,” colleges have merely taken these technologies and imposed them on the existing classroom with no fundamental change to the operating model. Of course, given that approach, it should not be any surprise that costs subsequently rose because the new classroom cost is the sum of the old classroom cost plus whatever the cost of the new technology is (which is always a positive number). Compared to a medieval lecture, the cost of the 21st century lecture that includes a powerpoint slide is essentially the real cost of the medieval lecture plus any cost associated with running a powerpoint presentation.
Sometimes the use of these new technologies will positively impact outcomes, but there’s no reason to believe this necessarily must be the case (as an illustration of how new technology can actually lower educational outcomes, my favorite anecdote is that, as several of my own professors told me, with the rise of calculators, student errors were magnified by orders of magnitude, relative to typical errors from the age of the slide rule). But even if the effect on outcomes is positive, it is entirely possible that that gain will be washed out by the loss due to increased costs. In order for higher ed to leverage online education and gain from it, it first has to develop and embrace a new operating model. Otherwise the takeaway from the experiment will be the wrong one and exactly what Armstrong warns: a renewed conviction that “online education is intrinsically inferior.” But the real problem, as I see it, is a confused (or as Armstrong puts it, an “inferior”) pedagogy resulting from a failure to comprehensively consider what a true online model for education really is.