That's the gist of this piece in yesterday's Washington Post, at any rate. The writer argues, as others have done recently, that if you're in higher education for the money, watch out. It may well cost you a pile, but if you're counting on instant remunerative employment when you graduate, no soap. Check out consumer labels carefully before you buy, he advises, or you might discover too late that you've bought a pig-in-a-poke.
In the recent book by Clay Christensen and Henry Eyring, The Innovative University, the authors contend that many colleges and universities will be left in the dust unless they figure out how to adapt, much as companies have crumbled when innovative technologies hit their markets and they couldn't rapidly adjust to it.
Doug French, president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute argues that much of the apparent increase in the “need” for people with college degrees was due to the growth of employment in government since 1990 and growth in the finance industry, fueled to a large extent by federal interventions to keep interest rates artificially low. French also disputes the notion, recently pushed by David Leonhardt of the New York Times, that college is a good investment even if you wind up washing dishes because you’ll enjoy an earnings boost.
In today's Pope Center piece, Joe Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, writes about his unusual experience with the University of Chicago. Lots of courses and lots of learning, but no degree. Fortunately, he got into a field where the lack of college credential did not bar him from working with the skills and knowledge he had -- the think tank world.
In this Atlantic column, David Indiviglio argues that the "need" for college has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He understands that for many students, the value in the degree is only positional, indicating that they're better than individuals without the credential. If we reach the point where almost everyone has a BA, then it will be necessary for those who want to set themselves apart to obtain a more advanced degree. Of course, there will be institutions eager to sell them the credentials. In his book How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning, Professor David Labaree nailed this point, writing, "As each level of education in turn gradually floods with a crowd of ambitious consumers, individuals have to keep seeking ever higher credentials in order to move a step ahead of the pack. In such a system, nobody wins. Consumers have to spend increasing amounts of time and money to gain additional credentials because the swelling number of credential holders keeps lowering the value of credentials at any given level....Employers keep raising the entry-level education requirements for particular jobs, but they still find that they have to provide extensive training before employees can carry out their work productively. At all levels, this is an enormously wasteful system."
In this week’s Pope Center Clarion Call, I take issue with the piece Kevin Carey had published in The New Republic several weeks ago.
In essence, Carey’s argument is that college will nearly always prove to be a good investment because it has in the past and because skill levels across much of the workforce are rising. I dispute the first point by noting that the phenomenon of large number of college-credentialed people having to take work in fields that call for no academic training has been with us for decades. As for the second, there is no reason to believe that whatever skill increases may be needed throughout the labor force are such that people who have not been to college are incapable for mastering them. The military is a good example. The sophistication of the equipment, weaponry and otherwise, used in the military has been steadily increasing, but it trains its personnel — very few of whom have any college coursework — so that they have the skills needed.
There are many more flaws in his article. Here’s another that really bothered me.
One of the glaring weaknesses in the “College is good for everyone!” case is the mounting evidence that many students learn little or nothing. Leonhardt tries to escape that by noting the recent conclusion by Arum and Roksa that a large percentage of college students they sampled made scant academic gains, then writing, “But the margin of error was large enough that many more may have made progress.”
Yes, but it’s equally likely that the margin of error could go the other way and that “many more” may have been wasting their time and money. Leonhardt knows what “margin of error” means, but he’s writing an advocacy piece, so he evidently feels justified in slanting the data his way.
Then he tries to blow off the entire matter by writing, “The general skills that colleges teach, like discipline and persistence, may be more important that academics anyway.” Small problem here: there is no evidence that colleges are better at teaching discipline and persistence than they are at teaching about math, history, or how to write a good paragraph. Lots of students manifest the same aversion to work, to deadlines, to personal responsibility as seniors that they had as freshmen.
So argues Professor Herbert London in this Minding the Campus essay. Starting from the earliest years, teachers (later professors) often pass along students who haven’t learned much just because it’s the easy and supposedly compassionate thing to do. Thus we wind up with kids in college who are barely literate and can’t do simple math.
Why? It’s because there is no penalty for acting that way. The money keeps flowing in and the teachers and professors keep their jobs despite the educational fraud.
The ed-blogosphere overflows with predictions of a “higher education bubble,” but I find no mention of one thing that epitomizes the whole sorry mess: the Ed.D. For many Ph.Ds, the Ed.D. represents the ticket to the administrative high life. The California State University (CSU) system has a more grandiose, if unintelligible, plan.
NAS president Peter Wood has written a four-part series considering the value of the for-profit higher education sector, and whether those who care about the liberal arts should also care about the fate of this besieged sector. If there is a higher education bubble, for-profits may outlive not-for-profits in the case of a burst. His series draws on a number of his personal encounters with the for-profit industry.
In this week's Pope Center Clarion Call, I take a look at "Education Pays 2010," the most recent paper from the College Board's Advocacy and Policy Center. It tries to deflect criticism from those of us who contend that higher education has been oversold and puts a big Smiley Face on the notion that going to college is good for just about everyone -- individually and as a country. The effort is not persuasive.
Another report out this week is the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation's 116-page account of how far the U.S. must go to meet the Foundation's goal of "increasing the proportion of American adults with a college degree to 60 percent by 2025." There's been a lot of goal-setting of this kind lately. President Obama, the Carnegie Corporation, and the College Board have all set their own goals for higher education attainment in the next decade or so. The rationale is that we want America to be the most-educated nation in the world (right now we're eleventh or twelfth). But being the most-educated nation isn't likely to make us the best-educated nation. Here's why. (See especially "American Character, the Remix: How College is Shaping Us Now")
This week the Chronicle of Higher Education reports a new study by the College Board that offers evidence that the more educated you are, the more money you're likely to earn over a lifetime. Quoted in the article are Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and Charles Miller, former chairman of the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education, who both raise some tough questions about the report's findings. Peter Wood also answered the hypothesis that a college degree is still the best investment in his recent article "The Bubble: Higher Education's Precarious Hold on Consumer Confidence."
Higher education could be the next bubble to burst, many commentators have observed. It has all the symptoms of the housing bubble, and once enough people realize they are paying too much for too little, they'll go elsewhere, and the giant college industry will collapse. But some say this won't happen. In a new article, "The Bubble: Higher Education's Precarious Hold on Consumer Confidence," Peter Wood responds to four arguments defending the status quo. Here's a condensed version of his arguments: 1. The High Prices Are Warranted Response: The add-ons are the product of a system that has grown estranged from its basic mission of educating students. 2. A College Degree is Still the Best Investment Response: All it would take for higher education’s bubble to pop would be a significant increase in the percent of students defecting to community colleges or online programs. 3. National Interest Requires We Maintain the System Response: There are more ways to educate people than the advocates of our current system realize. 4. This is a Temporary Situation; Higher Ed Will Adjust Response: Campuses have enormous sunk costs and debts. Changing their ways now will not wipe out those burdens. The biggest reason so many students still go to college is custom, Peter writes. "Can the power of custom, the desire for status, and the fear of ridicule keep the vast majority of Americans on the treadmill, paying lofty sums for an education that typically is more fantasy than fact?" Perhaps for now, but the tipping point is coming.
Your op-ed relating to credential inflation is on point. Beyond college credential inflation there is another "credential" inflation virus that has infected the US. It is the license or certification credential. No longer are 10 to 20 years in a field enough for an individual's worth or contribution. Individuals are now required to be certified or have credentials. Certifications that go beyond passing the bar, CPA, MD etc. Certifications such as black belt 6 sigma, AIPCS, PPM, CFA, CIA, CMA, etc..... Credentials that mean nothing more than the holder of the credential passed an exam. Again business assigning magic powers to an individual with credentials versus real world experience. It has created an entire industry on certification test prep, test taking etc.... while contributing nothing to the work environment. Even worse, relating to credential inflation, I have seen job ads, especially government job ad, that require a certain amount of real world experience, yet they also require college transcripts/grades regardless of whether the individual has been out of college for a period that makes transcripts/grades irrelevant. P.S. My background is 15+ years in finance, operations and project management, in manufacturing, hi-tech, telecom and cpg industries, complimented by an MBA/JD.
Writing for Huffington Post, Anya Kamenetz compares the huge level of student loan debt to the housing bubble. I'm glad to see understanding that we have oversold college spreading, but Kamenetz misses the role of the government in the college bubble, just as leftist writers turned a blind eye to the role of the government in the housing bubble. There would have been no housing bubble if it hadn't been for federal policy pushing home-ownership as if it were a good investment for everyone and making unrealistically cheap loans available. Similarly, government officials, starting with Barack Obama, keep telling young Americans that they need to go to college (otherwise, they're letting not just themselves but the nation down, says BHO) and enabling even the most academically weak, disengaged students to get into college with financial assistance from Uncle Sam. Kamenetz makes it sound as though the bad actors are all in the for-profit sector: "Someone with experience in the for-profit college marketing business told me that the same online sales geniuses who used to work for mortgage brokers are now employed by for-profit colleges. Their business is the same: fill out the forms, get the money, consequences be damned. Will we stop them this time?" Ah, but you'll find lots of kids drowning in their student loan debts who went to public colleges and universities as well. Those schools are just as eager to lure in warm bodies to fill the dorms and school coffers, just as eager to keep them enrolled even if they are learning little, and just as eager to slap educational credentials on them and send them into a job world that many will find as hospitable as Antarctica. The trouble is not the profit motive; non-profit institutions are no less hungry for revenue than proprietary ones. The trouble is that government policy makes it easy for people to misjudge the ratio between costs and benefits, leading to a profusion of decisions that borrowers later regret. Letting students escape from their debts in bankruptcy, which Kamenetz favors, only deals with the symptoms. I say we should attack the underlying pathology.
Today's Pope Center piece is the second part of my critique of the recent paper from the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce. It focuses on the prevalent notion that much of the labor force in the future will demand workers with "higher skills" and that going to college is the only way for someone to acquire such skills. It's almost amazing that the authors of the paper never pause to consider the impact of credential inflation when they write about the increasing numbers of jobs that "require" a college education. Nor do they ever tell us exactly what knowledge an intelligent high school graduate is lacking that would make it impossible for him to learn and perform most of the jobs that are available.
This piece in The Chronicle reveals what many higher ed critics of known for years -- getting a college degree is no guarantee of prosperity. In fact, many Americans with degrees live in poverty. Those who keep saying that the nation will get a huge productivity boost by putting more people through college ought to consider the possibility that we've already oversold higher ed. The glut of people with degrees who can't find jobs that pay even moderately well is good evidence that we have. Conversely, I wish I didn't have to wait days to get someone to work on my malfunctioning air conditioning here in hot and humid North Carolina.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting opinion piece by Seth Godin called "The Coming Meltdown in Higher Education (as Seen by a Marketer)" [subscription required]. Godin suggests alternatives to the four-year college, such as "gap years, research internships, and entrepreneurial or social ventures after high school," and believes that "There are tons of ways to get a cheap liberal education, one that exposes you to the world, permits you to have significant interactions with people who matter, and teaches you to make a difference (see DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, by Anya Kamenetz)" without going to a mainstream college. Godin argues that from a marketer's point of view, the typical American college is headed for obscurity for these reasons:
Over on Phi Beta Cons, Fred Schwartz ("20 Reasons Why Campus Learning Is Better Than Online") cites my predictions about a “Great Transition” in which higher education will move from in-person campus-based institutions to mostly online instruction in the coming decades. He dislikes the prospect and disagrees with how likely it is. I don’t especially like the prospect either, but that’s neither here nor there. The important question is whether something like the “Great Transition” could happen. My answer is yes, it could. That’s because, though our current institutional basis of higher education looks robust, it is highly vulnerable to small shifts in public esteem. My article, The Shape of (Academic) Things to Come, wore its satirical colors openly. I described people, places, and events twenty years into the future and attributed my detailed foresight to scientifically-enhanced precognition. It says something about the level of fear that online education strikes in today’s academics that a fair number wrote to me to protest this leap of imagination, as if, like Prospero, I could conjure it out of thin air. Don’t blame me. If something like the Great Transition were to happen, it won’t be because I set it in motion. Nor do I think that my fellow seer, Jane Shaw, can be blamed. Fred Schwartz provides 20 reasons why campus learning is (or “can be”) better than online college education. Most of his reasons sound right to me. He starts out, “Not every subject lends itself to online learning.” Entirely true, at least with current technology. Looking at the last twenty years, I wouldn’t exactly rule out the possibility of dramatic improvements in the years ahead, but the more important point is that the subjects Fred cites as better learnt in person—“those that require laboratory work, clinical practice, studio learning, musical instruction, live performance, agricultural work, etc.”— do not require a university. Historically, each of them was taught in a non-university setting. Music conservatories and independent art schools still thrive. Science grew up outside the university and has a vigorous life in independent institutes to this day. Moreover, the decoupling of undergraduate education from more advanced studies already has models such as the Rockefeller University. I won’t go through all twenty of Fred’s reasons, but most of them fall into this pattern. He makes a valid point about the attraction of or benefit to be had from residential colleges, but the point has no real bearing on the larger economic and social forces at work. Yes, it is nice to retire to a college town (point 3), but are we going to keep colleges going in order to provide enhanced retirement options? It seems unlikely. At the end of his post Fred allows that “most of these problems are surmountable,” but sees no positive reason why American society would want to surmount them. In his view, “the college campus is not an expensive anachronism.” I wish that were true, and, even if it isn’t, I wish Americans would continue to believe it true. But as my article suggested, it is a fragile hope. For some fifty years, Americans have had drilled into them that higher education is mainly about getting the credentials to get a well-paying job. If a technology comes along that offers much the same thing at a fraction of the cost, many people will choose that option (there’s “our friend the free market” for you). Online education is that technology, and it is late in the game for higher education to turn around and say, “Residential education is worth a premium price because college, after all, is really about the intangible aspects of shared culture, access to civilization, moral elevation, personal associations, and the richness of life.” I think such claims happen to be true, but I don’t expect them to outweigh career ambition for the great majority of students or their parents. To the contrary, the American public has drunk in the utilitarian calculus that college is a launching pad for lucrative careers. And that public has also grown canny about the undergraduate degree becoming a merely intermediary step on the path to the credentials that really count. To this we have to add the widespread recognition that in-person higher education is an enormously expensive and vainglorious enterprise that frequently produces meager results. This adds up to vulnerability. Fred believes the risk is an illusion. He cites (point #10) earlier claims that “printing, the telephone, sound recording, radio, movies, television, and various generations of computers,” would “revolutionize education and make all our schools and universities obsolete!” That’s a pretty misleading “and.” Most would say that printing, at least, did revolutionize higher education. The other technologies on the list have had considerable consequences for higher education too. It might be useful to think of online education as the synthesis of all of them, perhaps as the gasoline-powered automobile combined and synthesized a host of technologies that had already been invented, and spurred the invention of still more. We can visit Lancaster, Pennsylvania for reassurance that automotive technology did not render horse-powered agriculture and transportation “obsolete,” but the equine economy isn’t what it once was. I repeat, I am not eager for the rise of an online dominated form of higher education. The cultural losses would include some that matter to me profoundly. But I have yet to see a solid argument why the Great Transition won’t happen. “I’d regret it” isn’t an argument.