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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Change in college - this is what we need to do and think about

Just wanted to review what we hope to accomplish in changing the way we think about college. Here are our goals:

 Encourage more high school graduates to consider alternatives to college.

 Get more college students to study majors that will serve them well in increasing their ability to move out of their parents house.

 Make the economic return of college degrees more transparent and more available to students.

 Make the US more competitive via a workforce better prepared to meet the demands of the job market.

 Discourage students from going deep into debt to obtain degrees with little or no hope of financial returns. In fact, going deep into debt for any reason is almost always a bad idea!

 Get more people to question the assumption that the more one spends on college the more successful one will be.

 Reduce the cost of college – this does not mean providing more college subsidies. It means putting more economic pressure on colleges and universities to manage their costs much more aggressively.

 Hold colleges and universities to the same financial standards, expectations, and measurements that the rest of our economy has to deal with. In short, they need to provide a better (and more relevant) education at a lower cost.

 Help students who do need to borrow money for college, to do so wisely.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A certification in Electron Microscopes

Here is a two year certification program in Electron Microscopes at San Joaquin Delta Junior College in Stockton, California.

So, what is an electron microscope? An electron microscope is a special type of microscope used to look at things regular light microscopes cannot. Light has certain wavelengths it travels at... BIG wavelengths. This means you can only see things that are as big as the wavelength of the light. Light microscopes are only able to magnify things around 2,000 times but the wavelength of an electron is much, much smaller. This means you can see extremely small things with an electron microscope can magnify an object several million times.

In this program you learn:
1) Use of the Equipment
2) Sample preparation
3) Practical theory of the Electron Microscope

One can get a certificate specialized in Biological, Materials or both.
And most importantly the job market for trained microscopists is very good and very well paying.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The case for studying almost anything in college – NOT!

This opinion piece (by a fourth-year architect at Cornell) tries to make the argument that one should study something that you love rather than something practical in college. All things being equal, I would agree that it is an advantage to be studying something one loves, but if there is zero demand for what you love then you need to be one hell of an entrepreneur to create a demand. Or you better learn something practical. Or how about this for an idea: study something practical while you are studying Comparative Literature. Add a double major in Mechanical Engineering to your degree in Medieval History to do your part in reviving our economy while ensuring your own independent future.

The study of English may teach critical thinking and probably does teach one to better express oneself. Yet that is not sufficient. How about also learning advanced engineering mathematics, electrical engineering, biomechanical science, supply and demand theory, logic and statistical analysis in college? There is little evidence that many Liberal Arts majors are spending much time on these more practical studies in their 4-6 years of college today. The argument is, of course, if one is interested in Liberal Arts, then one may not be interested in the more practical fields. That is fair, and probably accurate. But this won’t address the fact that an overwhelming number of our college graduates are woefully unequipped to enter the job market of the 21st century.

If you were lost on a winter backpacking trip, would you rather have learned the basics of starting a fire or be able to debate if Chaucer should be credited as the first author to demonstrate the artistic legitimacy of the vernacular Middle English? I am all for broad learning but if you have to pick only one, you should think long and hard about learning the practical subject first.

Critical thinking is already a competitive advantage for America. On average, we ask “why,” question assumptions, recheck data and test obvious answers more than they do in China.

But these days, it takes so much more. We need to be able to produce products and services competitively in order to sustain our way of life. That means a work force with more engineers, scientists, welders, technicians, inventors, entrepreneurs. And an economy that is geared more to selling goods and services outside our borders than borrowing from the Chinese to make ourselves a bit more comfortable at home.

After World War II, America had over half of the World’s manufacturing capacity. Much of the world was in disarray and much of the world was under the control of wealth-destroying communist tyrannies. It was a much easier time for America to compete. The United States lost far fewer lives and property than most of the developed world and was left standing king of the hill. If you had a college degree, any college degree, you were golden because only about 6% of those older than 25 had college degrees at that time.

By 2005, the percentage of those in the US who graduated from college reached an all-time high of 27.7%.

Today we have an innovative society (partly due to our culture and willingness to try new things and challenge the status quo). But we have gone from an exporting economy to a massive importing society. Our consumers have been willing to borrow to the hilt to buy goods built in China and study Leisure Studies, Dance, Ethnomusicology, and Philosophy at our expensive colleges.

Our economy is lost in the woods right now and up a cold creek. So let’s spend less time on Shakespeare for the time-being and encourage more college students to learn to start a fire that will light up our economy.

Monday, November 8, 2010

How do we measure what colleges are producing?

One of the main criteria that is being used these days (because it is one of the few statistics we have about the cost-effectiveness of college) is the default rate on student loans. This is a start but it is leading liberals to the wrong conclusion that we need more government intervention. And as a Libertarian I think we need far less government involvement in college.

If we require more transparency about how each college’s specific programs are producing independent and tax-paying citizens, the market will tend to adjust appropriately.

College loan defaults are a function of a number of factors. But first and foremost they are a result of a system that makes costs reasonably transparent but the young consumer indifferent to those costs because he won’t be paying the bill for several years to come. The student has been taught to accept the conventional wisdom that this debt is a great “investment”. And the student has been conditioned to believe that one college major is as valuable as another.

But default rates are also a function of the lack of transparency on what the education produces for the money spent. What is the common test measure that demonstrates the learning achieved? There is none.

Are graduates making the US more competitive, making employers more willing to start a new business in the US rather than in China or India, and creating well-paying jobs and secondary jobs? For example a drug research center is driven by the availability of top scientists. But for each of the scientist jobs, there are many other support jobs from secretaries to janitors that keep the place humming. One “primary” job can support one or more other secondary jobs, all strengthening our economy.

As we look at college loan default rates I think we will find three primary factors that correlate with default rates:

First, is the income level of the college student’s family. Poor students default at higher rates than wealthier students. This is probably the result of less willingness and ability of the family to help with the cost of the college to begin with and probably the result of poor students borrowing a higher percentage of their college costs than wealthier students.

The second factor is how much students borrow. A student that borrows $1,000 over a four year degree has got to be a lower default risk than one that borrows $100,000. Liberals will then suggest that we need to subsidize these poor students more and Libertarians like me will fight hard to stop this ineffective (and usually counterproductive) market intervention.

The third and most important factor is what the student studies at college. Is there a demand for what the student invests his education in? Recent graduates in Chemical Engineering, Petroleum Engineering and Mechanical Engineering are finding well-paying jobs. The same cannot be said for Recreation Management, English and Sociology majors. So we need a much broader discussion on what students are studying. Not all college education is created equal and it matters if there is customer that wants to pay one for that education once you have invested in it.

The “for-profit” colleges are not the only culprits

This is the story in the Sacramento area of the unintended consequences of the government intervention and subsidization of college. Our politicians decided that more college was the answer for our society. So they made it easier via government subsidized debt for every kid to achieve this “dream”. As if attending college is the goal in itself.

College degrees by themselves are useless; it is the competitive advantage that the educations bestow - the secondary impacts that may or may not make the difference.

Here is the answer. Let’s require all schools (both private and public) to publish the wages and unemployment rates of their graduates. This after all is the result we are seeking - higher wages for a lower investment in education. It is not hard to find out what a college education cost, but it is virtually impossible to see the end product of this “investment”.

The state and federal subsidies have totally distorted the post-high school education market. Most kids don’t care about debt - especially when they are told by “adults” that it is a good deal. You have kids taking out big loans to major in “Office Skills”. $20,000 later they are in deep doodoo.

The “for-profit” colleges are not the only culprits here. Physical Education majors at Duke are not earning much of a return on their education either.

The answer is simple. Require colleges to collect and report the starting salaries for the first five years after graduation. And let’s remove all subsidies from after high school education. Don’t subsidize college loans; don’t subsidize public colleges. Most importantly let’s require the colleges to report with enough granularity down to what students are earning based on what they majored in.

A four-year degree in “Ehtnomusicology” is not a better investment than a one year certificate program in “Medical Assistant” studies. There are far too many ways to waste one’s youth and one’s future financial freedom by studying a subject that has absolutely no customers.

Monday, November 1, 2010

College debt should be paid off at the age of fifty-three

“In the four years it took to earn a business degree at Boston University, Tyson Hunter of Seattle ran up a debt of $152,000 in student loans. After graduation, he was hired by a market research company at a salary of $40,000 a year, well above what the average graduate makes right out of college. But his loan payments of $1,000 a month make up a third of his take-home pay. When he finally pays off his student loans, he will be fifty-three years old and will have paid $300,000 in principal and interest. To save money on rent, he has moved into his mother’s condo.” "The Five-Year Party" by Craig Brandon