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Monday, January 31, 2011

Campus visit or Major visit?

We think that most high school students and their families usually get the sequence backwards. First they select a college and then they select a major. But selecting a college first assumes that which college you attend is the most important factor. Many an advisor declares that the college major is one of the most important choices made by the student. They are wrong; your major is the most important decision.

If one’s goal is to gain financial independence via a college education (granted this is not the mission of every 18 year old), then what one studies makes all the difference. Today’s graduates in Petroleum Engineering are getting multiple job offers at high starting salaries. On the other hand those that are graduating with degrees in Theatre, Medieval German and Gender Studies rarely find any job offers at all.

If you want to pursue a degree in Petroleum Engineering there are fewer colleges to choose from (see On the other hand it is hard to find a college that does not have a Business degree (the most common of degrees in America today).

How does one conduct a Major visit? How does one check out different majors and the opportunities in these majors to determine if a major is a good fit for your skills and interests?

Unfortunately most high school guidance counselors can’t help much; most of them can’t tell you how the opportunities vary between a chemical engineer and a petroleum engineer.

You might actually need to visit a campus or two. But not to check out the resort like setting but to speak to the professors in the field you are interested in. Talk to some of the students in your major, and perhaps sit in on a class. Then meet with the Student Placement office and see what you can learn about who is hiring the graduates and if you can get the contact details so you can talk to the folks with the jobs directly. This action is valuable on a number of dimensions because some of these same campus reps might have ideas for you about scholarships and internships once you arrive at college.

One clue about the right major is investigating how those majors are faring in getting internships during their summers. If the internships are primarily with no pay that is a sign of a poor demand for grads in that area. If the internships are primarily for pay, then it is a sign that employers are recruiting college grads in a field where recent grads are in high demand.

Keep in mind that the most common major for college freshmen is Undecided. If you are unsure, why not attend your community college for a year or two or work for a year while you try to narrow down your career direction?

And a majority of college students change their majors during college. But there are changes and there are changes. Going from Computer Science to Math in your freshman year is a minor deviation. Switching from Mechanical Engineering to Civil Engineering in one’s sophomore year is also not a big deal. But if you decide in your senior year that instead of wanting to be an elementary teacher you want to change to pre-med, you just added a couple of years duration to your college experience (even before you start medical school). And if you have studied at a typical private Liberal Arts college they might not even have the science curriculum that you need to get ready for Med School.

There are a number of online career assessment tools at Quintessential Careers. But keep in mind that these assessments tend to focus on what you might be good at. They rarely reflect whether there are in fact many jobs in the field. You might be an outstanding musician but are you really good enough to earn a living as one?

So think major first and college second when planning out your college path.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

When it comes to education we get what we measure

One of the goals I consistently hear is that we need to increase the number of college graduates produced by the United States. The most agressive of these is that the goal should be that 100% of Americans ought to be college graduates.

Today the US has more college grads (as a percentage of those over 25) than ever before - roughly 27%. In 1940, this number was about 5%. Oddly enough, as the percentage has gone up, the US has fallen from the World’s most competitive and powerful economy to one that is struggling.

As we continuously set and measure the wrong goals (for example, the percentage of high school students who go on to college), we also become more efficient at producing the wrong results. We have succesfully achieved higher college graduation numbers, but we've ineffectively instilled the knowledge and learning needed to make America more competitive.

Likewise, if we simply track the high school dropout rate, and the only goal is to reduce the number of high school dropouts, a likely unintended consequence is that schools simply dumb down the curriculum enough to allow more to graduate from high school and then declare victory. Today , nearly one third of US high school students either drop out or fail to finish high school in four years. Clearly it is far more expensive to educate kids who don’t want to learn than to educate those that do.

Testing based on the "No Child Left Behind" act is designed to reward high performing schools and penalize poor schools - but the entire emphasis has been on English and Math. English and Math are extremely important, but equally important - yet ignored and not measured - are science test scores. Since we have not acknowleged the importance of measuring science results, we have consequently invested inadequately (resources and time) in the subject. One or two US students of every 100 scored well enough to be considered advanced in science according to a recent report by the National Assessment of Education Progress in Science. This portends a bleak future for America’s ability to stay competitive in the world technology markets.

“Highlights of national (math and science test results) show that 34 percent of fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders, and 21 percent of twelfth-graders performed at or above the Proficient level, demonstrating competency over challenging subject matter.” The longer our students stay in our public school system, the farther behind they fall in science.

In President Obama’s last state of the union address, he called for a “Sputnik movement” fed by investments in research and education. Who among our growing universe of Americans who have never passed a science or math test will conduct this research? We didn’t send a man to the moon on the backs of college graduates in Sociology and Gender Studies.

There is much talk about rewarding the top teachers and dropping the rest. This sounds like a good start. But absent a system for measuring the factors that will make America competitive, we risk simply getting more efficient at teaching the wrong subjects. And of course, if our public employee unions insist on pay for seniority rather than pay for results, and if we fail to challenge and change that position, it may not make much of a difference what we measure.

Perhaps we need a radically different education system, one run by private enterprise and non-profits but requiring transparency in standardized test score results (including Science) for all to see and compare. Among competing private schools, some might rely on different combinations of online education, computer-assisted learning, frequent testing, and grandmotherly encouragement. And the government’s role in education would be restricted to providing financial support via vouchers and formulating and auditing a uniform testing system that measures learning results for English, Math and Science. Then the government would leave the management and execution of education to the private sector. We would see much more learning taking place at a far lower price.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The longer our students stay in our public system the poorer they do in science.

Just one or two US students out of every 100 scored well enough to be considered advanced in science according to a recent report by the National Assessment of Education Progress in Science. This gives a bleak forecast for America’s ability to stay competitive in the world technology markets.

“Highlights of the national results show that 34 percent of fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders, and 21 percent of twelfth-graders performed at or above the Proficient level, demonstrating competency over challenging subject matter.” The longer our students stay in our public system the poorer they do in science.

And of course the study points to the shortage of science and math teachers. There are no shortage of History teachers. This is not to diminish the role of History teachers but when we pay them as much as science and math teachers, the few science, math and engineering grads we have graduating from college these days will generally accept much better paying jobs outside of teaching. And even if they want to be a teacher, the school districts, with their teacher unions won’t hire a recent science teacher when they are laying off an experienced History teacher. With union seniority rules, the school districts will instead ask the History teacher to do their best at teaching Chemistry. What a mess.

Is it any wonder that only about 2.5% of college graduates today are US students in Engineering?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

You don’t have a job. Why don’t you just work at McDonalds?

Mike Palascak on the Letterman Show: “I live at home with my parents. Yeh - it’s temporary, probably. A lot of people my age they feel bad living at home or they feel bad asking their parents for money. I don’t.” “My mom was really worried I wouldn’t get a job after college. Michael, you don’t have a job. Why don’t you just work at McDonalds? Because I don’t want to lose my eligibility for the Monopoly game. ”

Monday, January 10, 2011

First things first

Too many high school students get it backwards when it comes to selecting a college. First they select a college and then (sometimes years later) they select a major.

This is bass ackwards.

What if you select Western Governors University and then decide to major in Chemical Engineering? It is a great school and very cost-effective but guess what? They don’t have any engineering programs. It is a great school if you want to teach.

What if you start at Colgate University (a prestigious Liberal Arts college) and then determine that studying Mechanical Engineering would be a good fit for your skills. But Colgate has no such major.

Granted, not every 17-18 year high school student knows what career they will pursue. So if the student is unsure of what to study, wouldn’t it make more sense for him to attend either a community college to finish the general curriculum classes or to attend a college or university that has a very broad range of course offerings? Or better yet, how about taking a year off and working while you find the right educational fit.

The only reason one should pick a college first is if you are simply filling time or believe the fallacy that any college degree is as valuable as any other college degree.

For many Law School is a losing proposition

This is an excellent article in the NY times yesterday about the payback for Law School. The tragedy is not just that so many of these students are investing so much in a field that is such a long shot but for many of these students they are doubling up on a poor undergraduate college investment where they studied subjects like Art History, Sociology, or Psychology.

It is not uncommon for a recent college graduate in Medieval German with no options for related work to fall back on attending graduate school, where she can postpone the immediate obligation to pay off the prior college debt. So on top of $50,000 of undergrad debt, the recent grad keeps digging a little deeper into debt and three years later owes another $150,000 for Law School loans. Now she has an undergraduate Law Degree to completment her Gender Studies degree and absolutely no ability to pay off the loans.

We really do need some truth in advertising on this subject.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The fastest growing university in America

What is the fastest growing university in the US? Probably one that you have never heard of: Western Governors University (WGU). They have about 23,000 full time students, up from 14,000 in June, 2009.

It is a non-profit, accredited, strictly online institution that is providing far better value in college education than the college establishment. They use technology to reduce college costs, while most colleges and universities have typically used technology as an excuse to increase costs and tuition.

You won’t find interesting (but impractical) majors where graduates rarely get a related job (like Sociology, Ethnomusicology, Modern Dance, Psychology). WGU sticks to their knitting with a few areas of study (Education, Business, Health Care and IT) which allows graduates to find jobs.

The cost is only $5,800 per 12 month period; for that a student can take as many classes as she can handle and finish. Once one completes the work and passes the exams, he can move on to the next course. On average, students complete their degrees in just 30 months at a total cost of less than $15,000 for a four-year degree.

The average student age is 36 and most of them have families and a full time job. It clearly takes more discipline to complete this kind of a program and so they have fewer students right out of high school.

Each student meets (online) with a mentor at least every other week, to confer about the course work, and also discuss how the material applies to the real world. Even the exams are taken from home via a clever online testing methodology.

WGU mentors don't get tenure that guarantees them a job, nor are they encouraged to publish academic papers or conduct research. And lo and behold they don’t have unaffordable public pensions and benefits packages that are out of line with the private sector. But the faculty by and large can work from their homes as well.

One Teacher’s College Graduate said: “I would have never been able to attend a university and follow my dreams if it wasn’t for WGU. I work full time and have three kids; online schooling was my only option if I wanted to stay involved in my childrens' lives.”

This is the kind of revolution we need from our college and university system. We need to drastically reduce the cost (not just slow down increases) and we need to remove subsidies for the study of fun, esoteric but impractical subjects like Greek, Art History, Gender Studies, and Recreation Management. My congratulations go to WGU.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

With the best of intentions South Korea has educated itself into a corner

A fascinating blog by Mark Harris.

"On 60 Minutes a few weekends ago, it was mentioned that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would like 80% of American youth to attend and graduate from college. It is a nice thought in many ways. As a teacher and professor, intellectually I am all for it (if the university experience is a serious one, which these days, I don’t know).

But students’ expectations in attending college are not just intellectual; they are careerist (probably far more so). As it happens, I am now living and teaching in a country, South Korea, that meets the Gates’ standards. Right now, about 75-80% of Korean high school students enter a university. The 20% of Korean youth who do not attend university are mainly poor rural youth. Given the Koreans’ diligence, it is not surprising that the vast majority of university attendees also graduate, many with majors in scientific and engineering disciplines (“soft” degrees like marketing are not as popular here). This is a dedicated country.

But you know what? They can’t find jobs. It was reported in the Korean media a few weeks ago that according to the latest government figures, only half of recent Korean university graduates have found full-time work. Even the country’s best university, Seoul National, only has a 70% placement rate.

Now, Korea is experiencing an economic downturn, but not as bad as America’s. This employment issue has more to do with levels of training and subsequent levels of expectation. When a Korean student emerges from 20 years of intense study with a university degree, he or she reasonably expects a “good” job — which is to say, a well-paying professional or managerial job with good forward prospects. But here’s the problem. There does not exist, nor will there ever exist, a society in which 80% of the available jobs are professional, managerial, comfortable, and well-paid. No way. Korea has a number of other jobs, but some are low-paid service work, and many others — in factories, farming, fishing — are scorned as 3-D jobs (difficult, dirty, and dangerous). Educated Koreans don’t want them. So the country is importing labor in droves — from China, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, even Uzbekistan. In the countryside, rural Korean men are having such a difficult time finding prospective wives to share their agricultural lifestyle that fully 40% of rural marriages are to poor women from those other Asian countries, who are brought in by match-makers and marriage brokers.

Since young Koreans almost invariably live at home until marriage, whether they are working or not, it is routine for the young unemployed to do so. Their parents, who have a lot invested in their children’s successful outcomes, discourage them from taking low-level, part-time, or contract work, even just to get a start in life. As is usually the case, the only way they can see of improving their lot is not by lowering their expectations, but by improving their qualifications: by scoring well on English tests, getting additional certificates, and so on. But everyone else is doing this, too, so the competitive field remains the same. What will happen to these youths? The more years they don’t work, the less chance there is that they ever will. They become tainted, and possibly a permanently disenfranchised minority.

This country, in short, has, with the best of intentions, educated itself into a corner."

This blog raises several points. 1) We don't want everyone studying the same thing, even if it is a tough subject like electrical engineering. 2) The college subjects that pay off in one decade may be different than the next decade. 3) It is a weakness if one can not find a job related to one's major and is then not willing to bite the bullet and go find unrelated work. 4) Education is like other commodities and driven by supply and demand principles; if everyone majors in civil engineering we will likely end up with too many civil engineers and their pay will suffer. 5) An educated work force can create opportunities for laborers and immigrants. 6) The goal of 80% of American Youth graduating from college might be too high.

Why Did 17 Million Students Go to College?

Richard Vader in his excellent article "Why Did 17 Million Students Go to College?" in the Chronicle for Higher Education, he states that new information has "reinforced my feeling that diminishing returns have set in to investment in higher education, with increasing evidence suggesting that we are in one respect 'overinvesting' in the field."

"As more and more try to attend colleges, either college degrees will be watered down (something already happening I suspect) or drop-out rates will rise."

Richard's critics argue (with no supporting data) that history has always favored those with a college education. The "invest in college at any cost" advocates consistently confuse a causal relationship (i.e. college contributes to higher wages) versus the correlation of college and higher wages (i.e. smarter people go to college and intelligence is a predictor or success). The critics also hate the notion that college needs to pay for itself by relying on vocational education (i.e. education that leads to a good-paying job as opposed to education that merely enlightens).

One of the critical comments on the author's blog stated: "I imagine that at the CHE Vedder is seen as some kind of 'provocative in-house critic' or some such nonsense." "I honestly wonder why the Chronicle keeps Vedder around." So this is how some in the establishment react to any questioning of the "any college investment is a good investment" argument.

Another critic said "Since we know that education has no consequence other than individual financial profit, it's obvious that we don't want to administer it to those who won't profit from it. Waste of time, really. Surely there's a nice neat test that will let us weed out the weak sisters for life as gammas? Those parking lot attendants don't need to think (or vote, or make life choices)." But what evidence do we have that a $200,000 college education in Sociology really makes the grad a better voter or citizen? Please help me see the evidence of this enlightenment.

Another response said: "It should be apparent that college should be about more than vocational training for professional and higher paying jobs." Another said college "gives you tools and skills for a maximum appreciation of life in all its domains." Well this is not apparent to me in the slightest (although I grant that the college establishment disagrees with me on this one). The challenge with all of this added enlightenment is how do you measure progress on the enlightment curve? How well has the college grad improved his critical thinking skills and persepctives that will make him a better citizen? This enlightenment category is never measured, never proven and few outside the education establishment want to pay for someone else's daughter to obtain it.

In general, the college establishment wants to use the evidence of greater financial rewards for college grads when it supports them and use the enlightenment argument when the financial investment argument does not work. I come from a perspective that beleives that the investment in college needs to stand on its own. Let's remove all the subsidies for college that total somewhere between $7,000 to $10,000 per college student per year. If a family wants to pay for Johnny to get enlightened then let them pay for it. If Johnny wants to study a less fun but more in demand subject then let Johnny and his family pay for it and reap the beneifts as well.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

100 institutions are charging $50k per year or more

"The ranks of the most expensive colleges have grown again: 100 institutions are charging $50,000 or more for tuition, fees, room, and board in 2010-11, according to a Chronicle analysis of data released last week by the College Board."