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Saturday, April 23, 2011

A give and take about the value of college.

Here is a lively give and take on the benefits, cost and value of college today. I received this link from a Facebook friend in Minnesota. He graduated from Harvard in the Liberal Arts, went on to become an MD and sees far more value in today’s college study of the humanities that I do. But he knows that I am an advocate of change to our college system and we debate and discuss the subject regularly.

This Minnesota Public Radio blog includes opinions on both sides of the ledger but I will summarize the major arguments for the “College for everyone at any cost and any major” mainstream:

College increases critical thinking skills. A regular assumption of the college advocates is that college is the best way to increase our citizens’ critical thinking skills. And yet a recent study casts doubts on how much improvement in critical thinking skills actually occurs in college today.

We would expect the curious, the intelligent, the well-read, the personable on average to do better financially than those with fewer of these qualities. One post stated: “The opening of one's mind to new ideas and experiences certainly is less likely to happen if one doesn't choose to further one's education.” Absolutely, but there are plenty of ways to further one's education at a lower cost (frequently for free) than spending $50,000 a year attending college.

The prevailing thought is that if one does not attend college, and instead, works, travels, joins the military or starts a business that they are forever scarred intellectually. And the data rarely studies high school grads with equal SAT scores and IQs versus comparable individuals that take other paths.

One post went as far as to state: “A well-educated, well-informed populace is the best insurance against falling into tyranny. “ Is that so? Obviously we are not advocating an illiterate citizenry, but where is the evidence to support the view that a few more grads in Ethnomusicology are saving the world from tyranny?

College is a good investment at almost any cost. A blogger said: “For at least the last 25 years we've been told that a 4 year college education is worth nearly any cost.” The societal thinking is that a college educated workforce (even if they spend $200k over six years and studied Gender Studies or English) will make America more competitive. But I have yet to see any studies that show that recent 26 year old graduates in History consistently earning more than their high school buddies that got a technical certificate in welding. Likewise, I have seen no studies or empirical evidence that 40 year old Medieval German majors have created more jobs for other Americans than their neighbors who are entrepreneurs in the trades.

And we know one thing for sure: the cost curve for college has gone up much faster than inflation for decades. And we see increasing levels of college debt (greater than credit card debt) as well as more government debt, increasing college loan default rates and higher unemployment rates for recent grads. Much of this inflation is due to the fact that since more high school grads than ever are going to college this increase in demand, absent other mitigating factor, tends to push up prices (Econ 101). And since more of the cost of college is subsidized (via programs like government college loans) this reduces the push back on costs because the 18 year old college student perceives a lower cost than the total real cost and the student will not have to pay the piper for several years to come.

My prior blog pointed to a study entitled: “Going to an Elite College Won't Get You More Money; Being Good Enough to Get Accepted at One Will.” Yet most still believe that spending for an elite and usually more expensive college education is a great investment (by the student, his family and the taxpayer).

As one blogger put it: “Ah, if only I knew then what I know now... there is no way I would pay as much as I did for three degrees again. I would work my way through school even if it took me ten years. I would experiment with actual jobs (intern, volunteer, etc.) before starting in on a degree path.”

Another post noted: “It doesn't seem worth it when you realize you're not able to afford a house because of your monthly student loan payments.”

It does not matter what one majors in - any degree will do. And this is where some point to the old data that shows college grads on average earn $1 million more over their lifetimes than non-college grads. But the data never delineates how Petroleum Engineers did over their lifetimes versus Greek Mythology majors. As my Minnesota friend exemplifies, some of those Liberal Arts majors went on to Medical or Law School and did very well. But how do you think those average Joes that went to the State U, took six years to graduate in Journalism, and are now $80,000 in debt are faring in today’s economy? You might find a few examples that are thriving but my observations indicate this is rare.

One post asked: “Is college a trade school offering just a ROI? It didn't used to be. We used to want 'liberal arts' education to learn how to question, think, and become a responsible citizen.” Well that is never what I wanted for those that I am footing the bill (via my tax dollars or parental support). It is not that I don’t want educated, thinking and responsible voters; it is my doubt that our current college system is the best way to achieve this goal or that it now actually achieves this goal very often if at all.

It is important to do what you love - money is not everything. One post opined: “It depends on how one measures ‘worth the cost.’ I reject the premise that the sole criterion is whether it's a good financial investment. How much is wisdom worth on the free market?”

The “college for everyone” advocates start by bragging about the higher earnings for college grads and when this argument fails they fall back to “money doesn’t matter”. But earning enough to live independently has got to improve one’s sense of well-being and accomplishment. If one is starving then you had better really love the field you are in. More importantly, I have seen no studies (and I am always looking) or empirical evidence that recent English grads that are still unemployed or back working at an entry level position at Home Depot have greater life satisfaction than journeyman diesel mechanics.

It is time to question our assumptions about college. One post stated : “It seemed like everyone in my class was expected to go to college. If they did not pursue it they were looked at as people who would be unsuccessful in life.” is exactly the norm that we are questioning. Most of the discussion about college is anecdotal (both pro and con), from “it was a waste of time” to “I became so enlightened that it allowed me to enjoy the spirituality of my minimum wage job”. The debate is essential because if we continue the trend of primarily producing college grads that are deeply in debt and have no in-demand job skills then it will challenge America’s way of life and prosperity.

If critical thinking is the end result of non-practical post-secondary education, how do we know how much critical thinking we are getting for the dollar spent? It is hard for me to conceive of a critical thinker today that does not understand basic statistics and the inferences one can draw from different size samples. And it is hard to envisage a critical thinker that can not differentiate between the concept of correlation and causation. And I know few critical thinkers that do not understand the basics of college logic classes. And yet, I see little evidence that these skills are being learned broadly in college today, let alone at an affordable cost.

Is college the only way to expand one’s intellect? Obviously not. It may be great fun, and may expand one’s horizons in unique ways but in this era of instant information available on the internet, the Khan Academy and their free online schooling, Wikipedia, the many books available free via GoogleBooks, inexpensive computer-assisted learning materials (like Rosetta Stone for learning a foreign language), is the college model the best way to economically learn today?

This post summarizes much of our thinking about college: “Over the last 15 years, tuition costs have grown without added value or other valid justification. And only now are people asking the question. It's too late for a generation of students, but hopefully 11th grade math and economics classes will put this question front and center in their curriculum. Selling the blind faith that it's always worth it is a disservice to students everywhere.”

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