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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bubbles in the Quad

Peter Thiel has been making a splash lately by calling higher education “the next bubble.” In a fairly recent Wall Street Journal article, he went as far as to say “Liberals [...] blame our education system, but liberals are the last ones to fix it, just wanting to throw money [at education] “University administrators are the equivalent of subprime mortgage brokers,” he says, “selling you a story that you should go into debt massively, that it’s not a consumption decision, it’s an investment decision. Actually, no, it’s a bad consumption decision. Most colleges are four-year parties.”

A recent study from professors at NYU and UVA may have corroborated this theory, “New research finds that 45 percent of undergraduate college students show no significant improvement in the areas of critical thinking and complex reasoning by the end of their sophomore year. … [Students] were tested using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized essay-based test that measures analytic and problem solving skills, reports the New York Times…. Inside Higher Ed explains some of the study’s results: 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college. 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college. Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest improvements.”

In my neuroscience course, a similar study was cited that suggested the attitudes of college students have changed dramatically too. In the 1970s, students had an overwhelming focus on “finding one’s place” in college. Now, we’re all apparently out to get jobs. The presidents of universities, though, have consistently wanted to promote critical thinking. It seems like everyone is losing out!

And it also seems like this cycle is continuing until further notice. Even the most vigorous autodidact would have trouble signaling their intelligence to a prospective employer over some kid who got a couple of good scores on some tests in a conventional, name-brand college. (Heck, I couldn’t get my first job a salon sweeping up hair since I wasn’t enrolled in beauty school!) Thiel has been trying to save a few nerdy souls from the fate of debt and hangovers, starting an initiative to give thousands of dollars to any budding entrepreneur under the age of twenty who dare drop out of their respective school.

While this might be helping a few elite entrepreneurs, I wonder when we’ll see the people who really don’t need to go to an expensive school (that goes for you, photography majors at NYU!) start to drop out and have their departments disintegrate. Cornell is on the vanguard, disposing of their education department at the end of the year. Expensive resources make a great university, but it can also render it totally ill-fitting if one’s career prospects would lead them to become a teacher at a high school. It just doesn’t make financial sense.

Yet in the past few decades, America has seen many attempts to legislate college “affordability” through various measures like increasing federal funding for student loans, or even preventing “bad choices” in the case of New York. This is a popular political stunt since it holds noble aspirations, though the strategies themselves are rarely effective. For instance, a crux of the Obama administration’s goals, as stated on the website of the Vice President’s Middle Class Taskforce, is “increasing loans and grants, [to ensure that] families will always be able to count on the help they expect.” Yet Econ 101 suggests, and empirical evidence corroborates, an increase in federal loans, Pell grants, and other assistance programs results in higher tuition over time. According to a study by Bridget Long of Harvard University, private four year colleges increased tuition prices by more than two dollars for every dollar increase in Pell Grants, and public colleges increased theirs by .97 for every dollar increase. From 1979 to the present day, college tuition has increased in price by roughly 160%, while the average median family income has increased by 10%. So, maybe our over-valuation of college has hurt us twofold.

It is my contention that the focus is too high on signaling that one can get into a school, rather than critically evaluating the content of the work produced. In the NYU/UVA study, “the results also showed that many students are not engaging in a challenging curriculum. Half of the students did not take a course requiring 20 pages of writing over a typical semester and 32 percent did not take a course that required at least 40 pages of reading per week.” What puzzles me more, though, are the people who know they will incur tremendous debt to go into low-paying industries for this sake. There is no shame in not going to college, especially if it is obvious that one does not want to pursue a conventional career that requires a certain degree. Heck, if it wasn’t so critical to signaling my intelligence when applying for jobs in journalism or finance, I doubt I would be enrolled. Alas, there are few ways to short this bubble and I certainly do not want to be the first one to try.

This article was originally posted on The Politicizer, a web magazine started by Kathleen McCaffrey and Conor Rogers.
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  1. the whole argument can be broken down into a simple statement. even a college education is subject to the economic laws of supply and demand.
    demand> supply= higher costs.
    supply> demand= lower cost.

  2. Forest & Trees...

    Two points from the article:

    "Actually, no, it’s a bad consumption decision. Most colleges are four-year parties"


    "Half of the students did not take a course requiring 20 pages of writing over a typical semester and 32 percent did not take a course that required at least 40 pages of reading per week.”

    College can hardly avoid being overvalued, if this is a fair indication of the 'values' being taught to the children before entering college - taught by 'parents' who have been taught by the Left to be little better than children themselves.

    (I recommend Diana West's "Death of the Grown-Up" for an in-depth and well-referenced explanation of this phenomenon)

    Once that's taken as read, there's really nothing left for a college to do but see to its own self-perpetuation and play to its audience, all the while, working on spinning its own image-of-worth. The easiest way to do THAT, of course, is to charge more - because everyone knows that anything THAT expensive has to be valuable.

    As far as the dichotomy between using college to either 'Find Yourself' or 'Get a Job' - as they say, It's The Economy, Stupid.

    Self-discovery is something to indulge in when you're NOT staring down the barrel of a future of unending payment for government debt and "constitutional-right" entitlements.

    These days, you'd better be focusing that attention on being able to own a cellar - and then stocking it.

    - MD

  3. At one time, having a college education was a lead-in into a specialized field (science, math, teaching, medical field, jurisprudence, et al). It was the goal of all those who had labored in back breaking work to see their children attend the university. But then the problem arises that when all young adults have a college education, that degree becomes as useless as only having an 8th grade education once was. You no longer are exceptional, you are simply one of millions who are equally qualified for a job as you are.

    I once had a friend who had attended Rice University tell me that his History major allowed him to do two things; teach or try to get a job as a plumber. He chose plumbing since it paid more, and his four years at Rice were wasted.

    Now, throw in other useless majors; Women's Studies, Journalism (simple English composition courses will do there), etc. and you can see that a degree just ain't what it used to be.

    I agree that most colleges are just four-year parties. Students rarely come out with a value based education, i.e. the education warranted the cost. Trade school is often a viable alternative (journeymen plumbers make more than most university professors with Ph.D.s) and the trades will never really not be needed and unless your children are going to enter a field (legal/medical) that requires the extended education, perhaps you should give second thought to spending the hundreds of thousands of $$ that it will cost you so little Johnny has a document to hang on the wall.

  4. Getting a college education to "signal" that one can get into a school rather than produce work that demonstrates skill is an interesting way to put it. Feeds into the broad resentment non-Ivy Leaguers have towards Ivy Leaguers. It's more about class than merit.

  5. @ Retire05, great point. I agree wholeheartedly.

    @ PasedenaPhil, More about class than merit? Would you care to explain?

  6. Because, if admission was about class, the signaling argument would disappear. So, you can't like my argument and still think it is about class.

  7. This is sooo true. You know why most people my age went to college??? (26) It is because our friends were going and it was a lot more fun than working at some stupid job where you don't make enough money to pay the bills and have any fun.

    Most of the stuff you could major in, you could learn better by just doing it and getting experience. I looked at college at just proving that I could endure 4 years of Bullsh*t, so therefore, I could probably endure working for whatever employer, who would put me through 40 years of Bullsh*t before I could retire.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  8. I don't recognize this "four-year party" description of college.

    But then I was an electrical engineering major.

  9. Kathleen: If it were about merit, which college you attended would not be such a big deal. Colleges today are rated not much differently than in the days when John Adams was complaining that Harvard graduates were rated based on family standing rather than on scholastic achievement. Is today so different? Why the political snobbery among both parties where only Harvard or Yale graduates are "qualified" or "smart enough" to run for president?

    If you get accepted at certain colleges, your grades don't matter.

  10. Why don't employers test directly for the knowledge, intelligence, and qualities they want?

    Sorry to say, it has long been settled that most tests by employers are supposedly unfair. The law prevents employers from testing for general ability, and even discourages testing for job-specific knowledge. If sued, an employer must show that every test requirment is directly required to do the intended job and does not discriminate (even unintentionally) against protected groups.

    If employers could compile and give their own tests, then prospective employees could qualify by acquiring knowledge in any way they wanted, including self-study. There would be much less need to pay a college for its stamp of approval, a degree.

    Formal degrees and prior experience are highly valued as a way to validate a person's knowledge without giving a specific test. Schools are specifically exempted from the rules about testing. They aren't trying to make a dreaded profit (supposedly), so they can discriminate as they wish as they choose who will attend.

    I hired programmers as part of managing a software group. The HR department told me that I could ask technical questions, but to never write them down in any "formal" way. They were worried that someone would claim I was giving a "test". Any test was illegal unless proven to be non-discriminatory in effect when applied to different races.

    James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal: [edited]

    === ===
    Most professional jobs require basic intellectual aptitude. Since the 1970s the Court has developed a body of law that prevents employers from directly screening for aptitude.

    In Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971) a black coal miner claimed discrimination because his employer required a high-school diploma and an intelligence test as prerequisites for promotion. The court ruled 8-0 in the miner's favor. "Good intent or absence of discriminatory intent does not redeem employment procedures or testing mechanisms that operate as 'built-in headwinds' for minority groups," Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote.

    This became known as the "disparate impact" test, and it applies only in employment law. Colleges and universities may use aptitude tests. Elite institutions lean heavily on exams such as the SAT in deciding whom to admit.

    For a prospective employee, a college degree is a very expensive way of showing that he has, in effect, passed an IQ test.
    === ===

    College is an Expensive IQ Test

  11. If what were about merit? Getting a job? Well, I happen to think that the people who go to good schools are, typically, also smart and competent, it's just a pity that it is absolutely necessary in this market to signal that through attending an established university - even when it means losing an arm and a leg. Most people have a genuine interest in their subject and I do not mean to say, in any way, that the university has no place or that everyone is dishonest. I'm very happy to be at the school I attend, I just think it's a shame that there is no other real option if I want to be employed.

    Also, universities today are evaluated on their research output and their rank is correlated with the difficulty to get in, combined with the average first salary out and the facilities and faculty they can afford. At every college I have been to, I have seen a diversity in socioeconomic status. If anything, it is veering away from "old boys."

    I'm entirely sure I really understand exactly what you mean, I'm sorry.

  12. Great article and comments!

    Andrew_M_Garland's point is excellent. As someone who has done hiring, I have experienced this restriction on tests. I never made the connection that a university education has become a very expensive hiring test.

    My belief is that student loans are the Fannie Mae of the education industry. Noticing that students were having trouble repaying their loans, our helpful government stepped in to make sure lenders would not start cutting back or perhaps asking whether your major was compatible with earning enough to pay them back. They did this by 1) using taxpayer money to back loans, and by 2) making student loans one of the few debts unable to be escaped by bankruptcy.

    This is what is pumping the bubble.

    Meanwhile, the university has abandoned its former mission of making better people. Western Civilization used to be required - now the vast majority of college graduates don't even know what it is.

    Good book:
    "The Decline of the Secular University" by C. John Sommerville

  13. I have to say I agree whole with retire05. There are thousands of kids going to college because they were taught that if you don't go to college, you will never be 'somebody'. these kids would be much better served by the cost effective job training provided by many community colleges and trade schools. Too many kids today have been taught that there is no value in work in the trades. As Retire905 noted, a plumber can make an excellent living. There are many trades in which a person can make an excellent living, provide for his family, and basically live the American Dream. However the Liberals running the education system teach our children that these jobs are dirty and undesirable. Hard, dirty work built this country, and the lack of it in sectors such as manufacturing will be what kills it.