Hyping Higher Ed

1)A study by York College suggests that many graduates are unprepared for the working world. The study cites the expectations of business leaders and HR people as including “the ability to communicate and listen respectfully, motivation to finish a task and attention to appearance.” While the study indicates that many graduating college seniors may lack these attributes, they do possess certain other ones:

There’s a sense of entitlement that we’ve picked up on. Where people think they’re entitled to become, let’s say president of the company, within the next two years. They’re entitled to five weeks of vacation.

York says it is now trying to teach “professionalism” in addition to whatever else it already teaches. But sitting into an auditorium and listening to some executive, a few weeks before graduation, strikes me as less about teaching professionalism and more about teaching how to simulate professionalism in an interview.

2)On the other hand, this article, by a very experienced professor of political science, suggests that the modern American college experience tends to breed dependency among students. (via Maggie’s Farm) So, putting this together with the last item, I guess universities can develop dependency and irresponsibility in their students for 3 1/2 years and then have an intensive program to try to cure it for the last 1/2 year…getting paid for both phases, of course.

3)Here’s an NYT article on the the huge student-loan burdens now being incurred by many college graduates; see also this National Review commentary.

4)Glenn Reynolds, a law professor as well as a distinguished blogger, writes that higher education’s bubble is about to burst:

Buyers see that everyone else is taking on mounds of debt, and so are more comfortable when they do so themselves; besides, for a generation, the value of what they’re buying has gone up steadily. What could go wrong? Everything continues smoothly until, at some point, it doesn’t.

Yes, this sounds like the housing bubble, but I’m afraid it’s also sounding a lot like a still-inflating higher education bubble.

For years now, students have been encouraged to attend college not so much for the reason that knowledge is valuable in its own right…nor for the purpose of acquiring specific practical knowledge which will be of value to them in their careers…but to obtain a credential. “A college degree means a better job.”

A bubble exists, as I noted in this 2003 post, when things–tulips, shares of stock, college degrees–are valued for the circular reason that they are valued, rather than for any intrinsic worth. Although bubbles always collapse, the length of time they are sustained, and the amount of damage they do before they collapse and when they collapse, varies widely.

Speaking of bubbles, hedge fund manager Steve Eisman, who is well-known for having anticipated the housing market crash, has some strong words about the for-profit segment of the education industry: “Until recently I thought that there would never again be an opportunity to be involved with an industry as socially destructive and morally bankrupt as the subprime mortgage industry. I was wrong. The for-profit education industry has proven equal to the task.” (When Mr Eisman refers to “being involved with” an industry in this sense, he surely means shorting it.)

And here’s San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, who despite his city’s large budget deficit wants to establish and fund college savings accounts for all kindergartners. (To be precise, for all kindergartners in the public schools.) What if when the kid gets out of high school he doesn’t want to attend college but rather wants to start a business or go to welding school? Will “his” funds be available for those purposes? The linked article doesn’t make it clear, but I doubt it.

Gavin Newsom largely represents the kind of people who harp endlessly on “self-esteem.” Has he ever considered what the exclusive focus on college as the key to success does to the self-esteem of those whose path lies in another direction? Again, I doubt it.

A salesman of my acquaintance was fond of the phrase “in sales as in medicine, prescription without diagnosis is malpractice.” Too many of the people selling higher education are going around with a pocketful of pre-canned presciptions–“Hey, I know what you need. You need several more years of education!”–without making any serious attempt to fit the prescription to the patient’s real needs.

Too much human talent is being wasted, and too much debt is being incurred, on behalf of educational flavors and activities lacking both economic and intrinsic value.

13 thoughts on “Hyping Higher Ed”

  1. Do the math. College level instructors cost $50,000/yr. in Minnesota. Student loans are paying $7500 per semester. 100 students pay $750,000 per semester. The state requires licenses for mortuary, hair dressing, nails, massages which can be taught in 1 semester. Total costs $200,000 max per semester. Profits are $550,000 per semester.
    Obama is right. Education is the path to riches.

  2. And they might be right, too. Employers will rather hire a recent graduate than someone mid-career. They will not train properly, pay $15/hr for a work that is worth $30/hr, blame the new hires for inevitable mistakes, fire them, and get new ones immediately, like snap. Or get laid-off middle-career ex-employee come in as a “consultant”, on a freelance, w/o benefits, basis, and make him train and teach and monitor the kids – who are in the Co full-time, and therefore feel superior – and generally to clean up the kids’ messes- and then be gone until the new shift of clueless graduates full of self-esteem arrive.

    This is the new HR model.

  3. “What if when the kid gets out of high school he doesn’t want to attend college but rather wants to start a business or go to welding school?”

    I also agree that the funds probably wouldn’t be there for that kid as I am sure people like Newsom look down on mechanics and technicians.

    We need many, many more techs and service technicians in our world. They can make a very good living if they apply themselves and understand things like power transmission, brazing, soldering and basic electrical things. Without them, people like Newsom fry in the summer and freeze in the winter and bitch the whole time.

  4. Here is an interesting case in point. Kid getting an Ivy League degree in an “environmental sciences” program which is apparently bereft of any actual scientific content. His plan is to then go to law school, so he can “make policy.”

    And it is indeed likely that someone will hire him based in part on his “environmental science” credential, probably without inquiring very deeply into what it actually means. Branding, you know.

  5. See student loans and the second recession, which notes that:

    “At the same time the banking industry was supplying people with loans without verifying that they could afford them, the same thing was happening with student loans. Many students were permitted to borrow tens of thousands of dollars on the expectation of their future earnings. Today, those same students are coming to the end of degrees, or just graduating, with no idea how they will repay their debts. In fact, it is not unusual for some students to have more than $100,000 in student loans and little more than a bachelor’s degree to show for it.”

    Also note the extremely preferential repayment treatment if a person is working in “public services.” So I guess if you’re writing papers on food policy for the agriculture department, you’re a “public servant,” whereas if you’re actually a farmer growing food, or a railroad worker hauling it, you’re not.

  6. Since professionalism came up, it’s useful to remember what a profession is: It is a vocation in which the practitioner is answerable to a set of standards promulgated by his fellow professionals that does not necessarily coincide with the interests of his client.

    (Yeah, I know. By that definition, the oldest profession, isn’t.)

    When we say someone is behaving professionally, we too often mean that he or she is acting competently or otherwise doing quality work, rather than that he or she is adhering to professional standards promulgated by like professionals. In some cases we instinctively understand the difference: Our concept of a crooked lawyer pretty much coincides with the proper definition of professionalism. A crooked lawyer violates the rules of his profession (for which he could theoretically be disbarred) in pursuing the interests of his client.

    In other cases, the word simply doesn’t apply. In particular, there is no such thing as a professional businessman, because there are no meaningful standards of professional conduct imposed on businessmen by other businessmen. Or at least I’ve observed none that go beyond the common standards of decency we all expect of each other.

    It’s not professionalism the college graduates lack; it’s competence. But of course they’re not going to get that from a brief lecture by a business leader either.

  7. Thanks, Tatyana. Erin O’Connor has comments and a long discussion thread on this.

    It strikes me a likely that the vast expansion of academia in recent decades has sucked in many people (as professors) who don’t have all that much vocation for the traditional academic activities of knowledge development and propagation…I expect many of those most involved in politicized “scholarship” are of that stripe.

  8. Funny tread; thanks.
    Those professors, they are such amateurs. They should have studied their Soviet masters better: all universities had to engage their students into a Socialist Politeconomy class sometime in 2nd to 3rd year, and on 5th – would not allow to defend the thesis on your major until you write satisfactorily Scientific Communism exam. One classmate(a brilliant mathematician and altogether highest score in the year) got almost kicked out of college because he refused to go through it.
    I think they have ADD or something, those academics…they can’t write a decent rebuttal to conservative policies, so they hire underlings to do it for them!

  9. We haven’t touched on the real issue here, which is that debt from schools cannot be discharged.

    It is likely that this will be overturned, and the government will step in, the same way that the government has essentially taken over the housing market with Fannie and Freddie and given everyone low interest rate fixed loans with 3% down (which could be a gift from the builder, so many put up absolutely nothing to become homeowners).

    It can go a couple of ways; school debt can be discharged, meaning that those investors and institutions that are holding this debt take a huge haircut when everyone declares bankruptcy, or the government some how bails out and subsidizes this debt going forward.

    Then going forward schools at some point will need to collect their funds “up front” which will result in a vastly smaller scale institution because few can afford to pay what it really costs. Debt won’t work if people can walk away.

    Else it is like Freddie and Fannie and the lost payments are made up for by the government and we all face that much bigger of a tax and productivity burden.

    I can’t figure out who has lower ethics; the for-profit school that charges $100k of debt that cannot be discharged for skills that probably aren’t worth that much in industry, or the big private or public non-profit that sells majors like liberal arts that for the most part can’t put a roof over your head with other high levels of debt. At a minimum if you want to take sociology at an ivy league school you ought to pay cash; you aren’t going to climb out of debt with that major.

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