Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Another Feeble Defense of College

I have serious problems with David Leonhardt's article in today's New York Times: "A Diploma's Worth: Ask Her."

1, He paints with a too-broad brush: He fails to acknowledge that the hundreds of thousands of college freshmen at four-year colleges who graduated in the bottom 40% of their high school class, drop out at enormous rates: According to the U.S. Dept. of Education, only 1/3 graduate even if given 8 1/2 years,

2. He defined success only in economic terms. College students learn frighteningly little. According to a 2006 Pew study, half of all college seniors score below the "proficient" level, which means they can't understand a newspaper editorial!

The value-added learning of college is so small relative to the opportunity cost--what they could have been doing with the time and money had they not been sitting through arcane classes, getting drunk in student housing, etc. For example, one could be apprenticing an the elbow of a successful entrepreneur or tradesperson while avocationally becoming an activist citizen by blogging and joining meetup groups.

3. He calls for more funding of colleges. Colleges are extraordinarily well funded. What they need --as he does mention--is more accountability. That is the central thrust of my just-published article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: America's Most Overrated Product: A Bachelor's Degree.

4. He accepts uncritically the horrifically misleading statistic that women earn 77 cents on the dollar. FOR THE SAME WORK, as documented in the book Why Men Earn More, women and men are paid essentially equally.

5. He celebrates the increase in the percentage of women obtaining college degrees without even acknowledging, let alone being concerned about the fact that in the class of 2008, only 1/3 of the college graduates are men, which will devastate them in the job market. If women or minorities were to have the deficit, the article would likely call for a massive increase in effort to help them. But when men suffer the deficit, we merely celebrate women's accomplishments.


Tim S. said...

The first thing is to change the mind-set of EMPLOYERS, not colleges. Trying to get colleges to change their ways is futile. I work at a university, I have people coming in who work at Target, K-Mart, or grocery stores who have managers telling them to get college degrees or they can't move up.

A huge computer firm here in town -- the largest employer in the state -- told a guy who had been there 23 years and who ran an entire department that he had to get a degree or he would be let go.

Colleges are an easy target and should be targeted now and then, but really, the issue is on employers. Why are they demanding degrees for mid-level management positions at Target? Probably because they can.

The culture needs to change. I think the energy should be spent on employers changing their ways, because colleges aren't going to change. The demanding of degrees for middling jobs only boosts colleges.

Change how employers do business and you'll see change for the better, and students who are not capable of college going into these positions. Target the employers -- I've yet to see ONE article published about this. I'm about to go out and write one.

Anonymous said...

Tim, I agree with you. I think that colleges should change, but good luck getting that to happen. Churning out degrees and selling the dream that "you can have it, too" is their livelihood. Employers might really get something done if they decided to change.

It would be remarkable if the majority of employers became more willing to hire people in higher positions that had the necessary experience but not a degree. After all, if you have a degree but don't have the faintest idea what you're doing, what advantage do you have over the person who spent those 4 to 6 years gaining experience for the same job instead of a piece of paper?

But it won't get better. It seems like almost every decent white-collar job listing "requires" or "prefers" at least a bachelor's degree. At this pace, a master's will be the norm in the not-too-distant future. The ones to benefit the most from that will be the colleges. The future students and the employers that still buy into the "degree required" notion will be hurting.

But what if the employers did what you suggested, Tim, and did change their mindset? What if they began training on the job more? I would be inclined to think that people that couldn't or wouldn't go to college if not for that magic piece of paper would stay out altogether, go right into the work force or begin their own businesses, and be satisfied with their choices without the guilt of skipping college.

And colleges might see their enrollment numbers go down, and if a massive campaign to fill those classrooms back up didn't work, they might actually have to think of new ideas.

It would be nice to see that.

Anonymous said...

I work in a college so obviously I'm not anti-college. However, my employer has a horrific 24-30 percent graduation rate, and we're considered a so-called "major college" in a fairly large athletic conference. I meet with kids every day who either don't belong in college or should've gone to four-year college first.

I actually think college is a good place to find oneself, even if it means struggling a bit academically, breaking up with women, getting drunk, whatever. It's part of the growth process.

I also don't believe a student who is bad -- I once was -- can't become a good one -- I became a good one.

The problem I have is more with society in DEMANDING a degree for jobs that don't require it.

Colleges are blamed and should be at times, but really even Marty and his cohorts are targeting the wrong people in this subject. They need to interview people at Big Box stores and restaurants (yes, restaurants) that are demanding college degrees. Why is this? Who told them this? Yes, colleges are reaping the benefits, but businesses are willing assistants.

I work in advisement at a college and frankly students come to me telling me freaking retail jobs are now requiring college jobs. Yes, retail.

Colleges have obviously duped a lot of people, but how come businesses get a free pass in this? The media has never questioned why they're demanding these degrees. The media (where I used to work) just says, "More and more businesses are demanding college degrees." Well, someone's B.S. detector needs to go up and ask the question WHY are they demanding degrees for middling jobs.

And if this degree-demand won't end, how about at least ratheting it down to an Associate's Degree?

Marty Nemko said...

I understand why businesses require degrees. With such a high percentage of high school grads going on to college, those who don't are viewed as likely inferior. In today's era of Internet job posting, each job yields dozens if not hundreds of applicants, even WHEN the job ad requires a college degree. If the job ad didn't require one, twice as many people (disproportionately not that bright or motivated) would apply. And the employer would have to screen ever more applicants.

The blame resides in the colleges: for admitting underprepared students and then providing such a poor education to both the underprepared and fully prepared students.

Tim said...

Whoops, the third post is mine, not "anonymous" -- sorry about that.

No, the blame isn't on colleges, it's on businesses. This is where Marty is wrong. Businesses should not be requiring college degrees for jobs, this is why kids are going to college, because businesses are requiring it. I have hundreds of these discussions a year.

Always change things at the root of the problem. Colleges are far from perfect, but you change the hiring practices of the businesses, you change the work culture.

Colleges do let in students who aren't ready, but that has nothing to do with this. No one holds the Target, K-Mart, Grocery Store, etc., CEOs/managers accountable. I've yet to see one article on this. Someone should point blank ask why they are requiring college degrees for these jobs.

Sorry, gotta disagree with our bloggers here: Businesses are at fault. They change their hiring methods and the kids who aren't college material won't go to college.

Dave said...


I think firms like Target, Sears, Gimbels, etc. are trying to attract better people. Lack of discipline has always been an issue for retail businesses and other chain stores who hire many teens and young adults. If an individual is disciplined enough to earn a college degree, he or she is seen as a safe and worthwhile investment. That's my take on it.

The New York Police Department now requires all new recruits to complete a minimum of 60 college credits, which is just short of a a junior college degree.


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