Thursday, February 2, 2012

When is College Worth It?

We now send 70% of high school graduates to college, the highest percentage in history and President Obama wants yet more to go. That despite study after study now showing college education's terrible value-added for all but top students, whether in learning or employability.

For example, the unemployment rate for college graduates is 8.9%, higher than the overall rate of 8.6%! The employment rate is far worse still if you don't major in a hard science or engineering but rather in the social sciences, humanities, or arts.

So if I had a child who was deciding what to do after high school, I'd discuss these questions with him or her:
  • Are you excited about learning harder academic material than you're being taught in high school?
  • Are you capable of completing a major in a field such as computer science, mathematics, or physics, are you willing to accept the much greater risk of unemployment by majoring in the liberal arts, or would you like to consider non-degree options such as a short-term career-training program at a community college, an apprenticeship, learning a trade in the military, or learning how to run your own business by working at the elbow of a successful, ethical entrepreneur?
  • At college, without parents' watchful eyes and without teachers knowing even if you're attending class, are you likely to stay focused enough on academic learning to be among the fewer than 40% that graduate college in four years, just 55% even if given six years? The rate is far worse still for students of color. And of students who graduated in the bottom 40% of their high school class and had had sub 40%ile SAT scores, fewer than 1 in 4 graduated, most from a third-tier college and with a low GPA in a major such as sociology or American Studies. That is not likely to motivate employers to hire you for a professional-level job, especially in today's job market.
  • Are you more likely to succeed in a career working with your brains than with your hands or body?
  • Will you be able to afford the enormous cost of a college education: At a typical brand-name public university in most populous states, the average cost of just four years, after subtracting cash financial aid, assuming you qualify, is approaching $100,000. At a brand-name private college it's approaching $200,000.
Do remember that most college graduates are burdened with a fortune in student loans accruing interest, the only debt not dischargeable through bankruptcy. At the same time, as mentioned above, college graduates now have a higher rate of unemployment than the general population. That's partly because the cost of employing white-collar Americans is skyrocketing, for example, because ObamaCare mandates employers provide health care not only for its employees but a surcharge to pay for the poor's health care. So U.S. employers are offshoring, automating, and temping as many positions as possible.

For top students and for those who truly enjoy academic learning, college remains a wise choice. But most others would be wise to consider forgoing college, at least until they're eager to learn and can well afford it---Often that isn't until late in life. Many young people would be wiser to consider post-high-school options as those mentioned above.


Anonymous said...

Hi Marty, I followed your second hyperlink to Georgetown University's "Hard Times" publication and found that you may be misrepresenting them. I haven't finished reading through it (it's very interesting, so thank you for the link)and will do so at a later date as time allows. But right from their first page:

"The question, as we slowly dig out from under the wreckage left by the Great Recession, is unavoidable: 'Is college worth it?' Our answer: 'Yes, extensive research, ours included, finds that a college degree is still worth it.' A Bachelor’s degree is one of the best weapons a job seeker can wield in the fight for employment and earnings. And staying on campus to earn a graduate degree provides safe shelter from the immediate economic storm, and will pay off with greater employability and earnings once the graduate enters the labor market. Unemployment for students with new Bachelor’s degrees is an unacceptable 8.9 percent,1 but it’s a catastrophic 22.9 percent for job seekers with a recent high school diploma—and an almost unthinkable 31.5 percent for recent high school dropouts."

And just a few pages later:

"As the recovery proceeds and recent college graduates gain access to work, especially in their major fields, their unemployment rates will drop substantially. Employment patterns among experienced workers who have been out of college for a while suggest that recent graduates will fare better as the recovery continues. With the exception of majors in Architecture, International Business and Theater Arts, more experienced workers have substantially lower unemployment rates and higher earnings than recent college graduates.

"Graduate degrees make a quantum difference in employment prospects across all majors. Sometimes, when unemployment is high, the best strategy to increase future employability is to go to graduate school. The unemployment rate for people with graduate degrees is 3 percent compared with a 5 percent unemployment rate for those with a BA (recent college graduates and experienced workers holding a Bachelor’s degree). With the exception of majors in the arts and Architecture, unemployment rates for people with graduate degrees range between 1.9 percent and 4.0 percent. Graduate degrees tend to outperform BA’s on employment in part because advanced degrees represent higher levels of human capital development and because those degrees are more closely aligned with career pathways in particular occupations and industries."

Why didn't you also represent these findings and ideas in your blog?

Marty Nemko said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your comment.

I focus on higher education's limitations as a tiny balance to higher education's mammoth, highly sophisticated marketing machine.

More important, fact remains, per so many studies, e.g., Academically Adrift, the value-added in terms of thinking, reading, etc. of that so-expensive, time-consuming college degree is so little ESPECIALLY for the pool of students who did poorly in high school, which is a pool of potential attendees so deceptively marketed to.

Finally, importantly, the Georgetown study (led by a well-known college apologist, Anthony Carnevale of the College Board,) conveniently doesn't disaggregate employment statistics by high school record. The aforementioned vulnerable pool of students disproportionately attends instititutions that do not impress employers: the 2nd- and third tier colleges--e.g., Ouitchita Baptist, Arkansas State, the California State University, etc. And if such students defy the long odds of graduating (according to the US Dept of Ed, if you graduate in the bottom 40% of your high school class, your chances of graduating from a "4-year college" are less than 3:1 even if given 8 1/2 years), they likely will have majored in a major that impresses few employers, e.g., Sociology or American Studies, with an equally unimpressive GPA.

And, on average, especially given the low value-added in critical thinking skills, that pool of people does very poorly (yes, it's anecdotal but I've worked with an enormous number of clients over the past 25 years) in the job market. As I recently, tweeted, a recent study found that 4/5 college graduates have such poor thinking skills as to be unworthy of being employed beyond an entry-level position.

I hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your blog posting and detailed response. Too much marketing of college over the past 20 years. Many of these people would be better off following your advice.
This from someone who has Ph.D. in Engineering which allowed me to immigrate to the USA.

Anonymous said...

Also ask your soon-to-finish high school child:

How did you do on the SATs/ACTs, and how are your grades? If you scored below 1000 on the SATs or 21 on the ACTs, and if you have less than a 3.0 or B average, college may not be easy & enjoyable for you.

How do you feel about school in general? You've been going to school for 12 years, which is about 2/3 of your lifetime up to now - a long time. If you're tired of school, you may want to do something else.

Are you better at life inside or outside the classroom?

Anonymous said...

So Marty, are you simply playing devil's advocate? For instance, there are a number of legitimate criticisms of Academically Adrift--specifically about the methods used to gather and compile information. Shouldn't a good respondent take these into account as one would for the "22.9 percent" unemployed without a college degree (ouch! That's a pretty powerful number that would contradict a lot of your reasoning) And I noticed that you did not disaggregate your numbers (8.9% vs. 8.6%) either. For instance, does this .3% difference represent recent college graduates or college graduates across the age demographic? Knowing this might make a huge difference.

Marty Nemko said...

Thank you, most recent Anonymous for your queries. I'll respond to each here.

Re Academically Adrift:
1. The study's sample size and representativeness are solid enough to not even come close to obviating the point that students, on average, grow very little in college. If the growth statistics suggested only moderate growth, perhaps sampling might have been an issue.

2. The College Learning Asssesment, the instrument used in the "Academically Adrift" study is a solid instrument. Quibbles, for example, that it tests thinking skills rather than institution-specific teachings is a bit like arguing that if only the cleaner used to polish the brass on the Titantic were better, it wouldn't have sunk. To blame the CLA for the shockingly poor student growth is really blaming a pretty good messenger to attempt to debunk Academically Adrift because of instrumentation.

3. Academically Adrift is far from the only study showing frightfully low student growth in college. For example, the President's Spellings Commission reported other studies, for example, one funded by The Pew Trusts, that found equally poor student learning.

And apart from student learning, as I mentioned in my post, there there are those unconscionable graduation rates. Higher ed likes to claim that the problem is not enough tutoring etc for students. There already is massive support available, finded by the college, the state, feds, foundations, and alumni and corporate donations. The far more likely reason for the low graduation rate and student achievement is that colleges---in their desire to enroll as many students as possible for financial and political reasons--are admitting, without even adequate disclosure to those students---students whom a responsible person would not admit, at least, without full disclosure of their likely amount of growth, employability, and graduation rate.

Re your concern about the 22.9% unemployment rate among non graduates. There's a correlation/causation problem there. Of course, non graduates are less employed but that's because, especially in a world in which we send 70% to college and Obama wants to senmd more, the pool of non-college attendees has, on average, very low drive, cognitive skills, motivation, etc., etc., etc., Send them to college and nearly all will drop out and be LESS employable (but have a mountain of debt and have suffered a nonstop assault to their self-esteem) than if they had post-high-school entered a post-secondary option more appropriate to their interests and abilities, for example, a career in an apprenticeship on the job training, in the military, in a short-term career-preparation program at a community college, or learning entrepreneurship at the elbow of a successful, ethical small-business owner.

I did not disaggregate the 8.9% vs 8.6% because the BLS data does not provide that.

From where I sit, it is incontrovertible that higher education is doing a TERRIBLE job. Indeed it is America's most overrated product.

I hope my having taking all this time to answer commenters questions has been helpful but I must now move on.

mdubuque said...

I think the problem of "Should I attend University" is to some extent passing us by.

The latest data I have seen shows that the median income of USA University graduates has declined recently.

HOWEVER, the ONLY demographic whose median incomes has risen over the last 20 years in the USA are those who have attended GRADUATE SCHOOL.

There are no guarantees in life.

But if you attend graduate school, the statistics show that you are more likely to obtain a higher income than if you had merely attended high school or University.

This is explicated by Raghuram Rajan in his superb book Fault Lines.

He was the fellow who personally warned Bernanke and Greenspan of the housing bubble in 2005 at a Federal Reserve conference; he is a brilliant economist from the University of Chicago.

Marty Nemko said...

In most fields, including even PhDs in molecular biology, and I believe law, there's an oversupply. Especially as time goes on, more and more people, unable to find decent work, will decide they might as well get more schooling. I believe what will happen is that traditional expensive, bricks-and-mortar universities will give way to dream-team-taught online courses, and companies or the government will act as course-aggregating bookkeepers and award degrees when sufficient courses are taken, kind of like the Department of Motor Vehicles awards a license when you've taken an eye exam, written test, and road test.

mdubuque said...

Marty, Raghuram Rajan is a pretty credible source. Fault Lines was chosen as the FT Book of the Year and he teaches at University of Chicago Business School; additionally, his papers are regularly quoted in various Federal Reserve branch papers.

He was also chief economist at the IMF.

He cites that the only demographic whose median income rose was those with a graduate school education.

Of course there are exceptions and anecdotal outliers.

But his work is regularly peer reviewed and subject to critical scrutiny by those raising points such as yours.

So I'm going to go with the peer reviewed evidence rather than anecdotes.

Nothing personal.


Marty Nemko said...

What counts is not averages but for YOU: Is the time and money you'd spend at the graduate school to which you'd be admitted better use of time and money than what you could otherwise spend it on.

Maria Lopez said...

In the absence of other evidence, assuming that your income will be raised the average amount for people who go to graduate school if you go to graduate school is rational. Of course, if there is other evidence you should take it into account.

This an example of reasoning from uncertain data and it might possible to use Bayes' theorem about combining conditional probabilities to get a better estimate of the effect of graduate school on your income.

Marty Nemko said...

Alas, there is a lot of data raising serious questions about the PROSPECTIVE value of graduation. For example, this just came across my desk this morning:

Ironically, your superimposing a technique you learned in graduate school "Bayes' theorem about combining conditional probabilities" to a far-too-complex ontology (Yes, I'm playing with you) is an example of how graduate education adds more perceived than actual value.

Maria Lopez said...

While I did learn about Bayes' theorem in graduate school, and I agree there really are too many factors to take into account that way, I do think that looking at statistics about how people like you do if they go to a graduate school should help people make a decision about whether to go or not.

In fact good algorithms tend to make simple decisions better than random decisions.

i think I benefited somewhat from graduate school in that I learned how computer networks actually work while at work you are expected to get the network up rather than studying how to get the network up.

While it's easy to waste time in academic study, without you can be left with intuition alone to guide you in areas where human intuition doesn't perform well.

Trident Online Universities said...

A college education has other benefits besides the tangible one of a high salary. Some people enjoy
learning for the sake of learning; it exposes you to new ideas and concepts. Not to mention the fact that connections can be made in college which can be useful later on in one's career. A degree also shows prospective employers that the candidate is tenacious and has the ability to set a goal and execute it.

I do think deferment may be a good option for some students too. I found myself to be a much more dedicated student when I was a bit older (late 20's). I was more driven and focused.


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