Thursday, October 25, 2012

Well Is It? Or Isn't It? I'm Shrugging My Shoulders

I caught an interesting Facebook exchange today involving several mutual friends and acquaintances that went something like this:

"University of Florida is considering charging more tuition [or giving fewer scholarships] for less 'lucrative' majors." 

"Whoa, that's terrible."

"An appalling shame."  [x2]

"But is it really?  If taxpayers are footing the bill, maybe this stuff matters."  

I am badly paraphrasing here.  The commenter who offered the opposing viewpoint brought up several interesting thoughts to support what he was saying (he was ultimately middle-of-the-road but was the only one of the four people involved to even concede any ground on whether this was the 'right' thing to do).

I've seen a lot in print and in the media in the past several years about the so-called "Higher Ed Bubble."  Obviously, I'm in a tricky position to start opining about this, because if I veer too far in either direction, I could be tarred pretty quickly with the 'hypocrite' brush (for starters, I'm 32 years old and a full-time student, which certainly raises some eyebrows at times).

One thing that has NOT changed is my skepticism -- which borders on something closer to hostility -- towards highly-successful people with multiple degrees who go around opining that "college isn't really worth it" for other people.  Peter Thiel is a case in point.  He is a gazillionaire who actually pays talented young people not to attend college, but has a B.A. and a J.D. from Stanford on his wall (and again, there's the bias thing coming in...but I'd like to think he learned a thing or two at the Farm...or at least thought it meant something to cross paths with the guys who would ultimately co-found PayPal -- they probably weren't hanging around at the public library in Menlo Park..but maybe Thiel is so rich that he can just write off all the cognitive dissonance going on there).

As Kad Barma says, quoting Ogden Nash, "People who have what they want are fond of telling others that they don't really want it."  If you're a huge fan of that quote -- as I am -- you should get in the habit of throwing a yellow flag onto the field every time you see it unfolding in practice.

And of course it's bigger than just Peter Thiel.  Plenty of journalists and other talking heads have raised this issue lately.

Although I disagree with them about the value of a Bachelor's Degree (just look at how much tougher the job market is for those without that education level), I would concede some ground as it relates to certain post-grad programs.

If we're going to define a 'bubble' as a situation in which the price of something spirals upward far beyond its value (and we'll define 'value' in the way that omniscient beneficiaries of hindsight would define it after the fact), I think that REALLY does apply to some programs.

I bumped into a buddy last week who is working towards a Certificate program at UML.  Just to be enrolled in one class this semester, he pays full freight on student fees.  Those fees, plus that class tuition, add up to nearly $2k out of pocket.  Bear in mind, that's not for some advanced computer programming thing that's going to translate into big bucks on the back end...this is for something very social science-y (and I'm not naming the Dept. only to respect/maintain some anonymity here).

With the explosion of online degree programs, there are increasing opportunities to enroll in programs in some pretty squishy areas that don't seem, IMHO, to make most of their graduates *more* employable.  Only if we blindly buy into the idea that "education is good, so more education must be better" would some of these make any sense.  When a third-party payer (such as Uncle Sam, in the case of many veterans) is picking up the tab, the economics can get pretty distorted, pretty quickly.

The ultimate "Are you a big fat stinking hypocrite" test should probably be "Would you apply what you're saying to your own kid?"  (Oh, and I have a big hunch that a lot of these op-ed people who are spouting the 'just forego the Bachelor's' drivel would never accept that standard for Madison and Aidan).

But back to the standard:  I hope that within the next 16 years I am able to earn/save enough money to be able to support the lion's share of my daughter's undergrad costs wherever those might be incurred, regardless of major or program.  Even if I can't do it 'out of pocket' I will still bear that cost through my own loans, home equity, or whatever other source.

However, post-grad is a different ballgame.  A top-50 law or business program?  I'll support it if I can.  Med school?  To the best degree possible.  A Ph.D. program?  I'm here for ya.

Where I would start to draw the line, though, is when it's "school...just because."  If it's a substitute for looking for a job, or a time-holder because of a lack of a job, or just a flight of fancy for some other reason, THEN I will join the chorus of the naysayers who question the value.

Terminal Master's Degrees in the Social Sciences and the Humanities?  Graduate "certificates" with hefty price tags?  An online Master's Degree in Social Media?

If there really is a bubble going on, those are the first places where I think you'd hear the *pop.*  I'm not expecting to hear it anytime soon, though:  First, because of the deeply ingrained American ideal that education is the path to upward mobility/more is automatically better than less/etc. and second, because many of the policymakers in a position to speak out on this risk sounding like elitist hypocrite a-holes.  

Just look at the current contentious rhetorical climate:  Romney, a man who holds an MBA and JD from Harvard, of all places, and Brown, holder of a B.A. from Tufts and a J.D. from Boston College, have questioned the idea of a high-volume financial aid spigot that never shuts off.

In both cases, their opponents didn't waste the chance to pounce.

This is a thorny issue.  


Renee said...

Where I would start to draw the line, though, is when it's "school...just because." If it's a substitute for looking for a job, or a time-holder because of a lack of a job, or just a flight of fancy for some other reason, THEN I will join the chorus of the naysayers who question the value. "

College is only worth it, if you finish it. It doesn't matter the major.

I'm not the a goal-oriented/high achiever, but I finished what I
started. And it kills me to see so much investment in institutions, in which a good percentage will not even graduate from.

Just to graduate college, is a 'soft skill' accomplishment. You know like showing up to class without your mom waking you up. So naturally those with college degrees will be more successful.

The retention rate at UMass Lowell is not high, I'm not sure what is acceptable.

So we're building buildings in which upwards to half the individuals entering, will not graduate from?

Corey said...

Renee - while having a college degree always looks better than not having one, the degree itself does matter, especially early on. The school matters as well. GPA matters. These are the reasons why the jobless rates among some of the less specific skillset majors of those under 30 are abysmal, and others aren't so bad.

Do we have the split between those who leave UML for other schools, versus those who drop out?

Lynne said...

I'm sorry...lib arts majors already HAVE a's called "prospective careers." Why for the love of little green apples would you also CHARGE them more??

As someone who proudly went to school to better herself and study writing, literature, art, and music, I am pretty offended by the idea that my education was worth less investment than science or engineering or - good god - BUSINESS majors...

Can I also mention (as an aside) that I've had to enter the captcha to comment like four plus times? Because there are no instructions telling you to pay attention to the image as well as the word...)

Corey said...

Lynne - my open question on Facebook is what is the purpose of state Universities? If the goal is workforce training, the State needs to encourage some majors over others. This isn't about quality of degrees, its about quantity. Americans are needed in the STEM fields now and we don't have them. Instead, we have too many people with degrees in other things. Perhaps the way to correct this is charging less for in-demand fields.

I'm also open to the idea that the public good *is* education for the sake of learing, and that charging on the basis of demand is wrong for that reason and also because its central planning.

Also, the liberal/fine arts being at a disadvantage for salaries and job prospects is a disadvantage that people know going in. Again, too many people, in the case of state schools, thay were paying for, going for too few jobs.

Lynne said...

The purpose of a state education is NOT job training. If you want job training go do job training, there's lots of programs both private and public.

A four year education is not just about job training, it's about high level education - hence, does a science major have to take artsy gen-eds and an English major take some science and math courses.

The reason is that you cannot measure a good education just by job prospects alone. Without English, art, etc majors, where would this country be? Would we even have a soul?

If I had not gotten the education I had, would I be as inclined to write a blog to try to better the community I live in? Without my well-rounded ability to analyze - that I got from my lit classes, philosophy classes, science classes and even art classes - would I be as productive a citizen, participating in all the things I do? I submit, I would not have as much to offer.

The purpose of a publicly-funded education is not just to turn out job robots, but to turn out better citizens. Part of that is increasing the job skills and abilities of future job applicants (and my work at university, like writing a paper and using MS Word, DID help me tangentially) but part of that is the intangible, the development of me as a person and as a productive citizen.

Lynne said...

Also put differently - I am not a career artist. But my background in art certainly helps OTHER artists who do make a career in that I appreciate, and even purchase, art. Hence, contributing to the economy.

Corey said...

I don't disagree - even my college, which is an engineering school first and foremost, required us to take social science and fine arts classes.

I guess at the core, my feeling is actually this:

We are failing at the elementary and high school levels to expose students to what's really out there, and to prepare them for college and the workforce. I'm tired of girls saying they can't do math, I'm tired of people who can't explain how the government works or how credit cards work, and I'm tired of people who can't type or use a spreadsheet.

Perhaps some of the issues we're seeing, where people do go to college "just because", incurring huge debts for bad job prospects, wouldn't be happening as frequently if people were more prepared as to what college can offer and how to get it.