journalists should do their jobs

This is the last time I’m going to address this issue here for at least awhile, but I did want to pick at one last example in the mushrooming “college isn’t worth it” genre, both because this is the worst I’ve read (and that’s really saying something) and because I think I can address some commenter pushback by doing so.

In the virtual pages of the Atlantic — where else? they’ve become a one-stop anti-intellectual shop– Daniel Indiviglio grinds the well-worn axe. His fundamental argument is that smart and motivated kids go to college, so when employers find that college graduates are smart and motivated, they are mistaking college inputs for college outputs.

a college degree has become a proxy for determining whether a job applicant has a minimum level of intelligence necessary to perform a job. But with many private college educations exceeding $120,000 these days, that’s a pretty expensive means for identifying adequate intelligence. Unfortunately, this may describe all a college degree has become. There was a time when a high school degree served this purpose. But when high school standards declined and college became more popular, some applicants stood out above others as being more educated and potentially smarter than those with only a high school diploma.

In other words, Indiviglio is asserting that the perceived value of college is very close to entirely the product of selection bias. College doesn’t produce better students, it simply filters out the less motivated or intelligent in its selection process.

There’s just one problem for Indiviglio: correcting for these variables is precisely what the researchers attempting to assess the college wage premium have been doing,  and the overwhelming evidence suggests that the college wage premium exists after correcting for ability effects.

Don”t take my word for it; take Tyler Cowen‘s. You can disagree with his politics, and I do, but he is impeccably credentialed and widely regarded as a brilliant academic:

Indeed these papers are obsessed with distinguishing learning effects from preexisting human capital differences.  That is what these papers are, so to speak.  In that context, “ability bias” in the estimates doesn’t seem to be very large, see for instance the Angrist or Card pieces linked to above.  This paper surveys some of the “adjusting for ability bias” literature; it is considered quite “pessimistic” (allows for a good deal of signaling, in Caplan’s terminology) and still it finds a positive five percent a year real productivity gain from an extra year of schooling.

What’s striking about the work surveyed by Card is how many different methods are used and how consistent their results are.  You can knock down any one of them (“are identical twins really identical?, etc.), but at the end of the day which are the pieces — using natural or field experiments — standing on the other side of the scale? ….

There really does seem to be a professional consensus.  Maybe it’s wrong, and/or dominated by biased pro-education specialists, but I’m not seeing very strong arguments against it.  For the time being at least, I don’t see that there is much anywhere else to go with one’s beliefs.

Read the whole thing. This section amounts to about as thorough a refutation of Indiviglio’s piece as I can imagine.

Did Indiviglio do any research at all for his piece? Did he read the studies? Even the abstracts? Did he pick up the phone and call any number of professors and academics who could have talked to him at length, about these specific studies or about selection bias in general? What’s particularly ludicrous about this article is that Indiviglio writes as if the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies or selection effects are something he dreamed up when he wrote the article. Those vexing aspects of interpreting data happen to be something of an obsession in social science– which, again, anyone minimally qualified to speak on the issue would have told Inviglio, if he had bothered to do his job and actually research the claims he is making. What does he imagine these researchers do all day? Does he suppose that selection effects simply never occurred to them?

I would put it to you that writing as if selection bias is something that is unaccounted for in the available academic literature isn’t a matter of Indiviglio and me disagreeing on a contentious subject. I would argue that it’s simple journalistic malpractice, the kind that demands public correction, or at least some sort of internal review. Given that the publication of anti-university posts is now a daily phenomenon at the Atlantic, I’m not holding my breath; I think they are more interested in selling this narrative than in protecting their credibility. But if the magazine has anything like the journalistic integrity signaled by its writers’ considerable self regard, an editor would at least call Indiviglio and ask why he is so ignorant of such a central part of his argument.

It’s shoddy journalism all around. Indiviglio asserts that college teaches skills that are irrelevant to many professions, mocking the idea that cops or plumbers need to be educated to perform their jobs well. (“Heck, even basic high school writing and math skills will probably be more than they’ll ever need on-the-job.” Yeah, those low-wage droogs don’t need any fancy learnin’.) Indiviglio merely asserts this, as he merely asserts all of his arguments in the piece. Even if this were true, it wouldn’t undermine the case for college. As is widely understood in the available literature, direct skill acquisition is only a part of the advantage of higher education. A college diploma increases wages even for those whose jobs don’t require them, demonstrating that the metaskills and life lessons learned at college such as time management, discipline, and research focus improve outcomes for people even if they don’t use every direct skill they learn in their professional lives. Near-subsistence farmers (farmers!) benefit financially from college education, again, after correcting for input distortion. (Do your job! Read the literature!)

Indiviglio repeats the standard “college is a bubble” canard. No. You can’t have a conventional asset bubble with a non-transferable resource. There is no significant speculative market for college degrees, and could not be, as the asset cannot be transferred. The value of a college degree is not an intrinsic value that can appreciate or depreciate directly. A house’s value may be minimally subject to disagreement in the marketplace, but it is the commodity itself which holds the value. In the comments to the piece, I pointed out to Indiviglio that he wasn’t actually doing anything to refute the extant social science on this topic. He replied, ludicrously, “Just like from 2003-2007 buying a home in Nevada really paid off. That’s irrefutable too, and yet…” In other words, his rebuttal is that an absolutely unprecedented collapse in wages for those with college degrees is coming, despite having no evidence of this whatsoever and despite the fact that the current economic conditions are already severely unbalanced in the favor of employers without this collapse occurring. College degrees not a commodity that operates according to the same basic principles as soybeans or houses in Nevada.

Online journalists and pundits are looking for a problem that all of the best evidence suggests does not exist. They can’t provide empirical evidence to support their claims, yet they persist, and seem to want to prove their points by sheer weight of words.

Indiviglio’s piece is an embarrassment, but it is entirely par for the course once journalists hit on a narrative and insist on working it over and over again. There’s a lot you can say in response to lazy, biased journalism such as this.  (I’d love to teach journalists that you can’t, actually, deduce the answer to empirical questions such as “is there a college wage premium.”) But I would put it to you that the most important lesson is actually to be found in the comments. There, you will find dozens of people asserting that Indiviglio is right– while at the same time announcing their own collegiate credentials. The appeal of this sort of piece is that it tells people that everyone else is a stooge who got sold a bill of goods, while allowing them to continue to think of themselves as the outliers. Like I’ve said, everybody seems to want to push this narrative, but no one is willing to abandon their own status as educated people. If you expand Indiviglio’s bio, you see that he proudly announces that he triple majored at Cornell. He’s evidently very proud.

He should be. Cornell is a great school, and triple majoring anywhere is quite an accomplishment. In part, yes, his degree says that he was smart enough to get into Cornell. But it also says that he accomplished the vast number of tasks required to get a diploma from the school.  It must have taken hundreds or thousands of hours of work and the production of hundreds of pages of academic text. Does Indiviglio imagine that this had no impact on his life? That he learned nothing, developed no skills, acquired no useful traits or habits? I can’t imagine doing anything for as long as college takes without being changed by the experience.

I’m sorry to say that his bio shares space with a post that flatly mocks the idea that cops or plumbers or other proles should be educated. And this, finally, is the point of all of these arguments: the authors, and their enlightened readership, are of course educated and brilliant. It’s everybody else who got fooled and has a worthless degree. This isn’t just irresponsible and juvenile journalism which leaves its readership less informed than they were before. It’s yet another salvo in reporting as a vehicle for petty resentment, class war waged with the ugly pretense that it is being done for those being mocked, and anti-intellectualism dressed up as public service. I don’t expect any review or correction from the august Atlantic— such self-criticism is beneath their hallowed station– but I do hope people will realize that lazy deduction is no substitute for responsible empirical study.






92 replies
  1. 1
    Bob says:

    Shorter Indiviglio: triple majoring at Cornell made me employable somehow by sheer dint of brand name.

    See: Megan references to U.Penn/UChicago for more. among other pundits.

  2. 2
    Foxhunter says:

    In the virtual pages of the Atlantic —where else? they’ve become a one-stop anti-intellectual shop…

    This phenomenon isn’t just restricted to their online pontificating. It has crept into their dead tree editions, as well. Which is the exact reason why I hit the cxcl button on my subscription at the last renewal.

    It went from marginal in the last 4 or 5 years to absolutely awful in the last 12 months.

  3. 3
    eric says:

    You don’t get a pulitzer for writing “college, good.”

  4. 4
    Han's Solo says:

    Sigh.

    Remember back in the early days of the Tea Party when the teabaggers were telling us that cable conversion boxes were brain washing us? Remember them telling us we should burn all books and not let our children go to college because college is where brain washing goes into overdrive?

    Here is an exchange:

    Woman: [Shouts] “Burn the books!” [applause]

    Man: “I don’t think you were serious about that, were you?”

    Woman: “I am too.”

    Man: “Burn all the books?!”

    Woman: “The ones in college, those, those brainwashing books.”

    Man: “[laughs] Brainwashing books?”

    Woman: “Yes.”

    Man: “Which ones are those?”

    Woman: “Like, the evolution crap, and, yeah…”

    If you missed it here is partial video. The full video was yanked from youtube, but snippets remain.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21.....1#30197921

  5. 5
    NonyNony says:

    In other words, Indiviglio is asserting that the perceived value of college is very close to entirely the product of selection bias. College doesn’t produce better students, it simply filters out the less motivated or intelligent in its selection process.

    And it’s just a coincidence that since Indiviglio graduated from a well-established college with a good name, he has no personal interest in believing that the college education itself has little to do with his success and that his success is entirely based on his own personal merits….

    That’s probably a good-sized chunk of what’s going on here – in modern day America it’s a weakness to believe that your success could come from any factors other than ones that are totally internal. If you believe that a good-sized chunk of your success comes from the fact that you were lucky enough to be born into a well-off family that could afford to put you through good primary and secondary schools and send you off to a good college, then you have to look around and see that the system truly is unfair. But if you believe that you did it all on your own merit then the system isn’t unfair, the “losers” out there are all losers because they’re just not as good as you are.

    The Atlantic is now chock-full of writers who have that worldview – which isn’t surprising. My generation (X) was raised in Reagan Revolution Land where that worldview was pretty much drilled into us day and night. “Rugged individualism” – if you fail it’s because you’re a failure and if you succeed it’s because you’re a success. Your place in society has nothing to do with it.

  6. 6
    John X. says:

    The Atlantic has sucked ever since it left New York and eviscerated its arts and literature sections. Some kind of change was probably necessary, but moving to D.C. turned it into another microphone for the ever-dull Washington think tank set.

    It’s not just that it became more conservative. The Atlantic was always the poor man’s New Yorker. Now, it’s the poor man’s National Review.

    Which is just sad.

  7. 7
    daveNYC says:

    I don’t even get what their point is when they say college is overrated. As long as employers want their employees to have a college degree, then pretty much nothing else matters.

  8. 8
    Belafon (formerly anonevent) says:

    …it simply filters out the less motivated or intelligent in its selection process.

    It might be an expensive way to do that, but I would regard this part to be a feature, not a bug. I’m not saying that it’s the only thing you get out of college – I got a lot out of getting my masters – but it is one.

  9. 9
  10. 10
    John X. says:

    There is a nugget of a valid idea here. With the federal and state governments withdrawing financial support for colleges and endowments and donations decimated by the financial crash, the nation’s public university systems are increasingly becoming too expensive for their intended student body.

    Student loan debt is non-dischargable through bankruptcy, and the types of jobs that paid the wages to justify those debts are flying out of the country. For people who lose their jobs, that debt can become crippling in a way that credit cards and underwater homes would not. If nothing is done, this is going to reach a crisis point.

    So, in our current libertarian fantasy land, the ideal solution is to discourage people from getting those expensive college degrees. As the tony private Ivys that graduate our Masters of the Universes are doing fine, it’s not hard to figure out that the “tough but fair” solution is to cripple and eliminate the state-supported system, since the true elite colleges will continue to produce leaders with “real” college degrees.

    It’s a win-win. The wealthy get their taxes cut and regain college education as a status symbol. It’s lost some shine, as way too many public school graduates from humble backgrounds have gone on to out-shine Ivy graduates, which calls into question whether or not those expensive schools are actually better than their public counterparts.

  11. 11
    BO_Bill says:

    Jefferson advocated a series of standardized testing and publically funded educations in the useful arts and sciences for the most Talented Americans. The value of this investment was that the development of these minds would provide a defense against the powers of Wealth and Birth regarding the government of the country.

    This system has broken down and the ‘elite’ schools are now largely institutions designed to systematically exclude Talent, and instead protect government-media-directorship positions for those of Wealth and Birth. There are two mechanisms:

    1. Legacy Scholarships allocate seats to those of Wealth and Birth (George Bush, Barack Obama).
    2. Affirmative Action Scholarships allocate a significant percentage of the balance of the seats to low-performing individuals, minimizing the number of seats available for Talented persons (Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan) who possess the ability to challenge the power structure.

    The consequence of a couple of decades of these practices has been the lowering of standards to the point where graduates of these grooming schools cannot compete with graduates of traditional programs, that, like, make you take Mathematics, and fail you out if you cannot handle it.

    Barack, in all fairness, is quite dumb.

  12. 12
    HRA says:

    In my work environment, it is not only needing a college degree to get employed. It has become needing a college degree to get promoted to an in-house state level job.
    They did a mass promotion in another unit of my department before everyone had a college degree. Now we have a bevy of MLS holders who are doing basically what they would have been doing without the state level promotion in addition to forming committees for gardening, genealogy, book club, etc.

  13. 13
    nitpicker says:

    Indiviglio is right, I can’t see any reason why we might want to educate our plumbers and cops in a society in which those plumbers and cops get to vote for their leaders and, therefore, the direction of our nation as a whole. What a waste!

  14. 14

    It is very lucrative to attack universities and schools, since corporations want to replace them with for-profit private enterprise. The Atlantic’s employees are not libertarian-types, they are shills and propagandists who pretend to be libertarian-types.

    McArdle et al do not have principles, they have expenses. Follow the money.

  15. 15
    Freddie deBoer says:

    1. Legacy Scholarships allocate seats to those of Wealth and Birth (George Bush, Barack Obama).

    Uh… what? Barack Obama was born to an impoverished mother and an absentee father, in Hawaii, at a time when interracial children were discriminated against and African foreigners like his father had the absolute opposite of high social standing.

  16. 16
    Pococurante says:

    Most of these articles are making the point that borrowing should be appropriate to the career. That’s a sane calculus.

    I’ve always found it perverse that some of the lowest paying sectors demand advanced graduate education.

    Companies do select for college the first decade of a young person’s career. After that the focus really is on accomplishment. I have a bachelor’s and work on a team where all my colleagues are masters and doctorates from schools like Yale and Stanford. I earn more than them. I have no interest in a more advanced degree.

    In data a degree can appear preferential due solely to the degree itself. But more often it shows that the person has self-selected towards achievement. Non-degreed achievers get lost in data because the are finite in number compared to the overall population. And they are often too busy to participate in surveys. Degreed data often comes from employers.

    So basically researchers will despite their best efforts not always get representative data where cause/effect are more easily extracted.

  17. 17
    Freddie deBoer says:

    Most of these articles are making the point that borrowing should be appropriate to the career. That’s a sane calculus.

    Of course. There’s no substitute for an adequately funded state university system, which we once had in this country and now largely don’t. A tremendous amount of the perceived problem would be removed if we just funded public U’s at levels equal to those in the 1980’s.

  18. 18
    grape_crush says:

    …they’ve become a one-stop anti-intellectual shop

    Dunno. Indiviglio and McCardle are canceled out by Fallows and Coates, in my humble opinion.

  19. 19
    LGRooney says:

    This is all of the same piece as the “I got mine, the rest of you can fuck off!” mentality in the upper economic reaches of our society. As more people are educated, their credentials seem less special and, therefore, they feel less special. “How do you expect me to feel the prestige of my birthright if anyone can claim the same accomplishments?!”

    On the other hand, the MBA degree in my experience and in general isn’t much more than three letters to add to your resume.

  20. 20
    Vishnu Schist says:

    It’s just another front in the war to roll back the entire 20th century, well from 1930 or so on. Having made significant gains in destroying secondary education, now on to the collegiate level. I agree with John X in that the public university system is the next front. The whole point here is that the masters of the universe don’t see the current American and European social model as sustainable. How does one complete with India and China when they can pay workers at what would be a starvation level here in the states? The thrust here is to create an underclass of Americans who are stupid and willing to do anything. As Brother Mouzone said in the The Wire; “Do you know who the most dangerous man in America is? A ni**er with a library card”.

  21. 21
    BO_Bill says:

    The Dunham’s sent Barack to the exclusive and private Punahou college preparatory high school. The annual tuition to attend this school is $17,800, plus fees today. People of modest means to not spend $20k/year to send their darling children to high school. The grandmother mother was a bank vice president and the grandfather was in the furniture business.

  22. 22
    RP says:

    reposted from the other thread:

    Aren’t you assuming your conclusion about the benefits of a college education? Even if I grant that a college education is valuable in today’s market because of a wage premium, that doesn’t say much about whether today’s market makes a lot of sense. Put another way, we’ve gotten to a point where a college degree is very valuable because employers demand them. That doesn’t mean employers are necessarily right to demand them and that we couldn’t come up with a better system overall that serves all of our interests more effectively.

    You can’t wave away these issues by shouting “elitism!”

  23. 23
    grendelkhan says:

    Oh, come on. There’s no good economic case to be made for dropping nearly a quarter-million bucks on private school when you can spend two years at community college and two years at public school (or a year of AP classes, a year in CC and two at public university if they’re particularly bright) for, literally, a tenth of the cost, especially when there’s almost certainly no job waiting out there for a new graduate.

    I don’t think people who went to college more than a decade ago really understand the degree to which things have changed. People who went to college in the sixties sure as hell don’t–back then, you could pay your way through school working a part-time service job.

    But in a broader sense, it’s amazing, the degree to which supposedly open questions really aren’t. Whether it’s Scott Adams being certain that men are natural rapists, or Eric Raymond and his commenters deciding that research on rape rates isn’t as valuable as masculine intuition, it is astonishing how bad some people are at turning settled matters into open questions.

  24. 24
    Freddie deBoer says:

    Well, RP, the point is that these studies don’t assume the benefits of college. Rather, they attempt to ascertain the benefits after correcting for inconsistent inputs. College educated workers outperform their peers without college educations even when you adjust for difference in input effects.

    Certainly, the degree to which employers desire a college diploma independent of consistently demonstrable differences in employee performance is a confouding variable. I would argue a few things. First, ultimately, those who attack college as an investment are talking about economic outputs, and we consistently find that economic outputs are improved by attending college even after correcting for selection factors. To critique colleges based on their perceived failure as investment vehicles, and then to look for other metrics to adjudicate the difference than wage outputs, seems to me to rig the game.

    Secondly, I do have to place a certain amount of faith in the idea that employers are at least minimally aware of what constitutes an effective employee. Once you’ve corrected for ability effects, you’re still left with employers consistently rewarding college educated workers above the alternative. What mechanism would likely be contributing to that dynamic if it doesn’t come from some perceived advantage in employing college workers? (That is, from perceived superior output from college educated workers?) Ultimately, I don’t know that it’s even theoretically possible to have a metric for employment success that is divorced from employer review.

    The simplest answer is surely not always the correct one, but absent of a compelling argument for a different answer, I feel confident concluding that college is a value adding proposition. I appreciate the interest in looking for systematic biases, but I have yet to hear either a plausible deductive case for what could be creating such a bias, an empirical case demonstrating such a bias, or an analytical case for abandoning employer preference as a key criterion for employee success.

  25. 25
    ira-NY says:

    Why has the cost of college gone so high?

    I went thru college working half-assed summer jobs. I could make about $2000 in the summer. Tuition was around $600.
    Shared a ratty apartment with Flintstone and Rubble and with a bit of help from dad had plenty of money for the ladies and beer. Did not borrow a dime.

  26. 26
    Freddie deBoer says:

    Oh, come on. There’s no good economic case to be made for dropping nearly a quarter-million bucks on private school when you can spend two years at community college and two years at public school (or a year of AP classes, a year in CC and two at public university if they’re particularly bright) for, literally, a tenth of the cost, especially when there’s almost certainly no job waiting out there for a new graduate.

    1. I don’t know who’s making the case that spending a quarter million dollars on private school is an economically sound proposition; I certainly am not.

    2. It is simply factually inaccurate to say that there is almost certainly no job waiting for a new graduate. The latest figures I’ve seen say that the unemployment rate for college graduates is 4.7%– or half that of the population as a whole. In other words, better than 95% of work-seeking college graduates are employed!

  27. 27
    Chris says:

    @ Vishnu,

    How does one complete with India and China when they can pay workers at what would be a starvation level here in the states?

    More than that, in China (don’t know about India), you’ve got a government that’ll lock you up forever or kill you if you so much as look at them funny. That kind of power allows you to force your workers to accept just about anything, because the alternative’s a bullet to the head.

    It’s not just about having to compete with lower-wage workforces. In order to compete with China, we’d literally have to gut the entire constitution, set up a police state and restore slavery. When “the hand of the market” forces you to do that, I think it might be time to start questioning its goddamn all-seeing wisdom.

    Course, I’m a DFH. And since I don’t want the Market-God to bring the U.S. down to the level of a communist state, that probably means I’m a communist too.

  28. 28
    murbella says:

    The simplest answer is surely not always the correct one, but absent of a compelling argument for a different answer, I feel confident concluding that college is a value adding proposition.

    wallah you intransigent assclown.
    The “bias” is cognitive ability and parental SES you retard. Rich parents can pay for a better education, give a better growth environment, and cognitive ability stratifies students.
    Haven’t ypu read Ross & Reihan’s epic Grand New Party?
    Look up Salam-Douthat stratification on cognitive ability, page 152.

  29. 29
    Freddie deBoer says:

    Hello, matoko. As I’ve made clear, I’m not really interested in engaging with you. However: “The ‘bias’ is cognitive ability and parental SES you retard.” Those are, in fact, precisely the input effects that are corrected for in the extant literature.

    RS and others, check it.

  30. 30
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    There’s no good economic case to be made for dropping nearly a quarter-million bucks on private school…

    Let’s also be realistic; the vast majority of private universities provide significant financial aid to many of their students. Few pay the rack rate. Does a degree from, let’s say, Williams make make more sense if it actually costs about the same as a degree from a state school? I would say that it does.

  31. 31
    Anonne says:

    It is factually inaccurate to say that the opportunities for new graduates are that high – unemployment across the country is over 9%, why would you think that it is half of that for people with NO EXPERIENCE? They might be employed, but not utilizing the newfound skills. Employed at McDonald’s is still employed.

  32. 32
    JCJ says:

    As a product of state schools (Purdue University BS, Indiana University MD) I always wonder why the cost of private universities is cited. My daughter is currently a student at the Univesity of Wisconsin. Articles which decry the cost of college by giving the total for four years at private universities are on shaky ground right from the start, IMHO. Furthermore, my daughter was accepted at some private schools where the scholarships offered would have brought the cost down to be comparable to the in state tuition at UW.

  33. 33
    Chris says:

    What’s “murbella?” I knew what Hermione and Ghanima were referencing, but I’ve never heard of this one.

  34. 34
    Freddie deBoer says:

    It is factually inaccurate to say that the opportunities for new graduates are that high – unemployment across the country is over 9%, why would you think that it is half of that for people with NO EXPERIENCE? They might be employed, but not utilizing the newfound skills. Employed at McDonald’s is still employed.

    I quoted employment statistics and showed evidence. I didn’t discuss quality of employment, which is an entirely different issue. If you’re under the impression that you are more likely to work at McDonald’s with a college degree than you are without one, I have to say I’m skeptical, although I don’t have that data sitting in front of me.

  35. 35
    KXB says:

    There seems to be an unwillingness by the “college is always a good investment” crowd to factor in costs. This is not that different from the “a home is always a good investment crowd.” and we saw how well that turn out.

    If you want to be an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer – by all means, pursue higher education. If you want to go into a certain aspect of business – banking, finance, accounting – find a school that caters to those interests so that you can learn the basics and hone your skills.

    But, if you do not know what you want to do, does it make sense to spend 4 years and tens of thousands of dollars to try and figure that out? For that matter, why does a bachelor’s degree even take 4 years anymore? Given the efficiencies of the internet, collecting information in a library, which used to be how most students spent their time, takes a lot less time now. When I went to college in 1991, few students had their own computers – most still had to go to the library and wait for one. By the time my sister went to college in 2002, she was sent off with her own laptop and had internet in her dorm. Improved efficiencies and computing power should drive costs down, not up.

    Secondly, as far as pursuing advanced degrees – in the hard sciences, most of those degrees are pursued by foreign born students. Because of their visa status, they are more subject to abuse by corrupt faculty, that make them work ungodly hours on “their” research. And when it comes time to profit from that research, rest assured most of the benefits will accrue to faculty. If the research does not yield the desired results, well the blame is placed on the student.

    Is the ability to think clearly, which is the argument that the defenders of liberal arts make, only acquired in a college classroom? That is a conceit of the baby boom generation, not really supported by the facts. It seems the argument is “You just want a dumb populace” is the best counter-argument.

  36. 36
    jheartney says:

    One thing to bear in mind is that we’ve had chronically underperforming job creation for some time, coupled with a very successful project by the plutocracy to move personal income towards themselves and away from everyone else. The result is a dog-eat-dog employment market where establishing even moderate economic security requires extraordinary efforts.

    In this context colleges (especially prestigious universities) are able to command a large premium given that they are the sole ticket to even moderate economic success. At the same time, large numbers of students are pushed towards college whether it makes sense for their ability levels/career paths or not, as not having the degree means unemployment, regardless of whether the jobs in question actually require a degree.

    On top of all that funding for affordable state institutions is being systematically cut, exacerbating both affordability and access problems for the non-wealthy.

    Though the state institutions ought to have funding restored, I think the best answer isn’t to keep shoveling people and money into colleges. It’s to do something about job creation and income disparity.

  37. 37
    sneezy says:

    Did Indiviglio do any research at all for his piece?

    I doubt it. That would be contrary to lazy, glib incompetence by which The Atlantic apparently wants to distinguish itself. It’s no more likely that he did any research than it is that McArdle checks her math or allows her writing to be edited into something resembling intelligibility.

  38. 38
    Freddie deBoer says:

    There seems to be an unwillingness by the “college is always a good investment” crowd to factor in costs.

    Who is a member of the “college is always a good investment” crowd? Cite and link responsibly. I, certainly, have never made that claim. In fact, on this very blog I have said several times that there are many people going to college who shouldn’t. My argument is that the evidence is overwhelming that for a large majority of the students who graduate from college the investment shows high returns.

    But, if you do not know what you want to do, does it make sense to spend 4 years and tens of thousands of dollars to try and figure that out?

    I am here making an argument about financial sense, and again, for the large majority of college graduates, the answer in financial terms is yes. That is what the data shows across a large swath of reputable academic literature, even when correcting for ability effects.

    Secondly, as far as pursuing advanced degrees – in the hard sciences, most of those degrees are pursued by foreign born students. Because of their visa status, they are more subject to abuse by corrupt faculty, that make them work ungodly hours on “their” research. And when it comes time to profit from that research, rest assured most of the benefits will accrue to faculty. If the research does not yield the desired results, well the blame is placed on the student.

    Advanced degrees are a separate argument, but as the data will show, the unemployment rate is far, far lower for those with advanced degrees and they are much better remunerated than their peers. The wages of academic work are complicated and require care to discuss, but it is worth saying that despite the dynamic you’re asserting, foreign nationals continue to find it in their best interest to come here and research.

    Is the ability to think clearly, which is the argument that the defenders of liberal arts make, only acquired in a college classroom? That is a conceit of the baby boom generation, not really supported by the facts. It seems the argument is “You just want a dumb populace” is the best counter-argument.

    That is not the argument; that is a part of the deductive justification for the observed facts, which are that college graduates earn more and are employed at a higher percentage. The best counter-argument is a mountain of empirical data, meticulously generated and checked through a rigorous peer-review process.

  39. 39
    nitpicker says:

    It is factually inaccurate to say that the opportunities for new graduates are that high – unemployment across the country is over 9%, why would you think that it is half of that for people with NO EXPERIENCE?

    Um…

  40. 40
    KXB says:

    The Simpsons – Comments about Grad Students

    http://youtu.be/XViCOAu6UC0

  41. 41
    nitpicker says:

    Is the ability to think clearly, which is the argument that the defenders of liberal arts make, only acquired in a college classroom?

    Not at all, but I didn’t pick up an understanding of GDP working in the back of a welding shop.

  42. 42
    Suffern ACE says:

    @sneezy – it does make you wonder, though. Perhaps a Colgate College grad would have learned how to do research whereas at Cornell those things aren’t really all that important. At Cornell as at the other Ivies, perhaps the stress is on learning how to write with confidence…research would be a weakness. Since there is no real reward for research, as the Ivy leaguers fill up the top end of the policy and opinion ranks-we end up being governed by the hunches and gut instincts, and gender insecurities of a pampered elite.

  43. 43
    KXB says:

    How can you be sure of that? I learned about GDP just by reading a newspaper as a kid, and a basic economics course in high school. Maybe the welder did the same. Is knowing GDP necessary to be a successful welder? My accountant father knows about GDP, that did not prevent him from losing his shirt on oil futures a couple of years ago.

    Will a person with just a high school education have a tougher time in the job market than a college grad? Yes. Does that make any economic sense? No, since not all college grads are of the same value. A guy who started welding after high school would be far more responsible than some frat boy who spent his time doing beer bongs and scheduling time at the campus clinic.

    Why should the cost of an engineering degree be the same as humanities? After all, when you go shopping for a car, there are different types and categories of car depending upon what you need it for, and how much you can afford. If a certain degree program is likely to lead to a lower income upon graduation, shouldn’t it cost less than a degree that, on average, yields a higher income?

  44. 44
    Console says:

    As a college dropout who managed to eventually make something of himself, I tend to go back and forth on this issue. The two opposing ideas of treating the world as it is rather then as I’d like it to be are what get me.

    So while I can accept that college grants certain skills, I also see that these skills are generic and not worth 10K a year to learn. And really you simply end up with a tiered society that becomes separated by ability to pay for a degree rather than ability.

    I’m really sensitive to this because I work a job that pays better than anything I’d get with an undergrad degree (air traffic control) and whose aptitude level is based almost entirely on raw IQ and personality. Sure you have to be smart to go to Cornell, but that doesn’t mean you can solve visual logic puzzles way faster than the average man. It doesn’t mean you’re decisive or quick witted under pressure. I work a job where instead of your initial fear being that your resume isn’t good enough to get the job… your initial fear becomes am I actually even good enough to make it through training. And to me, every job should be like that.

    But even after saying all that, when I have children, the focus will be college. Because no matter how much bullshit I think it is. No matter how sad I think the fact that the best thing you can say college teaches you is… time management, I can’t deny the signaling power of a degree.

  45. 45
    KXB says:

    “So while I can accept that college grants certain skills, I also see that these skills are generic and not worth 10K a year to learn.”

    10K a year? Those are prices from the early 90s.

  46. 46
    kwAwk says:

    A college diploma increases wages even for those whose jobs don’t require them, demonstrating that the metaskills and life lessons learned at college such as time management, discipline, and research focus improve outcomes for people even if they don’t use every direct skill they learn in their professional lives.

    You could be putting the cart before the horse. It could be that time management, discipline and research focus are all skill already possessed by people inclined to finish college degrees, thus college may select out those skills, but doesn’t necessarily produce them, and even if it does teach the skill it isn’t the only place that does teach them.

    The notion that non-transferrable skills are not subject to bubbles is beyond ludicrous. There was a time when being a skilled jazz singer would make you one of the highest paid people in the entertainment industry. Not so much anymore. Those ‘skills’ are not so much in demand anymore but being a rapper on the other hand is very much in demand right now. In 20 years? Probably not so much.

    The truth is companies won’t advance people who don’t have college degrees simply because they are using a college degree and college branding to sort out candidates, but that doesn’t inherently mean that a candidate from one school or another is more qualified or will perform better. It’s simply an orderly process of selection. Its easier than actually evaluating people individually.

  47. 47
    Suffern ACE says:

    KXB – How can you be sure of that? I learned about GDP just by reading a newspaper as a kid, and a basic economics course in high school.

    You were dealing with a different set of standards of journalism than we have nowdays. It is less likely today that someone who spends time reading newspapers or watching news shows gains a better understanding of much of anything, let alone economics. Good lord, newsweek just devoted it’s cover to a speculation as to what Lady Di would look like and be up to had she lived to 50.

  48. 48
    John X. says:

    Let’s also be realistic; the vast majority of private universities provide significant financial aid to many of their students. Few pay the rack rate. Does a degree from, let’s say, Williams make make more sense if it actually costs about the same as a degree from a state school? I would say that it does.

    Again, it depends.

    If you are planning to go into business or government, the name brand value of your education is going to be more important than the academic experience. If you are going into the sciences, engineering or academia, the resources and depth of faculty at a top state school is going to be far more beneficial.

    One of the deep secrets of the applied sciences and research communities is that the Ivies aren’t all that special when it comes to producing trained professionals. Ivy departments tend to have top names, but they’re hired for their research and not teaching skills. If you look at the Nobel laureates in the sciences of the last 50 years, the Ivies do not dominate. If there is a system that does produce continual excellence, based on number of laureates produces, it’s the old California system of the 60s-90s.

    Bankers, publishing houses and government agencies prize the Ivy degree. When you get into jobs where ability matters more than political connections, the Ivy advantage diminishes quite a bit.

  49. 49
    RSA says:

    For that matter, why does a bachelor’s degree even take 4 years anymore? Given the efficiencies of the internet, collecting information in a library, which used to be how most students spent their time, takes a lot less time now.

    Well, we have two hundred years of experience with four-year degrees, and with the Internet we now ask students to do things in different ways. I think three-year degrees are reasonable, but on average we shouldn’t expect three-year degree holders to have learned as much as four-year degree holders. The comparison isn’t between, say, the graduate of 2015 and the graduate of 1970.

  50. 50
    Freddie deBoer says:

    You could be putting the cart before the horse. It could be that time management, discipline and research focus are all skill already possessed by people inclined to finish college degrees, thus college may select out those skills, but doesn’t necessarily produce them, and even if it does teach the skill it isn’t the only place that does teach them.

    Did you bother to read the post? That is precisely what is corrected for when considering ability effects!

    You cannot contradict data with supposition. Sorry. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that the dominant majority of college graduates derive significant financial benefit compared to investment by getting their degrees. That’s the empirically tested and justified reality. We can talk about issues on the margins, and I’m happy to, but you can’t will away the data, and I really don’t understand why people want to. What is the motive behind looking for this effect?

  51. 51
    KXB says:

    “You were dealing with a different set of standards of journalism than we have nowdays. It is less likely today that someone who spends time reading newspapers or watching news shows gains a better understanding of much of anything, let alone economics”

    I’m afraid I cannot agree. Yes, much of what passes for journalism, such as the recent nonsense over Anthony Weiner, is very discouraging. But if you ignore that tabloid fodder, and most cable news, there is still plenty of quality journalism out there. The Economist, the Financial Times, NY times (aside from their editorials), WSJ (also aside from their editorials) produce some informative articles. As for the recent Newsweek cover, while I would skip the Lady Di cover story, I would want to know what other articles are inside the issue. I certainly hope you are not judging solely by the cover.

  52. 52
    KXB says:

    “Bankers, publishing houses and government agencies prize the Ivy degree. When you get into jobs where ability matters more than political connections, the Ivy advantage diminishes quite a bit.”

    True – I work with stuctural/civil engineers. The names that pop up are Michigan, Purdue, UW-Madison – Ivies are notable by their absence. Also, a substantial percentage of the top professionals in this field hail from overseas – India, China, the Middle East.

  53. 53
    Chris says:

    For that matter, why does a bachelor’s degree even take 4 years anymore? Given the efficiencies of the internet, collecting information in a library, which used to be how most students spent their time, takes a lot less time now.

    Just out of curiosity, does anyone also think that GenEds are a waste? I mean, if you think everybody should have a basic understanding of English, math and science, that’s fine, but that’s what school is for. You oughta be able to move onto other things in college without having to rehash that stuff…

  54. 54
    KXB says:

    BTW – my sister has a Master’s in Chemistry. She should be in demand right? Wrong – she is working two jobs – as a part-time instructor at a community college and as a tutor in a test-prep course. Because she does not have a Ph.D., she is not qualified for really high end job in her fields. But, because she has a Master’s, she is too qualified for an entry-level job anymore.

    My brother has a Ph.D in electrical engineering from an Ivy, yet he now makes a successful career in IT, in a field mostly unrelated to his Ph.D. His connections at a top consulting firm opened up more opportunities for him. While it worked out for him, it still seems to be an awfully expensive way for what was essentially a credentialing service.

  55. 55
    Marc says:

    I’m an academic. There is a whole lot of “missing the point” going on here in the comments. Your uninformed opinion does not counter evidence for global climate change or evolution. It also does not counter statistical evidence from the social sciences, provided the latter is done properly.

    You may have had a lousy time in college or an abusive advisor in graduate school. College may have been a bad investment for you. But that proves nothing about the mean.

    The idea that expertise in a subject means nothing is popular among many on the net. It’s tragically wrong, and folks on the left shouldn’t fall for it.

  56. 56
    RP says:

    My argument is that the evidence is overwhelming that for a large majority of the students who graduate from college the investment shows high returns.

    Ok, but so what? This point standing alone isn’t very interesting.

  57. 57
    John X. says:

    Just out of curiosity, does anyone also think that GenEds are a waste? I mean, if you think everybody should have a basic understanding of English, math and science, that’s fine, but that’s what school is for. You oughta be able to move onto other things in college without having to rehash that stuff…

    General ed courses are great!

    Universities admit students from across the globe, which means that they draw from a pool with massively divergent quality in basic education. Without general ed courses, you are penalizing children for growing up in areas with deficient basic ed courses.

  58. 58
    Marc says:

    @53: I learned, for example, how to write papers in my humanities classes. Since this is much of what I actually do in my professional work, I’d say that those classes were extremely important.

    And I also value the life of the mind, a lot. The classes in women’s history, hindu philosophy, cell biology, and reading the Tale of Genji didn’t have a lot of applications. But I enjoyed, and learned a lot from, studying these things.

    Everything isn’t about money.

  59. 59
    RP says:

    It also does not counter statistical evidence from the social sciences, provided the latter is done properly.

    I hear what you’re saying, but I think it’s perfectly fair to be skeptical of studies like this. Doesn’t mean people should just ignore the data, but controlling for the variables on a subject like this has got to be extremely difficult, and there’s nothing wrong with healthy skepticism.

  60. 60
    KXB says:

    “You may have had a lousy time in college or an abusive advisor in graduate school. College may have been a bad investment for you. But that proves nothing about the mean.”

    Stockbrokers make a similar argument about their field. “Sure, you took a bath in 2008. But over your lifetime, nothing beats stocks.” Yes, over my lifetime, that may be the case. But after 2008, who was the money to just start over with stocks again?

    You want to talk about data? OK, total student debt now exceeds total credit card debt. Is the quality and value of education that much better now than 20 years ago?

  61. 61
    kwAwk says:

    Did you bother to read the post? That is precisely what is corrected for when considering ability effects!

    Yes, I read the post but I’m not sure I agree with the premise of it. When dealing with prejudice, in this case against college grads, then the normal adjustment factors would go out the window.

    In order to test a theory scientifically, you’d have to have two control populations, one in which prejudice against non-college grads exists and one in which it doesn’t. Since the one in which it doesn’t does not exist then the researchers (probably college professors with some bias towards proving college is worthwhile) would have to make some assumptions the validity of which may or may not hold up.

    I’ve often heard that college grads make $1 MM or so more than non-college grads over the course of lifetime and I always wonder if that takes into account that the value of $100,000 (educational costs) over a 40 year career compounded at only 5% per year equals the equivalent of $1 MM.

    And really, as you note even in careers where a college degree isn’t required getting a college degree would indicate a motivation to advance in the career inherent in the candidate prior to them enrolling in college, perhaps cultivated by a college but not instilled by one.

  62. 62
    KXB says:

    “Everything isn’t about money.”

    Not from the university’s POV. If they can’t charge for it, they won’t offer it.

  63. 63
    John X. says:

    You want to talk about data? OK, total student debt now exceeds total credit card debt. Is the quality and value of education that much better now than 20 years ago?

    The college debt/cost of college issue is a separate issue from the value of college. Home, fuel and food prices have also risen rapidly in the past two decades, but we don’t debate the value of having a roof over your head, getting to work or eating.

    We are in the middle of a massive breakdown of Western-style capitalism. The money is not being distributed in a way that facilitates the system we have, which is causing social mechanism to fail all over the place.

    It’s falling apart all around us, which makes dealing with these kind of issues as separate and unique problems sort of silly.

  64. 64
    KXB says:

    “The college debt/cost of college issue is a separate issue from the value of college. ”

    No it is not. A degree from Berkeley in the 1970s that cost several thousand dollars, but no debt upon graduation – and now yields a high five or low six figure income is more valuable than a Berkeley degree in 2011 that has five figures of debt immediately upon graduation, even if you allow for a high five or low six figure income 40 years from now.

    “Home, fuel and food prices have also risen rapidly in the past two decades, but we don’t debate the value of having a roof over your head, getting to work or eating.”

    Fuel and food, when accounting for inflation, are cheaper than 40 years ago. Housing costs vary depending on where you live, not just which part of the country, but even within a metro area. Higher education costs have exceeded inflation for decades. People were able to put a roof over their head, get to work, or eat before the “You have to go to college” mindset took over.

  65. 65
    Pococurante says:

    @58 Marc

    Everything isn’t about money.

    Maslow on line 58, Maslow on line 58 please.

  66. 66
    John Puma says:

    College seems to identify those willing to amass huge debt.

  67. 67
    AAA Bonds says:

    As far as I can tell, the advantage of degrees is branding.
    My goal has been to avoid debt while maintaining the brand.

    I was lucky enough to be a resident of a state with a nationally renowned public university system, and passed up a spot at a top 10 private school (and around $180,000 in debt) to take a generous fellowship at my alma mater in a more specialized program.

    I had to weigh “should I gamble on becoming a rock star?” (figuratively speaking) against “how much am I really likely to earn?” Truth is, I’m not a Type-A personality, as all my posting during the workday should indicate; I have no desire to spend years competing with the nation’s top workaholics in a terrible job market.

    The clincher was that the program I’m in now teaches me both IT and management skills, while the program I passed up was, well, law school. There’s a lot of debate on the value of law degrees, but I think everyone can agree that if 90-hour work weeks don’t mesh with your idea of a happy life (and even if they do), a $180,000 JD is a crapshoot in this market.

  68. 68
    Joel says:

    Great takedown…

    I’ll only add that this is form of unchecked argumentation is especially common in science editorials. It’s why I can barely bring myself to read science blogs, or the science section of the newspaper. Too much nonsense.

  69. 69
    McFrank says:

    I believe that one source of the original bad premise is a line of thinking that views classes as a source of grades and a college as a means of producing degrees. To a not insignificant portion of students any knowledge or skills aquired is irrelevant — they are more concerned with what GPA will get them in to Medical School or which degree from X university will get them a job at a firm earning Y dollars. (I’ve also found the same students to be big fans of Ayn Rand .)

    And, of course, one gets exposed to much more than assigned classwork at college. I may have been able to study textbooks without formal class instruction. However, I would not have been exposed to students in degree programs other than my own, to members of different cultures and citizens of foreign countries. In short: different points of view.

    I wonder if this is not part of the underlying reasoning for this issue. Let’s make sure that the working class becomes more parochial! (Homeschooling is NOT enough .)

  70. 70
    KXB says:

    “And, of course, one gets exposed to much more than assigned classwork at college. I may have been able to study textbooks without formal class instruction. However, I would not have been exposed to students in degree programs other than my own, to members of different cultures and citizens of foreign countries. In short: different points of view.”

    Again – you can accomplish that with a library card and a Netflix subscription. Should “exposure” to people who student different subjects or come from different racial backgrounds put people into debt bondage? A trip around the world is cheaper.

  71. 71
    Marc says:

    KXB, you’re not getting that people have different learning styles. There are some folks who can self-teach. But there are many more who benefit from having, well, a teacher to show them things of value to them.

  72. 72
    KXB says:

    Marc,

    What I am not getting is the cost. Has anyone been able to explain or defend the current cost of higher ed?

  73. 73
    KXB says:

    “But there are many more who benefit from having, well, a teacher to show them things of value to them.”

    When I was in B-school, I flunked my statistics course the first time around. When I took it again, I got an A. Yes, it was a shock, but the quality of my instructor the second time around was phenomenal. It was a night and day difference. Yet, I was charged the same amount, despite the fact that the second instructor was so much better. Very different quality of teaching, but the same cost. Does that make sense?

  74. 74
    RSA says:

    You want to talk about data? OK, total student debt now exceeds total credit card debt. Is the quality and value of education that much better now than 20 years ago?

    This tells me that people think an education is worth more than the stuff they’re paying for using credit cards. Some people apparently disagree.

  75. 75
    PGfan says:

    Hi:

    Been lurking for a couple of years – decided to comment now as this is a pet topic of mine. I completed an English degree (BA) in 1982 and, not surprisingly, had some difficulty finding a career path. Since I had no idea what I wanted to do other than having a vague desire to “write” it took some time to find a direction.

    Along the way I worked for an insurance company as a claims adjustor (screamingly boring for me) and then went to work placing recent college graduates into entry-level jobs. I did “head-hunting” for about 4 years, then took a position in a non-profit teaching job-search skills to “dislocated workers” (i.e., individuals without a college degree). I then took a position helping recent MBA graduates find jobs. Now I build websites and write content–English degree put to work in a sense after all(!)

    My observations:
    1. Up through 12th grade education is its own reward. It is also “passive”: learn what you are told and you get a good grade. Your “job” is to suck in information and spew it back out on demand. Some of it will stick, some of it will be practically useful and a lot of it will fade away. Some people are better at sucking-in and spewing-out than others –they are rewarded for that ability. Those who are NOT good at sucking and spewing start down a long path of being considered “less”.

    2. College requires a shift from the passive to the active –something most people never grasp. At one time the sheer possession of a degree was almost always a guarantee of a “good” job–same dynamic as grade/high school. No longer. But way too many people (students AND parents) still approach college from a very passive perspective. They think showing up and doing well is enough. Many think that simply showing up is enough (i.e., that degree with its 2.0 GPA attached should STILL guarantee a good job). The cannier kids figure out doing internships will help them after graduation, but the number of internships relative to students is low. (Just as the ratio of placement personnel to recruitment personnel at colleges is disproportionately low.)

    3. Most people (I was one) assume that “somehow” it will all work out. They bumble into one program or another, complete a degree, and hope the there will be a job market at the other end of the process. They do no real research, either of themselves (what are their true strengths, aptitudes, etc.) nor of the employment market. For many people things DO eventually work out, but not easily or quickly.

    4. Colleges are perfectly happy to take your money whether you’re likely to benefit or not. They have no incentive to help people figure things out. We actually have a terrible non-system in this country when it comes to any kind of career preparation.

    5. Class is very much alive and well in the USA. Ivy League graduates enter a very different job market than do graduates of state schools, smaller Liberal Arts schools, etc. Any discussions about college needs to explicitly separate these tiers. A C-student from Harvard can become President (because he is both rich and well-connected); a C-Student from Cleveland State works at McDonalds. Everything about their life experience is different. The Ivy Leaguer can often afford the unpaid but prestigious internship; the Cleveland Stater works some non-prestigious summer job to pay his bills, which doesn’t enhance his resume or impress recruiters later on.

    This article describes class/education very well: http://www.theamericanscholar......education/

    6. There’s no question that students at any level CAN benefit from learning ANYTHING, if they choose to. But our society, collectively, doesn’t evaluate the “worth” of a degree based on what people learn, but rather on what they will earn. (And how quickly. And how high their debt is in relation to their earnings.)

    7. Personally I’d love to see a much greater emphasis on entrepreneurship education. People graduate from college and hope that someone, somewhere, will “employ” them. I’d love to see people graduating and starting their own businesses. MBA’s DON’T learn entrepreneurship. They’re just another group of people hoping that if they take more classes they will automatically get more money.

    I think community colleges should also create programs specifically aimed at people in skilled trades so that builders, plumbers etc. can run successful businesses.

    8. College statistics should ALWAYS be taken with a grain of salt. College recruiters are salespeople, not counselors.

    9. A large proportion of young male high school graduates are simply too immature to enter college immediately. A lot of money gets thrown away on young, partying idiots who wake up in a few years with lousy grades, large debts and rotten prospects on the job market.

    10. Our entire educational system is out of touch with modern life. Primary/secondary school still reflects its roots as a breeder of obedient worker-bees needed for jobs that existed 40-80 years ago and College/Universities hark back to (literally) medieval notions of education.

    11. All sorts of people break all the rules and become successes without degrees, without rich connections, etc. Those people are invariably resourceful, confident, driven, ACTIVE. They are not passive worker-bees.

    I’ll stop now.

  76. 76
    Marc says:

    You have a real and valid point: the rate of cost inflation for universities is not sustainable. Annual tuition double the median household wage simply won’t be sustainable, at least unless you want to restrict college to a much smaller sliver of the population than you do now.

    The biggest factor has been the abandonment of the idea of affordable public education. What’s changed over the last 30 years is that public universities get almost no public support – in fact, there has been an active debate in a number of states about “privatizing” the universities, with the major barrier being that the state still owns the land and buildings (but pays none of the operating costs.)

    Another ingredient has been pointless competition in expensive luxuries – fancy gyms, dorms, cafeterias; programs with high costs, like study abroad programs; and mushrooming administrative overhead. There is also an academic class structure – less extreme than in business, but real – and as a result there is an effect from a small number of high salaries for “superstars” (and football coaches.)

    The biggest issue is that education is inherently labor-intensive and you simply can’t automate effective learning.

    I’d say that the endgame will involve states actually deciding to pay for public education and giving up the attempt to match the fancy dorms and the like for the students. Then the private schools will be forced via price competition into a different dynamic, eventually; even the Ivies.

  77. 77
    Big Momm says:

    Triple majoring at Cornell? Isn’t that like getting the bronze at the Special Olympics?

  78. 78
    KXB says:

    “This tells me that people think an education is worth more than the stuff they’re paying for using credit cards. Some people apparently disagree.”

    Would you apply that logic to health care costs? “Americans spend more on health care than any other advanced industrial nation because they think their health is worth it.” Or, can it be the cost & incentive structure is completely out of whack?

  79. 79
    cyntax says:

    What I am not getting is the cost. Has anyone been able to explain or defend the current cost of higher ed?

    Yes–it’s actually very simple. We (through the government) are no longer funding college at the levels we used to. That’s been mentioned further up in thread.

  80. 80
    KXB says:

    Cyntax,

    It is not that simple. You have more students going to college than 30 years ago, so there is increased demand. Colleges offer more physical creature comforts than 30 years ago, so there is increased construction and maintenance costs.

    You have a large financial aid industry, so colleges have little incentive to keep costs down. Don’t have the money to pay? Well, let us introduce you to our preferred lenders. After all, if the degree proves of little value, you can’t sue to get your money back. There are no lemon laws in higher ed.

    Higher education needs a shake-up. Too many colleges survive simply by dint of accepting students, who then take out loans they will not be able to pay back. If certain schools show a higher rate of such students, they should be ineligible for receiving student loans.

  81. 81
    cyntax says:

    So you do “get the cost” and you do have a working theory. Fine, why not state that at the outset?

    To your list I would add the increased number of administrators that add quite bit to the costs of college without adding a lot of value. But funding is a huge part of the problem:

    The state has cut its investment in higher education by close to 50 percent since 1980, forcing tuition increases like the 60 percent rise at the University of California from 2004 to 2008, which was followed by a 32 percent rise between 2009 and 2011. Meanwhile, half of California’s students (kindergarten through grade twelve) are now eligible for thefederal school lunch program, up from one-third in 1989. As Mortenson notes, these students will have no personal resources to cover the costs ofattending college, which at UC is nearly $30,000 per year.

    Couple that with the fact the fact that wages have remained flat, and I look to the funding and higher number of administrators as the main drivers. I’d be curious to see how much of the construction costs had to do with sports facilities.

  82. 82
    John X. says:

    Let me put it this way.

    China and India are massively investing in higher education. In the coming decades, the majority of the world’s college graduates will come from those nations.

    If KXB and the GOP are correct, this is a foolish strategy as having a broadly educated population is a waste of resources. If China and India are correct, then the U.S. will be greatly improved by having less people with expensive college degrees.

    Since I suspect high-tech is the future and trade school/starting your own florist are the past, I’m going to bet on the Asians.

  83. 83
    RSA says:

    Would you apply that logic to health care costs? “Americans spend more on health care than any other advanced industrial nation because they think their health is worth it.” Or, can it be the cost & incentive structure is completely out of whack?

    Touche! Good point.

    As Marc points out, a big part of it is the abandonment of public universities by the states. The flagship university in my state, for example, received 22% of its total revenue from state appropriations and state aid. Other local sources of income bring that up to 36%. Add on another 10% for student tuition and we get to 46%. (Students are actually getting a good deal.) Is it plausible that a top-25 U.S. university could have its revenues cut by more than half and still be a good place to go?

  84. 84
    John X. says:

    cyntax,

    I work at a public university in a state that’s taken “cut the administrators” as gospel. It’s not going that well.

    You see, when you have an organization that employs thousands of people, maintains thousands of acres and hundreds of buildings and must accommodate the needs and housing of tens of thousands, you need an administrative staff.

    When you cut that staff, the work does not stop needing to be done. Bills don’t pay themselves. Paperwork needs to be completed. Paychecks need to be cut. After awhile, things start to break down, and the savings turn out to be much smaller than expected, due to the need to contract out people to do the work that did not suddenly do itself.

    Just like solving the real problems of college cost by eliminating all the students but the rich ones does fix the problem – if you define the problem as people paying too much for college – but it also creates a larger problem than it solves.

    I call this GOP think.

  85. 85

    Everything isn’t about money.

    Blasphemy!

    Seriously though. I teach high school. My students who are truly college bound all cite money, and only money, as the reason to go to college. Are my students, generally urban and not well off, representative? Maybe not. But they have absorbed the basic truth about America that often stated on B-J as C.R.E.A.M.

  86. 86
    KXB says:

    John X:

    I cannot speak about China, but I am on firmer ground when it comes it to India. My parents are from there, a number of my peers have done their studies there, and my brother’s IT firm has extensive operations there. Don’t believe everything your read. My brother says that over half the applicants he gets from India for their Indian offices are pure junk. They got their degrees from mills that simply photocopy and distribute books. Just as the Ivy League is not representative of all American colleges, so IIT is not representative of Indian higher ed.

    Also, of those Indians who did go to good schools and graduated with good degrees – that has always been the case. My parents and their generation graduated in the 1960s with good degrees. The problem – there were no jobs due to India’s insular, socialist economy. As India has reformed its economy, now jobs are opening up at home.

    For primary and secondary education – public education in India is an embarrassment. Families save every last rupee to get their kids into even a mediocre private school, since many times, teachers simply don’t show up in a public school, except on payday.

    Indeed, a country will often get a bigger “bang for the buck” in education if it invests more in primary and secondary schooling rather than higher ed. In 1953, South Korea and India had the same GDP per head. But, South Korea focused on basic education, while Nehru felt India should invest in higher ed. He felt such graduates could guide India to a prosperous future. What happened is that such graduates left for America, while South Korea now enjoys a GDP per head higher than the UK.

    I will also have to disagree with you on the role of administrators. The administrative and clerical staff I dealt with during my MBA were cold, impersonal, and thoroughly unprofessional. I joked with my classmates that the university’s motto should be “We Don’t Handle That” in Latin. By contrast, I was always greeted with a gracious “Hello” at the post office & Metro stations.

  87. 87
    cyntax says:

    When you cut that staff, the work does not stop needing to be done. Bills don’t pay themselves. Paperwork needs to be completed. Paychecks need to be cut. After awhile, things start to break down, and the savings turn out to be much smaller than expected, due to the need to contract out people to do the work that did not suddenly do itself.

    John X.–We have to define our terms. I’m not talking about administrative staff but the administrators–the ones who get paid many times more that what teachers do, let alone what the people who pay the bills get paid. There’s been quite an increase in these managerial positions over the last 10 or so years.

  88. 88
    John X. says:

    cyntax,

    There is some truth there, but not as much as you think. There are administrators who make more than the faculty. They also make much less than counterparts who manage private organizations of the same size.

    You can say “let’s pay them what teacher’s make.” Then you can have the fun of an entire staff on a payscale that averages out at about $45K. Since university administrators are people who can also get jobs for other employers, you are going to have pay a comparable rate.

    A typical colonel in the Army has command of around 5,000 people and makes around $175K. A university chancellor will have command of around 20,000 at around $250,000.

    Like teachers, these people are not paid an absurdly high amount for the level of education, responsibility and staff. Salaries in academic administration far below private industry and federal government payrates.

    Basically, Americans have no idea what people should cost. It’s especially bad for people who work in government, as they have to deal with the fact that most people get paid shit for what they do, do not realize this and consequently get upset at the fact that their public employees make more than them.

  89. 89
    Marc says:

    Yes and no John. For example, our University just put in an additional level of people who have to approve expenditures due to an additional layer of structural bureaucracy. The only tangible effect so far is that it takes longer to get paid back for trips. And it costs more. There are other examples I can give as well (an expensive and badly conceived electronic HR system, for instance; or a cumbersome electronic replacement for curriculum issues.)

    The point here is that, yes, a lot of these layers are counterproductive. Cutting the one administrator or Infotech person in the department, on the other hand, leads to nothing good.

  90. 90
    Jason says:

    John X and cyntax –

    This is actually a paralyzing discussion we’ve had at my employer, a midsize state uni positioned relatively well against the smaller state schools in our system. Like others, we have a new (R) governor who came into budget talks with a proposal to cut 50% from the system budget. Coinciding with the end of stimulus funds, this meant a lot of jobs.

    Contingent faculty went first, and the way our CBA is sorted, any retrenchment would start at the program level and not be decided by individual seniority. Regardless, people started discussing which administrative positions – staff and managerial – to cut.

    What it boiled down to was not an attitude about the growth of administration – we’re all aware of it – but a focus on the mission of the university. Not as an empty rhetorical gesture, either; we were right in the middle of a review for an important accreditation. So our decisions had real consequences for a number of processes not directly related to the budget itself. In the end, administrators were cut first because we could not fulfill the mission of the university elsewhere (and our capital funding – the way we pay for new buildings and such – is untouchable).

  91. 91
    AAA Bonds says:

    @Marc:

    The biggest issue is that education is inherently labor-intensive and you simply can’t automate effective learning.

    Here’s some empirical evidence to back you up:

    http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/PE.....ummary.pdf

    http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/PE.....Report.pdf

    Long story short, a study of the UNC system found that online courses cost universities the same or slightly more than traditional classroom courses.

  92. 92

    […] over have gotten really interested lately in the question of college’s worth (See here, and here, and here, etc). Louis Menand’s New Yorker piece (which I’ve linked before), is still […]

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] over have gotten really interested lately in the question of college’s worth (See here, and here, and here, etc). Louis Menand’s New Yorker piece (which I’ve linked before), is still […]

Comments are closed.