Show Me the Money, Not Your Diploma

If you need to prove that your education was good – pull out your pay stub, or so the current theory goes.

If you’ve attended any school – high school, college, technical or graduate – you cannot avoid the debate that is raging now about the value of education.  On one side are non-profits, such as the Lumina Foundation, and the Obama Administration that want to increase the number of Americans with bachelor’s degrees.  On the other side are people like former Secretary of Education William Bennett and lobbyists of the educational for-profit sector pointing out that the current higher-education system results in students attending the wrong schools and getting worthless degrees, all at the cost of the federal government.  It’s caused numerous think-tanks, pundits, newspapers, and even academic scholars themselves, to opine on whether or not a college degree (or beyond) is worth it.  And so often the one fact that everyone is turning to is money – how much you make after college, how much you owe, or some kind of amalgamated combination of the two.

Bad Metrics lead to Bad Decisions

Our elementary school training (remember Occam’s Razor?) tells us to always use the simplest solution when presented with many. But trying to answer the question of education’s value with a number and a dollar sign is not the ‘simple solution’ – it’s woefully wrong.  The implications of doing so are going to be catastrophic, on many levels.

For instance, Florida is considering a new state-tuition model that would effectively charge higher tuition for students that major in English and other non-STEM fields.  According to Florida, individuals that get English degrees cannot find jobs and are, therefore, under-employed, and the state must cough up money supporting an overly-indebted population.  There is also the current proposal that we link every individual’s yearly tax record to his or her education record – what is being regarded as the “Single Unit Record.”  The Department of Labor just gave away more than $6 million to states to allow for the improvement of computer databases that track any tax-paying individual’s income with education records, to match income with ‘individual data beginning in pre-kindergarten through post-secondary schooling.

Why are these potentially catastrophic?  In 15 years, what do we do when there are literally hundred of geneticists, but not a single English teacher or translators in our ranks?  Do we start to discount the tuition for art majors, historians, and individuals that study foreign languages? And while I am a data-freak, and love the idea of having an infinite database like the Department of Labor is funding, I’m also leery of gathering personal information when not necessary.  Should someone have access to my German II grades in college, in order to see if my studying psychology was ‘financially a good idea?”  For full disclosure, I got a D in German II, a damnable combination of the fact that our college tennis courts were located right outside my dorm and taking German II during the spring semester.  It was just too tempting to play tennis on Tuesday & Thursday afternoons, than study German gerunds.  I regret that decision, but despite it, I eventually got my PhD from a top-ranked psychology program. What does that say?

The Question of Content, not Cost

What it says is, there is an overwhelming complexity to how individuals decide what they want to do with their lives, and simply counting grades and salary won’t make understanding career decisions simpler. Imagine a doctor, who after years of medical school and residency, comes upon the realization that her passion is providing health access to individuals in rural and low-income communities.  She opts to take a position as a physician at a community health center, funded by a non-profit, and in doing so her salary is significantly less than other, comparably trained doctors.  Or consider the recently graduated engineer with a BS degree in computer networking; Not long after he starts working at a high-profile internet-tech company, his wife gets offered a great job across the country (Ironically, I should make her an English major, the best college degree to earn back your tuition money according to Salary.com).  He leaves his position and opts to teach at the small, private school his children attend, because he becomes the primary care-taker, and his wife’s salary more than supports the family comfortably.

I’m purposely engaging in reductio ad absurdum (or some might say abusing it): According to the US Department of Education’s “Gainful Employment“ rules, our doctor or computer programmer would potentially be a ‘failure’ for their respective alma maters, because the Dept of Ed uses debt-to-earnings ratios and other salary information as indicators of employment success.  This is very important, because the Dept of Education plans to deny federally subsidized loans to students that decide to attend schools with poor gainful employment records, under the premise that students should only go to colleges whose graduates make good money (as an aside, this was blocked by a federal judge, but the Dept of Ed will rewrite the rule, not eliminate it.  It is also difficult to determine which programs are exempt from the rule).  Money does not necessarily equal happiness or success.  But in both scenarios above, the education and training my civic-minded doctor or family-oriented computer programmer received helped each sort through the difficult decision of what to do with his or her life, and provided the necessary knowledge and experience to find careers that provided happiness, taking into consideration what they already paid for school (or may still have left to pay).

Which brings us to, in my opinion, the true hallmark of what a good education provides: The skills, abilities, and experiences to navigate the complex world we live in, and to be self-aware enough to know what it takes to achieve your own happiness.  The McKinsey Institute just released a report describing the 12 most “Disruptive Technologies,” explaining that advances in areas such as genetics, cloud computing, and automation will unpredictably change how we live and work.  McKinsey makes a strong argument for the possibility that today’s highly technical jobs that require years of accumulated knowledge (like surgery) will be gone, taken over by robots (in fact, they predict we will see the start of this by 2025, a mere 12 years from today). This inevitably leads to new technologies that will require new knowledge and create new jobs – ones that we cannot predict today.  This only emphasizes that education needs to prepare the next generation to adapt quickly and successfully to unforeseen circumstances, not train for a single job-field.

What we should demand of educational institutions (be they traditional brick-and-mortar colleges or the ever increasing on-line degree programs), is that all students learn critical thinking skills, the ability to make predictions & test them, the ability to reason, provide evidence and support for their arguments, and successfully communicate (in writing and verbally), be they English majors, engineering majors, or economists. This is possible for everyone – History majors that study past political decisions and then compare them to current affairs and hypothesize how today’s outcome may or may not be different meets my criteria stated above.  The test of your education’s value is if it critically think and plan for your happiness and success.   If your school, program, or online-course doesn’t provide you with these skills and abilities, or improve any of these skills that you already have, you should consider it not a good investment of your time and money.

This isn’t to say we don’t have problems with the large debt that young people have after going to college today; nor does it say we shouldn’t try to increase the number of individuals with access to higher education and training past high school; it also does not solve the problem of ‘degree mills’ charging exorbitant tuition for worthless degrees.  These are all issues that have to be addressed, and doing so will be complicated.

I for one hope whoever addresses these sticky issues is educated – not just someone that decided to study physics in order to get cheap tuition, or after graduating happened upon a six-figure-salary job.