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.

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Old School No More

Economist Old School ImageIt sounds like a story written by Cormac McCarthy: In 1917, a wealthy tycoon creates a college hidden away in the isolated farmlands of California.  Young men apply and are admitted tuition-free, and in return they work the farm – bailing alfalfa and raising cattle.  The classrooms include a leather-making shop, a smithy, and a library.  You spend the day fixing a boiler and repairing harnesses, the afternoon and evening dedicated to discussing Neitszche. It brings to mind ascetic images of hard work, cowboys, and the epitome of male camaraderie in the lonesome west.  Young boys arrive, and leave rugged, harden men – off to change the world.

Deep Springs

Except this setting is as real as can be.  Deep Springs college is the legacy of Lucien L. Nunn, an American banker and prospector born in 1850, who moved west after attending Oberlin College and Harvard Law School.  With his fortune, he founded a liberal arts college of a different kind: Deep Springs students study art, philosophy and science, and engage in intense seminars and independent studies. The only required courses are public speaking and composition.  Governance comes from student-led committees.  Boys are assigned ‘teams’ – from repairing broken fence lines to fixing dinner for the entire student body.  Nunn’s dream was to create a place where his pillars – academics, labor, and self-governance – offer “promising young men” a place to learn.  And that is how it still is today – for men only.

Except Deep Springs is going coed – maybe.  Recently, the student-led admission committee and the Trustees approved female applications for the class of 2013.  The decision to admit females came after almost 40 years of lobbying by the students to let females apply and enroll, only to be rebuffed by the college’s Board of Trustees, claiming that they were obliged to protect Nunn’s wishes to create a place for ‘promising young men.’ Given that the college is not suffering financially or academically – after completing the required two-year program, graduates transfer to Ivy League schools – it was hard to argue that the school needed to go against Nunn’s estate.  Just as the Trustees acquiesced, however, a judge ruled that women could not enroll, and the 140 females that applied for this year’s 6 openings were all denied.   The battle will continue.

The plight of Deep Springs reminds me of a news story I watched as a college junior about Mills College.  Mills is a women’s only college, whose Trustees, to stave off falling application numbers and ever-rising tuition rates, voted to recruit and admit men.  The women revolted, offering to pay higher tuition in order to remain free of men.  After long negotiations, the Trustees relented, and Mills is still all-female and thriving.

I was so intrigued by the passion of the Mills College students, that I did my undergraduate senior research thesis on the topic of single-sex education.  It was thought that without vying for the attention of boys, or competing against them for social status (such as class president), girls would do better academically and develop less-conservative gender stereotypes.  After spending a year reading about adolescent subculture, and traveling across the US to many coeducational and all-female high schools surveying girls and reviewing their academic records, my research finally supported what many had concluded before:  At least for females, attending all-girls schools was no better than attending coeducational schools, in terms of academic achievement and the formation of gender stereotypes.

What couldn’t be disputed, however, was that girls at many of the single-sex schools loved the fact there were no boys in the classroom.  If given the choice, they would attend an all-female college.  It wasn’t that they disliked boys or feared them – they just loved studying and learning without them.  They appreciated the option of going to all female colleges, and the opportunity to explore what it means to be female without the pressure and influence of males.

But today, that option really doesn’t exist for men.  Hundreds of years ago, colleges were male-only, and the educational system responded by creating women’s colleges.  During the 1950s and 60s, however, many all-male schools went coeducational – either due to legal reasons (publicly funded schools could not discriminate on the basis of sex) or changing social norms.  By then the number of all-female schools has dwindled too, going the route that Mills averted.  There are, however, 60 all-female colleges in the US today.

Deep Springs is one of only four all-male colleges in the US (Wabash, Morehouse, and Hampden-Sydney, are the other three).  This doesn’t include seminaries, or smaller colleges where men live on an all-male campus but still take classes at nearby coeducational schools.

I will be sad to see Deep Springs go coeducational, but if that is what the students and trustees think it best, then so be it.  But once it changes, it will never be able to go back, and that will be the loss of a truly unique environment.  I truly believe that part of going to college is the opportunity to retreat to a place where all you need to do is think and learn – mostly, to think and learn what it takes to become who you are.  That cloistered environment will be different for each, and for some boys it might be one free of the social pressures of the opposite sex; it might be Deep Springs.