kitchen table math, the sequel: Don't Get That College Degree

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Don't Get That College Degree

Here’s an alarming article by Jack Hough from the New York Post that states:

The four-year college degree has come to cost too much and prove too little. It's now a bad deal for the average student, family, employer, professor and taxpayer.”

It tracks two 18 year olds who both save the same amount of money (about $16,000) for college. One gets accepted to a college, the other does not. Both spend their lives making average incomes for their respective conditions; one with, and one without a college degree. Both set aside the same % amount of their respective salaries for their entire working lives. The grad uses the set aside for 12 years to pay off the loans and then starts saving at the same rate as the non-grad (who has been saving already for 16 years). The high school grad has all the saved up college money and a 16 year head start on investing a lesser amount of money each year.

At age 65, one person has accumulated savings of $1.4 million, the other just $400 thousand. Read the article to find out who the millionaire is.

Lest you think it’s just about money, read on…

It's crass, you might think, to reduce education to a financial decision. An educated citizenry is healthier, more tolerant, more politically engaged and more fulfilled than an ignorant one. But I refer above to degrees, not education. The two are not the same, even if policymakers talk as though they are.”

Employers want a degree because it indicates to them that applicants have learned the “foundations of human knowledge” but here is a sampling of what passes for courses that fulfill core degree requirements at major universities.

“History of Comic Book Art (Indiana University), History and Philosophy of Dress (Texas Tech University) and Campus Culture and Drinking (Duke University)”

Couple meaningless core courses with grade inflation and you’ve got degrees that don’t mean anything. Employers are being suckered. Hyperinflation of tuitions in an age where knowledge is incredibly accessible for free, means students are being suckered. And last but not least, colleges spend huge amounts of time now doing remediation so parents too are being suckered for the 13 years preceding college.

The article proposes a fascinating concept, the ‘knowledge transcript’ to replace degrees. It’s sort of a tree diagram that describes all of the branches of knowledge components that a student has mastered as certified by standardized tests. It doesn't say a thing about how you got the knowledge, only that you've got it. Such a system would crush the elite college's ability to deliver crap at hyper-inflated rates.

I’d like to see knowledge transcripts in K-12 too. Maybe this is too much transparency to hope for but wow, does it make sense!


SteveH said...

How about the kids who flunk or drop out after two or three years? Ouch!

I think most kids know what career (and $) they can get when they graduate. They know that fluff degrees will get them fluff dollars. It's all about supply and demand and education requirements. The biggest problem I see is that most people don't know what alternatives there are to a traditional college education.

First, there are the vocational schools. Many of them offer college degrees, both two-year associate degrees and four-year full degrees. Although some charge almost as much as colleges, they are much more concerned about cost versus benefit. You can get an associates degree in two years and start making real money. Then you can take night courses to get your full degree.

Then there are all of the other career paths we never hear about. These are the ones that don't necessarily require a degree and don't fall into one of the traditional trades (although those can pay quite well). My brother-in-law is a bread truck driver. He works very hard, but makes great money. Somebody must have written a book about all of these hidden career paths. I think it would be fascinating.

How about all of the kids with high SAT scores who are destined for a traditional college education? How can we help them think outside of the box? What are the alternatives? Isn't it interesting how K-12 education is all about trying to fit everyone into the college box? It used to be that there were many non-college (experience-based) routes to certain careers. Now, you have to have that piece of paper or they won't consider you for the job. It's one thing to deal with supply and demand, but quite another to add a requirement based on a piece of paper that might have little meaning.

Paul B said...

In technology companies that I worked for the degree was used sort of like a character reference, i.e. you had to have one most of the time but it didn't matter at all what the degree was in as long as it was perceived as one that required discipline or rigor. I (eagerly) hired music majors for example. There was far more weight placed on a laundry list (knowledge transcript) of various software certifications or demonstrated experience.

I never wanted people who 'knew' things. I wanted people who could 'figure out' things and I interviewed with an emphasis on getting into their thinking processes.

One of my favorite questions (which I stole from Microsoft) was "How many schools are in the United States?" Of course nobody knows this off the top of their head but if you make the candidate riddle it out verbally you can see their reasoning and challenge it on the spot. I never ever hired a person based on their school or degree.

I'm not at all aware of what goes on in other industries but in software you had to have the chops in specific skills and a way to show me you could break new ground.

How many golf courses works well too.

Crimson Wife said...

There was an interesting article in the Harvard Business School alumni magazine last year about the value of the MBA. HBS did a survey of the companies participating in the on-campus recruiting program. The majority of them said the biggest value of the HBS degree was as a prescreening tool. Several recruiters said that they would actually prefer to recruit directly from the HBS acceptance list and then do in-house training with them.

Interesting food for thought...

Allison said...

I am not entirely sure that employers, students, or parents are being suckered.

Or rather, this may be the kind of denial they prefer: they're getting suckered, and they signed up for it, because they didn't want to think about it.

But colleges aren't. They are making money hand over fist even if they have to remediate. No one is demanding their money back when kids don't graduate.

The students bought the wasted 5 year bachelor's degree with money from mommy and daddy or you, the taxpayer, because in the bargain, they got to drink, drug, and whore for 5 years without mommy or daddy or the taxpayer complaining about their lifestyle. Who cares what happens later?

The parents were happy to support this fiction because it makes them feel good about their parenting that they raised children who can go to college, no matter how pointless that degree is. And they believe, rightly? that their child will have a better chance of finding a good mate by going to college.

The currently employed were happy to find a way to keep millions of potential competitors in the job market out of it for several more years. The current employers might be suckered, except the big ones already gamed the system with H-1B visas and outside certs. The small ones are probably no longer expecting much.

Though what I'm saying mostly applies to American kids in the middle class and above.

Parentalcation said...

This is no secret to me. I don't have a Bachelors degree and make twice as much as my PhD sister.

Catherine Johnson said...

Did I ever post that article by Walter Russell Meade about an alternative to 4-year colleges?

Gotta do that.