kitchen table math, the sequel: Cost of College - new blog

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Cost of College - new blog

I have a new blog - Cost of College.
"A blog about the various costs that we face in the years BEFORE, DURING AND AFTER college. Focus is on the financial as well as the academic factors, with an eye for exploring the trends in higher education that may profoundly affect our lives in the coming years."

Today's post is about taking student loan obligations very seriously.
You can discharge your student loan obligation . . . if you die or become quadriplegic


SteveH said...

Has anyone read "The Last Professors.." that talks about how colleges will become more directly vocational, at the cost of a more general, liberal arts education. I'm not sure what this means; that science students will take less humanities courses, or that there will be less humanities majors. Will colleges shed non money-making departments?

My son's piano teacher is a professor at our university and he sees colleges taking a department by department view of costs rather than a university view. I told him that the university might get more science students if they could minor in music. I think they now have a rule that music minors can't work with the best professors.

Grace said...

I haven't read that book, but 47% of us think college is for career preparation. I don't know if that is an increase from the past, but I think in today's economic environment more parents are thinking that a degree should lead to a specific type of job.

Bonnie said...

If people are so interested in career preparation, then why is it that engineering majors have so much trouble attracting students? An engineering degree definitely leads to a job!

Crimson Wife said...

An engineering degree definitely leads to a job

Having an engineering degree is no guarantee against unemployment. Just ask any of the myriad unemployed engineers in my neck of the woods. Tech jobs are typically very easy to offshore- why pay a six-figure salary to someone in Silicon Valley when you can pay a fraction of that to someone in Hyderabad or Russia?

Anonymous said...

Bonnie: "If people are so interested in career preparation, then why is it that engineering majors have so much trouble attracting students? An engineering degree definitely leads to a job!"

Because getting through an engineering program is *HARD* :-)

CW: "Having an engineering degree is no guarantee against unemployment."

Well, no major provides that guarantee. But engineers seem to be holding up well compared to the average worker-bee in this recession ( Of course, not all engineering graduates work as engineers, but the pay is good for a 4-year degree and the work prospects seem pretty good compared to the other options.

But it is still very hard to get through the program, and most college freshman aren't prepared to handle the math, so for them this really isn't an option.

-Mark Roulo

kcab said...

I think Mark's right, students find they are unprepared to complete an engineering degree. Also, there is comparatively less grade inflation in engineering departments than elsewhere. (At least, in the places I know.) I think that's a good thing, personally, but it does add to the perceived difficulty.

SteveH said...

Although engineers may fare better than other fields in a recession, the trend for a lot of professions is more hours per week, more stress, and the inability to get away - ever. You might have a job and you might get a good salary, but what about the big picture? You can work for 20 years and maybe get bumped up to 3 weeks of vacation a year - not contiguous, of course. If you get a new job, you might have to go back to 2 weeks a year.

If you got a chance to start over, what kind of life would you map out? I could easily argue against college for those who seem most academically fit. You want to compete and be the best, but it's the wrong game. You end up with large loans and few options. You're trapped.

Perhaps I'm playing devil's advocate here, but when I push my son to win at the college game, I'm always thinking about what comes after that; a 50+ hour-a-week job that never takes a break? How much will you love the work after 20 years? But who would suggest that the best and brightest not go to college?

VickyS said...

Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, will pay each of the 24 winners of his Thiel Fellowship $100,000 not to attend college for two years and to develop business ideas instead.

Allison said...

Steve, here is a video and some essays on what some schools are doing, and what's meant by universities moving to a vocational model:

costofcollege said...

Because getting through an engineering program is *HARD* :-)

I agree this is the main reason more students do not choose engineering, although it's a much better bet for good job prospects than many other majors.

costofcollege said...

About the "best and the brightest" skipping college, I recently posted about this, in consideration that college often means a $200,000+ investment.

Is higher education on track to lose its credentialing monopoly?

Higher education may be at a crossroads, facing the possibility of losing its role as the main merchant of career credentialing. Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote about this in her commentary on Peter Thiel’s initiative to lure entrepreneurial students away from college.

costofcollege said...

Not sure why I'm now posting as costofcollege. This is confusing. - Grace

SteveH said...

There seems to be two ways to look at the problem; from a society standpoint and from an individual standpoint. I'm more interested in the individual view for my son.

I see it as more about control over one's life. Statistically, it might be better to become an engineer or a scientist, but is it better for an individual? I don't think that the problem is so much about college, although loans reduce control over your life. You have to get a job to pay off your loans; you want to be paid well for your knowledge and skills; you want to be challenged, but what are your options for a job model, 50+ hour/wk jobs for the rest of your working career? It seems that the modern job model is to strain your love of the work to an extreme; to become an intellectual cog in a giant machine. The lowest cost to a company is to get the most work out of the fewest people.

"...the Fellows will pursue innovative scientific and technical projects, learn entrepreneurship, and begin to build the technology companies of tomorrow."

Based on what knowledge? Based on mentorship? These kids will never go to college because college doesn't mean much any more? They will be treated as equals by their college-educated peers? I don't believe it.

A better model would be one that is integrated with a college degree in math, science, or engineering. I wrote to the dean of engineering at the U. of Michigan once about this. They were talking about cross-school programs where engineers would work with other specialists on major projects. I told him that the college of engineering needs to directly teach these skills to engineers. Engineers are currently viewed as technological widgets that fill slots in companies and rarely get selected for corporate advancement. They end up with pointy-haired bosses. I told him that they should add an entrepreneurship masters program. Engineers have to learn how to control and profit from their own ideas as individuals.

Another model is to play the stock option game; to work your butt off for a start-up (if you can find one anymore) and make a killing. That would give you choices in life. Then again, you could watch the stock price fall below your option price before you are allowed to sell. You could be out of a job with zero value in your options. That goes along with the risk/reward territory, but what other job models are there?

I thought about a model for a company where everyone would work 10 months a year on a product that would be completed before the summer vacation. Everyone would get a salary (paid over 12 months) plus profit sharing. The project would be completed so that nothing would need to be done in the summer except to think about a project for next year.

Naive. That's the same as giving away money. Those taking the risk (and making the investment) will squeeze out all of the money they can as soon as they can.

College costs, housing costs, transportation costs, both parents have to work long days with no part-time options, day care; it seems to be more of a trap than 50 years ago. And people are just supposed to be happy to have a job?

kcab said...

If you look at the list of the winners for Thiel's award, many (most? will have to go find the list again) are not exactly skipping college. There are a lot of kids who went to college early and have already completed some, as well as a few who are leaving grad school.

I wonder too, what's to stop them from going back to college later?

Hainish said...

Grace, it's because Blogger is using your Google account or Blogger ID or whatever as your default identity.

Hainish said...

Steve - I agree. One simple solution: a 30-hour work week.

SteveH said...

My wife's company is allowing many people to work 4 ten hour days per week for the summer. She grabbed the opportunity because she works 10 hours on many days already. I'll bet the program won't be repeated next summer. It's almost as if the company doesn't even know that they lose out when they start to count hours. Maybe they will notice that deadlines slip because people are not there.

Allison said...

Oh, the company knows. I worked in a 9/80 defense contractor/engineering facility for years (that means you work 80 hours in 9 days and get every other Friday off; in those 9 days you work 9 hours a day M-Th and 8 hours on the worked Friday.) They did it because their competitors did it, and because once instituted it was very difficult to undo. At one point big defense contractors went to this schedule because it lowered their overhead expenses on the production side of things significantly, enough to make up for the loss of productivity in a knowledge worker.

9/80 meant it was impossible to get people to go to unpaid seminars at lunch, or to take on other professional development stuff on their own dime--because they were already squeezing in their 9 hours and taking only 1/2 hour lunches, etc. They were already "staying late", so they didn't want to stay later. Changes like that change a corporate culture, and the engineering org could not get the rule changed for its org apart from the production side.

But to people saying "30 hour work week", you're living in dreamland. Why would I pay you for a 30 hour work week when I can pay someone else the same for 40, 50, 60? You do realize that a $4000 annual salary in China is the difference between a family starving or not starving---that's quite an incentive to work more than a 30 hour work week for people who seem to think they are entitled to comfortable lives.

The truth is we're not entitled. Leisure didn't exist for anyone but the uppermost class of royalty or its equivalents before the 20th c. It may simply go away again for the rest of us.

SteveH said...

"They were already 'staying late', so they didn't want to stay later."

Exactly, and you're probably coming in before your boss and leaving after your boss, so it doesn't look bad. Then, when it's your day off, nobody expects you to work. It won't last at my wife's company.

"It may simply go away again for the rest of us."

It's been going in the wrong direction for a long time. There is something other than supply and demand going on here. If a company really, really wants to hire you, you can't trade salary for the amount of time worked. That's counting hours. You can't say that you want summers off for less pay. It really pays off for a company to have fewer good people who don't count hours, even if they are paid a good salary. They save a huge amount in benefits. The demand for your skills might get you more money, but it won't buy you choices.

Once you are in a job, you can't start counting hours - it doesn't look good and it isn't good for your raises and opportunities in the company. The culture is to be a team player and get the job done, and companies push that to an extreme. You could change jobs and get more money, but you won't change the working conditions.

ChemProf said...

When my husband was in programming, that was why he preferred to be a contractor. Suddenly, he could skip meetings because he was being paid by the hour and he wouldn't just make up the time. However, as a contractor you are accepting that you are the first person laid off and that there are certain paths you won't be on.

SteveH said...


That's true. My brother was a long term contractor at Draper Labs and EMC, but always managed to take time off in the summer for adult music camps. He was also not married. It's easier if you live way below your means. I'll have to talk to my son about that.

Crimson Wife said...

I don't buy the benefits excuse as an explanation of the reluctance of companies to offer part-time positions. Many women I know who are now full-time homemakers would actually prefer to work part-time if they could find a decent position. They don't need the benefits because they've already got that through their husbands. But companies today seem to think that if someone isn't willing to work 60+ hours per week, that person isn't worth having at all.

Allison said...

--Exactly, and you're probably coming in before your boss and leaving after your boss, so it doesn't look bad. Then, when it's your day off, nobody expects you to work. It won't last at my wife's company.

it might last---to undo it would mean mutiny the way it would have at my defense contractor.

Companies aren't thinking "someone isn't worth having at all". They are thinking "how do I squeeze the most productivity I can from the people I've got, and how do I lower my costs to have them?"

This is not an unreasonable position from their perspective. If they can get someone for the same dollars who will work 60 hours, why hire someone who won't?

Many places have created part time positions--HP, for example--because it's been cheaper for them in the long run. But other places have a culture where they have no idea how to take advantage of a part timer, because they don't know how to schedule them when crunch time comes. If you're the kind of place that slips deadlines and has 3 week scrums where everyone has to pull all nighters on the last 2 days to fix the problems at the end, the person who says "I'm done at 20 or 30, see ya" is disliked and resented, even if those others could have successfully done the work in a timely fashion if they'd made that a priority. It's all about culture.

Hainish said...

Allison, I never said anything about getting paid for 30 hours what you'd get paid for 40.

And if you going to make the argument that X number of hours is reasonable and Y number of hours is "dreamland," then why not have a 47 or 53 hours work-week as the norm? What is so special about 40?

Allison said...


Did you mix pronouns?

How does a 30 hour work week exist for YOU if I can pay someone ELSE that salary to work 60 hours?

It won't. And you can say "but you can pay me half as much", but I can show you someone ELSE who will take that half as much and STILL work 60 hours--like that person in China who will work as a sw engineer for $6k a year.

There is no standard work week anymore for professionals.

There may be state mandated rules about hourly employees that cause employers not to employ someone for more than 40 a week or 8 a day, but that's because of the economic distortion caused by overtime law, not by any other reason. What's "special" about 40 is the law as it applies to non professionals.

Professionals don't work 40 hours. They work as many as they need to get the job done. In some fields, that's 50 or 60. In some fields, that's 80 or 100. In some places, it's "you'll work 40-50 during normal times, and in the clutch, you'll work around the clock and hours don't matter."

And increasingly, even professionals here willing to work those kinds of hours are having to compete with international applicants, whose costs to the employer are much much less.

You can try to find someone willing to pay you what you want for how little you wish to work. Okay, if your skills are truly that rare and that in demand, you may succeed. few of us are that rare or that in demand.

Hainish said...

"How does a 30 hour work week exist for YOU if I can pay someone ELSE that salary to work 60 hours?"

The same way a 40-hour workweek exists for everyone else, now.

"There may be state mandated rules about hourly employees that cause employers not to employ someone for more than 40 a week or 8 a day, but that's because of the economic distortion caused by overtime law, not by any other reason. What's "special" about 40 is the law as it applies to non professionals."

Yes, that's what I'm talking about. Even for non-professionals, the workweek is defined against that standard. A professional can say he works 50 hours, and it is considered more than the norm. It's not considered more than the norm if he works 40.

(And why is the work time of non-professionals not worthy of consideration anyway?)

There were a whole slew of comments here about how companies start doing something and cant easily change because it becomes fixed into the culture. That has no bearing here?

"You can try to find someone willing to pay you what you want for how little you wish to work."

Actually, I did work as a freelancer. But I don't think I'm that rare.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only engineer who works about 40 hours a week?

-Mark Roulo

SteveH said...

" they don't know how to schedule them when crunch time comes"

I looked into contracting at one time, but it was generally all or nothing. They are hiring you because of a crunch time. Even if there is not a crunch, you are filling a need that probably isn't filled by 30 hours a week. They also probably want you on-site.

What I've seen over the last 30 years is that crunch time is becoming full time. It isn't obvious like the big crunches to get projects done by a deadline. It happens when work grows and they don't hire new people, or when they lay off people, but the work doesn't go away. You see it when you take time off. The deadlines don't slip and nobody else is doing your job. They can't because they are not cross-trained and they have their own work. You see it when you have to get special permission to take two weeks off at a time. I remember a Far Side cartoon where people are at the beach and they are calculating how many emails they will have when they get back. Vacations are ruined by the thought of what awaits you when you return.

I've talked about this with my wife. It's forcing people to choose between caring about themselves or their jobs. There is no way for you to do a quality job at work; they will just pile on more work. There is a feeling that nothing is good enough. Some people work less, but make it seem like a really big deal. We've noticed at how this has become an art form, or at least, a defensive mechanism.

Companies might see is all as a push to become more efficient, but much of the productivity comes from getting more hours out of fewer people.

"Am I the only engineer who works about 40 hours a week?"

You don't have deadlines where the critical path virtually guarantees 40++ hours at the end of the project? You don't see more and more projects with unreasonable or arbitrary deadlines? Does your management just shrug their shoulders when deadlines are pushed back?

Crimson Wife said...

The only people I know who work <50 hours per week full-time are admin staff or civil servants. The norm around here is 60+.

kcab said...

Since leaving full-time work to do consulting/contract work, I've become very good at estimating how long it will take me to do something. I've noticed that people who work full-time are often not very good at either estimating how long something will take or at accounting for how long they have worked. Also, to me it seems like above 25 hrs a week productivity takes a big hit. A lot of people are in the office for more than 40 hours, but they sure aren't working all those hours.

At the place I used to work roughly 40 hrs a week, most people were there 40-50 hrs weekly. The best people were out of there on time everyday, they got their stuff done on time and well. No one complained and it didn't hurt their bonuses. The times that I saw a lot of 60+ hr weeks were around Xmas (making the boss's gift) or putting in time for certain extracurriculars (FIRST or special projects).

But the company(ies) I'm talking about are small, very high tech, & design-heavy.

Anonymous said...

"You don't have deadlines where the critical path virtually guarantees 40++ hours at the end of the project?"

Maybe we do, and I'm just not on the critical path.

"You don't see more and more projects with unreasonable or arbitrary deadlines?"
No, I don't see more and more projects with unreasonable and/or arbitrary deadlines. In fact, over the last 15 years, I've seen a lot more/better project/effort estimation. Heck, my company offers (or offered, I haven't check recently) *classes* in project estimation. Perhaps this is one difference: Our management tends to ask the engineers to break down a given product release into pieces and then estimate the pieces. If/when things don't fit, we either drop features, add people [usually not], or push out the schedule.

Now ... if you provide an estimate, you *ARE* expected to hit it. But management doesn't ask for estimates and then just chop the delivery time in 1/2.

I read about places like Electronic Arts and wonder, is this typical? I've never worked in that sort of environment. I *HAVE* had co-workers assigned to a death march project (at my current company, too). It was over a decade ago. A number quit. Some flatly refused to work on the project (which put management in a bad place ... fire them and move on to the next victim? Or what?) Given the expense to replace our senior engineers, this was not considered a "win" by management.

"Does your management just shrug their shoulders when deadlines are pushed back?"

No, they don't. But we (a) tend to have realistic schedules, and (b) have pretty good project management so we know that the schedule is slipping early when we can do something about it. I'm involved in a project that is kinda finishing up. It has been going on for about 2 years now, and averaged 6 engineers. We built a realistic schedule before we started, and have actually come in ahead of schedule without insane hours. *Some* of the engineers have worked 40+, but not regularly.

I'm starting to wonder if the outlier here is that we have sane schedules to start with...

-Mark Roulo

lgm said...

Agree with CrimsonWife. Add that most engineers I know that are not civil servants are on call 24/7 and expected to actively manage their projects over the weekend as well, including coordinating & scheduling work with all shifts as well as those team members in other time zones.

kcab said...

I wonder if the differences in perspective depend on engineering field, where you work in the product lifecycle, product market, company size, or something else entirely.

Anonymous said...

"I wonder if the differences in perspective depend on engineering field, where you work in the product lifecycle, product market, company size, or something else entirely."

I would not be surprised. I suspect it may often be group specific.

-Mark Roulo

Allison said...

My and my husband's experience in the bay area was repeatedly with companies that believe in the Software Hero ethos: instead of decent planning of reasonable sized work pieces and goals, the people most rewarded were the ones who swooped in dramatically at the end of a cycle to save everyone from impending doom, pulling heroic all nighters to demonstrate their Hero-ness. Except often they'd created the doom in the first place by blowing off writing reasonable requirements, talking to the customer in a timely fashion, etc. so that they had to work like crazy at the end. They liked the drama and the ego of working late and proving their worth that way--rather than the calm managing of their time. Here in the midwest, there was much less of the Software Hero ethos, and scrums were more successful at getting things done on time and on budget without drama.

Now, I had a different work environment in the defense world, where the heroic stuff always had to happen because the DoD could often be counted on to change requirements midstream, and RFPs had very very very short deadlines with open question periods where the game theory meant you couldn't ask the questions you wanted. BUT, it was estimate-accurately-or-die, because if you were wrong in your costs, you lost the contract or ate the profit yourself.

The defense industry has charge numbers, where everyone is required to write down how much time was spent on what project very precisely. Even internal charge numbers would do a software house a lot of good--because it makes people much better at estimating their real time and their real costs. In the defense world, if you don't have a charge number for a task, you don't do that task--you don't attend that meeting, you don't waste that hour on research, etc.

SteveH said...

The changes I have seen are not just due to inefficient companies, inefficient workers, or poor estimation. The companies do not want to hire new workers and there are more projects and tighter deadlines. The company knows that the deadlines are tight, and nobody wants to be the one to cause a project push-back, whatever the reason.

There might be differences in industries, but my wife works at an insurance company. Although some projects require heroic effort to complete, that's not due to bad estimation or putting everthing off to the last minute. I have my own business now, but I remember how I didn't see any slow times at some of the places I worked.

Some of it may have to do with whether a person has just one responsibility or many. If you have just one project at a time, then the work can be better controlled (and seen by management). However, if you have a base set of tasks plus more than one project to work on, then it's easier for things to get out of control.

But it's more than that. I think it's a trend for companies to take advantage of the professional and not hourly definition. Everyone is connected 24/7 and there is an expectation to (at least) check up every day. Advancement depends on how much of a team player you are; that you are focused on getting the job done. You can't be seen deciding that you've worked enough hours and go home. If it gets too bad, you can go get another job, but the ethic won't change, just the degree.