Monday, April 8, 2013

Rethinking the cost of higher education

I am late getting around to posting this, but if you follow higher education policy at all, quite a bit of attention has paid recently to the latest governor to weigh in on education reform.  North Carolina's Gov. Pat McCrory (am I the only one that has trouble pronouncing that name?) has caused quite a stir with his comments regarding the value of liberal education.

One thing you should know about citizens of North Carolina is that they take a lot of pride in their excellent universities and colleges (I'm a proud Wake Forest Alumnus, but I would also grudgingly admit that Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, Davidson, Elon, NC State, etc are, if not quite as good as Wake, also top notch institutions) and so any remarks disparaging these colleges (or their basketball teams) are likely to draw backlash in the state.

Among his soundbites include the contention that students should be pushed away from academic pursuits that "have no chance of getting people jobs," he decried the fact that higher education had fallen under the control of the "educational elite," and he said he instructed his staff Monday to draft legislation that could alter the state money that universities and community colleges receive “not based on how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.” A number of students have objected to being classified as "butts," however, the real bombshell that the media is reacting to most strongly came from the following:

“If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

Read more here:

(By the way, the governor himself, who seems to be gainfully employed, was a poly-sci major at a private liberal arts school). I will leave the gender studies comment aside for the moment with the hope that one of my colleagues will take a stab at that [Although I will take a shot at the idea that "Higher education is being taken over by 'educational elites'" ... what's next?  Professional sports being taken over by 'athletic elites'?"], and instead I want to address the bigger point the governor was making, as it's similar to arguments we are currently hearing in our own state and on our own campus.

Education is really expensive.  Students are graduating with a lot of debt, and graduating into a difficult job market.  I think it's a very fair question for any of them to be asking "is this giant pile of money I'm handing you buying me anything, and is there anything we could cut from this list of required classes that would still allow me to qualify myself for the jobs I want to do?"  As members of the 'educational elite' it's easy to be threatened by that question and react with a 'we know what's best for you, take our word for it' attitude (which, I'll admit by the way, is often pretty much my attitude too). But, I think it is a question that needs to be taken seriously to be fair to our students and to keep education relevant.  That doesn't mean that we should say, "sure, you don't need to know about history or writing or math or art or religion or understand race and gender issues or anything like that ... just go take your specialized job skill classes."  In fact, I think that's exactly the wrong answer.  What it means is, we need to do a better job of explaining exactly what higher education is, what students stand to gain from knowledge in these areas, and how it is different from pure vocational training.

Students are not wrong to think of education as an investment (they may be wrong in thinking of it as a purely monetary investment, as there is more to life than the money you make, but we'll come back to that).  However, much like the years during the housing bubble, we seem to have forgotten that investments are rarely a sure thing.  A college degree is not a promise that you will be guaranteed a lifelong career in your dream job, anymore than buying a share of Google stock is a guarantee of a safe and happy retirement, or that flipping real estate is a sure way to double your money.

Because of this, I would argue that the current push toward increasingly specialized "job training" higher ed is dangerously misguided and shifts all of the labor market risk away from firms and onto students.  It used to be that much of our most highly specialized job training came on-the-job.  Firms required specialized skills, but they took on the risk of investing in their workers in the hope of retaining them once those skills were built.  Today, firms expect workers to arrive at the job with the exact tailored skills they need, yet after years of investing in that training for that specific job, the workers run the risk of the firm packing up shop and closing or moving overseas.  This tacit agreement our education system and workforce has bought into has become, in some sense, another form of business handout - in part, our tax money trains their workers for them at no cost to the firms, and the workers (and taxpayers) bear all the risk of that investment.

This is contributing to dramatic increases in unemployment issues, not only in unemployment rates, but more importantly in the duration of unemployment spells as workers face the prospect of repeatedly returning for retraining and education.  If you look at the chart below from the Federal Reserve, you can see that the median duration of unemployment from 1960-2005 ranged between 5-10 weeks generally.  In our latest recession, that duration skyrocketed to as much as 25 weeks in 2011.  Let that sink in.  The median person who was unemployed during this recession was stuck without a job for SIX MONTHS.  And 50% of people were unemployed LONGER than that.  Households, with a bit of a nest-egg in the bank, can typically absorb a month or two of unemployment.  Belts are tightened and it's a scary time, but it's manageable.  Six months, on the other hand, means houses are being foreclosed, cars are being repossessed,  and massive disruptions are occurring.   

We are pushing for education to become more and more specialized, with less emphasis on general skills and broad knowledge, critical thinking and problem solving, and an understanding of big picture issues.  The consequence of this is that we have lost all flexibility, and in a world where most workers will change jobs a minimum of 4-5 times, we are training ourselves more and more specifically.  This strikes me as both crazy and a terrible waste of resources.  It may also be a major hidden factor eroding the middle class quality of life as more and more of risks of the market are being transmitted from firms to workers who increasingly find themselves returning to school for retraining with each new career change.  [For the economists in the audience, this transference of uncertainty from risk neutral firms to risk averse workers is an additional waste from a welfare standpoint].

Wisconsin lawmakers are currently pressing the UW-system to emphasize "Degrees that Pay."  I agree with the basic premise - an 18 year old college student doesn't have a full understanding of what their career prospects are likely to be and we're doing them a disservice if we're committing them to student loan debt in a field that may not allow them to easily pay that back if we don't fully articulate this in our advising.  However, when we're thinking about what constitutes a degree that "pays," the salary in their first job they get out of college is a terrible metric.

We should be far more concerned about the sustainability of a lifetime career path and job/life satisfaction than just initial job placement. A flexible degree that includes broad understanding of the world and the people in it will always have value.  This doesn't mean that we should abandon specialized degrees, but a balance needs to be maintained and the erosion of what has traditionally been called "liberal arts" curriculum or "general education" courses should be considered very critically.  And students shouldn't just be demanding a quicker, cheaper path to graduation.  They should be demanding a degree that will grant them the flexibility to navigate an uncertain economy over a lifetime of careers.  Anything else is making education disposable and giving it a short shelf life, and if that is to be the case, then we need to dramatically reconsider higher ed's place as a lifetime investment.


  1. Regarding the Gender Studies issue, I think there are two reasons why we should be hesitant to attack it.

    First, typically Gender Studies degree programs focus on more than just gender inequality. They integrate the kinds of broader critical thinking, writing, communication, and problem solving skills you describe above as integral to flexible career training into their curricula. If any programs do not do so then I certainly would hesitate before recommending a student pursues a Gender Studies degree, but my impression is that they generally do.

    The second reason why Gender Studies is important is because we need to constantly evaluate gender equity as a society to solve are biggest social problems. If you want a stable and fair social system then you need to address gender. This is even true at the global scale. Read "Half the Sky" and "Poor Economics". Many of our global poverty problems could be incredibly reversed by just empowering women more. Why do I bring this up? Much of the inertia on gender equity initiatives is provided by having those who specialize in Gender Studies in academia, supported by undergraduate and graduate programs. I am pretty sure that if we get rid of those and we will regret it.

  2. I often ponder the statements of those politicans who insist that they represent the best interests of the people. What people, I ask? If they were there truly representing the citizens that elected them, whether democrat, republican, or other they would support an educational model that teaches students to be life long learners. What everyone needs to understand is what we teach today will change/develop/progress/evolve in 10 years, and our students and future employees minds need to do the same. In the technologically rich environment we live in we are no longer training students to be button pushers for "one and done" careers. Where do students gain the ability at the ripe age of 18 to do this-- the University with a liberal arts component to their education. I think if we would have trained our legislators well, they would demand more of the University system; instead they insist upon us preparing graduates for the last century.

  3. Employers also are saying that they want people who can think, who can solve problems, and who can learn. The American Association of Colleges and Universities just released a report documenting this:

    Also, apart from the issue of jobs (and I know this was the impetus for your post, Chris, so this isn't a criticism) there is the issue of how we educate people to be citizens in a complex society. I think part of the attack on liberal arts is also an attack on the very fields that lead people to question, to evaluate information, and to think about how to build a more just society. How can we best educate people to collectively make decisions on important and complex issues is an important question. I think it is vitally important that students have these skills, not just for jobs, but as voters, parents, taxpayers, and citizens.

    Finally, I am inspired to add my two cents as to why gender studies was singled out, but this will be too long for a comment. I agree with Nels about why gender studies is important, but I think it is not accidental that McCrory "picked on" gender studies. More on that in a separate post...

  4. I agree with much of your analysis Chris. I would add that imposing a narrow job centered focus on education is precisely to stymie critical thinking and create a society of servile workers who do not question growing inequities but continue to preserve the status quo of current global capitalist oligarchy. This exclusive emphasis on a job as the raison d'etre of education is yet another kind of tyranny, what William Blake had called "mind forged manacles" in his poem "London" in 1794.

  5. I agree with much of what you have written Chris. I would also add that this over-emphasis on jobs as the raison d'etre of education is precisely intended to stymie critical thinking and produce a class of servile workers who do not question the status quo and the power of the global capitalist oligarchy. This mode of thinking is yet another kind of tyranny, what William Blake had described as "mind forged manacles" in his poem "London" in 1794.

  6. I apologize for two identical posts. I had thought that the first post was not accepted when I had to prove through some reading tests that I was not a robot.