Closers Only: Higher Education and Business Leaders

Back in 2011, I graduated from the University of North Texas with a BBA in Organizational Behavior & Human Resource Management. My excitement over it was lackluster to say the least. I rarely mentioned my upcoming graduation in the months prior. My own sister hadn’t even been aware I was graduating until afterwards (much to her irritation). I wrote my thoughts about my business education over at The Slow Hunch, noting its pros and cons:

While it may be true that businessmen and economists alike are not as accustomed with philosophy, ethics, or literature as they should be, this does not by default mean that the philosophers opining on the state of the economy have any justification for doing so. Business majors may need to crack open the work of Aristotle, but liberal arts majors would do well to be acquainted with Economics 101. Why? Because one advantage of business education is the focus on practical application, even in management. Theory is important, but whether it actually works is critical.

I didn’t stop with just business majors, but instead commented on the state of higher education as a whole:

The critiques of business education are valid. However, before the [insert liberal arts degree] majors begin their victory dance or crowing about their more nuanced understanding of the world…it should be pointed out that this decline in business major standards is fairly typical across the board. I often quip that the bachelor degree is the new high school diploma. Given the grade inflation that has taken place over the past several decades, I think it is fair to say that higher education as a whole has suffered. Economist Richard Vedder has found that “some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the [Bureau of Labor Statistics] says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.” With tuition increasing, Vedder has no problem labeling the push for more college graduates a scam. Vedder explains, “Employers are using education as a screening and signaling device, at a low cost directly to them (although not costless because of the taxes they pay to sustain much of this), but at a high cost to the prospective employees and to society as a whole.” Apparently, another type of bubble has popped: higher education.

A new report from the Lumina Foundation and Gallup fuels my pessimism:

  • Seven in 10 leaders say they would consider hiring someone without a degree or credential over someone with one.
  • Just 13% of business leaders say higher education institutions collaborate with business a great deal.
  • Most leaders (88%) favor an increased level of collaboration with higher education institutions.
  • About one in ten business leaders strongly agree that higher education institutions in this country are graduating students with the skills and competencies their business needs.
  • Just (14%) of executives say they are very likely to hire a candidate who has a degree from an online higher education over a candidate with a traditional higher education.
  • Business leaders were most likely to indicate the amount of knowledge a candidate has in the field is a very important factor to managers making hiring decisions for organizations.
  • For business leaders, work skills top the list of factors that should drive immigration policy decisions.

Gallup summarizes,

There is a disconnect between what business leaders need and what higher education institutions think they are producing. A separate Gallup study for Inside Higher Ed finds that 96% of chief academic officers at higher education institutions say their institution is very or somewhat effective at preparing students for the world of work. Quite the reverse, business leaders say that college graduates do not have the skills that their particular businesses need such as applicable knowledge and applied skills in the field. Even though leaders are not yet turning to foreign-born workers when hiring, they favor increasing green card policies for foreign-born international graduate students in the U.S.

This is likely why “a strong majority of business leaders favoring an increased level of collaboration between higher education institutions and businesses. An increased level of collaboration will benefit both business leaders and higher education institutions in preparing students with the right knowledge and applied skills so that they are ready for the real world and have the best opportunity to find a good job.”

While we may be complacent in thinking the shiny degree hanging on the wall means we’re educated and highly-skilled, business leaders are providing a much-needed wake up call. It’s not about the piece of paper, but what you can actually do. In the immortal words of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, “You wanna work here — close.”

The Problem with Free Stuff (College Tuition Edition)

Jordan Weissmann, writing for The Atlantic, thinks he has calculated the total cost of free tuition in the United States at public universities. The headline? “Here’s Exactly How Much the Government Would Have to Spend to Make Public College Tuition-Free.” It’s adorable, really.

First Weissmann gets the total amount spent on all public university tuition ($60b). Then he subtracts the government aid that currently goes to public schools (about $20b). Next, he carefully considers the impact that free education would have on the folks who go to private universities, and estimates how many of them would move to public school (no, I’m kidding, he totally ignores that.) Additionally, he considers all the folks who currently don’t go to college at all because the price and/or financial aid process is intimidating and generates an estimate for new entrants into college (ha, yeah, no: that’s not actually in there.) Then, he considers the indirect costs of overcrowding, the capital outlays that public universities would have to spend on new classrooms, housing, and facilities, and the costs of hiring and training all the new faculty and staff to handle the influx (yeah, that’s not mentioned in the article at all.) Finally, he considers related, complex issues like the future of the profit-machine that is college athletics and how it would interact with this new regime (by now you know very well that he did absolutely no such thing.)

Instead, he compares his make-believe $40b number to this pretty chart.

2014-01-07 Tution

Which tells us… nothing, really.

On the one hand, I can’t blame Weissmann for not doing all that extra work. I spent about 20 minutes trying to get numbers, and it was not fun. But the problem with taking the easy way out is that (in this case at least) you end up with a phony estimate of an irrelevant number. If we think that free public education for K-12 is a good idea, then it’s entirely plausible that free public education for K-16 is a good idea. My point is not that Weissmann’s final conclusion is wrong. Rather, it’s that (1) lazy analysis is counter-productive and (2) pretending that markets don’t exist is silly. If you’re not talking about the way people will respond to major changes in prices, you’re not having a serious conversation of any kind.

The Elitism of Hackschooling, Unschooling, and other Fads

On the surface, this is a perfectly valid perspective on education.

“Hackschooling” is clearly working out perfectly well for this kid, and I don’t have any doubt that his education is probably far superior to what the median American kid receives. But the secret sauce in this education stew isn’t some cutting-edge theory. It’s actually just the lavish expenditure of time, money, and human capital to purchase a cutting-edge education most families cannot afford.

Think about it this way: public education is designed to capture economies of scale. Want to educate a whole country: design one curriculum and teach it to all of them. When you upgrade from public education by spending more money what you’re basically getting is a combination of prestige and personalization. Personalization works because of smaller teacher:student ratios, but also because the expense of private education means you end up with a much more homogenuous student body, and so the educational experience can be customized to a greater extent. You spend money, you get personalized education.

The thing to realize is that this “unschooling” (or “hackschooling” or whatever) is not any different. It’s the exact same idea, but taken to the extreme. Sure, there might not be a huge outlay of cash, but there is definitely a huge outlay of time. We’re talking about a student:teacher ratio of something like 1:3 or 1:4 (depending on the number of kids involved) and you can only swing that if you’ve got a single-earner making enough to support the whole family. You might not be writing a check to a private school for tuition, but you are having one spouse opt to not bring home a paycheck at all. That’s the tuition of homeschool.

But there’s more to it than that. A lot of the experiences this kid talks about are clearly not experiences you can get if your family is not well-connected and knowledgeable. At 13-years old I couldn’t have gotten a job at all, much less an internship at a quirky specialist manufacturer of some kind. The best I could swing was a job as a janitor when I hit 14 and it was legally allowed. Your parents have to have the social circle and the know-how to set up these awesome experiences, and that’s basically a requirement of human capital.

I’m not criticizing this family’s choices. I think that homeschooling is awesome when done right. What I’m criticizing is the kind of snake-oil approach that says there’s some kind of theory or trick to awesome education. There isn’t. Not really. It’s just a question of quantity of resources that you have to throw at the problem. And, from that perspective, this kid’s education is about the most elite and expensive you can imagine. Good for him that his parents can afford it, but let’s not kid ourselves about the price tag. For most Americans: it’s out of your reach.

The Immorality of College Tuition

2013-11-14 True Merit

For a conservative, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about bleeding heart issues. One that has been bugging me for a long time is the idea of class. I’m having a hard time putting this into words, but it goes something like this: the real advantage to going to Harvard (or similar) is not the increased education. That’s a minor advantage, if any, over a good state school. No, the real advantage is the unwarranted deference people give you because you attended an “elite” school. I don’t like it because it smacks of anti-meritocratic privilege.

But it was just a sort of un-formed hunch until I read this article explaining the extent to which college admission is driven pretty much exclusively by money. If you have money: you get admitted into the elite club. If you don’t: too bad.

The basic gist of the article is that a combination of exorbitantly high tuition and reliance on absurdly expensive preparation (e.g. private school and SAT tutors) conspire to make elite institutions only available to the ultra-rich. And the facts bear out the theory:

Only 3.8 percent of American families make more than $200,000 per year. But at Harvard University, 45.6 percent of incoming freshman come from families making $200,000 or more. A mere 4 percent of Harvard students come from a family in the bottom quintile of US incomes, and only 17.8 percent come from the bottom three quintiles.

The conclusion?

A higher education system that once promoted social mobility now serves to solidify class barriers. Desperate parents compromise their principles in order to spare their children rejection. But it is the system itself that must be rejected. True merit cannot be bought – and admission should not be either.

This isn’t a complete explanation of everything I find wrong with class in America, but it’s an important glimpse. I feel like we’re losing sight of the things that made this country great in the past, and meritocracy and social mobility are two big ones.

Is Private School Evil?

Group of students wearing uniforms

Allison Benedikt has a piece at Slate urging people to “not just acknowledge your liberal guilt—listen to it.” Specifically, Benedikt states that “you are a bad person if you send your children to private school.”

I’d like to give Benedikt credit for having good intentions. The problem is that nothing in her argument actually substantiates her blind belief that if all kids went to public school, then public schools would improve. She even acknowledges that the rich would cluster in rich neighborhoods and nothing could be done about it, but somehow inner city public schools would miraculously rebound anyhow.

How? Benedikt doesn’t say. I feel bad pointing it out, but Benedikt might have done a better job at stringing together a cogent argument if her own education hadn’t been so poor. That’s not a mean-spirited slam on my part. I just don’t know what else to take from a piece that fails to provide any rationale whatsoever for its core thesis, but does include statements like “I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either.” along with an eyebrow raising claim that “getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near my house” is an equivalent experience to reading Walt Whitman. Maybe if Benedikt had ever read Whitman, she would be qualified to weigh in on that, but since she claims to have hardly read any literary books ever I’m not sure why she thinks anyone would be interested to her opinion on the topic.

In the meantime, my kids don’t go to private school because my wife and I are rich and it’s a status symbol or class affectation. We stretch our budget to the breaking point to afford their tuition (and go without things like a second car) because we don’t want them to have to relive experiences like the vicious bullying I endured or the rampant sexism my wife survived. If you want us to risk putting our kids through that, you’ll have to do a damn site better than this as an argument. I’m guessing Benedikt doesn’t actually have kids, or she would understand that.

At the end of the day, the sad irony is that Benedikt’s piece is so terribly reasoned it is a stark warning against sending your kids to public school. If you do, they may end up writing nonsense like she does.

Should Women Be Allowed to Go to College? Feminists Unsure

2013-08-21 o-alma-mater

This headline is much more provocative than the blog post that inspired it (O, Alma Mater), so let me explain why I think it’s warranted. In the post, Anne-Marie Maginnis responds to the idea that women who earn Ivy League degrees and choose to be stay-at-home moms are wasting their degrees. She cites a recent article in The Guardian:

Any Harvard Law School degree obtained by a woman who then chooses not to use it in any sort of professional capacity throughout most of her life is a wasted opportunity. That degree could have gone to a woman who does want to spend her entire life using it to advance the cause of women—or others in need of advancement—not simply advancing the lives of her own family at home, which is a noble cause, but not one requiring an elite degree.

The quote is ostensibly about advanced degrees at elite schools (not “college”) and specifically about stay-at-home moms (not “women”), but the truly alarming thing about the argument–which Maginnis exposes immediately–is that it assumes that women aren’t worth educating for their own sake. If you take it seriously, this brand of feminism says that a woman’s value–her right to be educated–is dependent on her usefulness to the capitalist machine. So much for liberalism, in pretty much every sense of the word.

The Problem with High Tuition and Student Loans

Take a look at the chart, folks.

2013-07-02 Student Loans

It’s an old chart from a Marginal Revolution post back in 2011, but WalkerW (who comments here at DR) just showed it to me the other day. And I mean, come on. We’ve got less comp sci grads, but we’re doubling down on Visual and Performing Arts, Psychology, and Communications & Journalism? Who are these people, and what do they think college is for? The idea of a liberal arts education–that you go spend four years living the life of the mind–is quaintly romantic I suppose, but it’s also (in no particular order):

  1. Dangerous
  2. Elitist
  3. Deceptive

Read moreThe Problem with High Tuition and Student Loans

Is Early Learning Helpful?

2013 02 25 Daycare

I’ve read and heard lots of studies suggesting that early childhood education (like preschool) is vitally important in helping put kids on the right track, and even in combating some of the negative consequences of poverty. This has made me a pretty strong supporter of this kind of intervention as an anti-poverty policy. And yet…

“Premature socialization,” says Dr. Neufeld, “was always considered by developmentalists to be the greatest sin in raising children ….[w]hen you put children together prematurely before they can hold on to themselves, then they become like [the others] and it crushes the individuality rather than hones it.”

Read the rest of this contrarian view here.

As usual? The more I learn, the less I know. Any of my readers know about this, or just have any insight or opinions?