Tag Archives: diploma

Universities Are Vocational Schools

Why do students go to college? A new poll has a one-word
answer: money. That’s one of the findings in a broad Gallup survey of college admissions officers done for Inside
Higher Ed
. The admissions officers seem to believe that those planning to
attend college view it largely as a signaling device that directs the best and
brightest young Americans to the best and highest-paying jobs. It is not
primarily about acquiring knowledge (“human capital”), critical learning or
leadership skills, or better perceiving the difference between right and wrong,
but more about achieving the American Dream of a comfortable, moderately
affluent life.

To cite one statistic, 99 percent of admission directors
at public four-year colleges agreed or strongly agreed that “parents of
applicants place high importance on the ability of degree programs to help
students get a good job.” With regards to the prospective students themselves,
“only” 87 percent of the counselors agree that getting a good job is
important/very important.  Most of the
counselors also agree, at all forms of higher education institutions, that
their schools are putting more emphasis on job placement.

Continue reading Universities Are Vocational Schools

How Academics Concocted a New ‘Middle Class’

middle_class.jpgTo hear politicians tell it, the college diploma is the guaranteed gateway to middle-class life, so everybody should probably go to college. The argument seems self-evident–over a lifetime, college graduates far out-earn those without a degree ($2.1 million, supposedly), so go to college, live the American Dream. Unfortunately, as many recent college graduates have discovered, diplomas no longer guarantee success. A Bureau of Labor Statistics study, for example, reported that in 1992 some 119,000 waiters and waitresses had college degrees. But by 2008 this figure had soared to 318,000. The study also found similar increases of under-employment in other low-level occupations. In 2010 the unemployment rate for college graduates was the highest since 1970.

Continue reading How Academics Concocted a New ‘Middle Class’

A Simple Solution to a Big College Problem–SURs

What is the college graduation rate in this country? Correct answer: nobody knows. All the statistics you’ve read about are at best partial truths. We basically track graduation only for “traditional” students. The problem is that these “traditional” students are no longer representative – most college students are now “non-traditional”: 38 percent of students enroll part time; some full-time students start again after some earlier post-secondary work; and a good many students who transfer to another institution are counted as dropouts. In fact some important news arrived today–one third of all college students transfer before graduating, so our statistics on college completion are even more unreliable than we thought.

The fact that we spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on higher education and can’t determine something as basic as a national graduation rate is a dereliction of duty. The solution to this problem is deceptively simple: turn to Student Unit Records. SURs are straightforward – they are databases that assign each student an individual number so that their educational history can be tracked. With a SUR, the pace of part-time students could be accounted for, and transfer students would no longer vanish, making it possible to calculate an accurate and meaningful graduation rate.

There’s a second advantage from having a SUR: it would allow a better understanding of each college’s and even each program’s performance. For example, while post-college earnings are certainly not the only thing that matters, they are an important consideration for many students. Matching educational records from a SUR with earnings data from the IRS would allow for accurate employment outcomes to be published for each college and program. Such information would help students make better decisions which would in turn help discipline and focus colleges. This can’t be done without a SUR.

There are two main groups opposed to SUR. The first are colleges. In an unusual alliance, both the best and the worst colleges fear SURs. The bad colleges like being able to say things like “Our 9% official graduation rate ignores transfer students and is therefore not an accurate depiction of the quality of our college.” The fact that they oppose a SUR system which would allow for accurate graduation rates to be calculated tells us that they are more interested in maintaining plausible excuses than in actually finding an accurate number. Meanwhile, the best colleges are terrified of being compared to other schools on something like value added earnings. At best, such a comparison would confirm that they are indeed the best. But a comparison might show that they do not deserve to be on top, and they are terrified that some no name college will be shown to be just as good or better. Thus, for top colleges, there is nothing to gain, and potentially everything to lose from such comparisons. While colleges’ opposition to SURs are understandable, there is absolutely no reason for policymakers to indulge them.

The second group opposed to SURs are Republicans concerned about privacy violations. To an extent these were legitimate concerns as any database has potential privacy issues. But recently, convincing methods of safeguarding privacy while implementing a SUR have been developed. Republican Governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell has done great work in this area, as has Democratic U.S. Senator Ron Wyden and Republican U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter. The Republicans that have opposed SURs to date deserve credit for ensuring that privacy was taken into account, but it is now time to acknowledge that their concerns have been addressed.

America has some great colleges that are the envy of the world. But we also have some terrible colleges that waste student and taxpayer money. A SUR would help us separate the wheat from the chaff.

A Funny Book about Worthless Degrees

“Here are some [college] degrees that cost you roughly $30,000 in tuition, their much cheaper replacements, and the savings you’d realize:

                  Degree                                  Replacement                                        Savings

                  Foreign Languages                 Language
Software                               $29,721

                  Philosophy                             Read
Socrates                                    $29,980

                  Women’s Studies                   Watch
Daytime TV                               $30,000

                  Journalism                             Start
a blog                                          $30,000

…Since none of these degrees help increase your employability, you might as well avoid these majors and do it on your own.”

The above is an excerpt from one of the funnier paragraphs
in “Worthless: The Young Person’s Indispensable Guide to Choosing the
Right Major” (Paric Publications), Aaron Clarey’s hilarious primer
for college students who would like to work as something other than nannies and
theater interns after graduation.

Continue reading A Funny Book about Worthless Degrees

Are Too Many People Going to College?

These are the opening statements of a luncheon debate co-sponsored by the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University and the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.  The debate, held January 11 in New York City, pitted George Leef, research director of the Pope Center, against Peter Sacks, economist and author of Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education.  The moderator was Howard Husock, Manhattan Institute’s vice president for policy research.

YES–George Leef

In my time this afternoon, I hope to persuade you that the United States has greatly oversold higher education.

We have done that through heavy government subsidies and extravagant rhetoric from both politicians and higher education leaders that created the impression that high-paying jobs were waiting for anyone who completed a college degree.

Just as we caused a destructive, resource-wasting housing bubble by pushing the idea that home ownership was good for almost everyone, so have we caused a resource-wasting higher education bubble.  Large numbers of people have gone to college and obtained degrees costing a great deal of money and time, only to find that there aren’t nearly enough of those good jobs to go around.

The analogy to the housing bubble isn’t perfect, however.  At least the houses that were built were generally of good construction.

In our higher education bubble, many of the educations purchased by students are the equivalent of houses without roofs.  Many Americans today graduate with a college education in name only, having gained little or nothing in useful skills and knowledge.

It’s common in public policy issues for the enthusiasts for some idea to exaggerate the benefits that will supposedly come from their favored policy while underestimating if not entirely overlooking the costs and new problems it will cause.  That was the case with the housing bubble and it’s equally so with our great leap forward to get more and more people through college.

The first benefit of going to college is that it supposedly leads to higher lifetime earnings, since on average, those who have college degrees earn significantly more than do people who don’t.

It is a mistake to assume that just because, on average, people who obtained college degrees in the past have enjoyed higher earnings, individuals who will get college degrees in the future will also enjoy the same “earnings premium.”

We know that many college graduates have to accept jobs that don’t call for any academic preparation whatsoever, and don’t pay more just because the worker happens to have a degree.

Last year, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity released a paper documenting the large percentages of people who have bachelors degrees (or higher) working in jobs that most high schoolers could easily do: customer service reps, cashiers, taxi drivers, and so on.

Quoting from that report.  “More than one third of current working graduates are in jobs that do not require a degree and the proportion appears to be rising rapidly….60 percent of the increased college graduate population between 1992 and 2008 ended up in these lower skill jobs.”

The labor market is glutted with people holding college credentials.  Just because a country “produces” a lot of college grads does not mean there will be commensurate jobs for them.

A second common belief is that it’s advantageous for a country to have a high rate of college completion because it improves economic competitiveness.  Conversely, a country that falls behind in this regard faces a dim economic future.

In an address to Congress in 2009, President Obama latched onto that idea, calling for a national goal of being first in the world in terms of college graduates by 2025.

The trouble with that notion is that there is no necessary connection between a nation’s “educational attainment” level and the vitality of its economy.

In her book Does Education Matter?–Myths about education and economic growth, University of London professor Alison Wolf examined the supposed connection between education and economic growth.  She wrote, “Two naive beliefs have a distorting influence (on public policy) – the belief in a simple, direct relationship between the amount of education in a society and its future growth rate, and the belief that governments can fine-tune education expenditures to maximize that rate of growth. Neither is correct.”

Wolf provided examples of nations that have “invested” heavily in higher education yet have listless economies (such as Egypt) and others that do little to promote higher education yet enjoy very productive and growing economies (such as Switzerland).

Conclusion: putting lots of people through college is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for rapid economic growth.

Now I’ll mention two costs.

One cost of the expansion of college has been a corresponding decline in academic standards.

As college enrollments rose in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, K-12 standards were falling, with the result that an ever-increasing proportion of college students entered with weak academic skills and often an attitude that was indifferent toward learning.

In a 1997 article, Montana State English professor Paul Trout called them “disengaged” students and explained how they put downward pressure on academic rigor and upward pressure on grades – to keep them content and enrolled.

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy provides evidence of falling college standards.  In the 1992 study, only 40 percent of college graduates were assessed as “proficient” in prose literacy; by the 2003 study, that figure had fallen to just 31 percent.

And putting a quantitative peak on the mountain of anecdotal evidence that many students just coast along to their degrees, last year’s book Academically Adrift showed that a large percentage of college students learn essentially nothing.

A second cost is credential inflation.  The more college grads in the labor force, the more employers require job applicants to have college credentials, even for jobs that call for no academic preparation.

James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield wrote in their book Saving Higher Education in the Era of Money, “The United States has become the most rigidly credentialized society in the world.  A BA is required for jobs that by no stretch of imagination require two years of full-time training, let alone four.”

Credential inflation is hard on poor people who are prevented from competing for jobs they could do and hardest of all on poor people who spend money they need for other things on college credentials, only to wind up in low-pay jobs anyway.

I hope you’ll now agree that we’ve oversold college.


NO–Peter Sacks

Are too many people going to college?
This question seems simple but we can look at in through many lenses.  From what or whose perspective are there too many college goers?  From an individual’s point of view at the present time?  From a societal perspective now and in the long run?  From a macroeconomic viewpoint?
First, let me make one thing clear.  It’s argued that a substantial number of college-goers — who should not be going to college — would be better off seeking associate’s degrees or other types of vocational credentials that would help them find good jobs.  This is the updated version of the old, “College isn’t for everyone” argument.
Okay, college isn’t for everyone.  Besides striking me as a bit paternalistic, to make this claim as an argument that too many people are going to college isn’t really an argument at all because nobody would disagree with the claim that college isn’t for everyone.

No, the real argument here is whether we are over-investing in higher education leading to bachelor’s degrees, and if so, how do we legitimately ration higher education opportunity.  How do we decide who “legitimately” deserves this privilege?

From whatever perspective one chooses, there are not too many people going to college.  In fact, the evidence strongly suggests that the United States is under-investing in higher education.  For the sake of economic development alone, there are actually too few people going to college.
Lately, a number of voices have suggested that too many high school graduates are going to college who shouldn’t be going to college.  According to this argument, we are producing more college graduates than what the labor market can accommodate.  The result, it’s claimed, is a flood of college-educated young people working at relatively low-level jobs.
I believe that this argument of too much college-educated labor supply versus demand — an alleged overmatch problem — is not supported by the evidence.
We’ve all heard the stories of the elevator operator with a master’s degree or the waiter with a Ph.D.  But the data suggests these stories are just that, the seemingly frequent, yet incidental, stories which defy our sensibilities about the purpose of higher education and whether it’s worth the cost.  Even on this narrow aspect of the  supply and demand of labor, the evidence suggests that members of the college-educated workforce are either sufficiently educated or in fact undereducated for their jobs.
That is strike one for the too many going to college argument: Given the education and skill requirements of the U.S. economy now and in the future, this country is largely undereducated for the future.  We are producing too few BA degrees and advanced degrees relative to the skill sets employers actually need and will need.
A second aspect of our question today that is largely ignored in the college-no college debate is the macroeconomic value of higher education investments.
In fact, the evidence suggests than public investments in human capital, including higher education, yield long-term economic rates of return that far exceed most standard investments in technology or capital.  Such excess rates of return, above and beyond rates of return in alternative investments, suggest a massive amount of underinvestment in human capital and a dead loss of untold economic returns due to this underinvestment.
That is strike two for the too many going to college argument: Too few people are going to college because current levels of public investment in human capital are woefully insufficient from a macroeconomic perspective.
Finally, there is an even more vital aspect of this debate question that is rarely discussed in conversations on this issue.

To ask whether too many people are going to college begs another question: If too many people are going to college, then who are these people?  How should we as a society ration a more restricted level of educational opportunity?  If we actually did decide as a nation that too many people are going to college, then how should we fix this problem, and what are the far-reaching implications of this fix?  Are too many kids from wealthy families going to college?  Are there too many college-goers enrolled in social work?  Are too many lower middle class kids seeking higher education?  Whom exactly are we encouraging when they should not be encouraged?

While some critics are quick to say that we should reduce the numbers of college-goers, you can be sure that this point of view would rarely apply to their own sons and daughters.
I think most people in this room are smart enough to know that young people born to families of modest incomes and relatively low levels of education — who already bear the brunt of the lack of college access — will also bear the lion’s share of the burden of any policy to roll back education opportunity.
And there you have it: not just fewer people in general going to college but especially fewer people who can least afford to pay for college.

As the chosen ones, however, students from families who have the ability to pay for admissions slots at universities — which, by the way, would dramatically shrink because of dwindling subsidies —  well these chosen few would become our new, self-perpetuating aristocracy.

At the dinner table, equal opportunity means that parents want their children to have opportunities they never had themselves.  After a few generations of striving, grandparents who had attained no more than a high school diploma now have grandchildren who are doctors, professors, and engineers.  Who in this room doesn’t have stories like that in their families?

Those stories should remind us of who we are and how we got here.  We have what we have because of sacrifices — investments in human capital — that past generations made, for us.

As we speak, the American Dream is already on life support.  Adopt the notion that too many people are going to college, and we kill off the Dream for good.

About All Those STEM Dropouts…

science_lab_students.jpgThe New York Times proclaimed recently that science educators and others are vitally concerned that high dropout rates of students studying math, science, and engineering (the “STEM” disciplines) will imperil our nation’s technological leadership. There is a shortage of people in these fields, it is argued, and efforts to increase numbers are thwarted by dropout rates that run from 40 to as high as 60 percent (for those originally pre-med majors).

I want to make two points. First, the high dropout rates are not only far from surprising; indeed, they should be expected, and we should rejoice that someone in higher education is trying to maintain standards of academic excellence. Second, for well over half of a century, STEM advocates have cried “shortages of key personnel” and “crisis” when none really existed, showing a lamentable lack of scientific objectivity and intellectual honesty in the process. I fear this may be happening again.

Continue reading About All Those STEM Dropouts…

Check Out This Alternative to College

students test results.jpgInstitutions from charter schools to the White House are pushing hard for more young people to go to college, but with almost half of students at four-year colleges destined to leave without a degree, a counter-trend is starting to take hold: a loose coalition of people in the credentialing, training, and grant-making businesses are working to build an alternative to college for young people who are not academically inclined. The new paradigm centers around the National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC) developed during the 1990s by ACT, the non-profit organization far better known for its SAT-style college-entrance exam. The NCRC and its assorted components and supplements, collectively known as WorkKeys, offer a path to employment success outside the conventional college track.

Scores on the WorkKeys assessments certify to prospective employers that job applicants have mastered enough specific, nationally recognized mental and interpersonal skills to qualify for the jobs they are seeking, no matter where they went to high school, what courses they took, or whether they had any college experience at all. In short, ACT’s NCRC strives to make bypassing college a viable, indeed an optimal choice for those who are either unlikely to succeed academically, or who are just turned off by the prospect of years of higher education. Alternatively, the test can help them get decent jobs while they pursue further specific training that could hoist them into even better ones.

Continue reading Check Out This Alternative to College

Fraud Up and Down Our Educational System


In Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz the Wizard says he wants an educated populace, “so by the power vested in me I will grant everyone diplomas.” Welcome to the education system of 2011. Much of what we now observe comes right out of the Baum novel.

When Charles Eliot was president of Harvard, he was asked why there is so much intelligence at this college, He replied, “because the freshmen bring so much in and the seniors take so little out.” My guess is if a university president were completely honest today, he might say the freshman bring almost nothing in and leave by taking nothing out.

The question is, if the society spends billions on primary, secondary and higher education, why is so little accomplished? There are many answers to this question, of course, but I would argue the overarching reason is fraud, fraud at every level in order to satisfy political demands.

Continue reading Fraud Up and Down Our Educational System

Why College Still Matters

A growing chorus of critics says a college education is finished as the ticket to economic success and a middle-class life.

The economy of the future, these critics suggest, actually requires far fewer college-educated citizens, because the U.S. economy is generating tens of thousands of jobs that require little or no higher education. 

In essence, the critics of American higher education policy are challenging the long-standing belief that all U.S. citizens should have a decent chance to pursue a college degree, regardless of what kind of neighborhood they grow up in, what kind of schools are available to them, or whether their parents have university degrees.

Continue reading Why College Still Matters

Another Thick Stack Of Paper

The Gates Foundation has just released a report “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them” on why students fail to finish college, which might seem a timely topic amidst recent hand-wringing about our persistent failure to actually get students to a diploma. The problem, as with about all studies on this topic, is that it shows little information of any real evaluative use.

We find that “most students leave college because they are working to support themselves and going to school at the same time.” 54% of the students who left school cited “I needed to go to work and make money.” They also reported problems with textbook costs and other fees greater than their peers who graduated as well. Simple enough.

Also unsurprisingly, those who did not have financial support from their parents were far more likely not to graduate, at a rate of 58% dropping out as opposed to 38% graduating. Similarly, those without scholarships or loans were far more likely to drop out.

And yet, when we venture into reasons why students selected their schools, 41% of those who indicated that financial aid or a scholarship was a major reason for choosing their school did not graduate. Perhaps these had additional insurmountable financial difficulties, yet it not, there are clearly larger problems at hand.

What’s left? Well, in keeping with prior indications, students who did not graduate were far more likely to choose colleges based on proximity to where they lived or worked, and to seek a class schedule that worked with my schedule (the students who graduated seemed to have far fewer prior commitments).

What is there to say, based on this sample of 614 students? Well, not much. Clearly, financial problems are at the root of numerous decisions to leave college before completion. Whether graduated or not, most students were supportive of the idea of cutting the cost of college by a quarter (who wouldn’t? and why only a quarter? How about half?). One interesting, and very-much neglected idea was “making part-time attendance more viable by giving those students better access to loans, tuition assistance and health care – benefits and services that are frequently available only to full-time students.” Otherwise, given the data in this report, it seems that there’s very little that can be done. Financial problems are intractable, and in an age where tuition restraint is an absent quantity and increasing federal support never seems to cut the actual price of education, this report is a series of points that fail to add up to anything resembling an answer.. Now if the Gates Foundation pledged to pay for all these shortcomings, that might make a difference. As it is, all we have is just another thick stack of paper.

Why Are Graduation Rates So Low?

Of every 100 kids who enter American high schools, only about 20 obtain a bachelor’s degree within a decade. That is why the proportion of adult Americans with baccalaureate degrees is rising relatively slowly, and why the U.S. has fallen behind a number of other nations in the proportion of young adults with college degrees.
There are three points of attrition that keep new high school students from becoming college graduates. Some do not make it through high school. Some high school graduates never go to college. But the largest rate of attrition is seldom discussed: 40-50 percent of those who matriculate in colleges and universities do not obtain a degree within six years of entering college. And a majority of new freshman does not get a college degree in the four years that most of them expect to acquire it.
All of this must change, and radically, if President Obama’s goal of America regaining its leadership in the world in degree attainment is to be achieved. A lot of attention has gone into the second area of attrition -failure to continue on to college, but less attention has been paid at the college level to the third factor -college drop-outs.

Continue reading Why Are Graduation Rates So Low?

A Painless Path To A College Degree

Operators of a diploma mill, convicted of selling 10,000 bogus academic degrees out of Spokane, Washington, are on their way to prison. The Justice department declined to release the names of buyers, saying that it was against policy, but the Spokesman-Review made the complete list public today on its website. The buyers include at least 135 people with ties to the military, 39 with educational institutions and 17 with government agencies, including one from NASA , one from the CIA (a contract employee) and a military adviser working at the White House. Half the buyers were from overseas, with a majority of the “students” from Saudi Arabia. Many bought four or more degrees. The top customer, Anthony McGugan of Barnegat, New Jersey, bought 16, including a masters and doctorate in theology, a masters in social work, bachelor’s degrees in human services and biblical studies and certificates in addiction counseling and social development. A total of 826 purchasers bought at least one PhD. The fictional colleges and universities listed as granting the degrees included St. Regis (the top choice), Valorem, Eucharist Diocese, Cincinnati Technical College, the University of the Punjab and Holy Acclaim University. Some 375 of the purchasers bought high school degrees.