PS Textbooks – Wondering About Costs

I haven’t posted anything in nearly a year, and it’s time that I start again.  Today’s Chronicle of Higher Education offers good topic: the cost of textbooks.  The article, “Students Are Spending Less on Textbooks, but That’s Not All Good,” talks about text book  and observes that when less spending means fewer purchases – not lower costs – that result does not benefit students. An excellent post, “The Practical Costs of Textbooks,” asks and and answers, “What impact does the cost of textbooks have on students? Textbook costs cause students to occasionally or frequently take fewer courses (35% of students), to drop or withdraw from courses (24%), and to earn either poor or failing grades (26%). Regardless of whether you have historically preferred the College Board number or the student survey number, a third fact that is beyond dispute is that surveys of students indicate that the cost of textbooks negatively impacts their learning (grades) and negatively impacts their time to graduation (drops, withdraws, and credits).”

Both as an instructor and an advisor, I see that student’s having the right course materials matters a good deal.  I have had students tell me about failing a course because they didn’t get the text. I’ve talked with students about strategies for reducing textbook costs plenty of times : by using older editions, by sharing textbooks with a classmate and so on.  And, the data reported confirm my suspicion is that high textbook prices hits the least savvy college consumers – first-year and first-generation college students – the most.

I am not quite sure where to place the blame for rising textbook costs.  When I have talked to publisher representatives about the high costs of new textbooks, they have told me that high costs stem from the now shorter-cycle for new textbooks. Because of efficient re-sale markets for textbooks and textbook rentals, the revenue stream for new textbooks is mostly done in eighteen months. Students not buying as many books may be part of that issue too.  Faculty’s insisting on the latest and new edition of a text – rather than using the old text with an errata sheet or a supplement may too be part of the problem.  All these issues should matter as part of the discussion on textbook costs.

Yet, the discussion is missing two important points.  First, texts and other assigned readings have a high relative value for college education.  Students (do and ought to) spend more time with the text than in class.  I find that when students do the reading for a class, they succeed in the class.   Or, at least, they succeed much more often.  They learn the material. Related to that point: More and more often, good lectures are available for free on-line; textbooks aren’t free.  And, reading the book still matters. Good books are worth paying for.

Second, put aside the issue of students failing courses for want of a text; I would expect as much.  Even a wonderful lecture is not a substitute for diligent study of a worthwhile textbook.   My wonderment is that so many students are able to pass courses without purchasing a textbook.  How can those students pass?  If faculty aren’t reinforcing the reading assignments through their lectures, assignments and examinations, textbooks are only a supplement – at best.  How integral can those those unreinforced readings be to the class? To put the point more directly, why are students spending thousands of dollars to take a class, but not willing to spend hundreds of dollars to buy the books necessary to succeed in a class? (Or, maybe have some students made a rational calculation that the books aren’t necessary? That result would be a genuine disappointment.)

On this issue, historical data – which I don’t have – might be helpful.  Still, jokes of weighty texts used – and only used – as doorstoppers have a lineage at least decades long.  Maybe students purchased texts in earlier eras, but their purchase is not an assurance of their use.  I will add that my intuition – formed mostly by glancing through older syllabi – is that most courses assign less reading than was common twenty or thirty years ago. So, in the end, we know something about expenditures, but we don’t know the relationship of expenditure to use.

I’ve written more than I expected, but what prompted my post was this:  According to data provided by the National Association of College Stores’ Student Watch in the article posted in The Chronicle above, Political Science and health majors spend around $800 dollars per year on texts – about $200 dollars  more than students in computer science and $250 dollars more than students in humanities.  I wonder how that result can be.  Books in STEM disciplines tend to cost more, and, I believe, most humanities courses require a good deal of reading… yet political science costs rank high.  I just wonder what’s driving those results. Issues of compliance, i.e., health sciences and political science students purchase what they’re supposed to purchase and other students don’t, course difficulty, i.e,those students are assigned more to read, or instructor assignment patterns all might play a role here. I don’t know. I wish that I did.


Reviewing Syllabi

Some months ago, there was a flurry of articles related to a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), “Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them: Training Our Future Teachers.”  Maybe not a flurry, but I did see articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed and even The Huffington Post. I am sure that there are others.  Most of the articles announced the results and cited critics denouncing it – largely for inappropriate methodologies.  For example, The Chronicle offered a commentary by Donald Heller, Dean of Education at Michigan State University, wrote: “this one has fatal flaws that undermine most of the conclusions articulated in it.”

There is much to be said on this controversy.  There are complaints about the organization conducting the study, the data collection, the methodology and the conclusions asserted.  I don’t want to weigh-in on this study at all except for a narrow issue of some consequence for advising: the use of syllabi.  In the context of commenting on the Easy A study, Lauren Ingeno reports, “Leaders of teacher preparation programs complained that the review relied almost entirely on syllabuses, course descriptions and other ‘inputs’ rather than ‘outputs.’”  One dean she quotes adds, that a syllabus is “’a very, very thin and indirect determinant of what the students who take that course actually learn.’”

Of course, that’s correct, a syllabus is not a measure of learning at all. A syllabus is an indication of instructor intentions.  Moreover, within higher education, a course syllabus is widely taken to be a fairly reliable indication of instructor intentions.  Faculty, deans and others routinely rely on them in evaluating course content.  If an instructor departs too far from a syllabus, students rightly complain.  Advisors suggesting courses or placements to students need to rely on syllabi too.

Students learn – or fail to learn – many things in their courses.  Still, I find it hard to assert or imagine building a course or curriculum around a view that students reliably learn subject-related material other than matters detailed in the syllabus.  Quite commonly, success in, let’s say, Course B depends on knowledge, skills or abilities taught in the prerequisite, Course A. Not to rely on syllabi, at least for purposes of course articulation, is an affront to comity between different educational institutions.

In looking over syllabi, which is a day-in-the-life of advisors, or at least this one, we need to look beyond the broad proclamation of “learning objectives” or “outcomes” and drill down.  What are the readings? What are the assignments? How are students graded? And so on.  The question is what can a student be reasonably expected to learn from those readings and those assignments, well-assisted by lectures and feedback from grading.  Those are the essential questions for me in looking at and advising relative to a syllabus.

Changing markets for lawyers and law schools

The economics of practicing law of law school are in the news again.  In an article this week, Jeffrey Toobin writes – part quoting an article by Gunderman and Mutz from The Atlantic  “’More than 180 of the 200 US law schools are unable to find jobs for more than 80% of their graduates.’ Median starting salaries for those who do find work are down by seventeen per cent, and more than a third of graduates cannot find full-time employment.”

Toobin links the circumstances of the legal profession to broader changes in the global economy, but then shifts the article into a commentary on legal education.  Speaking of lesser law schools, he observes, “for many that remain are only offering their students false hopes of employment in exchange for big debt. These students are getting the legal-education equivalent of the subprime loans that helped sink the national economy.”

That’s incredibly strong language that many would-be law students need to drink-in: Not only students who might select a lesser school but also students in better schools who will face a competitive market place populated by starving lawyers.

Gunderman and Mutz, write about the importance of rankings in bringing about the current state of affairs.  While beginning with a discussion of law school rankings, they turn to consider the significance of law firm rankings – and in particular – the profit per partner ranking published by The American Lawyer.

Treating lawyers as unit of production, demoting them “from professionals to mere service providers,” and measuring the work of lawyers by profit and dollars is, they report, demoralizing.   They write, “Noble aspirations that may have drawn young people to the law in the first place—serving their fellow citizens, making the community a more just place, and securing democracy—evaporate thanks to this constant attention to money.”

Again, pretty strong language.  If nothing else, these two articles suggest that going to law school should be a well-considered choice and not a default.  In other postings, I’ve commented on the economics of going to law school, but the Gunderson Mutz article makes a larger point about happiness and quality of life.  Far too many students head to law school or other post-graduate opportunities because they don’t know what else to do.  That’s not a good place to be.

Wow! Can that be right?

Earlier this month, Salon  posted an article, “College is ripping you off: Students are cash cows and schools are the predators.”  The title says nearly all of importance that may be said of this article.  It’s just breath-taking in the extent of its charges, cherry-picking of evidence and general tenor.  Quite clearly, I do not believe college is a rip off.  Still, the article’s questioning of value – its questioning of what exactly about college adds value – its attention to institutional incentives and financial aspects of higher education – for example,  are questions not without merit.

I don’t have a window on what prompted this article.  Surely, the article has some political currency.  The Obama Administration is surely supportive of more students going to college.  And, this article in Salon comes comes with a series of other articles about the value of a college education and maybe a report, “Regardless of the Cost, College Still Matters,” by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.  I’ve not read this latest report on the value of a college education all that carefully, but pretty much, I take its results to be the conventional wisdom: College graduates earn more than students who don’t go to college.   And, I take it that the value of a college education, on average, exceeds its very real costs. See also: an article in U.S. News & World Report, “There Is Value in Liberal Arts Education, Employers Say,”

(A related report, on the selection of a college major, “Major Decisions: What Graduates Earn Over Their Lifetimes” also produced by the Hamilton Project, calculates that college graduates with a major of Political Science or Government earn more than such graduates with most other majors – including majors of business management and administration.  Although graduates with majors in economics, finance and engineering – on average – do eclipse the earnings of political science majors. I just thought readers of this blog – both of them – might be interested in that finding.)

Other recent articles in The Washington Post and Forbes put a different spin on the topic of the value of a college education, and I think they’re worth noting.  Kathleen Parker writes on “The diminishing returns of a college education.”  She observes that college is becoming less affordable, and then cautions, “that even at our highest-ranked colleges and universities, students aren’t getting much bang for their buck.”  Drawing on reports by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, she raises concerns about “increasing lack of academic rigor, grade inflation, high administrative costs and a lack of intellectual diversity.”

Robert Farrington in Forbes bemoans the “politicization” of the public school system, and writes of a “mentality that college is a requirement.” Even conceding real value in a college education, he observes that where once a college education was a gateway to a salaried position, now it opens the door only to hourly work.”  To get a better job, he advises students, “The key is that you have to differentiate yourself from other college graduates, and “more education” or fancier degrees don’t do it.  What employers want to see is experience, skill, and value.”

The concerns expressed by Parker and Farrington are real enough.  I don’t have rigorous data to confirm or controvert these later two views; my stories from working with students on jobs after college aren’t even particularly good.  I can agree with their recommendations to students to take a demanding and academically intense curriculum, and I think that some attention to developing a portfolio of job-related skills is a wonderful idea.  None of these suggestions negative the point on the very real and great value of a college education.

Advising Hungering and Homeless College Students

Sometimes, academics speak of a thirst or hunger for knowledge; far less often, they speak of literal the hunger or homelessness of college students.  In the past couple years, I have met with a few students who were homeless or hungry.  There are resources to assist them – but they’re mostly tied to the community rather than campus. Today, new information about poverty rates will be released.  Friday’s Daily Kos included in its digest, “Students shouldn’t go hungry on college campuses.”  The digest includes a link to an article, “How one student is fighting the college hunger crisis.And, it doesn’t take much searching to find others, e.g., “College Students Are Going Homeless and Hungry — And Corporate America Is Trying to Exploit Them.”  See also, Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty: Impact on College Students Conference.

I think of college students as a fairly privileged segment of society.  Encountering their homelessness and hunger – and working with students having those problems – to those was something new.  In the instances I dealt with, there was an abrupt change in financial circumstances: Parents could no longer support them at college.  Students lost their job suddenly and had no financial reserves.  Students lost a lease. And, in one case, I think there were larger issues.  I helped each of these students as best as I could.

In thinking about how I responded, I think there were three guiding principles in my assisting them:

  • Finish the semester as well as possible. (My thought here is that when a student owes for a semester, he or she ought to do everything possible to extract the maximum possible learning and progress toward a degree.  Dropping out just yields more debt, more problems and no progress towards a degree. So, my advice here was work to get extra time to finish the semester for exams, papers and so on. Keep other units informed.)
  • Help students identify personal resources. (When a student’s family has a short-term financial reversal, sometimes a friend or a relative may be willing to help the student pay the rent for a month or two – enough to finish a semester. Other times, a friend may allow long-term “couch-surfing.” These are not good long-term solutions, but they’re a band-aid. They allow a student to finish the semester.)
  • Work to identify community resources for the student. (More campus resources would be nice, but on my inquiry, it didn’t look like there was very much there.  Discovering community resources was a better path.  The way to discover community resources is talking to other advisors and other folks in the community. And, you can do this faster from your office than most students can.  I was surprised, for example, to discover a student-run food pantry for students. There are other resources.)

Ultimately, I am not sure what the best practices for this situation are. In general, homelessness is not a problem academic advisors are called upon to solve.  My first calls were to units around campus but I gather – at least on my campus – the problem is sufficiently rare that there was no particular set of resources ready there to deal with the problem.  My hunch is that most folks believe homeless students shouldn’t be spending money on college. However reasonable that view might be, it doesn’t help students who are suddenly homeless in the midst of a semester.

Undoubtedly, when faced with this problem, the advisor’s first priorities are getting the students most pressing concerns addressed. Maybe that’s a meal and a place to stay for the short-term, but maybe it’s something else.  Probably, addressing those first priorities involves a referral, but matters don’t end with the referral.  Unlike a social worker who might start look to longer term solutions, an advisor – after addressing the immediate needs – should help capture the benefit in the short time frame of a semester, my view is it’s best to salvage as much of the semester as possible since the knowledge and the credits are resources that a student may draw upon in the future.   I’ve talked about what I did, and maybe that strategy will help advisors work with other students in this situation.

Post script: Today’s (December 24, 2014) Huffington Post has an article, ” A Look Into The ‘Double Lives’ Of America’s Homeless College Students.”  An interesting point made in the article is some assessment of the magnitude of the problem: It reports 58,000 homeless college students — a 75% increase over the past three years. Also of interest are the stories it offers of some homeless college students.  I do wonder about one issue: How does being homeless affect the full range of benefits provided by a college education?  My guess is that it makes studying harder, but it also makes networking, experience-building extra-curricular activities and other activities often associated with college difficult or impossible. Some assessment of those aspects would be worthwhile to learn and report.

Real World Consequences of Student Debt

This past week-end, John Oliver, likened student debt to a sexually transmitted disease. I suppose the punch line is that it’s easy to get in college and stays forever.  Student debt is a serious problem.

Gallup in conjunction with Purdue University polled college graduates on different elements of well-being and levels of student debt. The results are summarized in table one – they are adapted from the Gallup Report.  The point is that is a variety of areas – liking life, enjoyment of community and health — college graduates with high levels of student are worse off than graduates without such debt.  Table One presents only ends of a spectrum, and it looks at graduates since 1990.  The differences are real enough although I am saddened that so much of the population reports it is struggling or suffering in these categories irrespective of their association with student debt.

table 1
Percentage of U.S. College Graduates “Thriving” (rather than “struggling” or “suffering”) in Five Elements of Well-Being, by Amount of Student Loan Debt (Adapted from Gallup Poll, 2014)

A more recent study associated higher levels of student debt with delay in purchase of a house – a point on which there was agreement.  (Intramural disagreement – between writers at the Washington Post and Slate – seemed to center on whether problems of student debt “crush” chances of buying a home.)

How important are the differences? According to a study by the New York Federal Reserve Bank, between 2004 and 2012, the proportion of 25 year olds with student debt grew from 27% to 43%, and by 2012, 12.7% of public had student loan balances above 50K. (p. 7) So, the differences are becoming more important because more college graduates have debt, and more of them have a good deal of debt.

What do these results mean for academic advisors?  Well, the obvious response is that advisors should encourage students to minimize debt or optimize return on educational spending.  What does that choice mean?

  • Dissuading students from delaying graduation or entry into the work force to pursue minors, second majors or other educational credentials that add little value to a college degree;
  • Working with students to assure credit transferability from study abroad, other institutions and so on;
  • Encouraging students – where the issue arises – to make prudent financial choices;
  • And other things.

On the PBS Newshour, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, Doug Belkin,neatly summarized the old conventional wisdom: “…take out as much debt as you need or you go to the best school you got into…” And, he added, “that’s sort of where the thinking stopped.” 

Belkin see the problems of that advice at the present time.  My view is this: however good that advice once was, it’s surely no longer good advice now.

CRAFTS for Talking to Transitioning Students

A student’s transition to a large public university from a high school, a community college or other kind of educational institution is sometimes difficult.  I want to write a few thoughts on fairly short visits with students focused on helping them successfully transition from high school or a community college to this campus. They’re not visits aimed at academic planning, course scheduling or career counseling or other kinds of things that advisors talk to students about; they’re quite focused visits on this transition.

My experience working with students transitioning or struggling at a large public university has prompted me to think about six different struggles that students have. They’re struggles that I’ve routinely seen in students on academic probation visit – and frankly, my list comes from an internal study of students on academic probation that I did with a colleague years ago plus some reading.  From working with other students, I think that they’re things that affect all college students.  From my perspective, they boil down to one issue, and I’ll explain that in a minute.  The six issues are: Classes, Roommates, Activities, Family, Time management and Sleep.  If you put that list of topics together, it ends up as “CRAFTS,” and I’ve dubbed these visits “CRAFTS with Joe.”


A few years ago, I was asked to meet early in the semester – after registration – but before being in the semester too long – with all of our transfer students.  My advising discussions are usually student problem driven, and so I asked myself, “What I am going to talk about with these students in these mandated visits?”  I wondered, “What can I do to make these visits productive?” I started thinking about the sorts of issues that freshman and students new to the campus routinely have.   I started to make a list of topics – classes, roommates, activities, family problems, time management , and I played with the words a little bit, and I came up with CRAFT. Later, after reading an article on the importance of sleep to college students [cited below], I added SLEEP as a topic. Hence, CRAFTS.

After the first semester of these discussions, I thought the visits were pretty successful. I thought that I had helped students stop a couple of problems early enough in the semester that the students ended-up well.  I can’t remember whether I was asked us to start meeting with freshman in the same way as I had met with transfer students or those meetings were something that I took the initiative to do.  I made those happen, and now, I encourage other advisors to do them.


Typically, these visits are scheduled like any other meeting – the students call and set up an appointment.  When I see students at orientation, I tell them that I want to see them between weeks three and five; if I am worried about the student for one reason or another, I’ll ask to see them between weeks two and four.  And, I tell them that I want to see whether things are going POORLY or WELL.

To make that point with them – about coming to see me – I really lard it up. I tell them to come and see me even if they HATE all their classes, FIGHT with their roommate, and cry themselves to sleep at night because they miss their family. One student interrupted me and said that sounds pretty bad; I agreed. But, I tell them come and see me and tell me that things are good: That they LOVE their classes – that their professors are so good and interesting; that their roommate is great guy or girl; that they never knew they could know so many wonderful people. And, I add, that a beam of sunshine lights up their path wherever they go – and the bluebird of happiness sings sweet songs of joy in their ear. I tell them, come tell me of that joy, and we’ll celebrate together.  I tell them, triumph or tragedy – or something in between – come and see to let me know how things are going.

My goal here is to invite them to come and see me without their making a judgment about whether things are going well and poorly.  First, early in a semester, inexperienced students may not even have a good perception about how well or poorly things are going, and second, I don’t want to create a perception that students should come and see me only when they’re having problems.

I use the mnemonic, CRAFTS, because I have very focused things that I want to hear about in this interview, and it helps remember the topics that I want to cover.


Obviously, talking about classes and professors with students is a day in the life for academic advisors. In this discussion, however, my interests are more focused.   I am most interested in hearing about the start students are getting in their classes.  I’ll just ask something open and non-directive such as, “How are your classes,” but I am listening for some specific things. If they don’t come out in conservation easily, I’ll probe for them.  I want to hear:

  • That students are generally enjoying their classes. If students are complaining early on that a class is too easy or too hard – especially a math or foreign language class – I’ll want to check on the correctness of the placement. I’ll want to make sure that they’re taking what they’re supposed to be taking. If a student is complaining about the material being familiar, I want to explore the possibility of a course duplicate of some kind.
  • That students are doing the readings. If a student mentions not doing the reading or not having the book – say for financial reasons – I will want to probe that matter a bit more with a view to working out a strategy for getting the texts or at least access to the texts. If they’re not reading for another reason, I’ll want to address that with the student.
  • That students are getting along with their professors or teaching assistants. No one needs drama in a semester.  If an instructor is having problems, that needs to be brought to the attention of the appropriate folks.  If a student doesn’t believe he or she is getting a fair shake, then, it’s far easier to make changes early in a schedule than later on, and strong dislike is not something that will be easily fixed.
  • That the student is going to class. If a class is too early in the day – and the student is having trouble getting up – or if it conflicts with a work schedule, then we should address that issue directly and right now rather than wait for bad grade reports or other problems to emerge.
  • That the student is using the course management system. Many instructors use WebCT or Moodle or other electronic course management systems; if a student has not begun to log on and begun to use the system by week two, probably, they’re missing required assignments. Freshman and transfer students may not even know to ask.  For on-line course, they may be waiting for something from the instructor rather than proactively searching out what they need to do.  In those cases, students need to be encouraged to begin work.
  • That students are having their needs met by a class. By this, I mean that students with disabilities – of one sort or another – are being accommodated by the university. If not, then we need to make a referral or take some other kind of action.


After the discussion about classes runs out, I’ll abruptly change topics, and ask, “How are you getting along with your roommate.”   For students from small families or with “helicopter parents,” a roommate issue is a nightmare.  Because they need to interact – at some level – with a roommate, if students are having problems with their roommate, their life is miserable.

Normally, the response to my question is something like “She’s a great girl,” or “We’re good.” Or, we worked through some things, but we’re fine.”  With that response, I’ll move on. If I get a different response, I’ll want to hear more, and I will want to suggest that the student get the assistance of his or her resident advisor or someone else or simply ask to change roommates.


Students do need to study, but they need to relax too.  Also, they need to think about building a portfolio of skills that they can offer to an employee. Activities fill these different voids. So, I always ask, “What are you doing besides studying?” Things to listen for include:

  • Too many activities. If a student is too busy, then that will affect time for school work. An advisor should make students aware of this issue.
  • Too few activities. Too few activities is a worry.  Relaxation and friends are necessary for good use of study time.
  • Unhealthy activities. If a student is doing any of the many things that are unhealthy for students to do, encourage them to make better choices.
  • A diversity of activities. Of course, students can’t do everything in their first semester, but I would like to hear that they are doing some things for fun and some things to enhance their skills and opportunities.


Roommate talk is about relationships on campus; family questions are about a student’s life at home.  I’ll simply ask, “How’s your family?”  Or, “have you been in touch with your parents?” Or, something similar.  Usually, if something is up or there’s a problem, the student will rush to share what’s going on.  General expressions that “I miss my family” are probably not too much of a concern and are pretty common.  Things I would pay particular attention to are:

  • More specific statements about loneliness or missing friends or families. Or expressions of worry about what’s happening at home. I would be particularly alert to reports about major family crises: deaths or illnesses of close family members; financial problems of parents; marital status issues of family members (both divorces and weddings); problems of brothers or sisters or close friends. Parental expressions about missing the student or demands that the student come home are worrisome.  None of these matters can I, as an academic advisor fix, but I can refer the student to other resources on campus for varying kinds of assistance.
  • Statements about frequent trips home – especially during the week – but even more than one or two week-end trips per semester. Or statements about “excessive” phone calling from home. Of course, how much students should talk with their parents while away at college is a matter that has changed greatly over time, but if a student reports an abrupt change or worry on the matter, than that is an issue that the student may need to address (and which I refer to another unit).

Trips home take a good deal of time.  Problems at home will consume an enormous amount of emotional energy. Both of these will cut into a student’s ability to concentrate on school work.


Time management is a major theme in this discussion.  It’s an old saw that much of freshman year is learning time management. In a way, it is the single issue.  Poor class choices, roommate problems, family drama and other matters boil down – for the purpose of this kind of chat – to one issue: Time.  There is just not enough time to catch-up and learn what is required for too high or demanding of a class placement or to stay interested in too low or too elementary of a class placement or to learn to become interested or find something interesting about the wrong class.  There are enough classes with good and interesting things to learn that we should concentrate on those. And, there’s not enough time to to deal with all of the joys and follies of life — while still keeping the pace and academic attention and focus required of an active, full-time college student.  Quite directly, I ask:

  •  How many hours per week are you studying? Have you set aside hours in your schedule for studying?  Do you keep those hours on your cell phone or schedule book or the like. (If I have doubts, I ask to see it.)
  • When students tell me how much they’re studying, I take the total number of credit hours times two or three and subtract their answer, and tell them – at least it’s usually the case – “That’s not enough. You need to be studying more.”   I repeat the two to three hours per class rule of thumb, and then I ask, “Where is that time going to come from?”
  • I ask about budgeting in time for activities, for jobs and for other matters, and I ask them how much it will all take. (If the total exceeds 168 [7 x 24], I observe for them that the result is impossible.)

Usually, I get an admission that for the student that the student needs to study more. That’s okay with me. If I don’t get it, I have still given them an awareness of about the importance of managing their time.


The last thing I’ll ask is this: “How many hours a night do you sleep?”  I’ll follow it up with a question, “And, how is that working for you?” And, then, “Are you feeling well rested.”

I think that most students are surprised by this last set of questions. To a certain extent, it follows on the time management question, but it also offers a second swipe at the other questions that I’ve asked.  If there’s a roommate problem stemming from differing habits or a family problem causing worries or an over-indulgence in unhealthy activities – or some lingering illness – it may well show up as a sleep problem.  The task is to point out the relation of the answer here to the earlier answers, highlight the need for action and making an appropriate referral.

[The article on sleep that I referenced is, Hannah G. Lund et al., “Sleep Patterns and Predictors of Disturbed Sleep in a Large Population of College Students,” Journal of Adolescent Health 2009:1-9. As I don’t read that journal on a regular basis, I am sure that I saw a reference to it elsewhere and looked it up. The key points are (1) college students don’t sleep enough or very well and (2) academic or emotional distress are important reported causes of poor sleep.]


After we’ve gotten through the list – CRAFTS – I’ll thank the student for coming in, make sure they’re aware of contact information for any appropriate referrals that I made, and wish them well for the rest of the semester. I’ll ask to see them again for scheduling or whenever they’d like to visit.  I’ll write an note on the highlights, and we’re done.  I’ll begin the process anew with the next student.

Underemployment – a recent word

Getting any job is not enough.  Underemployment is also a concern. The term, “underemployment” can mean different things: having a job that doesn’t pay enough, that doesn’t offer enough work hours, or that does not use the full set of skills a worker has. In a very short, report, The Washington Post has a story relating underemployment to selection of undergraduate major. It is ” The College Majors most and least likely to lead to underemployment.” 

The report comes from the salary information firm, Pay Scale. Neither the article nor the Pay Scale link have all that much information although the Pay Scale site has a nice infographic and the Post article an interesting graph.  As a rule, it looks like engineers and math majors have the least issues with underemployment; criminal justice, health care administration, sociology and psychology majors as well as “general studies” and “liberal arts” and education majors seem to have the most issues.  No big surprise so far.

One interesting note: “law” is listed as an undergraduate major among the least underemployed. Since law is not an undergraduate major – at least in the U.S. in the usual sense of the word, “major,” I am wondering what this result means — even more so because students with that purported major – are the only non-STEM major students [or graduates, really] on the underemployed list.  Since I start thinking of “pre-law” in the context of “liberal arts,” my puzzlement only increases since liberal arts majors are on the most underemployed list. It is a result that deserves pondering.

Law School Placement Reports – the Annual Drill

The market for law school graduates seeking employment as lawyers is not great. It has not been great for several years. There is growing and strident literature arguing about the prudence of attending law school and the operation of law schools. The issue is whether the costs and sacrifices involved with attending law school are worth the various and sundry benefits of a law degree.   I’ve blogged on these matters in the past. Brian Z. Tamanaha’s Failing Law Schools is a lengthy discussion of the matter. Blogs such as The Law School Tuition Bubble, Law School Transparency and many, many others add to the discussion at length.

This summer, the National Association of Law Placement, the professional association of folks who help law students find jobs as lawyers, released preliminary results of its annual study of law school placement.  That release sparked publication of some articles on topic.  Jordan Weissmann published in article in Slate, “Apply to Law School Now!”  A blog, that I think is popular with younger lawyers and law students, Above the Law, published a reply written by Joe Patrice, “The ATL Markup Of Slate’s ‘Apply To Law School Now!’” and Weissman responded to his critics in “Now Is a Great Time to Apply to Law School.”

For students thinking about law school or their advisors, the articles are worth a read. In “Now is a Great Time,” Weissman refers to a study by Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre, “The Economic Value of a Law Degree”   From my perspective, the important points of the Simkovic-McIntyre article are: their assertion that the median increase in earnings due to a law degree is $32,300 per year (p. 17), that the median value of a law degree (net of the costs of attending law school) is $610,000 (p. 41) and that law students are “disproportionately drawn from college majors associated with relatively low earnings and likelihood of obtaining employment at college graduation” (p. 25).

The Simkovic-McIntyre article has both critics, such as Brian Tamanaha, and defenders, such as Bruce Leiter, and there has been a lively and somewhat acerbic debate.  The article uses data from the National Center for Education Statistics, National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) and from the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), but in different ways.   The NELS data are used to rule out or limit claims that the main results are due to a selection effect or bias.  The issue is this: People who attend law school are different from people who do not attend law school in at least one respect: the choice to attend law school.  High-achieving – perhaps from well-heeled families – high school students choose their undergraduate colleges and majors with an eye toward law school and then choose to go to law school and become lawyers.  Regardless of whether they attend law school, these ambitious students from auspicious backgrounds might well do better than typical holders of a baccalaureate degree in terms of life-long earnings.   So, it’s hard to say how much of law school graduates’ earnings relate to the degree itself versus ambitious propensities of students who – historically – have been inclined to attend law school.  After examining the NELS data, using the available statistical controls, the authors suggest only “modest ability sorting” through the law school selection process. (p. 30)

The argument of Simkovic-McIntyre article is that the earnings benefits accrue to holders of a law degree.  They test their central claims using SIPP data. Those data are collected in contacts from the same individuals over multiple years (typically 3-5).  So, rather than following the earnings of individuals over the course of their entire career, the analysis looks at an array of individuals at various stages in their careers, and in a sense, extrapolates to the career of a typical or average person.  The problem in using this thick cross-sectional data is an ability to distinguish between maturation benefits that accrue from having a law degree versus generational effects that benefitted on set of lawyers at one time in history. The significance of this typical problem in using cross-sectional data is exacerbated by the structural claims of law school critics: that the market for legal services (and the need for lawyers is changing).  Simkovic-McIntyre are aware of those claims: They assert that in their view misguided predictions of structural change in the practice of law and its effect on the income of lawyers are nothing new and should be dismissed; (pp. 36-37). They also draw on a third collection of data, the American Community Survey, and observe the data from that study are consistent with their principal findings.  The problems of newly minted JDs finding work, they assert, stem from weakness in the broader economy. (p. 36)

What do all of these results mean for academic advisors – especially academic advisors of political science students?  First, the job market for recent law school graduates is less bad than it has been, but, as with many segments of the economy, the job market for lawyers is still not good.  

Second, a good deal of the writing about job prospects for lawyers and benefits of a law degree are done by people with “skin in the game.”  While their experiences do give those writers a particular leverage and insight on the matter, I do wonder how much of the work is an apologia.

Third, the Simkovic-McIntyre study does offer some leverage of the question about the value of a law degree, but I am unsatisfied with several aspects of the study.  As I think on the study, the problem of selection bias looms large. To be sure, determining how much of the difference in the respective life courses stems from characteristics shaping the opportunity to and initial choice (to enter on the law school track or not) and how much stems from the particular costs and benefits of a law degree is no easy matter to determine.  That only three out of five holders of a law degree choose to work as lawyers (p. 6., n.7) – and on average still enjoy the financial benefits of a law degree — suggests to me that something other than legal education is shaping the results about income benefits of a law degree.  Put a different way, it’s hard to see topics or skills taught in law school lead to such a result. (If the argument is the rigor of a law school education – that’s not an argument for law school – it’s an argument for more rigorous education.)

The study’s refusal to consider other graduate degree holders is a shortfall of the study.  At least part of the benefit in the past about a law degree has been the relative absence of other choices for many students; my hunch is that the rise of specialized MBA degrees and many other masters degrees cuts against some of the benefits of a law degree.  Surely, that change in availability of professionals with other educational degrees to do tasks once done by lawyers is part of the structural change in the practice of law.

The study’s reliance on thick, cross-sectional data to make a point about the structural dynamics of the practice of law builds in assumptions about the structure of the practice of law at the time the cross-sectional slice was cut. In particular, it assumes that what went on before the cut and what will go on after the cut are pretty much the same as what happens during the cut.  Do I really think that the experience of practicing law for the Great Generation has been the same for Baby Boomers, and Members of Gen X, Y, Z or Alpha?  No. I do think the world is changing. How much it has changed is hard to see, but I do not believe that the economics of practicing law in the next fifty years will work as it has for the past fifty years. 

TED Talk: University of the People

Yesterday evening, I watched the TED Talk by Shai Reshaf, “An ultra-low-cost college degree.” His belief is that higher education is a “right.” The problems he sees with higher education are its costs, unsuitable culture, and its want of capacity to meet the demand of all who want higher education. Accordingly, he founded “The University of the People.”

The University offers a limited curriculum: degrees in business administration and computer science. It relies, I suppose like many universities, on generosity of donors – especially professors who offer courses for free. He reports 1700 students from 143 countries from all over the world – truly an intercultural experience. On its web page, the university reports accreditation from the Accreditation Commission of the Distance and Education Training Council (DETC). That is something. Still, I would feel more comfortable if the school were accredited by a traditional accrediting body – one that accredits brick and mortar institutions.

I really love this idea for students. “Free” is a difficult price point to beat. Nevertheless, I haven’t looked at any of the courses – so I have no opinion on them. A USA Today article, indicates nine courses ready to be taught; and 20 under development. That’ s a pretty narrow focus to an education. I suppose that there must be more courses available or coming.
Of course, quality of the educational experience is always a concern. A BBC article of earlier this year, “University of the People – where students get free degrees” notes a study of Coursera: Only 4% of the students that take courses with a MOOC, finish it. That statistic is a concern about interest and quality. On-line education is going to be tough for an number of students. I don’t know how this school does.

Another anecdote raises a different concern. How will employers and others look at the degree? The same BBC article above reports on a students’ success story. It’s a nice story, but at the end, the student doesn’t yet have a job. I would really like to hear about other school’s acceptance of this institutions degrees.

The TED talk is interesting; the university’s founding is ambitious. Still, I think that relying on such a program for educating very many people is a risk. But, it might be a nice supplement, and down the road, such programs may be more acceptable.