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.

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.

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. 

Disaggregation of the Professional School Experience

A recently released paper, “Will Video Kill the Classroom Star? The Threat and Opportunity of Massively Open Online Courses for Full-Time MBA Programs,” by Professors Christian Terwiesch and Karl T. Ulrich of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has awakened my thinking about advising students about graduate school.  The now outdated but otherwise excellent book by Robert Peters, Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D. as well as other works on applying to graduate or professional school and helpfully titled and subtitled articles in the The Chronicle of Higher Education, e.g., “Just Don’t Go,” and elsewhere all highlight the importance of thinking carefully about graduate school.

The Terwiesch-Ulrich article examines how MOOCs will change business school.   In that examination, they disaggregate the activities of MBA students into three components: career management, teaching and testing and co-curricular activities. (p. 5) Their focus is a bit different from mine.  Terwiesch and Ulrich see the use of “SuperText,” a teaching style or technology that bundles expert-created content into short videos as part of separate modules that are in turn bundled together to make up a course (p. 12), as the disruptive and potentially transformational elements of MOOCs.  The technology “shifts the efficient frontier in education” because it “combines the adaptive nature of office hours, the charisma of the best educators, the convenience of ‘anywhere anytime,’ and the economies of scale in production.” (p. 14)  With this technology, they assert, “business education has the potential to move to mini-courses that are delivered to the learner as needed, on demand.”  More boldly, they suggest a reorganization of the curriculum and education.

I’ll leave reflection on how technology will or will not change education for another day, but Terwiesch and Ulrich’s disaggregation or unbundling of professional education into segments – I don’t know how novel an idea that concept is – is helpful for thinking through certain kinds of advising issues about post-graduate education.  For advising, I would disaggregate graduate school a bit differently.  How would I disaggregate a graduate experience? Into four parts: instruction, certification, network-development and institutional support.

By instruction, I mean teaching and learning in their usual sense.  This idea, of course, can be further sub-divided into: intellectual orientation (telling students what they need to learn as by a syllabus or even in lecture); enforced self-learning (where students pretty much learn the material themselves by reading or otherwise with expectation of a test or the like) and feedback, correction and integration (helping student understand what they have learned or not and offering suggestions to correct misunderstanding and helping students to integrate what they have learned with other things they know).   The bulk of time in graduate school is spent doing assigned reading and studying – the enforced self-learning.  Disciplined students, in theory, can read books and study many things by themselves.  Intellectual orientation can come from texts, writings on “the state of the discipline” or elsewhere.  Feedback, correction and integration is the hardest to imagine outside graduate school – although for a person with strong network skills, that too might be possible.

Certification is the institutional assurance of learning provided by an accredited institution.  Schools offer assurance – to outsiders – that students have learned material by providing grades for courses and degrees for accumulations of courses.  The certification matters – and it matters more as students (or former students) mature.  Accountants, actuaries and attorneys as part of their certification processes – which include extensive examinations – require certification of learning at an institution of higher learning.  <note>

Network-development is the association and acquaintance of a student with other students at the school as well as alumni, faculty and others that they meet at a school.  Networks are multi-purpose.  They can provide educational, social or business and professional benefits, but these are benefits – in some sense – unplanned and apart from the benefits of formal instruction at a graduate or professional school.  In some sense, because, now, graduate and professional schools sometimes cultivate these network connections.

By institutional support, I mean everything else.  The assistance with housing, mental health, recreation, visas and immigration, and myriad other services that institutions of higher education now offer.   Mostly, this assistance is of a kind and on matters that individuals arrange for themselves throughout the rest of their lives, but it may include items related to core academic mission, e.g., libraries, statistical consulting, laboratory access and so on.

Let me offer an example to put the point on unbundling: Students can piece together much of a graduate education without going to graduate school.  For example, Business Insider ran an article: “How To Get Half Of A Wharton Education For Free.” The point of the article is that much of a first-year MBA program from the Wharton School of Business is available in the form of video presentations and interactive exercises on-line for free.  Other courses in whole or parts are available from Harvard, Sloan and elsewhere.  In broad terms, these courses only offer what I have identified as “instruction,” and, probably, not very much in the way of feedback. But the price is right, and the information is available. A student not away at school may not need the institutional supports that the school offers, and, now with Linked-In and other resources, there are other ways of networks besides meeting other students or alumni. And, this approach does not allow for certification of learning in the same way that a traditional graduate degree does. Still, this approach to graduate education is strikingly different from a traditional degree program.

I haven’t seen a huge demand for this sort of instruction.  The context with the most student self-study – outside of degree granting institutions that I’ve seen college student undertake – is standardized test preparation.  While many students do take test preparation courses, many just buy study manuals and prepare themselves.  What’s interesting in this regard is that when I’ve suggested the self-study approach to some students, I’ve heard more than once, “No, I need a class to make me study.”  And, a few students who’ve used the self-study strategy made a point of meeting with friends or study partners regularly to discuss their progress and talk about problems. I don’t know the extent to which this mutual support comes from on-line, and I haven’t heard about groups structuring their learning to take full advantage of these on-line offerings.  All-in-all, these developments are interesting, and I think advisors might well raise them with students in an appropriate case.