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.

A broken heart of the matter

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences has released a report, “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive and secure nation.”   The report offers a good call, but it ends up breaking my heart.  At the beginning, the report asks: “Who will lead America into a bright future?” And, then the report answers, “Citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world. An adaptable and creative workforce. Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts. Elected officials and a broader public who exercise civil political discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history.”

At the outset, the report sounds like a call for a political scientist full employment act: Citizenship, governance, national security, elected officials… these all sound like buzz words incident to the study of political science.  What’s not to like about a report that talks about the importance of these topics for college education?  But, the details of the report don’t deal with those issues or problems in any direct sense.

Of particular promise is the section on “Two- and Four-Year Colleges.” It  leads not with a discussion of curriculum or on the centrality of politics and governance but with expression of public concerns about ”the cost of college, the debt burden students can incur, and whether colleges actually provide the skills students need to thrive.”  (p. 32)

Costs, debt and outcomes of college education are important topics, but their discussion is a shift in emphasis.  The report indicates that higher education must “face these challenges squarely” and “colleges must do their part” to contain costs, but then the tenor of the report shifts yet again.  “Colleges,” the report tells us, “have important work to do in explaining what the value of their education consists of, and in assuring that they are living up to this promise.”   It adds, “This case needs to be made to every relevant audience: students, parents, governors and legislators, and the public at large.”

As important as the case for liberal arts is, and as important as making that case to the public is, the concerns about informed citizenry guiding the political life of the nation are hijacked.   The report talks about the importance of liberal arts education to employers (p. 33). In later sections, the report calls for development of a culture corps (pp. 51-52) and greater accessibility to on-line resources (p. 52). It joins calls for greater intercultural competency, promotion of language learning and so on – laudable things all – but quite a different place than its starting place: talk of civic participation and governance.

I do think learning about civic life and governance has a rightful and proper place in education. (A political scientist could hardly think otherwise!) But, I think – as a whole – even on its own terms for promotion of the humanities and social sciences — the report sells the importance of humanities and social sciences short.  I am truly sorry report depicts so limited and small a role for them in human thought and life.  Only citizenship and governance — what a disappointment! The study of politics is great, but other things matter too. I am truly sorry that the report does not make a better case. My heart will heal, but the report has broken it a little.

Summer Ideas for Things to Do

As summer is winding down, The Chronicle ran a late but helpful article full of suggestions on things to do over the summer.  The article, “Hey, Young Scholars: Here’s a Personal-Development Plan For the Summer,” is aimed at young faculty members but there’s nothing in it that’s a terrible idea for college students or academic advisors either.  Maybe starting to twitter, writing guest posts on blogs or starting a new business are not the first recommendations that I would make, but taking an on-line course, starting a community group, working on a g+ account or a Linked-In account (personal web pages of kind) are all reasonable and worthwhile things for students – and others – to do over the summer.  (For college students, I would like to encourage more reading, maybe some travel, and some job or career exploration, but that’s a matter for another post.)

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.

Proficiency Testing, Competency Demonstration and Credit for Prior Learning

Earlier this week, The Chronicle, reported on “buzz among policymakers and think-tanks and foundations” about  competency-based education.  According to the article, “College, on your own,” competency-based education, “redefines academic progress according to the learning that students demonstrate.”  Presumably, that demonstration might be by examination, project or otherwise.

The article goes on to identify White House, think tank and foundation interest in the concept of competency based education. To be sure, the concept of competency-based education can cover a number of very different things: test-based credit for courses; skills-based testing for entire curricula; or even credit for past experiences.  I want to focus on course-oriented proficiency testing.

The day after The Chronicle article, Matt Reed of Inside Higher Ed, pondered in a blog post whether emphasizing “disruption” was the most helpful narrative; colleges and universities have offered test-based credit – proficiency test – for quite some time. I agree.

Some of the issues related to competency or proficiency testing are purely administrative.  Others are more philosophic. In this view, “A good liberal education,” as Johann Neem wrote, is not out specific outcomes or competencies, but about having “intellectual experiences.”  Critics of the credit hour system point to proficiency testing as an alternative necessary; the credit-hour system was maladpated from a solution for a different problem.  For me, the issues about proficiency testing in higher education are somewhat different.  They are student interest and quality testing. 

Administering – and sometimes writing – proficiency examinations is part of my job.  I haven’t noticed a clamoring of students for the opportunity to take a proficiency test.  I do agree that student work on proficiency tests would speed their way through college at a lower cost.  I do think more students should explore and even pursue this option, but I have observed, that not many students want to invest the time on self-study to prepare themselves to pass a rigorous examination.  They prefer to take the class; I think that preference will limit use of proficiency or competency exams.

Second, to a point, I agree that the experience of an education matters; good proficiency tests shouldn’t demand merely a recitation of a canned set of facts.  The tests need to provide an opportunity for students to show that they have had the transformational educational experience that the underlying course would provide.  Precisely, what that test should look like – especially in the abstract – is harder to say.  An obvious criterion is this: The test should provide some assurance that the student who passes it can thrive in the next sequential course – the one after the course for which proficiency is taught.  Less obviously, and much harder to articulate or measure, a proficiency test should provide some assurance that the student who passes it operates at the same level and in the same domains – in the sense set out by Benjamin Bloom in his well-known taxonomy – as the student who has enjoyed peak intellectual experiences in the underlying courses shows.  I suppose there are other criteria that merit attention as well.

Discussion on this matter is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.