Free Markets, Free People

universities


The “higher education bubble”–ready to burst?

More and more it is becoming clear that a college education isn’t all it was cracked up to be in terms of guaranteeing a better lifestyle.  So is it worth the money and the debt?  Some are wondering:

The Project On Student Debt estimates that the average college senior in 2009 graduated with $24,000 in outstanding loans. Last August, student loans surpassed credit cards as the nation’s largest single largest source of debt, edging ever closer to $1 trillion. Yet for all the moralizing about American consumer debt by both parties, no one dares call higher education a bad investment. The nearly axiomatic good of a university degree in American society has allowed a higher education bubble to expand to the point of bursting.

Since 1978, the price of tuition at US colleges has increased over 900 percent, 600 points above inflation. To put that in number in perspective, housing prices, the bubble that nearly burst the US economy,  then the global one, increased only fifty points above the Consumer Price Index during those years. But while college applicants’ faith in the value of higher education has only increased, employers’ has declined. According to Richard Rothstein at The Economic Policy Institute, wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished. Unemployment has hit recent graduates especially hard, nearly doubling in the post-2007 recession. The result is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.

I was struck by the 900% increase since 1978.  I’ve certainly not seen anything in particular from our college grads – as opposed to those who graduated in 1978 – that would make what they received as a degree worth 900% more than it was in ‘78, have you?  And certainly nothing worth 600% above the inflation rate.

Frankly, the institutions of higher education have been scamming Americans for quite some time.  And this is just my opinion, but many of the colleges and universities in this country are a bit like some college sports teams – they don’t care if you graduate, they just want you to play well for them for 3 or 4 years.  Change “play” to “pay” and you describe many of the schools I’m talking about.  They really don’t give a rip about graduation rates.

And of course, when you have institutions get into marginal study areas like “gender studies”, etc., then it’s no longer about education so much as it is  indoctrination.  Or at least that’s been my experience and the experience of many I know.  And things like this only reinforce that belief.  As for the tolerance for different ideas?  Eh, not so much.  Occurrences like this aren’t as uncommon as one might think.

The question more and more are asking then is whether higher education worth the bucks?  There are plenty of studies that continue to show that college students earn more than their counterparts with a high school education – at least in gross pay.  But in net pay, is it enough to justify the expense?  Maybe not:

 

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Derek Thompson explains:

Here’s the problem. The college premium isn’t consistent across all industries. Some salaries have flat-lined, while other jobs have simply disappeared thanks to off-shoring and automated technology. Meanwhile, over the same time that the wage premium has doubled, the cost of a four-year college education has more than doubled. Student loan debt is near $900 billion, more than credit card debt in this county.

College education is an effective elevator to bring workers to higher-skilled, higher-paying levels in the labor force. The question is whether the ride is efficient. Today the elevator is so prohibitively expensive that students and workers are uncertain whether the floor they’ll be dropped off justifies the cost of the ride.

That wage premium makes it questionable as to whether or not the cost of the education is worth the investment and debt.  And it is likely to get worse, not better.   So are we in an education bubble?  And if so,  when the bubble finally bursts, will a college education again justify the expense relative to the net pay they can expect to earn over and above those without such education?

Maybe in China.  Because with the highest corporate tax in the world and politicians trying to find a way to raise taxes for everyone, the jobs they do find here aren’t going to be paying that well.

Yup, the more you look around, the bigger and bigger you realize the mess is.  And it isn’t going to get much better anytime soon.

~McQ


College students not being taught critical thinking skills–does that surprise you?

A recently published study has found that many college and university students aren’t taught critical thinking skills while enrolled in their course of study. The study "followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective."

What they found was that about 45% of those students showed no significant improvement in their critical thinking skills during the first two years of enrollment.  After 4 years, 35% showed no significant improvement.

The study is unique in that it is the first time a group of students was followed through their college careers to determine if they learned specific skills.  As might be expected, academia is not at all pleased with the results.

"These findings are extremely valuable for those of us deeply concerned about the state of undergraduate learning and student intellectual engagement," said Brian D. Casey, the president of DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. "They will surely shape discussions about curriculum and campus life for years to come."

The students involved in the study were tested using a standard test used to measure critical thinking ability:

The study used data from the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a 90-minute essay-type test that attempts to measure what liberal arts colleges teach and that more than 400 colleges and universities have used since 2002. The test is voluntary and includes real world problem-solving tasks, such as determining the cause of an airplane crash, that require reading and analyzing documents from newspaper articles to government reports.

As noted a significant number of students were unable to break out fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or "objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event", the study found. In fact those students who fell into this category had a tendency to be swayed by emotion and political spin.

An interesting finding of the study was that students majored in liberal arts courses of study were more likely to develop critical thinking skills than were those that majored in courses of study such as business, education, social work and communications.

Other findings were that students who study alone, rather than in groups, tend to develop critical thinking skills and that courses (such as the liberal arts) which require heavy loads of reading and writing also help develop those skills.

Obviously the answer, if the study is to be believed, is to increase the reading and writing workload of all students. The study found some obvious problems as it is today in many of the universities and colleges included:

The study’s authors also found that large numbers of students didn’t enroll in courses requiring substantial work. In a typical semester, a third of students took no courses with more than 40 pages of reading per week. Half didn’t take a single course in which they wrote more than 20 pages over the semester.

While it would be easy to fob this off on students seeking the easiest path to graduation, it is the school that puts the curriculum together and designs and approves the classes taught. The bottom line is the school is being paid handsomely to turn out graduates that can indeed think critically – a skill in high demand everywhere. Failing in that area at the percentages noted isn’t a student problem – it is a problem of academia.

The findings shot that colleges need to be acutely aware of how instruction relates to the learning of critical-thinking and related skills, said Daniel J. Bradley, the president of Indiana State University and one of 71 college presidents who recently signed a pledge to improve student learning.

"We haven’t spent enough time making sure we are indeed teaching — and students are learning — these skills," Bradley said.

Indeed.  And it appears a "back to basics" approach would be most appropriate to bring the students not being taught those skills up to the level they need to be when they graduate. That means tough courses which test those skills routinely. That also means more work for those teaching the courses.  The question is will colleges and universities take these findings seriously and do the work for which they are being paid? Or will it, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, remain as it is today, with universities and colleges turning out a high percentage of graduates for whom critical thinking is still an unknown skill?

~McQ

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