Friday, July 30, 2010

Is Higher Education Worth It?

We live in a time where people are increasingly unwilling to take on debt. They are thinking twice about their expenses, economizing when possible, and doing their best to pay down their debt.

 It should hardly come as a surprise that more and more people are questioning the value of higher education. Perhaps your child's life will be enhanced by going to an Ivy League school, but with a price tag of around a quarter million dollars, you are likely to think long and hard before committing to the expense.

Yesterday, Sue Schellenbarger wrote in the Wall Street Journal about parents who had chosen not to spend money to send their children to graduate school. Instead, they had decided to take the money and buy their children a start-up businesses. Link here. 

It should not surprise anyone that these young people are having a difficult time learning about how to run a real business. Some of them must feel that they have been thrown in the deep end of the pool before they know how to swim.

Their college experience taught them about ideas, but not about experience. Their work experience has turned it around, which may be the best thing for them.

Strikingly, these affluent parents are choosing not to invest in increased education for their children. Said parents seem to believe that real-world experience will do their children more good than will another stay in the halls of academe.

In part, this strategy reflects the increasing difficulty young people are having getting jobs. But, it must also count as a vote of no confidence in our educational system.

As I started researching this post I came across more and more evidence that our universities, especially those that are supposed to be the best, are doing a bad job preparing students for the real world.

Foundation president Robert Atkinson interviews and hires people from the best and the brightest universities. In an article he wrote for the Huffington Post a few weeks ago he explained how surprised he was to find English majors who did not know how to write and philosophy majors who did not know how to think. Link here.

In his words: "One applicant, a recent Princeton grad, submitted a test that was full of spelling and grammar mistakes. Didn't they teach 'spell check' at Princeton? A Boston University grad couldn't accurately complete a simple excel spreadsheet."

Today Michael Schrage argues a similar point in the Harvard Business Review. Link here.

In his words: "Knowledge may be power, but 'knowledge from college' is neither predictor nor guarantor of success. Growing numbers of informed observers increasingly describe a higher education 'bubble' that makes a college and/or university education a subprime investment for far too many attendees."

Schrage differentiates between having raw, abstract, theoretical knowledge and possessing the skills required to apply that knowledge to a problem.

He even sees the defect in students who are studying the most rigorous disciplines: "I know doctoral candidates in statistics and operations research who find adapting their superb technical expertise to messy, real-world problem solving extraordinarily difficult. Their great knowledge does not confer great skill."

How did things get to this point? Perhaps our institutions of higher education been taken over by people who gaze on the great Ideas, but who have no concern with teaching students how to implement those Ideas in the real world.

To me this feels like a newer version of the old mind/body problem, the one created by Descartes. If you follow Descartes and go off in search of a pure mind, abstracted from all real experience, then you will never be able to find your way back into the real world?

The best example of this thorny, and not immediately self-evident problem is  an old New Yorker cartoon where a man from the city gets lost while driving through the country. He stops and asks a local farmer for directions. The farmer replies: "Come to think of it, you can't get there from here."

In another way the difference between theory and practical skills recalls the great philosophical debate over which comes first, mind or experience, which is a debate between Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies.

Should education begin and end with endless lucubrations over abstract theoretic concepts. To the exclusion of concerns about experience and practical skills? Or should it begin with an analysis of practical problems, how to analyze them, how to solve them, and what it might mean once we do?

Students who begin and end with theory tend to be lost when faced with real world problems. While theory is no substitute for experience, you can develop theories based on your practical experience.

But you cannot develop theories from experience unless you know that theory is there to serve experience, and not vice versa.


Jim said...

Stuart, I am a CFO of a manufacturing company and I teach accounting part-time at a local community college. As a financial executive who has been reviewing payrolls for decades, I can tell you that in nearly all cases, a college education is one of the best investments. The lifetime income of college grads is about twice that of those without degrees. Most articles on this subject pick the worst cases as examples. Most students attend a local, competitively-priced institution and are able to complete their undergrad work for a reasonable cost without loading up on debt. If you send your child to major in basket-weaving at a "brand name college" far away, then I would question the wisdom of that kind of an investment. None of these articles mention that the cost of not going to college can be well over a million dollars in lost income. Can you show me a career path that a young person can start on today that will end up with an annual income of over $100K plus benefits in 20 years that doesn't require any college?

Anonymous said...

Can you show me a career path that a young person can start on today that will end up with an annual income of over $100K plus benefits in 20 years that doesn't require any college?

Oh, off the top of my head: Bill Gates, George Soros.... AND ALL THE RICHEST MEN IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW!

I have a nice fat BSEE and I have never known an instant of security and no hope of retirement because, unfortunately, I chose to work in the business of weapons and national defense....

I'd rather have an SEIU card right now than a college degree.

Jim, you are in your mid-to-late fifties, aren't you?

Your world doesn't exist anymore and you killed mine.

Anonymous said...

Oh, sorry.

That was Gray just above.

In case you couldn't tell....


Stuart Schneiderman said...

I think that young people today and their parents are especially questioning the value of the very expensive offerings from our best colleges and universities.

Many people are recognizing that state universities offer superior value for the price.

And many young people are also questioning the value of law school and medical school, given the cost and the job outlook for these professions.

Jim said...

Of course somebody had to mention Bill Gates. How about Michael Jordan. These are the exceptions that prove the rule. Gates had a 1600 SAT score and a private school education. His wealthy dad gave him some seed money to start his venture. And yes, I do know of some careers that you can make six figures without college. Most of them are in sales and require some selling giftedness and drive that most kids don't have. Again, these are exceptions and the numbers bear me out. Only 8% of private sector jobs are union jobs and that sector is decreasing. Having been involved in union contract negotiations, I can tell you that most union jobs don't make as much as you think. Besides, your kid won't get any of those jobs anyway as those sectors are decreasing. Yes I am 55 years old and the world has changed. Today, education is even more important than ever in a global economy. When I was in college there was a book called "The Case Against College" so this is an old subject. That book was dead wrong then and even more wrong today. What used to be high paying union jobs are being done for much less in other countries. Rather than kvetch about the global economy, have your children learn as much as they can so they can take care of you when you are old. Unless you think Social Security and a union pension plan are good enough.

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