Friday, March 22, 2013

College Measures: Are They Really Helpful?

First year Philosophy students at Loyola University, ca. 1965. Nearly 85% of them graduated four years later with a Bachelors degree in Philosophy. But the economic environment at the time allowed them to parlay their degree into other areas, unlike today when more pragmatic majors are demanded and 'numbers'  are used to drive decisions such as at No surprise that the percentage of  students graduating has gone down.

A stream of articles and letters the past few weeks highlights the economic benefits of a college education and the need for more prospective students (and parents) to consult a key website known as ‘college measures’:

College Measures is a joint venture of the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and the Matrix Knowledge Group. The study was funded by the Lumina Foundation. The site seeks to enhance the cost-benefit ratio for college grads by compiling earnings statistics for different degrees in different states and thereby showing which majors are likely to confer the greatest economic benefit.

Naturally, as one peruses the site, the most economically potent degrees fall under engineering and science (including computer science), as well as pragmatic majors like business. For example a report in The Denver Post recently (See, e.g. )  noted that a business administration grad from the University of Colorado, Denver had a median first-year salary of $43,518, while someone leaving Regis University with the same degree made $57,120. Meanwhile, fine arts grads graduating in the state had a median salary of $29,315, while the median for registered nursing students was $52,689.

So there exist divergences based on not only choice of major for the degree, but where it is received. One surprising aspect is that community college grads can produce economic benefits that rival and even exceed those from more expensive 4-year institutions.   For example, one report found that for all nine Tennessee four-year public campuses, the average wage for graduates with a bachelor’s degree was $37,567. For graduates of the state’s 13 community colleges, the average wage was $38,948, or more than $1,300 higher than at four-year institutions. There is a wide range between the highest and lowest incomes of those earning bachelors, associates and certificates.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, as The Denver Post reported (Ibid.):

“Students who earn associate's degrees in applied sciences earn a median salary of almost $7,000 more than those who get a bachelor's degree from four-year institutions, according to a report issued Wednesday by the state Department of Higher Education.”

These variations, especially in terms of community college benefits vis-à-vis those for more expensive 4-year schools, highlight the crux of the problem of college expense in relation to later benefit. The questions becomes: Why go into severe and massive debt at a 4-year full degree granting institution if one can obtain a quality associate degree and earn as much or more? This has also, in Colorado, incited discussion of making community colleges 4-year institutions themselves.

A more questionable argument that has emerged is the one that if students do attend 4-year colleges they ought to select majors that promise the biggest bang for the buck. The earlier stats I cited showing the median salary for a fine arts grad vs. one in nursing, makes the point. 

In effect, the subtext argument is that before parents pay for Junior’s college education they need to consult college measures to see exactly which majors-degrees promise to deliver the highest median salary for Jr. and thereby get him out of debt fastest. Philosophy? Uh…no way, kiddo! We don’t want to see you babbling Sartre on a street corner in San Fran 6 years from now, tin cup in hand! You ARE going into Business Administration! Now, no more discussion!

Or as one letter writer to the Post put it:

"As in all monetary investment decisions, there are good investments and there are bad investments. A bad university investment results in a degree with insufficient earnings potential to cover living expenses plus the debt accrued to pay for the degree.

Maybe more students and university administrators should take a lesson from the actress Brooke Shields, who once explained that she already had a well-paying career (modeling and acting) and thus was able to ignore the consequences of earning her low-salary potential degree in French literature from Princeton."

This is all well and good if Junior was an automaton or pod person (recall ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’) with no personality of his own, no innate aptitudes, preferences, or temperament. But what if he isn’t cut out to be a business person, and has scant interest in it? What if he instead prefers Music or yes, Fine Arts? Or Philosophy like those Loyola students shown?  Similarly, what if Missy has no interest in Nursing, and indeed caring for other people in very personal medical settings goes against her temperament? Are you still going to force her to do it because it means she’s more assured of a job and paying off her college loan debt?

Pardon me, but this is terrible, counterproductive reasoning. Basically, parents would be creating an economically sound grad, but at the expense of being perfectly miserable in her job and arguably a miserable person through her life. Here one must reckon in the unseen, intangible costs of psychological depression, or even breakdown as the person's ability to cope deteriorates with time.

One reason I transferred from Loyola University (despite winning a scholarship there) to the University of South Florida, is that the latter had a quality astronomy major which I’d always wanted to do. On learning that some of the best ‘stars’ in astronomy had transferred there from Yale (including Sabatino Sofia, and James H. Hunter in astrophysics) it was a no-brainer to do an astronomy degree there. Also the fact the chairman was Prof. Eichhorn von Wurmb.

Did I worry and fret over the money on graduating? Hell no! In fact, that Bachelors degree paved the way for my later solar physics work at post-graduate level which would be fully supported by a grant from the Barbados government. One could say that I actually got two degrees for the price of one!

The moral of the story may be that it’s more important for students to select a major to which they can fully commit and pour energy and heart into to end up with a degree, than one that may be more ‘pragmatic’ but which they’re not invested in. This is especially important given that nearly 3 in 5 U.S. students bail out before completing 4-year degrees. One plausible reason is that the dropouts selected a major for the wrong reasons, and given that any degree demands vast commitment, they lacked the drive to finish it. In real terms, they truly ended up spending a ton of money for nothing!

Perhaps then, for a student who hasn't made up his or her mind, the best course of action is to start out at a community college (where minimal damage will be done economically) than at a 4-year college. I believe I had recommended this course of action before in earlier blogs - and it still makes sense.

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