Friday, September 29, 2017

Fewer Americans Value A College Degree? A Possible Explanation

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In the WSJ of  September 18 (p. A3)  one finds the article 'Fewer American Value College Degree, Poll Finds' by Josh Mitchell and Douglas Belkin.  The breakdown by age and gender is shown in the graphic above.   Some of the findings summarized:

- A slim plurality (49 %) of Americans believe a 4-year degree  will lead to higher earnings

- 47 % don't believe that

Four years earlier the spread between these groups was 13 points, so the pessimists have gained significantly

- Among Americans 18 to 34 years old skeptics outnumber believers 57% to 30%

- Democrats, urban residents and Americans who consider themselves middle or upper class generally believe a college degree is worth it.

- Women by a large margin still believe college is worth it.

- Men - who approved of college 4 years ago by a 12 point margin, now disapprove by 10 points, a 22 point flip.

Let's consider some explanations, starting with the last. All kinds of surveys now show males bailing out of college as females comprise a larger and larger proportion of students. In general, men remain for much shorter periods, often dropping out after a year or two, while most women stay the course. Men in general are also not performing to the same academic level as females in many universities. See e,g,


"Women work harder in school, Mr. Kohn believes. "The girls care more about their G.P.A. and the way they look on paper," he said. A quarter-century after women became the majority on college campuses, men are trailing them in more than just enrollment.
Department of Education statistics show that men, whatever their race or socioeconomic group, are less likely than women to get bachelor's degrees — and among those who do, fewer complete their degrees in four or five years. Men also get worse grades than women."

So this explains why women have a more positive attitude toward college. In terms of Americans aged 18 to 34 being more "skeptics" that is simply traced to so many of them drowning in student debt (now $1.3 trillion) or with siblings who are.  Many of the older set may have also fallen behind in student loan payments.

Part of this negativity may also be linked to how many currently see college as a "trade school for the elite" (WSJ, 'College Is Trade School for the Elite', Aug. 7. p. A17). Therein Allen Gelzo makes the case that too many are simply paying a bundle of money for an education that in the end isn't needed for the job they ultimately get.  So, though they may have taken loads of math courses including abstract algebra, differential equations and advanced calculus, they don't get to use it - say as a real estate broker or car salesman or plumber.

So, wouldn't it have been better then to just go to a vocational training school or community college without blasting a hole in one's finances with a 4 year degree at a university?  According to Gelzo:

"Vocational training is what higher education has been doing without even realizing it."

How is this? Well take a peek into classes at most 4-year institutions and you find (ibid.): "Literature majors are being taught as future literature professors, history majors - in department after department - being taught as future history professionals". 

Of course, one can also say that for most physics and astronomy departments! The profs come in and teach you as if you will be a future physics or astronomy researcher. Only later, after you graduate, do you grasp you won't need most of the courses taken - unless you move on to more advanced degrees and graduate with those. Even then there's no guarantee.

An editorial in an AAS Newsletter noted, for example, that more than 6 out of 10 jobs for Ph.D. degrees in astronomy were outside the academic marketplace. The percentage was slightly better (5 of 10) for Masters recipients.   The newly minted astrophysics or astronomy Ph.D. basically faces a herculean task in getting his or her foot in the academic door. First, he must compete with postdocs - those with Ph.D.s already in hand who now are hired at lower than standard pay rates to teach classes and work for 3-5 years "earning their stripes". Next on the totem pole are the graduate teaching assistants who teach tutorials as well as lower level classes and problem-solving sessions. Finally, there are the adjunct lecturers, who are paid by the hour only and hired just to teach a course or two.

All of this, obviously, would entice Gelzo to reinforce his "elite trade school" argument.  But is it really? Lost in the mix is the intangible value of a college degree which no monetary yardstick can capture.   The most perceptive take  on this appeared in an article('The Myth of Higher Education') by Dr. Steven B. Mason in an issue of Integra (No. 9, Oct.  2010) the journal of Intertel:

"the bottom line regarding a well -rounded education is that it has nothing to do with any kind of bottom line. Its value (non-monetary) is to be found in the quality it adds to one's life. It allows one to better appreciate music, art, history and literature. It contributes to a better understanding of language and culture, nature and philosophy. It expands rather than limits horizons and replaces faith and belief with reason and logic"

Mason adds that it "teaches a person to live - not to earn a living" and that living encompasses an impetus for further learning just for its own sake. If a fantastic, well-paying job also comes with it, that's icing on the cake.

Of course, the trade school route ought not be overlooked either. In the first WSJ piece (from which the graphic was taken)  the account of one 32-year old caught my eye, who chose to attend a trae school "earning a certificate as a mechanic". He now earns a base salary of $50,000 a year and "has never gone 3 weeks without a job".

So definitely the vo-tech route needs to be considered. For others, who aren't sure which way to go - trade school or 4-year college-  the best option might be a community college.  That  this is a definite solution that is both realistic and rational is a no-brainer. Especially given that nearly 60% of incoming college students (mainly males)  now don't finish their degrees.

Thus, a student who can't finish a 4-year degree will now have an option, in most cases,  before s/he comes to the point of quitting. So rather than waste tens of thousands of dollars the student  will come away with something (A.A. degree or trade certificate) allowing them to economically advance. Community colleges also provide a major economic solution because they can be accessed for half the cost or less of state universities, mainly because they aren't research institutions

Indeed, a recent article ('All The Places You Can Go To College For Free') in MONEY magazine (Oct., p. 82) singled out programs across the nation, e.g. The Oakland Promise, where interested high school students can partake and get a financial award to complete college - without needing an 'A' average. (In the Oakland case, described on p. 82, students need at least a 2.0 average).

The point is that there are indeed options for those who do wish to advance their education but without going into decades of debt.   Even someone with a low opinion of 4 year colleges and universities at least has a shot entering a program at a community college, say in  automotive mechanics or nursing, that could lead to a better job in  the future.

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