The problem with justifying college involves cost

In “Telling the Right Story,” Dean Dad notes that higher education has had a series of real or perceived crises, around hippies / protests, diversity / multiculturalism, and, as he says, the latest set are “about cost.” Though I would say they’re about cost and value, the basic point remains: skepticism regarding the utility of conventional colleges and universities is growing, as is skepticism about the idea that the “lifetime payoff” of college always justifies its costs for all people. Dean Dad ends his post by saying, “have you seen or heard a better story for demonstrating the value of public higher ed to the public?”

To me, the problem is simple: “the value of public higher ed” increasingly depends on the major that one picks and the amount of work that one does in college. Payscale.com’s salary data shows data for a bunch of majors, with things like art and social work clustered at the bottom while engineering and applied math at the top. (I find the relatively low salaries of business majors interesting.) Someone who majors in petroleum engineering (starting pay: $98,000; mid-career in the mid six figures) is basically living in a different world than someone majoring in sports management ($35,300 and $57,600, respectively). Lumping both into “college” makes only slightly more sense than lumping McDonald’s and dung beetles into the general category of “food” just because both happen to be edible.

As Megan McArdle wrote, “It’s very easy to spend four years majoring in English literature and beer pong and come out no more employable than you were before you went in.” People who aren’t developing important skills should be asking what they are doing; by now, it’s pretty clear that a lot of majors don’t require much effort. Colleges are happy to offer some majors that require learning and some that don’t. This isn’t purely anecdotal: as Academically Adrift demonstrates, a lot of students simply aren’t learning that much in many majors. In chemical engineering and computer science, students are presumably learning the kinds of skills they need to get paid a lot of money. Alternately, those majors weed out students who can’t or won’t learn the material.

If they students get out of college and end up in jobs that don’t require a college degree, then perhaps they shouldn’t have gone to college in the first place. Universal college isn’t a panacea, especially for people who enter without the skills, motivation, or inclination to succeed. Plus, not everyone does well sitting in a classroom and manipulating abstract symbols. Which is okay. But we’re pretending that everyone should sit quietly in classrooms and manipulate abstract symbols, and we’re subsidizing them through student loans to let them do so, and then we’re surprised when not everyone fits this profile.*

To be sure, there is more to life than money, but again, Academically Adrift shows that a lot of students don’t appear to be learning anything measurable. Maybe they’re growing as people. But $50,000 – $250,000 is an onerous payment for that growth, especially when the debt incurred for the growth can’t be discharged through bankruptcy.

To return to Dean Dad’s point, I don’t think he or anyone else will hear “a better story” than the one we have now (“We’ve used the ‘lifetime payoff’ argument for a long time, generally to good effect. But that argument gets less convincing when the cost to the student goes up and entry-level opportunities go down”) until we, collectively, acknowledge reality and look much more closely at how lifetime income varies by major.

Clever stories can’t hide hard truths.

I’ve written about this set of issues before. I’m sure I’ll write about them again.


* Arguably the worst-off students are the ones who attend for two or more years, incur the debt, and then don’t graduate. They don’t even have the piece of paper at the end.

Grade Inflation? What Grade Inflation?

A friend sent me “Should I feel guilty for failing my students? As an adjunct English professor, I know I shouldn’t inflate grades — but I feel like I’m ruining people’s lives,” an excerpt from “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” which began life as a frighteningly accurate Atlantic article.

I agree with a lot of the “Should I feel guilty for failing my students” excerpt, but I don’t think this is correct: “First of all, twenty-first-century American culture makes it more difficult to fail people.” The biggest reason it’s hard for professors to fail students, as economists like to remind us, involves incentives.

I’m a grad student in English lit, and when I go to the job market in the near future, I’m highly unlikely to be judged at all on my grade distribution; as far as I know, the University of Arizona doesn’t even send that information out. I may or may not be seriously judged on my teaching evaluations, depending on the kind of university I try to go to. I probably won’t, or won’t very much, but the easiest way to improve evals is to give higher grades (see “Judgment Day” for one popular explanation). Perhaps not surprisingly, students give better evals to profs who get higher grades. So professors, in the absence of any institutional or professional incentives not to give higher grades, do—at least on average, even if any single prof denies doing so (I have yet to hear anyone in a public forum announce, “I inflate grades.” I do not inflate grades).

To recap: we might be looked at poorly for having bad teaching evals, which are linked to student grades, and there’s no pressure on student grades. The big thing I will be judged on is academic publishing. The more I do that, the better off I am professionally. When you give students bad grades, not only are they likely to take it out on evals, but they’re more likely to complain to your teaching advisor, show up in office hours to fight about grades, be unhappy in class, and generally take more of time, which you can’t spend writing the academic articles that will get you a job and tenure.

Combined, these two forces encourage you to give higher grades and maximize academic publishing. This force is probably strongest in softer subjects, like the humanities, business, comm, and the like (students want to argue papers all day long) and weakest in math and the sciences (if you didn’t get the right answer, your instructor will demonstrate why you’re objectively wrong). Fields like nursing probably don’t see a huge amount of grade inflation because students who don’t understand the material will kill someone if they don’t, which is a big problem for lots of people. Same in engineering—if your bridge collapses, you can’t complain that there is no such thing as a “good” bridge, or that bridge design is so “subjective.”

All this stuff might contribute to how little students are actually learning, as discussed extensively in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. The book shows that most college students, through most measures, don’t acquire much real knowledge over the course of their four or more years in school. Part of Academically Adrift details the evidence used to reach this conclusion, the other big part describes how this might have happened and be happening, and the last (weakest) part discusses solutions.

How could one solve this incentive problem? Probably by plotting eval scores against grades. If you’re giving an average GPA of 3.0 and getting a 4.0 on your eval, and Suzie down the hall is giving an average GPA of 2.9 and getting a 4.3 on her evals, then Suzie is probably doing better. I don’t know why colleges aren’t moving toward systems like this, aside from inertia and the complete lack of incentive to do so. Which, I guess, means that I do know why. This wouldn’t be a perfect solution, but it would at least be a step in the right direction. A few schools are apparently doing something about the issue.

Professors don’t want to champion better evals, however, because it distracts them from the research for which they’re rewarded. Administrators don’t want to because they want tuition and grant money, not rocking the boat. High school seniors have not shown a great swell of interest in attending schools with rigorous professor evaluations; they have shown a great swell of interest in beer and circus, however, so that’s what they mostly get. Grad students want to claw their way up the academic ladder and/or finish their damn dissertations. Parents want their offspring to pass. Employers are too diffuse and don’t get much of a say. So where does the coalition for improvement come from? Some individuals, but we’ll see if they get very far.

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