Tag Archives: higher education

That Degree in English Might Finally Get Some Respect

I might need to dust off the old resume, because apparently my English degree makes me a hot commodity:

…the skills you develop as an English major are the skills American business always says it needs more of: critical thinking, analytical ability, and the ability to communicate clearly. That was true 32 years ago and it remains true today. Those skills will prepare you for jobs that don’t even exist yet. I know that’s true because they did for me.

In fact, American business’s global competitors are finding they need the same skills, and that their job-focused college educations aren’t providing the people they need who have those skills. So they’re retooling their higher education along the U.S.’s traditional liberal-arts model.

And if you don’t believe Lex, well then check out this piece from American Express that he linked to. The article outlines some of the skills that employers are looking for that English majors have in spades; communication, writing, researching, critical thinking and empathy. That’s all great and good, but if you really want to be a stud you still might need to add a specific area of expertise to those broad skills:

The Association of American Colleges and Universities conducted a recent survey of what employers want from new hires. Its survey report, It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success, shows that more than half of business executives want college graduates to have not only field-specific knowledge and skills, but a broad range of skills and knowledge. They place less value on the undergraduate major and more on a capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems. In an interview, Debra Humphreys, vice president at The AACU, said that the economic downturn has “put a premium on college graduates who are really multifaceted … people who have both broad knowledge and skills, as well as field-specific skills.” According to Humphreys, this concern has intensified over the years.

So if I dust of that resume I might want to consider adding a line to the education section. As an English major I’m sure I’d find a second degree, perhaps in nuclear engineering, to be a piece of cake.

Should Colleges Teach Religion?

Marshall Poe makes an interesting argument for colleges to use religion to teach their students how to live:

Upon reflection, it occurred to me that all religions, if seriously practiced, do precisely what this “religion” had done for me: They teach you how to live. It is true, of course, that clerics often tell their flocks to believe things that are frankly unbelievable. And some even tell the faithful that if they don’t believe these incredible things they will suffer some harsh penalty, like going to hell. But most clerics of my acquaintance are not very interested in fire and brimstone. Rather, they are interested in making sure those in their care are spiritually fit. The way they do this—and, so far as I know, always have—is to give people a higher purpose and a set of guidelines necessary to pursue that purpose. They bring order to the thoughts and actions of people whose thoughts and actions are naturally disordered. They give people a way of life.

It was in this way that I became convinced that college classes in religious practice might help suffering undergraduates learn to live successfully. The classes would at the very least introduce undergraduates to the idea that there were practical ways to alleviate their suffering. They would plant the seed. Even if the students chose not to follow the practice they had learned, their recollection of it would remain in store for the day they would need it. The day would inevitably come and when it did, they would have someplace to turn for help.

This promise—that teaching religious practice might help students now and in the future—is, I think, reason enough try it. Before it can be tried, however, we have to address several objections to putting religious practice into the curriculum…

American higher education has, however, one glaring deficiency: it does not teach its undergraduates how to live. It teaches them when the French Revolution was, what the carbon cycle is, and how to solve for X. It does not teach them what to do when they feel confused, alone, and scared. When they break down after a break-up. When they are so depressed they cannot get out of bed. When they drink themselves into unconsciousness every night. When find themselves living on someone’s couch. When they decide to go off their meds. When they flunk a class or even flunk out of school. When they get fired. When a sibling dies. When they don’t make the team. When they get pregnant. When their divorced parents just won’t stop fighting. When they are too sick to get to the hospital. When they lose their scholarship. When they’ve been arrested for vandalism. When they hate themselves so much that they begin self-mutilating. When they’re thinking about suicide. When they force themselves to throw up after every meal. When they turn to drugs for relief from their pain. When they’ve been assaulted or raped. When their mind is racing and cannot stop. When they wonder about the meaning of it all. When they are terrified by the question “What do I do next?”

The Higher Education Gravy Train

If you're the parent of a child currently attending a state university the opening paragraph to this story in The Atlantic will get your blood boiling:

Neat fact: If the federal government were to take all of the money it pours into various forms of financial aid each year, it could go ahead and make tuition free, or close to it, for every student at every public college in the country. 

The rest of the article will move you from boiling blood to sever heartburn:

…see the demoralizing report released this week by Stephen Burd of the New America Foundation on the state of financial aid in higher ed. It documents the obscene prices some of the poorest undergraduates are asked to pay at hundreds of educational institutions across the country, even as these same schools lavish discounts on the children of wealthier families in order to lure them onto campus…

Sometimes, colleges (and states) really are just competing to outbid each other on star students. But there are also economic incentives at play, particularly for small, endowment-poor institutions. "After all," Burd writes, "it's more profitable for schools to provide four scholarships of $5,000 each to induce affluent students who will be able to pay the balance than it is to provide a single $20,000 grant to one low-income student." The study notes that, according to the Department of Education's most recent study, 19 percent of undergrads at four-year colleges received merit aid despite scoring under 700 on the SAT. Their only merit, in some cases, might well have been mom and dad's bank account.

That's the kind of math and logic even a lowly English major from a state university can comprehend.

What’s a Good Education Worth?

Fred Wilson has an interesting take on the student debt issue:

So we are big believers in the value of a higher education and we have invested in it for ourselves and our children.

I told the University President and the faculty members all that. But I also told them that I am deeply concerned that about the cost of a high quality education and the fact that it is getting out of reach for many. And I told them that I am not sure the return on the investment is as high as it once was for many degrees. And finally, I told them that too many students are walking out of college with a student loan burden that is crushing and that they can't and won't pay back. 

So how you reconcile these two opposing views and what can we do about it?…

But we also need to get more creative about the financing of higher education. We should measure the return on investment students are getting from the institutions they attend and the degrees they obtain and tie the amount of loans they can get to the returns they are likely to achieve. Students that attend institutions that can deliver higher returns should be able to take out larger loans.

Repayment terms need to change as well. Loan repayments should be capped at a percentage of current income. I know a woman who has been out of graduate school for more than a decade who dedicates one of her two paychecks a month to paying back her student loans. She is spending half of her take home income on her student loans. That is nuts.

Bubbles are driven by easy money that drives irrational behavior. Our student loan policies have been doing some of that. We can and should change our policies to force more rational decisions in the purchase of higher education in this country. 

There could be some pretty strong arguments made against tying the amount of a loan to the likely return of a degree. Someone who majors in English Lit with a concentration on 18th century poetry doesn't seem likely to have a high paying job, i.e. a high return, but you never know. There's also a compelling case for allowing kids to go on an intellectual exploration during their undergraduate years, and if you tie their loans to the return on any given degree you're likely to stifle that exploration.

But that's a nit-pick. Fred's core point, that we need to rethink how we structure and pay for higher education, is spot on. With two kids at NC State our family can tell you that the effects of reduced state funding are very real, and they are having a significant impact on students' abilities to fund their educations. Reduced state funding is leading inexorably to higher costs, which means more debt for students and an increasingly urgent need to figure out a way to turn the tide on student debt. 

Max Student Loans at $2,000?

Mark Cuban wrote the following in a blog post offering advice to the Occupy Wall Street protesters:

3.  Limit the Size of Student Loans to $2,000 per year

Crazy ? Maybe, maybe not.  What happened to the price of homes when the mortgage loan bubble popped ? They plummeted. If the size of student loans are capped at a low level, you know what will happen to the price of going to a college or  university ? It will plummet.  Colleges and universities will have to completely rethink what they are, what purpose they serve and who their customers will be. Will some go out of business ? Absolutely. That is real world. Will the quality of education suffer ? Given that TAs will still work for cheap, I doubt it.

Now some might argue that limiting student loans will limit the ability of lower income students to go to better schools. I say nonsense on two fronts. The only thing that allowing students to graduate with 50k , 80k or even more debt  does is assure they will stay low income for a long, long time after they graduate ! The 2nd improvement will be that smart students will find the schools that adapt to the new rules and offer the best education they can afford. Just as they do now, but without loading up on debt.

The beauty of capitalism is that people like me will figure out new and better ways to create and operate for profit universities that educate as well or better as today’s state institutions, AND I have no doubt that the state colleges and universities will figure out how to adapt to the new world of limited student loans as well.

Finally, the impact on the overall economy will be ENORMOUS. There is more student loan debt than credit card debt outstanding today. By relieving this burden at graduation, students will be able to participate in the economy.

We could argue about the $2,000 number, but he brings up some interesting points.  As I've mentioned in previous posts we are at the beginning of what will hopefully be 7+ years of our children attending college, and as you can probably imagine we're quite interested in how this all works. Last year when our oldest son was considering schools to apply for we had a few questions we asked him over and over when he was looking at private or out-of-state schools – "Is the difference in tuition between NC State (or any other state school) and Davidson (or any other private school) really worth it?  Will the curriculum meet your needs that much better? Is going to that school a necessity to get you into the grad school or job that you're considering?"

When you start crunching the numbers even a state school's tuition, fees, books and room and board add up to a hefty chunk of change. Without student aid you're looking at roughly $10,000 a semester and if a student graduates in four years that's $80,000.  Multiply that number by three or four and you have the total damage from a private school, and as they say in debates about the federal budget, "$10,000 here, $10,000 there and next thing you know you're talking serious money."

So how do people pay for this?  Some scholarships, some grants and lots of student loans. Unfortunately those student loans often lead to financial trouble, and in many cases students just can't, or won't, pay them off. In the '80s I worked as an intern for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) and back then delinquent student loans were a bigger problem than they are now.  As I made hundreds of copies of NASFAA's position papers and delivered them to the Hill I learned that schools were going out and hunting down students for whom they could secure government-backed student loans without regard for the student's actual ability to perform in the classroom.  As a result there were a ton of schools that were raking in the dough as huge chunks of their students dropped out. That means that in the worst cases people were accumulating huge piles of debt and not even getting a degree in return.  I seem to remember some reforms being implemented that helped reduce the drop out and default rates, but unfortunately loan default's are still a problem as highlighted in this Sep. 12, 2011 NY Times story:

According to Department of Education data released Monday, 8.8 percent of borrowers over all defaulted in the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30, the latest figures available, up from 7 percent the previous year.

At public institutions, the rate was 7.2 percent, up from 6 percent, and at not-for-profit private institutions, it was 4.6 percent, up from 4 percent…

Although the new overall rates are the highest since the 1997, when they were also 8.8 percent, default rates peaked in 1990 at more than 20 percent…

Although for-profit colleges, which typically serve low-income students, enroll only about 10 percent of the nation’s undergraduates, Mr. Kvaal said, their students made up 150,000, or almost half, of the defaults…

The problem may be even greater. “Some research has shown that as few as one in five defaults at a for-profit college occur in the two-year window,” said Debbie Cochrane, program director at the Institute for College Access & Success, which runs the Project on Student Debt. “The extent of borrower distress is barely touched upon with these rates.”

The high default rate at for-profit colleges, the fastest-growing sector of higher education, has become an increasing concern for the government, since such institutions depend on federal student aid for more than 80 percent of their revenues. Last spring, in internal documents gathered from the publicly traded for-profit colleges for hearings on the student debt problem, the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee found that some companies estimated that their students had staggeringly high lifetime default rates — in one case, 77.7 percent…

Colleges with excessive default rates, either exceeding 40 percent in the latest year, or 25 percent for three consecutive years, can lose their eligibility for federal student aid programs. This year, five institutions — four of them for-profits — lost eligibility, Mr. Kvaal said.

In part because of the high default rates at the for-profit colleges, the department recently adopted regulations designed to curb recruiting abuses, and cut off eligibility for federal aid at programs that leave students with high debt loads and poor job prospects.

Reading this causes me to question whether or not capping student loans would actually lead to more for-profit schools stepping up to compete as Cuban suggests, but I do think he's right to call into question the whole higher education funding model.  If school's were suddenly faced with the loan spigot being turned off how would they adjust?  Would we see an explosion in affordable online learning initiatives?  Would we suddenly see the corporate world sending the message that alternative learning is fine by them, because quite frankly not enough students were coming from the limited number of schools left standing thanks to their massive endowments?  If so, would we see student's flocking to alternative forms of learning because they know that it could be the ticket to a brighter future?  Would they be happy without the keg parties at the Sigma Xi house?

Cuban's thrown out an idea that begs lots of questions and they're the kinds of questions I think we need to be seriously considering.

Higher Ed Cuts Hitting Close to Home

North Carolina is facing a massive budget deficit and as a result all government institutions are looking at making some rather large cuts to their budgets.  The state's education system is no exception, and while people are rightly focusing on job cuts at the K-12 level, as the father of a high school senior, junior and freshman I'm more than a little interested in what's happening at the higher ed level.

Over the past weekend I sat with my son as he sent in applications to five North Carolina institutions of higher learning.  I, of course, provided the one tool he needed: ye old credit card.  A few keystrokes on the computer and couple of hundred bucks in application fees later he'd submitted his applications and the waiting game is on.  Sure I'm excited, but I'm also filled with trepidation as I see stories about potential cutbacks at the schools he's applying to, including NC State.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think it's the end of the world.  I know at least one retired professor who thinks higher education is reaping what it sowed over the years and that maybe the current crisis is providing a much-needed house cleaning for the industry.  I'm also of the belief that the benefit of someone's education is more dependent on that person's input than on the class size he's encountering, but that doesn't change the fact that a professor's ability to do his job is directly impacted by the number of students he has to teach.  And then there's the issue that Patrick Eakes brings up in a comment at Ed Cone's blog referencing the NC State article mentioned above:

It was already hard enough to graduate at State on time for some technical degrees when I was there. Undergrad engineering degrees required about 17 hours per semester, often with required labs that offered no or almost no credit hours toward that goal.

It was also pretty challenging to get the few sections offered in some classes to sequence properly semester after semester. Reductions in class offerings will almost certainly officially turn the engineering degrees into what they have unofficially been for some time – a five year degree.

Patrick makes a great point, although I must say I didn't need any help turning myself into a five year degree guy…in English Lit!

As far as tuition goes I'd love for my kids to enjoy the low current tuition rates, but even with the proposed tuition hikes I think the students lucky enough to get into North Carolina's public universities are getting a pretty good deal.  That's assuming, of course, that they don't become professional students and stay in school until their 30, move home, live in the basement and play Xbox Live for 18 hours a day while eating Twinkies. That vision of my own kids' future, however unlikely, is my newest recurring nightmare.

In a Land of Dropout Factories, Batting .500 is an Achievement

A very interesting article about US colleges that are "dropout factories."  An excerpt:

Certainly, Chicago State enrolls a large share of academically underprepared students compared to more selective schools such as UIC or Northwestern, so its graduation rate might be expected to be lower. But the idea that Chicago State is doing the best it can with the kind of students it serves is belied by ample countervailing evidence. As the chart below shows, there are more than half a dozen schools in the United States with student bodies that are remarkably similar to that of Chicago State in every important respect—from race to test scores to family income—but whose graduation rates are at least double, and in some cases more than triple, the graduation rate of Chicago State.

Take North Carolina Central University, which enrolls 8,500 students. About 85 percent of students at both schools are black. NCCU’s median SAT score is 840, the approximate equivalent of about 17 on the ACT, even lower than Chicago State’s average ACT of 18. The difference, however, is that NCCU tries to work with the students it has. The result: while Chicago State graduates about 13 percent of its students, NCCU graduates about 50 percent. “We have the philosophy that if we admit the students into this institution we have a great responsibility in ensuring their success,” says Bernice Duffy Johnson, dean of the school’s University College, which focuses on supporting students during their first two years.

Students entering NCCU are told from the start that they are expected to have a goal of graduating in four years. The University College keeps students together in groups and assigns them advisers who must approve all major academic decisions and meet with students frequently. NCCU students even sign a contract upon arriving, a document that lays out the goals of what they are going to accomplish. If they start to struggle, they sign an additional contract that commits them to even closer monitoring. Above all, what drives places like NCCU is a culture of experimentation and data collection. The administrators track students, and they track results. If something works, they keep doing it. If it doesn’t, they try something else.