10 November 2011

More Evidence Of Differing Returns From Higher Education

For some people, higher education provides a lot of "value added", while for others it does not. This doesn't necessarily mean that higher education isn't worthwhile for both. Those who learn a lot are substantively more productive and have a better quality of life later. Those who do not learn a lot still get a credential that increases their economic value and have several years of pre-workforce fun and games.

The report cited also provides a nice validation of the benefits of traditional, liberal arts educations, even outside STEM (science, technology, engineeering and mathematics) fields.

The following quote is from the New York Times via the link above to Steven Hsu's blog:

The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. . . . Students reported spending twelve hours a week, on average, studying—down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading. . . .

At every institution studied, from research universities to small colleges, some students performed at high levels, and some programs fostered more learning than others. . . . the liberal arts attract a far smaller proportion of students than they did two generations ago. Still, those majoring in liberal arts fields—humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics—outperformed those studying business, communications, and other new, practical majors on the CLA. . . . students who spent the most time studying on their own outperformed those who worked mostly with others. . . .

[V]ast numbers of students come to university with no particular interest in their courses and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers. . . . Academic studies don’t loom large on their mental maps of the university. Even at the elite University of California, students report that on average they spend “twelve hours [a week] socializing with friends, eleven hours using computers for fun, six hours watching television, six hours exercising, five hours on hobbies”—and thirteen hours a week studying.

For most of them, in the end, what the university offers is not skills or knowledge but credentials: a diploma that signals employability and basic work discipline. Those who manage to learn a lot often—though happily not always—come from highly educated families and attend highly selective colleges and universities. . . . [T]hose already born into the wealthy and professional classes benefit disproportionately from the best educations. Acquire any sort of college education, and you’ll make more money than you would have if you didn’t. But don’t expect you’ll make what you would have if you had studied applied math at Stanford.

Extensive higher education in a traditional collegiate setting is not for everyone. And, it provides little value added in a wide variety of careers, even careers that require considerable intelligence and hard work, other than an expensive and time consuming to acquire credential.

We really need to identify careers where this is the case and develop alternative tracks to allow people to enter those careers immediately after high school based on the kind of criteria that make them eligible for admission to higher educational institutions and likely to graduate.   There really are good middle class jobs that don't actually require for their performance anything that students would acquire in a college education but wouldn't acquire in on the job training.  High school test scores and grades can probably predict likelihood of success in these careers just as well as admission to institutions of higher education with comparable admissions requirements do.

We need to return to an understanding of higher education that recognizes that some professions are truly academic in the sense that extensive study and acquired knowledge is necessary to perform in them, and that other are not. A four year accounting degree might make sense. A four year marketing degree probably doesn't add as much value to someone intent on entering that career field as four years of on the job experience.

This approach shouldn't be limited to prospective undergraduates either. It is absurd to insist that only people with PhDs teach courses like English composition and first year calculus, although insisting on the subject matter expertise acquired by someone earning a non-thesis based master's degree in the relevant fields might make sense. The capacity to do original research that a PhD captures is neither necessary, nor sufficient to teach entry level undergraduate classes well. Using the capacity to earn a PhD as a proxy for professorial intelligence, and hence performance in teaching, is both a wildly expensive alternative to more direct measures, and to a significant extent counterproductive. It also drives up the cost of higher education by shrinking the pool of available instructors, and makes teaching college students less attractive economically to people who might have a gift for doing that work, but could also pursue other careers.

Of course, this system also creates a huge pool of languishing would be professors in the social sciences and humanities, where publishing a dissertation can take close to a decade, whose research at this stage of their careers (and later research at the publish or perish part of their careers) will contribute little to the pool of knowledge in their field, but whose teaching efforts could make a vital contribution and should be prioritized to a greater degree. There are certainly "hot shot" PhD students for whom their exceptional capacity to do scholarly research is their most important talent. But, these students make up a minority of people who would be talented future professors in the classroom.

Graduate degrees in journalism are even more suspect. Journalism is fundamentally a generalist's game and requires people who have the humility to know that other people know more than they do and ask questions. Journalism requires little that one does not develop with a general liberal arts education and a little extracurricular hands on experience.   A journalist needs to be smart, but a journalist does not need a lot of specialized classroom taught, book learned knowledge.

There is also lots of circumstantial evidence to suggest that our current higher educational curricula in K-12 education don't do a particularly good job of supplying the best teachers to our nation's schools or add value that couldn't be secured more fruitfully in other ways. The barriers to entry screen out too many talented people who might be teachers.  The education classes are sufficiently numerous that their marginal utility when it comes to teaching methods can become quite small. It isn't that education classes are entirely worthless, but that a large part of what makes teachers exceptional is not very amenable to classroom instruction and that trying to shoehorn continuing education for school teachers into a higher educational degree structure can detract for efficiency in improving teacher performances.

This applies even to my own profession, the law.  The requirement that students complete seven years of education to become lawyers is overkill for lots of kinds of legal practice, like criminal law, immigration law, and child custody matters, where there is a dire shortage of people willing to do the work at rates that the people who need it can afford, and where it would be possible to train specialist independent professionals in the relevant subject matter knowledge with much shorter higher educational programs at a much lower cost that would make a career offering legal services in these areas at a lower cost more economically feasible.  Training everyone to do everything is a very expensive way to run a legal system.

Similarly, it isn't at all obvious that having the mental health professions led by M.D. psychiatrists who have eight years of higher education, followed by a residency before becoming full fledged independent professionals is a sensible way to regulate the authority to prescribe drugs for mental health conditions.  This is a sub-field of medicine where the interdisciplinary comprehensive scope of medical knowledge acquired by medical doctors provides particularly little utility, and where the cost barriers involved in requiring such highly trained professionals has produced a severe and persistent shortage of care givers that people who need mental health care can afford.  The PhD in psychology is similarly overkill for the work that treating psychologists do.

Of course, the case that screening people upon completing high school for competence, without putting them through the ringer of actually attending college in pursuit of a bare credential, makes even more sense in the case of the very large proportion of students who start college but drop out after a semseter or two, a group that is disproportionately comprised of students who weren't well prepared for college to start with, even though they did passably well in high school and graduated.

This isn't to say that I oppose higher education.  The CLA validates the fact that for a large subset of college students, the college experience really does add value and is not merely a credential.  But, we as a society should try to better match those students for whom college is likely to provide a genuine benefit rather than a mere credential, from those for whom it is only a symbolic measure of intellectual capacity and basic functionality that can be assessed in much less expensive ways.

No comments: