Saturday, March 30, 2013

The third myth of college


“You pay your fee and get your B.”

--description of less than reputable schools in my area

That's not the myth, though. Here it is:

"College degree holders earn a million dollars over a lifetime."


     This myth was posted on the walls at my college and, I suspect, is posted at many institutions. Money is a powerful motivator, for learning or anything else, so the intentions are good by posting it…but this is a deceptive myth. There’s nothing wrong with viewing a college degree as a financial investment, any more than viewing a college education as a source of personal growth. Unfortunately, institutions are not above using the myth of making so much more money with a degree to justify the ever increasing cost of tuition, and, in turn, the likewise increasing loans taken on by students.

     This myth is far more damaging than the others, and people honestly believe that because they’ll be ultimately making more money, it’s worthwhile to take out loans.  There’s a grain of truth to this insidious myth, but only a grain. If you subtract “super-earners” from the college graduates (the upper 1% of the top 1% of college degree holders), the rare souls that earn a great many millions or even billions, the actual average would drop substantially, but the true deception is the “over a lifetime” part of it. Allow me to write something that terrifies my students, and many administrators: let’s do some math!

      The average annual income for a janitor is $25,000 (and there aren’t any “super earner” janitors). Consider the six years it takes an “above average” student to get a degree. If, instead of going to college, an 18 year old coming out of high school worked for six years as a janitor ($150,000), took that money and invested it for forty years, at 4%, compounded annually, he’d have over $720,000. (As an aside, most incoming students, even with a calculator and the formula directly in front of them, cannot perform this calculation.) If this janitor could get 5% annually, he’d have over a million dollars and still not be 65 years old, better off than a college graduate, according to the myth, and with another decade or so of life still to live!

      The math says most people are financially better off being janitors than going to college, and yet going to college is presented as economically a good idea for everyone.

     Think about that: many a college graduate would be better off financially if he had just scrubbed toilets instead, and that’s not even factoring in the student loan, or accounting for those that don’t graduate. I’ve left off life expenses as a janitor, but life expenses for a student are probably no more than for a janitor. Granted, in the 2012 economy making a secure 5% a year is not a given—but with over half of college graduates unable to find a relevant job in the current economy, scrubbing toilets is still a better deal than being un- or under-employed with a vast student loan to pay off. If children were told a more honest myth, that “People that go to college generally don’t do as well financially as janitors,” would so many be willing to sacrifice years of their life and enter eternal debt slavery to go to college?

     Particular jobs (engineering, for example) do require a college degree, and those jobs tend to be higher paying. If you’re specifically going to college for the specific degree for exactly one of these jobs, and you can get that degree, and that job, then college and a loan does make financial sense. But to extend the favorable risk/reward calculation for these particular jobs to all degrees, even those in such generally unprofitable fields as Ufology, is foolish.

     To repeat the myth of how much money there is to be made just because of having a degree, any degree, is to repeat a lie. For institutions to rationalize raising all tuition for all coursework on the basis of higher salaries for a few jobs based on a tiny minority of that coursework is unethical at the very least, and just pulls in suckers.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The second myth of college.

Myth #2:  “You’ll have to work hard to get through college.”




--actual e-mail from a second year student at my college, yes, it was in all capital letters, and not the first semester where such an excuse was offered by this student.


     Having achieved the precious admittance to college, further prestige is granted to the student for staying in college, even if a college drop-out in times past didn’t have nearly the stigma of, say, a high school drop-out. “Dating a college boy” was a prestigious goal for a high school girl of decades ago, or at least was often presented as so in films of the era.

    The reality is quite different today. A full time course load at most institutions is 12 credit hours, which represents 12 hours a week of sitting in a classroom. Actually, it’s more accurate to say 10 hours, since a class that meets for “an hour” really only meets for 50 minutes. At my college, more than a third of students spend less than 5 hours a week studying alone, and only a minority spend more than 10; the overall average time studying is less than half what it was decades ago.

    Think about that: the vast bulk of full time college students spend less than 20 hours a week on college work; more than a third spend less than 15 hours a week. That’s little more than what a serious hobbyist might spend on his weekends building model trains or the like. Half of students report they’ve never read more than 40 pages a week in a course—that’s perhaps the equivalent of reading a few newspapers a week…again, less than what many people do in their spare time. Similarly, about half of students didn’t write a paper of at least 20 pages in a given semester. The first three entries of this blog you’re reading now represent more writing than many degree-holders have ever done in a single semester, a few graduates probably didn’t do so much writing their whole career. How can students be to blame for not being able to read or write meaningfully when they’re not asked to read or write meaningfully?

     Dropping out of college now is quite an achievement, probably more so than getting into college years ago. Failing college courses in the past was certainly grounds for academic probation, and failing courses in multiple semesters could easily get a student removed from college. Certainly, students could get in over their head by signing up for a course beyond their ability, so many institutions had “withdraw” policies where a student could drop a course a week or two into the semester, after he’d had time to see if he could handle the material. While available, withdrawing like this was frowned upon in the past:  there was often a financial penalty, and a student could only exercise this option a limited number of times throughout his entire college career (the limit was three at my alma mater). Under these conditions, staying in college was an achievement—the college student was clearly working towards his goal, progressing towards a degree, and had no opportunity to waste semesters taking and dropping courses.

      Today, the withdraw rules are very different, because polices have changed. A student can withdraw as many times as he wishes, and the last day to withdraw from a course is well past the halfway point in the semester. Under these conditions, it’s all but impossible for a non-comatose student to fail a course, and it’s no surprise that students commonly take six years or more to get their four year degree. What prestige can there be to staying in college when ultimately this just means the student drops courses repeatedly? Consider the student quoted above: taking and withdrawing from courses semester after semester, learning nothing but getting student loans all the same. If the myth were “A good way to waste four to six years of your life and be in debt forever is to go to college,” would people be quite so willing to indebt themselves for a degree?


Excerpt from student paper: “…a new double barrow shotgun. Like Doom, Doom II offers Multiplayer support…”

--This particular passage, with its odd typo, allowed me to find the old web page a student had cut-and-pasted from, and submitted as her writing assignment. The thought of a shotgun that fires great mounds of dirt, burying an enemy, was amusing, but I hardly knew how to respond to this level of plagiarism. I asked administration for advice. Response:

Administration: “Please allow this student to re-submit the assignment. She needs this course to graduate.”


    The other way to get expelled from college, cheating, is a relic. Even extravagant cases of cheating on tests or plagiarism often mean little more than a slap on the wrist; worst case scenario is an F in the course, but the student can retake the course for a higher grade. He probably won’t be caught cheating the second time around, and even if so, it’s still highly unlikely he’ll be expelled for it.

     While the first myth pulls students into the system, the second myth, that college is supposed to be hard work, traps students into staying in a system far past when it was clear they should leave. It’s such a pleasant surprise when the student finds out how many classes are complete blow-offs requiring no effort at all, and the looks of pride and respect from family and friends at being “in college” surely help the student to remain as well. Yes, there are a few courses that take some effort, but those can be easily avoided, or dropped if the student, through some accident, finds himself enrolled in one.

    To avoid taking anything too difficult, most institutions’ course catalogues have pages and pages of “elective,” content-light, courses to fill out that schedule, to keep students coming on a full time basis. And so the student stays on for years, long past the point where he knows he’s not going anywhere, with everyone proud of his “hard work” taking courses in Women’s and Gender Studies,  Human Sexual Behavior, The Learning Environment, Creative Expression in Early Childhood Development, Language and Literacy in Early Childhood, Child Psychology, Adolescent Psychology, Social Psychology, Abnormal Psychology, Contemporary Social Problems, Marriage and Family, Criminology, Human Relations, Fundamentals of Speech, Techniques of Speech, Personal Communication, and others (those are all courses on my tiny campus, just a sampling, and larger schools have much more to offer in introductory courses).

     I know, as a mathematician I’m a bit biased in what I think is useful, but it isn’t (entirely) the subject matter of these courses, it’s how little these courses build on each other or lead to anything else. They’re all introductory dead ends, or nearly so.

     How does the student take these courses, go to an eventual employer and say “My degree took 6 years to get, and most of the material was subject matter that anyone could master in three months with no prior skills needed, and I don’t know it now because none of it was needed for anything else. Now will you hire me because I’m educated and have a huge loan to pay off?” These courses with minimal entry requirements lead, quite often, to nowhere, and offering them really facilitates students not having to work much to stay in college, facilitates retention. I’m all for electives, students should be allowed to experiment with knowledge…but the system is trivially exploited to the student’s detriment (and the college’s advantage).

     The myth of “You need to work hard to get through college” traps the student, who thinks it’s an achievement to stay in college, even though often all it does is just allow ever larger student loans to pile up while the student takes pointless courses, considering himself lucky (or smart) at not having to work as hard as he thought would be necessary to stay in college. He’s not being clever by staying in college…he’s being a sucker, racking up more money for the institution.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The first myth of college

There's a mythology to college, created over centuries of higher education. Alas, these are now myths, though in the past there was some truth to them.
Myth #1: “You need good grades to get into college.”


“I hate math. I failed this course four times in school, why do I have to take it again?”

--typical complaint from my students.


    Decades ago, college or university admission was not a certain thing, and high school graduates would eagerly await the mail, hoping to get an acceptance letter. Applying to college was nearly pointless unless the prospective student took “college preparatory” courses in high school—what educational institution would accept a student who had not already troubled to acquire the basic skills of higher learning? A student with good grades, and having the appropriate coursework in high school, still could not be certain of acceptance, and would almost certainly also need high scores on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. Even all these put together might not be enough to assure acceptance, and students wishing to improve their chances of acceptance still further would engage in extracurricular activities like charity, volunteer, and honor society work.

     Those days are long gone, because policies have changed. Now, “open admission” policies are common at most public and many private institutions. Online, accredited graduate schools like Capella require nothing from their applicants besides a check that doesn’t bounce. Grades and transcripts mean nothing in an era where grade inflation and widespread cheating scandals in high schools barely make the local news. Around half of students enter college unprepared on some level, requiring a semester, a year, or more of “developmental” courses before they can even take actual college courses. The amount of remedial coursework required by many students means the majority of incoming students won’t receive a four year degree within six years of admission. Standardized tests are no longer relevant to admission, instead serving to determine where in the remedial course sequence a student should go. Extracurricular activities are completely irrelevant.


    “Fill in this application form. Check this box if you’re a degree seeking student so that you can qualify for student loans.”

--the primary means of getting into many institutions of higher learning.


     Decades ago, having a child accepted into college was a point of pride for a family, since it served as validation of that child’s hard work. Today, getting into a college is about as significant an achievement as purchasing a refrigerator, and about as much effort. If the check clears, you’re in…and ultimately that’s all you need to get into college or buy a refrigerator. A far more accurate myth is “Any college will take your money, no matter what.” This hardly sounds better than those easy credit loan schemes by businesses of questionable integrity that are often advertised on TV, and for good reason, as we’ll see later.

     A child raised on this myth will, without good grades, enter early adulthood believing college is beyond his reach. This makes him particularly vulnerable when a recruiter tells him the truth: his grades count for nothing, a college will take him no matter how poorly he did in school. And so another student enters the college system, thinking he’s getting a “lucky break” by getting to go to college…when the reality is his poor grades in school were an indicator that academia is a poor choice for him, and that he’ll probably not learn anything that will help him pay off the loans that are paying for his classes.

      It’s little different than all the smiling customers P.T. Barnum fooled when he put up a beautiful sign, “This way to the Great Egress!” Ignorant of what an egress was, his customers cheerfully followed the sign to see the great thing. After exiting the circus, they were in no position to do anything about being tricked. If they really wanted to complain, they’d have to pay an entrance fee to get back in the tent. A few did so, to Barnum’s delight. Students likewise are completely helpless, years later, when the loans start coming due and there is no way to escape the loans. A few students, unable to pay their loans, take out more loans to go back to college. “There’s a sucker born every minute,” to steal another line from Barnum, and this myth is the first to creating many of the suckers in the higher education system.
     Every year I see swarms of students burying themselves in debt, learning nothing. It's no surprise that studies show even graduates often learn nothing, but realize that even the students who fail still have to pay exorbitant bills, often for the remainder of their lives.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

And so begins the end of my career as faculty in higher education.

Before I dive down the rabbit hole of what’s really going for most college students, I need to plant an important seed.

One detail not fully addressed in the sordid Sandusky affair concerns the years and years where he was allowed to engage in his “inappropriate” behavior despite witnesses reporting it to administration on multiple occasions. Administrators have two key goals, which trump all other considerations: retention and growth. Retention means keeping students in the system as much as possible, and a professor having low (with administration defining “low”) retention will generally not keep his job. As the easiest way to lose a student is to fail a student,  “Failure is not an option” has taken on new meaning in higher education. Growth generally means growth of the student base, as more students means a larger institution, and a larger institution means more administrative pay; thus are admission standards annihilated nowadays.

So, it was no grand conspiracy that administrators would cover up even the most grotesque of behavior on campus. The scandal, if revealed, could easily drive students away, reducing both retention and growth. It was no conspiracy…administrators were merely doing their job, nothing more.

But here’s the thing missed in this debacle: administrators are not physically attached to a single school. There’s a bit of a revolving door in higher education, an administrative career is marked by going to an institution, improving retention and growth, and then being hired/promoted to another institution. Job descriptions for open positions almost invariably describe how candidates must have demonstrated success in previous positions.

There’s nothing special about the administration of Penn State any more than the administration of NYU, LSU, or UCLA. This behavior would’ve been covered up anywhere else.

The administrators at Penn State were not some good ol’ boys with the same last name or with 20 years of experience working together, they’re a collection of administrators that have all moved up through the system the same way via numerous institutions, through improving retention and growth, sacrificing everything else about education for these goals and these goals alone. Thus, like an ancient Greek phalanx, each administrator knew what to do without there necessarily being any specific order given: retention and growth are paramount, sodomization of prepubescent boys in the showers on campus is nothing next to those goals.

Now we come to the seed I must plant: if a simple random sample of administrators has so little concern for integrity and human decency that implicitly condoning the sodomizing of children does not cause even one administrator to resign in disgust over the course of years, is it possible that their void of integrity fails the cause of education in other ways?

Please, think about that as I detail all the ways that college has changed due to enforced policy changes from the administrative caste.