Wednesday, April 29, 2015

College is 39% as Bad as Smoking

By Professor Doom

     At this stage in human civilization, everyone in the Western world knows smoking is very, very, bad for you.  Yes, many things are bad for you—watching TV all day long, not eating vegetables, and so on.  I totally respect people should be allowed to make choices that I don’t necessarily agree with…but smoking is a terrible thing to do to yourself, even as I respect individual rights.

      On the other hand, I don’t believe we should encourage people to make terrible choices. So, yes, I think posters saying “Smoking is Cool and Sexy” are ridiculous and morally questionable, in much the same way advertisements that say “Not Eating Vegetables Is Cool and Sexy” or “Watching TV 8 Hours A Day Is Cool And Sexy” are ridiculous and morally questionable.

     Yes, I respect that some people smoke, and smoke, and smoke, literally for decades, with no particular ill effects, but in general, smoking is so bad that outright encouraging it “for pleasure” is simply wrong.

     The real issue with smoking advertisements is the targeting of the young. Bottom line, children are very vulnerable to believing things they are told. This was a great thing back when snakes and lions and such were likely to be encountered by a child—a simple warning “Stay away from snakes, they are bad” was all it took to keep children from messing around with snakes until they were old enough to handle such things.

      Nowadays, the world isn’t filled with such natural dangers, though we still “play” with children by telling them about the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus—children still readily believe, until they finally outgrow their credulity. 

      Such myths may be harmless enough, but as natural dangers have faded from the modern human experience, new dangers, from advertising executives, showed up to lure children into making bad decisions. Thus, most people get hooked on smoking when they are young…they got addicted before they were old enough to not be so vulnerable to advertising that an adult mind would find ridiculous.

      So it is that some 85% of smokers regret smoking. 85%. Even if there were no major health risks involved with smoking, we as a society should have a real problem with an industry that encourages an activity that 85% of the people involved regret doing.

     What does this have to do with education? Well, our children are encouraged from a fairly young age that they must go to college…they get told this over and over again, to the point that many believe that the whole point of schooling is to get them to go to college. Heck, many schools boast of the percent of their graduates that eventually go on to college.

      Would a school boast of having a high percentage of students who smoke?

      “But college is good for you!” is doubtless going through the minds of some readers. It totally can be, I concede, but realize this is just the echo of all the imprinting delivered in childhood. College was almost certainly quite often a good idea in the past but today’s “college” is far removed from whatever idealized vision people have of higher education of generations ago.

      Why believe me? Do college students regret going to college in anything like the same way smokers regret starting smoking? Let’s see:

      Now, just because some people regret an activity, doesn’t mean the activity is necessarily wrong. I’m sure I can find someone who totally wished he’d never went to Disney World, but when 1/3 of the participants think they’ve made a horrible mistake, isn’t that a hint that there’s something wrong?

The other problem on student debt is a lack of financial education. The first major financial decision many students are making is with their college loans. It’s a major decision and often times there’s been little financial education, if any, that’s been taught. The Wells Fargo survey found that 79% of millennials think personal finance should be taught in high school; basic investing, how to save for retirement and how loans work were the top three topics they “wished” they’d learned more about.

     Note the same pattern we have here that we observed with the tobacco industry. These victims were targeted when young, and ignorant of how the modern world worked in regards to finance. “College is good for you” was combined with ignorance of the long term effects of loans to capture a generation into student loans.

      I concede student loans aren’t truly addictive, but getting rid of them is no less a challenge, since they follow you to the grave unless paid off…and all too often, higher education provides no means to pay off the loans.

     Should higher education administrators be viewed with the same repugnance that we view tobacco company executives that still target children

     This is a personal decision, but do realize that today’s high cost of college education is due to the administrators of higher education, rulers that could casually include financial education in their mission of education, to the point of refusing to allow loans to kids fresh out of high school, loans for coursework of no financial value. These rulers could do many, many, things to put integrity into higher education, instead of what they have done, which is remove integrity from higher education at every level. I guess that rather answers my rhetorical question.

       Oh, and back to the title of today’s essay. If we view “What percent of people that regret doing something” as a measure how bad such an activity is, then we can actually compare the inappropriateness of various illicit activities.

     So, here goes: 85%, or .85 of smokers regret smoking, an activity that we pretty much all agree is a very bad activity.

     33%, or .33 of people that went to college regret going to college.

     Simply look at the ratio, .33/.85, to get about .39. Thus it is that one can conclude that going to college is 39% as bad as smoking. We all agree that smoking is bad, but, comparatively speaking, college is rather bad as well.

     What proportion of “people regret doing this activity” is a sign that the activity is a fundamentally bad thing to do? Again, this is a personal decision, but I suspect this proportion will only go higher, as more and more people learn firsthand just how disastrous student loans are, and how worthless so much of higher education is.

      In times past, we didn’t have great numbers of people regretting going to college, but now we have millions of victims. 21% of the US population smoke cigarettes, and about 88% of high school graduates go on to college at some point. It follows then, 
that someday, we’ll have more victims of higher education than we do victims of smoking. Is this not yet another sign that something has gone very wrong with today’s version of higher education?


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Study: Quickie Degrees Are Worthless

By Professor Doom

    Any look at the graduation statistics of our community colleges (and to a lesser extent, universities) shows graduation rates fluctuating between “miserable” and “atrocious”.

     Administration in higher education has responded, but never with integrity. Instead of simply not trying to sell higher education to anyone with a pulse, they’ve watered down much of education, introducing coursework and degrees that produce easy graduation and many sweet, sweet, student loan checks….but no useful skills or knowledge.

     This hasn’t been enough. Most new college students are not really high school level, and these new marginal students were shuffled into remedial programs that were great for accumulating those sweet, sweet, student loan checks…but don’t lead to degrees. Administration has responded here by introducing social promotion to college, so that, in many schools, college “courses” are packed with students that can neither read nor write nor calculate at the 9th grade level.

      And it’s still not enough.

      Another popular administration plan has some merit: speed up the degree process. Granted, this method isn’t as good as the others for getting those sweet, sweet, student loan checks, but at least it gives students fast degrees, and that’s worth something, right?


     Despite the fact these fast degrees are useless, I still find myself approving of them. I’ve seen so many students trapped the system, swirled around for 5 years or more, and then spit out, deep in debt, with either a worthless degree, or a bunch of worthless credit hours.

     A fast degree is better than that, right? Much less opportunity to get deep into debt, and hopefully, once the student has his worthless degree, he’ll escape the mythology of higher education and move on with his life, three, maybe four years younger than he would be if trapped in the system getting a “normal” degree.

     “…eight years after graduation individuals who obtained short-term certificates had earnings essentially indistinguishable from those who completed no degree at all.”

     It’s interesting that they managed to study these quickie degree recipients for 8 years, and managed to get this result. I would look long and hard at statistics of folks getting “normal” degrees and compare those who didn’t even go to college at all…I strongly suspect that quite a few of the graduates would find themselves worse off—slightly better earnings for the lucky, but both graduates and non-graduates set back by ever growing student debt.

     Short-term certificates are rapid degree programs offered at many community colleges that are designed to provide certification in some basic field in less than a year’s time (programs taking more than a year are deemed long-term certificates). They are commonly offered in relatively simple technical fields such as medical billing and business information systems.

      It’s very clear there’s a hierarchy of fraud of in higher education. For-profit tops the fraud, I totally concede. But, mercifully, the American public (and, to a lesser extent, the Federal government) has caught on to the fraud. For-profits are finding it hard to attract suckers into the system, even heavyweight University of Phoenix has 50% of the student base it did a few years ago. When most HR departments toss applications from UoPhoenix right into the trash, word gets around not to bother going there.

     For-profits are the top frauds of higher education, but a close second are the community colleges, the primary source of those quickie degrees. Again, this only makes sense, both in terms of offering such degrees, and in terms of worthlessness. Community colleges, for the most part, are dealing with the weakest students, the ones that have no chance in a university setting…and no chance in anything like serious college work. If you can’t sell ‘em college work, there’s no point trying to get them to buy remedial work, either, since the only point of remedial coursework is preparation for college.

 “Dancer”: “I’m just here to make some money until I get my medical degree, I’m only one semester away from graduating.”
 Faculty: “Medicine, very nice. What field?”
Dancer: “Massage”
Faculty: “…”

--I grant that some students going into quickie degree programs have to suspect things are not on the level, but many are desperate to grab any straw that might save them. It doesn’t excuse administration from selling them straws that they know full well are attached to nothing that will help.

      So, stuff ‘em into quickie degree programs. It’ll take years before these students realize they got nothing from those programs.

Today, about one quarter of all community college degrees are short-term certificates.
--so the report is really saying that one quarter of community college degrees are ripoffs…and that really is a low estimate, because most of the 2 year degrees are worthless, too. I’m all for reducing the cost of higher education, but it’s clear the community college model as it stands today isn’t the way to go.

     And, of course, it makes sense that these programs are worth nothing. Community colleges are designed to offer the cheapest education possible, so they really can’t afford to hire people with real job jobs…it’s simply unreasonable to expect people with no skills to actually be able to teach students anything useful.

     This was the case even in fields, such as nursing, where a two-year associates degrees or long-term certificate did result in major earnings gains of 30 percent or more. In the handful of fields that did see a salary gain, such as protective services, the boost was limited to only about $1,000 per year.

     It really is possible to have valuable 2 year, jobs-related, degrees, but doing honest work just isn’t good enough for community college administrators. They know full well quickie degrees are worthless, and they know why. But rather than do the honorable thing, and simply stop selling bogus, worthless, degrees and coursework, community colleges will just keep right on selling the things.

     Did I mention those sweet, sweet, student loan checks? 

     For profit schools made a fortune raking in those student loan checks, but now that everyone knows about them, they’re drying up and blowing away. Do the administrators at community colleges not see what will happen once people figure out what’s going on there as well?


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Colleges Pledge to Help the Poor, Do Opposite?

By Professor Doom

     Many times I’ve mentioned that the folks running higher education really seem to be far more interested in luring suckers in, draining them of money and spitting them out, than, well, education. Oh, the Poo Bahs running higher education bloviate about “jobs, community, and service”, but despite the flowery words, their actions always seem to be about sucking up the money.

      I’ve casually played with my calculator enough times to know the actions seem more in line with reality than the truth, but such is so seldom said online that I often have wondered if maybe I’m just not that good with a calculator. 

       Sometimes an article agrees with my calculator:

     Interesting. The general slant of the article is that the children of wealthy families aren’t paying as much for their education as the children of poor families. It’s an interesting distinction, although “poor” is starting to be a fair word to apply to much of the American population today.

      Let me pluck out a few tidbits before pointing out what the article missed:

     The statistics here are a little bit tortured, but there is some truth in this. What’s happening is there are plenty of merit scholarships available, and those merit scholarships are more often awarded to children of wealthy families than to children of poor families.

    This is true…but there are some overlooked issues.

     Parents want the best for their children, and, bottom line, money talks. A wealthy parent has more money to spend on a child’s education, and generally will spend it. A poor parent is told to hope (foolishly) that the public education system, and nothing more, will be enough for a child. Social promotion and other problems often leave such children graduating high school thinking they know what education is all about…only to hit a brick wall once college starts.

     It’s fairly common practice now, in public schools, for teachers to go over the test material in detail seconds before passing out the test—students need not study to do well, merely have a decent short-term memory. In college, the legitimate ones at least, most professors still don’t give the answers out right before the test. But I digress.

      Back to the point for today, the colleges promised to “help” the poor by putting their kids in college, but how helpful is it when the poorer kids end up paying more?

“…promised to expand the opportunities for low-income students to go to college. In fact, the private universities in that group collectively raised what the poorest families pay by 10 percent, compared to 5 percent for wealthier students,…”

     So, apparently merit scholarships are disproportionately going to kids to have better opportunities to learn. Awesome. Next up, there’ll be a study showing that professional basketball teams are disproportionately represented by tall people.
     I don’t want to sound callous here, but I do want to point out the internet is accessible to almost all the “poor”, and America’s public library system really does provide pretty much anything anyone could want to know, for free. 

     As an example of just how much potential there are in books, consider the Williams sisters, and their amazing career in tennis. They didn’t come from a wealthy family, and they certainly didn’t come from a tennis family. No. Their father, a sharecropper, decided that tennis was a good way to make money, and so started them on the path to learning about tennis by checking out books from the library

     So, I acknowledge it’s “a little unfair” that some parents have the ability to help their children more than others…but I just don’t believe that enforcing fairness in this matter is possible, or particularly desirable. The children of the rich have the advantage in that they can get the books read to them, while the children of the poor are forced to read for themselves if they want that merit scholarship. I think providing the books for free is about the best we can do to promote fairness.

     It’s tough to take the article seriously when the author isn’t asking much in the way of questions, but at least there are some hard numbers:

“…At the University of Virginia, for instance, the poorest students saw their net price climb $4,313 over that period, compared to $2,687 for students in the top earning bracket…”

      I can’t emphasize enough how strange it is that the article isn’t asking questions here. I mean, if you’re selling something expensive, and higher education sure is expensive, should you target the wealthy, or the poor? That seems easy to answer, but our schools target the poor. Why are our schools targeting the poor? That’s an obvious question, but even when the article has the answer crammed in its face, it still doesn’t think about it much:

UVA President Teresa Sullivan was among the leaders who pledged to help poor families afford the price of college. From the start of the economic downturn through 2013, however, UVA raised the net price for its very poorest students by 69 percent, more than three times faster than for wealthier students, whose tuition increased 21 percent, the federal figures show. And even since January, beginning with the class that entered this fall, the public university dropped a policy of meeting full need for the lowest-income students without requiring them to take out loans and now asks in-state families to borrow up to $14,000 over four years and out-of-state families up to $28,000.

     Hmm. So, obviously, they’re targeting the poor, but the excerpt above explains why: thanks to the weird student loan scam, the poor have more money (at least for the university) than the rich…the poor are more likely to qualify for those insane loans. It’s easier to get money from the people without money.

     What a mad, mad, world higher education is today.

     Even at the 36 taxpayer-supported public universities that signed the White House pledge, poor students paid an average net price of about $8,000 in 2008-09 and almost $10,000 in 2012-13. That’s a 25 percent increase. During the same period, wealthier students at those schools saw their average net price go from about $18,000 to $21,000, a 16 percent increase.

     Wait, what? This doesn’t even make sense, the wealthier ARE paying more. Now, as a percent it’s not more, but that’s a meaningless statistic…a nominal increase of even $5 will still reflect worse on the poor than the rich.

Universities “are giving lots of merit aid to kids who don’t need it,” and less financial aid to those who do, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan think tank The Century Foundation.

        Now the article is going full-on train wreck. Merit aid isn’t FOR kids who “need” it, it’s for kids who “merit” it. You’d think a “senior fellow” would know that.

      Seriously, just put more scholarship money based on need on the table, and this problem could be fixed. Oh wait, that would cut into those sweet, sweet, student loan checks.

      It really should be pointed out that many merit scholarships are granted, not through schools, but through organizations that are interested in promoting one thing or another. So, “math scholarships” for example, are created by people donating their own money to promote and encourage students to study math, and the same is true for many other fields. It’s not the school’s fault that this is the reality of how the world works…although it’d be nice if they did some things not to screw over poor students into endless debt.

     Oh wait, that would cut into the sweet, sweet, student loan checks:

“…Requiring all students to borrow is projected to save the university more than $10 million through 2018.”

     Wow, $10 million is a lot of money, the school must be getting pretty tight on funds not to be able to spare that over the course of several years.


     “…even as it was cutting the cost of providing financial aid to its poorest students, UVA was spending $12 million on a new squash facility and increasing its marketing budget by $18 million annually...”

      Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Poo Bah in higher education that thought maybe education should be about education, jobs, or community? I’ve nothing against squash personally (I honestly can’t even tell you if the game uses a ball, or is played 1 on 1), but if the school really gave a damn about helping the community, maybe it could use that $12 million bucks to help the community? If jobs were a priority, well, I encourage the gentle reader to peruse the want ads and see just how much demand for squash players there is in the community.

      I’m sure all the money for squash is part of some financial shuffling to support and hide money spent on more visible sportsball programs, but I want to talk about the marketing here.

     $18 million dollars for “marketing”. Sales. More customers. Growth. UVA is taxpayer supported, I imagine folks would be less willing to spend their taxes if they knew the money was going to pop-up ads and commercials, instead of the “education, jobs, community” that the Poo Bahs spout.

    One last line:

“There’s plenty of aid going to the $80,000 [earners] and below, but once you get to $80,000 it’s not like it’s some magic number and you can suddenly afford tuition.”
     While the article really wants to make a distinction, please realize that “poor” really does apply to just about all applicants; I suspect the bulk of my readers are in the “$80,000 and below” category that’s being called “poor”.

     The “unfairness” of merit-based scholarships is now under attack, and used as some explanation of the immense expense of higher education, but I promise you, the bigger issues are the student loan scam and the ruling caste of administration that cares nothing for education. This ridiculously highly paid caste spends huge fortunes on squash facilities and marketing, while pompously lecturing us that there just isn’t enough money to help the poor.