Sunday, August 26, 2012

More Signs of Crisis in American #HigherEd

The past few weeks brought more signs of crisis in American Higher Ed.

For some time now, the average debt burden for college graduates has exceeded $20,000. According to some reports, that level has now reached ~$25,000; here is a link to this statistic in 2011:

NY Times: Student Debt Burden (from Nov 2011)

We continue to see weakening employment statistics for college graduates.  According to a recent report entitled "Chasing the American Dream" from Rutgers University, only 51% of the study pool were actually employed full-time after graduation, and the median starting salaries for all graduates is now ~$28,000. Here is a link to the Rutgers report (warning, slightly large pdf file):

Rutgers Report: Chasing the American Dream (pdf)

The effect of the recession is not as great as one might think: during the worst period of the recession, the median salary dipped to $27,000, and pre-recession, the median was $30,000- hardly an acceptable number, given the rising cost of a college education. As I and many others have been lamenting for several years, American Higher Ed has been lurching toward crisis for quite some time; current events are not at all spurious.

Obviously, the debt burden far exceeds many students' ability to handle it; the typical guideline for maximum debt  is ~30% of salary.

Also of great concern is the mismatch between the education and the employment that the graduates find. Only 40% of the respondents in the Rutgers study found employment in a position that actually required a college degree; only 20% perceived their job to be on their career path.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Restructuring Higher Ed

In a commentary published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Bugeja recently made some interesting administrative suggestions on how to address the financial difficulties that we now see throughout much of American higher ed:

Bugeja Commentary (part 2) - Chronicle of Higher Ed

Indeed, some large changes of program structure may be required to put our colleges and universities on a sustainable path... while also helping students under the current economic circumstances. For example:

(1a) The classic 4 year college degree make less and less sense, as more students enter college with substantial AP credit. A few years ago, I conducted a survey of students in a rather difficult (physics) degree program and was astounded to discover that ~half could actually finish in *3* years. If you stop and think about that, it's really fundamental to the higher ed cost problem. That  means that an entire year of tuition could be lifted from the student... but also a year of revenue could be lost from the school. If anything, I expect this trend to continue- we could soon see a sizable fraction of students doing even less than 3 years at their graduating institution. Obviously, tuition inflation is motivating students to do anything and everything to reduce their cost, and that certainly includes loading up on AP credit and doing summer coursework at less expensive schools.
(1b) ...but on the flipside, due to unacceptable failings in K-12 rigor, we still have a number of students coming in who need to take introductory, remedial coursework. High school material should of course be taught in high school, not at much higher expense in college, in larger classes, by instructors who are far better suited to smaller courses. And as I have been ranting for some time (
 ), the experience of an underprepared student is *very* different from that of a student who comes in ready to take all that the college can give. This issue is a big part of the reason why online ed is in our headlines.

(2) Another major issue I perceive is that masters degrees are still incorrectly regarded as failed PhD attempts in many programs. This should change. The labor market needs junior but professional individuals who have knowledge, maturity, hands-on capabilities and good communication skills... things that a good masters program can provide. I find that students who have completed thorough coursework, done research or an internship, and have written a thesis have a level of maturity substantially better than most BA/BS grads.  That extra year or two can make a *lot* of difference in the employability of the student (not to mention the benefits seen in GRE or other professional exams).  Particularly in the sciences, I believe there should be far more emphasis on developing good masters programs. These would be very attractive to students in a slowly recovering labor market.
(Note: for accreditation purposes, there is a constant push for more and more PhD programs and higher number of PhD grads, something which I think is financially ruinous. The PhD must remain a rare distinction.  There simply aren't enough jobs for PhD in many fields, and the hiring market for PhDs outside of academia is not coming back any time soon.)

Putting all of these items together, it is apparent to me that colleges should look very seriously at 3+2 or 4+1 programs as a way to restore rigor and challenge to their bachelors/masters programs and to benefit students in their transition from college to the workplace.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Most Expensive Election Ever

The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that the cost of #Election2012 will approach $6B:

USA Today Article on Cost of #Election2012

Another analysis projects the cost closer to $10B:

Adage / John Shelton (STRATA) Commentary on Cost of Election 2012

A substantial portion of this expenditure is for TV ads, on which $1B has already been spent in the first half of 2012.

For perspective, the most expensive movie ever made, "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" cost a mere $300M! 

The expenditures for this year's election are widely attributed to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on  Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, which cleared the way for super PACs to work with unattributed contributions:

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (wikipedia)  

There's no question about it: this election will be the costliest ever... but I assert that the costs mentioned above are actually only a drop in the bucket, and the reasons for the high cost are not as simple as a single Supreme Court ruling. The political impasse of the past few years has had a substantially negative effect  on American growth, as unresolved fiscal issues come home to roost during election season. The core issues - healthcare, social security, the debt ceiling, taxation, and government spending in general -  have split American politics right down the middle.   

As the campaigns debate massive fiscal policy shifts, several trillion dollars of market investment  is sidelined by perceived risk. Under this prevailing uncertainty, business growth is suppressed, and expenses associated with high unemployment continue to accumulate. If we look at unemployment benefits alone, the expenses is of order ~$100B per year.

Taking the broader effects into account, this really could be the world's first trillion dollar election season. And unfortunately it won't end in November: based on current polling, it seems that neither side will emerge with a clear mandate for action on the core fiscal issues. Electorally speaking, this election could be as close as Bush vs. Gore.