Education as an Investment.

The median survival rate for metastatic breast cancer is three years from time of diagnosis. However, as any recently-diagnosed patient—or their desperate SO—will tell you, statistics are agglomerations of individual cases. They don’t tell you YOUR fate. It’s the same with college degrees. On average, over a lifetime people with college degrees earn a lot more than do people without college degrees. That doesn’t mean that all college graduates earn more than all non-graduates. That also doesn’t mean that the extra income earned is worth the cost of getting the degree.[1] Peter Cappelli, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, elaborates on a theme he first sketched out in a WSJ Op-Ed in November 2013.[2] Cappelli’s deeply-researched book addresses a raft of issues of the day.

The “Great Recession” is but the latest shock to the American economy (and the “American Dream” come to that). It led students to focus on career-oriented majors as defined by Labor Department projections, rather than a broad liberal arts education; their parents usually resolutely back them up in this choice. This has been very distressing to broad liberal arts educators and to the skinny ones as well. Cappelli warns that many of these majors are so knowledge-specific and so likely to be drowned in new graduates that students are actually doing themselves long-term harm. For example, 30 percent of recent engineering graduates couldn’t get jobs in engineering. Capelli argues that liberal arts degrees often are actually a better preparation for adapting to unexpected developments than are the loud-mouthed “career” majors.

American students (and their families in equal measure) pay about four times as much for a college degree as do students in other Western industrial countries. A lot of this is financed through debt, rather than from savings. Senator Bernie Sanders has floated the idea of a free college education at America’s public colleges. Both those who graduate and those who fail to graduate can find themselves burdened by a lot of debt. Naturally, consumers have become enraged at the sellers. Conservatives have argued that the expansion of financial aid and borrowing by students has just allowed colleges to raise their tuition. Critics rightly point out that the administrative component of college staffs have grown 50 percent faster than have instructional staff. As presented to the public this fact conjures visions of Rolex-adorned Assistant Vice Deans for Something-or-Other. In fact, most of the growth is in support staff dealing with the reality that Johnny can’t read, claims he will go to pieces under the pressure of college, and only came here to play baseball anyway.[3]

One of the reasons that college educated people do better than the others is employer-bias in hiring. Currently, at least 40 percent of graduates end up in jobs that don’t require a degree. Employers still preferred them to people without degrees. (Nearly 60 percent of parking lot attendants have some college.[4]) What happened to the other job applicants? They got shoved farther down the income ladder, displacing teen-agers just trying to get some work experience and pocket money. This displacement may be part of the explanation for the mounting drive for a higher minimum wage.

Above all, there is an evident mismatch between American education and the economy.

[1] Peter Cappelli, Will College Pay Off? A Guide to the Most Important Financial Decision You will Ever Make (PublicAffairs, 2015).

[2] See “Major Uncertainty,” November 2013.

[3] See the Cardale Jones Twitter mishagosh for an extreme example of the latter.

[4] They can’t all be living hand-to-mouth while they write the Great American Novel.

Nothing to CLAP about.

There is an exam called the College Learning Assessment Plus.[1] The exam measures how much college students gain between the freshman year and the senior year. It assesses communications skills (reading, writing); analytical reasoning; and critical thinking. Thus, it is applicable across disciplines and measures the “transferable skills” that have long been touted as the real value of a college education.

The results of the CLA+ for 2013-2014 give cause for hope and fear.[2] Of Freshmen who took the test, 63 percent scored below the Proficient level and 37 percent scored Proficient or higher. Of Seniors who took the test, 40 percent scored below the Proficient level and 60 percent scored Proficient or higher. Of Freshmen, 31 percent enter college at a Below Basic level, but by the Senior year this share has been reduced to 14 percent. Similarly, 32 percent of Freshmen score in the Basic level, but by the senior year this had been reduced to 26 percent even as 17 percent have moved up from Below Basic to at least Basic.

So, the good news is that colleges take the 37 percent who are already proficient and make them more proficient; and they take 23 percent who are not proficient and raise them to proficiency. So, sixty percent of college students benefit from attending college.[3]

What’s the bad news? Well, 14 percent of seniors graduate with a Below Basic score and another 26 percent graduate with a Basic, but Below Proficient score. That’s 40 percent who come out of college deficient in the intellectual skills assessed by the CLA+ exam. That is a huge wastage of resources. Of late, much attention has focused on graduation rates and time-to-graduation. Here, the United States has lost its world-leading position and has fallen behind some other countries. The results of the CLA+ exam suggest that the problem is actually worse than it appears because 40 percent of college graduates don’t actually function at a BA level.

There’s a part I don’t understand, but which I will report. Test scores fall in a range between 400 and 1600. The average Freshman score is 1039; the average Senior score is 1128. The average improvement is 89 points. If, for the sake of argument, you subtract the 400 points you get for being able to sign your own name, then the Freshmen average score is 639 and the Senior average score is 728. An 89 point increase amounts to just under a 14 percent.

Still, these reports raise several questions. Why do almost two-thirds of Freshmen start college below the level of proficiency for their group? Furthermore, many students do not go on to college at all. This suggests that K-12 education is failing many students. It also suggests that an increasingly remedial function is being forced on colleges. (At the same time, they are being criticized for loading students and parents with debt and for not graduating students in a timely fashion.)

Is a 14 percent average improvement enough to justify the cost of four years of college? Does the 14 percent improvement push students over some undefined threshold between incompetence and competence? If it does, then the money probably is well spent.

It’s just my opinion, but professors are the least-qualified to understand the nature of the problem. Their children grow up with books, pictures on the walls, a variety of kinds of music playing, trips to cultural events rather than Disney World, experiences valued over possessions, and parents who work all the time. So, their children are usually successful in school and in life.

[1] This is abbreviated as CLA+ so that anxious parents will not be overheard asking other parents “So, how did your kid do with the CLAP?”

[2] Douglas Belkin, “Skills Gap Found in College Students,” WSJ, 17-18 January 2015.

[3] Maybe all of them do, without that showing up in the test scores. Maybe they are marginally more attuned to key skills without quite getting out of the bottom category.