What’s the Purpose of Higher Education?

This post’s title is the subject of next week’s Sophmore Honors Colloquium–and a question every college student should ask daily. Megan McArdle poses a similar question in Newsweek: Is College a Lousy Investment? The answer: yes, sometimes, for some people. In other words, it depends. A few of the article’s highlights:

“Even with these high prices, you’re still finding a high return for individuals who are bright and motivated,” he says. On the other hand, “if you’re not college ready, then the answer is no, it’s not worth it.”

For many students, college is less about providing an education than a credential—a certificate testifying that they are smart enough to get into college, conformist enough to go, and compliant enough to stay there for four years.

“Why does cheating work?” If you were really just in college to learn skills, it would be totally counterproductive. “If you don’t learn the material, then you will have less human capital and the market will punish you—there’s no reason for us to do it.” But since they think the credential matters more than the education, they look for ways to get the credential as painlessly as possible.

More on Recent Graduates and Employment

The NY Times Online followed up Many With New College Degree Find the Job Market Humbling (see And Now That You’ve Graduated) with The Downsized College Graduate, seven op-ed articles with reader comments debating “reasons besides the economy to explain why today’s group is different.”  One explanation is that it’s your own damn fault:

[S]ome older readers cited factors other than the economy for the drop in the number of new graduates in the work force: that young people have a sense of entitlement, were sheltered by their parents, and partied through college. Or, if they worked automatons, they took no risks, expecting to be rewarded no matter what.

Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,”  (see Not Getting What You Pay For), offers reasons neatly summarized by the title of his piece, Aimless, Misled, and in Debt:

  • “[P]ronounced and unprecedented” indebtedness
  • Young adults who “are highly motivated, but often directionless.”  They are “‘drifting dreamers’ with ‘high ambitions, but no clear life plan for reaching them.’ Indeed, more than a third of college graduates in our study reported that they aspired to own their own businesses, even though there was little evidence that entrepreneurial skills were being developed.”
  • Lest you think Arum lays all blame on this cohort’s character, he states “colleges and universities are implicated in the difficulties that graduates are facing, since not only did they fail to ensure that college students experienced rigorous academic coursework associated with the development of higher order cognitive skills, but, more troubling, they typically have abandoned responsibility for shaping and developing the attitudes and dispositions necessary for adult success.”

Other contributors have different perspectives.  Overall the articles and comments are provocative.  They are worth the time as you sit in the coffee shop reading your laptop with other under-employed graduates.

And Now That You’ve Graduated . . .

. . . you face greater economic uncertainty than your predecessors.  In an article with a headline that says it all, Many With New College Degree Find the Job Market Humbling, the NY Times reports “[e]mployment rates for new college graduates have fallen sharply in the last two years, as have starting salaries for those who can find work. What’s more, only half of the jobs landed by these new graduates even require a college degree, reviving debates about whether higher education is ‘worth it’ after all.”   Some of the grim facts:

  • The median starting salary for college graduates entering the work force in 2009 and 2010 declined 10%, from $30k to $27, compared with college graduates who entered the work force from 2006 to 2008
  • 56% of 2010 grads has held at least one job by this spring, compared with 90% of 2006 and 2007 graduates
  • About 50% “of recent college graduates said that their first job required a college degree”
  • “Young graduates who majored in education and teaching or engineering were most likely to find a job requiring a college degree, while area studies majors — those who majored in Latin American studies, for example — and humanities majors were least likely to do so. Among all recent education graduates, 71.1 percent were in jobs that required a college degree; of all area studies majors, the share was 44.7 percent.”

Timing and luck determine for more of our circumstances than commencement speakers acknowledge.  They say follow your dreams .  Never give up.  Live your passion.  A 1989 or 1990 birth year–not lack of merit, lack of academic achievement, lack of work ethic–will diminish the number and quality of choices available to most 2011 graduates compared to those born in 1985 or 1986.  A sad but true fact of life.

Not Getting What You Pay For

Just in time to capture the attention of graduating seniors, and their parents, who are wondering about the value they received for the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid in tuition, an Op-Ed in last Sunday’s New York Times asks this question:  Why is the overall quality of undergraduate learning so poor? The authors, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, studied the academic progress of “of several thousand students in more than two dozen diverse four-year colleges and universities” over four years, finding “that large numbers of the students were making their way through college with minimal exposure to rigorous coursework, only a modest investment of effort and little or no meaningful improvement in skills like writing and reasoning.”  They report that

[i]n a typical semester, for instance, 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester. The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying . . . Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test [ ] used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.

Sorry results indeed.  The authors point to various possible causes–students taught by “fewer full-time tenured faculty members”–in other words, they are taught by people like me–, increased investments in creature comforts such as “deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers and expensive gyms”–e.g. StuV, StuV II, and FitRec–and a “larger cultural change in the relationship between students and colleges.” In other words, students are  consumers and a college education is a fee-for-services transaction.  The authors’ proposed solutions include assessing teaching performance by means other than student course evaluations, which “create[] perverse incentives for professors to demand little and give out good grades,” reducing focus on rankings, and “parents and students on college tours . . . ignor[ing] institutional facades and focus[ing] on educational substance.”

Unhappy College Freshman

According to annual survey of 200,000 college freshman, their emotional state in 2010 was at its lowest point in the survey’s 25 years of data collection.  Among the survey’s findings, as reported by the linked article from The New York Times:

  • 52% of students said their emotional health was above average, compared to 64% in 1985, and the percentage of those reporting below average emotional health increased
  • Women surveyed always report “less positive view[s] of their emotional health than men,” and the gap was greatest in 2010
  • Sources of stress include their parents’ financial difficulties, the students’ uncertainty about their own economic futures, and self-generated pressure to excel
    • A record 75% of 2010 freshman reported themselves to be academically above-average

School of Management students continue to complain about grade deflation, even though our mean GPA’s have risen dramatically over the past five years.  Since the majority perceive themselves to be above average–the Lake Wobegon Effect–it’s no wonder their grading perspective is skewed.

One of my responses to this survey is appreciation for the challenges faced by undergraduate academic counselors.


From the NYTimes article “Students, Welcome to College; Parents, Go Home,” about the difficulty of separating “Velcro parents” from their over-protected offspring:

At Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., a mother and father once went to their daughter’s classes on the first day of the semester and trouped to the registrar’s office to change her schedule.

The registrar’s office employees all required treatment for injuries related to eye-rolling.

As Mona Lisa Vito said in My Cousin Vinny, “dere’s moah!”  The article mentioned a parent who “had read books about the stages of grief” to deal with her son starting college.  Seriously?  She read On Death and Dying and its progeny, and admits it without embarrassment?  This article makes me feel like we raised our children 50 years ago, not ten.

Lower Drinking Age?

Would lowering the drinking age to 18 reduce the amount of binge drinking on college campuses? The Amethyst Initiative, started by the former president of Middlebury College, believes it would, as reported in College chiefs urge new debate on drinking age. The Initiative, represents presidents from about 100 colleges and universities, is “calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18.” The proposal carries counter-intuitive appeal: reduce problem drinking by reducing legal impediments to acquiring and possessing alcohol. Mothers Against Drunk Driving opposes the proposal because it believes it would lead to more fatal car crashes; “MADD officials are even urging parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on.”

I don’t know what impact a lower drinking age would have on binge drinking on campuses. Doing so would remove the forbidden-fruit allure of under-age drinking for those over 18, and that would somewhat change the social dynamic that leads to problem drinking. Since both typically occur when one is 18 alcohol consumption would still be linked to going off to college and experiencing greater freedom from adult supervision. One could argue that the drinking age should be lowered to 16, to enable teenagers to experience legal drinking when most are still living under their parents’ roofs. The causes of binge drinking are complex and drinking age is just one factor.

This topic comes up often in class. Not surprisingly, most students oppose the current laws. Students routinely ignore and subvert them. Anecdotal experience tells me that more than 50% of underaged students possess a phony ID at some point before they turn 21, which puts them at risk for arrest and a criminal record. Laws that criminalize a large number of people for customary behavior encourage disrespect for law: “when beer is outlawed, only outlaws will have beer.”

One cannot ignore MADD’s point about traffic fatalities. I believe (relying on someone I trust who researched this subject extensively a few years ago) there was a direct correlation between raising drinking ages to 21 and reducing alcohol-related fatalities. Opposing MADD is political suicide for state legislators.

This is unfortunate. It takes off the table solutions other than more rigorous law enforcement and stiffer penalties for underage drinkers. These don’t work, as our experience with harsher drug laws shows. It’s a plain fact that college students are going to drink. Solutions that don’t start with this fact–solutions of the “just say no” variety–are doomed to fail.

Don’t Go to Law School

I’ve posted before that prospective law students must honestly consider their prospects for success in law school because, unless they attend one of the very top-ranked schools, their job opportunities will be limited if they are not ranked at the top of their classes. The Wall Street Journal Law Blog recently interviewed “law school naysayer” Kirsten Wolf, a 32-year old BU law graduate. Wolf went to law school a few years out of college believing that she would obtain a marketable skill that would justify the cost of borrowing to pay tuition. In the fall of her second year, when she realized her B+ average was not good enough to land her a summer associate position with a large firm, she began to question her decision. Already $45,000 in debt she stayed, graduated in 2002, passed the Massachusetts bar, and found no law jobs waiting. She went back to the company she worked for before law school and then eventually moved to New York where she landed a job she enjoys, as an office manager for a literary agency. She is paying her $87,000 student loan debt over 30 years–which means she’ll still be paying for law school as she approaches her 60th birthday. In Wolf’s words:

I’m on a one-woman mission to talk people out of law school. Lots of people go to law school as a default. They don’t know what else to do, like I did. It seems like a good idea. People say a law degree will always be worth something even if you don’t practice. But they don’t consider what that debt is going to look like after law school. It affects my life in every way. And the jobs that you think are going to be there won’t necessarily be there at all. Most people I know that are practicing attorneys don’t make the kind of money they think lawyers make. They’re making $40,000 a year, not $160,000. Plus, you’re going to be struggling to do something you might not even enjoy. A few people have a calling to be a lawyer, but most don’t.

Legal Blog Watch Alert picked up Wolf’s story and also reported about a lawyer who auctioned his law school diploma on eBay. The post notes the lack of discussion on academic law blogs about whether to attend law school.

For years I have advised students that exceptional performance in law school is more important than where you go. Wolf’s story bears this out. She must have been a good student and gotten good LSAT scores–BU law would not have admitted her otherwise–but that doesn’t put you at the top of your class. Even at BU, which is always ranked as one of the top 25 or 30 law schools in the country, a B+, top-half of the class performance will not open the most lucrative doors. I’m seeing this again with a friend who is currently in her second year at BU. She is quite smart, works exceptionally hard, is one of the most personable and engaging people I know, and yet has been unable to crack into the Big Law summer associate track. And if you aren’t on that track after your second year of law school, your earnings horizon changes dramatically. Yet had Wolf gone to a lower-ranked school and finished at the top of her class–say in the top 10 or 15 places, or top 3.00%–odds are that she could have obtained a high-paying job. Finishing in the top 3% of one’s law school class does not happen without brains and lots of hard work. That’s why those at the top of their class will still merit a look from the most selective employers, because the employers know what it takes to get there.

I’ve always taken a laissez-faire approach with prospective law students. I’ll be honest about the risks and pitfalls of a legal career and then support the student’s decision to attend law school notwithstanding my warnings. I’m now rethinking my approach. Should I recommend a student who has not shown the academic ability to finish in the top five percent of his or her law school class?

“A New Life Phase”

A few days ago a friend sent me The Odyssey Years, a New York Times op-ed piece by David Brooks about “the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood. During this decade, 20-somethings go to school and take breaks from school. They live with friends and they live at home. They fall in and out of love. They try one career and then try another.” The Brooks piece resonated with my friend, a former student who graduated in 2006 and now works for an investment bank. He said “there’s just so much pressure to succeed for young people (and it’s such an obscure definition, it no longer involves forming a cohesive family unit and living a pleasant life.)” It spoke to me as a college professor who spends hours talking with students about What Comes Next, and as a parent whose children do not spend hours talking with him and his wife about What Comes Next. I sent the op-ed to my sons, all in their 20s. One said “it fits a little too well.” Another said “good to know I’m not alone.” The third, a law student on the verge of graduation and a career, delivered his message by not responding.

If you are in college, a recent graduate, have friends who are in college or recent graduates, are moving from job to job with no clear plan, know someone who is moving from job to job with no clear plan, or are the parent of anyone in any of these categories–in other words, if you are anyone who is reading this post–read the op-ed piece.

Legal Careers

A comment on my post Not Covered by LSAT Prep takes exception–quite respectful exception–to my statement that “If you can’t assess and accept the risks of spending three years and $150,000 to earn a law degree there is a simple and cheap two-word solution: Don’t Go.”  The poster writes “such a statement may be easier to make in retrospect than prospectively. According to your bio, you graduated in 1981.”  His point is that in the century since I graduated from law school the cost of legal education has risen faster than wages and inflation, and it is much more difficult to pay back student loans on a law graduate’s average salary now than it was then.

I’m sure that’s true.  I see that reality in the pressures facing my oldest son, who is a 3L, and in students I’ve mentored over the years.  A friend who graduated law school six years ago owed more in student loans for college and law school than the outstanding balance of my home mortgage.  She is one of the fortunates who landed a BigLaw job at what was then the highest starting salary in Boston because she is smart, talented, incredibly hard-working, and proved herself  while working as a law student.

The increasingly-skewed relationship between the cost and economic benefit of law school education only reinforces my point about doing due diligence.  My mantra for the dozens of prospective law students I mentor each year is get life experience, investigate whether law is a good choice for you, and consider the enormous commitment of time and financial, psychological, and emotional resources law school requires.  The profession is filled with unhappy lawyers.  They can be unhappy because they don’t make enough money, or their practices are stultifying, or they are worn down from years of arguing, or they don’t like their clients, or they think they would be happier raising goats in Maine.  The legal profession suffers disproportionately from alcohol abuse.  Why would any sensible person enter this profession without assessing honestly how well it fits them?

And why would any sensible person enter law school without assessing honestly their chances of success?  The Wall Street Journal article that prompted my prior post discusses the tiered nature of the legal profession.  There are the few who finish at the top of their classes and garner BigLaw offers, but they are the exception.  The income gap between the high and and low-paying poles is enormous.  If financial necessity dictates that you start at $160,000/year when you graduate and your historic academic performance suggests that you won’t be among that top ten percent (or fewer) of the Type A personalities who will dominate your class, you need to ask “what am I doing?”  You need to revisit your expectations.   Note that I’m not saying don’t go–that admonition applies to those who don’t do the due diligence and make the risk/reward calculation.  But don’t count on a payoff and define success on terms that are likely to be unattainable.