August 17, 2010

A Bubble in the Making

Justin Katz

The talk has been growing — especially around the blogosphere — that higher education is the next major bubble. With access to loans and all sorts of civic and cultural incentives to attend college, the actual value of a degree is inflating. Of course, education is different from housing; as far as I know, no derivatives market has grown up around the asset of knowledge (as interesting a proposition as that might be for smart individuals).

On the other hand, education affects the job market, which is what made the topic of boosting college graduation rates sound like a matter of civic urgency — as opposed, say, to industry insiders' strategizing to expand their market — among attendees of a State Higher Education Executive Officers conference last week in Providence:

Without improvements in secondary and post-secondary education, only 21 out of every 100 Rhode Island teenagers about to enter the ninth grade will graduate from a two-year or four-year college in the next 10 years.

But research indicates that about 62 percent of entry-level positions will require at least a bachelor's degree by the end of the decade.

What percentage of those entry-level positions actually "require" a degree because of the skills involved, rather than as a method of easy candidate screening, I won't hazard to guess. Based on personal experience, though, I'd say it's quite substantial. As more young adults enter the job market with degrees, more employers will require them, without reference to the ostensible value of the knowledge that they've gained.

Note, especially the four bulleted suggestions in the article linked above:

  • Reorganizing class schedules into blocks of time that allow students to plan jobs and family responsibilities.
  • Individualizing remedial work and including it in courses for credit, while limiting separate catch-up classes to the summer before the freshman year.
  • Establishing uniform academic requirements from one school to another, so students may more easily build on one- and two-year programs to transfer to four-year institutions.
  • Making sure that up-and-coming high school students graduate with college-ready skills.

The emphases here are twofold: getting students to where they are supposed to be at the end of high school, and making it easier for them to fit higher education into their lives. Conspicuously absent is emphasis on the regimen for ensuring that students learn something useful and relevant to their future careers, including strategies for helping them to discern what those careers should be.

Honestly, I think that might be a bit much to expect of college, because it's a bit much to expect people straddling age twenty to figure out the next sixty years of their lives. In other words, if secondary schools can do a better job of getting students where they need to be upon high school graduation, then there is no great need for them to attend college unless (1) they can afford it, (2) their interests are broad and intellectual, and/or (3) they are driven strongly toward a particular, identifiable career. Beginning with that perspective, colleges and universities would be better able to hone their offerings.

I'd suggest that educational and economic benefits would accrue to a system that in some way expanded high school on a case-by-case basis to the duration necessary to adequately educate each individual student. When college degrees become too scarce and the differences between job candidates with and without them become too minute, employers will adjust their expectations.

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I don't know that I could have said it much better. The college degree really has very little value other than to be an initial weeding out for lazy employers.

They're lazy because they could just as easily look through someone's experience to see if they're capable of doing the job.

Which one of these two applicants will get through the first screening of a sales management job:

Applicant A: BS degree in management from Bryant

Applicant B: HS diploma but started out working for Verizon on the sales floor, worked his way up to being a store manager and regional manager.

Which one has a higher likelihood of being able to be the job? Which one will get their resume tossed aside at first glance?

I've done a lot of hiring and interviews and had many arguments with others on hiring committees because someone hadn't finished their bachelor's degree, but had been working in the field for almost 10 years and had shown they can do the job. But oh without that bachelor's degree, the person can't do the job?

Heck, I'm in the field of IT and I have a masters degree? Impressive? I don't think so. My undergrad and grad degree are both in the field of sports medicine. My IT experience is equivalent to someone with nothing more than a GED or HS diploma. I'm self-taught, taken a few classes and worked my way up through the system. But the likelihood of me working for another company in a similar position are slim, because most job listings call for a bachelor's or higher in computer science.

There are a great many fields where someone can lead a productive life without higher education and without being in debt to the tune of six figures at 22 years old. If you owe that much money at that age, it really should be a mortgage, not a college loan. Plus, how many 18 year olds (or even 22 year olds) really know what they want to do for the rest of their life? This is why I think college is not best for recent HS grads. Go work for a few years, figure out what you want in life, what you want to do, and use the college system to your advantage to get there, if that is the best means to do so. Put the college system to work for you, not the other way around.

Posted by: Patrick at August 17, 2010 1:27 PM
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