Is higher education THE problem now?

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A little under two years ago, my ex-wife was moving out of the apartment we had shared. She was going to take a weekend to do it. I figured my options at the time were “Get drunk while she does it,” which seemed like a pretty cool idea at first, and then I realized maybe the point of post-divorce should be “Be a more functional human being in pockets.” So I decided to go visit my friend in Tucson for the weekend while she moved out. In hindsight, I’m not entirely sure whether this was a good or bad idea. I’m going to score it as “good.” Meanwhile, while I was there, wondering what my life would be like when I got home, I distracted myself by writing this article on whether we lip-service the value of education.

I don’t write about education a lot, although I have some background in it. I was a Teach for America corps member from 2003 to 2005 in inner-city Houston, I’ve volunteered in dozens of schools, and I worked briefly for Teach for America in probably spring 2014. (Admittedly that arc did not end very well.)

I personally think education is super important, but I also see the drawbacks. To wit:

  • It’s very expensive and student loans become a burden.
  • It’s not entirely clear whether higher education prepares people for the workforce.
  • It’s not entirely clear whether higher education is even supposed to prepare people for the workforce.
  • It increasingly feels like an arms race where you almost need to have every degree possible, but as you get more degrees, companies are skittish about hiring you because they assume you want a massive salary.
  • A bunch of other issues that you’ve probably considered.

So this morning, I come across this article entitled “Does higher education still prepare people for jobs?” That ties to some of the above bullets, so I was excited! Here we have one important section:

Although there is a clear premium on education — recent reports from The Economist suggest that the ROI of a college degree has never been higher for young people — the value added from a college degree decreases as the number of graduates increases. This is why a college degree will boost earnings by over 20% in sub-saharan Africa (where degrees are relatively rare), but only 9% in Scandinavia (where 40% of adults have degrees). At the same time, as university qualifications become more commonplace, recruiters and employers will increasingly demand them, regardless of whether they are actually required for a specific job. So, while tertiary degrees may still lead to higher-paying jobs, the same employers handing out these jobs are hurting themselves — and young people — by limiting their candidate pool to college graduates. In an age of ubiquitous disruption and unpredictable job evolution, it is hard to argue that the knowledge acquisition historically associated with a university degree is still relevant.

Harvard Business Review article

OK. So The Economist is coming out and saying that college degrees have high ROI. That’s cool, although the statement is also rather logical. Without a college degree, you can’t get many jobs making above maybe 40K unless you go and hustle to build your own thing. So if we’re thinking about ROI in that conventional way, it’s entirely logical that the ROI of higher education would be at a near-apex right now.

But then we come to the elephant in every recruiting room: recruiters and hiring managers often demand skills and concepts that aren’t relevant. You see this with education and job description bullet points. Job role is a complete farce at most companies. It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies virtually nothing.

Then we’ve got another issue, from the same article above:

There are several data-driven arguments that question the actual, rather than the perceived, value of a college degree. First, meta-analytic reviews have long-established that the correlation between education level and job performance is weak. In fact, the research shows that intelligence scores are a much better indicator of job potential. If we were to pick between a candidate with a college degree and a candidate with a higher intelligence score, we could expect the latter to outperform the former in most jobs, particularly when those jobs require constant thinking and learning. Academic grades are indicative of how much a candidate has studied, but their performance on an intelligence test reflects their actual ability to learn, reason, and think logically.

Grades are how much you study. Intelligence is different. Right? Haven’t we heard this for years?

There are other arguments in the article you’ve probably heard: college degrees support inequality, etc.

Now you look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on 60 Minutes this past weekend, and you think to yourself: why is an attractive girl who hustled and got a degree from Boston University working as a bartender in the Bronx in her 20s? The answer is, well, her family had targets to hit, just like any other family. She needed to pay loans. Didn’t have health insurance. All the normal “Oh God the millennials” arguments.

Put all this together. People with a future — soon-to-be a Congresswoman! — are coming out of reputable universities and bartending in the Bronx. Now, yes, her story is unique and specific. And, no, I don’t love everything she says. It’s kind of the “millennial mindset” problem writ large. Everything she’s saying is cool, but there’s no way to pay for any of it, and that’s the true difference between generations: how we think about our money and what it will be used for.

So is higher education really working? Or is it just an arms race that helps the universities and their top people get richer?

If you believe that second argument, look at some of this data: in the last decade or so, only Iowa State University was hiring more full-time faculty than support staff positions. This is classic “universities behaving as corporations” bullshit. When corporations get fat and happy money-wise, they hire tons of “strategic project managers” that essentially just manage spreadsheets all day. When the belts are tight, though, they hire true value-add roles. I’d take this as evidence that universities are making too much money.

Now bring debt into all of it. When you have debt, well, you gotta work. And that means you’ll take some “inhumane” job — which, sadly, many white-collar jobs are, even if we don’t admit it — and grind away at task work for years completely devoid of purpose. Many of us do this. It’s largely a question of how much we admit we’re doing it.

And, finally: isn’t the promise of higher education that learning is a great and noble thing? But most jobs hire based on bullet points that you must have done before. So your education tells you: “Go and learn!” The business world says: “We don’t care. We want people who have done this exact shit!” Isn’t that a disconnect?

So, all this laid out, what would you say: is higher education helping us towards a solution, or part of the problem?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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